Aikido training in Las Vegas: “The Garage Dojo” by Stanley Pranin

On two occasions during my career in aikido I have set up and taught out of garage dojos. The first experience was around 1974 in Monterey, California when our aikido class spent several months in my home garage in transition between store-front facilities.

This little dojo was affectionately dubbed “The Aiki Lab” and I can remember finding it extremely convenient to train because I could literally walk outside the door from the house and be inside the dojo. The mats consisted of “ethafoarm” which is an industrial packing material that was popular in those days as a dojo flooring.

We erected a frame and placed down the ethafoam cut to the size of the two-car garage. I believe we put carpet padding down first to cushion the ethafoam that otherwise would have been in direct contact with the concrete floor. Since the setup was permanent, obviously, I couldn’t park my car in the garage at all! Despite this minor inconvenience, I have many fond memories of the training in those days in the Aiki Lab.

Fast foward 35 years and I am now teaching out of my second garage dojo in Las Vegas. This time we are working out of a three-car garage. The mat setup is not permanent and we lay down and pick up 15 Zebramats each time we practice. It takes two people about 6-7 minutes to do the job, less if more students are on hand to help out. We can handle a maximum of about 12 people with this surface area. Again, the convenience of having absolutely no commute time to deal with is a big boon.

This time, due to the temporary nature of our setup, the tatami mats are in direct contact with the concrete floor. As such, I am careful with the amount and kind of ukemi we do to be sure to avoid falling injuries. One idea I have to deal with this concern is to lay down some kind of rubber garage flooring to cushion the mats. This is the type of mat that can be used to protect the floor from oil stains but I see no reason why it won’t serve as padding as well. If this idea proves practical, we still will be able to park our cars and lay down mats as we are doing now, but we’ll have a more accomodating surface for aikido falls.

I would be curious to get feedback from our readers who have had experience training in a garage dojo. How did you set things up? What kind of mats did you use? What, in your view, are the pros and cons of training in a garage dojo?



  • Stanley:

    My dojo has 40 zebra mats on top of a poured, concrete floor (old industrial garage area). In over two years, nobody has gotten injured from landing on the mats. I place a lot of emphasis on GOOD ukemi so that people can land safely on hard surfaces. I think that people develop bad habits by only landing on unrealistically soft surfaces. This habits do not materialize until the ukemi has to happen on a wooden floor, street,…..

    The best thing about the industrial garage space is the VERY HIGH ceiling! The worst is trying to keep the place reasonably warm in the winter (cinderblock building).

    Marc Abrams

  • Some of the best training happens in the most modest edifices. The only drawback is some low roof places is the difficulty is some attributes of riai with longer weapons in relation to ukemi. Firm EVA closed cell foam mats are the best for preserving wear and tear on the old body and also insulation and can be laid down on any surface without ill effects. They are easy to clean as well. Make sure to keep the skins (part of the manufacturing process) on both sides as without the skin they lose their glide effect and will require the added expense of a cover (often doubling the overall costs or more). (The skin comes with the originally manufactured item.) Distributors often assume you want the mat “cleaned up” and destroy it by removing the skin surface which is just immaculate for budo training) When they stopped filling olympic tatami with rice straw (because over the years it compacts and it becomes more pleasurable to train on concrete that any used budo tatami older than 10 years,) they began to use closed cell foam. But you don’t need the cover. The generally available 3ft x 6ft x 2inch uniform and firm blocks are the nearest I’ve experienced to FRESHLY MADE true budo tatami. Except the EVA retains the low impact qualities for (so far) 25 years and obviously more.
    When you first get new EVA mats they stink like acrylic. A good scrub with soap, hot water and a day in the sun will see the smell disappear in a week or two.
    The best EVA is made in New Zealand and distributed globally via various agencies. If you want to know more or have valid questions contact me via:
    No, I do not have a financial “interest” in the company that makes them. Wish I did. My interest is in seeing people’s Aikido careers last the full range of their lives as a result of the safest ukemi surface possible.

    EVA foam is closed cell foam made from Ethylene Vinyl Acetate and blended copolymers. It has a high level of chemical cross linking. The result is semi-rigid product with a fine uniform cell structure that is suitable for use in a wide variety of situations and applications. Benefits of EVA Foam include;

    * Impact and vibration absorption
    * Weather and chemical resistance including splash resistance to oils and fuels
    * Acoustic and thermal insulation properties
    * Buoyancy with low water absorption
    * Suitability for thermo-forming and thermo-molding

  • PS Get the FIRMEST available (EVA45 – 45kg/m3) BEST FOR BUDO! The soft ones (30kg/m3 and softer become a regrettably expensive learning curve because they sink when you walk instead of being firm as tatami are. Good for lining the walls.
    During manufacture, the foam is formed in a mould, resulting in a sheet of Closed Cell Foam known as a bun.

  • To qualify that: the EVA45 – 45kg/m3 is the firmest of the THICKEST readily available. Thickest are best and approximate real tatami most closely.
    Sheets are obtainable which get progressively thinner and firmer which may be preferred by people who like to support chiropractors whilst getting arthritic impact spinal column damage. Not recommended.
    After some initial trial and error it quickly became obvious that the ones that most closely approximated the freshly made judo tatami were best to train on, these being: EVA45 – 45kg/m3 density, 2 inches thick (approx. 5 centimteres), 3ft by 6ft (or 1 metre by 2 metres)
    The colour choices are mostly disgusting non choice of pale watery green, pink, light mauve, white, a charcoal-grey-black and blue. I chose blue.
    25 years later they are as good as new except 10 I loaned to another mushal artist who vandalized them.
    Do not loan your mats!

  • Lucky folks. Don’t have a garage or enough anything to pay for one. Luckily there is a park nearby. Grass is pretty good except for breakfalls. Forget gis. Wear jeans, fatigues, sweats in dark colors so the mud and grass stains don’t show as much. When we train indoors at the Hapkido school they use artificial tatami over concrete. If you slap on a breakfall, it stings.

  • Stanley,

    I have trained in similar situations over the years with simply throwing tatami mats down or one piece rolls of matting duct taping the seams. Tatami is much easier to deal with. With safety and comfort concerns I would consider fitting the floor with 3/4 inch tongue and groove plywood. Then lay the mats down on top of plywood. With some simple hardware you can attach a frame quickly so the mats won’t move during practice. If you are looking for a higher comfort zone under the plywood try laying down 1/2 4×8 sheets of exterior insulation. When you lay the plywood over this material, stagger the joints. In either case you should be able to park on the flooring,and create a comfortable enviroment.

    Good Luck!

  • Interesting thread.
    I’m currently building a small dojo in my backyard. It’s based on a farm shed that is basically a roof on stilts – a very cheap basic structure – which I will then fill in with exterior-grade plywood on the sides.

    The floor will be concrete, and the idea I had for a training surface was to lay EVA foam blocks on the concrete and then to lay plywood on top. The reason for not training on the mats themselves is that I also do iaijutsu, which really needs a wooden surface. You just can’t slide properly on mats.

    What I want to achieve is a surface that have enough give for most training activities, has more ‘slide’ than mats, and yet doesn’t have the unforgiving nature of concrete. Something like a sprung wooden floor. I also have some mats I can lay down when needed.

    Any advice from anyone who has seen/done/trained on this sort of surface?

  • Well, I have a dojo in a gym, and I have to pick up and lay down up to 15 zebra mats each time. The nonslide surfaces slide, but I use the wall and some pillars to help. As for moving the mats, I cannot lift them up daily due to a neck injury, and sliding them on the floor damages them over time. I have used duck tape and another sort of extremely tough tape on the corners to protect them. When I bought these mats, I had no idea how difficult it would be to do this. I spoke to Shiohira Sensei one time about it. He advised me that it would have been better to get the zebra fold up mats that link together. The mats are not as good, but they are probably easier to move and hold together better. Hope that helps…

  • We have been using 18 Zebra mats in our dojo for over a year now. They go down over thin carpet. We set up and tear down twice weekly for regular classes. This offers good consistent grip strength training. You should see my boyz gripz.

  • I have been teaching in a garage for 10 yrs, I have 12 zebra mats on top of solid concrete floor, the mats sit on thin carpet. I’ll tell you the mats are great for my JKD and Kali classes because it offers great footing for stand up arts, as well as BJJ. But when it comes to teaching Aikijujutsu the Zebra mats suck!! they are real hard to roll on and break fall. I went to tiffin and bought 2 1/2 thick folding mats and put them on top of the zebra mats for the Aiki classes. Because I teach in a garage and not in a full time store front setting the classes are smaller and the mats are not breaking in as fast as a 5 night a week school. Adding the folding mats was the best thing I did for my Aiki guys. and they are easily moved off for my other classes. It doesn’t matter how skilled your students are at rolling or falling, accidents happen to anyone!! My job as a teacher is to keep my students protected in a SAFE environment, You can never be to safe.

  • We recently moved into a garage from a larger school space. In short landlord is a piece of work so we decided to leave. We placed several pieces of our equipment in storage. We presently have about 18 Zebra mats and several Tiffin mats that are using for training. The great thing is that all of our adult students are continuing to training with us at our garage location. We are still an inc, and keep everything else in place, i.e, insurance, etc. We have always been happy to say that we train hard, and we have had zero incidents on the mat. The students are our number one concern. Great instruction and great core group of students. Hope to find a new commercial location in about a year and a half. Watch out for the bad landlords.