Small in stature, giant of wisdom
By Michael J. Quiocho
Special to The Advertiser
By Michael J. Quiocho
I would like to share my story about a teacher who never showed me "how," but always shared to teach me "why."
He wasn't a teacher by profession, but he taught me lessons about relationships, and he taught me about human potential.
There is a saying in the Islands: Return to the source. The only way we can do this is to remember the source.
I've been exercising for a long time, and if not for the individuals who shared their personal wisdom on health and exercise, I wouldn't be involved with it today. But this ain't about me.
At the time of our first meeting in 1979, Masa was already in his mid-60s.
He was about 4 feet, 11 inches tall, but within this little man was a giant of strength, wisdom and compassion.
Masa was a very quiet man who rarely spoke to anyone when he came to the Nu'uanu YMCA weight room. He would exercise three times a week.
By his workout apparel, it looked as if he was just off from work — he would always work out in a white T-shirt, dark-colored slacks and black leather shoes. The man looked comfortable working out in them.
Masa would go through his ritual warm-ups, which always included deep breathing, neck rolls and shoulder movements, and then go right into his workout with weights, for 45 minutes to an hour.
At times, it seemed as if he was meditating through his exercises.
Let me tell you, he did some off-the-wall exercises that presented a strong impression that the guy was "three quarts low of a gallon."
Masa would do his thing, like lifting 400 pounds in doing a lying bench press lockout, and more than 350 pounds for squats. With each lift, Masa performed a kind of pre-lift warm-up exercise that always included some serious breathing. Then he would get into his lifting. He did so effortlessly, without any strain or grunting noises of distress. And when he was done with all his lifting, he would sit for a few minutes as if ending in meditation, and soon after, he would quietly leave the room.
Masa knew something about exercises using weights, it seemed, that exercise professionals have been trying to understand for years.
To this day, I still see articles that echo what Masa shared with me 25 years ago.
Although Masa hardly spoke to anyone in the gym, an urge to question him came upon me one day. I needed to approach him and ask about his unique way of exercise.
It took me a little more than a year of observing him before I spoke to him. Then the time came, and I went for it.
Masa would go through his post-workout routine, sitting on an unused bench like Buddha in deep thought.
I waited to make sure not to disturb him. When he opened his eyes, it was a sign he was done and he was ready to leave.
I was nervous, but I tell you now, I am glad I did not hesitate.
After I said hi and told Masa my name was Mike, he turned his head to look up at me and said nothing.
Masa was just looking at me with squinting eyes, and then I said I needed to ask him something about his lifting.
His response was no response. No sound, no reply. No communication. This went on for a half-minute or so.
Throughout that moment, a strange thing was happening.
With all the noise of people working out in the weight room, I could actually hear Masa's breathing. (His nonaction became a breakthrough lesson for me later in my life.) It was slow and transmitting some kind of calming effect. I lost some of my nervousness from feeling this transmission of energy.
Then the silence broke between us when Masa asked me what my last name was.
I told him — three times.
"Masa — my name is Masa," he said, speaking with a friendly tone of voice. We shook hands. His handshake felt different.
After the brief formalities, I asked about his way of lifting. Masa asked me, "Why?"
I told Masa I wanted to know how he could lift all the weights he was using — him being a short fellow, but I didn't tell him that.
Masa replied, nice and slow, "Let ... me ... tell ... you ... why ... I lift like that."
That was it! This was the beginning of a healthy relationship. Not so much the friendship between Masa and I, but the process of learning about health in exercise, understanding to exercise with the body, not on the body, and learning that relationships make us human. Even when exercising.
From that first encounter until 1989, we spent countless quiet moments talking story. These talk-story sessions would always take place after Masa's workout and would last no more than 15 minutes or so, depending on what I asked.
We'd talk about the human body's inner health, the body's passageways of energy, the nature of exercise and his thoughts on fitness techniques — and taking this beyond the walls of the facility and into living life through it.
Masa would say, "Everything we do is done with one body — relationship good to know."
Masa never called me by my first name; he would always call me by my last name, even when we bumped into each other outside the YMCA.
I didn't find out what Masa's last name was until several years later — 1997.
I did find out what he was doing after his exercises: the sitting Buddha pose.
Masa said he was gathering or replenishing his health-energy through breathing. Breathing was a big thing with Masa. He would say, "Breath is life. No breath, no life."
Besides having a short stature, one thing that sticks out in my mind when thinking about Masa was his nicely shaped round little belly and how it moved while he was breathing. His belly had some firepower. But I won't get into that.
Masa wasn't one for too many words when offering information.
There was a time when he said something like, "You don't think when you exercise. You must be feeling the exercise. It is like painting, like playing music. No different."
Over the years that passed after my first meeting with Masa, I made sure that I practiced what we talked about. When Masa was done with his workout, I would sit down with him and tell him about my lifting.
There were other lifting exercises I'd do, being sure to follow the basics of what Masa taught me.
Masa never physically showed me how to do the lift.
Masa would listen to what I was telling him and when I was done talking, he'd explain why and what the lifting exercise was all about — from the inside out.
"Let me know how you feel when you finish doing the exercise." That was usually Masa's way of ending the discussion.
This would be the way of starting the next talk-story session, by telling him what I felt.
He wouldn't ask me what I "think," and later in my life I understood why.
There were things Masa said that didn't grab at me right away, and took me a while to connect with. But there would come a time when it hit me.
I'd be driving, bodysurfing, at a park, up at lookouts — it always happened outdoors that all at once a connection was made.
Why did it happen like that? This has to do with what Masa did after a talk-story session.
"Go out and learn from The Master Teacher." This was said to me one afternoon, when Masa took me in the back parking lot of the YMCA, waving his right arm out at the surroundings.
By 1987, I was starting to see Masa less and less, because of my work schedule and personal affairs. The talks were getting shorter, but still good stuff was coming from him. I had to make sure not to waste any time with Masa; I needed to ask the right questions.
Like any teacher of natural wisdom and insightful teaching who moves on, at our last meeting Masa left me with words of significant meaning.
"Remember to always exercise from your heart through the body, not only the mind, making exercise complete from the end to its beginning."
Masa was saying to let go of the past, the thinking of thoughts, and begin each action in the present. (Later, I realized this conduct helps a person to learn by direct sensation.)
And most important of all: "Exercise to live your own life ... in a right way. Everything else will follow."
"You learn. You practice. You improvise. Never forget to share what you feel is right and healthy." He would always end his talks with a small, kind laugh and big smile.
The talks were deep, and it helped me go wide. Masa gave me a foundation to live on through it.
With the highest respect and the most sincere appreciation, thank you so very much, teacher/sensei Masa.
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
The last time I saw Masa was in Chinatown on Smith Street, at about 4:30 in the afternoon. It was early 2002.
I called his name several times, increasing the volume each time: "Masa!"
Finally, he turned around and stood there, and I walked up to him. He looked up at me without saying anything, with those squinting eyes — not moving, just breathing deep. I told him my last name. This time I only said it twice.
He looked good except for two or three new wrinkles on his face. He had more hair than me on his head at his age.
Before I could ask him how he was, he went through a question-answer thing with me. This was something Masa would do when we got to know each other, and he did it again after all those years.
It was his way of always checking up on me from the inside out.
Masa never said or made like he was a teacher. He did tell me briefly he worked in an office and it was something to do with accounting. Masa never talked too much about his personal life.
It wasn't until later that a friend from the YMCA who knew Masa before I met him told me Masa was a person who possessed more than just lifting smarts. Masa was a disciple of the Okinawan karate system and had the ability to read people's energy.
Not see people's energy like aura readers; Masa could actually feel one's energy — good, bad and ugly.
I was fortunate that my inner energy didn't make Masa avoid me.
Masa said to me one day, after working out and talking about universal energy, "Spirits cannot read your mind. They can read your energy through body language."
Masa to me was not a spirit. Masa was a human being who had spirit.
To all of you who had a teacher who gave not just information but the challenge to use the highest form of human thinking — I encourage you to acknowledge them by remembering the source.
It took me this long to give praise and honor to Masa. If he's out there, I hope he'll know.