by Trevor Hass
One of the world’s most accomplished and distinguished aikido instructors grabbed my left arm and squeezed it. I swiveled slightly to the left before he effortlessly impeded my progress. I tried to spin back to the right with my free hand and jab at him, but he quickly reacted and I felt as though I was stuck in mud.
He spun me in one fluid motion, so my body twisted right into his, and he held me in a stranglehold. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. I was out of options.
Fortunately, this wasn’t an encounter in a dark alley late at night. This was a demonstration, from Elk River area’s Mark Larson, who taught me the basics of the martial art that has become a way of life for him and many others.
“I was being very gentle,” Larson insists later. “I wasn’t going to hurt you. I hope you know that. I’ve been doing it for over 25 years. I was reading your body, but I also can turn it on and off. You’ve got action, reaction, then technique.”
Action and reaction has been Larson’s mindset for years. His first action – after an illustrious high school and college career as an athlete – was to study in Japan, through a program offered by Minnesota State University-Akita.
He ventured across the world with the hopes of learning aikido over the next year or two, but he had no idea he’d come back 10 years later with a wife and two kids, having discovered the passion that changed – and eventually saved – his life. Now he and two other aikido instructors will host the final chapter of the Morihiro Saito Shihan Memorial World Aikido Tour in Elk River from Aug. 18-21.
“Nobody’s invincible,” Larson said. “You have to follow your path and be true to it.”
Birthplace of aikido
When Larson arrived at the Iwama dojo, the birthplace of aikido, in 1993, his first job was to scrub toilets. There was no running water at the Aiki-Shrine or dojo, so he had to clean the toilets himself. A couple months later, he was promoted to garbage duty, and shortly after that he was tasked with picking the grass.
There was no lawnmower, so he had to pluck the blades of grass around the 16-acre land by hand. The family he was becoming part of tried to weed out those who weren’t invested enough in aikido, but Larson proved he was willing to do whatever it took.
He trained under a free-flowing, ice-cold waterfall. He said it was like stepping into a freezing shower and standing underneath it for minutes at a time without the luxury of tiptoeing in and out. Larson spent four to eight hours a day working on technique and practicing the art of aikido, learning from the legendary teacher Morihiro Saito. Saito practiced under the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, the longest of anyone, so learning and working at the birthplace of aikido with Saito was a tremendous honor for Larson.
Saito didn’t discriminate based on ethnicity, religion or gender. He looked for people who understood the core values of aikido, and he quickly learned that Larson was an eager learner.
Larson grins as he watches video of his time in Iwama. He pauses, fast forwards and rewinds, highlighting his favorite moments and important principles. He laughs as Saito demonstrates how to pull away at the last second and get the attacker to fall off an imaginary cliff. Larson’s zest for aikido glistens right away. It’s easy to see why he still goes back to Japan every year, and why aikido is still a monumental part of his life.
“Think about training 10 years here,” he said. “If you’re training two or three times a week, versus us training four to eight hours a day, minimum 15 times a week, you’re getting about 30 years of training in 10 years. Sometimes it’s not the years, it’s the miles.”
Finding his mojo at the dojo
Larson trained with others at the dojo, but he also practiced constantly by himself. He was a star athlete as a kid, but he didn’t always enjoy the cut-throat nature of athletics. Aikido gave him a chance to strengthen his mind and body, appreciate nature and people and build positive relations with others, all of which are true to the essence of budo – the martial way.
Aikido is a rare mix of violent and peaceful. The movements can be sharp and painful or gradual and beautiful. It can be a stress reliever, a way to stay healthy or a method of self defense.
“You’re training for an altercation you’ll probably never have in your life,” Larson said. “If you don’t, you’re happy. You don’t want that. We live in a world where a 6-year-old can pull a trigger on a gun. I don’t try to build people to beat a gun. I try to build people that someone doesn’t want to point a gun at.”
Aikido has also been a way for Larson’s wife, Yuko, to maintain her roots while living in Minnesota. Being surrounded by people who value Japan and, specifically, aikido, has made her feel comfortable living thousands of miles from her original home.
Yuko, who works as a cultural liaison for ISD 728, helps Mark teach aikido and Japanese culture as part of the community education program in Elk River.
“He’s not only teaching technique, but many people also learn life lessons, how to respect other people,” Yuko Larson said. “It’s his life.”
One reason Mark enjoys aikido so much is because it melds the physical and mental. It’s a way of being, all the time, not just during his teaching, learning, testing or demonstrations. He embodies its principles every day, but never at a more pivotal juncture than two years ago, when a car crash nearly killed him but aikido kept him alive.
“Aikido saved my life”
Larson turns and notices a truck cross the center line and zoom toward him at over 50 mph. He has about three seconds to react.
He can’t go left because he’ll hit someone else. He can’t go right because there’s a drop-off. He goes to the shoulder of the road, pulls his left leg back, rests his head on the headrest and keeps his right foot on the brake. He’s hoping the driver swerves away at the last second, but the driver doesn’t. They collide head on.
Right at impact, he thrusts forward and explodes, just like he would while practicing aikido, and breaks the steering wheel in half.
The airbag clobbers his head, his foot turns all the way around and his patella takes a vicious hit and is severed, but doesn’t break a finger, a forearm or anything else. Two years later, after that awful crash on June 6, 2014, Larson – who is approaching his fourth surgery this fall as a result of the collision – credits aikido for keeping him alive.
“There’s no way I would have been as calm as I was when a truck was coming at me head on in my lane (without aikido),” Larson said. There’s no way I would have naturally relaxed my body like I did. I would have tried to muscle through it.
“Aikido saved my life.”
Bringing aikido to Elk River
At the final leg of the world tour next week, Larson will reunite with two of Saito’s other proteges – Lasse Andersson from Sweden and Kenichi Shibata from Japan. The tour traveled to Torsby, Sweden, in 2014 and Shiogama, Japan, in 2015, and now it’s time for the final stop.
It will culminate the journey of three instructors from three countries over three years. Larson, Andersson and Shibata learned from Saito Shihan’s teachings for a combined 33 years – Larson from 1992-2002 – and are hoping to impart some of their vast array of knowledge on those who attend the seminar.
Larson expects people from Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Japan, and he said about 25 locals and 25 non-locals will likely attend. The goal is to bring a tight-knit community joy once again, remember Saito and his teachings and to teach newcomers what traditional aikido is about.
“I want to keep my teacher’s legacy alive,” Larson said. “If I can just teach one more person, that means (Saito) lives on through their aikido.”