Timothy Larson walked in on one of Karl Geis’ weekend-long seminars in Oklahoma City and was quickly impressed by what was happening on the mat, training for six days a week. Today, Larson takes some time to talk about that journey and Geis’ legacy.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Larson Sensei! Thank you for joining us.
Timothy Larson: Thank you for having me. I look forward to your questions.
MAYTT: How and when did you find yourself taking your first aikido class? What continues to motivate you to continue your training today?
TL: My first experience with aikido was about four decades ago. I suspect, like most folks that last a long time, it wasn’t as straightforward look in the Yellow Pages under martial arts and trying different classes from the listing alphabetically. Rather, I was going to night school at Central State University in Edmonds, Oklahoma, just outside Oklahoma City, and it was through one of the women in my study group. Her husband was a nidan, second degree black belt, in aikido that practiced out of the YMCA.
To answer your second question, what kept me coming is pretty much the same thing that keeps me going today: I learn something pretty much every class, either about myself or about the art that I study. Today, it is mostly about improving my communication and teaching skills. I know in today’s world this is a simplistic answer, but how many of us have a place in our lives we can learn something each and every time, no matter if we feel “on” or not.
MAYTT: Many people mentioned many positive impressions about Karl Geis; that he was a “very genuine and no nonsense” and “treated everyone like family.” How do these impressions align with your initial reactions to Geis? How did those characteristics reflect the way he approached teaching?
TL: I will refer to Mr. Geis as Karl and no disrespect is meant. He was my friend from the early 1980s until his death. My first impression of Karl was what I believe to be unique. The very first class in aikido I decided to check out, turned out to be a day when Karl was teaching a seminar in Oklahoma City (OKC). I didn’t know this prior to arriving. I was looking through the class in the doorway and saw my friend’s husband. I waved at him, and he looked like he was trying to hide from me. I couldn’t see Karl at this time, as he was blocked from my view by the wall adjacent to the door I was peeking through.
So, as they got up and started to move around, I went in through the door. The first thing I was this guy in a red and white belt. I had never seen a belt like this before and I didn’t know what it meant. Everyone in the room was paying extra special attention to him and doing what he asked. I knew this wasn’t the normal instructor, since he wasn’t twenty-seven years old as I was told beforehand.
I asked for permission and sat down in the corner in a chair to observe what was happening. A short time later, Karl came over to me and sat beside me. He leaned over and quietly said in my ear, “You better leave now.” I’m sure my face went white as a ghost. This was not the reception I had been led to believe I would get by coming to observe a class. I don’t know why, but I said, “Excuse me?” To which he stated again a little bit more forcefully, “You better leave now.”
I can’t remember any more if I was told a third time to leave, but I do remember that I swiveled in the chair to face him and started to get up. He let me off the hook at that point and said, “You better leave now, or you will never go.” I relaxed after this and continue to watch class a bit longer. Since this was the start of a weekend seminar, I let Steve, the instructor in OKC, and Karl know that I would be back for the next regular scheduled class.
During my initial few years, I went to six seminars and clinics a year with him as the featured teacher. Most were three days in length, but at least twice per year it was a weeklong event plus extra time before and after. My last session with Karl, started late after playing Texas Hold’em with a couple of other long timers and his wife. I think it started about midnight off his porch in the parking lot and went until about six that morning when people started arriving for the early morning class.
I found him to be a profound teacher, not just in aikido and jodo but also in life’s day to day grind.
MAYTT: That is an interesting way of meeting Geis! Being a black belt in judo before becoming an aikidoka, how much of his judo came out when he began teaching aikido? How did he develop his judo and aikido while he was away from his Japanese instructors?
TL: Since I never met Mr. Kenji Tomiki, but I understand he was also a very proficient judo practitioner, I don’t know how much judo influenced Karl’s teaching and how much Mr. Tomiki’s teaching of aikido influenced it. I will say, he talked about how much he wished Mr. Tomiki could have seen how we had taken the judo’s randori sparing and created a viable randori system for aikido.
I believe the key to Karl’s development of each of the martial arts he practiced, was the testing of his and our understanding through randori. As the Fugakukai International Association grew and began to have students with ten plus years of experience, his understanding and ability to teach grew. He would tell us to teach the most advanced thing we know to the best of our ability. He would say when you did that, you would open yourself up to more and more advanced understanding. I believe he practiced what he preached.
I remember the first time I “felt” Karl’s judo. More accurately would be to say that I didn’t feel a thing, and I was trying to figure out how the room had suddenly turned ninety degrees. It was his world famous “double foot sweep.” I could see I was at his shoulder height and fully parallel to the floor. I have experienced this foot sweep many times after that, and it was always as magical as the first time.
I relate this story because it illustrates Karl’s belief that things needed to be “real,” we shouldn’t get trapped into only expecting A, B, or C. Rather, we should realize outside of the dojo anything can happen. The rest of the world may not know about our “dojo rules.” He also spent some time teaching and developing a basic ground system for “non-grapplers” like aikido practitioners. I used his system when I coached high school wrestling. It greatly aided them in defending themselves following a takedown.
Karl often invited his Japanese instructors to teach seminars at his place in Houston, Texas as well as an extended tour across the United States. I have had the great privilege to work directly with Ms. Tsunako Miyake and Mr. Takeshi Inoue. I was one of the people that spent quite a bit of time as Mr. Inoue’s randori partner.
MAYTT: You mentioned previously that Geis was a member of the Japanese Aikido Association before he established his Fugakukai International Association in 1982. To your recollection, how much interaction did Geis and his schools have with the international aikido community?
TL: I may not have the details correct. I am going from memory on what I remember from when I first joined in the early 1980s. I remember some of the paperwork mentioned the JAA. I remember a few JAA patches on the gis and only one Shotokan patch from a guy who started at the Lotus Center in OKC. The aikido club in OKC, had started at the Lotus Center, then YMCA, then Windsong Dojo. I really can’t speak to what was going on in Houston where Karl’s dojo was, as I didn’t know very many people back there at the very beginning of my training.
I can tell you that over the years as I traveled internationally with work, I would stop into aikido classes, no matter the style. On one such occasion, I did go to one in South Africa, I think in 1986, at the time they had a visiting yondan, fourth degree black belt, from England there, teaching a seminar. They did not practice Tomiki Aikido but welcomed me anyway. I was a nidan at the time. I participated, and when through many of the techniques they performed. This was not my first time attending a non-Tomiki Aikido class, so I was aware of some of the differences in etiquette, mainly how we are much less formal.
During one of the exercises, I was paired with one of their nidans. She, as you would expect was quite skilled, but there was something I was doing as an attacker that was different from what she expected. This led to a short discussion with the yondan, and I was able to convey some of my understanding of uke’s – the attacker’s – role that I had gotten from Karl. They started incorporating that into their practice that night.
I know we welcomed at least one person from the British Aikido Association into the Fugakukai.
I also know as I have traveled the world over the years, I have never been told not to come to a dojo or attend a workshop. I always introduce myself as a member of the Fugakukai who studies Tomiki Aikido under Karl Geis.
MAYTT: When he did form his Fugakukai, how did his connection to Japan and those teachers change? Did he still invite those instructors out to teach or was it something he did not really speak of?
TL: Karl would invite his principal teachers to Houston, both to visit and to teach his students. I can never remember Karl speaking of any of his teachers disrespectfully. I had the opportunity to learn from some of his teachers. They were always very generous with their time. Until the mid-1980s, Karl organized trips back to Japan, bringing some of his students to train with him and his teachers. Karl had many fond memories of his teachers and would share some of the stories after class while sitting out on the porch or on the couch in his apartment.
MAYTT: I see. Geis, in his later years, offered three different arts to his students: aikido, judo, and jodo. How did he approach cross training in this regard? Did he allow students to take all three arts at the same time or did he require students acquire a sense of fundamentals in one art before moving onto another?
TL: Pretty much you were allowed to take what you wanted, when you wanted it. Early on, I had heard that there were some classes that focused more on promotion requirements for black belts like advanced kata, but these were not restricted to black belts. In OKC, I remember learning the Go Kata, the fifth advanced kata, when I was a green belt. Obviously, my understanding of what we were learning has changed greatly since then.
Normal classes were the same, and hopefully the same through the organization. In aikido, everyone did the basics, no matter your rank: walking, eight releases, and basic kata, which held either seventeen or twenty-three.
In jodo, everyone did the warmups, basic strikes, both solo and in pairs, then started to work on the kata.
I didn’t spend much time studying judo, so I can’t speak to how that class was organized.
In some ways, Karl unified all three into a single system, the basic principles from one would be found in another. Making it easier to learn more than one. Aikido and judo were the most popular, but I believe that was because you had to be dedicated to jodo to get up and attend that class very early on Saturday mornings.
Personally, I couldn’t do jodo more often than once a week. Whereas aikido I could do it pretty much six days in a row, and early on, I often did. In judo, if your ability to take falls is not great, it will affect how often you can practice with full throws.
MAYTT: Additionally, Geis created his own aikido, calling it Kihara Aikido, though he initially learned aikido from Kenji Tomiki. What factors led him to take such a course of action? 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?
TL: Tomiki Aikido has changed during Tomiki’s life. In the very old days, the basic kata was the fifteen, and not the seventeen. On outward appearances, it was more atemi/strike oriented. I think some of the subtleties are harder to see because of the larger motions.
Mr. Tomiki understood that without a randori system to test your techniques, it would be very difficult to achieve a level of proficiency that could be relied on as needs arose. He knew from being an advanced practitioner of judo, that this was one of its greatest strengths.
Often, I have heard and read that Mr. Morihei Ueshiba best practitioners had experience in other martial art systems. I believe that the truth of this lies in the ability to recognize what works and doesn’t. Of knowing how to test one’s ideas and find what works. Theory is fine, but practical experience helps shorten the learning curve.
Some of Mr. Tomiki’s senior students pursued knife randori, but this became problematic and resulted in injuries. So necessary rules were introduced so that it could be performed safely. These rules and elimination of certain otherwise effective techniques left practitioners susceptible to certain forms of attack.
As it was relayed to me, this was not a problem in Japan, but the culture in the United States was very different. For instance: in Japan, the thief would never be so impolite as to ask you to hand them your wallet at knife point. Asking you to assist in your own robbery, showed a complete lack of manners. What we would consider a normal way to use a knife is different in Japan.
In my own country you might hear, “Your wallet or your life!” This seems much more barbaric than a robbery in Japan. Here, the thief would not get close enough to put a hand in your pocket, because he would be risking his own life to do so. As such, we had a need for very different and practical self-defense techniques.
Karl chose, not to pursue the modified knife curriculum, but rather to find another safe way to perform randori with no technique being off limits. Mr. Tomiki directed Karl to find this safe method, as it would be critical to true development and mastery of technique.
Fast forward a bunch of years, Kihara came about from a bunch of rokudans, sixth degree black belts, testing what we were teaching in the basic seventeen kata and what we were observing in randori. And finding the two didn’t always agree. While there were other important issues, the easiest one to describe had to do with balance breaks, and the basic question of why do we, in the basic seventeen kata, put both hands in one place when we know it’s not a good idea in randori? In randori, if you commit your second hand to something, you are exposed to an attack from the other person’s free hand. During the next couple of years or so, this continued to be explored in Houston and in the local dojos of advanced students. The basic twenty-three kata and the Kihara system are a direct result of this research.
The seventeen kata passed all the basic testing for effectiveness of technique, with respect to age, speed, or strength, but showed weaknesses in when very high skill level or “sheer luck” was added to the testing criteria. It was decided initially that if teachers wanted to stay with the seventeen and have their students test to that kata for black belt, that would be accepted throughout the organization. It would also be acceptable if member dojos wanted to complete change over to the twenty-three.
Personally, I teach both. There are things in the seventeen that help beginners in their understanding and things in the twenty-three that are helpful to beginners as well. My seventeen is a little different from when I first learned it. There are things from the twenty-three that I have incorporated into it. Like other advanced practitioners, I feel I was a much better kata teacher years ago. Today, I am much more likely to react to what uke is doing at that exact moment, one thing flows into another before I realize it. I rely on my sandans and yodans, third and fourth degree black belts, to teach kata. I focus on how things are similar and the underlying principles.
Without getting into a bunch of technicalities, I tend to think of the original Tomiki Aikido as more direct and straight lines, and Kihara as more fluid and circular. This is not a completely fair characterization of Tomiki Aikido as I learned it, nor is it to say Kihara is not a natural progression of Tomiki’s teachings. I can say that it is something unique that was developed by Karl Geis with his students.
MAYTT: I can see the development of Geis’ ideas. 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?
TL: I began teaching under supervision of a black belt almost from week two. It was explained to me that the quickest way to learn something is to have to teach it. I have found this to be true in just about everything I have attempted in my life. When I began aikido, I was in a long-distance relationship, so I had plenty of time on my hands.
I went to class at the YMCA, and when a new Tomiki Aikido dojo opened in town, I went there as well. So, I’m up to four nights a week plus Saturday jo. Now add some private time, and I’m doing a bunch of aikido six days a week. I got very good at taking falls, and I took a lot of them. If you wanted to show something, I’m your guy.
After just under two years in OKC, I moved to Dallas. No one taught aikido there. I talked to Karl, and he said, “No problem. Just find one student and start teaching.” I started with three and grew that. Eventually, I was able to track down a sandan from Houston that had moved to Dallas. I convinced him to take over the class, as he had the most knowledge and experience. I attended classes under him as an assistant teacher until he moved a couple of years later to Denver. The class became mine again.
Eventually, I convinced one of my students to start his own place as he wanted more time than I could give. I believe this worked well for both of our developments.
What did I learn in this? That I could always get better as a teacher and practitioner. My approach is: “I just happen to be a little further down the path than you, senior student to junior student.” I try to learn something from everyone I meet.
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?
TL: The first would be bringing aikido back to its roots when it was focused on being practical. I feel I need to expand on this. Aikido has gotten the reputation as being solely for the spiritual development of the practitioner and so has no real-world application. Karl, first and foremost, wanted whatever he taught to be practical. It was very important to him that it work for the old, the weak, and the small. This is a difficult task. In the aikido that he taught, there were no weight classes and no age classes.
I would no more attack anyone as any of the practitioners of Traditional Aikido. As an advanced student of Karl Geis, I understand that any time I put energy out, I may have to deal with or absorb that energy. I wouldn’t punch someone because there is a risk of getting my arm broken, either by luck or skill of whomever I attacked.
The second would be slow randori. The system developed by Karl and his students, I think, is the best out there. There are no rules about what you can or cannot do once the attack starts. The methodology is to proceed at a very slow speed. The more experienced participant should make sure everything is done at a speed both parties can comprehend. When it is practiced at the correct speed, two things emerge: first, it ends in about a fifty-fifty split between participants and secondly, nothing works every time. This is very difficult at first, but without practicing slowly, things just aren’t safe to do.
Many practitioners of other martial art disciplines feel like they can go faster than their opponent. For one step, this is deceptive and likely to get them hurt if they rely on this. Isaac Newton showed that gravity effects everything the same way. For instance, an apple falls as fast as a brick. If I control the distance at which the attack begins, there is very little that can be changed at full speed once the attack begins. At first, I ask my students to accept this as fact. Later, after they can fall well, I will allow them to test this, if they still feel the need.
There are additional benefits to practicing very slowly. I can see when what I am doing is not optimal; where I am attempting to do something extraneous to what is needed. For instance: if I am putting power into a technique, besides being able to be reversed, it becomes more tiring. Further, I can see how subtle changes in timing effect balance and effectiveness of the technique. In music, you don’t learn to plan scales or a difficult passage on a piece of music by going as fast as you can. You practice scales slowly and evenly to learn note progressions, as well as etudes to learn rhythm and timing. Kata is like the prior two, and randori is like sight reading and playing music.
Lastly, Kihara Aikido, this one is so much easier to show than to explain. It’s a culmination of several competing factors: How do I control the distance? How do I not accept the attacker’s energy? How do I take ground while maintaining separation? How do I keep from adding energy into the equation? How do I recognize what our combined center is doing and my relationship to it? How can I stay in motion while the attack dissipates or ends in a throw? How can I transition from one idea to the next? And many, many more.
If you look at my list, in some sense they are the natural progression of the first idea, how do you learn something that can “practically” provide self-defense. Nothing is guaranteed, as I have not tried any one thing against all possible forms of attack. But thanks to Karl, I believe I have the tools to try to solve problems as they present themselves.
MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us, Larson Sensei!
TL: It was great to be here!