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A Woman-Owned Aikido Dojo

It’s the first such facility in the region, says owner

It’s hard not to feel at peace around Roo Heins. It’s obvious that the bliss that glows off her is the result of a disciplined adherence to a practice that has no finish line, that’s something she’ll do for the rest of her life.

And she’s brought it to Kalamazoo.

Mitsubachi Dojo, located in the back of a remodeled building in the city’s Edison neighborhood, is where Heins offers instruction in the Japanese martial arts of aikido and iaido, ones that require discipline and, she says, provide a way of acquiring “self-knowledge that ultimately leads to self-transformation and personal freedom.”

Unlike other martial arts, like karate or judo, where the goal is to dominate an opponent with strikes or kicks or pin them to the ground, aikido focuses on using the energy of an opponent’s attack to gain control over them or throw them away from you. It is not a static art, but one where energy flows smoothly, the dynamics of which are a critical component of the study of aikido, Heins says.

“Aggression is left at the door,” she says. “This is an expansive art.

“Aikido is a way for us to understand ourselves as humans and others as humans. I wanted to use this space to build community and to bring this attitude of working together.”

Due to Covid-19 concerns, Heins is not currently teaching the techniques of aikido, which require participants to touch one another. Instead, she is focusing on other practices that she has been educated in: iaido, or “the way of sword drawing,” and zazen, or “sitting meditation.”

The name of her space is fitting. The Japanese word “mitsubachi” means “honeybee,” and honeybees live in colonies, with a queen at the center. Heins says that her dojo is the only aikido training facility run by a woman in Southwest Michigan.

The dojo opened in September in the Art & Innovation Center, at 509 Mills St., which provides purpose-driven studio space for female artists and innovators from culturally diverse backgrounds. The dojo provides instruction to both women and men, but in the spirit of the Art & Innovation Center’s goals Heins started a women-only aikado class in mid-February, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Heins, 51, began practicing aikido in 1994 when she was living in New Mexico. After she achieved shodan, or first-degree black belt, in 1999, she moved to California. There, she studied with T.K. Chiba Shihan, founder of Birankai North America, an organization that supports the teaching of aikido.

Heins’ commitment to further study prompted her to move to Japan in 2004, after attaining yondan, or fourth-degree black belt rank, and shidoin, or full instructor certification. She lived in Tokyo for seven years, practicing at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and became fluent in Japanese along the way. A Traverse City native, she returned to the United States in 2011 and moved to Kalamazoo from Grand Rapids in the summer of 2020.

A book editor in the daytime, Heins also practices Zen meditation and the Japanese tea ceremony, which she’s done for several years.

“This has been my life since I was 25,” Heins says. “When I am not practicing, I get depressed, unrooted. This practice holds me together.”

The dojo is open Tuesday through Saturday, with private practice sessions on Sunday. There is an $80 monthly membership fee, and beginners are welcome.

One of Heins’ students, Michael DeAgro, has been practicing aikido for almost a decade. On an early February evening, he was just one of a few participants at the dojo, braving the frigid conditions to practice iaido.

“It (practicing aikido and iaido) enables me to embody principles of being in harmony with my surroundings,” DeAgro says. “There is a certain finesse factor, too, a body awareness. It helps me to know myself as a body, a constant rediscovery of its capacity.”

Every movement in aikido and iaido is intentional, down to the angle of one’s back, the straightness of a shin, how to properly rise from the mat into a standing position. Under Heins’ watchful eye, DeAgro and another iaido participant, Mustafa Al Nimr, practice sheathing their katanas, or swords, holding their scabbards tight to their hips.

“Watch your posture,” Heins tells Al Nimr.

To DeAgro, she says, “Don’t rush! Slow! Slow!”

“I’m worried about cutting my hand,” Al Nimr says.

“Keep going,” she tells him, “but if you feel it cutting, please stop.”

That comment gets some laughs. But this is a serious affair, full of intention.

“You put a sword in your hand, and the ego can take over,” Heins says. “You have to control yourself.”

The trio move across the mats, practicing a slicing motion with their katanas — holding the swords high above their heads, then letting them fall to waist level, the blades making a whooshing sound as they cut through the air and the participants’ bare feet softly scrape on the smooth floor. There is a palpable reverence in their eyes, which are trained forward, as they practice these moves over and over and over again in a kind of mystical, meditative state.

Chris Killian

Chris is an award-winning freelance writer. He a frequent contributor to Encore.

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