Robert Savoca Sensei is a 6th Dan teacher from Birankai base in New York, USA. He is one of the T.K. Chiba Shihan’s successors and a founder of the Brooklyn Aikikai Dojo. This interview was conducted on Saturday, February 2, 2019, during Savoca Sensei’s seminar at Wroclaw Aikikai, Poland.
About the past…
When and where you were born?
I was born August 16th, 1971 in Concord, California.
What is your story of coming into Aikido?
I grew up in southern California, San Diego, and originally I started Judo. My father wanted me to become stronger. At 12 years old I went to a local place in Oceanside, California. I’d been doing Judo for around a year and a half when my Judo instructor told me that I should also do Aikido, that it would help me. At that time Gerald Gemmell Sensei, who was a Marine, was connected to Chiba Sensei and had a small Aikido group. I joined and was doing Aikido and Judo at the same time.
When did you realize that you wanted to tie up your life with Aikido?
I practiced Aikido and Judo through high school and then I went to UCLA, in Los Angeles. I continued practicing there and later at the West Los Angeles Aikido Institute. It was in college that I knew I wanted to spend my life doing Aikido and that I wanted to be a martial artist.
So you were getting an education and at the same time, you knew that your life was going in a different direction?
Right. It was more important for me to be training than studying.
What happened next?
I graduated from college and I was still training in Los Angeles. The school was affiliated with Birankai so I saw a lot of people I know now, and Chiba Sensei, of course. At one point I broke with the teacher in Los Angeles and I needed a fresh start. I moved to New York and this is where I met Juba Nour Sensei. I’d been learning under him for a year and a half very intensely and one day he told me: “It’s time for you to go to see Chiba Sensei.” I’d seen Chiba Sensei, of course, many times but I had never been his direct student at the time. I wrote him a letter and asked if he would accept me to live in the dojo. He agreed and I joined. I lived in Chiba Sensei’s dojo as an uchi-deshi for one year.
I came back to New York with Juba Nour Sensei for 3 months after. At this time I was married to my first wife Neilu Naini. She is also an Aikidoist and studied with Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei and Donovan Waite Sensei before Chiba Sensei. Chiba Sensei told both of us to go to Kazakhstan to teach Aikido. The trip didn’t work out very well. I was supposed to stay there for six months, and so we rented out our New York apartment. But 10 days was how long we made it in Kazakhstan! I called Chiba Sensei to give my apologies, but Mrs. Chiba told me that he went to a Greek island to teach a seminar. We had nowhere to go, so from Kazakhstan, we flew into Greece where I met Sensei at the seminar. I said that I’m sorry, I have not done a good job, I had a fight with an instructor in Kazakhstan. Sensei laughed and said, “I knew there would be trouble if I sent you.” He allowed us to join the dojo in San Diego once again for a while, and after a bit, I finally went back to New York to make my own Dojo.
Who was the uchi-deshi at the time you joined Chiba Sensei’s dojo?
At that time Diane Deskin was there, and Dave Alonzo was getting ready to leave. Also, Matt Desmond was there, Roo Heins, and Atsunobu, who is now living in Japan again. They weren’t living in the dojo, except for Atsunobu, but were there all the time. There were many people coming into the dojo and we are still very close these days. Roo is like a sister and I see Diane every year. It’s always good to see these people. Jenny Flower was coming back and forth and I would see her from time to time, too. For me, she is one of the most important people in my life. Sometimes I don’t see all these people as much as I would like but I still see them and talk to them.
What was your relationship with Juba Nour Sensei? They say he is a legend!
I would say that Juba Sensei is definitely one of the best Aikidoists in the world. Easily. He was with Chiba Sensei way back when Chiba Sensei came to America. He took a lot from Chiba Sensei. He is a legend in the sense that he was able to absorb Sensei’s teaching then which was very difficult, very raw. And he has an immense amount of power. He is a great teacher in my opinion and I learned quite a lot from him. He is not always an easy person to be with (neither am I!) but he has beautiful Aikido, devastating Aikido.
How do you feel about Chiba Sensei’s personality and what is the best thing you learned from him?
That is very interesting. I mean if you go to Japan for example and want to study Iaido, want to study Zen, want to study Jyo/Bokken, and Aikido you will have to go to 4 or 5 different schools. If you go to Hombu Dojo you can’t study weapons or Zazen. So, Chiba Sensei had many influences and he was generous in this sense. He took Aikido, Weapons, Zazen, Iaido, Misogi Harai and put them all together. Some other teachers have done that but not quite the way he did it. And he had a very martial take on Aikido. So, you can look at one end of Aikido as being kind of a choreographed dance and then at the other end you could look at the very martial aspect. So I think Chiba Sensei was on that end. He had a very extreme sense of budo and martial arts, which some other teachers have too, but a lot falls towards the end which is more soft. And especially this aspect of Zen tied with Aikido, tied with weapons training, was very important for me, very attractive to me.
About the present…
How do you personally connect Zen, Iaido to Aikido?
For me, all the forms – whether it’s Aikido or Misogi, or Iaido or Zazen or just doing bokken or Jyo… they are the vehicle. And the vehicle is merely a way to reveal what we actually are. It’s a way to cut through any kind of delusion or idea that I have of myself. Some people are successful maybe using one tool but sometimes you use this tool and it’s not working and then you pick up this tool and it helps… and then you put down that tool and use another tool – so they’re all to me the same. Today when people are doing Aikido sometimes they are talking. And then, when you sit, when you do Zazen, there’s no talking absolutely. Sometimes it’s easier to come to a sense of the silence in oneself when you are doing that but really it should be the same when you’re doing Aikido. So you have different tools to reveal different things that really are the same, just different in form.
We had a beautiful Misogi Harai with you yesterday and seems like this is something you are really in love with. Is that so?
As many people know Chiba Sensei lived in the Ichikukai Dojo which is a dojo where Misogi is practiced, a Shinto based tradition and it also has Zazen which comes from Buddhism. It is a very unique place that has both. Chiba Sensei lived in this place when he was a young man and I feel that the essence of his Aikido, when you look at Harai – the way that we generate power from the abdomen, is what you can see in his Aikido. I was initially attracted to Misogi, as other martial artists have been, to developing power for their Aikido technique. In the beginning, many martial artists go to Ichikukai or sit Zazen and they do it looking for some stronger technique but in the end the real reason to do Misogi is just to do it for itself, to see who you really are. I’ve always been interested in spiritual practices.
Do you do any other practices that we have not talked about yet, Sensei?
The other practice I’ve been doing for 13 years is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I started with Judo when I was a kid and I kind of came back to it as an adult by doing BJJ. I had been doing it for 8 or 9 years with professor Marcelo Garcia in Manhattan and then I left because it was easier for me to be in Brooklyn and came to Professor Marc Adami who is an excellent teacher along with Professor Crocilla – and they really helped me grow my Jiu-Jitsu. It’s not my way of life – I mean people are doing Jiu-Jitsu 2-3 hours a day or more and they are really really good, but it’s something I think can complement Aikido, and it’s good for me to get out of my dojo because I live there! I have also boxed for approximately 7 years.
Do you ever try to combine BJJ and Aikido?
Yes, sometimes I do but in reality these are very different energies. BJJ people understand that when you are wrestling you can go a certain way and there can be a certain kind of flow and Aikido people feel the same with their training but when Aikido people are trying to do BJJ sometimes they go crazy. Generally speaking, it doesn’t turn out so well because it turns into something like wrestling and loses the quality of Aikido. BJJ is very interesting because if you do something to me, throw me or something, then I resist it or maybe I go with it but only so that I can reverse you or I can set you up, like a chess game – my job is always to dominate. But in Aikido, you throw four times and I totally give myself to you and then I do it and you give yourself totally to me. It’s a kata of sorts. So sometimes you mix the two and it doesn’t work out so well. Sometimes I do it. Once in a while.
Speaking about your Dojo: Brooklyn Aikikai is a beautiful dojo and is a fruit of all your experience. How hard was the way?
I had a lot of help. Not just financial help, because I really didn’t have any money but I had all these people that helped me, taught me. Chiba Sensei of course, Murashige Sensei, Juba Sensei and, going way back to the other teachers like Gloria Nomura and so on… My Judo teacher also, a boxing teacher I had, Mike Smith, and Kotaro Hiruta Sensei of Misogi of course who was a headmaster at Ichikukai and who helped me so very much. But making the dojo in the beginning I would say was crazy. It was a building in Brooklyn that was used for making iron, fences. Very, very, very dirty and almost looked impossible to make a Dojo from. But it was in a very good location in terms of up and coming maybe in 10 years. Now it is good but then there was crime and stuff. It was very good to get and there was a lot of work to do. I was always worried about money. When we finally managed to open the Dojo I had only 12 students in the whole building that we had gotten. It’s a kind of miracle to have this building in a way. So many people helped me to do it. I just had a lot of faith that it would work out and it did but it is a little bit crazy looking back. I just thought like: “Let’s build it!”
You have a very special relationship with your students. And I know that you and your uchi-deshi’s live under one roof. What is your position about that?
When you live in the dojo it means that you wake up and you see the students. Right before you go bed you see the students. And when the people come to live with you – they are just down the hall and there is no space, no separation. Sometimes it’s very very intense. The student has no break from the teacher and the teacher doesn’t have a break from the student. So it’s always 24 hours a day. There are periods of time when no students are living in the dojo, it’s just my wife and my son but still, 30-40 people are coming every day. The way the dojo is is like a monastery in a way. It’s as close to being a monastery without being a monastery as you can get.
Your wife, Kate Savoca, is 4th Dan teacher in Brooklyn Aikikai. Did you meet each other in a dojo? What’s her role?
She was my first student. Actually, my first student was Terri Reznik. Terri knew Aikido a little bit, she was like 5th kyu when she came but then Kate came and she was the first person from scratch that didn’t know anything. I was married at that time and later Kate and I became married, after my first wife and I split. Kate already knew what she was getting into, she knew who I was, she knew that Aikido was so important to me, and she knew and accepted I was going to live in the dojo, which we continue to do. She accepted it. She is a very special woman because she has the capacity to be in the dojo too, with all the students and our son and somehow not go crazy! And she’s the kids program director which makes her even more important.
About the future…
You’ve been teaching in Paris, France before coming here in Wroclaw, Poland this year. And you are a regular visitor at Jenny Flower’s dojo in Greece. What are the destinations you are currently working with or maybe working on to have?
To be honest, the seminars for me are a lot of work – meaning, number one, I’m away from my family and two, I’m away from my dojo, my students. Some people are really excited to go to seminars and to teach, but for me, it’s a serious thing and I’m only really interested to go to people that really want to have me and have a connection because I see students from year to year. Just to go someplace where I know the people will never have me again… to me there is no point. So I don’t really plan it like that. If I have some kind of special connection with somebody and it seems to be worthwhile for both of us then things will work out. My real work these days is to work with people that are professionals like Piotr Masztalerz Sensei, Jenny Flower Sensei or George Lyons Sensei.
These are just a few but they are the people who have dedicated their whole lives to Aikido. They kind of understand my problems and I understand theirs. I’ve been going to Toko Jenny Flower Sensei’s dojo for maybe 8 years and she is a very important person for me, a real sister. That March 2019 trip to Greece is very important for me.
So yes, it’s working with the people that want the same kind of things that I have and want.
What are your future Aikido goals and what are you trying to develop for the modern Aikido world?
I have perhaps two things that I’m trying to do. One is that when some people come to my dojo they will never necessarily teach Aikido – and my goal for them is to try to put Aikido into them deeply so it changes them and so when they are going into their jobs, and into the world they change the world. Because generally speaking I’m mostly in the dojo all day. I’m not going really into the world so much. My world is doing Aikido. So my work with people is very important, I feel, because together, the teacher and the student, they try to polish each other and then maybe through that both of us can touch different people, lives, the world – and that transformation kind of ripples on and changes things.
My second goal is there are very few people, maybe one in ten thousand people, that walk through the door, and they want to become a teacher of Aikido. My goal is to support that person 100% – to try to give everything to them. Sometimes it’s very difficult for them and very difficult for me but to try to help somebody that wants to become a teacher so they can have another Dojo outside of mine and they can do the same thing.
So there are two ways. One is for people that don’t want to have a Dojo, they don’t want to become a teacher. They can still change their life and they can change the world through that way. The other type of person is one that really wants to dedicate their life to Aikido. The Dojo is like a church in a way. A few people will become a priest or priestess. That’s their job, they will have to take care of the temple or the Dojo. The other people that want to go to church, they are equally important because they take what they learn and they go out with it. You need both and I’m trying to work in both directions.
Thank you very much for your interview!
Follow Robert Savoca Sensei online via Brooklyn Aikikai’s Facebook page, on Youtube and on Brooklyn Aikikai’s website. Much better if you go directly to his Dojo where, as you got from the text above, he has live-in students. Maybe you will have a chance to become one. Who knows?