|Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis|
There is no opponent in front of him, but you can tell he sees where teki is anyway.
Someone asked me about the difference between solo practice and partnered practice. It’s a good questions. I do iaido, which by its nature has to be done solo, but I also do judo and dabble with aikido, both of which are pretty much impossible to do solo. There are lots of arts such as karate that have both solo and paired practice. They all have the problem of teki. Teki is opponent or enemy. Budo practice makes the assumption that we all have one. In training, we have to make sure we have the right teki and that we understand teki properly.
This can be more difficult than it seems at both ends. I’ve written about uke for paired practice. For iaido, how do we know where teki is, what they are doing or when they are doing it? The questions of maai and timing are critical. Beginning students have enough trouble just remembering which foot goes where and which direction the cut should be. Often when I tell beginning students to visualize teki their form disintegrates and chunks of the kata get completely forgotten.
Iaido is often described as a sword drawing art. I’ve don’t really liked that description because sword drawing is really just a tiny fraction of what goes on in iaido. The draw and simultaneous attack, while important, is only one of a number of lessons emphasized in the iaido systems I’ve encountered. Iai teachers spend a lot of time getting students to understand why each action is critically important for dealing with an aggressor in each situation modeled in the kata.
That aggressor is the teki. The problem that students can stumble over for years is trying to visualize and understand what teki is doing and why various actions in the kata are determined by where we imagine teki to be, and what teki is visualized as doing. Just drawing a sword and waving it around is not iaido. Like all real budo, iaido is very particular about what is happening and why you do everything just so.
Most koryu budo train in paired exercises, so what is happening is clear. You know where teki is and what teki is doing. The reasons for choosing one response over others is generally pretty clear. Since iai is usually done with a sharp blade, which makes mistakes particularly tough on training partners, we’re stuck with practicing iai without a live partner for the most part. We talk about kaso teki a lot because talking about our imaginary enemy doesn’t sound as cool.
How solidly we can visualize that imaginary enemy has a huge effect on the quality of our practice. It’s easy to see when someone is just going through the motions without investing any intent in their practice. Beginning students always seem a little shocked when a teacher says “You completely missed teki.”
As you train, you learn to see things better, including things that aren’t there. New students are generally so occupied with remembering how to hold the sword and when to breath (if they remember breathing at all) and keeping their chins up and a hundred other little details. They can’t see where teki really is or why knowing that is so important.
Iai teaches a lot about how a real sword is handled, but we also have to learn why the sword is used in particular ways. WIthout a teki, it’s just empty arm waving. Where do we attack? When do we attack? How do we attack? All of these questions are driven by teki and if you can’t visualize where teki is and what teki is doing, the kata are meaningless.
The first kata in many systems is some variation of an aggressive teki in front of you. The iai student draws and cuts horizontally in one motion, then raises the sword and cuts down. Why do we cut horizontally and not at some other angle? How far to we have to move to reach teki with our blade? Why do we need a second cut? Kaso teki provides the answers to all of those questions.
We cut horizontally to both wound teki and drive teki back and off balance so there can be no counter attack if we miss. This doesn’t make a lot of sense without a strong visualization of teki and their movements. This is just the simplest of the iai kata. What happens when things get more complicated, perhaps with multiple attackers and turns and movement shifts?
Adequately visualizing teki is far more difficult than people initially think. It usually takes students a couple of years of practice before they can start to do it effectively. Once they acquire enough confidence and facility at the basic movements of the kata that they can stop thinking about them all the time, they can start thinking about why the movements are done.
I said iai is a solo practice, and that’s mostly true. Mostly. The truth is though, that without some partner intervention, I was not able to accurately visualize teki. I’ve found this to be true of all of my students as well. This is particularly true for kata that involve turns and angle changes. There is a common technique, often called uke nagashi, for combining the deflection of an attack with a counter attack. In every system I’ve seen this done in, the practitioner has to shift their angle of attack slightly.
In iai, I have never seen a student who could accurately visualize how far they had to turn to accurately target kaso teki through visualization alone. Until someone gets out some sticks or shinai, and physically models teki for them, students all want to rotate too far around. If they turn too far, they miss teki. Even when they get a partner, students will over rotate a few times. For all that iai is a solo practice, without a few run throughs with a partner there to act as a physical target, students can’t visualize kaso teki well enough to hit their target.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of repetitions with a partner to get these sorts of details right. It does take a few though. Because of this, I can’t really say that iai is just a solitary practice. Rather, it becomes a solitary practice once you understand many of the details and principles. To get to that level of understanding though requires some partner practice.
Another aspect of understanding this is knowing just how far and fast an opponent can move. Every iai system I’ve seen has a full compliment of standing, moving kata. Visualizing these kaso teki is even more complex than envisioning an aggressive teki sitting in front of you. I found that my understanding of iai kata exploded when I started doing a few simple kenjutsu kata. Suddenly it was very easy for me to understand where teki is and how teki will move. I could easily see where teki was, and why teki would react in specific ways based on what I did in each kata. Until I had some basic experience with paired kata though, none of this was clear to me.
I’ve seen the same epiphany in my own iai students. They can practice the kata as much as they want, but kaso teki is still a vague, fuzzy image. Once we add a few simple, paired, kenjutsu kata to the practice regime, suddenly all sorts of things about teki become clear. It’s as though they’d been trying to visualize teki while looking through a crack in the curtains over a foggy window. The kenjutsu kata practice opened the curtains and wiped the window clear.
This all leads me to the simple conclusion that iaido isn’t really a solo practice. Experience with real teki are required before solo practice can be done effectively. It doesn’t take a huge amount of paired practice, but some is required. A few of the critical elements students have to learn from paired practice to make their solo practice with kaso teki effective are: how teki moves with the weapon, where teki really is when attacking, how teki responds to both the defense and offense of the practitioner, and how fast teki really is.
So to answer the question that started this, “What’s the difference between solo practice and partner practice?” the main difference is that in solo practice you have to have developed the ability to clearly visualize where teki is and what teki is doing. If you can’t do that while you are doing the kata, you’re just waving your arms in the air. To fully develop this ability takes a little bit of paired practice to to learn what teki can and can’t do, and why. Only after you’ve developed your kaso teki can you really do solo iai.