Interview with Longtime Aikidoka Kirk Scott: Aikido of Tamalpais

This interview was originally conducted in the fall of 2020, as the first of many planned interviewed within an organizational project. Kirk Scott first started out in Koei Kan karate-do until he needed a break from training after the injuries he sustained. He later found aikido and has continued with it ever since. Today, Scott took some time today to talk about the dojo he helps run, Aikido of Tamalpais, under the leadership of Wendy Palmer.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Kirk Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about Aikido of Tamalpais!

Kirk Scott: It is my pleasure to be here, and I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: What led you to take up aikido? Were there specific aspects of the art you found intriguing compared to other martial arts of the time?

Kirk Scott practicing his tameshigiri. Source: Aikido of Tamalpais.

KS: I started in Koei Kan Karate-Do when I was ten years old, specifically because of Bruce Lee (I was a huge fan of the Green Hornet). I trained in karate until I was eighteen years old, and by that time had received enough injuries that I really needed to take a break from training. During this break, I looked at a few different practices and found aikido to be a good balance of spiritual training, physical conditioning, and martial arts inquiry. You could say that you were spiritual and still could rough it up a bit. I did find it to be very therapeutic and found that old injuries seemed to heal up on their own – I think this was partly due to the stretching one receives while being pinned.

MAYTT: What influenced you to begin teaching martial arts? Was it something you always wanted to do, even before you began aikido? When you teach, what do you feel is the most important facet or concept students should take away during one of your classes?

KS: I began teaching because my teacher would ask me to cover a class for her once in a while. Mostly it was because I kept showing up to train and others that had been teaching left for one reason or another.

When I teach, I try to balance the class between some physical conditioning, basic waza (or test preparation), and principle training in connection, balance, and posture. The most important concept for me is the examination of protection of our attacker and the implications that has in confronting our ego. I think that the dedicated practice of aikido can lead to insights that allow us to release attachment to many aspects of our ego, which conceal our true nature.

MAYTT: Guiding and nurturing future instructors is vital to aikido, let alone any martial art. How does your dojo address developing new and upcoming instructors? What makes an instructor good and does anyone from your instructional team possess some of those qualities?

KS: We have teacher training classes from time to time. However, I’m not a fan; I think that every class is a teacher training class if you are really paying attention, rather than training selfishly, and simply thinking of classes as a conduit for personal achievement. Students should pay attention to what is being highlighted inside of the technique, rather than focusing on the techniques. One must learn the lessons that the teacher is trying to impart – like connection, harmony, integrity, kindness, and mindfulness. If you learn these lessons, you will be able to run a class, and if your teacher is not trying to emphasize these lessons, find another teacher.

MAYTT: That is an interesting take on teaching! Could you tell us a little history about Aikido of Tamalpais; how did it come about and what was its original purpose and goals for its creation? How have you kept true to that purpose and goals as time and society continued forward?

KS: Our dojo founders are as follows:

Wendy Palmer, rokudan, began training in 1971. She was drawn to the beauty and power of aikido and recognized the practice as a path to increase empowerment and love. She is the creator of Leadership Embodiment, a profound approach to personal and professional development using embodied practices. She has been teaching classes and workshops in Conscious Embodiment for over thirty years. Wendy is author of three books: Leadership Embodiment: How the Way We Sit and Stand Can Change the Way We Think and Act; The Intuitive Body: Discovering the Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment; and Aikido and The Practice of Freedom: Aikido Principles as a Spiritual Guide. She offers coaching in embodied leadership for individuals, groups, and teams. Her clients include Genentech, Daimler Chrysler, Oracle, McKinsey, NASA, Pfizer, Old Navy, Hewlett Packard, and John F. Kennedy University. Leadership Embodiment draws on the traditions of aikido – and mindfulness practice – to offer simple yet profound techniques that help illuminate how the mind and body habitually react to pressure, and to access more skillful and unified responses.

Richard Strozzi-Heckler, shihan, began aikido in 1972 and is a student of Mitsugi Saotome Sensei and Frank Doran Sensei, he is Head Instructor and Founder of Two Rock Dojo, Co-Founder of Tamalpais Aikido Dojo, and Co-Founder of Training Across Borders (TAB) and the MidEast Aikido Project (MAP).  He serves on the board of directors of the Aikido Ethiopia Project and is a founding member of the board of directors of Aikido for Veterans and Families. He has also studied judo, jiujitsu, capoeira, and kali.

George Leonard (1923-2010) While serving as senior editor for Look magazine (1953-1970), he won an unprecedented eleven national awards for education writing. His coverage of the Civil Rights Movements (praised in the February 10, 2003 New Yorker) contributed to Look receiving the first National Magazine Award in 1968. His harrowing 7,000-mile journey around the Soviet border with photographer Paul Fusco just after the Berlin Wall went up provided the first reportage showing that the Iron Curtain was an actual barrier of barbed wire, mine fields, and watch towers rather than a mere figure of speech.

We’re still sort of a hippy dojo, by the way. [Laughs]

MAYTT: Upon becoming the head of your own school, how did that experience change your perspective on aikido and training as a whole?

KS: I’m not head of the school, there are several of us that run it. Wendy Palmer Sensei is our teacher, and my partners are Greg Owens and Dolano Arthur. There are also many folks that have been integral to keeping the dojo open over the last couple of years, teaching classes, and supporting the kids’ program, and generally being awesome.

MAYTT: In the years at your dojo, has there been any interesting facts or small tidbits that makes your dojo standout from other schools in your area? If so, what would be something that only someone who practice there would know?

KS: We we’re lucky to have many shihan come through for seminars over the years. Especially Hiroshi Ikeda Shihan and Saotome Shihan, who would visit the dojo often. Even Steven Seagal trained there back in the 80s. It was sort of a hippy dojo, with lots of interesting characters. Of course, Terry Dobson, Frank Doran Shihan, and Robert Nadeau Shihan were big influences on my teachers who originally founded the dojo.

MAYTT: With the recent effects of the global pandemic hitting all types of businesses, how has you and your dojo responded to the international crisis? Additionally, how have you addressed new students joining your classes, both in-person and virtual, if at all?

KS: Wendy Sensei has done lots of Zoom classes, and we have done outdoor weapons classes. Many people have worked very hard to keep the dojo running. We have such a wonderful community that we’ve had very few people leave the dojo over the last year, even though we didn’t offer classes for many months. Our kids program director, Dolano, was especially tireless in her efforts to safely keep her classes running, as well as organizing a safe summer camp.

MAYTT: It is amazing how much the school has kept itself going! During this global crisis, many training habits had to changed or modified to accommodate the “new norm.” How have you continued your own personal training and what advice would you give to those who are struggling to upkeep their own training habits?

KS: I took a little break, after thirty years of training, which was very nice. Personally, I work in health care and was quite busy this year, so I might not have been able to train much either way. Since everyone has been vaccinated, we’ve been training inside with masks for almost a year now, which has been fantastic. A lot of people like the Zoom classes, but it’s not for me. My only advice would be to keep raining

MAYTT: With many businesses and other consumer-based experiences turning towards virtual or contact-free experiences, what does the future of aikido look like? Will physical, in-person classes return in full zeal, or will they become a thing of the past, being overtaken by the new norm of virtual experiences?

KS: There will always be a need for person-to-person contact in order to develop in aikido, but that can be used in conjunction with online or solitary practice, like weapons; or something like chi kung, or yoga, hiking, meditation, archery, or hundreds of other daily practices that develop the mind and body. However, only in person-to-person contact can you practice protecting your attacker, this is fundamental to personal growth, and confronting one’s ego.

MAYTT: Final question. Who do you feel was most influential in your training from a “sensei” standpoint? What valuable lesson did they teach to you that carried the most weight and had the heaviest impact on your training?

KS: I remember a long time back when my teacher George had lost one of his adult children to cancer, after a long and painful battle with the disease. He would cry before classes, but then he would stand up straight as an arrow and get out on the mat to lead our training. He told me that when he would get depressed, he would practice his posture, even though he wanted to give in to his grief, he could still move forward and be of service to others.

Wendy Palmer Sensei and Ikeda Shihan are my most influential teachers, both on and off the mat. They embody kindness and patience, which are two things the world needs now more than ever. I feel as close to them as my family, and they have both been like second parents to me. I’m lucky to have had many wonderful teachers, like the Richard Heckler, and the late George Leonard, Kevin Choate, and Steven Ives, as well.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and taking the time to discuss aikido!

KS: Thank you for having me!

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

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