Ginny and Pete Breeland are involved with teaching an Aikido program in a Sonoma County high school. This is an important program that is bringing something that is much needed in our school systems throughout America. What follows are my questions and their answers:
Paul Rest: When did you start Aikido?
Ginny Breeland: Pete started Aikido in 1975 [and] I started four years later in 1979. We both attended Aikido classes that were taught at a community College class in Napa, California. This is where we first met. Our instructor at the time was Dr. William Morris. He was an amazing individual, a Shodan in Aikido, and in other martial arts. He was a professor of English and also taught Transcendental Meditation and also meditation. He was a life-long learner, in fact, when he passed away [while] he was attending law school.
In 1979 we began training in Sebastopol at the legendary “chicken coop dojo”. For the next 3 years we received instruction from Sensei Dennis Tatoian, who trained for years in Iwama, Japan under Morihiro Saito Sensei and Tetsutaka Sugawara. In 1989 Hans Goto, now 7th Dan, became our Sensei in San Rafael. Goto Sensei is a technically gifted instructor and an amazing gift of an individual. He exemplifies Aikido in every way. We trained and taught at Bay Marin Aikido for the next 17 years. During this time we were fortunate to attend many, many visiting Senseis. We attended many seminars with visiting Senseis including Saito Sensei, Sugawara Sensei, Kobayashi Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Inoue Sensei, Chiba and Shibata Sensei, and many, many others. We traveled to Japan in 2006 and trained in Iwama with Saito Sensei’s son, Hitohiro Sensei. We also visited Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, where we trained with the Doshu (grandson of the founder, O’Sensei). We have trained in Chiappas, Mexico, and Nevada. We have taught in Virginia, Tahoe, Florida, Arizona and of course here in California. We finally moved on in 2006 to teach at the Cotati Recreation Center where Cotati Aikido was born. This is now our home. We are both, Shidoin, 5th degree Black Belts.
PR: How did the school program come about?
GB: A young student came to our Cotati class and was immediately enthralled with Aikido. Not only was she interested with the physical techniques but also had great interest with the spiritual aspects. We found this unusual for one so young (16 years old). She shared with us that she attended Credo High School, a charter high school located in Rohnert Park. The school is based on the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, which strives to holistically integrate the intellectual, practical, and artistic development of students. She mentioned how amazing it would be to have Aikido taught in her school.
Pete and I had heard of numerous efforts to try to get Aikido into high schools and so we thought “why not?” This is part of the endeavor to provide ‘service to others’ which is incorporated in the self-cultivation Aikido encourages. In December of 2015 we brought our ideas to the school Director who was more than receptive. We taught on a volunteer basis from March 2015-June 2015. As fate would have it, Aikido was well received and in September we were requested to become part of the teaching staff and continue offering Aikido not as an elective but as part of the mandatory “movement” classes in the school curriculum. We have thus far taught 2 6-week rotational classes. The first 6 weeks included 2 sessions with a total of [approximately]35 students and the 2nd 6 week rotation involved 4 classes with 75 students. Our next classes are scheduled to start in March and go into June [in 2016].
PR: What is the program’s purpose?
GB: The program hopes to introduce the students to Aikido, both the physical as well as the spiritual side of the art. Since we offer only a 6-week session we have to try to reach students in a concise way. We teach techniques that clearly show a blending of energies so that the concept of connection and redirection is clear. The techniques we choose allow for easy success that provides immediate positive feedback to the student. We also discuss how this may apply to the everyday students life. For instance how to redirect an argument so that each side feels mutually acknowledged (blending) so as to resolve (redirect) a conflict in a positive and peaceful manner.
We make clear to the students that instead of fight or flight, there is clearly a third option. The third option is to choose to resolve conflict by redirecting an attack. This translates to non-martial applications as listening and employing mutual respect. Because we “choose” to do such a thing, we are brought to a different perspective, a more generous way of “being”. We begin to develop a consciousness of benevolence and compassion.
PR: Is there any rolling involved?
GB: Yes. We do include a couple of classes on falling and rolling and encourage each student to participate. We request that they dress appropriately. Like the adults we have taught, there is a wide range of capability and each level of ability has to be addressed. Most of the students are enthusiastic and especially so when they are successful. The most difficult part is that we have had to borrow mats since the school owns none. So right now we can’t meet the consistency falls require for each class. We are hoping through this and other efforts we can be able to raise funds for the school to purchase their own set of mats.
Some students have excitedly requested even more rolling and falling. It is an energetic age and the physicality of rolling and pinning would add great dimension to our teaching. In the end, students get graded mostly on participation and citizenship. They don’t have to be exceptional athletes, but they do have to try.
PR: Are basic awareness and self defense techniques included?
GB: Yes. We teach the basic Hanmi stance and explain how it is conducive to turning quickly, and how Aikido was meant for multiple attackers. We encourage extension of the arms to show how expansion can increase effectiveness. We include the wooden sword as a tool (but only let the most responsible students handle such). We incorporate the usual “fun” phenomenon such as the “unbendable arm” and rooting the back foot so one cannot be pushed over. We introduce the notion of “Ki”. In techniques we identify connection, blending and taking balance.
Common to all students is the question of application, which we do show occasionally but do not teach. Towards the end of the 6-week session we do a small demonstration showing Taijutsu as well as weapon (Bokken and Jo) work.
PR: What have we learned teaching Aikido in this program?
GB: We have learned a lot, probably ten-fold what the students have learned! We teach students between the ages of 14-17 years old. The usual adolescent has a lot of energy and a wide range of focus. We have had to keep things short and concise and try to adapt to each students demeanor. Choosing the right ‘lingo’ to connect is also important. Attention can wax and wane and we have had to be imaginative in our delivery. Humor can be a great tool. Of course it is difficult to reach everyone, the course is mandatory and not an elective so not every student wants to be in class. Regardless, we strive to do our best, and try not to take any interaction for granted. We have learned to become incredibly flexible and from time to time we employ that ‘calm mind in the midst of chaos’. It is a great lesson for us.
PR: What feedback have they given you? What results have you seen in the students?
GB: Students have requested more rolling, more mat work, and smaller groups. Confidence skyrockets with successful rolling. They have remarked, like with any basic practice, the katas can [be] boring. But interest peaks once they are shown the “why” of what they are doing. When techniques are done properly there is an excitement and desire to reproduce success. As well, they also willingly try to help each other. They especially enjoy seeing how to connect to physically control their taller and bigger classmates. Some of the students like having class discussions and we have had good participation. We have observed students jokingly remark to each other to “redirect” unwanted behavior. A handful of students have personally gone out of their way to thank us.
PR: What are your plans for the program?
GB: Immediate plans include trying to raise money so the school can buy mats. The physicality of Aikido is very important for this age group. Comfort in movement is a great benefit to any individual. Students have a lot of energy and are still have enough of the “kid” in them not to fear being on the ground. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the self consciousness and the “fitting in” this age group has to contend with. It can be a difficult time for some. We hope to improve our lessons to make Aikido accessible, fun, and friendly. We enjoy what we are doing and we continue to learn. The goal is to teach effective techniques, plant a seed of thought in this compassionate direction, impart confidence and reinforce the perspective of a peaceful approach in resolving conflict. As long as the school requests our presence, we will be there. We have been so fortunate to know this discipline. It is simply our responsibility to try to pass it on to the next generation and share what we have learned. It has been a most rewarding journey.
Note: You can support Ginny and Pete and their work by contacting them via Pete’s email address: email@example.com The high school is a non-profit so any donations for the mats would be tax deductible. Your support will be greatly appreciated by the students.