Evaluating a Dojo
by Bill Witt, 7th dan, Shihan
Takemusu Aikido Association
Over the years one of the most commonly asked questions by prospective
students is, "How do I evaluate a dojo?" To someone who has no
experience in martial arts this is a somewhat intimidating task.
For me the task was easy. I was in Tokyo and the first person I saw,
when I walked in the dojo, was O-Sensei. My reasoning for joining was
that it is not often in life that one is able to associate with the
founder of a movement. I also figured that the quality of training had
to be high. These were two excellent criteria to make this choice, and
I was more than rewarded on both counts.
Years later when I was teaching, people would come into the dojo and
ask me the very same question. My experience was so unique that it was
difficult to answer someone who was sincerely trying to find a way of
comparing one dojo versus another, since our situations were so
One night after practice several of us were sitting with my Sensei and
we asked him this very question. Without hesitating, he answered that
there were three things to look for:
1. Do the Sensei's techniques work?
This is difficult to evaluate, if you have no experience in martial
arts. However, someone who has trained a bit in any martial art should
be able to see if basic principles of movement and balance are being
2. Does it look like the students are enjoying themselves?
It is important to train with a joyful spirit. Those of us with years
of experience appreciate the opportunity to train together. Is the
sensei enjoying himself in class? Conversely, do the trainees seem
grim or afraid? If you think of your own educational experiences, the
teachers you responded to most made your learning fun.
3. Are the newer students being cared for?
This is where the observation becomes personal. Notice if the senior
students are training with the newer students, because this will be
your situation should you join. Are the senior students taking care of
the junior students by training in a supportive and safe manner? Does
the sensei give newer students personal attention? Are beginners
segregated out into a special class where they train only with other
beginners? By integrating with senior students in a regular class, the
beginner learns more quickly, gets personal coaching, and experiences
the enthusiasm that Aikido practice generates.
That evening as Sensei expanded on each question, it became clear what
we had to do as future senseis to welcome people into our dojos. From
then on we approached our own training in the dojo differently. We
were not just learning techniques anymore. We were noticing now how
Sensei taught in the dojo, which was something we took for granted
before. He made us train with the newer people to help them and take
care of them. His answers had been there all along, but now we were
aware of them.