Interview with Jamie Zimron Sensei (6th Dan)
By: Cassie Chan (Interviewer, Article Writer), Lauryn Monner (Interviewer, Transcriber), Sally Cochrane (Interviewer, Transcriber), Natalie Vakulin (Transcriber)
Jamie Zimron Sensei is an awe-inspiring and powerful woman who has travelled worldwide to bring the teachings of Aikido into our everyday society. As a sixth dan black belt, professional golfer, entrepreneur, psychologist, therapist, and physiologist, she specializes in a variety of different areas and is passionate about connecting everything she does to the Aikido principles of breath, energy, and peace. BigRock Aikikai’s Ferocious and Female initiative’s first International Focus showcases Jamie Sensei for her hard work as a female empowerment pioneer, as well as her many accomplishments in making the world a better place. Jamie Sensei’s award winning, self-started initiatives have greatly impacted countless lives across the globe, and her blazing determination has brought about awareness and change to international causes like violence against women and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Because of her story and the path she paved for the growth of female leadership, every girl can aspire to follow in Jamie Sensei’s footsteps. She is an amazing teacher, a remarkable role model both inside and outside the Aikido community, and a true female inspiration.
Jamie Sensei’s leadership potential began cultivating at an early age. She grew up in Wisconsin, and when she was only seven years old, she discovered her love for golf. Her dedication to the sport led her to become a junior and senior golf champion in both state and national competitions. However, it was during Sensei’s time at Stanford University in 1976 when she encountered Aikido for the first time. A college friend had piqued her interest after describing the martial art to her over the university’s Christmas break. In fact, her friend’s explanation of Aikido included so many wonderful stories and concepts, like the teacher’s way of speaking with harmonies and metaphors of nature, that Jamie Sensei felt as if it was too good to be true!
Despite her skepticism, she decided to attend one of her friend’s Aikido classes at Stanford University as a part of the physical education program. “I was very cynical… And we went off to class and I was pretty blown away. It was absolutely beautiful.”
The instructor, a man named Frank Duran Sensei, had left his previous careers as a police officer and an ex-marine sergeant to devote himself to his Aikido training. He taught at Stanford University five days a week, as well as at other locations like a nearby high school and Aikido San Francisco, before becoming one of the top American instructors known worldwide. As Jamie Sensei’s first instructor, Duran Sensei was the very one to introduce her to Aikido and is considered to be one of her most influential teachers. His ‘Beethoven Aikido’, as Jamie Sensei called it, involved his clarity of technique, classical and beautiful movements, and flowing sense of connection, all of which Jamie Sensei found very inspirational.
When she first started Aikido, she didn’t think she would be very good at it. Jamie Sensei may have been a well trained athlete and championship golfer, but in her mind, her skill set consisted of pretty much all the sports that didn’t have to do with tumbling, flipping, and rolling. Yet, even so, Jamie Sensei was so enthralled with the beauty of Aikido, she felt compelled to give it a shot, and was completely hooked after only a few classes. The circular motions and the grips felt very familiar to her, because the same techniques were applied in golfing, so as she learned the basics of rolling and progressed through the ranks, Jamie Sensei felt more and more like she could relate to the martial art.
“I can’t take a lot of credit for having much consciousness about it,” Jamie Sensei replies when asked about her start in Aikido. “It’s not like I thought ‘oh, I need self defence’, or ‘oh, I need a spiritual practice’, or even ‘oh, I need to be in better shape physically’, or something, because I was fine. But, as I got into it, all of those things really took on a lot of meaning and I loved the practice. I loved the feeling of it.”
One of the best parts of her experience at Stanford University’s Aikido program was the great family of people, from graduated students, to staff and faculty workers, to everyday members of the community. Jamie Sensei loved Aikido so much, she would make sure to train anywhere from five to ten times a week at any one of Duran Sensei’s locations. Moreover, because of Duran Sensei’s successful Aikido classes taught at the high school nearby, it soon transformed into a dojo called Aikido West. The creation of this very prominent central dojo in the San Francisco Bay Area was something Jamie Sensei was quite fortunate to take part in. “I was lucky in many ways. I was kind of in the right place at the right time with Aikido history, I would say.”
Along with being known for her Aikido expertise, Jamie Sensei’s devotion to her international peace work has also earned her a spotlight over the years. Her global travelling began at the age of seventeen, when Jamie Sensei flew across the world to complete the second half of her senior high school year in Israel. She lived on a collective farm, called a kibbutz, where they had an intensive study of Hebrew programs. For an entire six months, Jamie Sensei spent six days a week, four hours a day learning Hebrew. That served to be her first experience in Israel and wouldn’t be her last, considering she later came back for college and then acquired dual citizenship in Israel and the United States. “I’ve been back and forth from here to Israel since I was seventeen,” Sensei says.
She even decided to continue her Aikido training there in the early 90s, when Aikido was first starting to take off in the Middle East. After one of the founding instructors of Aikido in Israel and her long-time colleague let her teach and train in his main dojo classes, Jamie Sensei was surprised to discover the vast amount of Aikido in Israel. She describes Aikido to be a universal body language, so her training in the Middle East was very similar to North American Aikido in the sense that the Japanese etiquette and techniques were quite identical. At the same time, there were some cultural differences, like the energetic mindsets and native tongue, that made practising in Israel interesting and all the more unique.
Jamie Sensei even helped bring Aikido to the Soviet Union at a time when martial arts had been outlawed through communism. Both Jamie Sensei and thirty others trained dangerously underground, and she continued to lead these training groups as the head instructor until the Soviet Union fell in 1991. This was a game changing moment for Sensei. Watching her students interact without fear, break through stereotypes, and see each other simply as other human beings for the first time became a starting motivation for her to pursue Aikido-based peace work, which she has continued to advocate for ever since.
Within the next few years of her Aikido training, Sensei's philosophy of peace expanded even further. A peace treaty was signed between Israel and Jordan in 1994, and soon after, Sensei had the idea to create “Salaam shalom Aikido”, translating to peace in Arabic and Hebrew. This became the basis of her peace work in the mid 90s, when she began to try and bridge the gap between the Palestinians and Israelis by performing dialogue work and spreading the peaceful messages of Aikido. In 2005, she took part in holding the East Aikido Peace Project’s peace conference, where Palestinians, Israelis, and people in places of conflict were invited to come and train with each other.
Subsequently, Jamie Sensei became head of ‘AiKi Extensions’, an initiative focused on expanding peace through the practises of Aikido worldwide. As a result of her work, this initiative continues to have a global effect on people from all different nations, from those in Israel and Palestine to citizens of Greece and Turkey. Jamie Sensei has also helped bring teenagers from a variety of different backgrounds and cultures in the Middle East to the United States for one of the oldest American summer camps, called the PeaceCamp Initiative, where they can get away from their war-torn homes and bond as they practice Aikido together. “How cool to bring together Aikido people who love Aikido… just to come and train?! And meet new teachers and meet new people,” Sensei says.
Along with Duran Sensei, her first instructor, Jamie Sensei has been influenced by numerous Aikido instructors around the world, in places like Japan, Israel, Russia, and San Francisco. One of Jamie Sensei’s most influential teachers was Ekaya Sensei. She marvelled at his power and speed, but most of all, she found his teachings on ‘internal Aikido’ an inspiration to her own philosophies. “What is going on inside of us and in our bodies, and how does the inner ki - our inner life energy - get expressed through our physical body?” Sensei says. She has found her experiences with teachers worldwide to have really enhanced her knowledge and scope of Aikido. “I have just been able to sort of train in different traditions and lineages that have been quite influential, I would say, in giving me flavours - tastes of other things.”
One of her most memorable Aikido experiences was with an instructor named Terry Dobson Sensei. He was a strong, well-built man, a friendly instructor, and O’Sensei’s very first American student to live inside his dojo as an ‘uchideshi’, so he carried a lot of history, information, and experience. During one of his final seminars, Jamie Sensei watched him in awe as he snapped a leather braided bull whip across the tatami. “It would snap so loud, it would practically break your eardrums,” Sensei says, “...and then he would look at everybody with this intensity of a man who was trying to convey his last teachings before he would die… then he said, ‘There is nothing so powerful as a whip!’... And he’d be completely soft, completely relaxed, and he’d say, ‘There is nothing so, so soft and relaxed as a whip’.”
Jamie Sensei has toiled to incorporate Aikido principles into education, leadership authorities, and businesses on a local, national, and international level. Being a professional golfer, Jamie Sensei has created a training program called KiAi Golf, where she uses specific elements of Aikido in her golfing lessons. Aspects like balance, extension, being centred, and holding the golf club like you would an Aikido sword are all components of her lessons that she could relate back to Aikido. So many of her golfing students left her lessons feeling both delighted and astonished by her unique way of teaching. In fact, the very first golf lesson she gave was to her best friend, who came out wonderstruck by Jamie Sensei’s technique. “She was blown away,” Sensei says. “She fell on the ground, she tossed her legs, her club in the air… she goes, ‘Oh my god, this is like enlightenment! You have got to teach this to the world!’ And I thought, ‘That was really fun! And it really worked!” With that, KiAi Golf was initiated and became one of her most well-known programs.
Even the most accomplished people, like Jamie Sensei, have had to persevere through many challenges to achieve success. She found injuries to be one of the hardest difficulties to push through, especially after she separated her shoulder. Sensei had been asked to be an uke for a Shodan black belt test, and after the man she was taking ukemi for violently jammed her into the mat, she ended up crash-landing on her shoulder and neck. This took quite a toll on Jamie Sensei’s physical and psychological state, because she had never been treated in such an aggressive manner at a dojo before. The shock caused her a lot of trauma. “That was very, very difficult… And I’ve seen instructors hurt people, I’ve seen power abuses in Aikido, and that’s really been a very strong concern of mine. It’s important to me that we really are tuned in and are sensitive to our partners, and we’re respectful to our partners, and that we don’t cause any harm - at least not deliberately.”
In addition to her injuries, Jamie Sensei had a hard time earning her fourth dan black belt and was never told why she wasn’t promoted. Level advancement has always been a challenge for her, even though she has practised and trained harder than many of her peers. This felt very unfair to Jamie Sensei. It put limitations on independent Aikido programs, because at the time, she wasn’t even senior enough to rank her own students. “The practice, when it comes down to it, it’s not about rank,” Sensei mentions as she describes her view on the Aikido belt system, “but on the other hand, there are certain opportunities and recognition - and all that goes with rank… I think I am very sensitized to those issues.”
Her motivation to teach began only a few years after she first embarked on her Aikido journey. During the 1980s, Jamie Sensei met some women in the San Francisco Bay Area who trained in all different martial arts, including Karate, Kuk Sool Won, and Taikwando. These strong females banned together to promote the end of violence against women, and in doing so, became close friends. They would camp out together every once in a while, taking three or four days to connect, hang out, and learn their various forms of martial arts under the night stars. Soon, these informal camp-out gatherings became public demonstrations, where nearly one thousand spectators attended the Bay Area’s female martial art performances. It involved music, choreography, skits, women’s empowerment discussions, and naturally, martial art demonstrations. “Aikido was the grand finale of our martial arts performances, because, number one: it was so beautiful, number two: randori was just so exciting!”
It wasn’t long after her demonstrations before Jamie Sensei was asked to start up a women’s Aikido club. She was hesitant at first, taking into account that she was still newer to Aikido, very young, rather inexperienced, and a ‘women’s only’ dojo had never been done before. However, after she received more and more requests for a female dojo, and a nod of approval from Duran Sensei, Jamie Sensei opened up the Women’s Aikido School in San Francisco. Her dojo started out small, but grew so popular, it became the Aikido Art Center and expanded to include men, women, and children programs. Jamie Sensei ran the school until 1994, and since then, has taken part in the National Women Martial Arts Foundation, co-founded the Israel Martial Arts Women Federation, and helped form the Pacific Association of Women’s Martial Artists.
To improve and grow in Aikido, Jamie Sensei’s advice is quite simple: just show up and train. She has had many students who were not skilled or athletic when they first stepped onto the mat, but after an incredible amount of sincere, purposeful, and consistent training, they became remarkable Aikido practitioners. All of her journeys and experiences have shown her that everyone resonates with Aikido in many different ways because of its foundation of peace. “There is a hunger for Aikido, for Ai-Ki, for this way of harmony - life energy, and a peaceful, connected kind of power instead of a dominating brute-force-power… we already have it inside of us. We just need to know how to develop it. And then we feel connected in our own bodies, in our own spirit. This is about our spirit and our heart, as well as our body and our mind.”
A quote that Jamie Sensei found to be very impactful in relation to her peace-centred mindset was spoken by Sadako Sasaki, a child who had lived in Hiroshima during the atomic bombing and, as a result, passed away from leukimia at the age of twelve. “‘I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world’,” Jamie Sensei quotes. She and her wife had been in Santa Barbara when they came across these words and immediately found themselves in awe of its power and beauty. “We just went wow, that’s kind of like the theme of our lives.” After learning that Sadako Sasaki had attempted to fold one thousand paper cranes to wish for her personal health and healing, Sensei and her wife decided to use images of paper cranes as their website’s background and establish this quote as the theme of her main enterprise, The Centered Way.
Jamie Sensei has so many favourite elements of Aikido and even jokes that Aikido is her longest-term relationship. She treasures the self-discoveries made while training, the diverse teachers and styles all over the world, the constant room for improvement, and the exciting challenges each class brings, as well as the relevance and deeper meaning behind every teaching. “I love rolling around. I love connecting. I love that we get to touch each other, and we get to be close, and we get to move, and I love the fluidity, the flexibility, the connection. I love the learning, I love how human it is. We bump into our egos, we bump into our emotions, we bump into our fears and our frustrations,” Sensei says. She has realized how much the world needs Aikido, and although not everyone will put on a dogi and roll across the mat, Jamie Sensei believes that its very principles and practices can be adapted and used outside of a dojo setting, spreading the fundamentals of Aikido to the world. “Aikido can make the difference that I believe O’Sensei envisioned for the Art of Peace.”
In her opinion, Jamie Sensei believes that there are several features of Aikido that improve the lives of every practitioner, but especially considers awareness to be a critical everyday-life skill enhanced by Aikido. She thinks that being aware of not only what surrounds us, but of our identities and who we are as human beings are very important aspects of our lives that we can explore through Aikido practice. “Our life’s kind of one big breath,” Sensei says. “Aikido is really about kokyu, breath power, so we really get to be in touch with our breath. And what’s breath? It carries, it expresses, maybe it is our life force.” The life energy of every individual is a concept that Jamie Sensei believes is key in today’s society, and by asking ourselves questions like, “How can I develop my life energy to its fullest potential?” or “How does my life energy connect with that of others and interchange?”, we can really start to discover a deeper level of appreciation for our lives. She believes that if everyone could just realize that we are all humans and each of us have this universal life energy, no one would care about the colour of your skin, age, gender, religion, background, or how you were born, because we are all the same: an embodiment of life energy. This is why Jamie Sensei knows everyone needs Aikido; the world would be a much better place! “It comes from our bodies, it comes from our spirit, it comes from our emotions, it comes from our intuition, it comes from stuff we can’t even say because it’s so beyond just our mind,” Sensei says when explaining life energy. “And we get to experience that, work with that, and play with that, and that way I think we get to be fuller humans, and we can work together in such amazing ways that I think humanity hasn’t even fully unlocked yet. And so I think Aikido kind of let’s us experience that, work with that, talk about it, make it practical and help us to really be ‘in-ourselves’ in whole ways.”
Although Jamie Sensei never had any female Aikido instructors to support her on her own path to becoming a tremendous role model for men and women alike, she is thrilled at how many senior teenage girls are progressing through the belt ranks and wants to be there to help and motivate them in any way she can. With the younger generation having only a small portion in the total percentage of Aikido students worldwide, Jamie Sensei is very passionate about encouraging today’s youth to join the Aikido community and was blown away by the amount of younger students participating at BigRock Aikikai, especially the number of females. “The empowerment and the embodiment part of the training is so important for girls and women, and the leadership - the ability to be leaders in every way, is important to cultivate in all of us,” Sensei says. “And that we need more women who are black belts, and black belts in every level of their beings and in everything they do, and know and feel themselves to be empowered.”
Her first piece of advice for any young girls who want to open their own dojos, earn their black belts, and become Aikido community leaders is to go for it, don’t let anything stop you, know that you are important, and that the world desperately needs your leadership. You should just embrace it, and don’t wait for someone to tell you or say it’s okay. “I just had to step out there and do it. You know, you stick your neck out there and sometimes you get it chopped off and sometimes you don’t, and that’s good! And then you turn into a pioneer, a trail blazer. So just do it… It’s very important to have mentoring and also that peer support, and to know that you’re not alone. Learn from each other, support each other, and just embody, you know? Embody yourself. Take your space, take your place.”