Showing posts with label practice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label practice. Show all posts

Monday, January 9, 2017

Practice In Japan


Yoshunkan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

 Practice in Japan has a different feel from training in the U.S.. In Japan, everyone is quietly intent on the training. There is no chatter, and not even much in the way of questions to Sensei about how things should be done. Keiko proceed with a smooth regularity. Everyone except the newest students knows how practice in their dojo operates, and they all work to make sure everything goes smoothly. This is not to say that everyone is already perfect - far from it. Everyone in the dojo is there to learn and train hard. Training time lacks the social element that is often present in dojo outside Japan. There is no extraneous conversation while training is going on. Before and after practice? Of course. During breaks? Sure. While actual practice is going on? Not at all.

It’s not that anyone is yelling or enforcing silence. Everyone is there for a reason and a purpose, and during practice they focus on it. No one has to tell them to focus. It’s not like the pseudo-military atmosphere I’ve seen in some dojo outside Japan, with the instructor acting as a drill sergeant, yelling at anyone who isn’t exactly in line. In most Japanese dojo, the discipline comes from within the students themselves, not from the teachers. I would be mortified if I were to be so out of line that anyone, fellow student or the teacher, felt a need to say something to me about my behavior.

Everyone who comes into the dojo has to learn the dojo routine, but no one is harassed while they are learning. New students are as quiet as senior students, maybe quieter, since they don’t want to risk offending anyone. Beginners are busy trying to learn the dojo routines and etiquette, so they don’t have much time to say anything.  Senior students are comfortable and at home in the dojo, so they they don’t need to say much.

Practice moves along at a rapid clip. Dojo in America often have a lot of chatting and talking among students, or at the other end, a rigidly enforced atmosphere of silence. Traditional dojo in Japan are quiet and focused, but lack the authoritarian feel of many large, modern dojo. You don’t see a lot of external discipline. Students are expected to know how to behave politely while they figure out the dojo customs. Teachers expect to be able to be heard and lead class without yelling.

For example, Iseki Sensei leads the jodo class, and everyone takes turn in the counting of technique repetitions while we’re working through the kihon (fundamentals) at the beginning of class. Sensei speaks loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the dojo, and no louder.

Kazuo Iseki Sensei. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

Once we finish with the kihon, Sensei splits us into senior and junior members so the seniors can act as partners for the junior students. This is something I don’t see enough of in modern dojo. The seniors use their understanding of timing, spacing and control to help the juniors get the most out of their technique and kata practice. The senior adjusts her speed and intensity to a level where the junior can practice and learn. The senior doesn’t spend much time talking to the junior; they are both focused on the training. If significant corrections need to be made the senior will make a brief comment, but that’s all that’s needed.

The teacher lets the students practice without a lot of interruption. Rarely will the whole class be stopped to make a point. The teacher will correct individual issues individually, and the rest of the class will wait for the pair being corrected to get back on track, or continue working on kata if the correction is taking more time than usual. Working with the juniors is not a sacrifice for the senior students. They are also working on the spacing, timing, and control for the tachi side.

Practice gets more interesting when Sensei has the junior members of the dojo sit down to watch while the seniors work together. This practice is intense, with the seniors working at the edge of their skill. The juniors don’t chatter while watching. They’ve learned well how to quietly observe somewhere else. They don’t have to learn that here. The seniors will all be working on different parts of the curriculum, as directed by Sensei. Sometimes Sensei will step in and act as the partner so the student can focus her  practice on a particular point. 

Traditional Japanese Swordsmanship


Through all of this the only time Sensei will yell is when he calls for a break. Most corrections are made at a conversational tone by Sensei. If one senior is helping another, the corrections are usually made at a whisper so as to not disturb anyone else’s training. The whole atmosphere is one of intensity and focus on learning. Even the juniors sitting at the side are quiet and focused on picking up as much as they can from watching the seniors practice. There is plenty to learn that way about footwork, timing, rhythm, and all the other details of the art. There is room for smiles and quiet laughter at mistakes and accidents.  Then it’s back to practice.

Talking would disturb everyone else in the dojo, and the last thing anyone in Japan wants to do is bother someone else. This doesn’t mean the dojo isn’t friendly and social, because all of the traditional dojo I’ve been in have been friendly and social. The students just recognize clear distinctions between training time and social time. The “friendly” is always there. People are genuinely concerned about their partners’ well-being. When training is over, people are very social. There are questions about how people are doing, jokes and laughter.  Often there is time for a drink together after training.

That’s after training. During training everyone trains. No one chatters or talks other than necessary. They just train. The focus is quite different from dojo I’ve been to elsewhere. Everyone shares the focus.  This is something I need to bring to the dojo where I train outside Japan.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Secret Techniques Versus Special Techniques

Ono-ha Itto Ryu.  Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis


The movie hero studies and studies to learn the secret technique that will make him unbeatable (why is it always “he?”). The secret strike or trick that the foe can’t stop. We love secret techniques and hidden wisdom. Legions of movies and books are built on the premise that somewhere, somehow, there is a secret that will make the possessor unbeatable. Many budo systems are said to have been created when the founder had a sudden inspiration or even a divine revelation into the special use of their weapon.

Many of us started martial arts looking for that secret. The heros in kung fu and karate movies had to have some secret that made them so incredible. From the power of Iron Fist in Marvel Comics to the secret balancing training in The Karate Kid, the secret teaching brings power, and that is really attractive. The secrets of Katori Shinto Ryu are said to have been handed down to it’s founder by the kami Futsunushi No Kami, enshrined at Katori Shrine.  The secrets of Shinto Muso Ryu are said to have been revealed to it’s founder in a dream by a divine child.

Many classical Japanese ryuha protect their secrets and won’t let outsiders see them practiced. Shinto Muso Ryu has 5 secret kata that are only taught to the highest level of student and are never shown to anyone else.

This makes sense. An opponent cannot defend against what she doesn’t know about. Surprise attacks work. Attacking with something your opponent can’t imagine is coming is a wonderful tactic. I can see why a secret technique would be useful. The premise is very appealing. One set of techniques that you show to the world, another set held in reserve to maintain the power of secrecy.

Secret techniques sound fascinating and mysterious, but they aren’t usually what win.  Throughout the Tokugawa period (1604-1868), the most popular systems of kenjutsu were the various branches of Itto Ryu. There were Itto Ryu dojos all over Japan, and especially in Tokyo. The Tokyo dojo were significant for the spread of knowledge about Itto Ryu, because all of the daimyo and many of their servitors spent 6 months of the year in Tokyo. Their children were raised there. People could and did meet and train in dojo throughout the city.

The techniques and strategies of the Itto Ryu branches, particularly Ono-ha Itto Ryu, were well known and widely practiced. Yet this does not seem to reduced the effectiveness of the style. Ono-ha Itto Ryu may well have been the most practiced school of kenjutsu by the last half of the Tokugawa period. Not having a secret doesn’t seem to have cut into it’s popularity.


If secret techniques have so much power, why would a school like Itto Ryu, where the basic strategy and technique is well and widely known and recognized be so popular? The answer to that is simply that it was effective in the gekiken competitions that were increasingly popular.  In that environment, Itto Ryu technique worked well.

In the 21st century, Ronda Rousey competes in an unarmed combat venue similar in nature to the gekiken sword competitions of 18th and 19th century Japan.  She may be the epitome of not having a secret technique. Even before she entered MMA fighting, she fought in judo competitions. Throughout that time, she never had a secret technique. There are no secret techniques in judo or MMA. The nature of the rules mean that all the possible techniques are known.

Secret techniques have a significant flaw. They only maintain their special power so long as they are secret. As soon as you use a secret technique where it is seen, everyone will study it, know that you do it, and figure out how to defeat it. The power of a secret technique, like any secret, vanishes when it becomes known.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp

Ronda Rousey doesn’t have a secret technique.  Everyone knows what she’s going to do. She’s going to attack an arm lock. Most likely, she will be attacking what is known to judoka as jujigatame.  Even though everyone knows what she will do, for some reason they still can’t prevent it. It’s not a secret technique. It’s the opposite of a secret technique. It’s a specialized technique, and it works wonderfully.

The same was true of the signature technique of Ono-ha Itto Ryu. Everyone knew what the Itto ryu practitioner would do. Their signature cut is still famous and the basis of modern kendo technique. Everyone knows what Ronda Rousey is going to do. It’s a classic judo technique.

These techniques are powerful, and they are polished. That makes them stronger over the long run than any secret technique. Secret techniques lose their power quickly from the moment they cease to be secret. Special techniques don’t lose anything by being known. They may even benefit from being widely known. Everyone knows what Rousey is going to do. She’s going to do jujigateme.  So everyone spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to stop her jujigatame. Everyone who faces an Ono-ha Itto Ryu swordsman knows what she will do. She’s going to cut straight down the center, right through your defense. If you want to face someone with a special technique, you have to spend your time figuring out how to stop it.


The corollary is that when you spend all your time learning to stop someone’s special technique, that leaves you vulnerable to all of the other things they can do not quite as well as their special technique. Their special technique makes all their other techniques more effective. Itto Ryu opponents are worried about losing to kiri otoshi. When they focus on defending against that, they open themselves up to the other techniques in the Itto Ryu curriculum. Rousey’s foes focus on stopping her arm locks, which makes her perfectly sound striking and throwing techniques all the more effective.

Secret techniques won’t carry us very far. Their very nature makes their power and effectiveness short lived. Once a secret technique is known, it loses it’s power. Highly polished special techniques on the other hand, maintain their power even after they become well-known. For someone like Ronda Rousey or a student of a system like Itto Ryu, the very notoriety of their special technique can be asset, because it makes people focus on the special technique and neglect the rest of their repertoire.

The lesson in all of this is an old one. Kano Jigoro Shihan was famous for saying that the secret to success in judo is “Practice. Practice. Practice.” That hasn’t changed. Practice your entire art, but polish your special technique. Practice it and practice it. Make it shine so bright it obscures the effectiveness of the rest of your techniques.


9/30/2015 Special thanks to Meik Skoss for a correction on the Itto Ryu terminology.

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.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Budo Begins And Ends With Rei


One mistake I’m beginning to get over, is thinking that proverbs I hear in the dojo are not general to Japanese culture, but are somehow specific to budo. Every time I’ve thought that, I’ve been wrong. Japan was run by a warrior class for hundreds of years. Needless to say, with that kind of history driving the culture, references to budo are quite common in everyday society.  When things are very serious, it’s a “shinken shobu” 真剣勝負, a match with live swords.

There is a phrase often heard in budo circles that came up in a discussion recently.  “Budo begins and ends with a bow.” The original Japanese is 礼に始まり礼に終わる (Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru). omitting any reference to budo. This phrase is common in Japan, where everything begins and ends with a bow. It’s also where we non-Japanese trip over the translation.  

The “rei” 礼 in “Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru.” is commonly translated as one of three things; bow, courtesy, or etiquette.  Each of those is correct, and each of them is wrong.  Each is correct in that it captures some component of rei. Each is mostly wrong because it misses the majority of the ideas, meanings and feelings embodied in the concept of rei.
     
Rei turns out to be a much larger concept than any of the simple translations suggest.  This isn’t the fault of the translators. “Rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru.” is a wonderful little aphorism and when  doing translation, you can’t stop in the middle of the work to add your own 3 or 4 page explanation of one quick phrase, so you go with what feels closest to the intention of the particular passage.


As the diagram above suggests, there is a lot more wrapped up in rei 礼 than any of the simple translations might suggest.  The definition below is from the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary.

れい2【礼】 (rei)

1 〔礼儀〕 etiquette; decorum; propriety; politeness; courtesy; civility. [=れいぎ(さほう)]
2 〔おじぎ〕 a salutation; a salute; a bow; an obeisance;
    3 〔儀式〕 a ceremony; a rite.
    4 〔謝辞〕 thanks; gratitude; acknowledgment; appreciation.

When I first started my journey in the world of Japanese budo, meanings 1 and 2 above seemed the most important to me. The further I journey the less important those become, and the more emphasis falls upon the fourth item “thanks; gratitude; acknowledgment; appreciation.”

Etiquette, courtesy and bowing are all external forms. If those forms are empty and just something you do, they have no meaning. Fill that bow, that formal etiquette with sincere feeling of thanks, gratitude, respect and appreciation and it comes alive for you, and for whomever receives it.  Budo is a way, and a part of that way are the forms of etiquette and courtesy.  

The forms aren’t there just to look nice. They are there to teach us something. When we first start training in a way, they teach us the proper forms so we don’t look like fools and annoy other folks along the way.  At this stage, folks like me have enough trouble just remembering the proper movements and when to do them.  When we forget something there is always some supercilious fool who is more concerned with form than content who is thrilled to demonstrate their superiority by correcting us in the most embarrassing way possible.

As much as I feel sorry for those who have to deal with supercilious fools as they progress along their way, I pity the supercilious fools even more. They’ve missed the entire point of the practice. Etiquette and courtesy are things we should be giving to everyone, those above us and those below us. The most senior, accomplished and masterful martial artists I have encountered are also the most courteous, patient, polite, respectful and forgiving. They have learned and internalized the lessons present in the forms of etiquette and politeness that we use during practice. When they bow, it is not an empty gesture because that is what is expected from them. It is a meaningful symbol of what they think and feel.

First we learn the forms of etiquette and courtesy. Then we learn to fill these empty vessels with gratitude, respect and every other feeling that is valuable. There are many, and I doubt that I have learned them all. The first one, the most obvious, is respect. The first bows in our journey along the way are to our teachers when we are introduced to them and they welcome us as fellow travelers on their path.  It’s easy to bow with respect to them. They will probably be looking for signs that our respect is sincere, and certainly a worthy teacher will bow with respect for her student. After all, the teacher understand intimately just how difficult the journey is, and respects the student who earnestly desires to travel it.

Similar respect is due to all our fellow students. They are showing up for practice, working with us and letting us work with them. And this isn’t ikebana or cha no yu, but budo! If someone is in the dojo practicing with us, they are giving us their body to use for our training, even as we return the favor and let them use our bodies for their training.  This is true whether it is judo or aikido or kenjutsu or jodo or naginata. We are training together. How someone cannot respect a partner who is giving you the gift of their healthy body to train with I cannot fathom. Every time I bow to a training partner it is with respect and honor to them for the great gift they give me by training with me.

That feeling led me to the fourth meaning of 礼 rei in that definition above, thanks, gratitude and appreciation. I really do appreciate my training partners. I couldn’t go any further along the budo path without them than I could without a teacher. True budo is not an isolated practice. It only happens with other people. I respect my teachers and fellow students, but even more, I am grateful and appreciative of them. They make all my practice possible. They give me the gifts of their time and their experience and their wisdom and their bodies to train with. They don’t have to give me any of these things, but all are cheerfully and warmly given.

My gratitude is especially deep when I consider my teachers. I really can’t think of one good reason that Yoshikawa Sensei or Takada Sensei, or any of my other teachers should have been willing to put up with an an uncouth young guy who had only the barest understanding of etiquette and proper behavior, and whose Japanese was certainly not up to the task of easy, clear communication.  

Takada Sensei and Kiyama Sensei in particular are wonders to me. They both fought in World War 2. They had no particular reason to love their former enemies. They have both so transcended that sort of thinking I am amazed whenever I consider it. Takada Sensei used to take great pleasure in explaining the progress of the world by showing them the sword he used for practice. It is a beautiful blade from the 1500s that has been in his family for hundreds of years. It is a huge, heavy beast of a blade made for the wars in Japan at that time. In the 1940s, as Takada Sensei was going off to war himself, he had it remounted with the saya and tsuka of a Japanese infantry officer so he could carry it. It is still mounted that way. He would point out that 60 years before he had carried that sword to war to kill Americans, but now he carried it to share his culture and art with Americans. He had grown, and so had the world. I miss him very much.

Kiyama Sensei is another amazing man of that generation. A fighter pilot during the war, he and Takada Sensei had studied iai with the same teacher in the 1950s. When Takada Sensei passed away, Kiyama Sensei graciously accepted me into his dojo so I could continue my journey. He has welcomed me and taught me and corrected me when I started down dead end paths with warmth and firmness, with courtesy and respect. I’m not special there though. I’ve often watched him at the end of kendo practice. All of the students, from those in kindergarten to those in their 50s and 60s, take a moment to kneel with him, bow and say “Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu” or “Thank you very much”. Sensei returns every bow with focus and sincerity. He never tosses off a quick bow so he can get on to something else that might seem more important. There are always seniors and other teachers talking with him at this point. He always stops and gives every student, no matter how young or old, his full attention. When they bow, he bows just as deeply and offers them the same appreciation “Doumo Arigatou Gozaimasu.”  

How can a teacher of Kiyama Sensei’s rank and status give so much attention and respect to even the smallest of children? He is no longer following the proper etiquette. Kiyama Sensei acts with the full meaning of 礼 rei. His etiquette is guided by his appreciation and gratitude and respect for each of his students.

How else can I bow when I think of Takada Sensei and Kiyama but with gratitude and appreciation and respect?. Takada Sensei is no longer with me, but I can see that through the study and practice of the violent arts of budo, he and Kiyama Sensei transcended simple etiquette. Kiyama Sensei clearly does respect all of his students. His gratitude and appreciation for them for joining him on this journey is obvious when I think about it.  

This is the lesson of rei ni hajimari rei ni owarimasu. Simply following the etiquette is merely the first step. With practice we hope to learn to respect everyone. We strive to appreciate each person we meet on our journey, and to be grateful for the good they bring into our lives. Pretty deep ideas to hide in some stuffy etiquette.  Everything begins and ends with rei.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 5: Saturday With The Seventh Dans


After 2 weeks of Musha Shugyo around Japan, we all wrapped up our vacation time. Deborah and Adam made their way back to the United States, while I stayed in Japan for a couple more weeks of work. Even though I was working, I was able to get back to Shiga for Saturday keiko with Kiyama Sensei and some of the other students in his dojo. On this particular Saturday evening, there was a lively aikido class going on in the matted dojo next to the kendo and iai dojo. When you’re doing something as quiet as iaido, aikido sounds remarkably noisy.

This week the class was small. It was Kiyama Sensei, a couple of his 7th dan students, and me. It’s fun, because I get to address everyone in the room as “Sensei.”  It’s intimidating because I’ve known I. Sensei since I started iaido.  He’s one of Kiyama Sensei’s students, and he was already a 7th dan back when I started. W. Sensei got his 7th dan sometime in the last few years so he’s been around a lot longer than I have too. Both of them were dressed in nice black keikogi and hakama. It was great to see them and chat as we all got ready for practice.

Just in case you think the previous keiko was unusual, this keiko was almost exactly like the one with Deborah and Adam. Kiyama Sensei stood at the front of the dojo, called out kata, banged his bokuto on the floor, and we did it. First, he had us do the Kendo Federation Seitei Kata. These are the standardized kata created by a committee of senior members of the Kendo Federation to use for doing rank testing. The nice thing about them is that everyone does the same kata the same way, so it's possible for people who train a variety of koryu iai systems to be ranked in a comparable manner. We started with number one, “Mae” and worked our way through all 12 of the kata. Sometimes we'd repeat a kata a time or two, but we moved through them steadily.

The new spin this time was that after we had been through the 12 Seitei Kata, Kiyama Sensei asked me to demonstrate the first kata in front of everyone. This was almost as stressful as taking my last rank test a couple of years ago. These guys have all been highly ranked since before I started, and they've been watching me since my first day in the dojo. They know all my bad habits. I took a deep breath, or two, possibly three, and started in on the kata. It didn't feel too bad, but I'm know I have plenty of room for improvement. When I finished I was expecting Kiyama Sensei to detail my various weaknesses and mistakes. Instead he caught us all by surprise and asked I. Sensei and W. Sensei to give their comments. I received some insightful and subtle critique of my technique. There was plenty to work on with this alone. The way it was given to me however was very different than I’ve been accustomed to being addressed. Both teachers started out by saying that what they were talking about was something they were working on. Then they told and showed me how I could apply the lessons they are working on in their own practice to my iai. Instead of it being straight teacher to student, these were more like fellow travelers on the Way sharing their discoveries and understanding. We are all Kiyama Sensei's students, but this was a first for me.

After that we worked our way through the Omori Ryu and Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata sets from Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. I was nervous but after the previous keiko with Kiyama Sensei most of the kata came back to me quickly. For those I didn’t remember, I had two excellent models to follow. All I had to do was just slow down a little more. Sensei had us repeat each kata several times, but we didn’t stop for any long explanations or major corrections. Practice moved forward smoothly and solidly. Kiyama Sensei would say “Again” or “Next,” the bokuto would go “Bam!” and we’d do the kata.  A few times Sensei made a comment to me or to one of the other students, but mostly we just pushed ourselves along. There is something about training in such a high quality atmosphere I can’t really describe. I learn so much just from being there. I can learn without knowing what or how I’m learning.  Everyone I see is doing the kata at a much higher level, so I can absorb ideas about the iai just from seeing them practice. The atmosphere is fabulously loaded with knowledge and skill, It would be difficult not to pick up things by osmosis.

Somewhere in there I know we stopped for a short break and some tea. In case I haven't mentioned it, tea is ubiquitous in Japan. All the vending machines are loaded with green tea, black tea, sweetened tea, genmai tea, hot and cold. We all had some tea and relaxed and talked about kata we weren't quite comfortable with, or other issues we feel we are having with our iai.

The most startling thing that occurred happened after we finished working through the Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata. Sensei asked me to demonstrate the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu for everyone. Sensei has only taught Shinto Hatakage Ryu to a couple of people who have shown great and persistent interest in it. I’m sometimes amazed that over the decades more people haven’t asked Kiyama Sensei to teach Shinto Hatakage Ryu. This treasure sits in front of them. Sensei's teacher used to demonstrate it regularly, and Kiyama Sensei has demonstrated it occasionally at embu so everyone in the area recognizes it when they see it. Yet no one asks him to teach them. It comes to me demonstrating this for students who do beautiful Eishin Ryu, but for whatever reason never asked Sensei about this.

I demonstrated the Seiza No Bu, and then Sensei told us to do it together. So I would do the kata and these two highly ranked seniors followed me through the Seiza No Bu. I was intimidated before, but nothing like this. Now there was no room for me to goof up. On the other hand, I. Sensei and W. Sensei are so good, and have such solid fundamentals that they had no trouble picking up the general shape of each kata. Once they saw the shape, they could duplicate the kata with precision. The fundamentals don’t change. You have to have great koshi and relaxed movement.  So I demonstrated and my seniors followed along.

Kiyama sensei always wraps up keiko in the same way. He takes us back to the beginning and we do the very first kata, the one we started learning iai with. We didn't finish with any of the fancy kata from EIshin Ryu, or one of the exciting ones from the Shinto Hatakage Ryu we'd just done. We returned to the simplest, most fundamental of kata. We did the Kendo Federation’s first kata, Ippon Me Mae a couple of times to close the practice. It's the simplest kata, so if there are any issues with your fundamentals, they stand out the most when you do it. The not so subtle lesson is “Don't forget your basics.”

After that Kiyama Sensei said “Owarimasho.” We all moved closer to Sensei and the the front of the dojo where the shinzen is. One thing that I had to adjust to when I started with Sensei is that he's not very concerned with all the outward signs of rank. For iaido, we don't line up in any pre-arranged order. No one runs to the right or the left so they can sit in proper rank order. We just gather in to Sensei and sat in seiza. Sensei turned towards the shinzen and we all bowed to the kamiza. He turned around and we bowed to Sensei, which was moving for me. All my gratitude went into that bow. I won’t see Sensei again for months. Then we students turned to each other and bowed our thanks to each other for the good practice.

As we were changing, caring for our swords and folding up our hakama, Sensei came over to talk. He reminded me that, on top of the other things I. Sensei and W. Sensei had commented on, I still need to make sure my koshi is correct and that I put the power from my koshi into my movement and my cuts. He had other suggestions for I. Sensei and W. Sensei. I think they have drilled proper koshi until they’ve reached the point that they would have trouble trying to figure out how to move without good koshi.

It was great training with Sensei, and as always, saying farewell at the train station is tough. I’d much rather stick around and train with him than head to back to work. I had picked up many good points and plenty of guidance for my practice, but I really wish I could have stayed longer. Every practice is great, but the ones with Sensei are treasures. That moisture on my cheek as Sensei drove away from the station was from the rain. Really.

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.

 http://www.budogu.com

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