The only real choice that a person can make in life is to be present in the moment. That’s according to Christopher Curtis, the head instructor of Maui Ki Aikido Shunshinkan Dojo and Chief Instructor of the Hawaii Ki Federation. With all of the choices people face everyday–ranging from what to wear to whom to marry–can living in the moment truly enhance a person’s life?
“We are all creatures of conditioning,” says Curtis. “We imagine that we make choices, like this kind of drink or food instead of that kind, this religious or political group instead of another. However, those ‘choices’ are really just reactions controlled by our past conditioning. The only real choice that we can make is whether to be present in this moment or not. Aikido has provided me with the opportunity to practice this.”
Curtis Sensei (who looks a little like Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars) has not always lived in the now. As a young adult, he wondered how to meet life’s traditional needs. Yet he had an underlying desire to understand human nature. He says for as long he can remember, he wanted to understand what makes humans act the way they do. So he decided to study theater arts in college in hopes of understanding the essence of humanity—and provide the essentials of adult life. “I chose acting as a way to find access to this mystery, and get all of my obsessive needs met–fame, fortune, etc.–at the same time,” Curtis says. “To this end, I attended Carnegie Mellon University, which at the time was one of the most prestigious theater arts school available in the US.”
Today, Curtis’ life is a far cry from the bright lights of Broadway. The long-time Maui local and grandfather to three is responsible for guiding all of the Ki-Aikido teaching efforts in Hawaii. He’s written several books about Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (the way of Mind Body Unification), which is commonly known as Ki-Aikido. He teaches throughout the Mainland and is the official advisor for Ki Society dojos in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.
Ilima Loomis, Spirituality & Health magazine’s managing editor and a long-time student of Curtis, holds her Sensei’s experience in high esteem. “Curtis Sensei has been invited to teach Aikido across the Mainland and as far away as Europe and Russia, so it is an honor to call him my teacher, and I feel really lucky to be able to train with him every day,” Loomis says. “He and several of our instructors and students also travel to Japan at least once a year to study and train at Ki Society headquarters, so the quality of instruction at our dojo remains very high and is very consistent with the way Aikido is taught in Japan.”
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Curtis was born in 1944 in Upland, California. He graduated from college with a BFA degree in acting and playwriting. He first encountered Aikido in 1969 while working with the Open Theater Company in New York. While preparing for a role, he received personal instruction from Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, a student of the late Koichi Tohei Sensei–the tenth Dan aikidoka and founder of the Ki Society and its style of Aikido, officially known as Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido. Curtis says that first exposure to Tohei Sensei’s teachings left a deep impression.
Not long into his theater career, he realized that the performing arts would not provide answers to his life-questions. “While my career in acting was only in its infancy, I already was beginning to notice that I was not discovering the depth of satisfactory understanding that I had always been seeking,” Curtis says. Even though he was launching a successful theater career in New York, he says he was very dissatisfied with his personal life. So at the age of 25, he left the theater world and moved to the hills of California, where he lived alone in solitude from 1969 through 1972 to concentrate on meditation and self-development.
“I left acting and entered a three-year spiritual retreat or hermitage,” Curtis says. During that time, he lived alone, communicating with the teacher that was guiding his inner exploration only through handwritten letters–no Internet yet.
“I was living a life of austerity and meditation,” he says. “This period of my life was very helpful in resolving personal issues and providing insights into my human condition; however, even though three years of meditating eight to 12 hours a day may seem extreme, it provided me only with a beginning or foundation for further exploration. At the end of the three-year period, I told my teacher that I wanted to become a permanent recluse and lead a life of meditation and private study. However, he said to me, ‘No, you have done that in many past lifetimes. In this lifetime, your task is to become utterly free while leading a life in public, marriage, children, job, etc.’”
Soon after that conversation, Curtis says he discovered Aikido. He moved to Maui in 1972 and began his formal training with the late Shinichi Suzuki Sensei in 1974. He subsequently became Suzuki Sensei’s otomo, which literally means humble assistant.
“Being assigned as otomo to the teacher in Aikido is considered a great honor and is a much sought after position,” Curtis says. “It is in this kind of position, with constant proximity to the teacher, that the real learning takes place.”
As Suzuki’s otomo, Curtis accompanied the Sensei when he traveled to teach seminars in Japan and throughout the United States, South America and Europe. “Aikido is an experiential practice, not merely intellectual or cognitive,” Curtis says. “Therefore this kind of personal contact, constantly receiving the ‘feel’ of what the teacher is experiencing, is a great help in moving forward… so I was very fortunate to be able to otomo for Shinichi Suzuki Sensei.” Curtis also has spent several years working on special training sessions and self-development with the esteemed Ki-Aikido founder Tohei Sensei.
Loomis lauds the value of the Sensei’s experience working closely with Suzuki Sensei and Tohei Sensei. “Our dojo was founded in 1953 and is the oldest Aikido dojo in the United States,” she says. “Curtis Sensei was the student of our dojo’s founder, Shinichi Suzuki Sensei, and he trained with the founder of Ki-Aikido, Koichi Tohei Sensei. It’s a really special experience to be able to train at a dojo with such deep roots, history and tradition, and Curtis Sensei upholds and honors all of that.”
Today, Curtis continues as the head instructor of Maui Ki Aikido (formerly Wailuku Aikido Club) as well as Chief Instructor of the statewide Hawaii Ki Federation, an organization he was instrumental in establishing. “For a number of years, the four major islands maintained their own separate Ki Societies, meeting together only when Koichi Tohei Sensei would come from Japan to teach,” Curtis says. “[Tohei Sensei] felt strongly that each island group was developing their own criteria for teaching and testing, and he saw that the essence of his teaching was becoming deleted by these separate efforts.”
Tohei Sensei asked Curtis if he would be willing to establish a new Hawaii Ki Federation to unify all of the islands’ Aikido groups, with the idea of preserving his teachings and improving the togetherness of these individual groups. The new HKF–encompassing dojos located on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island–began officially on Jan. 1, 2000, and Curtis says it’s been successful in its efforts.
“The purpose of our training is to recognize and experience being one with the Universe, so any and all work directed towards unification or non-separation on any level is useful and important,” Curtis says. “I am the Chief Instructor for the HKF, and as such, my responsibility is to encourage and communicate the practice of Tohei Sensei’s teachings for those in Hawaii.”
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One of the major differences between Tohei Sensei’s Ki-Aikido and the Aikido organization known as the Aikikai is the emphasis on the principle of ki. “In Aikido, when we use the word ‘ki’ we are referring to that which the universe itself is made of,” Curtis says. “It is not considered to be either matter or energy, but that which both of these arise from. As such, we can just say that ki is ‘mind’ in its ultimate sense.”
Tohei Sensei, formerly the chief instructor of the Hombu Dojo (the headquarters of Aikikai), wanted Aikido to focus on exercises to both cultivate and test ki in the daily Aikido practice, according to the Wikipedia page on Akido. That different philosophy motivated Tohei Sensei to officially split from Aikikai in 1974 and create Ki-Aikido and Ki-Society to teach his own ki style of Aikido.
Even though Aikido is a martial art like karate, judo or kung fu, Curtis says the practice is not about learning how to overcome others. The main difference between Ki-Aikido and other martial arts is that Ki-Aikido is not a sport, he says. “There is no competition, no effort to overcome an opponent,” Curtis says. “We emphasize that the only true victory is victory over the self, and its concerns with personal gain overriding all other concerns. If we want to be truly compassionate and useful to ourselves and to others, then we must learn to let go of this obsessive emphasis on personal satisfaction at any cost.” Aikido begins and ends with the premise that mind and body are essentially one phenomenon, looked at from two different perspectives: mental and physical.
Loomis agrees. “I don’t think I can express this any better than he did,” she says.
In Hawaii, as well as around the world, Curtis trains both instructors and students. “I am always training those at all levels,” he says. “Of course, those who are the top instructors in Europe have more access to this teaching, since they hang out with me much more; but I also teach the very beginning levels as well. Some people attend my seminars who have never actually practiced before.”
Curtis says the importance of a teacher is three-fold. “First, he or she shows the result of this kind of practice,” he says. “When you interact with the teacher, you can experience what it’s like to dive deeply into this moment and leave behind all petty thoughts, needs, and fears. Secondly, the teacher can show you how to experience life completely in this way. And finally, the teacher helps you to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of such practice for you.”
Loomis says Curtis’ allegiance to his students is admirable. “What I appreciate most about Curtis Sensei is his deep care for his students and his dedication to support us in our training,” Loomis says. “He is someone who takes his role as ‘teacher’ very seriously and honors his commitment to his students.”
In addition to teaching, Curtis literally “wrote the book” about Ki-Aikido. He said that in the early days of his training, he noticed that no one had ever collected all of the basic teaching and practice guidelines of Ki-Aikido in one place. “When I mentioned this to my teacher on Maui, Shinichi Suzuki Sensei, he said, ‘So get busy and do it!’” So in 1985, Curtis published the first edition of Ki-Aikido On Maui, A Training Manual.
According to Curtis, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many students began asking if he could write a book that was not a dojo-oriented training manual–a book that examined how the practice of Ki-Aikido related to everyday life. So in 2005, he published the first edition of his book Letting Go, Talks on Aikido.
Both books are now published in Russian and German, and Letting Go will soon be translated into Spanish. The ideas from his Letting Go book are featured in monthly “Ki Talks” at the Shunshinkan Dojo on Maui. He also broadcasts the talks via podcasts, which can be downloaded from his webpage Curtissensei.com.
Curtis Sensei’s dedication to teaching and spreading the philosophy of Ki-Aikido has taken him on a path that is far different from his college-quest of fame and fortune. But it’s not a career path; in fact, Curtis has never taken any money for teaching Aikido.
“I own a successful landscape design, construction, and maintenance company on Maui called Chris Curtis Landscapes,” he said. “This has provided me with a sufficient income to marry and have four children, two of whom are now working with me in this company and will one day take it over.”
Photo courtesy Christopher Curtis