An Interview with Jim Giorgi
20 February 2015
Jim Giorgi is the author of “Integral Aikido” ~ the first Nihon Goshin specific aikido book I ever purchased, a student of Sensei MacEwen, current yon-dan (4th degree black belt), and dojo-cho of South Florida Aikido in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It was very humbling to me that he took time out of his life to share his thoughts on Nihon Goshin Aikido, for the NGAexperience.com website. Through these initial correspondences I would say that we have forged a ready friendship.
Like so many other NGA practitioners I’ve met, you have this great sense that Sensei Giorgi “has your back” should you ever need help covering your proverbial “6.” So without further delay, my interview with psychologist, manufacturer, aikidoka, author, Buddhist priest, and dojo-cho Jim Giorgi follows:
NGA Experience: Sensei Giorgi, how did you get into Nihon Goshin Aikido?
As I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s, the Asian Martial Arts were just beginning to make a name for themselves in the mainstream consciousness and media. "Karate" of course was the first art to reach my awareness since it was the most popularized (at that point) of all the arts. As school kids, based on our limited understanding and exposure, we would discuss rumors such as how a karate "master" could "kill with one finger" and needed to register his hands as deadly weapons with the local police department. So a fascination with the Asian Martial Arts (as contrasted with western martial styles such as boxing or wresting) was there from my preteen years. Growing up in a somewhat restrictive and fairly traditional Italian-American family atmosphere, I never got involved in any arts as a kid.
While I was in college, I got a copy of an obscure and short-lived magazine with the rather pompous title "Intellectual Digest." The cover of this issue was graced with a photo of someone named George Leonard (whom I later learned was one of the pioneers of what became known as the "Human Potential Movement), wearing a gi and striking a contemplative martial arts pose. Next to his photo was the title of the article he had contributed to that issue: "Aikido and the Mind of the West." I had never heard of Aikido but assumed from the photo that it was some kind of martial art.
NGAexperience aside: The article was the June 1973 edition, and there is a copy of this very magazine for sale on eBay as this interview goes to print.
I dove into the magazine and read that article first. When I finished, I was both transfixed and inspired. Here was a martial art that could be effective in combat and yet aspired to unlock the highest principles of human development. At that moment I knew that I wanted to create a lifestyle for myself that would integrate body, emotions, mind and spirit. Aikido seemed to be well-suited as part of that lifestyle.
Over the next 10 or so years I completed my undergraduate and graduate degrees and got my first professional job as a school psychologist in Orange County in upstate NY. After attending a conference on personal improvement in California, I returned home ready to make two serious life commitments. I would resume the regular practice of meditation and I would practice a martial art. Living so far out of NYC, however, I despaired of finding an aikido school within a reasonable commuting distance.
As fate would have it, I often had occasion to go into Middletown NY, and one day while driving down the street I saw a storefront with the sign "Aikido School of Self-Defense." I was dumbfounded. I asked, “how could there be a school with such an exotic martial art as Aikido right here in podunk Middletown NY, only a 20 minute drive from where I was living?” I called the number and spoke to Sensei MacEwen; making an appointment to view a class. After watching that class, I immediately registered with the school and took my first class on November 8, 1983 (10 years after seeing the George Leonard magazine article on aikido). I haven't stopped training in aikido since.
NGA Experience: So what was it like in those early years of training?
For starters, probably like many students in our art, I did not initially realize that the Aikido I was studying was not the Aikido of Ueshiba, or even of any of his lineage, but was derived from the same teacher of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujitsu as Ueshiba's lineage (Yoshida Kotaro => Shodo Morita => Richard Bowe).
I was initially disappointed by this because after reading such books as "Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere" I was enamored of the philosophy and principles that Ueshiba developed into his style of Aikido (life protection, principles of ethical defense ~ eg: do no unnecessary harm to your atttacker, etc.), I felt that perhaps NGA was not a "pure" form of Aikido (whatever that meant!).
But because I had formed a relationship with Sensei MacEwen as my aikido teacher and the fact that there were no Ueshiba-style dojos within a commutable distance, I stuck with NGA. After about a year of training and reaching my blue belt rank, these misgivings left me forever. I now am very grateful that "fate" or "destiny" brought me to the dojo of an art that I now consider far superior in scope and effectiveness to those in our Ueshiba-influenced counterparts.
I say that with some pride, but more so from the experiences that I have had on occasions training with mainstream-style teachers during my travels or at seminars. And I say it also based on over 30 consistent years of experience in training and teaching in NGA and comparing what we do to what is done with similar techniques in the mainstream styles.
I know there are many mainstream notables out there that do not consider NGA a "true form of Aikido". To that I say, come to my dojo and watch what we do. There is nothing that mainstream Aikido does that we don't do (and to the same or higher level of fluidity and finesse), and there is lots that NGA does that they don't do.
Well, it seems that things worked out pretty well in the end doesn’t it?
To be very frank, when I started studying Aikido, I never set an intention either to "get a black belt" or to open my own school. I simply wanted to learn this beautiful and powerful art as part of my overall program of self-improvement. I also never expected that I would write two books on the subject. But I always kept telling myself, from the beginning, to "just keep coming" to class. I did that. And never stopped. And here I am now.
How did you come to move to Florida, and what led to the decision to open your own dojo?
I moved to South Florida in 2006 to assume a partner position in a business manufacturing a nontoxic, biodegradable industrial-strength soap. My business partner at the time had enrolled her grandchildren in a dojo of a martial art called "Taido", a form of karate that also included gymnastic-type movements. The head instructor of that school (who was one of the highest ranking members of the U.S. Taido Federation, HQ in Norcross, GA) had always been fascinated with Aikido. Knowing that I was a high ranking aikidoka, he invited me to teach classes at his dojo on the "off" nights. Also, tuition for my classes would augment the dojo income and help the dojo remain open since it was not particularly overpopulated with students.
Since I got my Sho-dan, I had been an assistant instructor at Sensei MacEwen's dojo in Middletown. I had never had any aspirations to open my own dojo as a business and was very content teaching at someone else's school, so this arrangement was perfect for me. I had a venue to teach, made a little money, and did something that I loved doing. Our Aikido classes never grew more than 8-10 students total enrollment and classes were typically 1-6 students for the entire time at that dojo. We never advertised or promoted the program, so new students came few and far between, but once they managed to find us, they seemed to stick with us. I promoted 3 of my original students to sho-dan out of that dojo in 2011-2012.
As fate would have it, in the Spring of 2013 there was a change of management at the dojo and the Aikido program was asked to leave. It seemed like bad news, but one of my students was renting two warehouse spaces for storage, and offered one of them as the space for a new dojo that would house the Aikido program exclusively.
We spruced up the place, built dressing rooms and bought a new mat which is relatively large (20'x35') for that space. We have been training in that dojo now since June of 2013 and are very happy with it. So it turned out that I became a dojo owner after all despite my lack of aspiration to ever do so.
I think there is a great lesson there, about taking advantage of the opportunities you’re given. Regarding your dojo philosophies, how do you organize your classes?
My classes are "organized" spontaneously. Since they are so small, everyone gets individualized attention and every class is, in effect, an "advanced class." We of course focus on Classical Technique and applications thereto primarily.
We emphasize the principles of Aiki in both Classical and Application and engage in many exercises to practice the practical skills that actualize this theoretical knowledge.
I admittedly often neglect striking, kicking and blocking drills because I am so fascinated with the aiki principles (unbalencing, etc.), so I have to force myself to work on them and the other drills (like ki techniques).
We do, however, have a self-defense line or other self-defense practice at the end of most classes. So I am working on tempering my enthusiasm and including all the aspects of the NGA curriculum on a more consistent basis.
I like your approach to ‘forcing yourself to do some parts of the art’ because I have sometimes discovered huge “epiphanies” by doing something completely spontaneous off of an otherwise mundane exercise (like working on Cross Blocks, etc.).
Exactly! I want to mention as well the epiphany I had (in the late 90s as I recall) about how the hanmi walk formed the basis of blending and all of the footwork that we do in classical technique as well.
So I have developed a whole theory of footwork that I wrote of in the NGA book and then elaborated even more fully on in Integral Aikido.
It may sound funny, but I can recall clearly (even if I can't recall the exact date) standing in the dojo during a class I was teaching and having this new revelation hit me right between the eyes "OH, WOW, THAT'S why we do the hanmi walk!" Before that moment I never was quite able to integrate the hanmi walk with the rest of the curriculum other than to practice a very important stance and to move in a balanced way.
It was this revelation that allowed me to deduce exactly the proper footwork for all of the classical techniques and for proper blending as well. I think it was a pretty important moment. ;-))
Further, writing the book and doing the reviews with Mr. Bowe were a resounding confirmation of these insights. Mr. Bowe agreed to review Integral Aikido right after I wrote it (and after we had finished the review process for the NGA book).
In a roughly 2 hour phone conversation I had with Mr. Bowe where he reviewed IA chapter by chapter, the critical comments he made about the book were primarily regarding grammatical or historical points and not the theoretical points that I had put forward in the book that went beyond what I/we had put into the NGA book. So, if, as they say, "Silence implies consent" then I have to assume that Mr. Bowe was satisfied with my theoretical outlook. Because, if you only knew one thing about Mr. Bowe, it would be that he has ZERO tolerance for inaccuracy, incompetence, and any other form of nonsense. Had I been incorrect in my assessments, he would have not hesitated to rain verbal fire and brimstone upon me; possibly even prohibiting me from publishing the book. As it was, he gave me his blessing to go ahead with IA even though the NGA book was still not ready to publish.
Sensei Jim Giorgi explaining the nuances of the art at an aikido seminar.
Sensei Giorgi On Seeking Technique:
“I strive NOT to choose a technique, but simply get to the right spot as I unbalance uke, and then let the technique choose itself.
That is the most important point for me right now.
You can know a myriad of techniques but if you are not in the right place at the right time, you won't be successful using any of them.”
I want to share with you my story of The Gift of the Katana as a way to demonstrate what I am teaching about being in the right spot.
I held an aikido seminar at my dojo in Ft. Lauderdale a while ago. My teacher came down from NY and a lot of visitors were there from other Nihon Goshin Aikido dojos, including Dave, a black belt from the NGA dojo in Georgia, whom I have taught whenever I was there for seminars over the past 9 years.
The Monday after the seminar, I taught my usual aikido class and Dave, who was still in the area, attended. After class he came over to me.
"I have something for you," he said.
He went to his car and came back into the dojo with a box about 45 inches long. He opened it there in the dojo and handed me a genuine katana.
A samurai sword. Not a dangerous reproduction made of brittle stainless steel... a real one with a razor-sharp blade of carbon steel.
He gave it to me and said, "This is a gift for all the years I have known you, and all the years I have been your aikido student, to show my appreciation for our friendship."
Being a martial artist, having practiced for more than a quarter of a century, one would think that I would have the accoutrements of a martial artist, but things have never been that important to me.
Always in the back of my mind though was an idea that ‘someday I might have a genuine katana .. razor sharp. Sharp enough to cut through bamboo, through watermelons, or even cut off heads!’
The idea of owning a real sword would rise and fall, maybe once every month or two, if that often.
The intention of my desire was almost not even set. A thought, every so often an image of a genuine katana, then I would let it go as easily as it arose. To buy one, to have it, for it to sit on a shelf... none of this was important.
Then that intention eventually worked itself out. With no effort at all. Absolutely no effort on my part, and one day, a razor sharp katana blade unexpectedly materialized in my world ~ delivered by one of my own students; a friend of many years.
In many ways my theories on unbalancing uke are similar to my experience of intention with the katana.
It just seems to me the more I think on it, that the more you “try” to muscle uke over with some preconceived notion of technique, the less likely your technique is going to work as powerfully as it might should your focus be different.
So let go of your desire to execute technique, and just focus on getting into the right place at the right time. If you do so, nearly miraculous power will emanate, and you will have the effortless power to throw uke in any direction that pleases you.”
George Leonard pictured here (far left) was Sensei Giorgi’s early inspiration to study aikido.
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Sensei Giorgi (center) with the students of his Fort Lauderdale Nihon Goshin Aikido Dojo.
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