My Top 5 Aikido Training Floors and the Dojos Who Made Them
By Jonathan Wilson
7 December 2015
I would recommend visiting other aikido dojos just to experience their training mats.
Why? Well, I’ve done it, and it’s fun. Here’s a bit of background. Early on in my Aikido ukemi frustrations, I blamed ALL my bad ukemi on the floor I was training on, so I was always seeking something softer. Anything that might give me a mental edge was sought after.
Later, of course, I realized that the training floors didn’t have anything to do with my poor ukemi skills, but my path to becoming a connoisseur of aikido floors and mats was well established nevertheless, and now by natural inclination, I’m always analyzing the training floors of dojos I’ve trained at, and have held an unofficial ranking of them for years.
To date I’ve trained on 9 aikido training floors. What follows is my take on the top 5 Aikido Floors, and my thoughts about what makes them special.
Before we get to the list though, let’s talk about floor design in general. In the most generic terms, floors seem to come in two broad categories: Hard or Soft. Harder training floors are generally faster, but lack padding. Softer floors have more padding, but are sometimes squishy, and generally slower. The best aikido floors seem to break all of the rules, and give you the ideal marriage that combines a “Fast surface, with a lot of Forgiveness.”
My top 5 floors:
#5 Walt’s House, Columbia SC. The first room in Walt’s house can be perfectly laid wall to wall with temporary mats he picked up at a Surplus sale. As the house has a full walkout basement, the floor in the first room is naturally suspended. Even without the mats, the floor has a natural spring to it that has infinitely more flex and forgiveness than training over mats on a concrete slab. Further, the kitchen is adjacent to the training space, so if you hear dishes rattling in the shelves when you roll, you know your ukemi is not going as well as it should.
#4 Carter’s Academy of Self Defense, Lexington, SC. What the floor lacks in forgiveness, it more than makes up for in speed and sheer size. The training space is simply cavernous. It incorporates a single layer system which is comprised of connected rolls of 1.375 inch cross linked, closed cell foam mat laid on top of a wood laminate floor, seated on a concrete slab. The seamless vinyl cover tops everything off to ensure a surface that will protect you, and offer a response as quick as the street.
#3 Aikido of Charlotte, Charlotte, NC. Aikido of Charlotte uses a multiple layer system on their floor. Here is the Aikido of Charlotte formula to build their floor provided courtesy of the dojo-cho, Jonathan Weiner, Sensei: “Concrete slab with a base layer of 3/4 inch OSB sub flooring, followed by a layer of 1.5 inch open cell foam blocks, and finally the 1.5 inch Zebra mats are placed over the top. The multiple layers raise the floor 3.75 inches from the concrete slab.”
I faithfully attend their bi-annual Friendship seminars, and when I train there, there is no question that my ukemi is better while I’m there.
Incidentally, they are moving to a new location in early 2016 that will feature a 1,600 foot training hall. The new dojo will feature the same flooring design that exists at the current location. Want to try it out yourself? Consider their Grand Opening Seminar in February with Andy Demko, Shihan (Aikikai).
#2 The Aikido Center of Atlanta. Built in an old train depot, the Aikido Center of Atlanta is a rock/ stone building which is as much of a conversation piece as it is a training venue. Like the Aikido of Charlotte floor, they have raised the mat off the concrete slab; but with some differences. Aikido Center of Atlanta added a layer of plywood but they reinforce the plywood with 2x4s braced horizontally across each 4x8 sheet of 1/2 inch plywood. The gaps between the 2x4s supports are filled with foam support blocks, and is laid on top of a concrete slab, with Zebra mats on top. This raises the floor about 3.5 - 3.75 inches off the concrete slab. The floor is significantly softer, than any mat over concrete could ever be, while maintaining the same firmness as a single layer system.
Like Aikido of Charlotte, they also use the Zebra tatami mats. Taking ukemi on that floor is simply cozy; perhaps every so slightly better than Aikido of Charlotte. I train here when my daughter has a weekend volleyball tournament in Atlanta every spring, and thoroughly enjoy it every time. Want to try it out yourself? Consider their Free, New Year’s Seminar on January 9th 2016.
#1 Bond Street Dojo in NYC. Bond Street Dojo in NYC. Hands down, the best floor I’ve ever trained on would have to be the Bond Street Dojo. Without question: It is a truly remarkable system. First off, it is on the third floor of a building in NYC ~ so the floor has the inherent benefit of not being laid out over a concrete slab of any sort. This structural advantage provides an integrated level of forgiveness that is surly unachievable at other dojos when mats must be placed over a concrete slab ~ regardless of amount of sub flooring installed. Further the sub flooring at Bond Street is raised a full 10 inches off the wood floor. In her response to the specifics of the setup, dojo-cho, Chris Jordan, Sensei told me, “We built platforms with plywood tops, on top of which we put zebra mats and covered the whole thing with a canvas mat cover. Unfortunately, we recently had to remove the mat cover as it was very worn and replacing it would just be too costly.”
About the canvas mat cover: That canvas mat cover was one thing that I found completely unique to the Bond Street Dojo training floor. It was a seamless, one piece layer of light colored heavy canvas that looked absolutely beautiful in the space. To some degree, I can see why some might think removing the canvas would be a good thing from a stylistic perspective, as the canvas cover is a little unusual and takes some getting used to. Still I actually remember the canvas as a more organic experience than training on a vinyl cover, or mats with exposed seams (so I prefer the canvas). Perhaps one day they can replace it.
All that said, if you ever have a chance to train at Bond Street Dojo with Chris Jordan, Sensei do it. The training experience is not quickly forgotten. Even after 3 years, I remember it as a simply amazing ukemi experience. Want to try it out yourself? Consider their weekend semionar with Tres Hofmeister, Sensei (Aikikai), January New Year’s Seminar January 8-10th 2016.
Personally, I made a resolution to train there every time I visited the Big Apple, but I have not been able to make a return trip since the last St. Patty's Day Weekend seminar I attended there a few years ago.
One other point: Bond Street is trying to raise money to support a move to another location when their lease expires. Please consider helping them out if you have the means to do so.
A Few Thoughts On Aikido Flooring in General:
Note that adding additional mats doesn’t seem to work very well. I have trained at a dojo where they just added additional layers of mats to the existing layer of mats in an attempt to soften things up, but it didn’t work. The result was a mat that was way to squishy. Just standing on that floor is something akin to standing in a mud hole ~ where your feet are constantly sinking into the mat. Not fun. Not fun at all.
I believe that the key to the best floors is the incorporation of multiple layers of substructure that raise the mats off the concrete slab. These are not springs like you see underneath a gymnastics floor, which create a trampoline effect. These are layers of OSB, plywood, and foam blocks placed on top of the concrete slab, before the mats go down. Generally speaking, the layering effect makes for a fast and firm surface that is very forgiving without being overly bouncy or overly squishy. I believe this type of system puts most dynamic aikido falls and rolls within a comfortable and obtainable range for the typical student.
One last point: I have trained on inexpensive fold out mats in a second story building, and found the ukemi experience to be better than at dojos with expensive zebra mats laid out over a bare concrete floor. Assuming you are willing to add the additional sub flooring into the formula, the further removed you are from the concrete the better your floors will be. This is important from a dojo growth perspective also as the better our floors, the better our aikido training experience, and the larger our student body will become.
Do you know a dojo that has a great flooring system? Let us know!
Water Oak Aikikai ~ This Dojo is a work of art.
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Great picture showing multiple layers or sub flooring system at
Aikido of Charlotte
Welcome to the Wide Open Spaces at Carter’s Academy of Self Defense in
Bond Street Dojo in NYC. You can see the raised floor in the backdrop. Plants grow in pots between the raised floor and the walls of the dojo ~ which gives it a very unique feel. This is the right side of the training floor, with the old canvas cover over the tatami.
Aikido Center of Atlanta, with its trademark rock walls and wooden sliding door. You can see the raised sub flooring in the foreground.
Build Your Own Sub floor for your Aikido Dojo!
This 6 minute video gives a step by step breakdown, including costs, and suppliers.
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