Showing posts with label iaido. Show all posts
Showing posts with label iaido. Show all posts

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Utility Of Jo-Ha-Kyu


Photo – Kyu – the conclusion of a cut. Photo by Rick Frye, 2014

 Today I have the pleasure of introducing a guest blog on jo-ha-kyu by my colleague and friend, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. There are many concepts  that came into budo from other areas of Japanese culture. The idea of jo-ha-kyu is one of them. Klens-Bigman Sensei's background as a Jun Shihan in Shinto Hatakage Ryu as well her expertise in Japanese dance gives her an excellent position from which to examine this crucial concept. 

The utility of jo-ha-kyu
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

If you have spent time training in Japan, or your teacher is Japanese, sooner or later he/she will mention a concept that is as essential to the study of koryu as any other practical aspect. That concept is jo-ha-kyu.
If you look up the kanji (序破急), you get a set of straight-up definitions. Jo () means beginning. Ha () means middle in this particular context, but it can also mean, interestingly, to break or destroy, the same kanji found in shu-ha-ri (a subject for another essay). Kyu () means a fast pace, and appears most familiarly to visitors to Japan as designating an express train. But, just as looking up the roots of words in English only hints at their current or contextual meaning, those simple definitions don't begin to describe the depth of the meaning of the idea of jo-ha-kyu, nor its importance to the study of any traditional movement form, including koryu budo. As I mentioned above, jo-ha-kyu is a practical aspect, essential to achieve a level of understanding beyond just the mechanical movements of a given kata or waza.
There is a lot of discussion of the application of strength or not, but less about the speed (or lack thereof) in applying given techniques. Generally speaking it seems that we like speed. We learn the elements of waza and look forward to using them “at speed.” However, in koryu budo training, speed is a relative thing, to be used judiciously. Simply put, once a student understands the mechanical aspects of a form or technique (properly learned at a glacial pace), the teacher should begin a discussion as to how the student performs the movements of the form.
In its simplest aspect, jo-ha-kyu suggests rising acceleration. When drawing a sword for a nukitsuke cut, the iaidoka begins the draw slowly, and with a relaxed grip. As the sword is drawn, the speed increases, and the grip becomes more firm (but not tight) until the sword is free. Once free, the iaidoka snaps the monouchi of the sword towards the target by tightening her grip to the utmost. The iaidoka’s grip then relaxes as she re-positions her sword for the second cut of the kata, and the process of acceleration begins again.
Simple enough, yes? And easily seen, though perhaps not as easy to do. But jo-ha-kyu does not only refer to the elements of a given kata. The entire kata exhibits jo-ha-kyu. Let’s go back to our iaido example. The nukitsuke cut is a small cut. Depending on the style, it may be given as a warning to a would-be opponent to back off, theoretically making the balance of the kata unnecessary. The kata assumes, though, that that a second cut is necessary, and so the follow up to the nukitsuke is a much larger, and more lethal, cut. Afterward, if the bunkai of the kata only involves one opponent, the iaidoka performs chiburi and noto and the kata is finished.
http://iaikai.com/

Weapons kata seem to make the understanding of jo-ha-kyu pretty obvious (though I can state from experience it’s much harder to learn how to do properly), but the same sense of timing can be seen in empty-hand forms as well. Grab your opponent too fast or too hard, and your technique will in all likelihood, fail. In techniques for Daito ryu, the defender often has to wait for the attacker to do something before he can react. And the timing of his reaction and the execution of his technique depends very often on a sense of acceleration, not a sudden movement.
Jo-ha-kyu works in layers, starting with the individual elements of a given kata or technique, then to the design of the kata overall. But jo-ha-kyu doesn’t stop there. Sets of kata also reflect jo-ha-kyu. For example, the shoden set of Shinto Hatakage ryu consists of six kata. In the process of learning the six kata, the iaidoka learns how to: draw and cut in a shallow, rising diagonal, kirioroshi (straight down) cut, nukitsuke in a rising reverse-diagonal cut, a straight-on thrust, downward kesa (diagonal) cut, tsubame-gaeshi (reverse diagonal followed by downward diagonal; literally “barn swallow [and] return” because it resembles a swallow’s forked tail) cut, ko-(or yoko-) chiburi , simple noto (resheathing of the sword) and kaiten chiburi, in which the sword spins in the iaidoka’s hand, followed by a reverse-hand noto. The first form in the set is straightforward, followed by increasingly complicated bunkai of the subsequent forms. After that, it gets complicated.
Regardless of the style, shoden sets of forms always teach – well – basics. The second set of forms assumes this basic set of skills and applies them in different (sometimes radically different) ways. Some teachers have suggested the shoden set is like playing scales on a musical instrument – learning how the instrument works and what it is capable of. In koryu budo, the practitioner learns how the weapon works, whether a sword, a stick, or his own body. Over time, techniques increase in complexity.
Now, everyone knows that levels of training involve beginner, intermediate, and advanced forms. But considering a ryuha in terms of jo-ha-kyu gives more depth to the utility of a layering of rising acceleration. And I don't mean speed. I mean depth of understanding. Once a practitioner begins to see jo-ha-kyu in the techniques, kata, and overall ryuha, the utility of the concept can be seen practically everywhere, even in aspects of everyday life.
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Author’s Note: I would like to thank Ismael Franco Sensei of Tora Dojo and Peter Boylan Sensei Of Michigan Koryu Kenkyukai for vetting portions of this post.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Problem Of Kaso Teki

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.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kata's Hidden Wisdom




Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords.  Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).

Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon.  Mistakes happen.  Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).   

We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people.  There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.

The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here?  Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.


I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.

We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements.  The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away.  Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.

In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary.  This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face.  With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down.  Ok, so that stalls teki.  The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut. 

The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack.  If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides  necessary cover for my skull.  When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.

Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy.  After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem.  The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.

My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head.  When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder.  This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.

There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it.  It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head.  Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.

Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice.  I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.


Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata.  Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.


If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.


Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment.  This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.


Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.

That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently.  We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Outside Seminars; or What We Don't Realize About Our Own Training


Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure to attend an excellent seminar in a martial art well outside my own practice. I do Kodokan Judo, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho and Shinto Muso Ryu Jo.  The seminar was focused on basic movements and exercises of Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu. This is an art I know next to nothing about. The movements and techniques are quite different from anything in Judo or Iai or Jo. Why would I bother spending a weekend on something so unrelated to what I train?


   I spend a lot of time focused on improving my skills at the arts I do, so it may not make a lot of sense to take that time away from my primary arts and do something I'm not planning to on doing regularly. For me though, it makes a lot of sense.


There is no such thing as a complete martial art. Is boxing or jujutsu complete? Boxing doesn't include grappling and jujutsu doesn't do much with strikes. MMA prohibits a lot of techniques that could cause permanent injury or cripple. Judo includes some strikes, but ignores joint locks except for the wrist, elbow and shoulder (and one knee lock!). Which one is most complete? There's a problem even there though. There question asks which is “most complete” and not “which is complete?” Many classical arts also teach a variety of weapons in addition to empty hand techniques. Takenouchi Ryu, Soushishi Ryu, Kashima Shinryu, and others teach a variety of weapons, including swords, spears, staves and nasty things with chains.


Even these though aren't complete. None of them teaches extensive unarmed strikes and none includes firearms. Maybe the solution is to study military or police combatives and weapons. Even then you won't get a complete system. Military combatives tend to focus on killing the enemy. Police combatives tend to focus on not doing unnecessary damage. Neither makes an pretense of being complete. Their training is highly focused for specific types of situations. Not complete, but just the opposite, they are very focused one subset of scenarios.


With all the possibilities that exist, there isn't enough room in one lifetime to become competent in everything. We have to choose what we are going to specialize in. That's OK, and it's certainly better than trying to learn everything. That would spread your training time so thin that you'd never be any good at anything. So you limit what you study intensively. Even when you put limits on what you're going to try to master, you don't have to put limits on being aware of other options.


Me, learning about a whole new way to lock up shoulders. Photo Copyright 2015 Masami Mitsusada
Going to seminars outside your art is great for learning what else Is available, and how other arts use their skills to address questions similar to what your own art addresses. A question as simple as “how do you deal with a strike?” gets complicated very quickly. Even just within Judo we have multiple options with a range of effects from simple arm bars, to counter strikes with arm bars, chokes, and multiple types of throws. That's just within in one art. The Karate guys have a number of options that Judo never even considers. Blocks and counter strikes of all sorts. We haven't even started to consider some of the koryu arts that include numerous weapons that might be appropriate.


Different arts frame the question of dealing with particular attacks and situations differently. In Judo, the first response to most attacks is a throw, and after we've explored that, then we'll think about chokes and arm bars. Karateka tend to prefer a hard block and multiple strike response to the same situation. Classical jujutsu styles often use a combination of counter strike followed by dashing their foe into the ground. Aikido might use a smooth blend with the attack followed by a wicked deconstruction of one or more joints.


Me getting an education from Howard Popkin Sens


ei. Photo Copyright Masami Mitsusada 2015.
If you only practice your own art, and never try anything else, you won't really know how broad the options are for dealing with any given scenario. Worse, you can fall into the trap of thinking whatever you do is superior. Martial arts are very Darwinian. Only the ones that have some effectiveness in real situations tend to survive. If someone else does things differently, and they continue to draw students, especially students with backgrounds in law enforcement or similar professions, they probably offer something real.


Being exposed to techniques and exercises that I don't encounter in my regular practice can aid my development.  If you don’t have any idea of what the range of possibilities are, and how they work, your own training is very incomplete. If you don’t know how things really happen, you’re training is going to reflect your best guesses.  Those guesses are likely to be wrong.  In Judo, we have a number of techniques for use versus weapons. Most judoka don’t have any idea how to use those weapons (knives, swords and sticks) effectively, so it’s impossible to train well against them. As it happens, I also do iai and jo, so I bring that experience with me to my judo training.  Swords and sticks are remarkably fast weapons, faster than most people imagine. The average judoka training against weapons in the Kime No Kata doesn’t understand just how far they have to be from the sword or stick to have a chance of reacting before it reaches them.That’s clear from watching they way they train. After years of ia i and jo, that is a mistake I don’t make.


If you’ve never experienced something, and no one you’re training with has ever experienced it, the odds of you doing that training properly approach nil. Years ago, before I really understood this lesson, I had many conversations with friend who has considerably more experience that I do in many areas. He would make a declaration and I, naively, would reject his claims. Then he’d proceed to demonstrate the narrow limits of my experience and understanding by throwing me across the room or tying me into knots. Chuck had learned his arts deeply, but also made sure he was aware of what other arts do, even if he didn’t study them.

Getting out to a seminar or two in another art can broaden your perspective on situations the arts you study are intended to deal with. Every art has a frame through which it interprets the world. It’s very easy, and quite common, to get so accustomed to seeing things through the framework of one art, that we forget there are ways of looking at things that are completely outside the frame we normally train in.  That’s something that going to seminars helps me break out of. At a seminar, looking at the world through someone else’s frame is part of the lesson for me.


The seminar this weekend was taught by Howard Popkin in the art of Daito Ryu, an art I have no background in. Being a judoka, I tend to assume that Judo has cornered the market on kuzushi (often poorly translated as “balance breaking”). This particular seminar shot a number of significant holes in that assumption. It was fascinating to see how small a motion was enough to disrupt someone’s balance, especially when the someone was me. Over the course of the weekend I may have learned even more about assumptions I am making than I did about Daito Ryu.  


I’ve had this happen repeatedly at various seminars I’ve attended over the years. I can remember a koryu sogo bujutsu teacher using me like a mop to wipe the floors with. He knew I was a judoka and could take the falls. I learned a lot about assumptions judoka make about what constitutes the end of an encounter. Judoka live in a very civilized world where an arm lock or hold down will result in a quieted adversary. Koryu arts don’t work at the level of civilization. They tend to assume a far more violent world in which more lasting and damaging measure are required. I came away from that experience with a lot of questions for myself about how to handle different types of threats beyond the assumptions made in most competitive judo dojo.


When I first took up sword and jo I had to reevaluate what I thought I knew about weapons defenses that I’d learned from the kata in the Kodokan Judo System. There are a number of nifty kata against knives and swords and sticks in Judo. The only problem was, the more I learned about how to use these weapons, the less confidence I had in my ability to handle any of them. The ma’ai that I considered safe got longer and longer. The time it takes to deploy the weapons got shorter and shorter. With greater understanding of the weapons the kata are supposed to teach one to deal with, the less appealing dealing with those weapons became.  


I’ve had the opportunity to learn about variety of arts and how they frame the world. It’s interesting, and as I get to view the world through each art’s frame, my own frame gets expanded. If we never venture outside of our own dojo, or own art, we will have a very warped view of what we can do with that art. We have to see things from other perspectives and see how people with other skill sets approach the same problems.  Until we start doing this, we can’t really understand our own art. We have to look at it from the outside occasionally to remind ourselves of all the things that aren’t within the view of our frame.



Howard Popkin Sensei demonstrating how little I know aobut nikyo. Photo Copyright Peter Kotsinadelis 2015.


One of the easiest ways to expand our frame is to attend a few seminars from other arts. I’m not recommending a steady diet of cross training. More like an occasional dessert treat. We want to understand our own arts as deeply as possible. We can’t do that if we never look at our arts from the outside. The occasional seminar helps develop a more complete understanding of what options there are beyond our regular practice and how many different ways a question can be asked and how different the answers can be.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

How Can Iai Be Interesting

How can iai practice be interesting?  There are only about 4 real cuts (kiri oroshi, kesa giri, kiri age, and ichi monji).  It’s mostly done slowly. We repeat those same four cuts from every position and situation imaginable. We always work with an imaginary opponent or opponents. We endlessly return to the first kata in the system and practice it to death.


How could this not be boring?  What could we possibly do to make this interesting? We repeat these same few movements over and over and over. As a student and teacher, I know there is a standard script of comments that can be made, in fact need to be made, every practice with every student. What could be more boring than hearing the same critique every time you go to class? You know “You need to slow down. Relax your shoulders. Tighten your little finger. Use your hips. Move from you koshi. Don’t bend from the waist.” Every iaido teacher says the same things over and over.

Listening to sensei tell you what you are doing wrong, and knowing what he’s going to say before you even start practicing should  be one of the more mind numbing and discouraging you will ever encounter.

It’s not though. Iaido is frustrating and sometimes tedious. It is hard, physical work that takes effort and focus to do even poorly. It can make muscles ache and quiver from the effort demanded. Time and time again I can tell what Sensei is going to say before he says it because I can feel the weakness in my own performance of the kata. It’s difficult to be bored by what Sensei is saying when you can feel the truth of it in your muscles and bones while he is still drawing a breath to power his comments.

Iai is interesting because there is a chasm between knowing what you want to do and being able to do it with any sort of consistency. I remember as a new student watching Takada Sensei demonstrate for me in the old, unheated dojo in Eichigawa. The doors at each of the dojo were pushed open so we would get some ventilation, and since we were no more than a 100 meters from the shinkansen (bullet train) tracks, every time it roared by going over 100 miles per hour (160 km per hour) all other sound disappeared for a few moments.

Sensei never flinched at the sudden roar. His focus on the kata was fantastic. He was in his mid 70s when I started training, and he had perfect koshi, posture to die for, and cuts so precise and sure I would not have been afraid to let him use my stomach for a cutting stand. Sensei’s posture and breathing were so much a part of him that he could no longer stand incorrectly. I think trying to breath from his shoulders would have been physically impossible for him after so many decades of doing it right.

From the day I started, the goal was to get good enough that I could try to approach Sensei’s level of perfection. It was quite a while later that I realized that Takada Sensei was working on improving his technique in one corner of the dojo while I was in one corner of the dojo another working on mine. Initially, I couldn’t even imagine myself doing w
hat he did. It helped when a 2nd dan would attend. I could believe that what he was doing was possible for me. Looking back I understand that Sensei’s relaxed power and precision were beyond what I could understood, so I couldn’t imagine doing what he did. The 2 dan wasn’t far ahead of me along the path, so I could see myself doing what he did, and I tried.

It seems easy enough.  Draw and cut, step and cut. That’s the first kata.  Shouldn’t be tough at all. 20 years later I’m still working at it. At least now I can understand what Takada Sensei was doing, even though I still can’t approach his skills. I can at least draw, cut, raise the sword above my head, step and cut and make it look presentable. Which comes back around to the question at the beginning. How can this iai stuff be interesting?

Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

If it was just going through the motions of drawing and cutting and stepping, it wouldn’t be.  Iai isn’t about going through those motions.It’s about being and moving perfectly. All of the challenge is internal. From the outside, it looks like you’re just repeating the same few motions again and again. Internally, every time through is different. You’re working on fixing the angle of the draw so you don’t miss the target (YES! You can miss the target in iai, but that’s a different essay). Maybe you are working to keep your hamstrings and thighs engaged. A big one for me these days is the relationship of my hips to my upper body, shoulders and head.

The sequence of movements nearly vanishes from thought now. The focus shifts to improving movement and balance. Once I do that, each movement is unique. I’m not swinging and cutting over and over. Just like practicing music, each repetition is it’s own thing. Faster or slower. Harder, softer. Adjust foot positions. Get my hips under my shoulders. Get a little better. Make the next version of the kata a little closer to the ideal.

The goal is to do everything perfectly.  Draw precisely. Stop at the perfect moment. Raise the sword and bring my body together in perfect form completely balanced and completely relaxed. Swing down and cut while driving my body forward from the hips. Step out and finish the cut without tipping forward with the energy.

Photo Courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

After a while doing the first kata over and over is fascinating because there are so many small variables to play with. Speed, strength, which muscles in the legs and back and arms to to engage. What’s interesting is how perceptions shift.

Early on in the study, the goal is to learn all the kata, to learn as many forms as possible.  The thinking is often that the more kata you know the better you are. I was anxious to be practicing all the kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, the iai system I was doing. The advanced kata include lots of cool scenarios. Multiple attackers, interesting set ups with narrow lanes or in crowds or trapped in a gate. These kata are fascinating because of the scenarios.

As I got better, these kata became more and more similar. No matter what the scenario, no matter what combination of opponents, what I’m trying to do with my body remains the same. I’m still trying to draw with precision so I don’t miss the target. I want to control the movement with as much power and as little muscle as possible. Swing so that I don’t create any openings and and don’t off-balance myself. Raise the sword and bring my feet together with my hips, shoulders and head balanced solidly above them. Snap the sword tip forward with the last fingers of my left hand. Step forward with my right foot and pull the now extended sword down with my left hand. Then catch it at the bottom with a slight twitch of my right and left hands while my whole body comes to rest with my weight settled and solid and my left leg loaded like a spring in case I have to move again.

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Just as a basketball player practices endless layups and jump shoots in order to make their technique perfect, and just as an American football player spends hours every day drilling throws or blocks or whatever his position requires, and as football players practice ball handling, passing and kicking, and iai practitioner spends endless hours practicing and studying their most basic movements.

There are two main differences. The first is that until you can’t move, there is no reason to ever stop budo training.  I know people in their 90s who make every effort to practice, polish and improve technique.  Iai, and all budo, is not a mere pastime and entertainment. The lessons and training of iai and other budo continue as long as we do.

The other big difference is where this training is applied.  If you practice shooting baskets, passing, and ball handling, you will become better at basketball, American football, or football. If you practice iai, you will become better at being you. You will improve how move and stand in the world outside the dojo. You will have better control of your mind for whatever you want to direct it to. You will be able to control your reactions and breathing even under stress.

How can learning all of that be boring? If you are just looking to swing a sword around, then yes, iai will quickly become boring. If you want to learn to control and use your body efficiently and effectively, then iai offers endless lessons and challenges. The opportunities to refine your balance, movement and control never end. There are kneeling kata and standing kata and those weird tatehiza kata. As you practice, you get better and better at calming and quieting your mind so you can focus on only the task at hand.

The challenges here are endless and can keep you coming back to the dojo for decades. The value of making the these physical and mental improvements doesn’t end when you leave dojo. That’s when their true worth will appear. And the practice never gets boring. No matter how old you are.
Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis