Interview with Athens Ohio Ki-Aikido Founder Stan Haehl: Ki-Aikido from Kansas to Ohio, Part I

Stan Haehl heard of aikido before, but it was not until 1978 that he found a class in his small town in Kansas. He first learned the art under Barbra Bloom, then traveled to Boulder, Colorado to train under the Midland Ki Federation head Koichi Kashiwaya, and lastly, under Andrew T. Tsubaki. In 2008, his second time in Athens, Ohio, Haehl established Athens Ohio Ki-Aikido, the only establishment to offer aikido to the local community. As of January 2022, he received his rokudan. Today, Haehl discusses his aikido journey, the differences between Ki-Aikido and other aikido styles, and training under many remarkable instructors. All images provided by Stan Haehl. This is the first part of a two-part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Haehl Sensei! We look forward to our discussion about Ki-Aikido!

Stan Haehl: Thank you for having me! I’m interested in what our conversation will bring!

MAYTT: You first started aikido training in Kansas. How and when did you come to find aikido?

Stan Haehl filling in Daruma’s eye when opening his Athens Ohio Ki-Aikido in 2012.

SH: I first became aware of aikido as a distinct art when I was in high school, and my brother brought home a cheap mass-market little paperback called The Power of Aikido by Claude St. Denise. The cover promised, “More powerful than karate! More deadly than judo!” It was an awful book. St. Denise was the author of several such books about various martial arts, but as far as I have been able to discover he had no real training in aikido; Koichi Tohei Sensei while still the Chief Instructor of the Aikikai, in an interview with Black Belt Magazine I believe, dismissed the book and said St. Denise was “unknown to Hombu” and had no rank or standing in aikido. I soon recognized the book was sensationalized hokum, and that one could never learn such an art from a book, particularly one so poorly executed in conception, writing, and illustration. But I was primed to be on the lookout for aikido.

This was the late 1960s, early 1970s, the era of the Vietnam war, the Hippies, and Civil Rights, and also the Kung Fu TV show, and a wave of interest in judo/karate/kung fu, as well as Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Asian culture in general all over the United States, even in Kansas. I was a long-haired, non-athletic, artsy, anti-war, liberal, guy in conservative Kansas. Feelings ran high; there were stories of people like me being targeted for random attacks. I wanted to feel safe, to feel I could handle myself, defend myself. The book cover promised, “Never be afraid again!” 

Because of these times, and also my personality, I think, I was interested in – not the reality but the popular misconception of – all kinds of martial arts.  However, I was never interested in fighting per se, nor much in competitive/sport aspects – I was interested in the promise of “unbeatable” defense — and also in Japanese culture and spirituality. But I was also busy with my education, doing theatre, lived in a smallish town in Kansas, and didn’t have/didn’t take time to find martial arts training. Within the theatre work, part of my interest was the performance of violence – Stage Combat – which became one of my specialties.

Skip ahead to the later 1970s – I read a book review in the Last Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand of the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Adele Westbrook and Oscar Ratti. Brand made the comment, “If one could learn a martial art from a book – this might be the book.”  He also talked about aikido being a defensive art in which the practitioner would not harm the attacker if possible. This was what I wanted! This resolved the dichotomy between “fighting” and being a peaceful, spiritual person as I saw myself. It took me a long time to find a copy, but my focus on aikido became very specific and sharp.

In 1978, my final year of undergraduate college, ten years after high school graduation, I had spent the Fall semester in New York City doing a theatre internship, and had just returned to Lawrence. I discovered that someone was teaching aikido in the city Parks and Recreation program. Amazing! Fortuitous! [Laughs]

MAYTT: Who was teaching this new program at the Parks and Recreation?

SH: A woman named Barbra Bloom had come to the University of Kansas to head the new Women’s Resource Center. She was an ikkyu student of Shuji Maruyama Sensei in Philadelphia. This was when Maruyama Sensei was still in Ki Society, before he split off and founded the Kokikai style.  After she had come to Lawrence to interview, she was back in Philly and said to Maruyama Sensei, “Sensei, I really want to take this job in Kansas, but there is no aikido group anywhere around there.” Maruyama Sensei told her, “Well, you teach.” She said “I can’t teach! I’m not a black belt.” He replied, “You know more than they will.”

I joined this class in winter of 1978, or January of 1979, and have considered myself an aikido student ever since, even when I couldn’t actively train when too busy with grad school, family, or career.

I feel incredibly lucky that Bloom Sensei was my first teacher and that my first experience was in the Ki Society style. Both aspects fit with my personality and interests. No sport/macho competitiveness; focus on pragmatic defense and Mind/Body connection.

Bloom Sensei stayed in Kansas only a couple years, and along the way, she got her shodan from Maruyama Sensei at a summer camp in Philly. She returned to Philadelphia to pursue her PhD in summer of 1980.

The small group of her students in Kansas, some of us in our fresh fifth kyu yellow belts, said to her, “What can we do if you leave? We want to continue in aikido.” She told us, “Teach. You know more than the new students will.”

MaryAnn Stewart, who was my senior in the group – she had started with Bloom sensei in the Fall of 1978 – was visiting friends in Boulder, Colorado, shortly after Bloom Sensei left Lawrence, and noticed an ad for an aikido sword workshop being held at the Boulder Ki Society dojo. MaryAnn went to visit this workshop and asked the teacher, a Japanese fellow with fifth dan rank – we didn’t realize there were levels of black belt – if he could “send a black-belt student to be our teacher in Lawrence.” He said no, he really couldn’t order Americans to pick up and move like that, and besides, he didn’t feel any of his students were yet ready to lead a dojo. But he also said, “Your teacher was right; you can teach what you know. You are also right; you aren’t ready by yourselves. But if you agree to come to me for training once a year, I will come to you once a year, and I will teach you as teachers.”

This man was Koichi Kashiwaya Sensei, and he proved true to his word, teaching the leaders of the Lawrence group as teachers, and continuing to visit Lawrence once or twice a year until Covid forced a break.

As it happened, I left Lawrence in September of 1980 to attend massage school in Boulder, before Kashiwaya Sensei first visited Lawrence. In Boulder, I started as a student in his dojo, and trained there between September of 1980 and August of 1981 when I graduated from the massage school and returned to Lawrence. What a happy coincidence that was! [Laughs] Back in Lawrence, I became one of the seniors in the Lawrence group, teaching some classes. We self-organized ourselves as a cooperative group, rather than a traditional teacher-student hierarchy; of course, Kashiwaya Sensei was the top when he was in town. Even within that egalitarian model, MaryAnn Stewart was the “first among equals” of the leadership group and I consider her one of my primary sensei. By the way, a few years later, she was the first person in that group, and, as far as we know, in Kansas, to earn shodan in Ki Society while based in Kansas.

Some years later, having moved away for graduate school for my MFA and my teaching career – positions at Ohio University, Washington University, and the University of Alabama – I returned to Lawrence in 1995 for family reasons.

Kashiwaya is seated in the center of the first row; next to him, to his left, is Tsubaki , and Haehl next to him. Front row second from the left is Andrew LeBar, the current Head Instructor of the Lawrence Ki-Aikido dojo. On that end of the first row is Kagan Arik of the University of Chicago Ki-Aikido club. Also in the picture are people from Toronto, and from Houston, as well as Lawrence and Kansas City. Source: Midland Ki Federation.

In that time, MaryAnn had also completed a degree and moved away, and the Kansas Ki Society had come under the leadership of Dr. Andrew T. Tsubaki. Dr. Tsubaki was born in Japan and came to the US in pursuit of advanced education and opportunities. He had come to Lawrence for a job in the Theatre Department of Kansas University. My father was also on the Theatre Faculty, so I had first met Dr. Tsubaki in that context, while I was still in high school. Dr. Tsubaki had studied kendo in high school in Japan, before the War, but had little other budo experience or inclination. In Lawrence, he wanted his American-born sons to experience some aspects of Japanese culture, so they enrolled together in a karate class. The sons continued in that for a while, but Dr. Tsubaki soon dropped out, feeling his knees weren’t up to the repeated high-speed kicks. But he wanted to continue something that touched on his home culture, and he found the aikido group in the Parks & Rec program. This was in the early days of the group, just before I went off to massage school. MaryAnn and I and another student were the “teachers,” still at kyu level, and Kashiwaya Sensei would visit annually. So, Dr. Tsubaki was my kohai in Ki-Aikido for the first several years.

But when I returned in 1995, Dr. Tsubaki had been promoted to sandan or yondan, become the local group leader – the sensei – closed the city Parks and Recs. program, and continued the group as a club at the University. Few of the original city group members were still around. The student leaders of the club were people who had started their aikido journey with Dr. Tsubaki as their sensei, and Kashiwaya Sensei as their distant Chief Instructor.

Also during the time I was away, Kashiwaya Sensei had relocated from Boulder to Kansas City briefly, and then shifted again to Seattle. Seattle remained his base of operations, even though most of “his” dojo were in the midland. He now lives outside Seattle.

I rejoined the Dojo – the Club at KU – and accepted Dr. Tsubaki as my local sensei. I was still Ikkyu, having received that promotion while living in St. Louis and training at the St. Louis Ki Society dojo under Mark Rubbert Sensei. St. Louis was also attached to Kashiwaya Sensei as their Chief Instructor.

It happened that some of the KU Club leaders were about to graduate, and University regulations would make it difficult to continue without a university connection. These guys – Andrew LeBar, Chris Jones, Owen Livingston, all shodan or nidan – also wanted to stay in Lawrence. They asked Tsubaki Sensei for permission to open a city dojo, of which he would be the sensei. He approved, on the condition that they would do all the organizational work, and all he would have to do was teach and lead. Tsubaki Sensei asked me if I “wanted in on that.” He wanted me involved because I was somewhat older than the others, more settled, he thought, and perhaps more organized. So was born the Kansas Ki Society Lawrence dojo. The inheritor of that effort, through many changes, is now the Lawrence Ki-Aikido Dojo, legally still Kansas Ki Society, and Andrew LeBar is the Head Instructor there.

MAYTT: You seemed to have had the opportunity to train under many different instructors throughout your dynamic journey. Who would you say has had a lasting impact on you?

SH: I feel very fortunate to have had two of my primary teachers, Tsubaki Sensei and Kashiwaya Sensei, be native-born Japanese, albeit well integrated into American culture. And it was fortunate that Tsubaki Sensei was a generation older, thus giving a different, contrasting but complimentary interpretation of Japanese culture to Kashiwaya Sensei’s.

Moreover, I’m fortunate to have interacted with so many varied Ki-Aikido and other aikido instructors in my time. I am grateful that my first sensei – and a couple other important sensei and role models for me – are women: Barbara Bloom, MaryAnn Stewart, the late Sue Sheppard, Erin Kashiwaya, and several others. This variety of teachers has given me, I feel, a very nuanced experience of what aikido can be.

I consider Kashiwaya Sensei to be my principal teacher, and I consider myself to have been his deshi starting from this time. Sensei has done most of my ki and aikido testing, including all the den and dan level testing, and it is he who has recommended me for my dan rankings above sandan, the last dan rank tested for in Ki Society.

Of course, the “root teacher” for me is Koichi Tohei Sensei, and now his son, Shinichi Tohei Sensei, both of whom I have been fortunate to train under, in-person. I am so grateful to have stumbled into this Ki Society tradition.

MAYTT: From that, what aspect of the art keeps you motivated when you go to train today?

SH: As for how things have changed and what “keeps me motivated” now – well, I am no longer worried about being afraid, or about having to fight my way out of a bad situation. This is mostly down to simple maturity, more than developing “killer skills.” I had periods, when young, of seeing myself as a “martial artist” with a range of physical skills and technique to “win” in a fight situation. But I’ve grown out of that mindset.

I have always pursued aikido as a defensive art and have come to understand Mind/Body Oneness – Shinshin Toitsu, as the true foundation of what I’m doing. From the very beginning of my “aikido path,” and in my non-aikido life as well, I have been a teacher, and have grown in my arts and practices mostly by teaching and learning from other students of all levels.

What have I learned in Ki-Aikido? And what do I teach when I teach it? Calmness, confidence, coordination. The Shinshin Toitsu approach to ki and aikido – as expressed by Koichi Tohei Sensei and his son Shinichi Tohei Sensei, our current head of style – is a great method and technology toward this end.

MAYTT: That is amazing! How would you describe the average training of Ki-Aikido when you first started training? How have you seen Ki-Aikido training change and adapt since you began?

SH: In the early days the focus was pretty physical. I’m not sure the training per se has changed, details yes, but not the essence. But the way it is understood – that I understand it, and thus communicate it – has changed immensely. More nuanced. More subtle. More “mental.” More about ki and aiki. Of course, when I started, I was much younger, and most of the people doing it were young, college aged. Now it seems the median age of the average practitioner is significantly higher everywhere I go.

Sensei told me once, that when he started in a university club in Japan, “We didn’t know what we were doing. We thought it was fighting, so that’s what we did.” It was only when he had the opportunity to train at Hombu and he met Tohei Sensei, that he glimpsed the deeper purpose and potential of the art. That’s what I see in Sensei. He once told a group of us, “I am not a perfect aikido teacher; but I am perfect for you.”

Of course, the training is still active, dynamic, and physical, but our understanding is more subtle and the approach more refined. I was once asked by a teacher connected with the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba style, “You [Ki Society] mostly just do ki stuff now, don’t you?” No, we do lots of physical Aikido stuff: we throw and get thrown, swing our sticks, all that. But it’s all built on a foundation of Mind/Body Oneness – the ki stuff. That’s the aspect that has transformed my life and which I draw on every day.

MAYTT: Ki-Aikido is one of the unique styles of aikido; what would you propose as a differentiating factor or aspect of Ki-Aikido to Aikikai, Yoshinkan, or Tomiki Aikido? What aspects would you say are similar?

SH: In my opinion, the essential, significant “differentiating factor” between Shinshin Toitsu Aikido – Ki-Aikido, and any other style of Aikido, as much as I understand any of them – which ain’t much – is the integration of the teachings of aikido as martial art and defensive skills, with the system of Shinshin Toitsu – Mind/Body Oneness – as developed by Tempu Nakamura and refined by Koichi Tohei Sensei. Tohei Sensei was a direct student of Nakamura Sensei as well as of O-Sensei.

This gives us in Ki Society an extensive vocabulary and set of techniques – waza and undo – to talk about and teach this underlying skill. This is the aspect of Ki-Aikido often called Ki Development. Ki is a term widely used in Japan, not only in martial arts but in health and traditional medicine, and many other cultural areas, not to mention dozens of idiomatic phrases in the language. Of course, “ki” is the middle word/kanji in the compound Ai-Ki-Do. Ki-Aikido and Ki Society put particular and explicit focus on the idea and use of “ki” within aikido and also in daily life.

“Ki” has many meanings, but for us we usually translate it as “vital energy” or “life force” or just “energy.” Kashiwaya Sensei says that, really, about ninety-five percent of what we mean by “ki” in Ki-Aikido is Mind/Body Coordination – so that is to say, it’s not “magic.” This coordination – of our observation, our intention/focus, and our ideals/attitude – i.e., mind – with the unified, precise, efficient action of our whole relaxed physicality moving as one – i.e., body – expressed as flow, rhythm, and balance. This is the pragmatic aim of our training.

As for how the aikido part differs, we in Ki-Aikido do pretty much all the same aikido waza – with our own understanding and focus, and sometimes our own terminology. What is called “irimi nage” in Aikikai is a different throw from what we call “irimi nage” in Ki-Aikido. 

Yes, between Shinshin Toitsu Aikido and any other type there are many differences of detail – physically and in terminology – but no more or less so than I’ve encountered between various sub-styles within Aikikai – ASU, Aikido World Alliance, Hombu, Iwama/Saito, Nishio, etc. – not to mention the more removed styles like Yoshinkan, Yoseikan, or Shodokan/Tomiki. In all the “styles,” some things are really different, and often the terms are different, but one can see the common roots.

It is true that our approach to teaching is somewhat different too. We start out teaching about ki, Mind/Body Oneness, from the very first. Out of Tohei Sensei’s extensive training with Nakamura Sensei, he developed a set of precise and simple guidelines – the famous Four Basic Principles of Mind/Body Oneness. When new students come to my dojo, this is the first lesson: these Four Basic Principles and how we can experience them.

And this use of simple guidelines to complex concepts is extended to the five Principles of Ki-Aikido, and many other such lists of principles applied to many aspects of daily life. These are examples of the useful terminology of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido.

MAYTT: How would you characterize the overall relationship Ki-Aikido has with other aikido styles? Would you consider them to be positive or negative? What of your own experiences and relationships with other aikido styles and their respective practitioners; would they be positive or negative as well?

SH: On a personal level, I find individuals and most instructors of different styles get along fine, will talk freely, and welcome others to visit and train. On an organizational level, there is a certain distance and reserve. Mostly, in my experience, the organizations seem to ignore each other. There is a recognition that each style has a developed tradition and curriculum, which vary one from the other, sometimes quite markedly.

Individually, I have visited other style dojo and always been welcomed; other style practitioners are welcome to visit us in Athens. I have occasionally taught demonstration classes when invited by other style dojo. I am in favor of friendly relations, but I also recognize that there is history, and a difference of approach. I go to other dojo to expand my own practice, and – if invited – to demonstrate the Ki Society approach as I understand it. I am not seeking converts, and not much interested in being converted.

his is the first part of a two-part interview. Read the second part here.

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

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s