Interview with Sunday Morning Keiko Founder Rick Hotton: Karate, Aikido, and Body Intelligence, Part II

Rick Hotton began training Shotokan Karate in the early 1970s, being one of the youngest practitioners to join the dojo. After taking responsibility for the dojo he once trained in, curiosity led him to aikido pioneer Mitsugi Saotome, who, to Hotton, is his best karate teacher. Today, Hotton discusses his karate journey, how Saotome influenced his karate, and how Hotton is making aspects of karate a spiritual/metaphysical training. This is the second part of the three part interview. Read the first part here and the third part here.

MAYTT: Given your time in both karate and aikido, what are your views on cross training in the martial arts? How beneficial do you feel cross training is for the average martial artist?

Rick Hotton. Source: Hombu Dojo Karate.

RH: I definitely think at this point in my training, cross training has been extremely helpful. I would imagine a little confusing in the very beginning if you’re trying to pursue two arts at exactly the same time, especially coming at it from a beginner’s point of view. But, at some point, I try not to think of this or that of it. I don’t think of karate being one thing and aiki being another thing. I think of it really as body intelligence, I guess you could say, and broadening the amplitude of what I can experience and what I can be available for the moment. Of course, karate has a very succinct, staccato dynamic to it but aiki is a feeling of more connection. I think that this is almost like the yin and yang – the left hemisphere of our brain and the right hemisphere of our brain. For me, what you really want to, like what Karl Young said, is to have a balance of those two things. That is what I have found in my practice is that Saotome Sensei has been my best karate teacher just because of how that influence has informed my karate. When folks look for an example on the YouTube channel, they say that they recognize that it’s Shotokan, but there’s something different going on there. I think that something different is partly that. It’s a little more amorphic, it’s not structured, it’s a little more feeling-based as opposed to by the numbers.

I think, absolutely, at some point, you should go beyond your gateway art that got you into your practice and craft your practice with different dimensions. I think that’s a thing I’ve been thinking a lot about – the entity of “your practice;” what is that? I think that a lot of people passively sit back and kind of let the dojo, sensei, or the institution dictate what that experience is, but I don’t think that’s where the experience comes from. It’s driven most by your internal narrative and the kind of quality questions you’re asking yourself. I would say that’s a huge part of it. I think that’s sort of how you have to develop it. You have to continuously expand your sphere – you don’t want to get stuck in the same space. I can be something as practical as when I started hanging out with the aikido folks and started uke-ing for Saotome Sensei – I just couldn’t take any ukemi. This was a skill that I absolutely didn’t have, and I’ve trained karate for thirty-some years, and I’ve got this awful missing link. That was a bit of a rude awakening. So, it can be something as simple as an aspect of your practice you’d like to sure-up. But I would say, in the long run, it is much more subtle than that. I would say that the way aiki is approached – the method of approaching that practice – is way different than approaching a karate practice. And all the subtlety and nuances of that you can bring into your practice at some level. And like I said, I don’t really think of it as karate or aiki – it’s just like body wisdom or being available for the moment-ness.

MAYTT: When you started aikido, you were already the head of a school and trained karate for a good number of years. When do you feel the average martial artist should start cross training?

RH: I think you would need to have a little bit of a foothold in something. I even had this conversation with Saotome Sensei; it’s not quite the same as the cross training but, he says to me, “Rick. No more form.” I would say no more form is cross training. It’s like going outside of your orthodoxy and going into something else. I would answer him, “Beginning people need some sort of structure to hold on to and engage certain principles.” Once those principles are internalized, then you can go into that no form aspect. But he won’t have any of that. He’s like, “No, don’t do that.” But I think, in my sense of it, you need to really have some base practice. The time in that base practice? I don’t know, maybe up to shodan level. Like, train for five or six years and develop that practice to the point where it doesn’t feel separate from you. I think there comes a point in your training where it’s not this artifice where you’re molding yourself around; it’s kind of who you are. The movement is natural and instructive, and you feel that.

I think you have to be in that place – gaining ownership even though you may not be the world’s best at that. You’re sort of in that vibe of that practice, and you understand the moving mechanisms behind karate practice. When you step into a stance, you really don’t have to think about stepping into that stance – you just know exactly how that feels. It’s hard for me to remember back because it’s been fifty-some years I’ve been practicing, but let’s say seven to ten years, maybe. Like you really develop that. You’re already shodan level and then I think you can start to move beyond that and start to explore. You have this superstructure that you attach these other concepts to and it’s basically building a sculpture. You got to have some basic shape going first and then you can refine the nuance that is attached to it. That may be different for different people. Some people may be analytical in their thinking and may need to train much longer in one particular style. I tend to be all over the place. My mantra is “Everything is everything.” I live very in the right hemisphere of my brain so maybe it was easier for me to assimilate that. Even when I was practicing with aiki people, they asked if I was going to become an aikidoka. I said, “I don’t think of it that way.” I’m just adding more feeling to my repertoire. I purposely don’t make a distinction because when you draw these discrete units or blocks saying that this is karate or this is aiki, it’s very difficult for this ability to cross-inform these ideas to find some sort of muse between them. Spend a little time learning one first.

I think a really interesting conversation would be just based on, what is a practice? I don’t think people really sit down and think about how they are presenting themselves. What are the qualities of questions that I am asking myself? What is my regime and what is my training? Am I learning to see, say, metaphor and learning to take concepts I learn in this aspect and extrapolate it in another aspect? Because I think those faculties have to be practiced just like technique has to be practiced in order to see in bigger and bigger generalities. That’s not something that happened right away. You have to train your brain to see that way.

MAYTT: Who would you consider to be influential in your karate training from a sensei standpoint? What lesson really resonated with you from this sensei?

RH: I try to learn from everybody, from beginner to the highest ranked person in the room. I try to find the inspiration in what most people would consider the mundane things. When a beginner walks into the dojo and has this joy and enthusiasm about them, I become inspired by that. I’ll get this need to feel that again like I did when I was a beginner first walking into the dojo. I want to have that feeling and inspiration. I try to extract meaning from everybody that I meet or see, even if it’s the wrong thing to do. It’s a lesson in what not to do. Even from nature I’ll take inspiration; I can take a walk through nature and notice how the wind goes through the trees, the leaves, the grass, and nature, and learn something from that. I’ll take away something from that experience. All this helps you open up your perception around you and in that observation, find meaning that you can use or relate to.

Hotton explaining the intricacies of a principle. Source: Shotokan Karate Magazine.

Soatome Sensei has been my best karate teacher, despite being primarily an aikido instructor. He has provoked me to think outside the lens and confines of karate. He would say to me, “No more form.” And he’s right. You learn a structure to ultimately liberate yourself from that structure. The structure is only the beginning. Bruce Lee even said that martial artists are too concerned about the lines of their style and art. Saotome Sensei is a powerful teacher, pushing me in the right direction and into a new neck of the woods to think about things. To him, there is no such thing as style. He would ask, “What style breathing do you have?” Upon further pondering, no one has a concern about the style of how they breathe – they just breathe. Same thing with the martial arts – you just do. That’s a life experience from the right hemisphere perspective of the brain. People give labels to love, and there are thousands of ways to love, but how do you explain love? It has to be felt.

Structure is required, especially in the beginning to understand your own body intelligence, and this is where the left hemisphere of the brain serves a purpose. Structure is required but the left hemisphere serves purpose. Carl Jung said that the best scenario is when the two approaches are in balance. While this applies to the martial arts, it can be applied to your own daily perspective off the mat. Viewing the planet as an organism; a living, breathing thing that we are all a part of would probably serve us well given the increased harm we as beings have done to it. We used science to control the environment around us to make it more suitable and advantageous for ourselves. I think we’ve learned too much in that direction and we now need more balance and connection with ourselves and with the planet. For me, I would like to have some effect on this giant metadrama happening outside the dojo, but I first have to find my own balance and connection within myself. I am looking for that in my dojo so that I may have a positive effect on the outside world.

MAYTT: When did you establish your Sunday Morning Keiko (SMK) community and how have you seen it grow since its inception? How did current members first find out about your community?

RH: It’s funny because I’m an introvert by nature; I’m not looking for fame or anything like that. I’m just really focused on what I’m doing. But in 2014, a student of mine suggested I put some of what I was teaching on YouTube. I was initially resistant because I don’t want to be talking to the camera and telling people directly that this is what you need or have to do. I was later persuaded when my student mentioned that they would film my instruction in a fly on the wall perspective, so I didn’t have to talk to the camera. We posted some videos on the channel and it got some traction, which led to some amazing teaching opportunities in Canada, Ireland, North America, and all sorts of places. I just went off and taught and that was a fun experience.

I’m not sure if this is the same or more so in the aikido world, but while I was on my teaching travels, I recognized a lot of politics and politicking in karate. When I would go out to a place, only certain people from certain communities and organizations would come and participate. I don’t really have much affiliation but still, all these karateka from different organizations came to my seminars. People would always be surprised if and when other karateka from outside their own organizations and that stumped me. My sense was that all these people who came out were great people, but they did not have a common platform to land outside their own organization, mainly because of the politics. I wanted to form a community to allow these people to maintain their affiliations but have a meeting ground that was outside the usual organizations or associations. I wanted the common voice to be heard and have the opportunity to be heard outside the sphere of politics. That was sort of the genesis of what became Sunday Morning Keiko.

I didn’t want to offer rank or anything like that. I’m fifth dan and people have offered me rank but I didn’t want it because Gichin Funakoshi’s rank was fifth dan – I don’t need any more. I feel that rank is the way to someone’s ego, and it’ll make them stay for superficial reasons. I wanted to move away from the ego and move to something where the collective has a voice, but it’s not only reserved for the top of the hierarchy or where that top person wants to go. It’s really a look at how a village raises the next generation. That’s a novel idea on how to build community and I think that’s the only sane way to do it. The voices at the head of the organizations will be heard, but at SMK, everyone can contribute. We collectively engage in a conversation for personal growth. This is a way for practitioners to access creativity and experience training and practice with the politics of rank. There is a better way than revolving around rank

Right now, we have over six hundred members. We also have a lot of aikido people and people outside of the Shotokan world. I incorporate the “outsiders” so they may say their inquiry and be inspired by what they have to say. Again, sidestepping that political view that one style is better or above another.

When I was teaching in Norway, the four teachers there, including myself, were talking. One of them turned to me and asked me, “What are you trying to be? A guru?” I said he was missing the point; everyone gets to be their own guru. People need to find their own voice. We have one life, and we should step into that, wrap the practice around that idea, and learn from anyone. I always say to find your own karate. In the karate world, that’s a heretical comment. What do I mean by that? Every teacher that you admire has their own karate. They are a product of personal inquiry and physical abilities. In Shotokan, there are two great teachers, Hidetaka Nishiyama and Tetsuhiko Asai, and they are so different from each other. Asai had these big, sweeping movements in his karate while Nishiyama was very to the point, stiff, and reductionist; how to get from point A to B with the least amount of movement. And all of these differences were based on their bodies and the way they moved. Both are equally genius. That personalized approach really makes authentic practice. Dial in that inquiry and make that as a tool to find your own karate. In time, they’ll realize that they want to do their own karate in the end. Do karate just like you; you build your own karate.

I put my antenna out there to see pieces of the puzzle come in to ultimately build this puzzle. It’s like my psyche is unconsciously moving into uncharted territory. There’s a quote that I recall that a free bird always flies up. It’s like my life consciousness is expanding and feeling what is the unknown out. And I make myself available to that. I open myself up to that connection and really look at that thing and bring that into my practice. This is my puzzle that I constructed for myself, so you should construct your own puzzle so you may realize that connection. This is how I approach my practice and keep myself motivated. Like any practice, craft, or skill, it’s about the quality of engagement and from that engagement, find new approaches and perspectives on that practice.

A Sunday Morning Keiko seminar. Source: Sunday Morning Keiko.

MAYTT: Who would you consider having pioneered karate in both Florida and in the United States as a whole? What actions or methods made these individuals stand out from their contemporaries?

RH: To some degree, some people become pioneers for being in the right place and at the right time. With me, I was a member of the United States Karate Association under Robert Trias for twenty some years and had about 100,000 members, until his passing. Trias trained karate and martial arts in the Solomon Islands during the Second World War. If I remember right, he opened the first American karate dojo in Phoenix, Arizona, so he definitely was a pioneer in that regard.

The JKA, around this time too, recognized that karate was going to be a worldwide activity, so they introduced an instructor’s degree program. This was a two-to-four-year intensive program that would prepare Japanese instructors to teach and spread karate around the world. You had Hirokazu Kanazawa in the United Kingdom, Nishiyama on the West Coast, Teruyuki Okazaki on the East Coast, and Okizami in Louisiana. All this was a way to propagate karate to a larger audience. It was like with Saotome Sensei in Sarasota then to Washington, D.C. He wanted to spread O-Sensei’s message to everyone. He and the karateka I mentioned planted themselves in the correct places in cosmopolitan areas. There was a specific design to it, but I still feel that those we consider pioneers were at the right place at the right time.

MAYTT: Many inside and outside of karate have criticized its heavy-handed need for standardization, specifically Shotokan. Do you feel that this emphasis on standardization hurts modern karate and, if so, how? If not, what do you think is hurting or detracting from modern karate?

RH: I think it is a double-edge sword with standardization. The purpose of Shotokan standardization was to spread the art to other places and people in mind, so it would be best to have everyone speak the same martial language. If you were to travel to India, Nicaragua, or anywhere else, we’re all doing the same movements and kata. Sometimes when I go out for vacation, I’ll bring my dogi and train there, and I can immediately know exactly what they are doing because we all have this common language that we can use to communicate with each other. The orthodoxy further researches that standard to make it better and keeps it intact, which is good because having high standards is good. However, this doesn’t lead you to the concept of shuhari, where you first learn the tradition, then you move with that tradition, and ultimately transcend the tradition. It should be every martial artist’s ambition to go beyond just the tradition. This should be the ultimate objective for every martial artist; to liberate themselves from the tradition and give to the next generation what they have learned. Saotome Sensei would say to me, “No more form.” From the little things he says to me, I can tell Saotome Sensei lives in the liberation realm. The standardization is to help spread things and get it to more people but to fully understand the essence or material, one has to transcend that standardization. There needs to be a balance in those two things.

With their standardization, the JKA went into the testing labs and studied the physics of the movements, much like how a swimming coach would do. There was a lot of study in proper body mechanics, resulting in some very innovative ways of study and results. My friend once wrote fifty-two reports on techniques with Nishiyama. This research was great information and helped create better practices for karateka. However, I tend to want to move away from robotic karate. Sometimes I feel it’s too rigid, like it’s a type of artifact to try and break free from. I recall back in my early years of training, we would supplement our training by learning from books. Each picture was a still of a stance, movement, or position and we would try to get into that almost as quickly as we could. Then we would move onto the next picture and quickly move to that, thinking what we were seeing was everything. We were trying to replicate points in time without any movement. But the reality is, no one ever stops moving. You’ll have the sensei count off, “Ichi! Ni! San!” and pause after every count and movement, but movement is constant. Karate isn’t a stationary thing; the dynamism of the movement is everything. It opens up different questions and refocuses of inquiry, like what is quality movement and not quality stance? In aikido terms, this is the aiki concept that Saotome Sensei talked about because aiki is constantly moving. You want to feel the connection in the moment and move accordingly to that connection.

Standardization and structure serves a purpose, but people get married too tightly to it. That becomes some people’s downfall. I never completely let that structure and standardization go. When I go up and down the floor of the dojo, I crank out my textbook of basics, but I know there is something beyond that. People’s identity becomes married to those basics, that structure, and that standardization. That structure of technique is tied to an organization and that can confine a student. I want to give students the knowledge to fly and experience the liberation that can come from martial arts. Kind of like how parents want their children to become self-sufficient and not rely solely on the parents. This perspective can be placed on the martial arts and their organizations.

This is the second part of the three part interview. Read the first part here and the third part here.


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