By Paul Rest
On August 18th, Tenchi Aikido in Sebastopol had a double celebration. It was the 1st anniversary of the dojo and also the dojo's 1st dan test.
Tenchi Aikido was founded by Betsy Hill, 4th dan and her partner James Gauer. Their vision was that the dojo should be both a martial arts facility and a learning center, both open to the community as a whole. The dojo, located on a beautiful multi acre property they own on Burnside Road west of Sebastopol, California, occupies an area on the lower part of their land next to a grove cypress trees. The dojo opened the previous August with classes and a workshop by Mary Heiny, Sensei. Jack Wada, Sensei, the dojo's liaison also gave a workshop shortly after the dojo began having classes. (Tenchi's division Head is Robert Nadeau, Shihan.)
Betsy Sensei was present for much of the growth of Aikido in California. This began in the spring of 1969, a time when the Art was just beginning to put roots down. She was attending mediation classes which were being led by Nadeau Sensei and soon joined his Aikido classes. Betsy became one those lucky students who studied Aikido with Nadeau Sensei at the dojos in Mountain View and San Francisco. By the mid 1970's, she became the first female to earn her black belt in California (and also one of the first female black belts in the United States). She also accompanied Nadeau Sensei as his uke when he taught Aikido and energy workshops at locations in Northern and Southern California. An interesting (and important) side story occurred during this period of time. Jack Wada Sensei came in contact with Aikido at a student college fair at San Jose State University where she and Nadeau Sensei were doing a demonstration. As a result of that encounter, Wada Sensei began his study of Aikido.
Betsy Sensei later began an important part of her work when she started teaching with Bob Frager, Shihan when Frager Sensei started the Aikido Club at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Later, when he started The Transpersonal Institute in Menlo Park, California, Betsy taught Aikido there for the next five years and a half years. Two years of Aikido was (and is) a requirement for all TPI students and was an integral part of the Institute's teaching philosophy. It should be noted that many students who attended her classes have continued their Aikido training. She then left the States to follow her dream of studying meditation with her guru, Babaji in India. When she returned to the States, she moved to Santa Fe where she started a small dojo.
In 1992, Betsy Sensei was asked to join Centerfield Aikido by one of the dojo's founders, Mary McLean Sensei where she became one of the teaching faculty. (along with Sensei's Sylvia Marie and David Keip)* In 2004 Wada Sensei presented Betsy with her 4th dan ranking remarking at the time that this was a "much belated promotion."
The celebration for the weekend began on Friday evening. The field adjacent to the dojo was decorated with dozens of multi-colored prayer flags. As the flags caught the breezes from the ocean their flapping became an accompaniment to the weekend's activities. Jack Wada Sensei opened the celebration with a workshop followed by Shinto chanting in O Sensei's honor. Denise Berry Sensei of Kuma Kai Aikido in Sebastopol and many of her students were present along with students from Two Rock Aikido located outside Petaluma. Other dojo's in the Bay Area were represented as well.
Wada Sensei's morning and afternoon instruction included teachings about the core principles of Aikido and how one can create a greater field of energy through both movement and sound. Those present indeed did find that their movements had additional focus and power when combined with the sounds that were given by Wada Sensei. As usual with Sensei's insights, there were many references and tie-ins to baseball and the much beleaguered San Francisco Giants, his favorite team. At the conclusion of the afternoon, Bob Engle tested for his 1st degree black belt. Engle, who had studied Aikido for over a decade, faced many attackers including an eager line of black belts waiting for an opportunity to participate in his test.
After the successful completion of Engle's test, and his being awarded the rank of shodan by Wada Sensei, there was a community blessing of the property and the formal inauguration of Betsy and James' vision that Tenchi Aikido and the space the dojo occupied, formally called "The Learning Center," would be a community resource. The elemental energies of Fire, Earth, Water and Air were invoked with offerings and prayers.
The celebration continued with a delicious Thai buffet donated by friends of the dojo and singings by "Terre Haute," a female vocal group that Tenchi student Jacki Braun. Tables surrounding the dojo provided items for a silent auction. The evening's festivities continued into the night with the sweet sounds of Bluegrass music filling the air through the dojo's open French doors.
And the dojo has begun to fulfill the original vision of Betsy Sensei and James. There is now a full weekly schedule of Aikido classes for adults and children, yoga classes, classes on Tibetan healing and Chi Gung. In addition, there is a Permaculture Garden tended by dojo members and the community. Information about Tenchi and The Learning Center can be found at: www.tenchiaikido.com.
* Please Note: The history of Centerfield Aikido was written about in an earlier essay published here.
Paul Rest, Nidan, is a student of Sensei Richard Strozzi-Heckler at Two Rock Aikido. He has written essays about Aikido in the BuJin newsletter and other publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.