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

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

MAYTT: Since Koichi Tohei left the Aikikai in 1974 to establish his Shinshin Toitsu Aikido, how much discussion is there of his teacher, Morihei Ueshiba, and Tohei’s time in the Aikikai?

SH: Frankly, the shared past doesn’t come up much in daily classes. We are a separate and distinct tradition and organization, with shared history up to a point. Both sides now have their own subsequent history and developed viewpoints.

That said, in my experience, if it does come up, everyone in Ki Society always acknowledges that O-sensei Morihei Ueshiba was Koichi Tohei’s teacher, that O-Sensei was the founder and developer of aikido, both the technical waza, and, more importantly, the vision, the attitude that makes aikido unique in the martial arts tradition. I have had the honor to attend several classes with Koichi Tohei Sensei, and many with Shinichi Tohei Sensei, and I have been privileged to talk or take classes with all of the US Chief Instructors. O-Sensei is always spoken of with respect, by everyone.

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

As a matter of history, we in Ki Society all know that Tohei Sensei was a driving force in postwar aikido, and was shihan bucho, head of the teaching staff, of Aikikai for many years, even after O-Sensei died. We know Tohei Sensei was chosen to go to Hawaii in 1953 as the first official Hombu-approved postwar teaching of Aikikai aikido outside Japan, and that he was therefore a major figure in the early days of aikido in the US, and internationally.

Yes, those of us who study aikido history also know that “The Split” was acrimonious, and – organizationally – there is still a chill between the styles.

But frankly, it doesn’t take up much time on the mat, or in formal discussions. We are focused on our style and how we can best experience and share that.

MAYTT: I see. Can you tell us about the history of Athens Ohio Ki-Aikido? How did it come about and in what ways has the school and yourself helped solidify Ki-Aikido in Ohio?

SH: Athens Ki-Aikido came about because I moved to Athens, wanted to continue my aikido practice and training, but found no aikido of any type nearby. To continue my training, I had to teach some other folks what I knew, so we could play together. I first came to Athens in Fall of 1987 for my first faculty job after completing my MFA degree. I was teaching Stage Movement in the School of Theatre at Ohio University. The first year, I was pretty busy being a new faculty member and working on the school’s productions, so I was really only able to slip some Ki Principles and a bit of aikido into the Stage Movement classes I taught. In the second year, I started a small aikido club with a couple students and some town-folk. I had chukyu ki and nikyu aikido ranks. No other certifications. This was the first Ki-Aikido in Athens. But I was only there for three years.

I returned to Athens in 2008, to be near my son and his growing family. I had a job based in Athens and I started a Ki-Aikido class in the City Community Center. A small but dedicated group formed and in 2012 we moved into our own leased space, in which we built a sprung-floor and some changing rooms, bought some tatami, and opened a dojo. We are still in that same space, still a small but dedicated group. Athens is a pretty small town, in a mostly rural area, which makes it difficult to build a sizable student base.

When I came to Athens, I was, of course, still affiliated with Kashiwaya Sensei and he agreed to be our Chief Instructor, so we became a dojo of his Midland Ki Federation (MKF) organization. Once we had our own space, he came annually to teach in Athens until the Covid shutdown. In 2019, our Athens Dojo became a Registered Dojo of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido Kai, the international organization headquartered in Tokyo. Before this, we had been recognized as part of MKF, and we remain affiliated with MKF, only now we have a stronger connection directly with Shinshin Toitsu Aikido Kai and Shinichi Tohei Sensei.

We are the only Ki-Aikido/Ki Society dojo in Ohio, and the only dojo of any style of Aikido within about forty miles of Athens. The nearest Ki Society dojo is – to the west – a university club just across the Indiana border, about 177 miles; to the east, the nearest Ki Society dojo is near Philadelphia, about 450 miles; going south, it is probably in western Virginia or North Carolina. Head southwest and I think it would be in Houston, Texas. To the north, you’re into Canada, about 450 driving miles – because we have to drive around Lake Erie.

We are connected to the several MKF dojo, scattered across the country, from Colorado to Maryland, and from Ontario to Texas. And there is a significant network of other Ki Society Dojo, under different Chief Instructors, in the US and internationally. Pre-Covid, some of us would travel to other MKF dojo when Sensei was visiting, including occasional trips to our HQ in Japan. Or we would visit other Ki Society dojo under different Chief Instructors when they were having special trainings. Occasionally, we do make friendly visits to nearby non-Ki Society dojo, to experience their perspectives and to challenge our own preconceptions. I am a great believer in trying many different learning experiences.

MAYTT: In 2010, you earned your Ki Development rank of jouden, you recently rokudan this year, and you are an Associate Lecturer certified by the Ki Society International. Could you explain the duties and responsibilities related to both the Ki Development rank of jouden and an Associate Lecturer?

SH: Shinshin Toitsu Aikido Kai – outside Japan commonly called Ki Society – is, I believe, unique in that we have a double ranking system – one gains rank in both Ki Development and in aikido. The Ki Development ranks are in fact prerequisites to Ki-Aikido ranks. Ki Development has three lower kyu ranks: shokyu, chukyu, joukyu; and five higher – den, meaning transmission – levels: shoden, chuden, jouden, okuden, and kaiden. Sho of course, means first, or beginning, chu is middle, and jou or jō is upper. Oku means “inside,” and kai means “whole, everything, or complete.” All ki ranks are tested. I was honored to take both the chuden and jouden tests in Japan, at our Tochigi HQ. The chuden test was observed by Koichi Tohei Sensei. The jouden test was given by Shinichi Tohei Sensei.

Ki Development is “tested” by a test of the body, which reveals the invisible mind. The tests start as simple physical pushes or pressures to see if the student can remain calm and stable with an unshaken mind. There are tests in several postures. As the level increases the physicality of the test reduces but the “ki” of it increases; it becomes very subtle.

There are no particular “duties and responsibilities” related to Ki Rank – like an aikido test, it reflects the development of understanding of, and the ability to embody, the basic principles. It is an accomplishment test. Can you perform set criteria at acceptable levels? Can you, for example, Keep One Point while standing calmly, while sitting in seiza, and standing up, while leaning?

In Ki-Aikido, the ranks we have for adults consist of five kyu ranks, starting at five, moving up to one or ikkyu. Then there are the upper grades or dan. Shodan, beginning grade, up to judan, tenth dan. In Ki Society, generally, promotions from yondan up are awarded by recommendation, not by test.

The Ki Lecturer certification is an acknowledgement of one’s interest in, and commitment to, the teachings of the organization; it says one has demonstrated that they understand the principles well enough to speak publicly on behalf of Ki Society. There are three levels, Assistant, Associate, and Lecturer. There is no test; it is a certification of recognition, not an accomplishment.

My local teacher in Kansas, the late Dr. Andrew Tsubaki Sensei, recommended me for Assistant Ki Lecturer when I began teaching regularly in the Lawrence dojo, then known as the Kansas Ki Society. He recommended me for Associate Ki Lecturer when I became the Executive Director of the Dojo and the second in the teaching staff of the dojo.

MAYTT: I can understand why they value recommendations. Moreover, receiving a rokudan is no small feat. What was your reaction to receiving such a rank? What do you feel the promotion has done for you and for the art?

SH: Receiving rokudan was a great honor, and a surprise; I did not expect it. As I mentioned above, rokudan is one of the non-tested, recommended levels in Ki Society. This means someone of higher rank and status has to speak for you, sponsor you; someone you have a personal relationship with. Kashiwaya Sensei once told me that – to the Japanese – recommendation is more significant than testing, because it is not just an achievement, something you do personally; it shows you are respected by your fellows, your seniors, your sensei, and the organization. Kashiwaya Sensei recommended me because he recognized my dedication and experience, and my contributions to the organization, but also because I had been suggested by at least one other MKF instructor. Part of Sensei’s criteria for promoting anyone is that they are actively involved in the organization, by leadership, by teaching, and by continuing their own training.

What has it done for me? It has humbled and inspired me to deepen my understanding of the art and the principles. It is something I must live up to and grow into.

MAYTT: You also hold an official position in the Midland Ki Federation, headed by Koichi Kashiwaya. What is that position and what factors led you to take that position in the federation?

SH: US Ki Society is organized around the position of the Chief Instructor. There are currently eight individuals recognized as Ki Society Chief Instructors in the US. Each of them is someone who had a long and close relationship – deshi to sensei – with Koichi Tohei Sensei. They each head either one or multiple Ki Society dojo, or one of four federations, which are several dojo in a large area in the US and/or Canada. Each of the Chief Instructors is in instructional charge of the dojo and students of their Ki Society or federation and keeps up a close relationship with Shinichi Tohei Sensei and HQ.

Midland Ki Federation is the association of about twenty dojo which each recognize Kashiwaya Sensei as their Chief Instructor, and for which he has accepted teaching responsibility. Each of the dojo Head Instructors have a close and long-standing deshi-sensei relationship with Kashiwaya Sensei. The Federation is itself not an authority over the individual dojo. We are an association of equals. I can’t speak to the internal organization of the other federations or Ki Societies.

My main position within MKF is that I am the Chairperson of the Federation’s Board of Directors; I also do some other organizational jobs, such as the annual membership report to HQ. The BOD takes care of the business aspects and the day-to-day organization business. This is an annually elected position and I have been doing it for several years, having been on the Board of Directors before becoming chairperson – in fact I’ve been on the Board since we incorporated as a non-profit 501(c)3 organization in 2006. MKF had existed as an informal association prior to this legal incorporation.

I took on these federation jobs for the same reasons I became involved in my local dojo leadership in Kansas: I wanted to have a dojo in which to practice – someone had to help organize it to keep it afloat; take care of the mundane business. By the same token, someone needed to help organize the various dojo under Sensei to help them cooperate, to coordinate his travel and business, and handle the mundane communication with HQ. I joined in with others to do this. I’m good, trained and experienced, at organization. One of my theatre specialties was stage management. I will do the grunt work. And I’ve been around long enough to remember how things ought to work – or not. [Laughs]Part of the job is collaborative leadership without any “command authority.” 

It also means I have to be an organization guy; if I speak publicly about anything, it might be assumed I speak for MKF, or for Sensei, or for HQ. So, I have to mind what I say and be clear I am only speaking for myself and out of my own limited experience.

When I teach – as a recognized Ki Society Instructor and Associate Ki Lecturer – I teach the Ki Society method and curriculum, as I understand it. I don’t branch off into other interesting topics I happen to like, like sword work for example – or at least, I try to digress only briefly, and I will try to relate it back to the Ki-Aikido lesson. [Laughs]

MAYTT: Fumio Toyoda is considered by many to be an influential aikidoka and disseminator of Ki-Aikido. How would you describe him as a person and an aikido practitioner? What do you feel are his greatest contributions to spreading Ki-Aikido in the Midwest?

SH: I have no direct knowledge of Toyoda Sensei; I never met him, didn’t even hear of him until I became interested in the history of aikido in the US. By then he’d founded the Aikido Association of America, which is sometimes counted as an off-shoot “Ki Aikido” style. I did come to understand that he was formerly associated with Ki Society.

I do recall hearing about Yoshihiko Hirata Sensei, who was n Chicago “long before Toyoda went” — in fact Toyoda stayed with Hirata Sensei in Seattle before going on to Chicago. This was in 1974, when Kashiwaya Sensei was in Seattle at Tohei Sensei’s request to assist Hirata Sensei in the Seattle Ki Society dojo as Hirata Sensei was having some health problems. Hirata Sensei was born in Japan, but wanted to come to the U.S., so he joined the U.S. Army (for the VISA) and spent part of his two-year enlistment in Chicago; he moved to Seattle after he got out. I believe Hirata Sensei founded the Seattle Aikikai in 1971, and switched it to Seattle Ki Society in 1974.

MAYTT: I see. On that same token, who do you feel are Ki-Aikido pioneers in the Midwest and the United States? What about them makes them stand out from their peers?

SH: The Ki-Aikido pioneers in the US were, mostly, first, pioneers of US aikido, who started with Tohei Sensei when he was still the main Aikikai instructor, and then moved with Tohei Sensei when he formed Ki Society. And many of them, like Toyoda Sensei, stayed in Ki Society for a time and then went their own way. There are several schools which style themselves “Ki Aikido” or “aikido with ki” – almost all spit from Ki Society. Other styles and organizations – some now within Aikikai’s umbrella – show the often-unacknowledged influence of Tohei Sensei’s teachings, if one knows what to look for.

Ki-Aikido Pioneers: Shinichi Suzuki Sensei, Seichi Tabata Sensei, Takashi Nonaka Sensei, in Hawaii; they’re all gone now. Shuji Maruyama Sensei, who first was sent to Cleveland Ohio, then moved to Philadelphia. Shizuo Imaizumi Sensei started training in Japan at Hombu, followed Tohei Sensei when the Ki Society was formed, and he was sent to New York. He was the first Chief Instructor of Ki Society USA; later he split and founded the Shin-Budo Kai style. Another was the late Hirata Yoshihiko Sensei, who founded Seattle Aikikai in 1969 and switched it to Seattle Ki-Aikido in 1971.

John Eley sensei, a founder of the first Aikido club at the University of Chicago, trained under several Chicago pioneers, and now is Chief Instructor of the Chicago Ki Society. Tohei Sensei used to stay at John’s house when visiting Chicago. Clarence Chinn Sensei, started aikido as a kid in Hawaii, later founded the Southern California Ki Society and is now retired as Chief Instructor. The late George Simcox Sensei, who led the Virginia Ki Society; Kirk Fowler Sensei, who founded the Virginia Ki Society and now is Chief Instructor of the Arizona Ki Society; the late Dan Frank Sensei in Maryland; Terry Peirce Sensei in New Jersey, now still counted as a Chief Instructor but is within the Eastern Ki Federation. All of these started when – in the US – it was virtually all Aikikai; then shifted to Ki Society from the onset and spread the Ki Society in the US. Except for Maruyama Sensei and Imaizumi Sensei, all these I’ve named have stayed in Ki Society.

Kashiwaya Sensei started aikido in university, just after O-Sensei died, and so trained a bit under the Aikikai, but, as I said, connected with Tohei Sensei early, and was one of the first to join Ki no Kenkyukai when it was just a ki-focused organization in 1971. He stood with Tohei Sensei when Shinshin Toitsu Aikido was founded and the split from Aikikai happened in 1974. He was uchi deshi with Tohei Sensei for several years, and was sent to the US, first to Seattle between 1973 and 1975; later, in 1977, he settled in the Denver/Boulder, Colorado area. Kashiwaya Sensei was the second and last “US Chief Instructor” for Ki Society.

There is also a generation just behind these pioneer leaders: Christopher Curtis Sensei, a devoted deshi of Suzuki Sensei and now Chief Instructor of the Hawaii Ki Federation; Calvin Tabata sensei in Portland, Chief Instructor of the Northwest Ki Federation; David Shaner Sensei, Chief Instructor of the Eastern Ki Federation, based in South Carolina – he was also an uchi deshi at HQ with Tohei Sensei. Another is Pietro Maida Sensei, Chief Instructor in Northern California.

I’m of an age with some of these but didn’t have the early personal connection to Koichi Tohei Sensei; I only met him in 1996 in Portland, Oregon and later took World Camp seminar classes in Japan with him.

Now we are seeing another generation rise, and the old order is transforming. Shinichi Tohei Sensei is now the President of Ki Society, and these younger Ki Society folks are connecting with him to keep the tradition alive and growing. Us “old timers” are also making our connections with Shinichi Tohei Sensei and moving forward into the future as Shinshin Toitsu Aikido Kai.

MAYTT: Final question. As the pandemic restrictions are slowly receding from daily life, how do you think Ki-Aikido will recover from the recent years of limitations and mandates? What do you think aikido will look like in the next ten years?

SH: Covid has been a trial for everyone. I know several dojo that lost the space they were using, and are only now being able to open in new spaces, under new arrangements, now that in-person classes can happen again. One of our MKF dojo in Ontario has been unable to meet face-to-face indoors since March 2020 and is only now [September 2022] beginning to offer public classes again, in a new space.

All the MKF groups tried to keep the connections and training going. Many met outside when possible, doing lots of no-contact weapon-forms work or shadowboxing of waza. Many experimented with Zoom or other on-line methods.

HQ has done Zoom sessions of special events, like the Kagami Biraki, or video classes. In MKF we have done a Zoom seminar with Sensei almost every month since November of 2020.

In Athens, we have managed, through the dedication and generosity of members, to pay the lease and keep our space, even though there were months where we could not meet. When we could meet, we had to be masked, use sanitizer, keep windows and doors open, do no-touch work, and so on. Things gradually improved with the coming of vaccinations and with better understanding of the Covid disease processes. Most of our members are fully vaccinated, but with more transmissible variants, we still take precautions. We still insist that everyone wear a mask in the dojo – because the practice involves heavy-breathing and close physical contact.

People have mostly proven to be resilient in their practice and careful with each other’s health. I find it a very positive expression of self and community defense skills. A manifestation of aiki.

In MKF, we are making plans for next year to have a series of in-person MKF seminars at various MKF dojo locations, to draw the MKF community back together.

We are even talking about a small-group training trip to Japan, to train at the Tokyo HQ. If airfare comes down, but that’s a different story.

I’m sure you are familiar with the Japanese saying, “Nana korobi ya oki” – Seven falls, eight arisings. I’m sure all of us in the aikido world will rise again.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us; it was a great conversation!

SH: It was my pleasure!

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

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

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