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Interview with Fran Turner Sensei

JM: How did you come to choose aikido?

FT: I wouldn’t exactly call it a choice. I had seen aikido several years before I started practicing. When my ex-husband was interested in starting a martial art, he checked out aikido, judo, and a couple of karate schools before he finally tried karate for a while and then became a deeply committed judoka. He’d been practicing judo for quite a long period of time.

When we were living in Denmark I became very interested in Zen Buddhism. I’d been doing a lot of reading about zen and Zen Buddhism. It fascinated me, but none of the books gave me any ideas to how one practiced. I was telling Jim about this and he said “Well, you know, they have aikido at the dojo where I practice, and there’s supposed to be some kind of connection between aikido and zen”. It seemed like the best lead that I had going.

Sensei Torben Kreigsbaum

Anyway, I went to my first aikido class, and there was my teacher—this young chap in a hakama. That was Torben Kreigsbaum, my first teacher. He had his 4th kyu, and I understood that he had practiced at a couple of summer camps. He knew more than the rest of us—that was certainly evident. It wasn’t for self-defense that I went. I understood that there was some kind of a spiritual thing in it. Even after my first class, I realized that there was something very important in the physical discipline of it that enabled a person to move very powerfully but very easily.

JM: You mentioned several other martial arts—did you ever try those?

FT: At this particular dojo in Copenhagen, they practiced a number of martial arts. They had karate, judo, and aikido, and maybe even some jujitsu. I started taking some judo classes. I really liked judo, because, like aikido, there’s physical contact and there’s this interplay of throwing and being thrown.

During the remainder of the time that we were in Copenhagen, I did continue to practice some judo. But then when I moved back to Toronto, I stopped dancing and decided that I wanted to devote more time to aikido. I also hooked up with a Zen Buddhism centre here. Back then I had a full time job, I was married, and involved in two disciplines. Looking back at it now, I feel that I had a very busy kind of life. I don’t know how I managed to do all of those things, but I guess I did.

I had a fairly serious injury in 1978. I separated my shoulder doing aikido. I decided during my rehabilitation, since I wasn’t going to be able to roll, that I try something else—specifically, tai chi. I found a teacher that I really liked, and during my rehabilitation (which was really only two or three months) I took classes with him which I really enjoyed. My shoulder started to heal, and I thought, “Well, I’ll just continue with this”. But between zen and aikido, and the other things in my life, I just couldn’t do it. So I just stuck with aikido.

When I was living in Washington, D.C. [between 1979 and 1983], I went through a period where I toyed with the idea of different martial arts. It was aiki-ken that I considered practicing, because it had “aiki” in the title of it, so I figured that it was related to aikido. But again, I was putting a lot of time into aikido, and the realities of my life suggested that I really wasn’t going to have the time.

When I came back to Toronto in 1983, I took tai chi chuan for almost a year. Although I liked it, I realized that there’s really nothing like aikido. The fact that it’s non-competitive, the fact that in tai chi chuan, the movements are movements of self-defense, where you’re kicking and punching and elbowing and poking out eyes. And considering that, I just realized that aikido is a very precious thing and for me, there’s just no reason to practice anything else. I love it, and I can’t fathom anything being better or more satisfying.

JM: What do you remember most about your early days as a beginner in aikido?

FT: At the dojo where I practiced with Torben Sensei, we had classes a couple of times a week. We were a small group, so we got lots of personal attention. The first class was great—we did some shihonage and I thought, “Wow! This is so easy!” And then after that, it didn’t come so easy. It seemed that I worked on my backward ukemi for a long long time, and was banging my shoulders or my head or coming down hard. It felt like a couple of years. It was not easy.

JM: When did you know that you were a serious student—that you would actually carry your training though to the black belt levels?

FT: It was just a very gradual process, class by class. I’d take classes and I’d want to do more classes. I don’t know whether being a black belt for me was as big a motivation as just to keep practicing—doing something that I really loved and that was a wonderful thing to practice.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been periods where I was more fixated on rank and becoming a black belt. I wanted to have a black belt to reflect that I had been practicing for a period of time, that I had a certain level of expertise. But for me, I’m more driven from the inside about my love [of aikido] and not so much from the point of view of the rank that I acquire.

JM: When did you get your 1st kyu and 1st dan rankings?

FT: I started when I was 28, in 1973. It wasn’t for a long time. It wasn’t until I was in Washington that I got my 1st kyu—that would have been after 1979, so that’s six years. Then I got my black belt in 1981, and I got my nidan in 1983. All of those ranks I got in Washington, D.C.

JM: In the various places you studied, what did you like most about your teachers and dojos over the years?

FT: With Torben Kreigsbaum Sensei, I liked that we were a small dojo, and that it certainly was not an intimidating environment to start out in. Torbin had just started teaching and we were his first students. He was 4th kyu and he knew more than the rest of us—that’s the way it happens in a lot of places.

When I came to Toronto, and practiced at Toronto Aikikai, my teacher was Bruce Stiles Sensei. I’m always grateful to Bruce because I feel that he gave me a very fine grounding in fundamentals. He was very solid in his practice, and that came out in students’ practice. There weren’t a lot of high-ranking people then at his dojo either. In fact, I don’t think that there were any black belts when I started in Bruce’s dojo. But there were a lot of people who had ranks a lot higher than mine. My first test was my 5th kyu, which I did in Toronto with Bruce Stiles.

In 1979, because of my husband’s work, we moved to Washington, D.C., and I started training with Clyde Takeguchi Sensei. One of the things that I appreciated about Clyde is he’s very easy going, but at the same time, his aikido is very powerful. He creates an environment where it is easy for people to learn, because it’s very accepting. He has a joyfulness in his practice, a sense of fun that I admire.

After Clyde, I came back to Toronto in 1983 and I practiced at Toronto Aikikai for a while. I happened to pick up the phone at Toronto Aikikai when someone called to ask if anyone was available to teach at the Y. This was a member of the Y who was interested in trying aikido and realized that there was an empty time slot in the martial arts room that could be used early in the morning. I decided that I wanted to try teaching. I was a nidan by then, and that was the start of my teaching.

JM: So what made you form Shugyo Dojo?

FT: I’d been teaching morning classes at the Y for nine years. First it started out two times a week, then it went three times a week, then it went five times a week. During that same period, I started teaching evening classes through Ryerson and the Board of Education. Through the Board of Education, I had a group of students who decided they were very serious. They wanted to continue practicing, so they started practicing at the Y.

I realized that at the Y, there are limits to how many students you can have, and how many people are willing to get up at 7 a.m. to practice. I really wanted to have evening classes, and it wasn’t possible at the Y. I’d had an association with the Bloor Valley Club by being a shiatsu therapist there, and asked them if I could use space for aikido classes. Three years ago this January I started teaching at the Bloor Valley Club, a couple of times a week.

JM: So it wasn’t “Shugyo” yet—it was just “Aikido at Bloor Valley”?

FT: That’s right. I wanted the groups at the Bloor Valley Club and the Y to be part of one larger group—to have some kind of connection since there was a lot of interchange of students between the two. We went through a phase where we were very serious about looking for our own space for a dojo. That was part of the dynamic that led to the formation of a not-for-profit corporation that is Aikido Shugyo Dojo now.

JM: What kind of differences have you seen in your life resulting from teaching aikido as compared to training in aikido?

FT: When I teach aikido, I worry more. It’s a whole different mode for me than myself being a student or practicing. I feel that when you practice for yourself, you are practicing for yourself, and when you’re teaching, your practice is being absorbed by students. I feel very responsible for what it is I’m trying to transfer, and I hope that they’re the right things and the good things about aikido practice. Certainly one becomes more concerned about how people develop.

Do I create a good learning environment for people to get hooked into aikido? Can I keep people practicing? Those are important questions that I think teachers should be asking themselves. It takes such a long time for students to get to shodan, and there are so many different phases that a student goes through as they learn. How can I help students through these phases? It’s different when you’re a student and going through phases. Clyde Takeguchi Sensei had this idea that there’s a thing called “ikkyu blues“—that there’s a period of time after you get your 1st kyu that often students become disenchanted or go through a particularly difficult time with their practice. Certainly, with the number of hours required between 1st kyu and shodan, you’re going to go through something, because it’s a long time and it’s hard to keep the enthusiasm up.

There are many levels on which I want to transmit good aikido. Certainly on the physical level, I want students to have an understanding of how techniques operate so that they can use them—apply them—effectively. Also, it works on emotional levels. People become more aware of where they are in their environment, or how they hold their bodies. They become more aware of themselves in interactions. Through that, I hope that it engenders a positive effect on their lives.

Another really important thing is that I want the dojo to be a setting in which students can be creative. There are a couple of ways that I see that happen. One is our newsletter—people make cartoons for it; they take great photographs for it; they write wonderful articles for it; they do a great job of editing and graphic design. Another is a group of musicians that get together and play. That’s a wonderful thing. I would believe that that’s the kind of vision that O’Sensei had. It’s not just the stuff that happens on the mat, although the stuff that happens on the mat is really important. It’s very important that students practice, and practice regularly, as much as your life allows you to come and practice. Aikido says that there’s no easy fix in life, and it’s very true—whether you get a black belt or not. I wouldn’t want to have a student who’s a jerk with a black belt, no matter how technically proficient they are! That isn’t something that I aspire to. I want people that have a peaceable mind set to practice good and strong aikido.

JM: You mentioned the large number of hours required between 1st kyu and shodan. From what I understand, the minimum practice hours have been gradually increasing over the years for both kyu and dan testing.

FT: Yeah, they have. I know there’s a great concern for keeping standards in aikido high. When I visited the Hombu Dojo in Japan, there would be maybe a hundred people in class—some of whom had their 4th or 5th dan—that you would be practicing with! It’s understandable then, under circumstances like that, that learning can accelerate because you’re practicing with very high-ranking people. It’s different when you’re in a dojo where the highest-ranking person is maybe a shodan and there’s only one of them, and a bunch of 1st kyu’s. It’s a whole different kind of environment. The Shihans are, I’m sure, very concerned about this. In this American society, you tell people that you have your black belt, and they think it’s a big deal. In Japan, you tell people that you have your black belt, and I understand that it means that you’re a serious beginner. It’s a whole different thing. I hope that regardless of what the hourly requirements are, students have a love for aikido and will want to keep practicing it, to keep getting better.

JM: Could you tell me more about your time in Japan?

FT: I just visited for a month—I went on a tour organized by Yamada Sensei in 1991. We were based so that we trained almost daily in Hombu Dojo. That was a wonderful experience to take classes from Doshu and from Waka Sensei—the founder’s son and grandson—and other wonderful inspired teachers. And to practice with a truly international group of people! There students from France, Germany, Australia, Peru and Mexico, and people that I knew from San Diego! All of them there, practicing. It’s a very humbling and wonderful thing to be involved in something that is so universal.

JM: Have you ever used your aikido in self-defense, or in other situations?

FT: I worked in psychiatric nursing for four years. Three years of it was in a very intense psychiatric setting—a crisis unit. It was good having aikido, not because I was necessarily involved in any altercations, but I became aware of where it was good to be placed with respect to someone who might act out. To stand beside yet out of the path of any strikes that they might make—that was a very practical kind of thing.

There was a situation outside the front of the Bloor Valley Club. It happened one day on my way to noon class. A fellow just near the steps was yelling out—I have no idea what was going on with him. He seemed in distress, and very agitated. I had to pass by him in order to get to the stairs. He yelled at me, and I turned to look at him. I guess he was just looking for a target—he was ready to hit me with his gym bag. I entered irimi, put my hand right on his centre line right over his chest, and I said very quietly “What’s the matter?” In between his lifting his bag to hit me and my putting my hand on him, I was thinking “Oh my god! Here I am an aikido teacher—I teach a martial art. Am I going to be struck by this guy on my way to aikido class?” But it just seemed to happen very spontaneously that I entered in and put my hand on him, and just very quietly asked him “What’s the matter?” It deflated him right away.

JM: What are your views on your own students trying out other martial arts for their own interest—to either confirm their training in aikido or just to see what’s out there?

FT: I suppose I just don’t understand why anybody would choose anything except aikido. That’s part of my thinking.

JM: How do you know that unless you’ve tried other things?

FT: That’s very true. I don’t think it’s possible for people to train seriously in two martial arts, and to do it well. And particularly, aikido has a non-competitive mindset and a particular way of moving that is very peaceable, and that doesn’t create violence. I just think that it’s really tough to reconcile those two things in a person. But, I know that there are a number of Japanese masters who have studied other martial arts very intensely, and are able to use certain elements like iaido—the art of drawing the sword—in their aikido practice. But one thing I think is really bad is for people to go shopping around, like you’re looking for a commodity. I think it’s unfair to aikido, and it’s unfair to the other art that you chose. I think that it’s valid to try different arts, but then don’t split yourself up.

JM: What’s your vision for Aikido Shugyo Dojo five or ten years from now?

FT: Well, my vision is that there will just be a lot more people practicing, and the people practicing now will be even more accomplished than they are now, and they’ll want to be teaching others and maybe teaching in their own places.

It would be very gratifying for me to see more of my students get their black belt. That’s something concrete, you can point your finger at and say, “OK, I have these students that have black belts”—and it’s gratifying for students to have their black belts and to have that rank. I would also hope to be able to help more people get beyond shodan into nidan, and support them if they decide that they want to teach or want to promote aikido in some way. I just want to continue creating an atmosphere that enables people—when they come to try a class—to feel a sense of support, and to feel that this is a worthwhile endeavor, and that it’s a good learning environment for them. I just want that to keep going.

Also, besides aikido, there are other ways that I hope that people have a chance to come forth—like our newsletter, and the music group. Those are really healthy things, and I’m just very happy that it’s through aikido that that kind of interaction can happen. I’m happy that I’m some small part of that whole greater thing.