by Fran Turner
It started with a phone call in the fall of 1984. I happened to pick up the phone at the dojo where I was training. The caller was a member of the downtown YMCA and he wanted to practice Aikido. There were early morning time slots available at the Y; was anyone at the dojo interested in teaching? Yes! I had been yearning deeply to help spread the message of Aikido. I had taught beginner classes at Capital Aikikai in Washington, DC and had recently passed my nidan. My teacher there, Clyde Takeguchi Sensei, had encouraged me to teach.
It was as though the Universe was opening the door for me with this phone call. It did not take long before I met Simon, the caller, my first student at the 7 am class. The Metro Central YMCA provided us with a matted room twice a week. For weeks, Simon was the only student and when he couldn’t be there, I practiced ukemi, did solo exercises and tried not to feel discouraged that Y members weren’t flocking to Aikido. Nonetheless I held a firm belief that I was on the right track and just needed to keep showing up.
After some months, there were half a dozen individuals who attended consistently and all of us wanted another morning class. It was surprisingly easy to schedule a third morning class and the increased frequency and class size seemed to attract more students. We were a dojo, Metro Central YMCA Aikikai, and became a member of the Canadian Aikido Federation. It wasn’t long before some students tested for their fifth kyu.
By the late eighties, the Y gave me permission to hold classes Monday through Friday mornings and Sunday afternoons. We also had a bigger training space. The down side of this was that we needed to assemble the mats before class and take them up after. Through the week, our practice area was in one quadrant of the gymnasium with aerobics going on in another. We had lost our quiet room and were blasted with decibels from our adrenalin pumping neighbours. On Sundays, however, we had the peaceful dance studio.
Since our morning attendance had grown throughout the early nineties (fifteen to twenty students attended most classes) it seemed strategic to offer classes outside the Y. At that time the Toronto Board of Education had a very liberal approach to continuing education classes. I pitched Aikido and the Board provided a space with mats once a week for eight weeks for two terms. A lot of new people were drawn into Aikido as a result. Laura Holmes and Gabe DiMarco who are both Shugyo instructors entered the Aikido world through the Board of Education. Surprisingly a number of students who started in these evening classes wound up attending morning classes at the Y as well.
My next step was to find a place where I could teach evening classes on an on-going basis. This happened to be a squash court at a downtown health club. The location, the price and the availability of the space were the positives, but a squash court is still a small echo chamber. It worked for a number of years.
In early 1994, a group of dedicated students and I had the vision of an incorporated Aikido dojo and we registered Aikido Shugyo Dojo as a non-profit organization. Since classes were no longer being taught just at the Y but also at another health club, we chose a name not dependent on location: Aikido Shugyo Dojo. In an inspiring article, Aikidoist John Stevens translated Shugyo as “dedicated practice leading to enlightenment.” I had been practicing or teaching most days since I started Aikido in 1973 with the strong belief that constant practice was a way of self-refinement in the deepest sense. There was no doubt that the founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was profoundly spiritual and believed that Aikido was a way to foster peace within the world.
During these years, we hosted a number of seminars that took place at the Y taught by Clyde Takeguchi Sensei, Mary Heiny Sensei, Donovan Waite Sensei. There were also seminars with local teachers, a Focus on Women seminar to which men and women were invited and which highlighted female Aikido teachers. Also we hosted Aiki Expo in 1995 which featured teachers from a number of different styles of Aikido.
Shugyo students were keen to draw more people into the Aikido circle and a few experienced ones taught for a couple of terms at a community centre. Others started teaching a kids’ class at the health club location once a week.
Thanks to the efforts of a number of members, after an intense period of searching, finding and construction, we moved into our own dedicated space east of downtown in late 1998. By that time I had been teaching 14 years. Our dojo was a storefront at 271 Broadview Avenue along a main streetcar artery in one of the city’s Chinatowns. With our own dedicated space, we were free to create our dream schedule that included two or three classes six days a week with free practice on Sundays. Eventually Bill Collins Sensei began to teach on Sundays drawing students who had been following him over the years, as well as Shugyo members. Morning classes at the Y continued for a number of years and were eventually stopped because a change in the Y’s philosophy. Nonetheless the Y had been the foundation from which Aikido Shugyo Dojo grew.
There was a high sense of commitment from students who helped teach classes, took on responsibilities as members of our board, did dojo construction and maintenance and took on all the other tasks required to keep a dojo operational day by day. Some students travelled for extended periods to train with other teachers. Gabe Sensei trained at Iwama, Japan and, along with a couple of other students, he trained in San Leandro, California. Another student trained in Philadelphia for extended periods. Over time, students attained black belt ranks. Some students who had practiced at other dojos and then moved to Toronto came to Shugyo.
By 2007, it began to feel as though the space at our Broadview dojo was too small and a constraint to practice. A committee went searching for a more suitable space and eventually found one some blocks away on Carlaw Avenue. It was a gorgeous space with high ceilings and big east facing windows. On the down side it was hard to find us—the dojo was located on the second floor through a maze of hallways. Members worked hard to make our place good for training, comfortable for students and beautiful to look at. After four years, it hurt me to think about moving but we were confronted with the escalating rent and the burden of HST on top of other increasing expenses. Fortunately, we were able to find our current excellent space in the same building, and Studio 121 was operational as the new Aikido Shugyo Dojo in January 2012.
I can include only major highlights in a concise history of Aikido Shugyo Dojo. Even a more detailed history would obscure the daily effort that I and so many generous and dedicated members of Shugyo have put into this story. There have been frustrations, heartaches, belly laughs, minor and major injuries, disappointments, major and minor successes since 1984, almost thirty years. But it has been worth it because Aikido is simply that wonderful and important.