Gina Zarrilli for Aiki Trend

by Anne Marie Crisanto Ruschel

Gina Zarrilli taking ukemi for Seiichi Sugano Shihan


1. What does Aikido or Aikido training mean for you all along these years, on and off the mat?


In the 37 years since I first started training in Aikido my life, as well as how and when I am able to train, has changed a great deal. Mostly, the importance of my training has been more on the mat than off, however, in retrospect, it is often difficult to distinguish between the two.  Looking back, perhaps I had the most fun “on the mat” in my youth (more accurately in my 20's) when I first started training and I met all these wonderful, interesting, fun-loving people, many of whom are still my close friends today. My life was definitely much freer back then. I could train as often as I wanted (often 2 or 3 classes per day) and, of course, my body was younger. For me at that time, the emphasis was primarily on physical training and the more the better. I felt completely dedicated to my training with little to no distractions or responsibilities. 


Although I am Yamada Sensei's student and to this day identify with his particular style and way of moving, I was also open to other Shihan and other styles over the years. I had a desire to see what “else” was out there. Yamada Sensei has always been very encouraging in that respect. He encouraged our participation in seminars both nationally and internationally. So, as one of his students, I developed a broad base of training early on. Eventually, as the years went by and my training progressed, I found it important to find my own identity within that broad base. Teaching definitely helped me to forge that identity and I was humbled by the honor of teaching at New York Aikikai and at various seminars and summer camps.  


As time has progressed, work restraints have limited my practice as well as my ability to travel freely. Training has evolved to include lessons learned off the mat. In the late 80’s, I opened a restaurant in Chelsea, in NYC. I was a boss, and a business owner. It was a huge challenge. My Aikido training helped me to stay centered and deal with the daily pressures of the restaurant business.

Now I am a physician, and more than ever I use my Aikido training daily to deal with the pressures of work and patient care. I am constantly making life saving decisions and must be calm and centered. I am also in daily communication with patients and their families, and it is essential that the energies between us are harmonious in order to work towards the best outcome for the patient. It is a daily challenge to communicate without clashing, pulling, forcing, or “using muscle strength”. 


2. How did you find Yamada Sensei and the New York Aikikai?


Pure chance, or destiny, I guess. In the mid-to-late 70s, I was a dancer, and one of my dancing/mentor/friends had seen some aikido and told me about the dojo on 18th Street. It took me almost a year to get there but when I walked into NYA I remember being immediately mesmerized by the energy I felt in the dojo. My friend was right and it seemed to me a perfect match!


3. What part of your Aikido practice was the part you enjoyed the most?


As in the first question, that has changed over time. Initially, it was the pure physicality of aikido. The contact, the energy, the throw were all so exciting to me. Also, I enjoyed figuring out how to be balanced and spontaneous. Working with all different body types is so important. Initially, I wanted to learn and perfect “techniques”. Then later, specific techniques (especially fancy ones!) became secondary to training and developing my instincts. Aikido is not simply a known sequence of movements… ie I am practicing a certain technique and uke attacks and I throw in a habitual way. Rather, I now see Aikido training in a more personal way. Aikido at its purist is inevitable. I feel myself as a centered, aware and instinctive being, and if an energy aggresses towards me, I instinctively move and deal with and disperse that energy. And uke finds him or herself thrown, without having felt anything to fight or resist. 


4. What and where was one of the most memorable moments on the mat for you?


OMG I’ve had so many memorable moments. My first break fall! First rib fracture! First time called for ukemi! First time called for ukemi by a Shihan!  First summer camp with Yamada, Chiba, Tamura and Kanai senseis in New Hampshire with 10 days of pure, grueling and wonderful exciting. First “road trip” seminar with Yamada Sensei and my aikido friends, first seminar in Europe, first class I ever taught at NYA!  It is all still so memorable and exciting.  What continues to fascinate me is how many people I have met through aikido and to whom I maintain a connection.  Magical moments keep happening as I continue to teach at various dojos and attend seminars and summer camps.  My aikido friendships continue to grow even today.


5. Did you feel left out being one of the few women on the mat? Was it an advantage being a woman practitioner?


No, I did not feel left out, especially in the beginning. It was a wonderful time for women in Aikido, especially in New York. I had so many strong and inspiring women as role models. There was also a whole group of women that were beginners who were very committed and bonded well together.  In particular, the group I was a part of was affectionately referred to as the “Samurai Sisters”: Lynn, Cheryl, Kris and myself. We took our 2nd Kyu, 1st Kyu, Shodan and Nidan tests at the same time. We were all close, and very supportive of each other, but also very different in terms of personality and style. And we had many senior women to look up to, most notably Sybilla Hahn and Jane Ozeki. It was a warm and wonderful time at NYA. I don't know what it feels like to start out as a woman these days but at that time there were many of us, and we were celebrated, not shunned.


Nevertheless, I have been known to speak up frequently about women not getting enough recognition in aikido.  In many respects in my life….work, family, aikido…. I have felt it is very much a “man’s world”.  But maybe that is a big topic best left for another day.


6. You trained at New York Aikikai at a time when the men were very big, tough and strong; was there any special way you dealt training with such strong and important Aikido figures back then? 


There have been many challenges along the way but in the beginning, everyone, even the big guys, helped me to learn aikido. The challenges from men (and women) mostly came as I advanced in rank, began teaching classes, etc. I don’t know, maybe people were being competitive or were jealous.  In any event, there was respect, less respect and outright disrespect from both genders and all sizes and shapes. At times it felt to me as if people (both male and female) wanted to challenge or minimize me. But, in reality, they were all such valuable learning experiences along the way, as this is what happens in the “real world” anyway.  The big difference is that in aikido we get to be physical about it, which adds a whole other dimension to the mix.  I have found I can still hold my own even with the “big guys”. 


I have to say I learned to be more and more humble as I advanced in my training.  I began to understand how people behaved without too much judgment about their character on my part. I also learned that to be a teacher is such a wonderful gift and opportunity and that I had to put what I knew and understood out there honestly no matter whether people treated me with respect or not.  It didn’t matter if someone learned “it” from me, or a year later learned the same thing I was trying to teach him or her from someone else. Being attached to being "the one who taught so-and-so that" would be just pure ego on my part. 


The important thing for me, as an aikidoist, as well as a doctor, is to put out honestly what I know and understand and to accept that people will take from me what they can, and when they can.  Also I know that I may not be the “right” teacher (or, for that matter, doctor) for everyone!  I feel it is so important to let go of my ego as a teacher and as a doctor and just do what I think is the right thing at the moment. It is a daily ongoing battle though, not so easy to “let go” of ego!


7. Do you find the Aikido training has changed nowadays?


I truly don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know that change is inevitable. Although one is always a beginner, it is hard to put myself exactly in the place of a beginner today. I hope the students training today are as supportive of each other as was the case in earlier times. Aikido is so much bigger now, with a huge worldwide membership. I feel very lucky to have been part of the early times and to have trained with the direct students of O Sensei. And I feel especially lucky to be Yamada Sensei’s student. 


8. You have taken ukemi for some of the greatest Shihans of our time, could you try to recall and describe some of these moments taking ukemi for:


-Tamura Sensei: I was once leaving the mat after a class at La Colle sur Loup in France…everyone was piling out through several narrow exit spaces. The crowd pushed forward from behind, and I bumped into Tamura sensei, who was directly in front of me. He simply turned, and the energy that emanated from him at that moment was astounding. I had violated his space. I instantly moved back, and so did the crowd behind me. It was amazing. It was not personal at all, just pure energy. I had aggressed, and he responded and defined his space with minimal movement and pure powerful ki. That was as valuable a lesson in ukemi as any formal technique on the mat!


-Yamada Sensei: It was always such an honor and privilege to be called for ukemi by Yamada sensei…so unpredictable, so powerful, so scary. 


-Chiba Sensei: It was always a thrill and a privilege to be called for ukemi by Chiba sensei. I was always trying to grab onto those wrists and stay connected with all my center that I could muster! But I remember one night in particular when my hands slipped off… and as if in slow motion I saw the hand coming towards my face… lesson learned! Develop the strength in your hands, especially the lateral hand, to stay connected! Your palms have to be connected to your center and to nage!


-Kanai Sensei: Especially in the early days I felt very connected to Kanai sensei. He was always so challenging, because he seemed to always be searching and developing and changing himself. So taking ukemi from him was wonderful, alive, and very challenging!


-Sugano Sensei: Timing and distance. Those were the things he talked about most. All I know is that when you attacked him you barely knew what happened before you were on the mat, thrown. I miss him so much. He was so spontaneous. He was not concerned with a specific form or style, but rather pure movement. 


9.Did you practice any other sport/physical activity that contributed to your outstanding performance in Aikido? 


Prior to starting Aikido training I was a dancer. I think that was beneficial to help me understand Aikido movement, and the energy and dynamics between nage and uke. More importantly, as a teacher, I think my love of dance helped me immensely to be able to observe the difference between what I thought I had shown and said to the class, and what was actually being done on the mat.  In other words, what students saw and understood and how I could better instruct them. It helped me to figure out what I needed to show and say in order to clarify things for the students. 

It is an ongoing challenge to learn how to transmit this knowledge... and to understand that the people who want to learn, who want to see and understand, will do so... whether from me teaching a particular class or making a particular comment, or from someone else. Planting a seed is as valuable as being able to see the result and say “yes, that’s it! That is what I was trying to explain to you!"


10. Did you suffer any injuries while you were at New York Aikikai? How did you take care of yourself/body training with such tough Aikidoka back then?


I cracked my ribs 3 separate times…very painful! I had groin injuries, toe fractures, bursitis of the elbow and shoulder, toe fractures, torn hamstrings. All painful! But I have recovered from them all. Most recently I had knee surgery from wear and tear injuries… torn meniscus and partially torn ACL. (The final blow was from being knocked over by a huge wave in knee-deep water, but that is another story!) I discovered hot Bikram yoga at that time, to strengthen the supporting muscles and to facilitate my recovery, and I continue it to this day. I find yoga is a wonderful complementary practice to Aikido, and is especially good for helping the aging body stay fit. 


11. Who is one of your favourite teachers now?


Any class that I can take with Yamada sensei is inspiring; he is my teacher. I LOVED my experiences training with the other original students of OSensei. That was a gift. But I have many other teachers from our own generation of practicioners…most particularly I would mention Donovan Waite Sensei, Bruce Bookman Sensei and Harvey Koningsberg Sensei…and many others who are my sempai. But I want to stress that I learn from everyone. The most inexperienced beginner can teach me something so unexpected and wonderful, if I remain open to learning!


12. What fulfills your Aikido practice?


I am completely taken over by Aikido when I am on the mat. I love to change partners, and do the same technique with many different partners. This helps me to study repetitive techniques in new ways, and to to find a more profound meaning in simple movements. I love to work at it: the techniques, the energy, the calmness and the centering aspects, which are ever present. Aikido trains your instincts, so that you move and act in a way both on and off the mat that protects you. Aikido helps to develop patience, humility, tenacity and clarity of vision. This is a lifelong pursuit, but I love the fleeting moments when I feel it, again, both on and off the mat. When I can use Aikido in my personal and professional life, to maintain my center, to deflect confrontation, to blend with and redirect uke, that is the magic!