Interview with Aikido of Madison Cofounders Robin Cooper and John Stone: Their Journey Through Aikido and Beyond, Part I

Both Robin Cooper and John Stone started aikido at the same time, beginning their study in a dojo affiliated with Akira Tohei. After moving to California in the late 1970s, both of them trained with a variety of aikidoka and schools, ranging from Frank Doran, Bob Bryner, Bob Nadeau, and Bill Witt, to LA Aikikai and Ki Society Schools. It was not until 1977 that they both encountered Mitsugi Saotome, changing the course of their aikido for decades to come. The pair moved back to Wisconsin in 1980, teaching aikido at the University of Wisconsin club and later opening their Aikido of Madison in 1984. Today, the pair discuss what their training was like, receiving a nanadan promotion, publishing a book, and the future of aikido. This is the first part of a three part interview. This is the first part of a three part interview. View the second part here and third part here. All images provided by Robin Cooper and John Stone.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Cooper and Stone Sensei! We are glad to have you both here!

Robin Cooper: Thank you for having us and we are honored to be here.

John Stone: Thank you. We’ll help you in any way that we can.

MAYTT: Both of you began training in 1974. How and where did you come to find aikido at the time? At what point did you know that aikido was going to be a large part of your lives?

JS: I was studying Tibetan at the university and my Tibetan teacher mentioned that he’d seen this martial art film, which I eventually saw, with O-Sensei tossing people around – that was the way he described it. I said that sounds interesting and I just happened to see a poster for an aikido class being given at the university. Robin and I showed up on the first day. It was interesting; the class was put together by a guy who eventually killed robbing a bank to get money to take him to Japan and study aikido there.

RC: Really weird story.

JS: They were an odd pair of guys and we trained with them for a while, but there was a school at the YWCA that we found out about, and we transferred over there. It was started by Clyde Takeguchi Sensei, who is now in Washington, D.C. I think he started the year before, in 1973 or 1972. Michael Friedl started there.

RC: Michael Friedl was probably Clyde’s top, most senior student. They were instrumental in bringing aikido to Madison, Wisconsin. That was great; we were very lucky. What happened was we were at the Red Gym, which was where the initial classes were.

JS: It was at the natatorium [indoor swimming pool].

RC: Yes, it was. These folks were showing up who were yellow belts and blue belts – oh my god, they were really advanced! But they were really nice, and they had a little different way of training. We thought the guy teaching the class was kind of weird, so we left before all the craziness happened, thank goodness. But we were very lucky to have the opportunity to train under Bill Holvenstot, who took over for Clyde; he had trained with Clyde as well. And old judoka too. They all started in judo. [Laughs]

JS: He was sankyu at the time. Shodans then, my god, they were gods! [Laughs] At that time, there were so few of them.

The Madison Aikido Club in 1972. Front row, left to right: Bill Holvenstot , Cylde Takeguchi and Ray Kent.

MAYTT: How would you describe the training you experienced when you first started at both the initial school club and at the YWCA?

RC: Well, there weren’t a lot of women, and we had a lot of ex-judoka, so it was a little bit –

JS: Big guys. A lot of them.

RC: [Laugh] That’s right; a lot of big guys – big ex-servicemen guys, who were very nice people, but it was kind of rough. It was definitely rough. I mean, I wasn’t taught how to fall – neither of us were – I was just thrown. That kind of thing. But they were cheerful, and they loved aikido, and they were really sweet people and that kind of pulled us along. They helped open the aikido world to us.

JS: It wasn’t that different from training we’ve seen at many other places.

RC: Like the LA Aikikai, the Nisei Men’s Club as I call it. [Laughs]

JS: We’d do a technique, and we would work on it. And then we would do another technique [Laughs] and we would try to understand. Akira Tohei Sensei was the shihan at the time and he would come up from Chicago and we would have a class, work on the stuff that he showed us. That’s kind of how it worked. There was nothing unusual about the training.

RC: There was not a lot of attention to some of the more inner principles of aikido. They may be expressed, but they were expressed totally physically. They weren’t studied. We didn’t study musubi – we studied the techniques.

JS: Yeah. We studied the techniques.

MAYTT: I see. How have you seen aikido change and evolve in America since you began? Did they shift from technique to the finer points or are they still focusing on the technique?

RC: Depends on where you go. I think there is that very traditional training going on: studying the technique, do it four times; just the refinement of repetitious practice. But we see across, certainly across the United States and a fair amount in Europe as well, a burgeoning interest in something more – something deeper. Something what I would call principles or essentials of aikido that is and are coming into practice much more than when we first started, except when we met Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, who blew my head off. [Laugh] In 1977, it’s the first time that I ever saw embodied principles and not teach technique. And it was really startling.

JS: It’s certainly that our teaching changed. I became less and less interested, personally, in technique as time went on. I became more and more interested in the internal part. I think that’s just the natural progression that happens to everyone in the art to technique. You lose interest in technique. Technique becomes uninteresting and you become more interested in what we are doing here – what are the principles behind everything? That’s what we both pursued more and more as the years went on.

Robin Cooper, Hiroshi Ikeda, and John Stone posing in their Aikido of Madison in the 1980s.

RC: And as we train around the country – like we train with Aikido Shimbokukai, Lisa Tomoleoni Sensei or Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei, who, of course, we’ve trained with for a long time – Santa Cruz, California or New Hampshire, we just seeing people having a much broader interest in aikido, the context of community, of more than just the martial aspect, which is important, but it’s bigger.

JS: That was really our motivation from the very beginning – we wanted to understand what was at the heart of aikido. Of course, we had to understand the technique; we had to learn technique first. And for a long time, for myself, I had a hard time understanding the relationship between the techniques, the way that we trained them, and what I was reading about what aikido was supposed to be. It took me a long time for me to reconcile that because as Robin said, early on, it was all technique; everything was technique and there really wasn’t talk about principles or the principles were embodied in a given technique. I was always wondering, “How do you stuff when you don’t know what’s going to happen, when we always knew what the technique and our response was going to be?” That’s the question I asked myself, “What am I supposed to do when I don’t know what’s going to happen?”

RC: I think it was very serendipitous; we moved to California. John was teaching at UCLA and in that move, it opened up a whole new world to us. For me, it was Mary Heiny Sensei. the first time I saw her in 1977, again, kind of blew the top of my head off. And then Saotome Sensei that same year. Those two individuals were so instrumental in changing the course of the aikido training that I was used to.

JS: We met a guy named Bob Bryner who was Mr. Martial Arts. he had degrees in judo, karate, aikido, kendo – I don’t know what else he knew.

RC: Bagua. He had black belts – advanced degrees – in many arts.

JS: So, he also opened our eyes to how aikido fits into the martial arts world and he would bring all of his training when he taught. I studied more intensely than Robin did, particularly for two years.

RC: I was training in two dojos. I was training in LA Aikikai and with Bob Bryner.

JS: And Bob was associated with Saotome Sensei, which we didn’t realize. He brought Saotome Sensei out to Santa Monica. We had seen him earlier at San Rafael summer camp through the Northern California Aikido Association. They had a seminar here and they invited Saotome Sensei in 1977 and we saw him, met him, and he came down and taught in this little dojo when we were training.

RC: He also taught at LA Aikikai, which is the oldest dojo in the mainland in the United States.

MAYTT: Wow.

RC: 1956 they started. Weirdly, I was the first woman to receive a shodan in that dojo. And that was 1977. It was pretty pitiful. But that’s what it was like. That dojo, there were three women at any given time and thirty men – that would be fantastic. It was very different than it is now. Thank god that we really made a lot of progress.

MAYTT: Since you bring that up, what was the aikido community like in the mid to late 1970s? Was it, at that point, a large, thriving, and interconnected community or was it characterized by isolated pockets of aikidoka and schools?

RC: Maybe a little of both. California aikido is kind of different from the rest of the country, to be honest. They, early on, created an organization that honored different lineages from Hombu. So, you have Morihiro Saito Sensei’s lineage, you have O-Sensei, because you had Bill Witt, Frank Doran, and Bob Nadeau. And they all had different lineages and brought a lot of collectivism to aikido and very personal vision. There was an openness in training. We would train all around. We would train with Clem [Yoshida, LA Aikikai], we’d train with Francis Takahashi, we went down to San Diego, and we trained with the Ki Society people. There was definitely more interrelatedness in California than there was elsewhere.

JS: I would have to say that I think it’s much more – there’s a lot more people training, but it’s much more – fragmented. There really weren’t that many divisions – there was Ki Society, which was relatively new and then Hombu. There were some divisions within Hombu, but it wasn’t that big. When we started, Ki Society had just begun in 1974. It was very new. So that division – Ki Society and everybody else – was just starting. There weren’t many Yoshinkai around and there weren’t the divisions that there are now. We were pretty new and gung ho. One of the things that was different was that it was all new – we were all young. There were very few black belts, and we had these inspiring teachers. We were all enthusiastic. I mean, fourth or fifth dan was the highest – Clem Yoshida was fifth dan. People in California, fourth dan was the highest-ranking Americans and the shihans were sixth dan. And they were young; they were in their thirties and forties still. So, we were all young and there weren’t old folks – people like us around. [Laughs]

Cooper demonstrating a pin at Aikido of Madison in 2020.

RC: There were a handful, but not very many.

JS: The old guys were in their fifties.

RC: Mostly from Hawaii where aikido really got a foothold in and then came to the US.

MAYTT: You bring up Ki Society and the split in 1974, and that was a traumatic experience for the aikido world at that time. In the aftermath of all that, how was Ki Society and Koichi Tohei talked about within Aikikai circles?

RC: In California, we still trained with Ki Society. We’d go down there. Some of their students would come up to our seminars. There wasn’t any kind of an issue. It was kind of grumbled around. Doshu Kisshomaru and Tohei had a different vision. It was a different flavor and people who wanted the real martial stuff didn’t like this and vice versa, and there was that kind of friction of, “That’s not really aikido.” But most of the students kind of didn’t pay attention to that, [Laughs] to be honest. Like, “Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”

JS: There was some of that. I felt that the Ki Society people were trying to convince others that their stuff was the better way.

RC: And then other people were trying to convince the others. It was all just confusing at times. Saotome Sensei was very good about it, “It’s all aikido. Train wherever you want, whomever you want. Invite anyone when you want to. It’s your dojo. It’s all good. And if you find somebody you like better, that’s fine.” Saotome Sensei used to say to us, “I’m not worried.” And that was a great message and also something that he transmitted to us too, there was a split between Saotome Sensei and USAF, and he said, “It’s not your argument. So, you train wherever you want, wherever you want. This is not your argument. It’s my argument, not yours.” And I thought that was a great message, that he did not want that to carry onto the students and say, “You can’t train here,” or “You can’t train with so-and-so,” or “They can’t come here.” He was very clear that that was not what he wanted. I really appreciated that.

JS: We had an experience of a rift here in Madison. We trained in California until 1979 or 1980 and when we came back, we started teaching at the university. I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, and we started teaching at the university club and we wanted to train with the other group, which was associated with Tohei Sensei, the YWCA club, but Tohei Sensei would not acknowledge us, and he would not allow his students to train with us. So, we started to experience that sense of schism there, which spread throughout aikido in various forms over the years. People breaking away from each other. At the time, I was struck by the parallels of what was happening in aikido and early Christianity. Constantly forming sects and you’re not doing the true teachings or not following the true gospel; you’re not following the way Jesus or O-Sensei taught us. It was fascinating to watch that, and it was all around us. Are you doing it the true way? It was a fascinating development. And it has continued, more and more, divisions and sects and arguments about what’s the true way to do it.

RC: That’s what I mean about why I like your chronicle! [Laughs] Again, we’re just doing aikido. Everybody’s welcome. Anybody can come. We won’t tell anybody that you’re not supposed to be here; we’ll never out you. [Laughs] Everyone’s welcome. And that’s worked pretty well for us, decades.

MAYTT: That’s good. And it’s also great how you found a teacher that embodies the same principles too.

RC: He said, “It’s your dojo!” [Laughs] “It’s not my dojo; it’s your dojo.”

MAYTT: Since you bring that up; on the website, you describe your dojo as “inclusive” and “family style.” What do those words mean to you and how have you implemented them as dojo policies and practices?

RC: For me, personally, I spent my whole career working with people with disabilities – I retired a few years ago – and to me, inclusion for everyone really means for everyone. And that includes people with intellectual disabilities, mental disabilities, physical disabilities, or PTSD, or whatever human beings experience. At the dojo, we can accommodate and work with people wherever they are, whether they are old, young, injured, flexible, if we can toss them across the room or I can’t, it doesn’t matter. If you bring sincerity to your practice, we will find a way to make aikido available to you. That’s one thing about inclusion, and it also has to do with diversity; it has to do with people of color; it has to do with LGBTQ+. For example, in our dojo, we have a gender-neutral dressing area – we have gendered dressing rooms and gender-neutral dressing rooms. Our bathrooms are gender-neutral. Just, inclusion is a courtesy to humans; it’s a respect and we really try to embody that in how we support people in the dojo. The thing that I say, disabilities or limitations is a fantastic teacher and having limitations in your own life teaches us and also having people with limitations come to us teaching us to listen, to pay attention, to be present, to customize, or whatever needs to happen. And there’s a bottom line saying if you can’t appropriately manage yourself in a way that comports with the ethics and the behavior that we expect, we’ll work with you to a point and then this may not be the right place for you.

JS: That didn’t happen very often, but it was important for both of us, so we created a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. We didn’t want to create a situation where people were favored.

RC: Dojo pets.

Stone (right) demonstrating a technique at Aikido of Madison.

JS: We didn’t want a core of intensely dedicated people and then everybody else. We wanted it to be where anyone who comes is welcomed, we’re friends, we’re Americans. We had hierarchy; we had respect and we treated each other well, but we’re Americans. We didn’t want to create artificial divisions or try to imitate something that wasn’t ours.

RC: The other expectation too is that we have about nine to ten classes a week – we’ve had that for a long time. If you can come to a lot of them, great! If you can’t, great! [Laughs] It’s okay. If your life is having two little kids, you have a job, and all this other stuff, you come twice a week? Fantastic!

JS: It was always our understanding that life comes first. Aikido does not come first. Your life comes first. That’s always been. We never wanted people choosing aikido over seeing their family.

RC: So that’s really important too. That’s what we mean by family friendly. We also have a price scale. We have reduced rates for family members, so we really try to make it successful and available for people. We also have no contract or any of that stuff; you just come, pay your dues, and come as often as you wish. That’s that.

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

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

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