Interview with Shinju Dojo Cofounder Heather Gawlick: Exploring Aikido and Karl Geis’ Legacy

Between volleyball and aikido – something she had never heard of before – Heather Gawlick chose aikido and has not looked back since. Over the years, she has learned from Nick Lowry of Kaze Uta Budo Kai and Karl Geis of Fugakukai. At Geis’ suggestion, she opened her first school in 1999 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Later she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia with her husband, Roy, then Longview, Washington in 2018. Today, Gawlick took some time to talk about the many facets of Geis’ legacy. All images provided by Heather and Roy Gawlick.

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

Heather Gawlick: Thank you for asking me to this interview. Back in 1994 when I started, I never would have imagined I’d be interviewed for a forum like this.

Heather Gawlick teaching a seminar in Colorado, 2005.

MAYTT: You began aikido in 1994. How did you come to find the Art of Harmonizing Energies and what was it about the art that piqued your interest?

HG: I actually hadn’t heard of aikido before I started. Way back before the Internet was a thing, I needed a P.E. class in college. I had the choice of volleyball and a martial art I’d never heard of before. I decided to try the new thing. After the first month, I was hooked for life! [Laughs]

MAYTT: How would you describe the training you experienced when you first started aikido? How have you seen aikido training evolve over time since you began?

HG: When I started, we were pretty crazy and did all kinds of things I would consider far too dangerous for my students now. Things were different then. Safety wasn’t really a priority and we worked hard and fast.

Over the years, I’ve discovered there is way more to aikido than that. Now, I encourage my students to go slow, focus on subtlety, and learn more of the nuances that are possible. When done right, aikido is a feather, not a sledgehammer. It’s beautiful when someone is thrown who never feels a thing.

MAYTT: Absolutely. You spent the beginning of your aikido journey at Windsong Dojo under the direction of Nick Lowry in Oklahoma City. Could you tell us more about Lowry and what he was like as an instructor?

HG: Actually, I started in a little town in New Mexico called Espanola. It is a one-day drive from Oklahoma City.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit Windsong Dojo in Oklahoma City frequently when I was just starting my aikido career. Nick was one of the first people I met from Windsong, and I’ve spent more hours on the mat with him than I can count. I have a huge amount of respect for him as a martial artist. He is incredibly talented in aikido, judo, and jodo. I’ll always appreciate how patient he was with me. I was not always the easiest student to teach, but he treated me with kindness and compassion. He taught me to slow down and helped me feel the magic that aikido can be.

MAYTT: Additionally, you had many seminar experiences with Karl Geis. What were your first impressions of him when you initially met Geis? How were those impressions later solidified or allayed in subsequent meetings?

HG: Anyone who has spent any time with Karl Geis will tell you the man was anything but a wallflower. It’s hard for my students to imagine now, but when I first met Karl, I was very shy, and it took me a while to be brave enough to approach him. I was lucky enough he would frequently seek me out during open mat times and work with me. He taught me some very high-level principles and I felt honored he took the time to teach me one-on-one.

As I got to know him better, I discovered he had a huge heart in a lot of ways and helped out a lot of people behind the scenes. One seminar, he surprised the ladies and took us all out to lunch to thank us for our contribution to the martial arts. That was a wonderful afternoon.

MAYTT: Many others have had similar impressions. In 1999, you founded the first incarnation of Shinju Dojo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. What factors influenced you to take such a course of action? In what ways was this experience beneficial to you?

Gawlick throwing an uke in kote gaeshi in Colorado, August 1999.

HG: I opened Shinju Dojo Aikido on February 1, 1999, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I didn’t think I was good enough to run a school. But Karl Geis told me I needed to open, and he wasn’t one to take no for an answer, so off I went and opened my own school. I’ll always be grateful to Karl for encouraging me to become a teacher.

Fortunately, I had already helped another aikidoka when he opened his school. I wasn’t completely confident in what I was doing, but I at least had some ideas on what to do to get started.

I always laugh when people think a martial arts school owner makes a lot of money teaching. Almost everyone I know who teaches does so because it’s their passion to share the art with others. No one in my circles is making money hand over fist. We’re all stubborn about keeping the lights on because we love our students and we see the potential in them for incredible growth – not just as martial artists, but also as human beings.

When I started teaching, I never imagined the responsibility and joy of helping people come out of their shells and become who they were meant to be.

MAYTT: In 2018, you and your husband, Roy, 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?

HG: When we met, Roy was living in Vancouver, Canada and I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We both had our own schools. After we got married, I moved to Vancouver, and we combined forces and continued Shinju Dojo together.

When it was time to leave Vancouver, we wanted to stay in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. We were lucky to find Longview/Kelso and have made some incredible friends. It really has felt like home since we first came here.

Since I had already started a dojo in Albuquerque and again in Vancouver, it wasn’t much different for me this time. I already had a lot of business techniques under my belt. It was just a matter of applying them here.

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

HG: As many of your readers already know, Morihei Ueshiba was the founder of aikido. One of his students was Kenji Tomiki who taught aikido out of Waseda University. Karl Geis was a student of Tomiki and founded Fugakukai in Houston, Texas. Chuck Caldwell founded Windsong Dojo in Oklahoma City and was a student of Karl Geis. Nick Lowry was a student of Karl and Chuck’s and eventually took over Windsong Dojo when Chuck moved out of state.

Heather Gawlick, Nick Lowry, and Roy Gawlick in June 2007

At one point, Nick was slated to take responsibility of Fugakukai in the event of Karl’s death. Unfortunately, there was a split between Karl and Nick. Nick then founded Kaze Uta Budo Kai.

Many of Karl’s higher ranked students, including us, joined Kaze Uta Budo Kai. We remained members of Fugakukai as well. It was a difficult period for those who loved and respected both men and didn’t want to be torn between them. We have friends we highly respect in both organizations. Now that Karl has passed, we have had friends from both organizations come to our dojo to teach classes and seminars.

MAYTT: I see. You currently hold the rank of nanadan. What were your feelings when you received that rank? What do you feel such a promotion did for the art and for female aikidoka as a whole?

HG: I was completely surprised and humbled. I never thought I would achieve such an incredible promotion – regardless of being a woman or a man. It was an extraordinary honor.

I feel it’s wonderful that we have come to a time and place where women and men can be treated as equals. It takes many years of dedication to achieve any master level rank of any martial art. But, if you put in the work and the time, you can achieve anything you want to.

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?

HG: Many of Karl’s students studied aikido, judo, and Shindo Muso Ryu jodo. All three arts flow beautifully into each other. Judo fills in the gaps of grappling and close contact that are missing from the aikido curriculum. Jodo teaches balance, weapons, and further distances. When you look at Ueshiba and Tomiki, they both were fluent in and taught all three skills. I feel very strongly that adding at least some judo and jodo can really help one improve one’s aikido.

I don’t have a significant rank in judo because I’ve never pursued one. But I’ve spent many, many hours on the mat with top-notch judo players and the principles they’ve taught me are absolutely essential to my understanding of how to move.

Similarly, in jodo, I’m only a shodan because I never really worried about chasing a rank in the art. But the lessons I’ve learned by studying the fundamentals have really shaped my understanding in valuable ways that make my aikido what it is today.

I always tell new people when they join that their questions are vital to helping me improve as an instructor. They frequently look like they don’t believe me, but it’s true. Without tough questions to answer, it would be easy to stagnate. That would be sad, indeed.

I’m grateful to all my teachers and students over all these years for helping me deepen my understanding and honing my skills.

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?

HG: I’m not an expert in Ueshiba-style aikido. But a lot of what I see on the Internet involves large, flowing circles.

Tomiki techniques use a lot of direct, linear movements. One of the most used Tomiki movements, shomen-ate, involves a straight arm with an open palm strike to the chin. It is my understanding that this move is not allowed in a lot of other aikido styles.

Tomiki also added tanto randori and tournaments. Karl did not agree with tournaments because he felt that to have rules for competition changes the art. In order to be safe enough to have tournaments, it was watering down some of the elements that made aikido effective as a self-defense art.

Roy (left) and Heather (right) Gawlick with Tsunako Miyake (second from left) and Karl Geis (second from right)

Karl started judo in Japan before the introduction of weight classes. You had to have excellent technique rather than strength to survive on the mat in those days. He had a lot of perspectives that aren’t common in the judo/jodo/aikido world today. But there were some other, non-Fugakukai judoka that I’ve been lucky enough to meet over the years who were old timers and shared the same light touch and unusual non-strength judo that Karl had. I have the impression it was a generational thing and if we’re not careful, that skill set could easily be lost, which would be tragic.

I “grew up” in the martial arts with a lot of the same katas I see online that the regular Tomiki people do, and I still teach those basic katas as my core curriculum. But I’ve softened up over the years. The way I move now is completely different than when I started. I’ve even found myself using a bit of the same principles I see internal power and tai chi people talk about. It seems when you get to a particular mastery of a physical skill, there is a totally new way of moving that is much more flowing and natural than what you usually find. The more I look around me, the more I see this phenomenon – even in artists, bonsai masters, and in other sports. So, while I still do the same basic kata that I initially learned, I execute it differently because of these other influences I’ve been exposed to over the years.

We have a whole new way of looking at things than what I generally see on the Internet.
 One gentleman from a regular Tomiki school I met a few years ago at a seminar called those of us from the Karl lineage “a lost tribe.” I think that describes us pretty well. We come from the same roots, but we’re also different.

MAYTT: Thank you for this conversation about Geis’ legacy!

HG: Thank you again for interviewing me. It has been an honor.


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