The “Soft” Sensei

Sensei Gusi González was thin, olive-skinned, and very quiet. When you reached the Dojo he would invariably be sitting behind an old steel office desk, empty of anything but the book he was reading. His Gi was always starched and clean, his black hair combed neatly in place, not a drop of sweat on his face. From him you’d receive the first of the many onegai shimasu you’d hear throughout the class, for this was the manner of greeting in the dojo, the opening line for anything you would do or ask to do. He was handsome, in a quiet dark “Keanu Reeves” sort of way, a contrast to the other sensei, Efraín Palmer, who was a Chuck Norris look-alike in every sense of the word. They were a sensei yin-yang. Although both were always present, Gusi sensei ran the class Tuesdays and Thursdays, Efraín on Mondays and Wednesdays. Although a white belt took classes with either one at any given time, you were more or less assigned a sensei who would be the one primarily responsible for your overall training. I was in the Gusi sensei group and so trained on his days. Green and brown belts came to any and all classes, they’d be the sergeants, lieutenants and captains according to their rank and seniority. Then, different from now, you could be a white belt for a long time, only acquiring thin green stripes on your belt as you rose through the initial katas and bunkai until you reached “greenpoint,” the stage prior to green belt, where you wallowed and bided your time until told you were ready for the rite of passage. So Gusi sensei was my sensei for what seemed like forever in “dojo time.” Gusi sensei had an elegant and fluid style, his kiai was soft like the hiss of a cat. He was a cat to Efraín’s horse like power. Two apparently different approaches. The toughs obviously gravitated to Efraín who literally looked like he could obliterate you. Girls gravitated to Gusi. He was seductive, like a snake. We saw, without knowing it at the time, the two faces of Goju-Ryu, power and grace. I don’t know why I chose grace to follow then since one unconsciously models one’s self after a particular senior belt or sensei. I was a clumsy bloke and could not even approach Gusi’s sense of fluid movement and speed. But there was a moment during an exercise when facing him I could not for the life of me block anything he threw – hard, soft, or otherwise – and just kept bungling on in sheer frustration. He would say “look in my eyes,” and I would, and get bonked anyway, and he would repeat it and I would keep failing to block him. We were in shiko dachi straddle leg stance and he asked me if I was feeling something. I didn’t know what to answer besides “yes, frustrated.” He kept looking into my dazed eyes and asked “you feel this?” What?, I thought. He said, “This, I’m softly tapping your knee with mine, and the split second you’re distracted by the touch is all I need to go in.” The unseen had an explanation, the trick of the soft paw of a cat.

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