Interview with Florida Aikikai Cofounder Peter Bernath: Starting From Scratch

After seeing a poster for aikido in San Francisco in 1972, Peter Bernath quickly signed up. After moving to New York, he lost no time in joining Yoshimitsu Yamada’s New York Aikikai. By 1980, Bernath found himself in Florida at the request of Yamada, working with Florida native and future wife Penny. Today, Bernath joined us to discuss his experiences establishing a full-time aikido dojo in Florida when that was not the norm. All images provided by Peter Bernath.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Bernath Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about your experiences in Florida!

Peter Bernath: It is my pleasure. I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: You first began training aikido in 1972. How did you find yourself taking your first class and what is your motivation to continue today?

PB: I started aikido in San Francisco, California, at the original San Francisco Aikikai. Mel Stuart, an old student of Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, was the chief instructor. It was a beautiful dojo with tatami mats and lots of light. I had seen a poster in Japantown of a small woman throwing a big guy through the air and it looked exciting. I had done gymnastics and football in high school, so the ukemi looked like fun. And I still practice today because it’s still fun.

MAYTT: I see. You later learned from Yoshimitsu Yamada, of New York Aikikai, who you have consistently trained under for over forty years. What were your first impressions of him as an instructor and as a person?

PB: I had practiced in San Francisco for a year or so before moving to New York to train under Yamada Sensei. He had kind of this rock star charisma. His classes were electric, and he was so powerful and smooth. Yet he was very friendly and approachable. I remember that Kazuo Chiba Sensei referred to New York Aikikai as a garden with hundreds of varieties of flowers or something like that. Meaning Yamada sensei didn’t want his students to be a carbon copy of himself. Rather, he lets you develop your own aikido in your own way. I love the freedom Yamada Sensei gives all his students.

MAYTT: What was the training like at the New York Aikikai? Previous aikidoka have attested to the rough and tumble atmosphere and regimen. Does this correctly reflect the training you experienced at the dojo?

PB: I had come from a smaller dojo in San Francisco that was nowhere near as intense as New York Aikikai. It was definitely a wakeup call. I remember being in my second class there and we were working in groups. This guy was just throwing the hell out of everyone. I had never done a break fall before and so I told him. He just laughed and proceeded to throw me halfway across the mat. Then he said that’s a break fall. I felt like I was fresh meat for a pack of wolves. It was definitely like learning in the school of hard knocks. Literally.

Peter Bernath overlooking his dojo.

MAYTT: It sure created an urgency to learn solid ukemi. You arrived in Florida in 1980 at the instruction of Yamada, later opening Florida Aikikai. What led you to go through with the school and what was that experience like for you?

PB: Yamada Sensei wanted to open a dojo in Florida that would be able to help him host the Florida Winter Camp and be a home base for him when he visited. My future wife, Penny, who lived in Florida, was going to be the administrator and he asked if I wanted to come down as the chief instructor. There weren’t many Americans who were doing aikido full time in the early 1980s, but I wanted to see if I could turn my love of aikido into my profession. It was hard in the beginning. We didn’t have many students, so money was very tight. I lived on canned sardines and rice for months. I was living in the dojo in the beginning, but it didn’t have air conditioning or a shower, so the summer was brutal. I had to wash up from a water spigot behind the building. It was quite the adventure starting out but slowly but surely the dojo grew.

MAYTT: You later met your wife, Penny, at Florida Aikikai. How has it been teaching training with your significant other? What are some of the benefits of instructing and leading with someone so close to you?

PB: Well actually, we really avoid training together. We’re like oil and water on the mat. She doesn’t want to hear any of my corrections or opinions and vice versa. But in every other way, it’s been a blessing. Aikido is a big part of both our lives. We are co-owners of the dojo and share the teaching responsibilities along with our senior instructors. We have traveled the world together going to camps and seminars. It’s been wonderful for our relationship having such an important shared interest.

Penny Bernath instructing class.

MAYTT: When did you first begin teaching? What was that experience like for you and how did that influence your perception and interpretation of aikido today?

PB: I started teaching as an assistant instructor at New York Aikikai before I moved to Florida. Teaching can be an important part of your aikido development. You have to analyze and study what you’re doing so you can better communicate that to others when teaching. I came to Florida just after I received my nidan and was essentially on my own. I couldn’t just ask Yamada Sensei how this or that worked. That’s why I went to so many seminars year after year – to learn as much as I could and then work on it when I got back to the dojo with my students. To be a good teacher you have to continually educate yourself and that takes sincere effort and dedication.

MAYTT: In 1974, Mitsugi Saotome arrived in Florida though Yamada had already made inroads there with Thomas “Doc” Walker and others in his United States Aikido Federation in the 1960s. What was the dynamic between the two pioneers and their respective organizations? Were relations generally positive or negative?

PB: Even though they were uchi deshi together in Japan, there really hasn’t been much communication between them at all here in the United States. They both ran in separate circles and their personal aikido developed in different directions. I’ve never trained in a seminar with Saotome Sensei, although I am friends with a number of his students.

MAYTT: Walker was a pioneer of aikido and the USAF in Florida during his tenure there. How much contact did you have with him when you first arrived in the Sunshine State and as your dojo began to grow?

PB: Doc was the leader of aikido in Florida when I first moved here. He was in Central Florida while I was in South Florida, so we didn’t see each other that often. However, we made plenty of road trips up to Titusville for weekend seminars and he always supported our seminars and Winter Camps over the years. We also went with him and a group of other students to Iceland where he taught a seminar which was a lot of fun. There are lots of crazy stories and good memories from those times.

MAYTT: That sounds like it was an adventure! Could you tell us a few of those memories from Iceland? How did you find yourself joining Walker on that trip?

PB: It was a really fun trip. We got to visit the volcanic black sand beaches. It was really cool because it had snowed, and you had this stark black and white landscape. I remember we took some sand home. We also did a demonstration/class with the Icelandic Judo Team. These guys were strong. I got swept by one of them in an irimi nage and I thought my teeth would fall out when I hit the mat. [Laughs] Just a really great experience.

MAYTT: Besides those already mentioned, who do you feel helped propagate and solidify aikido in Florida? What was it about these individuals that stood out from their contemporaries?

PB: Many people have come and gone over the years, and we have many great instructors here in Florida today. I can’t name everyone but as a pioneer, Nelson Andujar has had a big and lasting impact on aikido in Miami. Both Miami Aikikai and Gold Coast Aikikai are now run by his former students, and they have well established dojos today with many excellent students.

MAYTT: You currently sit on the USAF Technical Committee. How did you come to assume the position and how do you feel what you and the others on the committee are doing to further the evolution and practice of aikido?

PB: After Mitsunari Kanai Sensei passed away, Yamada Sensei, along with Seiichi Sugano Sensei, expanded the USAF Technical Committee to include American Shihan. The original group was Harvey Konigsburg, Clyde Takeguchi, Claude Berthiaume, Donovan Waite and myself. Later Bob Zimmermann, Andy Demko, Steve Pimsler and, most recently, my wife Penny were added. Donovan has sadly passed away and Clyde and Bob have left the organization. I think the main purpose of the Technical Committee is to support the efforts of Yamada Sensei to promote aikido here in the US and internationally within the Sansuikai [Yamada’s European organization]. We act as advisers to Yamada Sensei, teach seminars, conduct Yudansha examinations, and act as mentors and advisers for senior instructors within the USAF. We are not reinventing the wheel here. We try to present aikido in the traditional manner in which we were taught by our Sensei as well as foster good relations with Hombu Dojo and the other international aikido organizations.

MAYTT: Final question. Since your time in Florida, how have you seen aikido grow in the state? How has the art fared in recent years, given the general perception and the pandemic?

PB: Aikido has grown a lot in Florida over the years. There are over thirteen USAF dojos and affiliates here, and many dojos of other organizations as well. The pandemic hit everybody hard. First, we were completely closed for three months. Then social distancing protocols and masks made it difficult to practice in a normal way. We all had to get creative in the way we conducted socially distanced classes using weapons and different ways of training aiki movement. We are almost back to normal now. Most of our senior students have returned and we are getting a lot of new students as well. I think the pandemic made many people reflect on their lives and now want to make some positive changes. Aikido can be one of those positive changes that help people lead a more fulfilling life.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about your experience!

PB: It was my pleasure.

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