This is a continuation of the interview with Ann Marie Heilman. Part 1 of the interview can be found here. In this segment, Heilman Sensei discusses what it was like meeting Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo and how it changed the direction of her martial arts career. She also contemplates the meaning of being a Hanshi in karate and her growing responsibilities as a role model for women in the martial arts. Please enjoy.
MA: Could you discuss how you met Odo Seikichi Sensei of Okinawa Kenpo? What were your early impressions of him that made you decide to train under him full time?
AMH: The first time I met him was during a banquet we attended with Trias Sensei over in Okinawa. When they announced us and our style as “Okinawa Kenpo” a very small Okinawan man jumped up and yelled “yay! Okinawa Kenpo!” with his arms in the air. That of course was Odo Sensei.
That’s the thing – he was always happy and joyful. Even when he was quite ill, he was always a happy funny man and it was easy to grow to love him. He was also an excellent teacher. We brought him over to the United States the following year and continued to train with him as much as we could until his passing.
We established a routine of going to Okinawa or bringing Odo Sensei to the United States every year. We would be able to spend weeks and sometimes months with him in focused training. It was a great relationship and we were blessed to have him here in our home so frequently.
MA: What did you find similar/different studying with Odo Sensei vs some of your previous instructors?
AMH: It was different in that he was very laid back. I’m not sure if my previous experiences were flavored with American military or Japanese martial art style, which is very very different in the dojo and very serious. While we were training and doing kata with Odo Sensei, although the training was rigorous and focused he always taught with a smile and laughter. That was different and good for me.
Odo Sensei’s training was exacting and he had a huge emphasis on kata. That worked well for us because we could receive the kata and bunkai from Odo Sensei, but then also receive high level application, theory, fighting, etc. from Trias Sensei.
I remember early on in our studies with Odo there was no particular structure for the material. He would teach you what you were interested in or what he thought you should know. I remember attending a meeting in 1984 with a number of other senior students of his and establishing an actual hierarchy of material that students would have to learn. Once we had that scaffolding set up, everyone could then test standardized material. It was in this way that I tested up to 7th Dan directly under Odo Sensei.
MA: Odo Sensei was known for teaching in the old Okinawan manner of suiting material to the student, tweaking it as needed to make it more functional for the individual. Were there any particular ways in which Odo Sensei molded your learning to make it work better for you personally?
AMH: I think the most unique thing about my relationship with Odo Sensei was how frequently he used me as his bunkai partner. Bunkai became a very live experience for me. Before Odo Sensei I trained with a lot of tall, strong men. It was really great to learn from Odo Sensei who was much closer to me in size. That being said, Odo Sensei was very muscular and had huge hands. He was a powerful individual. I remember when we put our hands together his fingers could fold over my fingers.
If I watched him very carefully I could learn how a smaller individual could move, especially with the weapons.
MA: Your husband Bruce Heilman is also a senior in Okinawa Kenpo. This would inevitably lead people to wonder if you were perhaps riding his coattails or getting free rank simply by association. Am I right in assuming this sort of thing came up, and how did you go about handling it?
AMH: Testing and receiving rank directly from Odo Sensei and NOT my husband was critical. In fact Bruce was of the same mind and made sure that it was not him who tested or promoted me. Over the years I noticed a few women who did receive high rank simply because of who they were married to. My testing was always public and I was always sure to keep my training as transparent as possible. This is another reason I did tournaments for a while. I wanted people to see what I could do and prove that I was not just a figurine following my husband.
MA: While studying under Odo Sensei you and Mr. Heilman were also busy building the IKKF (International Karate Kobudo Federation), which Odo Sensei approved and sat on the board for. Could you discuss the challenges of starting something of that nature?
AMH: The organization came about because we wanted to establish a personal identity while being a branch of Odo Sensei’s Shudokan. Bruce Heilman had a talent for organization and was experienced in setting up this kind of structure. He knew about getting accountants, and lawyers, etc etc. We had met a number of excellent martial artists over the years that we wanted to associate with, and we also wanted to help other styles learn things like Okinawan weapons that their style may not have had.
The growth of the federation allowed us to share our art, especially the kobudo, with many people both in the USA and internationally. I never would have thought it possible when I was growing up.
One of the challenges of the IKKF is the desire to maintain high standards throughout the entire organization. Sometimes our style is not ideal for individuals that want to join us, or perhaps our standards are not reasonable for a commercial school. We try to be fair while maintaining what we think is right.
MA: Recently you received the rare honor of being promoted to 9th Dan, Hanshi. I’m sure this was something impactful for you. Could you talk a bit about your feelings and reflections of the promotion?
AMH: I remember my husband brought up the possibility two years ago but I was staunchly opposed to it. I wanted no parts of it and that kind of responsibility. As far as this time around, I feel right about it because I’ve had two years to reflect on the possibility and the things that I’ve done, and the amount of study I’ve done and still want to do. I knew that if I received it this year it would be coming in a legitimate way from teachers outside of the IKKF who are respected in their own right.
(Note: Heilman Sensei’s promotion was made by Hanshi’s Larry Isaac, 10th Dan; C. Bruce Heilman, 10th Dan; and Jody Paul, 9th Dan; with the approval and authorization from Okinawa from Hanshi’s Shihan Toma (ratified before his passing), 10th Dan; Shigemitsu Tamae, 9th Dan; and Kyoshi Satoshi Yamauchi, 9th Dan, representing both the Seidokan and Motoburyu lineages. Additionally Heilman Sensei received recognition from the IKKF (her home federation) and the United States Association of Martial Artists (an organization connected to the original USKA under Master Robert Trias). These ratifications were important as they connected Heilman Sensei to her roots in training (Odo Seikichi and Robert Trias), as well as continuing the historical connection between Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi.)
To be honest, I was so much more involved and excited with Mr. Hayes getting his promotion that I was not thinking too much about my own. It felt good that I was more concerned with him than myself – I felt it was a moment of personal growth.
As for the promotion night itself – I do not remember a moment of it! I don’t remember standing in front of everyone…things were a dull roar.
MA: When you think about your overall legacy on the arts, what do you hope your lasting impact will be?
AMH: I’d like to be remembered as a good and fair karate woman, teacher, and judge. If I can do that, and combine it with the IKKF learning materials we have already created, I would be happy. We have set up the scaffold so that people will have what we created for a long time to come.
I’ve never considered myself (nor was I in truth) a natural talent at martial arts. Everything I learned was through repetition over and over and over. I would watch others get it much sooner than I could. I’ve had multiple injuries as well that were very debilitating. In total my learning process has been slow, with many ups and downs.
I hope that other “non-naturals” out there can see my struggles and continue to push through too. I would say to them, surround yourself with a good support system and never let “quit” enter your equation. As I was once told in grade school: “Aim for the moon…even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars”.
MA: Thank you very much Mrs. Heilman for your time and thoughts!
I’m very pleased to present this interview with Ann Marie Heilman, senior practitioner of Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo. Heilman Sensei has spent over 45 years training and leading the way for women in the martial arts.
In addition to being a skilled martial artist, Heilman Sensei is a formally educated psychology and special needs professional. She has been an important figure in teaching martial arts to at-risk children, abused women, and other individuals in volatile circumstances. She plays an integral leadership role in the International Karate Kobudo Federation and the long operating Heilman Karate Academy.
It was my pleasure to converse with Heilman Sensei about her past training experiences, views on women in the martial arts, and her responsibilities as a senior practitioner. Please enjoy the interview!
MA: Thank you again Heilman Sensei for agreeing to do an interview here. Let’s start at the beginning – when was the first time you set foot in a dojo or training environment?
AMH: I was a freshman at Albright College and Hidy Ochiai was a senior at the time. He was offering Judo Self Defense classes at the local Y. I was really interested in that, and had some personal safety concerns because one of my family members was being released from the state hospital (mental and behavioral problems). I signed up for it, hopped on a bus, and went down to the Y once a week for self defense training. This began in 1966.
The content of the course focused on street awareness and defense techniques (where to hit, how to hit, how to throw, etc). The basis of the class was on Judo methods, which I found challenging as a smaller woman.
It was a very good experience because Ochiai Sensei had endless patience with us. He always encouraged me to continue, even when the program was coming to an end. I was never sure if his encouragement came because he saw a spark of passion in me for the martial arts or if he thought I was so bad I needed lots more extra help, hahaha.
MA: Where did your training go from there?
AMH: As I mentioned Ochiai Sensei was a senior, so after his time was up at the university I had to seek training elsewhere. One day when I was in my dorm room a friend of mine named Rick Ulrich walked in and invited to take me to a local dojo operated by George Dillman.
I had no real knowledge of what karate was, but Rick and a few other friends were involved. I remember my first class there I had to go through something called a kata named “taikyoku one”. I remember thinking – this is kindof…odd. And I had a lot of problems with it. Coming from an inner city school I had almost no experience with gym classes or sports. To do something in a coordinated and physically organized fashion like that was hard.
MA: Were you tempted to quit at first due to the difficulty and unusual nature of the exercise?
AMH: I don’t think I knew at the time how hard it was for me and how bad I must have been. I didn’t know that I was struggling.
MA: Could you talk a bit about the curriculum at the Dillman School?
AMH: At the very beginning I didn’t realize that what we were doing was different from what other people were doing. However, over time I realized that our style of practice was connected to Isshin Ryu Karatedo. In time the name changed to Okinawa Kempo due to influence from Daniel K. Pai, however the content of the class didn’t change. Our training consisted of Isshin Ryu forms and sparring as well as some self defense.
Things were very tournament oriented at that time. I remember going to a national tournament in Indianapolis in 1969, which coincidentally is the first time I met one of the major figures in United States martial arts – Robert Trias.
MA: What was the climate of martial arts training like at that time?
AMH: Truthfully it was a very macho kind of environment. Practitioners were mostly men and the martial arts were still heavily connected to the military (considering the individuals who were bringing karate back from the East). There were so few women that we were a sort of novelty.
All the women I knew in training at that time were white belts. It wasn’t until I attended a tournament that I actually met a black belt woman named Bobbi Snyder. She was competing in the same ring as us because there was only one ring for women (white through black belt and regardless of age). Bobbi took first place in our kata division, and my roommate Linda took second.
Competitor Bobbi Snyder executing a self defense routine and her preferred performance kata, Chinto:
Linda and I were convinced this woman (Bobbi) was going to be standoffish and /or aggressive, but when we all met in the locker room after the competition she immediately joined us in conversation saying how glad she was to meet us. She really encouraged and supported us in our training and said how she was looking forward to watching us gain rank and skill.
She was a student of Glen Premru at the time, a very well known karateka in his own right located in Pittsburgh.
MA: You met your eventual husband, C. Bruce Heilman, at the Dillman School. Could you talk about that meeting?
AMH: I had been training at that dojo for about a year before Bruce came to town. He was from the Pittsburgh area but was serving an internship near Reading. He was already a Shodan under Hank Talbot when he arrived, which was in a style of Jujitsu developed by Dewey Deavers that featured a healthy mixture of tripping, throwing, and striking methods. The Deavers system was known as a hard knocks style that integrated ideas from other methods, including karate. As such, when Bruce arrived in the Dillman school he was honored as a black belt. Of course, he had to learn the kata before being recertified in our style.
When we first started we were side-by-side students. Of course, he had an unusual natural gift for these sort of things and it didn’t take him long to become one of the instructors there. He was a savant for kata and a very good fighter.
We were married in June of 1971, only about 9 months after meeting.
MA: Could you discuss how you eventually began to train under Robert Trias Sensei?
AMH: We reached out to Mr. Trias who we had known from tournaments for a number of years and expressed our interest in learning from him. He directed us to connect with his regional director, who as it turns out, was Hidy Ochiai. Since Bruce was a Nidan at that time Ochiai Sensei decided to test him, and subsequently made Bruce fight all the black belts in his dojo for hours. Bruce was loving it, and afterward we all went out for dinner and had a great time. Ochiai Sensei was instrumental in helping us with our East Coast training and keeping us connected to Trias Sensei.
Bruce and I established our own school in 1972 in the Reading area. For a few years we were focused on building the school and teaching while still learning from the USKA (Trias Sensei’s organization) members in the area. It was in the late 70s and early 80s that we actually studied with Trias Sensei directly.
It was also at this time that we participated in many seminars and got to meet some of the great American practitioners of the time.
MA: Could you talk about what training was like with Trias Sensei? How was it different/similar to what you did before?
AMH: It was really excellent, he was as good as his reputation suggested. Trias Sensei provided us with fantastic training and helped us understand what made karate work (or not work). He had keen insight into functionality, fighting, and kata interpretation. He was one of the best of his time.
One thing he pointed out to us fairly early was that we were not doing Okinawa Kenpo, even though that is what we were self-labeled through the Dillman School. He suggested that we travel with him to Okinawa in order to meet the headmaster of the style , Odo Seikichi. Of course we were a bit taken aback by this revelation, but Trias Sensei’s honesty and knowledge were part of his value as a teacher. He was rather strict in this regard; he told us that if we wanted to keep calling ourselves Okinawa Kenpo that it was our duty to meet the head of the style and learn his ways.
It took a few years for us to gather the funds and make arrangements, but in 1983 we eventually went with Trias to Okinawa, which turned out to be a huge turning point in our martial arts careers.
MA: You mentioned earlier that you, as a woman, were something of a novelty in the dojo. Could you discuss if that feeling persisted through the 70s and early 80s in the Trias Organization and martial arts world in general?
AMH: Trias Sensei himself was always very giving and open and honest. He would tell you what he thought you needed to do, but not in a hurtful way. Training within that organization was something that I found to be fairly inviting with a productive mindset during training.
MA: What were some of the problems you noticed in general (perhaps not specifically things that happened to you) for women of that era?
AMH: I think one of the biggest hurdles was the mindset of martial arts being “A good ‘ol boys club”. It was a time when women in general were struggling to gain a foothold in the business world. It was very difficult in the martial arts to get respect…you had to prove yourself. The men didn’t want to judge us, and only men judged.
One of the true stories of Bobbi Snyder was that she was very rankled by this idea of women being unable to judge. One day she walked up to a corner judge, tapped him on the shoulder, and informed him that he had an emergency phone call on the line that he needed to attend to. When he left, she promptly took the vacant judging spot. Naturally there was no phone call to be found.
She ended up judging and refused to give the flags back.
Another issue was actually finding space to compete. We only ever had one ring, and often it was pushed to the side away from the regular competition near the bleachers or even under the bleachers. By the time I was nearing black belt we really had to take a firm stand to be respected. I was innately a shy person so this was difficult for me.
It should be said that there were some really good men at this time as well, supportive and fair. I remember Ochiai Sensei was an instructor with a mindset of equality from the first time I met him, and even when I visited his dojo in later years he always had female students.
Another very important matter is that gay men and women of the time had very little protection in society, so they needed to learn how to protect themselves badly. Therefore, since there was a contingent of lesbian women in the martial arts, a stereotype developed amongst men that all women martial artists were lesbian. This developed into hurtful and derogative behavior toward women of both orientations, straight and gay alike.
One of the immutable truths of martial arts training is that it requires hard work. Time, sweat, and pain are the primary currencies for martial growth. However, I’ve never believed in the concept of training without thought. “Shut Up and Train” may be a great way to kick yourself (or others) into gear, but a career spent “shutting up and training” fails the true potential of martial arts, by my estimation.
Let me explain in the context of exercise, and walking around the neighborhood.
What is a Walk?
Sometimes when I am taking a stroll around my neighborhood I wonder what passersby must think of me. As they push forward to make pace on their run, mind the behavior of their dogs, or chat with their jogging buddies, they see me doing none of those things. In fact, I am walking at death row pace and looking around like I’m lost. They might very well think me a vagrant…or so high I forgot how I got there.
In truth I use those walks to untether my mind from the day’s grind. I try my best to appreciate small things I never noticed before, or wrestle with problems that I haven’t yet come to terms with.
While I walk I wonder of those passing me, must everything be so…regimented?
The Trap of Pure Exercise in the Dojo
There are limitations in my story above. For example, I hardly know what other people are thinking or what their intentions are…and I certainly don’t think people need to do things the way I do them. In fact, many people state that they achieve a relaxed mental state and calmness through hard physical activity (like hitting a bag) or repetitive activity (like running). But that is the subtlety here – I am not referring to a peaceful mind, but instead of mindfulness.
In his book “My Journey With the Grandmaster” Bill Hayes Sensei discusses the results of training Sanchin kata over and over again. He pushed his mind and body to a point where normal aches and pains washed away in the rhythm of the kata. By the end, his attitude and perspective had changed and he felt a great happiness. This is the potential benefit of prolonged exercise. However, it was not on that same day that Hayes Sensei gained his massive insight into the fundamental operations of that kata and how it could be applied throughout his entire karate paradigm. He did that slowly and thoughtfully on different days, observing himself and others and finding the important questions to ponder.
If, every day, an individual arrives at the dojo and commits fantastic effort into their training they have a chance at receiving the same kind of benefits Hayes Sensei experienced. But if that’s all they do, they could be forever limited.
Mindfulness in the dojo should not be confused with discussing technique or bunkai drilling as both of those matters have distinct purpose. Instead, mindfulness is taking the time to step outside yourself and “watch” with patience as you execute the art. You, as the observer and the executer, have the opportunity to poke around and ask why, how, and to whom. As such, the observations made will likely begin technical and expand beyond it.
A mindful observation of form and function should consider physical technique as well as emotional content (we all remember the finger pointing to the moon right?) and presence of character. Some questions that might arise include: who are you? Why are you moving in such a way? What change in emotional state does this bring? Are you feeling focus…or anger? How does this relate to the bigger picture of the art? Are you being wasteful? Does the dignity of this kata walk with you when you leave the dojo?
One of the least tangible but most critical qualities of true martial arts masters is Hinkaku, a possession of quiet dignity. When around those rare individuals who embody Hinkaku one tends to feel at ease, and wishes the individual would speak more as everything they say and do has weight. In some manner, the dignified individual both exemplifies the simplicity of training for trainings-sake and the discovery of mindful introspection.
Of course, a person of Hinkaku has something else that can’t be written about or photographed or recorded. But that once again is the purpose of mindfulness, as everyone’s something is entirely unique and embodying it is paramount to the martial way.