Daito-ryu Isn’t Just Hard Aikido: An Interview with Roy Goldberg

Roy Goldberg is one of the highest-ranked Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu practitioners outside of Japan and the senior student of Hayao Kiyama Shihan, the President and Chief Instructor of North American Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu Kodo Kai (NADRAKK). Goldberg Sensei was awarded the rank of 7th dan and certified with the “Kyoju Dairi” teaching license by Inoue Yusuke, the Kodokai Menkyo Kaiden. In June 2016 the Hombu Dojo presented him with the prestigious Hi Ogi, the third scroll in the transmission of Daito Ryu Kodo Kai. He is the first and only non-Japanese person to receive this honor from the Hombu Dojo in Kitami, Japan. In March 2017, Goldberg Sensei officially separated from Kodo Kai in Japan and now heads an independent branch of Daito-ryu. He leads a number of study groups throughout the US and abroad and teaches seminars around the world.

Aikido Journal (Josh Gold): Can you tell us a bit about your martial arts background?

Roy Goldberg: I grew up in the Bronx in the 1950s. It was kind of a tough neighborhood for a short, Jewish, asthmatic kid. I wasn’t a good student, but I always had to be moving and was always good at sports. I did baseball and played paddle ball obsessively. My dad taught me to box, mostly by knocking my block off. In college I started wrestling and pound-for-pound I was really strong. I wrestled off different weight classes to challenge myself. And many times I was wrestling individuals who started years before me, and even though I was stronger, what they had was technique. That was really the beginning of starting to understand how important technique is. Eventually I got into Columbia University — I think my parents just badgered them into letting me in — and when I started to take anatomy it all just clicked. Not that I didn’t struggle, but the body just made sense to me and I found I had a good memory if it was something I was passionate about. And that served me well as a physical therapist.

Playing baseball in the Bronx, 1959

The summer before I got to college I was a lifeguard and one of the head lifeguards introduced me to Shinan Antonio Pereira at the Tremont dojo who did Miyama ryu jujutsu, which was a lot of judo, some hard jujutsu, and some aikido, but all modified to be for the street. These were a bunch of very rough guys in the south Bronx who were not playing. They were trying to kill each other. After getting dan rank, we worked with real knives in the dark, that sort of thing. Pereira originally trained in Japan with both Kotani Yasuyuki, the famous 10th dan Kodokan judoka, as well as with O’Sensei. I believe Ueshiba even gave Pereira a teaching license in aikido. So, I thought I should try aikido.

So I went to NY Aikikai to train with Yamada Sensei and his senior students. I discovered that some of my jujutsu was difficult to apply on really good aikido people, which was extremely frustrating. They had technique I didn’t understand and much better structure. Since I trained early in the morning, I didn’t get a lot of mat time with Yamada Sensei, and the classes were small. Sometimes as few as 2-3 people. The instructors were extremely knowledgeable and I learned a lot about movement. I mostly trained with Harvey Konigsberg, Steve Pimsler, and Hakeem Luqman a lot; he really understood my jujutsu background, so we got quite close (I think he is in Morocco now). To this day Konigsberg has some of the best aikido I have ever seen. He’s just like water. His irimi nage is just completely in your face.

Thinking back on it, I unfortunately think I was sort of a dick back then. I was so confident in my jujutsu, and I was young and challenging. Too cocky. During my shodan exam, part of the test was to do freestyle randori with 4-5 people, but in my morning class we never really had enough people to practice that, so when the ukes came at me in the test I reacted with jujutsu, not aikido. I went a little too hard, and Yamada Sensei stepped in and stopped the test. He was definitely a bit annoyed with me. In retrospect, I really appreciate what they gave me and regret that I wasn’t a more respectful student. Since then I have come to train with a lot of aikido people that I have really enjoyed meeting and working with.

Around that time was when I started doing Daito-ryu with Kiyama Shihan. I did several seminars with Yonezawa Sensei, who was really the first to introduce Kodokai-style Daito-ryu to the United States, and Kiyama was his uke. I was just blown away. When I felt Kiyama’s technique it was like nothing I had ever felt before. And I just couldn’t explain it. Kiyama invited me to train with him, and I became obsessed. He was and is one of the most naturally gifted martial artists I’ve ever seen.

“So I went to NY Aikikai to train with Yamada Sensei and his senior students. I discovered that some of my jujutsu was difficult to apply on really good aikido people, which was extremely frustrating. They had technique I didn’t understand and much better structure.”

I started regularly traveling back and forth to California to train at his house and following him to Japan. I turned my life upside down to go train with this guy because I knew he was the real deal. And to this day, I still regularly travel out to California to visit with him. He’s like a second father to me. And even though I officially left Kodo Kai, we are still very close.

That’s partly why today I don’t have a lot of patience for people who can’t make the effort to go to a seminar that’s a couple of hours from their house. My students travel because that’s the only way you are going to get this. If you have access to a good teacher, like my friend Dan Harden, or Howie Popkin (who started Daito-ryu with me, but ultimately trained very closely under Okamoto Sensei of Roppokai), or somebody like that, then you do what it takes to get there and train with that person. Because you aren’t getting this by sitting at home and commenting on Facebook.

Traveling the world teaching Daito-ryu, what do you see as some of the most common misconceptions about the art?

I think in some areas Daito-ryu has the reputation as just hard aikido. Like it’s the caveman version of aikido or something. I actually heard someone say once, “If there isn’t pain, it isn’t Daito-ryu.” And that’s just nonsense. It’s true that Daito-ryu has a large number of brutally painful pins and immobilizations, but real Daito-ryu has a softness that is nearly unmatched. It can be brutal if it needs to be, but that isn’t the goal.

A lot of people have started to use aiki like it’s a buzzword, or think they can take a single Daito-ryu technique and throw it in their bag of tricks. But it isn’t a cafeteria — you can’t pick and choose. You have to get the whole meal. That’s why the whole “sharing secrets” thing doesn’t bother me — it isn’t about a technique or a trick.

Demonstrating a technique at Capital Aikikai in Silver Spring, MD 2018

Mostly I think people are just ignorant about what real Daito-ryu is or looks like because the Japanese are so secretive and because the Aikikai downplayed aikido’s roots in Daito-ryu for a long time until Stanley Pranin started researching it and exposing it. Now, I think that is starting to change. In fact, all of that is really because of Stanley.

For those that haven’t really seen it or felt it, there are a couple of main branches of Daito-ryu: the “mainline” under Kondo Katsuyuki, who inherited it from Takeda’s son Tokimune, there is Takumakai which is a blend of what Takeda and Ueshiba taught to Takuma Hisa, there’s the Sagawa branch which is very closed to outsiders, and then there’s our style Kodokai that came down from Kodo Horikawa. Kodokai is also typically pretty private. There are a few others but those are the main ones. In Daito-ryu there’s a mix of traditional jujutsu techniques that a lot of aikido people would recognize like ikkajo, nikajo, sankajo, shihonage, etc. But the application and the intent is different from aikido. And there are aiki-jujutsu and aiki-jutsu techniques, which are really infinite. Kodokai and Sagawa especially really emphasize the softness and subtle kuzushi in the aiki techniques. We do a lot of the “age aiki” exercise and a lot of slow steady practice with kata to develop that connection and feeling. And so that’s really my emphasis, although Kiyama Shihan is no stranger to inflicting some very explosive and painful techniques, so we have that in our curriculum as well. For example, Kiyama’s sutemi waza are just unbelievable.

As an American teaching a traditional Japanese art, what’s your teaching style like and how does it compare to how the art was transmitted to you?

I teach what Kiyama taught me, but the way I teach it is sometimes different. Kiyama is very Japanese, like Japanese from a different era. He is a koryu kind of guy because that’s the environment that he grew up in. His dad told him he couldn’t eat if he didn’t train. That kind of thing. He doesn’t have the patience for laziness or stupidity. He is of the school that the student has to steal everything. It’s not like he would lift one corner and you have to lift the other three, he wouldn’t even give you the cloth! You had to steal the whole damn thing. He sometimes would tell you the wrong thing on purpose, just to see you figure it out.

“I think in some areas Daito-ryu has the reputation as just hard aikido. Like it’s the caveman version of aikido or something. I actually heard someone say once, “If there isn’t pain, it isn’t Daito-ryu.” And that’s just nonsense. “

Shugyo is everything. When I visited, the seminars were the least amount of training, the real training happened at 2 in the morning training in his kitchen while he’s standing there in his underwear. We trained all the time, and sometimes in very unconventional ways.

Once he drove me to the beach near where he lives and told me to just sit there and “Watch a wave!” He got back in his truck and drove off. I had no idea when he was coming back or what I was supposed to do. So, I watched the waves, because that’s what he told me to do. Eventually he came back, and later when we were at the dojo, a technique I had been struggling with was suddenly a little easier. Then I had trouble with throwing another gentleman, and Sensei looks up and says to himself, “What does Goldberg need? He clearly needs time watching a wave in the rain, because it changes.” So, he leaves me at the beach in the rain, and sure enough, later on, I’m able to throw this person with ease. And I asked Sensei why, but he just says, “Goldberg, you super stupid! You understand nothing! Maybe someday you understand.”

Kiyama Shihan with Roy Goldberg teaching a seminar at Kim Studio in Rockville, MD, 1997

Sometimes at seminars he would hide things. He would say one thing and do another. I know he sometimes taught things differently to different people. Many of the Japanese teachers do that. There’s a public face and a private face even with the Japanese. And to be honest I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing or a budo thing, but I think some things got lost because of that approach.

Maybe it was necessary when you were a samurai — obviously, you don’t want your potential opponents to know how to counter you before you meet in battle. Takeda said to only teach one or two in each generation the real secrets. And never show Westerners, because aiki is easy and they will easily overpower us. But, even that is a lie. It’s really hard and takes a lot of shugyo. Daito-ryu is self-selecting in that way. The only people who get it are the people who stay in the art who can handle years of frustration and put in the work.

So, my guiding principle is to make my students better than I am. I tell them everything I can. I am constantly trying to figure out how to teach different body types, different backgrounds. Different students respond to different exercises and different visualizations to learn techniques. And sometimes I tell them something and years later they say, “Why didn’t you tell me before, why did you keep that secret?” And I say, “I’ve been telling you that for years! You just weren’t ready to hear it and now you are.” They still have to figure it out for themselves with their bodies. And it takes a lot of hard work, so if I can help them get to where I am sooner, then maybe they can even take this art farther because I think it’s bottomless.

Can you elaborate a bit on that and share your thinking on the ramifications of keeping techniques and training methods closed and secretive vs. a more open approach?

Well, there are a couple things that all get called secrets. There are things that we don’t share with non-members — every art does that. I don’t think of them as “secrets” as much as “this is for us.” And, that’s because if you have made the commitment to this path, you deserve some guidance. And it’s kind of an all-or-nothing thing. I could say to you, “Josh, you always have to be entering.” But, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you because it’s kind of a package deal. You need to be doing all of it, there isn’t just one thing that makes it work or not work. Now, that specifically might mean something to you because of your background and your experience as a martial artist. But knowing it and being able to do it are different. When I went and trained with Inoue Sensei the Kodokai Menkyo Kaiden, he took a liking to me and was very generous, sharing all these small things that he didn’t show even other Japanese. I worry if I don’t share those things and pass them on, they will be lost.

There’s also the kind of secrets that you discover yourself. Like me telling a student you have to do “this” but their body isn’t ready to feel or do “this.” There’s a bit of “fake it ’til you make it.” In other words, you keep trying to do things a certain way, and even though you are failing and not getting the effect you want, your body is learning how to do it through your intent to do it. And eventually those connections start to get made and you can start to do it. There’s a fine line between that and building bad habits, so that’s where the teacher comes in. In Daito-ryu, that kind of jikiden is very important. It is not the kind of thing you can get from a book of instructions. You have to feel it. So telling somebody something doesn’t mean they can do it.

“So, my guiding principle is to make my students better than I am. I tell them everything I can. I am constantly trying to figure out how to teach different body types, different backgrounds. Different students respond to different exercises and different visualizations to learn techniques. “

Then, there’s a sense that you don’t want to put things out there that get corrupted or misunderstood because people don’t have the right context. They don’t know what they don’t know. This comes up a lot when we talk about video and the internet. When I share a video showing a higher level aiki technique, I’ve heard all the dumb responses: that’s fake, uke is taking a dive, that would never work in a real fight, why doesn’t he let go, blah blah blah. People who don’t know a lot get easily confused between a demonstration of a technique, a demonstration of a principle, an exercise, and real fighting. So, some people think if you show anything that Daito-ryu will get a bad reputation, like it’s no-touch ki strikes or some nonsense. Because if you do it right, Daito-ryu looks like you aren’t doing anything.

I’ll say for the record that when I share things from seminars, I work with people I’ve never met all the time. And if I work with an uke and they take a roll to be nice or deferential or whatever, I won’t work with them again. And my students know that. Ukemi is defensive — if you don’t know how to fall, you will land on your head or neck. So some of the things I use the same uke because if I do them at high speed, I need to know the uke can receive that fall. If you are experienced you can see the difference between that and giving the fall because that’s the expectation.

But going back to what we were talking about earlier, if they never see real Daito-ryu, people won’t know what it is. And this is part of the reason why I respectfully decided to leave Kodokai. They don’t publicly share anything. Nor does Kiyama. And I understand and respect their concerns. But when it comes to publicly sharing film or video, Ueshiba did it, Kondo Katsuyuki of mainline does it, Okamoto formerly of Kodokai did it, Iida also from Kodokai did it, Makita Shihan (who is exceptional by the way) also formerly of Kodokai did it. I do it, because if we don’t share it, it will be lost. I even heard one former Kodokai person comment, “I don’t know what he’s doing but it isn’t Kodokai.” He didn’t know something I was showing was Kodokai because he hadn’t seen it before, so it didn’t meet his idea of Daito-ryu. But it was something I did with Kiyama all the time!

Kiyama Shihan presenting Roy Goldberg with the Hi Ogi, the 3rd Scroll in Daito Ryu Kodo Kai, 2016

Some of the video I do is to inspire people to keep working at it. Part of it is to attract new people to try it. And if they are skeptical that’s fine. But, once they feel it they have one of a couple of reactions: they feel it, but they don’t understand it or they come up with some superficial nonsense about levers and planes and mechanics, like it’s a magic trick, but they aren’t able to replicate it. Or they say, “I don’t know what the hell that was, but it is nothing like anything I’ve felt before, and I won’t stop training ’til I figure it out.” That was my reaction with Kiyama, and that’s the student I’m looking for. And I think I have to cast a wide net to find those people.

Daito-ryu is not for everyone. And finding the martial artists out there who have the capacity to develop these skills is almost as hard as developing these skills.

Let’s talk a bit about aiki.  How would you describe it, and how does it manifest in martial technique as well as daily life? How is it trained and developed?

Well, as many people have said before, I think aiki is really difficult to describe in words. It isn’t mystical, but you know it when you feel it. I think to do it effectively you have to feel it in order to create it. You have to use your body and your motor system, not the intellectual part of your brain. I think that’s part of why O-Sensei spoke so poetically and religiously. And why so many people disagree about what he actually said. He was trying to get to that non-intellectual part of your brain. Like a zen koan.

Practically speaking, I think aiki means having a fully-connected body that is able to express your intent from your hara. That means both feeling and experiencing touch through your whole body and being able to react. It means in some sense being immovable because you are constantly moving internally. It means using coordination of your entire musculoskeletal system to resist, exert and shape force, not just the big local muscles that we normally rely on. When I ride my horse, I use aiki to connect to a 1200 lb. uke. When I do Kyudo I couldn’t pull back that yumi without using aiki, because I’ve had two total shoulder replacements. When I do our “aiki age” exercise I couldn’t lift a 300 lb. guy without using aiki. You have to live aiki in everything you do. It isn’t something you can get just on the mat.

Goldberg with his horse, Topsy. “When I ride I use aiki to connect with my horse. There’s no using force with a 1200 pound uke.”

Now, I make a big distinction between connection, aiki, kuzushi, having structure, and having a hara. They aren’t the same things and you can certainly have one without the others. For example, a good karate person or a sumo player can have structure, they can absorb a lot of impact, and it is very difficult to push them back when they are in a rooted stance. Sumo guys have to have good structure just to move that explosively. In Daito-ryu we all have to start with structure before we can create aiki.

And you can have connection without having aiki. Really good judo players have excellent connection. Good weapons guys can have connection. But that type of connection we are going for in Daito-ryu is a sort of soft stickiness where the uke doesn’t feel the force and just can’t get away from it. They say about Mifune Kyuzo, the famous judo technician, that it was like wrestling with an empty gi.

“Practically speaking, I think aiki means having a fully-connected body that is able to express your intent from your hara. That means both feeling and experiencing touch through your whole body and being able to react. It means in some sense being immovable because you are constantly moving internally. It means using coordination of your entire musculoskeletal system to resist, exert and shape force, not just the big local muscles that we normally rely on.” 

With kuzushi, you can get it with big external mechanics like pushing or pulling someone off their base and not have aiki or connection, but in order to do that you have to have good structure.

But to get aiki, I think you have to have spent a lot of time playing with all those other things first. Once you have aiki, all of those other things come out of it. You achieve connection more softly, your structure doesn’t depend on your skeleton being aligned necessarily, and you can get kuzushi by doing less. When you are older, or small like Takeda was, you can generate tremendous power and have enormous control beyond what people would expect for your size and age.

So how do you develop it? Aiki shouldn’t be this mystical mumbo jumbo. But I can tell you that there are no shortcuts and it doesn’t really matter if your mind knows what it is because it’s your body that has to learn it.

First, you have to feel it from somebody who is further along than you are, not just once, but a lot.

Roy Goldberg: leading High Exposure at the Shawangunk Mountains, 2002 “I climb better with aiki, more efficiently, a whole body connection to the rock.”

Second, I think you have to put in the time with all those other things that I mentioned. I think that’s partially why most of my advanced students are very experienced with other arts before they even come to me. Aiki isn’t fighting. And fighting isn’t aiki. But having that experience of staying calm with someone who’s actively trying to do you harm, of throwing a punch or going for a throw when the other person doesn’t want to let you, knowing about distance and timing, having some of that martial sense, those things are really important in shaping your intent when you are trying to develop aiki. We do a lot of static grabs and practicing very slowly because we are trying to override those strength instincts and to develop a feeling. But you have to have a martial “intent” when you are practicing a technique, especially when you are the uke, because that builds those connections in your body in a very different way. If you have never been in a fight, you think “soft” or “relaxed” means floppy. But it should be relaxed the way a wild animal is relaxed before it attacks.

Third, we do a number of solo exercises to help build those connections in your body. That’s probably the hardest part and it is an everyday kind of thing and it needs some guidance from someone who knows what they are doing. My friend Dan Harden and I talk about this all the time. Dan is extremely knowledgeable and capable and also studied with Kiyama. We don’t always agree on everything, but we are completely agreed on the importance of the solo exercises to build a connected body and that you need to develop aiki outside of technique. I believe that if you practice kata slowly and with the right intent, you can test applying aiki through waza and in that way the kata and the solo exercises go hand in hand. You don’t have to have complete mastery of aiki to start trying to apply it during technique. The solo exercises were traditionally kept for more advanced students, but I think some of them should be taught from the beginning, gradually, because technique and aiki inform each other. It all depends on your intent.

Roy Goldberg and Dan Harden teaching at the seminar, “Aiki: Two Sides of the Same Coin” 2016

Fourth, you have to feel it with a lot of people. Kiyama says, “A thousand times with a thousand people.” I went to Moscow recently with some of my students to give a seminar, and those guys were mostly from a tough combat sambo background. They were very skeptical and had no idea what to expect. We had no idea what to expect. They didn’t know how they were “supposed” to react to a technique and they definitely weren’t giving it to us, and so my students and I had to really be on. And guess what? If you do the techniques right, they work. The human body is the human body. Now, in a way, because these guys were all fighters they gave us real attacks and that actually makes it a bit easier. The people that travel to seminars with me get to touch a lot of wrists. And that makes all the difference.

Fifth, you need a lot of patience. You fail a lot at the beginning and though it is very frustrating you have to just keep working. I still fail sometimes. When I do, it just means I need more shugyo. When I get someone at a seminar that I have trouble getting a technique to work on, I take them on the side and work with them more to figure it out. I take them home with me if I can! When in doubt, more shugyo is always the answer. Kiyama’s most important lesson is that shugyo is everything. It’s a way of life.

This content was originally published here.