Bruce Bookman: On Tenzan Aikido’s Success

xBruce Bookman Sensei is the kaicho and chief instructor of Tenzan Aikido in Seattle, Washington and one of the most highly respected aikido instructors in the United States. He became the youngest aikido black belt in America at the age of 15 while studying under Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan at New York Aikikai in the 1970s, and now runs one of the world’s most successful aikido dojos with student from ages four to 70. Bruce spoke with Aikido Journal about his unique aikido journey, building his dojo, and his philosophical perspective on the martial art. This is the second part (first part here) of the four-part interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Bruce Bookman talking with Juan Carlos Figueroa of the NY Aikikai at Bookman Sensei’s advanced seminar at Tenzan Aikido in Jan 2018.

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Where did your aikido path lead you after leaving Japan?

Bruce: I returned to New York City and worked in Yamada Sensei’s New York Aikikai dojo for another year or so. Then I moved out to Seattle, Washington, at about the same time as [Kazuo] Chiba Sensei moved to San Diego. We both started our dojos at the same time, and I worked under Chiba Sensei for another 14 years.

14 years? Wow.

In total I spent about 16 years with Chiba Sensei. Everybody loves their teacher and wants to stick with their teacher. There’s something that impresses them, so probably everyone would say something similar to me about how they feel about their teacher. For me, Chiba Sensei had this corridor of brilliance and there was something special about his movement. I looked around and saw nothing like it.

I know that Chiba Sensei is a controversial figure on many levels, and certainly I could only deal with him up to a certain point; we actually had to part ways because of personality issues and conflicts. I had to go my own way, which was heartbreaking in a certain way, and liberating in others.

I’m sure. What year was that, approximately?

That must have been in 1994. After that, I re-affiliated with Yamada Sensei’s group on the East coast. Then it got to the point where I was in a new marriage. I had met my wife, we had a child together, and I really needed to work on my personal life and do my own thing. I resigned from the United States Aikido Federation and I’ve been operating on my own ever since, running my own dojo, and tending to my family. And really, that’s been all I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.

And you’ve been doing so quite successfully.

Thank you.

In the aikido world, there’s been a decline in interest levels over the last decade. I know some have had challenges bringing in new students and retaining students, especially younger students. Yet your dojo is a fantastic success story. I’ve spent the last few days at your dojo, and it’s amazing. It’s 5,000 square feet, and you have activities going on all throughout the day. Could we spend a little bit of time talking about how you approach running your dojo, how it works, and how were you able to build it into something that’s so successful?

Of course. As you mentioned, we do indeed have a lot going on at the dojo, everything from children’s classes to the adult aikido program to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. My wife is a yoga teacher, so we also have yoga at the dojo. I studied yoga quite in-depth for a while. We also offer meditation practices.

The dojo runs smoothly now, but it started out as quite a struggle. When I got back from Japan and moved to Seattle, I got an accounting degree with a degree in business administration. I was planning to be a CPA at one point, which was a sort of  temporary insanity for me. I always subsidized the dojo, whether with a carpentry job, or or some other service I could provide.

Then I finally decided that what I’m meant to do, my dharma, is to do aikido, and to do it full time. I committed myself completely to it. I didn’t care if I starved to death or not, I was going to be an aikido instructor.  I wasn’t going to have any safety net.  

And I remember–the children actually saved me, meaning the children’s program. At first, I wasn’t very good at teaching children; parents would bring their kids in, and after a few minutes, they’d grab their kid by the hand and pull them out of class and say, “This guy doesn’t know anything about teaching kids.” It was just awful. And I’d say, “Yeah, take your little brat.” I didn’t have a very good attitude.

But having my son gave me a better, heartfelt feeling for children. Then, taking my child to Suzuki violin lessons, and watching them teach an entire group of children very intricate fingering on the violin was just amazing. I adopted the Suzuki violin method for teaching young children aikido, and it went really well. The classes started to fill, and I started to add more and more classes, and then began teaching older children. Before long, I adopted, through trial and error, my own way of teaching children.

Every member of the Children’s program has a photo and membership card they use to check in for class. Tenzan Aikido has 200 kids enrolled in their programs

The children’s program became very strong early on. It lifted me above the line, so that I could make a living, and not have to do anything else. Then, the adult program started to grow gradually. It grew very slowly, but it was growing. I was still in interaction with Chiba Sensei, and heavily involved in my own training, in both the aiki weapons work and all the things that Chiba Sensei was emphasizing, including Iaido. I kept learning and growing over the years, and I kept trying things. Some things worked, others didn’t. There were ups and downs. We almost went out of business several times. I was in tremendous debt at one point, but now our dojo runs completely debt-free. It’s been like that for a long time now, I’m happy to say. It’s been quite an evolution on the deepest level, for me, in terms of the study of aikido and the study of teaching aikido.

A children’s BJJ class at Tenzan Aikido.

What I’ve found, from studying aikido and Jiu Jitsu and Iaido and yoga, is that most people teach as if they are an instructional video. They have what they’d like to teach, and they present it but there’s not a lot of checking in with the student. Is the student bored? Are they paying attention to you? Are they getting it? Are they practicing safely? Are they getting hurt and being stoic about it? When you ask them, “How’s it going? Are you enjoying your aikido practice?” and they say, “Oh yeah, everything’s fine,” is it really? Why do people quit, then?

Furthermore, what meaning does aikido really have for people in their daily life? What do they want to gain from aikido? Is it a good fit for me to teach them aikido? These are very difficult questions. These are risky questions to ask. If it’s not a good fit, that might mean I shouldn’t teach aikido anymore, or I teach aikido to just a group of really enthusiastic nut jobs who dedicate their entire lives to aikido. They may not have very balanced lives, and there are not that many people like that around anymore.

That’s right.

Bruce Bookman leading his annual advanced seminar at Tenzan Aikido in January 2018.

The dojo used to be full of nut jobs, me being one of them, but you just don’t find those people anymore. It was a real feeling-out process for teaching aikido, and some of my peers would say to me, “You’re selling out. You’re somehow watering down what you do, and what you’ve learned from Chiba Sensei, and your practice of aikido.” And my response to them would be, “Listen, I want to reach as many people as we can with aikido, and figure out how people can benefit from the message of aikido and how they can relate it to their life. What’s wrong with getting a huge base of beginners, because out of that base, you’re going to find talent?”

And you’ll have the same number of very dedicated students. Out of a group of 100 students, maybe you’ll have five or 10 truly dedicated students, but you’ll have a dojo, and you can spend all your time just focusing exclusively on how you teach aikido, and you can help a lot of people. Alternatively, you can have a day job and run a dojo out of your garage. You’ll have the same five or 10 very dedicated students, and do it that way. And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Right, it’s just a different path.

It’s just a different path. You have to decide what your dharma is. On the financial side, I’d never taken a vow of poverty when I decided to become a professional aikido instructor, although some might expect that. Somehow they got over that expectation in the yoga community. If you attend a seminar in the yoga arena, they charge for it. There is a business aspect to it, and they value what they teach. It’s an exchange of energy.

I’ve also seen this dynamic. While most practitioners of yoga, golf, or other mind-body disciplines or sports are happy to spend money for quality programs and products, some in the aikido community seem to be resistant to doing so. I think that for those that are in a position to do so, being open to putting more money into the aikido ecosystem will definitely return that value and allow for the creation of even better and higher-impact programs and experiences that everyone can benefit from. 

I learned a lot from that. For me, it’s always been helpful to mentor successful people, if not in the aikido community, in other related communities, whether it’s the fine arts or dance or yoga, or even someone successful at ballroom dancing. I took a look at Arthur Murray and how they have publicized ballroom dancing, and how they made people feel comfortable doing something that would otherwise be uncomfortable: learning how to dance and being in front of other people learning how to dance. I took something like that, and applied it to aikido.

How do we make people comfortable practicing aikido? We have to challenge their spirit and temper them martially, and yet, make them comfortable enough so that they can come into the dojo and apply themselves. And that, I think, is really the secret of my success at the dojo.

My wife, Colette, has also been very helpful. Her support and encouragement help me in very practical ways, and in the spiritual dimension as well. She’s a wonderful friend and a source of inspiration in how she runs her life and how she pursues her yoga. My affiliation with my guru Amma Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī, otherwise known as Amma, or the Hugging Saint, has been very inspirational as well. Through the dojo, we’ve come across many people who are involved and help us in many ways. The general manager of the dojo, Melissa Fischer, has been working with us now for close to 20 years.

Melissa Fischer, General Manager of Tenzan Aikido

Wow, I didn’t know that–20 years.

It started when she and her husband brought their children to the dojo, but it was years before she actually got on the mat herself. She was a professional ballerina at one point in her life, and then she got involved with aikido. I first had her teach a children’s class, and she was very gifted at it. She had a knack for inspiring people to do aikido and an infectious enthusiasm that really gets people involved. We both have been working together to find out what works and what doesn’t work–everything from scheduling to how to introduce somebody to aikido with a private lesson and then a group class. It’s been incredible.

Josh Gold, asking Melissa Fischer about a technical detail related to her iriminage.

Back east, my old friend Rick Stickles Sensei, who passed away, had a very successful dojo (that’s still successful today) called Aikido Schools of New Jersey. I consulted with him and Skip Chapman Sensei of Jersey Shore Aikikai for a period of time. There were some things I learned from them that really helped. It’s important to be able to absorb new information, and to have mentors that can inspire you. You have to keep working at it and not lose your direction. You must not get so discouraged that you get paralyzed or that you give up. Everything it takes to become a phenomenal aikidoist is necessary to make a go of it as a professional aikido instructor, to make it palatable to the general population.

You’ve certainly done that quite well. What is the age range of the students at Tenzan?

We have a four-to-seven-year-olds class. The oldest member in our adults program is 70 years old. It’s pretty incredible.

Rachael MacQuarrie, age 15, a 2nd kyu student at Tenzan Aikido.

How many classes do you run a week? I know you have two separate training rooms, so do you have multiple classes going on in parallel?

We have 27 aikido and jiu jitsu classes going on each week at the dojo. I must be on the mat for about 18 or 19 hours a week. I’ve also been teaching private lessons, although I’m cutting down on that now. I just turned 60, and while I will never retire from aikido and jiu jitsu, I may change my schedule a bit so it’s not as demanding. Over the last 48 years, aikido has been very important to me as a martial art and a path of growth and development, as well as a venue for me to experience my own artistic expression.

I’d like to come back to that in our next interview segment, but to recap a previous thought, it sounds like part of your recipe for success is that you differentiate between technical skill and teaching skill, and you strive to be excellent at both. You cultivate a teaching strategy that works for different types of individuals, at different ages, with different objectives. I know from experience this kind of  approach involves a great deal of trial and error and continuous iteration.

Absolutely. I think, partly because of technology and the fact that people are almost glued to their electronic devices, I’m starting to see that people are further from their own physicality. Children don’t run and jump the way they used to. I see it in the four-to-seven-year-olds class. I’ve seen four-year-olds who are afraid to go over their head, who are afraid to tumble. Of course this carries on through the adult ranks. I see people go into adulthood with basic fears that are more intense than what I remember growing up.

Bruce Bookman, executing a flawless break fall at age 60.

I’ve had to address this in teaching aikido by using a very graduated method of instruction. I have soft mats. I have inclined mats. I teach rolling very carefully to adults, for example. I don’t teach an adult how to roll until they’ve been at the dojo for two to three months, because I want them to get hooked on it. I want them to have a good experience. I would like them to experience the benefit of aikido without having to struggle with an injury.

The children’s program involves weaving play in with the serious art of aikido. When I teach, I watch them and when it gets a little too dry for them and their attention wanders, I’ll transition into a game, and bring them back to the fold. It’s a very sensitive process of watching the energy, and wrapping the class up in this energetic matrix. The children notice if your mind strays a little bit, and they just bounce off the walls. You have to allow the children to have a good time, but also to experience the consequences of their actions.

That’s right.

What we need to be working on is how to parent and how to teach the children. This is where I see our gift to children as aikido teachers. We’re not only teaching them technique; we are teaching them how to interact in the world and how to deal with life when you don’t have immediate gratification. We teach the benefit of long term dedication, and how to keep working at something in the face of disappointment.

If you have those skills going into life, you’re bound to be successful. That’s what we want to help the children to be: successful people who can function in society, and who can give to society. And that’s what it’s about. That’s the spiritual part in it. It’s not what you get. It’s what you can give. It’s like exhaling. If you exhale, you’ll inhale naturally, and you’ll inhale beautifully, and you’ll be supported by it, just like you’ll be supported by life if you contribute to it. That’s the message to the children in our program. It’s been immensely gratifying to see the children at all these different levels being very serious about their aikido.

This was the second part of a four-part interview with Bruce Bookman Sensei. The first part is here. Stay tuned for the rest of the series. In part 3 Bruce Bookman talks about his technical influences and perspective on cross-training. 

Christina Kelly


Leave a Reply to francesca Cancel reply

  • Very insightful and inspiring view on how to run a successful Dojo , can’t wait for part 3 and 4 of this great interview. Thanks for your work Sensei Josh.

  • I was a young guy trying Aikido for the first time. I have profound memories of Bookman Sensei coming back from Japan. Practicing some crazy, soft side ukemi just to warm up. For all the reasons he mentioned of how different the personalities and the time period itself, I didn”t stay. Oh what might have been. Luckily I came back to Aikido years later.

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