Thursday, July 21, 2011


If, for some masochistic reason, you happen to have read more than one of these weekly columns I drag and wrench out of my reluctant laptop, you’d know that I’m an absolute sucker for miracle-tales. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years in dusty libraries pouring over crumbly sepia-tinged, dog-eared pages and websites that promise to reveal ‘the secrets of energy and ecstasy’, loo King for tangible evidence of a claimed miracle. And I’ve seen glimpses… a shadow here, a silhouette there, but nothing more that I could touch, tell and know. I’ve trudged through the proverbial deserts and valleys, and desolate forts, and waited by the banks of unnamed rivers in forgotten forests in search of a promised sign or a whispered legend, and heard a lot, but saw very little.

But this story is about a man who, it is said, performed a miracle a day. I’d hoped to learn from him someday, for it is also said, that all who’ve learnt from him are often good enough to repeat his miracles. But this meeting will have to wait for another time and world for he breathed his last two months ago, on the 19th of May. He was 91. Many were surprised that he died so early, for those who knew him believed he would only die when he grew tired of living, and he didn’t seem tired at all. But it wasn’t to be. He wasn’t a God… just a super man. His name was Koichi Tohei and this is not his obituary. Well, for starters, it’s a little too late to pen one, but more importantly, this ought to be a celebration of the life he lived, the examples he set and the path he blazed…

But before I tell you about him, let me tell you how I came to know about him. I had been studying AiKido for a few months with my Sensei (teacher), an extremely pleasant man in his 40s. For those of you not familiar with the art and philosophy of AiKido, it is a martial system far gentler than the striKing arts like Karate or Muay Thai. Here, instead of an opponent being battered into submission, he’s gently guided away from the defender and pinned or disarmed. But the highest purpose of an AiKido defense is not to merely disarm the opponent physically, but to disarm his intentions and make a friend out of a foe.

Now all that is great for building character and friends, but at the same time there’s another mystical dimension to this martial art. And I had no inkling of it until one day I experienced its powers, first hand. We’d usually finish our AiKido practice with a round of breathing exercises called Kokyu Dosa. It would involve a pair of AiKidokas (practitioners) holding each other by the wrist and testing their ability to extend the mind. Basically it is a test of heart not strength, which usually ends with the one with the weaker ‘will to love’ sprawled on the floor.

Since this was an exercise that we did at the end of our workout, and perhaps the energy involved too subtle, Sensei realised that we were only going through the motions and didn’t really believe in the power of this ‘heart energy’ or internal power that he called Ki. And so he told us he would give us a demonstration. There were four of us in class that day. And it’s important that I tell you about all four of us. The smallest amongst us was one of Sensei ’s senior students, Ashish. About 5’8” and solidly built, he worked with a consulting firm and had been a Karate black belt before starting his AiKido training. Then there’s me, standing at well above six feet if I can manage to squeeze my ungainly feet into my wife’s vertigo inducing high heels. For the record, that I fervently hope you’ll never ask me to match or break, I have successfully dead-lift ed 120 kgs for reps (one and a half repetitions would surely qualify a plural) and half-squatted more than 200 kgs. I know those weights wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in many gyms, but do try them before you remind me that our women weight lifters often lift more to warm up. Then we had Manav, a friend and colleague who stands at about 6’2” in his fraying socks and is built like a granite wall. Last and 6’3” at the very least stood Sensei ’s senior most student, Ajay. Ajay’s father was the president of the power-lifting federation of India and he had been a collegiate champion in the sport. He was also the squash champion for his club. During our arm-wrestling friendlies, I would manage to hand the wooden spoon to Ashish before losing valiantly to Manav, while Ajay would knock stuffing out of everybody’s egos by pinning our wrists before we could breathe or blink. Oh and did I tell you about Sensei Sethi? A little man at 5’6” of well-rounded goodness and warmth, you thought Sensei would never hurt a fly, unless the fly hurt him first I guess. So Sensei sat down in seiza (a seated position on his knees, a lot like the vajra asana), extended his arms and said, “Let me show you what the Kokyu Dosa is good for. I want two of you to hold my right arm and two of you (pointing at Ajay and me) to hold my left and try and push me to the ground.” We looked at each other and at Sensei and hesitated. Our combined weight would have been in excess of 400 kgs and the added force of us pushing violently could really damage him. “Come on… hurry up. Let me see the strength in my students”, he said. Ajay looked at us and said, “If Sensei wants us to push as hard as we can, then let’s push real hard.” And there we were, four of us pushing down as hard as we could on one little man who takes one deep breath and then, irrespective of the weight on either arm, extends his arms as he exhales and sends us flying; not a word I would use casually, into diff erent corners of the room. It was like we had ropes tied to our waists that pulled us into the walls of the dojo, away from his arms. We staggered back to Sensei who hadn’t moved a millimeter since we began pushing. He was beaming and said, “That is Ki! And Kokyu Dosa is your introduction to the power of Ki.”

Sensei had to move to another city a few months later and there was no one else in the city teaching the art. But I was hooked, and so began my exploration into the world of Ki. Since I could not find teachers in Delhi, I went looKing in books and journals and came across the writings of Koichi Tohei. Koichi wasn’t your conventional martial warrior. He studied AiKido with the founder, Morihei Ueshiba, and was in all probability his finest student and one who understood the principle of Ai-Ki-do (the way of harmonising with the universal energy) best. Through his studies with Ueshiba and his training in mind-body unification through breath work with Tempu Nakamura (who learnt the art from a Nepalese yogi), Tohei was already exceptionally strong in body and mind when he got draft ed into the army for WW II. This theatre of war was perhaps the greatest test possible for AiKido’s principles. Tohei was commanding a unit in NanKing, China. The Japanese army, ruthless at the best of times, shocked observers and the world with its sadistic excesses in NanKing. And yet, Chinese authorities note, Tohei’s unit was known, even in the heat and hate of battle, for treating both citizens and soldiers with Kindness and compassion.

After the war and Morihei’s passing, Tohei felt that humanity had more to gain and learn from the exploration of this amazing internal force called Ki than just the mere repetition of combat techniques. And this is what makes Tohei Koichi unique. While there have been many martial artistes and yogis who, during the course of their practices, have stumbled upon this miraculous energy and performed miracles like rinsing their mouth with molten metal and spitting out condensed steel balls or going on for days without food, water or even air, few have been able to transmit these abilities into their students. But in Koichi Tohei, we had a master who tested and trained his students on their ability to perform miracles like the immoveable body, the unbending arm (something like what Sensei Sethi demonstrated) and maKing the body mountain-heavy or feather-light. These ‘miracles’ defy the laws of gravity and physics, and while his students might not be flying around on their own steam or be ‘bulletproof’ just yet, it still is evidence of one master showing the world that the body and the mind in unison could achieve the impossible and that this was no mystery from the misty mountains, but an art that could be taught and acquired by all who came with an open mind and an open heart.

So even though Tohei Sensei has taken off for a better world, there would be many he has left behind to teach us the way of the Ki; and if you do intend to walk that way, do remember to pack in the cape and the red over-underpants. You might need them sooner than you know.

RIP Sensei Tohei!


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