Shuji Maruyama Sensei

I had been practicing Aikido for several years before I ever had the opportunity to be thrown by Maruyama Sensei. I had already been thrown by most of his highest ranked students, people who I had great respect for, and who could easily throw me with great power. But being thrown by Sensei was an altogether different experience.

I remember having three sensations at once when Sensei threw me that very first time: He seemed to not be moving at all, still, I felt myself hit the mat harder than I ever had before, and yet I felt totally safe and protected. Here was a man, I thought, who was operating in an entirely different universe.

Maruyama Sensei summarizes his philosophy on Aikido with the phrase "Minimum effort for maximum effect." By relaxing more and developing greater calmness, he tells us, we can produce better results. The truth of Sensei's philosophy is demonstrated every time he throws. You find yourself being astonished not just by the power with which he can throw, but with how little effort he needs to do it.

It's an experience that is hard to describe (it reminds me of the befuddlement that I increasingly experience in answering the question, "So, what exactly is Aikido?"). You push on Sensei, and it feels like pushing against a huge boulder covered with foam rubber - soft, yet immovable. You attack him, and you feel no way to resist, or that you somehow forgot to resist. It seems so easy for him to render your best, most-focused attack completely powerless, that you often feel like laughing.

So where does Sensei's power come from? Once, when I had the chance to walk to the practice hall with Sensei, I asked him, "How can you be so soft?" I expected him to say, "Years of practice," or "Great concentration," or something like that. But I wasn't even close. He said, "It's the only way I can throw." And to understand what he means, it helps to go back to the beginning of Sensei's story in America.

It goes something like this. Maruyama Sensei was a student of Morihei Ueshiba - the founder of Aikido - and of one of Ueshiba's greatest students, Koichi Tohei. At the invitation of a martial arts club, Maruyama Sensei came to Cleveland to teach Aikido.

Moving there was, at first, a very frustrating experience. He found that the American students were much bigger than their Japanese counterparts. (Sensei himself is about 5' 7", and weighs only 135 pounds.) They were also much more likely to resist. Sensei found that, at times, he was unable to make techniques work against the big, strong Americans. This was particularly troubling to him, knowing how the founder had always been able to throw all challengers who came into the dojo in Japan - whatever their size or martial arts background.

It was his frustration with this experience, I believe, combined with his desire to be truly great at Aikido, that led him to the realization that throwing big attackers requires you to use less effort - not more. It was not a matter of choosing to make his Aikido soft, rather than hard. It was a matter of determining that soft was "the only way I can throw" - and most certainly, the best way to throw.

Further events in Sensei's life have, as I understand it, led him to even deeper levels of realization. He was hospitalized after a serious car accident and his body was weakened as a result. When he returned to Aikido, though he had much less muscle, he discovered a new feeling that allowed him to throw with even greater power.

It is clear that Sensei's understanding of this idea continues to grow with each passing year (if not each passing month or week), because every time you see him, he appears to be using even less effort than the minuscule amount he was using before, yet getting better results.

Sensei's realizations make it a wonder to watch him, and, odd as it may seem to some people, a joy to be thrown by him. But perhaps the most wonderful thing to know about Sensei is his ability to help others understand his ideas. He is incredibly generous with the ideas and techniques he has worked so long and hard to develop. As a result, he shows the telltale mark of a truly great instructor - the development of a new generation of instructors who are inspired to continue the development and sharing of his ideas.

Maruyama Sensei teaches at the Kokikai Headquarters Dojo in Nagoya, Japan. He visits the U.S. frequently, teaching seminars at Kokikai dojos across the country.