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It Had to Be Felt #58: Maruyama Shuji: "Ueshiba did it, Tohei did it, I did it.... You can do it too."
It Had to Be Felt #58: Maruyama Shuji: "Ueshiba did it, Tohei did it, I did it.... You can do it too."
by It Had To Be Felt
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 it… . 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.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
  • Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
  • Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
  • Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
  • If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
  • Follow-up posts should be substantive, striving to equal the depth of the original essay. Simply agreeing with the writer, or a brief comment that, yes, the teacher in question was really powerful or had a wonderful shihonage or the like, are not congruent with the purpose of this archive.
Ron Ragusa began his aikido training in 1977 with Laura Dubester, an early student of Maruyama Shuji, in Pittsfield, MA. In 1982, he assumed teaching duties at the dojo when Laura left to pursue other opportunities. Ron and his wife, Mary Eastland, left the Aikido Kokikai organization in 2001, and started Berkshire Hills Aikido in Great Barrington, Mass., as an independent dojo. Ron and Mary's blended family consists of three sons, two daughters and seven grandchildren. Ron also enjoys landscape painting, mathematics and is the author of Being, Essence & Motion: Aikido as a Way of Understanding, a memoir of observations on forty years of aikido training and teaching. Currently Ron is writing a new book, Mind/Body Coordination: The Ki in Aikido and is collaborating with Mary to produce an introductory video course on mind/body coordination for Udemy.com.
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Old 10-24-2021, 08:16 PM   #2
Join Date: Sep 2021
Posts: 1
Re: It Had to Be Felt #58: Maruyama Shuji: "Ueshiba did it, Tohei did it, I did it.... You can do it too."

#2 by Nick Herman:

Crushed by a falling object: this is how it feels to be thrown by Maruyama Shudo, the founder of Kokikai Aikido. The first time I experienced this was around 2010. Sensei had come over to the States for one of his thrice-yearly camp visits. I was in my 20s, and either 2nd or 1st kyu. He was in his 70s and about 135 pounds, one of his favorite talking points, something he usually mentioned after sending a massively strong uke, that even 6th dans couldn't throw, careening into the mat.

I was working with a more experienced partner when Sensei came over to make a point to him. We were doing one of his favorite straight-ahead variations of kokyunage: the upper hand rests on the chest and the throw is done from there through the spine, with the lower hand either resting on the lower back or else lightly gripping behind the gi, in tandem with the crushing hand. I had seen him do this countless times on men much stronger than me who were giving maximum resistance, so I knew what was coming, but still felt a certain tense anticipation for this, the first time he made contact with me.

My job was simply to stand upright and stay as strong as possible without actively fighting. Sensei ambled over to me like I wasn't even there, and held my gi lightly with his right hand. I believe I felt a slight sense of being lifted, like gears being wound;one unofficial sub-principle of Kokikai is "take out all the slack." I don't remember what his other hand was doing, if anything. But it didn't seem to matter, as I never felt any forces being generated at any point that I could resist against, which is at least possible with almost everyone else.

Then a falling boulder crushed me, even though I wasn't on a mountain. It wasn't a very nice feeling. I slammed into my back exactly where I had been standing. There had been no leading, no outstretched hands, no big motions over my head, no twirling me around. He simply broke through my entire structure, through my chest, into my spine, with my feet still in place, so that I had no choice except to fall at a surprising velocity onto my back. "Minimum effort, Maximum effect," is the motto of Kokikai, and this throw perfectly exemplified it.

On another occasion, I had to actively push against Sensei. This was another variation of a kokyunage, and I pushed against him with all my strength, but it just felt like I was pushing against a porous cloud. He walked in towards me, and seemed just as relaxed as when he did the same things against guys with wrists thicker than my neck. I again collapsed violently into the mat, but due to my added force, I actually skidded across the floor.

I have seen him take the toughest of guys, instructing them to push as hard as they can as he repeatedly walks into their grip, on his way towards demonstrating a throw. Each time he walks back out a bit and gently admonishes them in front of the audience, "push harder!..hardest? Are you sure?"
Then, as they're screaming and turning red, he either lets them crumple against their own force and exhaustion, or depending on the uke, smashes them into the ground. I have seen him hold men in close embraces, their two upper bodies semi-vertically stacked as uke is bent back resisting, but holding them up, not letting them fall—-and then briefly bouncing them against the floor before they fall. It's surreal.

I have also seen the most beautiful, flowing, techniques from Sensei, his own special versions of kotagaeshi and kaitenage executed with the most impeccable timing and perfect relaxation I have ever seen. They still end in devastating power, wherever uke lands. "First slow, then fast," is one idea that perhaps encapsulates some of these commonalities across techniques. He completely breaks uke's power, then executes explosive technique.

Sensei has said he wants to be relaxed all the time, "like Hawaii vacation," and only by mastering that, can you throw like he does. "I want to be this relaxed, even when I am buried," I've heard him say, smiling, throwing his arms over his body like a corpse. Sensei's aikido has been the inspiration for many and varied people who followed him over the decades. Some of them are very strong and accomplished martial artists. But I've only felt something remotely similar from a couple other people—one or two 8th dans within Kokikai, some of Maruyama Sensei's oldest students, and Dan Harden. Another classic Maruyama-ism is, "If it looks real, it's fake. If it looks fake, it's real."
In the era of Tiktok, Instagram, and Youtube, I think it's for this reason that he (along with some of his peers), doesn't allow himself to be filmed—it's too easy to get the wrong idea. It has to be felt to be believed.
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