Showing posts with label speed. Show all posts
Showing posts with label speed. 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.

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.
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.

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.

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