I had another birthday recently. So did my iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi. He turned 94. Aging is just another part of the budo journey. Just like regular practice, eating and sleeping, it can’t be avoided. My teachers, and my fellow students have all accumulated a variety of issues that come with the aging process, but we’re still making progress on the journey. There are still new things to be learned, concepts to be better understood, and principles that can be more fully applied in our lives.
I began studying Kodokan Judo when I was 19 years old. It was as fascinating and fun as anything I’d ever done. Judo was the first athletic activity I fell in love with. It was great being 19 and able to train in the dojo 4 or 5 times a week and still have enough energy to do some weight training on the off days. Bumps and bruises healed quickly, and even when I cracked my ribs, they healed easily. The biggest problem with healing my ribs was that I had an excess of energy and wanted to be on the mat and training several weeks before it was safe for my ribs to be doing judo.
|A collection o the best budo essays from Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum|
We trained hard all the time, because we could. We went to tournaments and fought hard. We won some, we lost some, and we ate everything in sight afterward. No matter how hard we trained one day, we could get up the next day and go at it again.
The summer before my 23rd birthday I achieved a dream and moved to Japan. I had a job teaching in the local junior high schools. When the teachers found out I did judo, they kindly introduced me to the high school judo coach, who invited me to train with his club whenever I was free. The high school club members were great and welcoming. Some of them had been training for twice as long as I had, others were relative beginners. We would train hard everyday and then get up and do it again.
9 years later I was living in Japan and I was still training with the high school judo club. Of course, I was 9 years older and the club members were still 15-17 years old. At that point, when I trained hard, I would get up the next day and think about what Sakashita Sensei would have them do, because I wasn’t doing it two days in a row.
Fast forward - Last night I was at judo practice and worked out with some guys in their teens and twenties. They play hard, and I’m not sure they understand what I’m saying when I suggest that we “Keep it light”. They want to go 100% all the time. What amazes is me is that they can practice that hard for a couple of hours and they still have the energy to be disappointed that practice is over. By the end of practice I’m just happy to still be standing and wondering who sucked all the oxygen out of the dojo. Then the guys are talking about what kind of training they’ll do tomorrow, while I contemplate nothing more than good stretching to work some of the knots out of my muscles.
I do notice that it’s easier for me to do the sensible things now. It still bothers me when I pull a muscle or something similar and need to sit out, but no one has to tell me to sit down. The boundless energy that some of the young guys have makes it almost impossible for them to sit out of practice, regardless of what they’ve done to themselves. The teachers nearly have to sit on them to keep them from exacerbating their injuries by training before they’re fully healed.
Over time I’ve acquired my share of life reminders, otherwise known as injuries, and I’ve discovered I can hear them talking. My knees let me know when they are getting to the end of their endurance. It’s an interesting sensation when they start to talk to me. I had to overdo it a couple of times before I realized what my knees were saying, but I did learn. When I hear them talking, I know it’s time to back off my training. I know now that if I don’t, I’ll spend the next day limping around the office and explaining to people that I was too stupid to stop training when I reached my limit.
I also know enough to make my practice count for something more than just working hard. Don’t get me wrong, I still love working hard, but I want all that effort to give me something more than a good sweat. Part of any do 道 is the idea that it doesn’t have a final destination. No matter where we are on the path there is still much to learn. I want to come away from every practice knowing that I have improved at least a tiny bit. That means being focused on doing my practice right. I might not be able to do as many reps as I used to, but I can still use them to polish my technique. I’m working on some left side techniques these days. As I enter, turn and drop under my training partner, I’m still focusing on creating good kuzushi, keeping my back straight and bending my knees deeply enough.
I find it amazing how lessons or instructions that don’t mean much can hang around in my head for years until I reach a point where I can use them. That feeling when some piece of advice that I got 20 years ago finally clicks and the light goes on and I understand! Yesterday it was how to move my legs and body to get into the right position for sumi gaeshi. I’ve known what the right position is for ages, but how to get there was another problem entirely. Yesterday during practice I had one of those wonderful epiphanies that happens in training, and a piece of advice I’d received years ago dropped into place. I could see the shape of the movement I needed and I could do it. It’s annoying to think that I had the key to the technique all this time and just wasn’t ready to see it.
This has happened to me often enough that I’m not sure I fully agree with the old saying that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think it’s more like “When the student is ready, he’ll realize the teacher has been there all along.” So many times when understanding has come, it’s been a sudden insight into the wisdom of something my teacher has been telling me all along.
I notice that what qualifies as a good practice for me has shifted. I used to have to be dripping with sweat and so tired I could hardly move. Now I feel like it was a good practice when I have chewed on a problem or idea in the art and learned something new. How tired I am is irrelevant. How much did I learn? What did I discover about the art? It doesn’t matter if it’s judo or jodo or iaido, the important thing is how much I’ve learned. It’s great to sweat and work hard, but if I’m not learning anything I may as well just be doing push-ups.
It’s this never-ending opportunity for learning and improvement that makes budo fascinating for me even after three decades of study. I know there is always more to learn about the art I’m studying, and always more to refine within myself. No, I can’t do randori endlessly at judo anymore. But I can discover new ways to be a better judoka and more fully embody the principles of the art. My knees don’t like the seiza techniques in iaido as much as they used to, but when they tell me they’ve had enough of seiza, there are still a full set of standing kata to work on.
Now I can easily see why my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei, was so eager to get a new sword when he was in his seventies. He bought one that had a large fuller in the blade to make it light. He had been using a heavy blade from the Muromachi period (1392 - 1573) that would make his wrists hurt after long practices. With the new blade he could go to gasshuku, train all day and still feel fine afterwards. After 60 years of training, he was still excited to learn new things and continue his journey on the budo path. I can easily imagine that when I reach his age, I’ll be excited about getting a new sword too.