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Susan Chaityn Lebovits | People

Sharing aikido's life lessons

Bill Gleason, 64, draws on decades of experience at his Newton studio. Bill Gleason, 64, draws on decades of experience at his Newton studio. (Roy Katalan)

Bill Gleason has blue eyes, a shaved head, and a trim but solid build. He is 64 years old, has a 1-year-old son, and is fluent in Japanese. He is also a sixth-degree black belt in aikido, a martial art form dedicated to creating world peace.

Gleason's commitment to aikido took him to Japan in 1970, where he spent a decade of his life studying with the masters. His goal was to bring his experience back to the United States and teach, which he's been doing since 1980.

Gleason's passion for aikido is reflected not only in his training, teaching, and studies. It is also evident in his students, many of whom have been with him for a decade or more.

Gordon Fontaine, one of the students, spends his vacations practicing aikido around the globe. Four years ago, when he turned 30, he decided to reassess his life. He quit his corporate job and contemplated moving out of the Boston area. But he decided to stay because of Gleason.

"I've practiced aikido in more than 50 dojos around the world and have never had a teacher with as much grace and power," said Fontaine.

In a third-floor walk-up on California Street in Newton, Gleason has created a timeless space that could easily be in Tokyo. The smell of bamboo wafts through the 5,000-square-foot dojo, or studio, a result of 60 canvas-covered bamboo mats that take up most of the floor. Along the far wall of the dojo is a shrine dedicated to the god of polarity in the universe, the deity of aikido, called Dai Hachi Ryu Oh in Buddhism.

On a recent Thursday evening, 18 students trickled into Shobu Aikido Inc., bowed respectfully, and made their way to the mats. In sets of two they took turns deflecting an attack with effortless grace; aikido encompasses defensive locks, holds, and throws, using the opponent's own movements against him.

"Aikido's founder, Morihei Ueshiba, wanted his martial art form to introduce underlying spiritual principles and the elusive concept of kototama," the power of words, "not just as a fighting method," said Gleason, who has written two books on the subject, including "The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido."

He explained that aikido begins with the development of one's own internal energy, or "ki," and evolves into the ability to unify that energy - both physically and psychologically - with another person.

Gleason's journey began on a farm outside of Minneapolis. He attended the University of Minnesota for a year before dropping out because "there was too much formality, too much structure, and nothing that really struck me as being important."

A singer-songwriter back then, Gleason headed to Boston to immerse himself in the local music scene. In the late 1960s, one of his roommates suggested going to the Arlington Street Church in Boston to hear a lecture by Michio Kushi, the founder of American macrobiotics. Gleason was so moved that he put his music career aside and spent the next seven years studying Eastern philosophy with Kushi.

Gleason said what he studied was not the standard philosophy, such as Confucius, but historical Japanese Shinto, the root of the philosophy of macrobiotics, which is the principle that food choices affect health, well-being, and happiness.

To pay the bills while he studied, Gleason took on a number of jobs, including assembling pliers in a Boston factory, digging graves, and teaching macrobiotics to a Canadian millionaire and his family.

During Gleason's years studying with Kushi, he connected with Seigo Yamaguchi, one of the most respected aikido teachers in the world. Gleason moved to Japan to study with Yamaguchi. In Japan, he also taught English at Nichibei Kaiwa Gakuin, an international school.

"I was in Japan in what is today considered the golden age of aikido," said Gleason. Ueshiba had just died and his first-generation students were at the main headquarters teaching, so every day Gleason would have an eighth- or ninth-degree black belt offering a different perspective on the discipline.

Gleason initially went to Japan with the intent of staying three to four years, then returning to the United States to teach. But a decade had passed before he felt he was qualified.

He said that his transition from the United States to Japan felt comfortable. The culture shock, he said, occurred in 1980 when he returned to the United States and felt like he was walking into a "Star Wars" movie.

"It was so terrible," said Gleason. "I had just come from a country that was clean and quiet - where everyone was kind, polite, and considerate, and here people were eating as they walked down the street, screaming out of windows, and had road rage. I always felt like someone was going to attack me."

Eager to share what he had learned, Gleason began seeing students in a loft in Brookline, then later at Shobu Aikido in Newton. Now Gleason also teaches at five branch dojos that his students have created for themselves - including locations in Ohio, Maine, and Connecticut.

Gleason says that while many people practice aikido solely as a physical exercise or sport, he incorporates sound as energy, much like what is done in Buddhism with chanting.

"Aikido draws people looking for spiritual and personal development and not just self-defense," he said.

Rachel Weisman, a pediatric neuropsychologist from Arlington, has been practicing aikido with Gleason since 1998. "He is uncompromising in his beliefs, incorporating his philosophy and spirituality into everything he does," she said.

Fontaine said that his years of training "have taught me to approach problems in a more flexible way.

"I'm stronger and more confident in martial situations, but more importantly, I understand how to harmoniously exist in the world and naturally tend to avoid conflicts," he said.

In 2005 Gleason marked his 25th year teaching in the United States. It was celebrated with a big party and Gleason asked Sarah Slifer, a dance instructor and choreographer, to be his date.

"All these people came from around the world to say what an influence he had on their lives," said Slifer. "We laugh about it now, but what a way to impress a girl!"

Slifer, 34, is the mother of Gleason's son, Seamus. The two share a home in Gloucester.

Slifer laughed as she tried to select a few things about Gleason that she admires. One, she says, is how he quietly processes information without a quick emotional response.

He lets a situation "get into the depth of who he is, then comes out with a very thoughtful response," Slifer said.

"It's not that he's not emotional. It just doesn't come out on a gushy, superficial level."

Both Slifer and Gleason's students agree that he doesn't seem to have time for small talk.

"He can't stand to have chatty conversation, so a lot of people feel he's not friendly," said Slifer. "But that's something that I really love in Bill. If people want to discuss philosophy or if they say something that triggers him, he's an unstoppable speaker, voracious in his appetite for understanding."

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