Lighting the Spark: An Interview with André Cognard

André Cognard was born in France in 1954. He was 17 years old when he started teaching aikido by opening five dojos in several cities in France. Four years later, he received the French state diploma for teaching judo, aikido, karate and kendo. In 1973 he met Hirokazu Kobayashi Sensei (1929-1998), a direct disciple of O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. Cognard trained under Kobayashi Sensei for 25 years. In 1982 he founded the Académie Autonome d’Aikido (French), where aikido is taught by traditional means as well as with support from research in psychology, philosophy, and western and eastern medicine. In 2003, he opened the Kobayashi Hirokazu Kinen Aikidojo in Bourg Argenal, France, which is a traditional dojo devoted to his master and the venue for his Instructors Training Courses. Cognard Sensei directs seminars worldwide, and he is the author of several books on martial arts. He is also one of the highest-ranking representatives of the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai: the title of Hanshi was bestowed upon him in 2012, at the Fourth World Butoku Sai held at the Butokuden in Kyoto, Japan.

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): You’ve mentioned that you regularly do some work for the French Ministry of Justice where you teach aikido in prisons. Can you talk a little bit about that and who you teach in the classes?

Andre Cognard: Yes. The classes have inmates in them, but also I teach to the prison guards, even the director of the prison. It’s an exercise in thinking about how everything in the prison can be managed without violence — it’s not easy because it’s a very violent atmosphere inside. Very often, prison guards are only portrayed as tough guys, but it’s not true. I’ve met so many very, very nice people doing this. They are often very concerned about how to handle things in the prison, because they are the only interface between a prisoner and the world. They really think about how to protect the prisoners because it’s very difficult to be in jail and they need to be helped even if they did bad things.

Cognard Sensei at Ikazuchi Dojo. Uke, Nathanaël Gaffric

Can you describe for me what a sample class at a prison would look like? How long does it run and how many people are involved?

Not too many people – 10 or 12. The classes run no more than one and a half hours. The work is often psychological and emotional, about opening up their intuition. For example, an exercise where someone approaches with a sword and we let the student discover how to move at the right moment; it’s to help them feel confidence in themselves. It’s important to understand where they are coming from in this work. Most of them did not have a father … while that does not excuse what they did, it helps us understand who they are in the present.

I also work with minors, you know? Children, 12-14 years old, who were condemned for 20 years because they killed people. It can be very difficult to connect with them, because when you talk to them they don’t look at you. They look down and they do not answer.   If I can give them back a little balance, they begin to talk. It was very interesting to work with them because I learned a lot from it.

How many of these sessions have you led at prisons?

I don’t know exactly. I began 15 years ago and some years, I did two, three, or four classes. Sometimes, only one. Last year, I didn’t do as many because I was so busy going everywhere in the world, too busy, but I try to do at least one session every year. It’s a part of what I call “taking aikido out of the dojo.” I want aikido to be at the service of people. In a dojo, people come to you, and they may be easy to guide, but we miss out on other people that cannot come because they don’t think to come or they just don’t know what aikido is. We need to go to them.

It’s a part of what I call “taking aikido out of the dojo.” I want aikido to be at the service of people. In a dojo, people come to you, and they may be easy to guide, but we miss out on other people that cannot come because they don’t think to come or they just don’t know what aikido is. We need to go to them.

For example, I like to run workshops in big companies to help them learn management without violence – that is, without coercion and negativity. This is very important – there’s so much drama in workplaces, and people can suffer so much. I show them that this kind of management is not only possible but more efficient, using aikido as a model for positive relationship strategies. It’s interesting work, helping managers modify their way of thinking. I also go to business-focused high schools, to teach that we can create products and services without violence as well. This is very important if you think about business ecosystems.

Yes, I agree.

Business is very often modeled as a system of conflicting interests: “I want what you have”; “I want your product and I want to pay less than what you are charging”; “I want your money and I want you to pay me more for my work.” It doesn’t feel nice and it can feel nice if the perspective is shifted a little, for example: “I want you to give me the best product you have and I will pay exactly what you are charging because I recognize your effort to give me the best.”

You can completely change an individual’s way of thinking, and by extension the business as well. It takes time, but I hope that eventually the conflict-focused mentality will change.

I think this is a valuable endeavor and I know it takes a lot of expertise and creativity to get it right. At Ikazuchi Dojo, we’ve run similar programs for large corporations as well, ranging from leadership training workshops to just teaching traditional aikido classes on corporate campuses. You can reach many people with the principles of the art and some will go back and use them in their personal and professional lives.

Some of my pupils have gone on to create companies wholly based on this concept. They have developed a style of teaching aikido specifically for companies and organizations. For example, some of them were teaching in a hospital because hospital staff like nurses work with people who are often suffering, and this can be very hard work. My students go there and they teach them how to help people without destroying themselves.

Cognard Sensei demonstrating weapons forms with Nathanaël Gaffric

How did you get started teaching aikido in prisons for the Ministry of Justice?

I don’t quite remember, but I believe there were people associated with the Ministry who heard of me through my lectures, because I was speaking often and in different places. One time I gave a lecture to a group of lawyers, so it may have come out of that.

I know you travel a lot to teach aikido. You said that you go where no one else wants to go, to help really excite people about aikido and light a spark in areas where it didn’t exist before, like India or various countries in Africa. Can you speak more about your approach?

It starts with thinking about what aikido is about and what life is for, and how they intersect. I personally think that money should not be so important in aikido. If I think that people are interested and if I think that they will receive some benefit from aikido, even if there is no money, I go. I think aikido at its core is not a business at all and I very often teach for free — completely free. This idea allows me to feel confident in going where I am called to go, wherever that is.

When I went to Poland in the early 80s, there was no money. I paid for my flight, my hotel, and everything else just to teach there. I do the same in Africa, where I’ve been teaching in some villages in the jungle, the savanna, and so on. Out there, there are no dojos yet. It’s just teaching on the earth like this, to people who might not have any money to eat but have an interest in learning aikido. This is very interesting to me — why are these people interested in aikido? How did the message come to them? It’s an incredible thing.

In the beginning in India, it was the same. There was no money at all. We went there for 20 years paying for everything ourselves. Now, when I go to some place where there is money available, I take the money and I use it to go where there is no money. It’s a simple concept, but not very common. I like to do this because I think aikido is something for the whole world. It is owned by nobody, so we have to give aikido, not sell it. Sometimes, though, you need money, so when there is money and when taking the money does not affect anybody adversely, you can receive it and you use it.

In the beginning in India, it was the same. There was no money at all. We went there for 20 years paying for everything ourselves. Now, when I go to some place where there is money available, I take the money and I use it to go where there is no money. It’s a simple concept, but not very common. I like to do this because I think aikido is something for the whole world.

You said you used to teach in East Germany?

In Poland. Before the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

What was it like during that time? It must have been very risky.

It was a risk, yes. Teaching aikido was not allowed so we did it clandestinely. It was nice, actually.

What would a class be like? Where would you hold the class?

First point, we never published anything to advertise the classes. We were not supposed to be running classes and they were always very afraid of the police, and all of this. We were teaching in any places – houses, etc. A pupil of mine from Romania was taken by the police and jailed because he was officially teaching karate, which was legal, but he had a secret aikido class that was infiltrated by the police after four years of operation.

So karate was okay, but aikido wasn’t?

Karate and judo were okay. Aikido was not. I don’t know why.  Maybe they felt that there was something about the art that did not match their politics. Aikido was not allowed. Kobayashi Sensei tried to introduce aikido in the very, very eastern part of the Soviet Union. He began and they arrested him, and threw him out. I think he was around Vladivostok.

I’m glad the situation has changed, as aikido is quite popular in Russia now. Could you speak more about your work in Africa? You said you’ve been going to these places for a while and I think you’ve mentioned to me that recently you had a seminar with 500 or 600 people there?

Yes. In North Africa we had a very big seminar with around 650 people in early 2017. It was nice. I was very surprised because we had people coming from Syria at that time during the war. They also came from Libya, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and other places.

Did they all have a dogi?

Yes, sure. They have dogi, and there are some teachers who are working so hard in Algeria giving seminars, for example. In Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, they have actually been practicing aikido for a long time. A lot of Japanese teachers went there in the 70s. We went there with Kobayashi Sensei in ’73, ‘4, ‘5, ‘6, in Morocco, for example, and I’ve been teaching in the south of Morocco for a very long time. In India, it was wonderful because two years ago, I went there to supervise an aikido test for women. It was the first shodan for a woman in India – I am sure you have heard about the conditions for women in the country.

Two months ago, I had a seminar in Marseilles, South of France and one Indian woman came, and she also had a shodan examination there. It was the second such title for women in India. I’m very happy about this and I encourage them to teach, so now one is teaching but she has only female students. Men don’t want to go, but it’s a start.

Josh Gold (left) and André Cognard (right) at Ikazuchi Dojo.

It sounds like you are doing important work and in some ways, disrupting negative societal barriers with your aikido teaching. 

Yes, I think it’s important because this is also part of the nature of aikido, to teach that people are equal and that we all have to collaborate. That women and men are not supposed to live in opposition, but rather together, in composition. We need women as men and women need men, and it’s not necessary to have antagonism and conflict around this. I think this is also part of aikido’s teachings.

When I began teaching in India, one difficult problem was the caste system. The Brahmins are the highest caste, then there’s the middle class with other castes, and finally the Dalits, or “untouchables.” There were some untouchables that tried to come to the class because we were in West Bengal. Calcutta is West Bengal, and West Bengal is the most progressive state in India. Two women came. They were doctors in physics who were doing some research together at the university because other researchers didn’t want to try to work with them. They came to the aikido class, and at the beginning, some people did not want to touch them and tried to avoid them. When I understood what was going on, I said no. “You teach them as you teach anybody or I will not come again.” They said okay and from that time, we were off and running with no more problems.

Do you know about what the Indians call the “tribes”? That means people in the country who don’t have an official identity — they are people that were often kidnapped from elsewhere. They taken inside and they are treated like slaves – others can even kill them without a problem. A girl from this group is training with us now, and I am very happy about this. I am very, very happy about this.

André Cognard executing a kotegaeshi variation. Uke, Nathanaël Gaffric

That’s a great story, and I’m happy about it, too. You’ve mentioned before that there are lots of different approaches to aikido and that they can all be positive as long as they have the spirit of O-Sensei. Can you speak more to what that means to you?

I think the art of aikido is about sensibility, in the literal meaning of how you use your senses to feel yourself and other people. Many people are not used to doing this in a dynamic way. When some people are doing aikido, they move but then exactly at the moment of the contact, they stop, and then they begin to move again. It’s like they are thinking, “I touched the body and then I’m okay to move on,” and this is something we have to change in our practice. It’s not good because practice is about using sensibility while moving and it’s important to be flexible when you approach the body of the opponent. It depends on the individual and the moment. Each person has their own way to get in contact. I think if we look at aikido in general, there are branches and schools which have different approaches and characteristics in this area. I think people can choose what is best for them and what they feel they can do. I think this is normal and probably means we need every kind of aikido.

I think if we look at aikido in general, there are branches and schools which have different approaches and characteristics in this area. I think people can choose what is best for them and what they feel they can do. I think this is normal and probably means we need every kind of aikido.

O-Sensei had so many pupils and if you look at what they were each doing, it was very different. I remember Yamaguchi Sensei had very large, beautiful  movements. Saito Sensei – very powerful, straight, and Shioda Sensei was just incredible. All very different. This is important. If O-Sensei taught all these people and they were all so different and created such different legitimate styles, that means that they were able to spread aikido in any direction, but with the same intention as aikido teachers and O-Sensei’s students. It’s important where we can work together; what one person can do is not so important. What we can do together is very important.

All that said, I think probably something is missing in the big group classes of aikido: the relationship between the true master and their disciple. It’s historically been a very deep, very strong relationship, and it’s not easy to become someone’s disciple in this way. It’s something I just felt when I met Kobayashi Sensei. I was a teenager, I was doing martial arts because I need to develop confidence – judo, karate, kendo, everything I could think of. When I met him, I understood that he trusted me more – much more – than I was trusting myself at the time. This was very powerful for me, so much so that I decided to renounce my own ideas and to hear his ideas. I decided also that if I did not agree with what he was saying, that meant I was not thinking enough like him, and I would always try what he was doing and what he was telling me to do. I was conscious of the decision to take my body and give it over to him, in a sense, and move myself according to his directions and thoughts. I thought of myself like bread dough that was moving and reforming in the hands of a master baker.

It’s important where we can work together; what one person can do is not so important. What we can do together is very important.

To accept this as a disciple, you must absolutely trust the person there, the master. How could I trust him? Well, because he never put himself in a position to order me to do something. It was never, “You must do this, you have to do this.” If I carried his bag, it was because I chose to do it; I was inspired to do it on my own. He never asked. As a master, never say, “You must,” and always say, “You are free to do as you feel is right.”

Kobayashi Sensei never said don’t go somewhere or don’t do something. Never. You were always left feeling that you were free so you could engage with yourself and the world as you chose. If you say to people, “You must do this or must not do this,” they have no choice. They cannot decide for themselves. When it comes to teaching aikido, that means you cannot teach at all. Teaching is first teaching freedom – it was impossible to control Kobayashi Sensei but he never tried to control you. That’s why for my group, I decided that there will be one rule: never dominate, never submit. No compromise. If you think about it, a lot of people’s actions are reactions to the dynamic of coercion. Compromise in this case is not good and is indicative of a domination/submission relationship.

Fascinating. Since spreading the art of aikido is a big part of your work, and to illustrate this for our readers, could you just recount your travel schedule briefly just for 2018?

I was in Japan at the beginning of the year, starting from the end of last year. I like the atmosphere of Japan in that season – it’s beautiful. People are moving, and you can feel the soul of Japan still moving, still existing. It’s very deep – it’s much more than we can understand. After this I came back and went to Algeria, then around Europe. I went to Spain, to Italy, to Germany, and so on. I went back to Japan once, twice. I came here to the United States for two, three weeks. I’ll next be going back to Europe, to Italy or Germany and Poland. Then I’ll go back to Japan in October, because every beginning of October I do a big demonstration in Kyoto. I like to do this because it’s a very old tradition of martial arts in Japan.

When you travel to do seminars, is it mostly for people within your organization or some outside dojos too?

It depends. It’s mostly our organization or people close to, but it’s not a strict rule. For example: when I go to Algeria, the dojos where I teach are not in our organization, but I don’t mind. They ask me to come, I teach. I don’t worry about organizations.

L to R: Zitlalpilli Luna, Nathanaël Gaffric, Robert Ishibashi, Josh Gold, André Cognard.

When you go to teach somewhere, do you have any specific approaches or something that you always try to do, or are you just kind of flexible based on the situation?

I am flexible, but I always try to help people understand the nature of Kobayashi Sensei’s aikido. Essentially, it’s the idea that I’m not working on you, but rather on me. The technique starts from my body first, which is very important. I use the free space between us to meet your soul, not to control your body. I always try to express this message because I think it is the most important thing you can do in aikido. I also always teach weapons because I think you cannot separate the taijutsu [open hand technique] and the weapon. The dojo and the ken [sword] – this is all one. Finally, I always explain about etiquette. We have a very, very strict code of etiquette, more so than probably any other school.

The reason our etiquette is different is because of Kobayashi Sensei. In Japan, he thought the etiquette was basically good and consistent, but very often he talked to me and said it should be better. You see, for example in aikido, the etiquette is very good and it’s important because this is about creating the right environment for zanshin [the state of martial awareness]. It’s about respect and expressing respect. If you do not express the respect, it does not exist, so you have to show it.

If you do not express the respect, it does not exist, so you have to show it.

I asked Kobayashi Sensei, “But what should etiquette be?” and he explained a lot of details. I begin to introduce this in my group and now I teach the same etiquette everywhere. Some people are surprised to hear that I don’t meet resistance when insisting on this etiquette. Even if the surrounding culture is very different, I do not meet resistance.

There are some examples of cultural differences that can be a challenge for aikido. One time, I took some Japanese people to a tribe in the Sahara Desert, to some people who I have been friends with for a long time. They could not understand each other because the Japanese guy is taking two baths a day and the Saharan people go for three weeks without water. Eating is difficult in the desert. As visitors, we have to eat what they eat and it’s not easy. For the tribe, the Japanese were strange people, but they could see that the Japanese people loved me and I loved them. The Japanese people could see that the tribe loved me and I loved them, so after few days the connection between the two groups became very strong.

I think aikido teachers can serve as mediators between different cultures, and this is why I want to travel often to different countries with different cultures, because I think that the message of aikido is really universal. It transcends any culture and can be understood by anybody, if you go to the heart of the message.

We had the third anniversary of our school five or six years ago in France. The event hosted 600 or 700 people and maybe 25 different nationalities. Everybody was together doing exactly the same etiquette. Many different people, but they were all of one intention in the practice. That is the power of aikido.

That’s wonderful. Thank you very much again for your insights, Cognard Sensei.

Christina Kelly

4 comments

  • Spotted a small typo, I think. “I don’t quite remember, but I believe there were people associated with the Ministry who heard of my through my lectures,” – the first “my” probably should be “me”?

    • Thanks Andy! I checked the article text and it’s already using “me”, not “my”. We appreciate you keeping an eye out for typos. 🙂

  • I loved this interview. Andre has the right spirit, and his last point about etiquette is spot on. I volunteered to teach a so called ‘soft-aikido dojo’ for six months. When one of their Russian instructors returned from a long sojourn in Russia, he joined his colleague’s class and proceeded to take me down to the ground with various wrestling, judo and jujitsu moves. He ended up breaking my floating ribs on both sides with a bear-hug take-down. My etiquette was probably flawed because I had tapped his ankle a few times earlier (as in tapping someone on the shoulder lightly) because he wasn’t taking ukemi as he should be. Instead of folding his inside leg for tenchi-nage, he squatted down straight while hanging on to my raised arm, almost dragging me down with him several times (as in a kaeshi-waza of a sutemi variety). That day, I was not doing the tenchi-nage I knew how to do but trying to be polite to the instructor of the day and learn his way of doing tenchi-nage which I was not familiar with. Anyway, I also know how to punch and kick and know exactly where to cause harm. Somehow, probably from 30+ years of teaching non-violence, I restrained myself from hurting him. But all the while this man was attacking me, I was hoping he would realize there was some sort of misunderstanding. An ankle tap should not lead to getting myself beaten half-dead. I kept wishing someone, perhaps the teacher, would come over and stop this guy from trying to strangle me, then do an arm-bar on me, etc, etc. Of course, I also know my newaza and got out of most of his moves. But honestly, when your back is in pain, and you think it has just been snapped (when it was actually the floating ribs) you are not going to be able to move nimbly. Oh, there is one little detail you need to know. He used to be my friend years ago, or at least I thought we were on friendly terms. I even went to his apartment two weeks prior to catch up with him. Over the course of two hours I explained how my aikido changed as a result of my slipped disk. This was the same man who decided he would squeeze my weakened lower back with a bear-hug..! To be honest, I thought I was going to walk out of that dojo in a wheelchair, paralyzed for life, if not broken in half like a twig. When I queried the dojo about allowing this kind of mixed-martial arts approach on the mat, I was told that, in their dojo, it was “no hold’s barred.” I couldn’t stop laughing for weeks..! What a terrible interpretation of aikido freedom…! And in the name of ‘soft-aikido’ too! Etiquette: We bow to establish an atmosphere of harmony and respect. But what if we bow to pretend to respect in order to let our most violent fantasies run wild, where no one complains, because they are cooperative, and everyone is injured because cooperative people don’t know what to do with sadists. Schadenfreude appears to be most human to do those who love it so, and it casts some doubt on the notion of “freedom in aikido” as a boundless or joyful value – without limit or censure.

    • Taking ukemi should be protecting yourself as much as it is “taking the fall”. People out to hurt you on the mat never appreciate the fact that you are donating your body for a period of time to their advancement in the art. After having my wrists hurt while helping a friend’s student towards their black belt test at their dojo I vowed to myself to never let that happen again. I am sure that student was totally oblivious to the fact. So at seminars in subsequent years when someone tried to slip into a BJJ choke I turned and threw them off the mat, when someone tried to manhandle me in a shihonage I changed the angle and dropped them on the floor, when someone tried to wrench my wrist in sankyo I let them hurt their own wrist, when someone tried to knee me in the crotch I walked away… It’s one thing to accept a technique performed on you but it’s totally another thing to allow someone’s intent to hurt you. No hold’s barred is for the street not the mat or even the cage.