Aaron Hoopes is a Martial Artist with experience of many martial Arts. Having trained with Nakayama and many of the Greats during the ‘Golden Era’, we felt he could offer us a great insight into Shotokan karate. He is an accomplished author, instructor, and holistic healer. He is the founder of Zen Yoga, which is a blend of Tai Chi, Qigong, and Shanti Yoga, and has produced much literature and a DVD on the subject.
Sarah Amos: Could you please just tell us a little about how you started karate?
Aaron Hoopes: I started karate in 1982 when I went to college at Tulane in New Orleans. I was fortunate enough to have Takayuki Mikami as my first instructor. I found it to be exactly what I needed to help me focus and give me a purpose. As I got more involved, I began to study Japanese history and language, which became my major.
SA: What made you decide to go and train at the JKA in Japan?
AH: Once I graduated from Tulane, moving to Japan to continue my training just seemed like the next logical step. I acquired a cultural visa which required me to train 4 hours a day, six days a week.
SA: Who were the instructors teaching there at the time, and who were your peers?
AH: The list of instructors seems endless; Nakayama, Tanaka, Osaka, Asai, Imura, Shina, Yahara, Kawawada, Isaka, Koike, Kurasako and many others. My peers at the time included; Richard Amos, Rene Vildosola, Leon Montoya, Michael Berger, and Jon Keeling.
SA: Would you share a few experiences of your time at the dojo in Japan?
AH: I trained at both the Honbu (JKA Headquarters) and the Hoitsugan (Nakayama’s private dojo)
During my Nidan test, one of the last belt tests Nakayama-sensei gave, I had to spar with a large Japanese fighter who I hadn’t seen before, who was going for his yon dan. I managed to hold my own and when I sat down Jon Keeling came up to me and said, “Wow, you just fought Yokomichi!” Yokomichi went on to the finals of the All-Japan Tournament that year. I recall being glad I didn’t know who he was prior to our fight.
On New Years Eve one year Kanazawa-sensei showed up at the Hoitsugan and taught an informal class on breathing and movement. There were only about 5 of us there that night and it was very special.
Tanaka-sensei would teach on Tuesday mornings and his classes where always difficult and painful. It was not uncommon to have quite low attendance at these classes. I remember a couple of days when only 4 or 5 of us would show up. This did not make Tanaka-sensei happy and he would take it out on us. He loved free sparring and the students would often spend the whole class fighting the instructors. Facing Tanaka-sensei one morning, he kicked me in the back of the legs and wiped out both of my hamstrings within the space of 10 seconds. I couldn’t walk for a week.
On Shina-sensei’s 24th birthday we had to do 2400 front kicks with the right leg.
SA: How was the teaching in Japan? Being a westerner, how difficult was it truly learning as much as you could in a country with a foreign language?
AH: It was a complete experience. I had been studying the language for 2 years before I got there so it was not difficult to understand. Training was serious. There were no water breaks. If you got injured, you limped through class unless you had to be carried off the floor. You got tough quickly. Four different instructors usually taught each class at the Honbu and each had his own style and focus. The level of training and instruction was top notch.
SA: What was Master Nakayama like? Was he truly as powerful as students of his say?
AH: Nakayama-sensei was a wonderful man. Always smiling and having a great time. He truly was powerful. He did a lot of Tai Chi and understood that the internal arts hold the real power.
SA: Who would you say has most inspired you in your karate career?
AH: There are a number of people who have inspired me. Mikami Sensei as my first instructor definitely set me on this path. Of course, Nakayama-sensei was a very special teacher. I would also say that Rene Vildosola provided a lot of inspiration. For nearly 2 years he would beat the hell out of me before class everyday. I dreaded it, but eventually I got tougher and stronger and learned to fight back.
SA: The word ‘Hara’ may be an alien word to many westerners, even those who study karate. Could you please give us your opinion of its significance, and how we can develop it to improve our karate?
AH: ‘Hara’ is vitally important in karate training. But it is much more than that. Known as the Abdominal Chakra in Indian yogic traditions and the dan tien in Chinese martial arts it is the seat of power generation in the body. It is something I have spent many years studying. The most effective method for developing the ‘Hara’ lies in learning proper breathing methods such as Qigong.
SA: You have participated in project called the ‘Hoitsugan Seminars’, could you please tell us about what this is, and how did it go? What did you teach?
AH: The Hoitsugan Seminars are a series of special training camps that bring together the former students (predominantly non-Japanese) of Nakayama-sensei who trained with him at his private dojo in Tokyo – the Hoitsugan. The Hoitsugan instructors tend to keep out of the JKA political arena and concentrate simply on teaching what they have learned. It is a group of karate-ka who were dedicated enough to travel to Japan to learn under the master. The seminars consist of a full weekend of classes, lectures and unique training experiences open to the general Shotokan karate public. The first Hoitsugan Seminars were held in 2004 in San Francisco. The next second Hoitsugan Seminars were held in Los Angeles in 2005. We are in the planning stages for the next one in 2007 and I personally am hoping to host another in 2008.
At the Hoitsugan Seminars each instructor brings their knowledge and experience from their time at the Hoitsugan as well as everything they have learned since then. I teach Zen Yoga at the Seminars, particularly focused on breathing, flexibility and meditation. If students can learn to breathe effectively, they are able to generate power and apply it to their technique.
SA: Who else in the world of American Karate do you feel has made a significant impression on the world of karate?
AH: I don’t have a lot of knowledge of American Karate do. I spent 9 years in Australia studying Yoga, White Crane Qigong and various other arts, so I haven’t really been involved in American Karate do. I will say that Richard Amos of the WTKO is one of the best karate-ka I’ve ever met, a man of integrity and true spirit. I’d also like to mention Jon Keeling, who first came up with the idea for the Hoitsugan Seminars.
SA: Apart from your study of karate, you are also a student of many other arts such as Zen-yoga. Are you able to apply your knowledge from all of these arts to your karate? How have they affected your karate?
AH: Absolutely, while karate has been my foundation, I have been extremely lucky to have to opportunity to be exposed to a variety of arts. Karate is a hard-style martial art and the truth is that you can only go so far before it begins to take a toll on your body. When I left Japan I had aches all over my body. After studying Yoga and Tai Chi all of those aches are gone. In fact, I’m more flexible and stronger than I ever was. The internal arts such as Qigong teach you to feel the energy that is vital to karate practice.
SA: Which of all the arts you study do you feel best suits you and your needs? Do you feel that karate will always be a part of your life and your future?
AH: My art is called Zen Yoga. www.artofzenyoga.com. I developed it by combining my karate training with the dynamic stretching of Yoga, the graceful, flowing movements of Tai Chi and the energized breathing of Qigong. Of course, karate will always be a part of my life, however it has grown and developed into something quite different in the 24 years since I started. My new book Zen Yoga will be published by Kodansha in 2007.
SA: Thank you for your time, and good luck with your new book!