A Stronger Community

Finding harmony through the martial art of aikido.
Story David Botten

For the past 11 years, local residents from a wide range of ages and abilities have met regularly near Granville Street, taking turns fending off each other’s blows. Participants grab, punch, and kick at one another, sometimes with many people attacking just one. If someone gets tossed in the attempt, he or she nimbly rolls with the throw and is soon on his or her feet, ready to attack or be attacked again. This is not a fight club; The Gathering Place is a community centre where students learn to blend together harmoniously through the Japanese martial art of aikido.

In 1995, while making plans for a new downtown community centre, Recreation Programmer Peter Greenwell knew martial arts would be part of the offerings. A survey of 1,000 downtown residents had revealed a desire, particularly from youth, to learn self-defence and physical skills. Martial arts seemed a natural opportunity to teach these skills, while also increasing participants’balance, flexibility, and strength. After finding out what made other centres successful, he put out calls for instructors of judo and Tai Chi. One teacher contacted him offering aikido, a martial art foreign to Peter — and likely to the general public as well.

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Participants watch techniques being demonstrated.

Dojos And The Gathering Place

Sensei Michael St. Germain, a fourth degree aikido black belt, began studying in Vancouver under Sensei Y. Kawahara, a Shihan (master teacher) and the Technical Director of the Canadian Aikido Federation. Sensei St. Germain was impressed immediately with what he described as “the smartness of the movements, the intelligence.” Aikido’s movements are smooth and often circular in motion, since participants turn and blend with the force of an incoming attack before capturing and grounding it. Aikido’s techniques protect not only the defender, but also the attacker. “I don’t like hurting people,” Sensei St. Germain says, “and aikido gives me a chance not to hurt people.” He eventually began teaching, and then formed his own dojo (training place) calling it Granville Aikikai.

In 1995, Sensei St. Germain heard about plans for The Gathering Place in downtown Vancouver. He says he contacted Peter about being involved with the community centre because it was part of the neighbourhood. It was also a chance to offer aikido to downtown youth and to others who were not able to afford regular club fees.

The Gathering Place officially opened on December 6th, 1995, offering laundry facilities, showers, a hot tub, weight room, library, day storage, and affordable food to downtown residents young and old for one dollar a year. In addition to the martial arts of aikido, judo, tae kwon do, and Tai Chi, classes were offered in qi-gong, yoga, reiki, dance, visual arts, music, and theatre. Not exclusively a sports and arts centre, one can complete high school courses through the Learning Centre at The Gathering Place. Now, 11 years later, most of those founding pro-grams are still available to the centre’s members, which topped 4,000 in 2007. Membership is still just one dollar a year, though there is now an additional five-dollar annual fee for certain activities, such as aikido.

Wendy Wood has been the Youth Programmer at The Gathering Place since its inception and has seen the positive effect aikido has on participants. “It offers discipline,” she says, “beyond self defence. It’s about taking care of yourself.”

Building A Community

Aikido’s effectiveness does not rely on strength. There are no competitions; practice is cooperative and geared to a person’s abilities — it can be practiced safely by people of all ages. Students enrolled in aikido classes at The Gathering Place have ranged from children to seniors. According to Wood, this “builds bridges between groups, making a stronger community.”

Greenwell surveyed students about their opinions regarding the classes. From these surveys, he found Sensei St. Germain to be a popular instructor and a positive role model. Greenwell feels the success of the program is in the connection students make with their classmates and instructors. “So many people are isolated,” he noted, “or it can be desperation that’s driving the groups they’re in.” Greenwell said the classes create a situation where people can positively function in a good group experience.

Since opening, hundreds of people have experienced aikido at The Gathering Place. As the classes take place in a public community centre, they draw a lot of curious observers, some of whom decide to try it out. For most people, it is the first time trying aikido, or even martial arts in general; some do not return, some come back for a while, and others keep coming back for years. Sensei St. Germain hopes everyone, despite how long they practice, will have something that stays with them. He said, however, that this is difficult to judge.

Changing Local Lives

Grant Babin is a student who stayed for years. When Babin started aikido at The Gathering Place in 1997, he was on welfare, recently out of a long relationship, and living in a shared house with five others. He had been introduced to aikido in Victoria and was pleased to learn that it was available at The Gathering Place. Babin said that at the time, other dojos would have been out of reach financially. At The Gathering Place, he “found good people and a good community that helped [him] bounce back up.” Babin practiced regularly for nine years, during his return to school for a diploma in agriculture. At this time he also met and moved in with a new partner, sharing the responsibility of raising her daughter. In 2005, shortly after being granted his black belt in aikido, Babin moved with his new family to Thetis Island, where he is building a home and a dojo. He has started teaching classes at the island’s community centre. “I have to keep practising,” he emphasizes. “I enjoy it, and it’s either use it or lose it.”

If The Gathering Place had a poster child, it could be Alphie Zupan. Zupan was 21 when she started aikido in 1998. She had recently moved out of a car to occupy a room above a café on West Hastings. She found herself working odd jobs and did not know what she wanted to do with her life, except that she wanted to travel. She had never heard of aikido and did not know what martial arts really were. However, Zupan was avidly interested in working with inner energy, what the Japanese call ki and the Chinese call qi or chi. A friend told her about aikido at The Gathering Place and she liked the idea of practice that worked with ki energy while at the same time being physically demanding. Zupan claimed that she benefited from aikido on every level — physical, spiritual, and mental. “It helped me get to the core of myself.”

“She benefited from aikido on every level — physical, spiritual, and mental. “It helped me get to the core of myself,” Zupan explained.”

Zupan was so taken with aikido that in 2001, upon hearing of a company looking for English speakers to teach the martial art to children in Japan, she jumped at the opportunity. As she put it, “How could you not walk that road when the door opened like that?” While in Tokyo, Zupan took advantage of the opportunity to practice at Hombu Dojo, the Aikikai Foundation Aikido World Headquarters. She felt she had been well prepared to train at aikido’s main dojo. “Sensei [St. Germain] taught me good etiquette,” she said. “I picked up the nuances by watching.” After three years of working and training extensively in Japan, Zupan returned to Canada with her second degree black belt. She is now studying Hospitality Operations Management with plans to work internationally. She will continue studying and developing in aikido, and wants to learn how to transmit what she is learning. Zupan plans on returning to Japan in the future, to live and to train.

New students continue to discover aikido at The Gathering Place, and for some it will be a life changing experience.

The Gathering Place is at
609 Helmcken St. Vancouver
Phone: (604) 665-2391
Aikido classes take place Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m.,
Saturdays at 11:00 a.m., and Sundays at 10:00 a.m.

For more information, visit Vancouver West Aikikai and The Gathering Place.