Interview with Senior Shindai Aikikai Instructor Brain Canin: Dennis Hooker and Aikido

Brian Canin first started tai chi until he tried aikido with David Jones after one of his tai chi classes. He never looked back. A little bit later into his aikido journey, he met Dennis Hooker and began training under him. Canin would train under Hooker until the latter’s passing, assuming a leadership role at Shindai Aikikai. Today, Canin took some time to shed light on his relationship with Hooker. Images provided by Shindai Aikikai and Steve Fasen.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Canin Sensei! I am glad you are joining us!

Brian Canin: Thank you for inviting me!

MAYTT: How did you first come to train under Dennis Hooker? What was it about the art and him that made you want to continue aikido?

Brain Canin.

BC: It started in 1988 for me. I was forty-eight years old when I started aikido. Dennis Hooker Sensei had one of two dojos in Orlando. The other one was a small dojo under Mitsugi Saotome Sensei’s original students. Hooker Sensei was one of Saotome Sensei’s early students but not original students. Hooker Sensei had another teacher by the name of Doctor David Jones, who was a cultural anthropology professor at the university down here and was very much into Japanese arts, archery, and things like that. Aikido-wise, he was not anything like Hooker Sensei level, but he started teaching at a place called Eastbrook, which was a YMCA out on my side of town. He taught tai chi and aikido. At the time, I just moved up from Miami and I wanted to continue my tai chi. I went to his tai chi class and saw the follow up class, which was his aikido class. I got really inspired by that and joined his aikido class. Then they added another teacher to the roster, which was now Hooker Sensei, Doc Jones, and Eric Stein. That went on for quite a few years and I had all three as teachers, but Hooker Sensei was the main teacher. Around that time, we finally convinced Doc Jones to move out Eastbrook, which was a very dirty place – lots of dust and the mats were a mess – and we moved into an office building; we started a dojo in my office building on the ground floor. That’s when I discovered that Hooker Sensei was teaching a little bit further downtown in an Olympic gymnastics’ studio. So, I joined there. We moved everybody over there; that’s when we all started training together – Steve Fasen and myself, and some other people. This was all in the span between 1988 and 1989. From then on, I was essentially Hooker Sensei’s student.

Then we started to get to know Saotome Sensei and that bond just kept growing very strongly for me. To where he is my teacher today, for sure. And then we slowly started discovering the other key ASU teachers, which was George Ledyard and Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei, who a huge influence on me and he was one of Saotome Sensei’s original students in Sarasota when Saotome Sensei first started.

Ikeda Sensei is extraordinary, which is the way to say it. He has beautiful waza. What’s cool about Ikeda Sensei is he keeps reinventing himself. I have a townhouse in Boulder, Colorado, which I’ve had for seventeen years, and I spend about eight weeks out there every year. That’s also one of my dojos as I train there. I’ve had about the equivalent of a full year, day to day training, under Ikeda sensei. He’s a close friend and one of the very inspiring aikido teachers that I have run into. Those guys in Boulder are all my friends. I’ve trained with them for years and years now. I think they’re training again. I didn’t train with them this summer [2021] when I was out there, although they were training. I think they’ve struggled a bit with losing students, but that dojo has produced some extraordinary students, Tres Hofmeister, really close friend of mine as well. Johnathan, Mark, all really strong people out there.

So that’s the short version of what happened between 1988 and 1989. [Laughs]

MAYTT: You met Hooker a little after you started aikido. What were your first impressions of Hooker when you first started under him? What was he like as an instructor and a person and how did those aspects help change or solidify your initial impressions of him?

BC: Hooker Sensei was old school. What I mean by that is that he was very martial; he conducted very hard training in those days. If you didn’t attack him all out, he would bury you. He expected you to give him everything and he would deal with that. We call it old school; we trained very hard. It was very physical. Hooker Sensei had really good technique – he was very technique-oriented back in those days. Later, this whole group evolved into internal training, which I’m very much involved in right now. But in the early days, it wasn’t that at all. It was very much oriented to doing the techniques and mastering the techniques, and that included a lot of work with weapons. Hooker Sensei liked the sword, the jo, the tanto, and things like that. His aikido was strong and basic; it was good training.

The one other thing you have to know about Hooker Sensei was that he was a warrior in spirit because had this disease, myasthenia gravis, which affected his whole nervous system. He was continually fighting that. As long as we knew him until he passed away, he was fighting that and overcoming it. Saotome Sensei helped him when he couldn’t literally move to regain his strength. He did start to lose his strength towards the last third of the time we knew him. That was when a lot of the senior students started to become more interested in internal training. Hooker Sensei wanted to do that, and he was beginning to transition but he never really made that full transition. In our dojo, we would rely on Saotome Sensei – the original source so to speak – and Ikeda Sensei, who had amazing technique, power, and movement, he transitioned into more internal and that definitely kept and motivated my interest over the last fifteen years or so.

Hooker Sensei loved his students. He had a deep passion for the wellbeing of his students. He loved the art. Hooker Sensei felt that aikido was not a verbal art, so he didn’t talk a lot about it but demonstrated it. That’s important to understand. He was all about moving and believed that you learned aikido through interacting with people, especially with a partner. Aikido was certainly his whole life; that’s what he lived for. I can’t emphasize that enough.

MAYTT: I see. You mentioned that he taught and trained in the old school, focusing on the martial and technical aspects of aikido. How did you see him differentiating himself from his contemporaries and others within the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU)? What it something he intentionally sought out to do?

BC: It was just him. I think he had a pretty good judo background as well. But that was just Hooker Sensei. Hooker Sensei made sure that it was all-out, no holds bar atmosphere; he expected you to give him everything. He liked to deal with it, and he was always able to deal with just about whatever came his way. And he always used the basic techniques, kihon waza, of aikido quite religiously. He stuck to that quite well. He had a great respect and love for his students; Hooker Sensei would do anything for his students. But he was not a particularly outgoing guy. He kept to himself quite a bit, but Steve, myself, and one or two other people were close to him. I actually had a professional relationship with him as well because hooker sensei’s day job was transportation planner and I’m an urban planner, and we had contracts where he was our client. That was another dimension that was added to my relationship with Hooker Sensei. for many years, we worked together.

MAYTT: How did that relationship effect the relationship you two had at the dojo?

BC: It just added another layer of respect for each other; another layer of connection between us that went beyond what was just in the dojo. I wouldn’t say that we were close friends, because Hooker Sensei wasn’t the kind of person to be close friends with. But we did have a very strong relationship as partners in work and as one of his faithful students.

It was unusual. It was also very pleasant for us to be able to do that together.

MAYTT: From your knowledge, how did Hooker come to find aikido? How did he, in your opinion, know that the Art of Harmonizing Energies was the one for him?

BC: I don’t really know. He discovered it in Chicago or a little town outside of Chicago. Maybe he found someone to train in that little place, but then he made the connection with Chicago Aikikai. That was his world before he moved to Florida. Initially he moved to Pensacola, and he started a dojo there. I don’t know, chronologically, how long that took. But by the time Hooker Sensei landed in Orlando, he had a relationship with a dojo in Pensacola under him and he had started a dojo in Tallahassee also under him, that considered Hooker Sensei as the leader. And the Orlando one. So, he was well respected and well known throughout the state in the aikido world.

MAYTT: So, throughout his lifetime, he started and helped sustain three schools?

Canin and Steve Fasen, the two senior instructors at Shindai Aikikai.

BC: Yes. He had Shindai Aikikai, and the one in Tallahassee – I can’t remember the name anymore – that’s still there, and the one in Pensacola disappeared. He had strong connections and mentored students in both of those locations.

One of the people who was an early ASU and Saootome Sensei student in Orlando before Hooker Sensei came here was Edward Baker Sensei. Baker Sensei was, I think, at least a godan before his passing and he had a little group. So, by the time Hooker Sensei came to Orlando there was what he started and Baker Sensei’s students. Basically, a lot of those students ended up under Hooker Sensei.

MAYTT: You bring up Edward Baker. Could you elaborate more on his background and his connection to Florida aikido?

BC: I mean, I trained under him a little bit, but Baker Sensei was also hardcore, and he was very good and very strong practitioner. He had been in the navy before aikido. He whole life was in a submarine, I think. Baker Sensei was a little difficult as a personality and he was one of Saotome Sensei’s top students in Florida, outside of the Sarasota area, which is where Saotome Sensei started. He ultimately ran into Saotome Sensei and was disassociated from ASU, [Laughs] but he was another very strong practitioner. He had a lot going for him. In many ways, he loved continuous movement, which I still try to practice with my students as much as I can.

He and Hooker Sensei got on one another, but neither one of them were easy to get to know in a close relationship. [Laughs] Backer Sensei was one of the early strong aikido leaders in Central Florida. Saotome Sensei never got to central Florida until Hooker Sensei got to Central Florida. Saotome Sensei was in Sarasota the whole time.

MAYTT: It seems like everything in Florida can be traced back to Saotome Sensei. When did Hooker establish his Shindai Aikikai? What factors led him to take such a step in opening his own dojo and what do you think his primary goal was with setting up a school? Were others involved in getting things started in the early days of Shindai Aikikai, and if so, who were they and what role did they play?

BC: It had to be between 1986 and 1987. Steven and I joined pretty much at the beginning of that. He had these other schools before he landed in Orlando, so he wanted to continue that. Of course, he had full support of Saotome Sensei. In fact, I think Saotome Sensei donated some money to Hooker Sensei to start; then we contributed to building the dojo. We had to move around awhile. The Olympic gymnastics location was sold, and for a while, we were sort of floating around, training wherever we could. Then Hooker Sensei found the building that we’re in now, which is an industrial building. We all pitched in and built a beautiful dojo. A very successful dojo I may add.

He did all himself. We supported him on the physical facility, but it was him, one hundred percent. He did the curriculum; he decided who was teaching; he tested all of his students – all of that. It was his dojo. One hundred percent. No question.

Shindai would get Saotome Sensei once or twice a year. Whenever we would host a seminar over a weekend, Saotome Sensei would show up, so we’ve felt a very strong connection with Saotome Sensei.

Additionally, Hooker Sensei established a budokan in Shindai Aikikai. So, we have aikido, Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu, judo, Danzan-ryu Jujitsu, kendo, Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu Iaijutsu, Toyama-ryu, and Shotokan Karate. That’s a big deal for us. And it’s still that way today; we still have all of that today in the dojo. We’ve had really good judo and karate instructors – a lot of good teachers. Hooker Sensei wanted to establish this as a budokan from the beginning, from day one. A lot of these instructors came to him. We have this beautiful facility, and everybody is always looking for a place to train. They came to him. Some of them already had relationships with Hooker Sensei but most of them found us in a way. That was a big part of Hooker Sensei who wanted to have all these arts in Shindai.

MAYTT: It is amazing that you have so many different arts in one facility! Hooker wrote a popular article on Aikiweb, entitled Polishing the Mirror and Grinding the Stone. How do you feel that article reflected his own personal training and in turn, how he chose to train his own students?

BC: I’ve read the article, and it’s been a long time. We would hear that often. Grinding the stone would mean it was kick ass time on the mat and polishing the mirror was refining the techniques. We would alternate back and forth. I’d forgotten that until you reminded me. I knew Hooker Sensei wrote a lot and unfortunately, I didn’t read a lot of his stuff, mostly because I was busy with a full time job that’s very demanding, but everything I did read from him was really good and really on point.

He was a great teacher; he would say things like, “I can get into your body through your mind or through your body.” It went something like that and means that he could get someone to take ukemi through physical contact or he could lead them there through their mind. And that was cool. He was always thinking in a deep way about aikido and martial arts. I validated those sayings many times since those early days. [Laughs]

MAYTT: When did Hooker first meet Mitsugi Saotome? Do you know what his initial thoughts of Saotome was and if so, how did he describe that experience?

BC: We’d spend hours chatting, but my memory isn’t that great to remember something that specific. I know that Saotome Sensei captured Hooker Sensei one hundred percent in terms of inspiring his aikido training. But also, at that time, Hooker Sensei needed a lot of work on his cardio issue and Saotome Sensei helped him directly with his breathing and meditation exercises. So that was probably one of the main connections back in those early days.

MAYTT: A lot has been said about aikido in recent years, much in the way of harsh criticism, especially regarding its training and effectiveness. How do you feel Hooker would respond to such critiques and how did he address effectiveness within his own training and teaching?

BC: That would be hard to speak for Hooker Sensei, but I’ll speak for myself. Aikido is an interesting art and it’s somewhere between a meditative art, a martial art, and conditioning training. The thing that I think that gets aikido criticized maybe more than it deserves is the fact that its codified so deeply into kihon waza, which relates to testing. So, it’s not that aikido is one hundred precent based that way, but it’s like I’m going to come and grab your hand or I’m going to provide you an attack that’s a yokomen, a mune tsuki, or a jodan tsuki; it’s very predictable. It was codified as ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, and Saotome Sensei said would say, “Tokyo!” as a joke and people would crack up. The fact that aikido is that prescribed, which I think relates back to that it needed to be codified to expand into a worldwide art, with all the characteristics of a Japanese martial art it has. It also brought some issues in terms of the effectiveness of a martial art. Now it’s true that we also practice kaeshi waza, which is where the real martial art part of it comes in; we practice randori; we practice with weapons, not live weapons. Weapons are a little side bit, but a lot of it is really kihon-based and I think that’s probably where the criticism comes from, when it does. But the fact that the few that practice aikido for years and years and continue to do it at a high level, you develop a lot of martial instincts, and your nervous system is conditioned to deal with real-world issues, if you want to call it that. So, there’s some overt parts of it which is, “Yeah. I know exactly how to deal with somebody that’s striking me with a bottle from yokomen.” To, “I know exactly where to be when there’s someone coming towards me with some ill-intent. I can feel it; I can see it. I know where to be.” So that’s a complex discussion, but I understand the issue.

And then there’s how to train. Some people who want to train it as a martial art that’s effective, if you will, on the street. By the way, Hooker Sensei was fine with taking aikido into that context. He was all about that. Then there’s some other groups and people that want to sort of float around and look graceful and synchronize with harmony – the sorts you see along the West Coast. You got the spectrum that’s quite extreme of where you want to put their minds and their sentiment and their training emphasis. So, it’s a broad spectrum. And then you got to bring it down the physicality of the people involved. So, there’s some people that love aikido but are older and can’t move properly and their knees don’t work. Then you have the young people who have a tremendous amount of energy and want to go full-out. All that is also part of the subject we’re talking about.

I would say that aikido is not a combat art. Does it mean that because it’s not a combat art it’s not martial? No. I think there’s a lot of martial aspects that go with aikido and will benefit anybody in whatever context they find themselves, but it’s probably not that you would characterize as a combat art. And the other thing that is interesting with aikido that’s quite special, is a few places and few other systems work this way: is that it’s not competitive, so aikido doesn’t have tournaments. That’s a big deal.

MAYTT: What do you think Hooker would say about the current state of aikido today, pandemic and all? Would he be pleasantly surprised on how the art has made its way through such challenges, or would he offer some constructive criticism on how things should be looking to move forward?

BC: I think that Hooker Sensei would be very proud of where his students are today, some of his longtime students. I think he’d be also happy with some of the ASU that are in the other dojos in Florida, or actually in Washington, D.C. I think that he’d be pretty happy, especially some of the things that we’ve picked up that weren’t available to him at his time.

I think aikido generally has lost a lot of its intensity and the youthfulness that we experienced for whatever reason. I don’t know if the young people are getting sucked into MMA or something else, but I think he would be a little sad about that. I’m not sure where that’s going to end up, but it seems like it was a little more vulnerable than it was thirty years ago.

MAYTT: Final question. In your opinion, what are some of the major contributions that Hooker provided not only to the ASU but to the larger aikido community? What effects do you feel can still be felt today that can be easily traced back to Hooker?

BC: Amongst our students he taught us the value of hard, intense training and we try to maintain that. I think he’d really appreciate that we picked that up from him and that we continue that. I think he’d be pleased with the advancement of some of his students, having been exposed to other elements of training, like Ikeda Sensei. so, I think he’d be very pleased about that.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us Canin Sensei and thank you for talking with us about Hooker Sensei!

BC: Thank you again. I enjoyed this conversation!

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

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