Gary Snyder Sensei is a Seventh Degree Black Belt in Aikido with over thirty-five years of martial arts training.
Interview with Gary Snyder Sensei
Founder of Warrior Bridge
Q. I know you have been teaching Aikido for close to thirty years – why are you now starting Warrior Bridge, a school where you will be teaching Aikido amidst other practices of Tai Chi, Jiu Jitsu, Yoga and Meditation?
A. A mixture of the practical and the ideal – practically, it makes sense, if possible, to use a rented space in Manhattan for more use and income. But on the more ideal level, I have been thinking about this idea for at least five years – it reflects my own path and evolution as a martial artist. I have practiced Yoga for over twenty years and Tai Chi for the last seven years. Both Yoga and Tai Chi are meditative practices, which has moved me more recently to daily meditation practice. I am a strong believer that a teacher models being a martial artist as much as they instruct others – practicing all that is to be offered at Warrior Bridge sets up a model for martial arts practice.
Q. You didn’t mention Jiu Jitsu – do you practice that as well?
A. I started a few times but both times got hurt. That said, I enjoyed aspects of training and have respect for the art. In forming Warrior Bridge, Sean Langhaus, who will direct the Yoga program, and who also practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), introduced me to Dan Covel, who teaches BJJ. I practiced with Dan and liked his approach, and felt that it would complement the other practices. He also had a sensitivity to Jiu Jitsu practice as an art, and shared my concern about it being taught safely. I plan to train with Dan at Warrior Bridge – again, it seems I am setting up a place that will give me everything I want for my own training!!!
Q. You are opening at 275 Water Street, in the Southport Seaport – what brought you to that area?
A. I have been looking at space in Manhattan, and most of the spaces are prohibitively expensive, and tucked away on upper floors of buildings. 275 Water Street is a beautiful landmarked ground floor space on a quiet street of cobblestones. I like that we are on the ground floor, and our practice can be seen through large storefront windows, and I also like the peace and intimacy of this special place in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Q. Are you concerned that your students who have been training mid-town will have difficulty coming all the way to the South Street Seaport?
A. Location is certainly a concern, and some people say that your core practitioners are within a 20 block radius. We are very accessible to Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, and I think we will draw from a much larger area of New York City – you can only practice the Kokikai Aikido that I teach in my dojo, all of our teachers are of the highest level, and we are creating a community of like-minded people. When we practice regularly we become friends with others who do the same – some of my best and longest friendships come through my martial arts practice.
Q. What will the schedule look like?
A. We are still working it out, but right now it looks like on weekdays there will be Aikido offered four nights, Yoga four nights, Tai Chi three nights, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu two nights, Introduction to Meditation one night, and a mixture of classes on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We will also have a regular 7-7:30AM meditation class every weekday, and as we develop, mid-day classes. By the time anyone reads this interview the schedule should be up on the www.warriorbridge.com website.
Q. How often will you be teaching?
A. I plan to teach the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night classes – and most probably will be doing the other classes offered those evenings. My black belt students are wonderful teachers, and will teach Aikido when I am not there.
Q. What brought you to Tai Chi?
A. I always thought I would study Tai Chi someday, but in my mind I planned to study it when I got older – so I guess I got older!!! Once I started, (which was about seven years ago) I realized very quickly that Master William C.C. Chen was a great Tai Chi master. The first few years I focused primarily on his 60 movement form. I now continue to practice the form, but also enjoy push hands and applications – one of the hardest things I have ever done as a martial artist is to learn how to simply punch the way Master Chen demonstrates!!!
Q. So you feel that Tai Chi is also an effective martial art?
A. Without question – the form as Master Chen teaches it is loaded with practical technique, and I have never encountered a punch as strong, and one that can be thrown from such a short distance.
Q. How and when will Meditation be taught and practiced?
A. We will offer Meditation from 7 to 7:30AM every weekday morning. Meditation at Warrior Bridge will be led by Joseph Mauricio, who has over thirty years of experience as a meditation teacher, and has studied meditation with many teachers, most notably Pema Chodron and Sakyong Mipham, lineage holder of the Shambhala Tradition. Joe will also offer a Dharma talk after the 7AM Wednesday class, and an Introduction to Meditation class on Wednesday evening.
Q. How did you get into Aikido?
A. I began my martial arts training in 1976 – I took a year off from college after my junior year, and was a ski bum in Sun Valley, Idaho. But turns out the winter I was there they had the least amount of snow in 100 years, so I had time on my hands, and began studying Goju Ryu Karate. I continued Karate through college and the year after, but switched to Chinese gung fu after moving to Los Angeles in 1979. Gung Fu, as taught by James Wing Woo and his student, Victor Walker, first introduced me to “relaxed strength” – when Victor first saw my punches, he said “you are choking it to death”. After two years of intensive gung fu study, I moved back to New York City, and looked for a place to continue my martial arts training. I decided I didn’t want to learn another way to kick, punch and block – when I saw Aikido, it was so different – something inside said “yes” and I began training at New York Aikikai with Sensei Yamada. A year later I moved to Princeton, New Jersey, and found Aikido at the Princeton YMCA being taught by David Nachman and his wife Veronica Burrows. They were students of Shuji Maruyama Sensei, who was at that time affiliated with Ki Society Aikido, which was founded by Koichi Tohei.
Q. Coming from over five years of karate and gung fu, what did you think of Aikido as a martial art?
A. Good question! Truth is I didn’t really believe in it – I always thought to myself “if I got in to a fight, I would need to use my blocking and striking skills”. The funny thing is that didn’t get in the way of my commitment to training – I trained hard and regularly. It took at least five years before I began to realize how sufficient Aikido was.
Q. You said you began your Aikido practice with Sensei Maruyama when he was affiliated with Tohei Sensei – when did Sensei Maruyama found Kokikai Aikido?
A. About two years into my training Sensei left Tohei and founded Kokikai Aikido. My sixth and fifth kyu certificates were signed by Tohei Sensei. Sensei always told me how strong and advanced he thought Tohei Sensei was. But Sensei felt that for some reason Tohei was not able to convey this to his students. Kokikai Aikido was founded with the belief that, as Sensei says, “If I can do it, you can do it”. There is a lot of truth to this, and I am proud of how strong Kokikai practitioners are. That said, I think a martial artist like Sensei Shuji Maruyama is quite rare – he is now in his late 70s, weighs 127 pounds, and still throws the biggest students around like ping pong balls – it is quite amazing to watch and feel.
Q. I read the tribute to Sensei Maruyama that Gakku Homma Sensei of Denver wrote – “The Silent Pioneer: Shuji Maruyama Sensei, Kokikai Founder”. He says that Sensei Maruyama was sent to teach Aikido in Cleveland in 1966. Were other Aikido teachers in the United States at that time?
A. I’m not sure – I believe Yamada Sensei was in New York previously, but that might be it.
Q. What does Sensei Maruyama say of those early years?
A. He says “America was my greatest teacher.” He talks about being challenged by karate, judo and boxing students, how big the Americans were, but mostly how different it was from his training in Japan which was shaped by respect for one’s teachers.
Q. Does Sensei Maruyama come often to the United States?
A. Sensei’s dojo is in Nagoya, Japan. But he comes to the United States three times a year to teach Fall, Winter and Summer camps – he usually stays for four weeks each trip.
Q. Have you visited Sensei in Japan?
A. Many times – they are some of my fondest Aikido memories. Sensei has a warm dojo with loyal students. And we always go out afterwards for beer and Japanese food and good comradery!
Q. There are so many types of Yoga offered in New York City – what will you be presenting at Warrior Bridge?
A. The Yoga program at Warrior Bridge will be led by Sean Langhaus, He describes his Yoga as “Progressive Ashtanga”, a continual evolution of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga that emerged out of Mysore, India in the 1930s. The emphasis is on aligning breath and movement as well as balancing strength and flexibility. Sean will also be managing Warrior Bridge – he lives on Water Street and actually found this marvelous space!!!!
Q. What are your hopes for Warrior Bridge?
A. I hope that Warrior Bridge will be a space for people to experience physical, mental and spiritual growth. I hope we have a strong community of practitioners, and I hope we are so successful that we can expand this idea in other places.