Interview with Shinju Dojo Cofounder Aikidoka Roy Gawlick: Karl Geis, Nick Lowry, and a Lifelong Study

After a friend described to him what aikido is, Roy Gawlick quickly searched for a dojo to find out more. He came across Karl Geis’ school in Houston, Texas and never left the art. In 2001, Gawlick opened his first school in Vancouver, British Columbia then, in 2018, opened Shinju Dojo with his wife Heather. Today, Gawlick took some time to discuss his experience under Geis and his lasting legacy. All images provided by Roy and Heather Gawlick.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Gawlick Sensei! Thank you for joining us.

Roy Gawlick: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: You began training aikido in 1997 in Houston, Texas. How did you discover the art? What about it retained your interest?

Roy Gawlick in June 2001.

RG: A friend talked to me about his experience in aikido, and it sounded like what I was looking for. When I moved to Houston, Texas from Canada, I talked to a few different dojos. One of them directed me to Karl’s dojo, and I’ve enjoyed aikido ever since.

What keeps me interested is not learning and repeating precise movements and katas, but the opposite: how to develop principles that lead to more dynamic, fluid, and spontaneous responses to unpredictable situations. There’s a lifetime of study – one day maybe I’ll feel like I’m not a beginner! [Laughs]

MAYTT: When you started, Karl Geis was your first instructor. Many of his students have pointed to his ability to make them feel like family at his school. Did you have a similar experience? What were your initial impressions of him when you first walked into the dojo?

RG: Karl spoke a few times of having a system to weed out new students so he could focus his coaching on creating Olympic champions. His dojo has dozens of trophies showing how successful his students were. But he realized this was a negative method of getting rid of students.

By the time I joined the dojo, he made it a point that the most important student was the newest beginner to walk through the door. Each one, me included, was paired with a black belt in order to learn the basics and then the more advanced ideas. That focus on the new guy by all the students in the class helped make new people feel welcome and part of the dojo.

My first impressions of Karl were that he was no-nonsense, direct, kind, and a helluva storyteller. Later on, I saw his alpha-male traits. He sure could tear a strip off someone, including me. But there was a method to it. Usually, it was a lesson like ensuring you’d never be careless with respect to safety on the mat, for example. He could be very generous, and he loved his students.

My favorite memory is coming to class a bit early one day. Karl was teaching a kids judo class on the far side of the mat. The boys were maybe eight or ten years old. They were following his drills seriously, but happily, and he was beaming with love for these great kids. It was a magical moment of what we all want as students and teachers.

MAYTT: I can see how that would make a lasting impression. How would you describe the training when Geis led classes? How did you see such training methods and approaches change or evolve as time went on?

RG: Karl led very few regular classes when I started. Classes were led by senior students. He did lead seminars once or twice a year.

I remember being impatient because classes hadn’t started by 10:00, as scheduled. By 10:45 my brain was full, and I was overwhelmed by the depths, subtlety, and elegance of the art. Aikido is a deep pool to swim in.

After I returned to Canada, Karl developed his Ki Hara approach. It helped bridge the gap between learning separate techniques and being able to run them together fluidly to develop one’s randori (free style aikido). Each style of teaching has pros and cons, and we use similar approaches now, two decades later.

MAYTT: When did you first start teaching? Did that experience change your perspective of aikido, if at all?

RG: In Karl’s system, you can’t really advance too far without teaching, and it’s in teaching where you really learn how little you know! As a black belt, I helped newer students as I’d been helped, and this was critical to my further development.

Every new student has his or her own way of understanding and misunderstanding, of excelling and struggling, and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to find words, images and movements to help the student move forward.

MAYTT: That is an interesting approach. In 2001, you opened your Lions Gate Aikido school in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. What influenced you to pursue that decision? In what ways was this experience beneficial to you?

RG: I had a choice after returning to Vancouver from Houston. Give up martial arts, find a different martial art, find a different form of aikido, or teach.

It was an easy choice. To keep learning in Karl’s style of aikido, I had to teach. Over the years, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about teaching, and where I have strengths and weaknesses.

It also kept me responsible to my students. I had to keep teaching, and this made it easier to go to Houston on occasion and to keep learning, rather than letting aikido be one of those things I used to do.

A group photo at Lions Gate Aikido in October 2001. Gawlick stands at the far left.

MAYTT: In 2018, you and your wife, Heather, moved to Longview/Kelso, Washington, where you established the recent incarnation of Shinju Dojo. What prompted the move to the Pacific Northwest and what was it like starting a school from scratch?

RG: Heather and I both started from scratch more than once as we changed locations in Albuquerque or Vancouver.

In Longview, we just rolled up our sleeves and started again. Well, I moved our stack of mats a few times, and Heather did all the hard work!

MAYTT: Shinju Dojo is a part of Kaze Uta Budo Kai, headed by Nick Lowry. Could you tell us a little bit about Kaze Uta Budo Kai and where it fits into Geis’ linage/legacy?

Nick Lowry (standing, dressed in black) and Gawlick (foreground) at Windsogn Dojo in Oklahoma City in June 2016.

RG: Nick Lowry was one of Karl’s direct students. Nick is a very skilled martial artist in judo, jodo, and aikido. He’s a terrific teacher and a wonderful man. He took over responsibility of Windsong Dojo from Chuck Caldwell when Chuck moved out of state. He and Chuck had built it to be a wonderful collection of skilled martial artists.

Karl’s influence will be felt in a great many places for a very long time. Nick took Karl’s teaching and developed a way to make it more accessible. The collection of videos on the Windsong web site, for example, is a tremendous teaching resource. It doesn’t replace hands-on practice, of course, but for those of us who can’t visit Windsong often, the videos help us to develop and to develop our teaching skills.

MAYTT: In addition to aikido, you also train jodo. How have you seen jodo enhance or benefit your aiki jo? Would you suggest your aikido students to train in jodo as well?

RG: We practice Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo, not aiki jo.

Jodo is aikido at weapons distance. The jo is an amazing tool to amplify what you’re doing well or not quite so well. Are you balanced when taking a step? Are you in an unknowingly awkward posture when turning? Are you using too much muscle to make something happen rather than let it happen? The jo will tell you.

After our students are green or brown belts and are reasonably safe and consistent, we encourage them to learn jo.

I must give a shout out to shihan David Lusk, one of Karl’s students in Houston. David has taken the Shindo Muso Ryu jodo curriculum apart and put it back together with an emphasis on Karl’s kuzushi. It’s an amazing experience to cross sticks with him! [Laughs]

MAYTT: Final question. The Shinju Dojo’s website describes the aikido taught there as “neither traditional Ueshiba-style nor strictly Tomiki-style,” alluding to a type of middle ground style. How would you describe this middle ground style? What, in your opinion, differentiates your style of aikido from other styles and approaches?

RG: I’m not familiar with other styles of aikido, but I do see that our falls are more like judo falls. This makes sense, given Karl’s background.

Karl kept much of the Tomiki katas as learning tools, but he dropped all competition. He wanted aikido to be as reality-based as possible. That meant full, committed attacks and responses, but almost always at a slow speed.

Slow speed allows us to find and resolve all sorts of wobbles and inefficiencies. Sometimes, when partners are proficient, we’d play at greater speed. But almost always, we’d go slowly. This allows us to learn more easily where the off-balance is. It’s easy to unknowingly cheat and add muscle when going faster. At low speed it’s easier to focus on good posture and position.

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

RG: It was my pleasure.


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