Interview with Southwinds Aikido Founder Jimmie Villarreal: Karl Geis and Kihara Aikido

It happened almost by accident. Jimmie Villarreal was on vacation when he saw aikido in action and was completely enamored with what he saw. Unfortunately, he had to wait until 1990 to find a school and that is where he found Karl Geis. Today, Villarreal talks about first meeting and later training under Geis, in addition to his own teaching style at his Southwinds Aikido. All images provided by Jimmie Villarreal.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for joining us, Villarreal Sensei!

Jimmie Villarreal: It’s good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

MAYTT: How did you find yourself training aikido? What aspects of the art did you find yourself gravitated towards when you first started? Have those motivators for you changed at all during your time in aikido; how so?

JV: I found myself training in aikido after I saw someone defending themselves and ending the encounter with only one throw. I was walking and seeing the sights in Oahu, Hawaii while on vacation back in 1983. As we were walking outside a bar, I noticed two guys walked out of the bar and faced each other not far from the door. One of them took a swing at the other and all of a sudden, the aggressor seemed to fly off his feet and landed on the ground. It was a beautiful throw. Soon after I got back home, I started to look for something that would give me that same edge. I found out it was aikido, but no one in Brownsville, Texas taught that martial art. In early 1990, I found and met someone who had recently begun to teach it in Brownsville, and I joined the school. I have been involved in aikido ever since. I find that nothing has changed for me concerning aikido and the skills that it teaches are tremendous and have helped me in so many ways. 

MAYTT: What were your first impressions of Karl Geis when you began training under him? What was he like as an instructor and as a person?

JV: My first impressions of Karl Geis? Well, I like to read the room and the people in it and then follow through accordingly. [Laughs] We met at the sign-up table as I walked into a summer clinic at his dojo. He was very cordial, and we spoke briefly as he asked about me and my hometown, what I did for a living, who my sensei was, why I came to the clinic, etc. I found him to be genuine and a “no nonsense” type of person as I soon found out while in the clinic’s activities. When he spoke, you could hear a pin drop, and there were at least eighty practitioners from many parts of the United States there. I was very impressed that there were so many men and women alike. He had already been established for many years and hundreds of students. It was totally awesome for me to be a part of it all. He and I got along very well, and I was very comfortable around him. He even asked me out to pancakes after a morning session as we met a couple of other high ranked practitioners there, and everyone was on the same page as we all had pancakes. That was a “wow” for me, out to lunch with Karl, as he would ask everyone to call him, but still, I and many others dare not. It was always Mr. Geis for me. Though he was nice to me, I did see him get angry with others for not following directions and doing their own thing during training sessions. All in all, I was in awe of all that happened in the dojo and the complete trust that everyone had on his gift of teaching new aikido techniques that were basic, sound and worked for everyone, no matter how old or young, male or female. 

MAYTT: It sounded like he was a unique kind of person. How would you describe the type of training you experienced when you initially began training? How have you seen aikido training change and evolve as you continued your journey through the art?

JV: The aikido training has always seen a basic start. Learning how to take a fall was first and foremost, one of the must-learn to-do techniques, so that soon after you could learn to manufacture, and practice throws with a partner and be thrown with confidence that you could land safely every single time. Everything we do is done with safety in mind at all times. Of course, the reason for that is that all throws in the techniques are actually devastating for the person receiving the throw, and the falls, or landings are done safely. This way you never injure the partner so that you don’t run out of them.

From L to R: Jimmie Villarreal, Tsunako Miyake, and Karl Geis, on June 7, 2013 during a clinic.

MAYTT: What was the aikido community like when you first started training? Was it a vibrant and bustling community that welcomed others with open arms or was it centered around small pockets of isolated practitioners that were guarded from outsiders?

JV: The aikido community when I started training was always welcoming others to come in a train, and nothing has changed. We just wanted to give you a chance to fall in love with the whole art. We were not guarded from outsiders, we welcomed everyone. We were always happy to get new people to come in and give it a try. But all the martial arts movies had flashy, high kicking, hard punching karate moves, so, most people saw that our art was just not their cup of tea, and we would lose some, but not all.

MAYTT: Speaking of community, how much interaction did you have with different styles of aikido and martial arts? How did those experiences influence your future decisions to communicate and exchange with other styles and systems?

JV: I was exposed to another aikido school for a few nights as I went in to observe their style just to see if I saw anything similar or different. I did see that safety for the aikidoka was not a high priority. I saw a couple of students with their arms wrapped up after having been hyper extended by another beginner. I can see how that can happen when not properly monitored during training. As I stated before, all aikido techniques are designed to inflict damage or pain if done properly with very little effort.

MAYTT: I see. When did you begin teaching and how did that experience change your perspective of aikido, if at all? How did that new responsibility alter the way you approached aikido training?

JV: When I began to teach, I too followed safety precautions at all times. I taught basics as I was taught, with measured movement so that the student did not receive excess pain during a technique. It was really not necessary to go all out during a lesson, as all I needed was to go just enough so that they knew it could be very painful with just slight movement. I would say, imagine how much you could hurt someone with just a bit more turn with leverage on this wrist. They all agreed, it doesn’t take much to inflict pain with the technique.

MAYTT: You run a dojo in Texas, Southwinds Aikido. What factors led you to open your own school? How have you and your dojo helped further or sustain Geis’ legacy?

JV: I wanted to show the world around me to know that you don’t have to be big and strong to defend yourself. Aikido is great for people of all ages and sizes, men and women, even young boys and girls. It totally gives you confidence in all areas of life. Knowing that you can go out and enjoy life knowing that you can defend yourself against anyone of any size. It has helped me in all areas as I can carry myself proudly and not be afraid of life’s kicks and punches. I was invited to give an aikido demonstration by the university at a fair at the park. I had done many demonstrations, with a couple of students and mats, etc. I decided to do an audience participation demonstration for wrist releases, so I didn’t need mats or students from my school. I spoke about aikido, etc., why I thought it was a wonderful art and proceeded to talk about wrist releases; how it instills confidence and relating to other aspects of life. I chose the biggest guy there, he was six-foot-two-inches, 220 pounds. I happen to be five-foot-four-inches. I proceeded to explain the hows and why I could break his grip in more than one way. As he grabbed my wrist, I said, “Hold on tight. Don’t let go.” I continued with my explanation and slipped out of his grip as I looked at him and asked, “What happened?” He and the audience looked at me with amazement. But, as one might suspect, everyone thought it was a setup, simply because it was such an easy effortless escape. I asked everyone to pair up with a partner and proceeded to teach three wrist release techniques. I walked through the crowd and corrected the release movements as needed. It was awesome.

MAYTT: Geis branded his aikido as Kihara Aikido, though he learned aikido from Kenji Tomiki, founder of Shodokan/Tomiki Aikido. How has “kihara” manifested itself in the aikido of Geis and his students? What are the similarities between Kihara Aikido and Tomiki Aikido and how did Geis differentiate his aikido from what he learned from Tomiki and others?

JV: We were introduced to the Kihara Aikido during a clinic. Of course, as you might suspect, there were lots of “What?” by everyone there. I will admit, some aikidoka did not like the idea that we were moving in a different direction, so they moved on without Kihara. I witnessed and I can tell you that important people in Japan were not too crazy about it either. I was in awe as well, but I was willing to learn and test it out myself.  I, like many others, was skeptical, but believed in Mr. Geis’ brilliance. By the end of the four days at the clinic, I was a believer. It added a few more techniques but were well-received by everyone there as he was there to answer all questions concerning his new Kihara Aikido. It took him and his few chosen students about a year to come up with and polish the Kihara enough to present it to us at the clinic. I, for one, was hooked on the new style. I like Kihara more because it has more movement involved in every technique, and ultimately is more dynamic and has a more powerful finish to the techniques. That was a big plus for me.

MAYTT: I can see how people would have some doubts. Geis’ Fugakukai International Association offers three arts in its curriculum: aikido, judo, and jodo. With these other options, what led you to commit to only aikido? What was it about the other arts that inspired your choice to remain with aikido?

JV: I was in the association back when the Tomiki Aikido curriculum included jodo as well, so I learned jodo then from my instructor and also at the summer clinics. We often worked with jodo instructors during the clinics when we had afternoon breaks that lasted several hours. The large facility was roped off and judo players were more than happy to teach anyone who wanted to learn judo as well. Those arts were practiced during the break times. All the judo players were Mr. Geis’ students at one time or another and were good at their sport and would teach anyone willing to learn. It was very enlightening to see all that was handed down to new faces that would eventually end up high rank and doing the same with beginners. I must admit, I loved every minute at those summer clinics, because not only did you learn new techniques and arts, I also met tons of new people that eventually became family and friends.

MAYTT: Final question. In your opinion, what are the top three contributions that Geis made to the larger aikido community and why do you feel those are important?

JV: In my opinion, I think that some of the top contributions Mr. Geis made was that he made judo and aikido players love what they do, mainly because they could see the fire and love in Mr. Geis’ eyes as he taught the arts and in how he spoke about them. He would execute a technique and say, “The reason that didn’t work out is because instead of zigging you should have zagged.” He knew exactly why a technique did or didn’t work. I liked that part of his methodology. I pride myself in doing the same with my students. 

That he created Kihara was no small feat; it took lots of trial and error to get it just right. He had dreams about how they should be done correctly and the next day he came up with how and why. He put forth a network of aikidoka and where you could join them and if you wanted to go to a city and be part of the class you were welcomed with open arms. Everyone was accepting and friendly and would all talk highly about Mr. Geis.

He brought aikido to many parts of the USA, and that brought many people from all walks of life together for one common purpose, learning, and loving aikido.

MAYTT: Thank you for your discussion on Geis!

JV: It was my pleasure!

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

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