David Russell first started in Isshin-ryu Karate until he found a book on aikido, quickly dismissing it. It was not until later that he met a friend proficient in the art, leaving him surprised. This initial shock led him to seek instruction from Karl Geis. Today, Russell joins us to discuss that time under Geis and his lasting legacy among his students. All imagines provided David Russell.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Russell Sensei! We thank you for joining us today!
David Russell: Thank you for the invitation.
MAYTT: How and when did you come to find aikido? What aspects about the art gave you motivation to continue your training in it to this day?
DR: My first introduction to aikido was in the mid-1980s. I was studying Isshin-ryu karate and shortly after I earned my shodan, someone mentioned aikido. I was curious and borrowed a copy of Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. After “deeply” studying the book for at least an hour, I determined spinning in a circle was the key to aikido. At my next class I asked two seventeen-year-old brown belts to help me test what I had learned. As they took turns attacking me, I stood in place and turned in a circle. After about ten minutes of being a punching bag, I determined aikido didn’t work. While the brown belts thought it was the best class ever, it took a couple of days for my soreness to go away.
Later in the early 1990s, I was on a business trip with Tom, who had just received his shodan in aikido from Mr. Geis. I told him I was familiar with aikido (remember I had studied and tested it for a whole hour) and told him aikido wouldn’t work against a karate man as the strength, speed, intensity, and flurry of strikes would overwhelm him.
We decided to test it out. as I attacked, he sidestepped my attack and had me neutralized within a second of my attack.
At that moment I understood I had missed something in my study of aikido that I needed to learn. In all fairness, I had dismissed judo as well because someone had told me the name meant “gentle way.” After I started aikido, I was able to watch the end of a judo class; as I watched I couldn’t understand why anyone would call judo “gentle way.” Thinking back on my ignorance, the phrase “not always right, but rarely in doubt” comes to mind.
My first aikido class addressed something that I hadn’t been taught in karate: maai and how to get off the line of attack. As I learned how to evade an attack, I thought aikido would improve my karate – it does – but in time, I came to understand that when you throw someone, the ground hits harder than a fist. Additionally, you avoid bloodborne pathogens that can be passed through scratched or cut knuckles.
My motivation to keep studying is the joy and knowledge I receive from teaching. I’ve been studying martial arts since 1976 and still consider myself a student. For me, aikido is like peeling an onion slowly, one layer at a time. Each layer reveals something new, and the onion never quits growing new layers. As my students improve, I improve with them. In a way, we are teaching each other.
Karl often told me that seeing his students gain confidence was his biggest reward and I understand what he meant now.
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?
DR: I’ve only trained in Karl’s dojo, so I can’t speak for the community. When I started, Tom introduced me to some of his friends, and I was welcomed as Tom’s friend. At that time in Karl’s dojo, the classes were full, and the black belts outnumbered the colored belts. Black belts were expected to teach the colored belts, which led to quickly meeting people and essentially getting a private lesson from each senior student. After reaching shodan we were expected to start teaching beginners, and the limits of our knowledge were quickly revealed. Fortunately, the people who had initially taught us were still on the mat and available to help as we started learning how to teach.
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?
DR: Karl reminded me of my father and grandfather. He treated us like family members, however, like all families, there were rules: mind your manners, keep your word, and be respectful of everyone else. He was like an old west gunfighter who lived by a code of ethics and integrity. He was the alpha in an alpha world. His desire was that his dojo be a safe and non- competitive environment, and he was vigilant about safety on the mat.
My daughter started taking his children’s judo class when she was seven. To this day, she has fond memories of Karl.
MAYTT: How did Geis approach training? Many of the early aikidoka mentioned that training was hard and fast, leaving little or no time for the refined aikido that is now a staple today in the United States. Did your experience reflect this, or did you experience something else entirely?
DR: Karl constantly told us to slow down. He gave the analogy of running down a hallway with doors on both sides that opened to rooms full of information. If we ran down the hallway, we would miss most of the information. If we realized there was no time limit on our journey down the hallway, we were free to learn everything in each doorway.
Karl’s teaching methods were phenomenal. When he taught a technique, he went slowly and gave detailed explanations of the techniques and principles involved. Classes were relaxed, and we learned at our own pace with no pressure on how long it took us to learn a technique.
I remember one time I was sitting by Karl on the side of the mat and two students were struggling with a technique. I motioned one of them over and told him his hand position was wrong and to turn his hand over. He thanked me, and when they tried my suggestion, the technique worked for them. After they walked away, Karl told me he wanted to talk to me, I was expecting praise for helping them. Instead, he told me if I was going to teach that way I should leave and not come back. When I asked what was wrong, he said I had taught in negative terms, that I shouldn’t have told them they were doing it wrong. Instead, I should have suggested that they reverse their hand and see if it worked better. He said always teach with positive reinforcement as it builds people up and they respond better to the instruction. I understand now that he was using the opportunity to give me a lesson on how to teach.
I started training with Karl in the mid-1990s. During that time, he was starting to develop KiHara, and it was a time of transition.
One day, Karl stepped on the mat and told us every one of us did exactly what he told us to do, however, what he did and what he taught were two different things. That day was the beginning of KiHara. Karl changed the art from a deterministic system to an indeterministic system. We used motion instead of strength. The attacker determined when he would be thrown, not the receiver of the attack. Roles were interchangeable as the use of strength created a moment of vulnerability.
Karl told me later he risked his entire business by introducing KiHara and changing the system, but he could no longer teach a system once he realized how superior the new method was – it was an integrity issue with him.
MAYTT: Throughout his martial career, Geis studied aikido, judo, and jodo, where all three arts feature prominently in his Fugakukai International Association curriculum. How did he approach and teach the arts respectively to his students? Was there one art that he wanted everyone to practice as to gain a foundation or did he allow cross training from the beginning?
DR: When I first started aikido, I watched a video of Karl teaching the original Ju Nana Hon Kata (the seventeen). After he demonstrated the first technique, he made the comment that he hoped we liked it as they were all the same thing repeated and looking a little different. At the time, I had no idea what he meant, but after a while you start seeing the underlying similarities in all the techniques.
All three arts are very closely related and based on the same principles. David Witt has shown the commonality of the arts by demonstrating judo with a jo stick, jodo without a jo, and has continued Karl’s work on foot sweeps, chokes and grappling in aikido.
Karl did require a green belt in aikido or judo before starting jodo.
MAYTT: Additionally, 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?
DR: We are standing on the shoulders of giants. Tomiki Sensei studied directly under both Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. My understanding is Karl blended the motion of pre-sport judo with the techniques of aikido. Years ago, Karl had a man visit his dojo who was a very large and very skilled martial artist. Karl said he managed to deal with him, but it wasn’t easy. He understood the system had a weakness and he started training as if every opponent was bigger, stronger, and very well trained. He said the solution was to regress to weakness.
Karl told me as my body aged, it would be necessary to adapt the way I practiced. Karl said he was improving as he eliminated strength from his techniques.
KiHara is a very efficient system that builds on centuries of knowledge.
MAYTT: 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?
DR: As a black belt in Karl’s dojo, part of our training was to pair up with lower ranks and help them on their journey, so I began teaching long before I relocated to western North Carolina. After moving here, I was unable to locate a dojo that met my needs. I took in two bays of my garage and have a small dojo that allows me the time to work at my day job and spend most of my nights with my family. Teaching has enhanced my knowledge of the art.
MAYTT: You are the lead instructor to Asheville Aikido. What influenced your decision to establish your school when you did? What were the initial goals of opening the dojo and what does the future hold for the school?
DR: I missed the dojo and my friends, and I had knowledge to pass forward. Hopefully, some of my students will pass the art forward.
MAYTT: Outside of Geis, who would you consider to be pioneers and disseminators of Tomiki Aikido in America? What differentiated these practitioners from their contemporaries?
DR: I’ve not trained with anyone outside of Karl’s dojo.
In many ways, we are products of our teachers and where they were on their journey when we studied under them. We could all have the same instructor and do everything differently based on the evolution of our instructor.
Karl’s teaching methods evolved over the years and my teaching methods have evolved as I’ve learned new things or had to accommodate a body that is getting older. My former students will have differences from my current students in how they train, although the principles are still the same.
Kenji Tomiki and Karl both had a pre-sport judo background that influenced their approach to the art and how they approached the techniques. I came from a karate background that initially influenced how I viewed the techniques. I understand Hideo Oba Sensei had a sword background and changed the system from a pushing hand to a vertical hand when he assumed leadership of the organization. Subtle changes make a difference in how the techniques are executed.
Subtle changes make a difference in how the techniques are executed, I understand Oba Sensei had a sword background and changed the system from a pushing hand to a vertical hand when he assumed leadership of the organization. Another example is how you grip someone: Karl taught us to grip with the thumb, pinky, and ring finger and not to use the index or middle finger. The difference in grip changes how you move.
I’ve had to modify the way I teach because of the low ceilings in my garage and the two walls on the sides of the mat. Instead of throwing someone down, we throw vertically into a padded wall. One unexpected benefit to this is we get to execute more techniques each class because we recover faster from the throw and don’t get as tired.
Karl said there are many paths up the mountain, some more difficult than others. I’m still working on Karl’s teachings and trying to follow his path.
MAYTT: 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?
DR: KiHara is almost a new art, but it’s built on the foundation and principles of pre sport judo, jodo, and pre-Second World War aikido. These are: motion instead of strength, off-balance instead of pain, and regression to weakness and indeterministic timing. Karl eliminated or adjusted techniques which required one to be bigger, stronger or faster in order to execute the technique. Understanding that the technique isn’t
Understanding that the technique isn’t done to uke; the combination of uke’s energy and your response to the energy creates the conditions for the technique to appear. If you attempt to “do a technique,” then you interfere with the energy flow and give uke a chance to reverse roles with you.
For anyone who is interested, Karl left a massive amount of knowledge on his DVDs.
MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about Geis’ legacy!
DR: It was my pleasure; this conversation brought up some good memories.
To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.