We had the good fortune of connecting with Samantha Dressel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Samantha, can you talk to us a bit about the social impact of your business?
One of the names for aikido is “The Art of Peace”. As an aikido instructor, I see my role as one where I guide students along an aikido journey that improves their lives physically and mentally, and by association helps grow the world and community. While talking about the philosophy behind the martial art is not a huge part of class, it informs me as a person, and the way I teach practice. There are a few major ways that I hope my practice and teaching can bring joy and balance into the world. First, aikido is highly collaborative: we do not have competitions, ranks are awarded based on personal growth from your own starting point rather than external standards, and we see all attackers as practice partners (whether friends in the dojo or actual hostile attackers). To me, this is a great way to approach life. Conflict in the world starts when you assume that those around you are hostile and reflect that hostility back. However, if we look at the world with radical curiosity, we can learn things from everyone we interact with – even if they attack verbally, we can deflect the anger and try to understand the root of our disagreement. Aikido teaches us to avoid using external standards whenever possible, and to try to see the world from other viewpoints, even if those points are ultimately rejected. Relatedly, aikido teaches calm in the face of stress. We do this in practice by creating small stresses to execute techniques quickly, and through breathing and meditation. This double-focus means that we learn to remain calm in moments of adrenaline highs, and to learn to regain calm quickly if it gets lost. Again, this is a vital skill off the mat – it is easy to allow conflicts to escalate when those in conflict get defensive or angry. Instead, the aikido practitioner strives to keep a calm mind in moments of attack, whether physical or mental. By keeping the cooler head, they can end the conflict efficiently and effortlessly, whether that means finding the root of an argument or putting someone into a joint lock. Finally, I see the aikido dojo as a space where people of all types can work together towards the common goal of self-improvement. Aikido is unique among martial arts in that it is highly adaptable, and that practice can be mediated to each person’s level of physical fitness. Techniques intentionally do not depend on strength; as a purely self-defense oriented art, it would not be very effective if you had to overpower someone attacking you! This means that people with nearly all body types and physical abilities can practice. People of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, height, weight, etc., are welcome in the dojo: if you can practice with all other students with good will and sincerity, you are welcome. To me, getting to know people across many areas of our society is one way for people to become closer and more open to those unlike them. Learning aikido gives people of many walks of life a safe and fun way to engage with others while working towards a shared goal.
Ultimately, I am a huge believer in the power of small change. My motto for each class is, “Leave better than you started”. If you can leave the dojo in a better mood or having had an incremental victory, that positive change will echo out to the people you interact with in the next few days. My small dojo won’t directly change the world, but hopefully by sharing my aikido and bringing balance to the lives of others, they can in turn bring positive change to those around them, creating an increasing ripple effect.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am a college professor by day and aikido instructor at night. I think what unites these fields is that in both contexts, I get to share things that have made a difference in my life, and try to guide others to find their passions. One challenge in both areas is learning that you’ll never please everyone. As a professor, some students just won’t be invested in their classes and will never put in the work necessary to pass, let alone excel. In aikido, the big challenge is getting people through the door. People often have never heard of aikido, or never considered that martial arts is for them. Unlike my college students, they don’t have to come learn with me, so they may never get to the point where they can see why I love this weird thing so much. This is something that I still struggle with, but I hope that through small interactions, I can keep spreading this practice. To me, the biggest challenge as an aikido sensei is getting people to walk in the door, but the biggest reward is when they do, stick with it, and start to really enjoy the art.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I love being out in nature, so I would probably take someone hiking – Crystal Cove is a favorite spot of mine, maybe followed by some good fish from Bearflag. I might also bring them up to the Pasadena area to visit the Huntington Gardens and Library, and maybe to Vromans, my favorite bookshop, and The Cellar wine bar.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
The Aikido Kokikai community across the US is my extended family and support network. Without them, I could not grow as an aikido practitioner and instructor; they always push me to keep learning.