It Had to Be Felt #58: Maruyama Shuji: "Ueshiba did it, Tohei did it, I did it.... You can do it too."
"Ueshiba did it, Tohei did it, I did itů . You can do it too." Maruyama sensei spoke those words to Mary and me at a winter camp instructors meeting around twenty years into my study with him. Although obvious to me only now, in hindsight, that sentence marked a turning point in my aikido practice.
I first met Maruyama sensei in 1978, about a year after I began taking classes with Laura Dubester, a student of his who moved to western Massachusetts from Philadelphia and began teaching at the Pittsfield YMCA. After hearing about Maruyama sensei from Laura, I managed to overcome my social anxiety, and told her I'd like to meet him and attend a couple of his classes. She made arrangements, and the following weekend off I went.
Maruyama sensei's dojo was on the second floor of a building on Arch Street, up a rickety flight of stairs. When I entered for the first time, the only person there was Maruyama sensei, vacuuming the mat. I noticed chairs along the wall, so I sat down and wondered what to do next. Maruyama sensei noticed me, walked over to where I was sitting, handed me the vacuum and left the mat. Not knowing what else to do, I took off my shoes and proceeded to finish vacuuming.
I have to admit that I was a little taken aback. Years later, I realized that this was a gift of welcome. Allowing me to vacuum the mat, to do something, gave me time to acclimate myself to the dojo. When students began to arrive for class, I was far more relaxed that I otherwise would have been.
What was it like to uke for Sensei? The first word that comes to mind is power. At one hundred, thirty-five pounds, he was, by no means, large. But he could generate power all out of proportion to his size. That power was delivered via a deceptively feathery touch that was nevertheless inescapable. I remember one occasion when he came to Massachusetts to conduct a workshop at the Pittsfield YMCA. He called me up, and asked me to repeatedly punch him. I have quick hands even today, but was quicker back then in my early thirties. Each time I punched, his hand would flick out and land on my wrist with that feathery feeling that felt, at the same time, like a thick piece of rebar. I varied the tempo of my delivery, the speed and my target, all to no avail as each punch was met by that same flicking hand. He did this while lecturing to the class on the importance of mind/body coordination to the successful execution of technique. After a couple of minutes, I had an egg-sized weal on the back of my wrist. There was no pain, but it was scary to look at. During the break, Sensei came over to me and after a few minutes of applying kiatsu to my wrist, the swelling was gone. The black and blue left after a few days, and I was none the worse for wear.
Whenever I was uke, I attacked Maruyama sensei with abandon, doing my best to get inside his defensive perimeter. I was never successful, even though his movements were very compact. When thrown by him, I always felt like I was being totally enveloped. Considering I stood at least a full head taller than him, this was always a disconcerting experience.
Being uke for Maruyama sensei during ki testing demonstrations was an altogether different experience. Where his waza was exemplified by the generation of power, his reaction to push/pull/lift testing was, in a word, nothing. I could push, pull or lift until I threatened to bust a gut and he would just stand there as though I didn't exist. It was like trying to push a large tree over. As I did my best to unbalance him, he would talk to the class and at some point effortlessly bring me to the mat.
Maruyama sensei stressed the practicality of his aikido. He had no tolerance for the mystical notions of ki so prevalent in the 80's, and told me repeatedly that coordinating mind and body to find correct feeling was my path to my strongest possible state. Once I had found that state, I could perform to my maximum potential, and technique could be executed with "maximum effect and minimum effort."
Maruyama sensei's teaching of mind/body coordination employed the use of the aiki taiso exercises (ki exercises), which a lot of aikido students today view as simply warm-up exercises, lots of partnered ki testing and solo weapons work. He explained that, correctly performed, ki exercises served to unify mind and body while in motion, which more fully coordinates mind and body than when performing static meditation. In effect, ki exercises were a form of moving meditation according to his views at the time.
Because ki exercises are comprised of simple motions, it's easy for the mind to wander while performing them. This will cause the mind/body connection to deviate from unity. Therefore it's necessary to keep the mind from wandering in order to derive any benefit related to unifying mind and body. Sensei explained that we should bring our consciousness to One Point and concentrate on the feeling associated with being centered. He would have us move our awareness from head to center and back again while testing us as we moved. He then would say, "You decide which is better." (That's a phrase we heard often. He would employ it during technique practice as well; after having us practice a technique using muscle and then with centered relaxed movement.)
Maruyama sensei also had us practice the aiki taiso exercises in pairs. One partner would perform the exercise, the other would provide resistance, apply testing, or both depending on the exercise. For example, he had us perform tenkan while being resisted by an uke holding tightly to a wrist. Without proper integration of mind and body, my arm would get jammed into my shoulder as I tried to turn, stopping me from completing the move. Integrating mind and body allowed me to neutralize uke's resistance and easily perform tenkan. After correctly executing my turn, my uke having followed me around, would push on my wrist to see if I remained centered. A variation of this exercise had uke stay put as I turned so we were facing the same direction side by side and then test me by pulling backward on my wrist trying to drive my arm into my shoulder. Sensei devised many of these exercises always with an eye toward fostering and strengthening mind/body coordination.
Most importantly, I think, he stressed that the exercises were not contests of strength. It was uke's job to apply an appropriate amount of resistance, to provide nage with the opportunity to find One Point and develop correct feeling.
Ki testing served dual purposes. First, ki tests were used to measure progress of the student's ability to coordinate mind and body while being subjected to the application of force to various parts of the body. Sensei would also have us undergo testing in many varied positions; some of them quite unstable. He explained that correct posture wasn't a matter of external appearance; rather it was manifest by a solid internal structure that could be displayed in many forms externally. Second, ki tests were used to strengthen the mind/body connection as we were exposed to greater amounts of force as we gained experience.
I remember that Maruyama sensei did very little teaching of technique at camps and seminars. His instruction centered on the mind/body connection, and how strong mind/body coordination facilitated the execution of technique. The techniques we practiced were platforms that embodied the principles he was teaching us.
Looking back, I see that Maruyama sensei provided a sequence of steps that enabled the student to: a) unify mind and body individually; b) strengthen the feeling by performing simple moves while being resisted and tested by a partner; and c) then be able to integrate that feeling into waza practice. Sensei constantly stressed that all of what he was teaching was available to anyone. There was no magic formula or special talent required. Continued dedicated practice would lead to results.
Our work with the bokken and jo was pretty standard fare, consisting of solo kata and paired exercises. What had the greatest effect on me wasn't what he was teaching. Instead it was how he moved with the weapon. Watching him wield a weapon was like watching water flow around smooth stones in a stream. His motion was fluid and unbroken, never stopping the weapon or retracing an arc. When working with Sensei in paired exercises, that continuous, fluid motion was translated into enormous power that shot through my whole body when our weapons met.
So how does any of this relate to the title of this article? It was at that winter camp instructors' meeting, while sitting with Mary and me, Sensei began to speak of his interactions with O Sensei and Tohei sensei. The gist of his talk was that they weren't supermen blessed with otherworldly powers. They were human beings, just like the rest of us, but who were able to display their extraordinary abilities because of dedicated practice over a long period of time and hard work. It was at that point he looked at both of us, quite intensely, and said "Usehiba did it, Tohei did it, I did it." and after a slight pause "You can do it too."
From that point, my training and teaching began to turn; not on a dime, but more like an ocean liner making a big sweeping arc. I slowly went from being technique-centric to concentrating on mastering the internal principles that Maruyama sensei had been hammering home for all those years.
Sensei will be celebrating his eightieth birthday this year. And while I haven't seen him in a number of years since leaving the Kokikai organization to pursue my study as an independent practitioner, I think of him often with fond remembrance of lessons taught and lessons learned.
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