This is an interesting post from The Way of Least Resistance on focusing in on the imaginary opponent. It ties in nicely with something that has been ticking in the back of my mind this week.
This is an interesting post from The Way of Least Resistance on focusing in on the imaginary opponent. It ties in nicely with something that has been ticking in the back of my mind this week.
It’s not fast either.
Recently I have had no less than three aikidoka say to me, “iaido – that’s slow, isn’t it?” I assume they have all been on the same seminar and somebody imparted this pearl of wisdom, which they then thought to share with me. Well, I would like to take this opportunity to correct them. Or anyone else that thinks a martial art is slow, or fast, or any set speed.
Take a look at this video, showing one of the middle level techniques of Eishen Ryu, the style of sword work I practice. (It’s only 30 seconds, you don’t need the sound.)
(This technique involves avoiding someone trying to grab your sword, before you cut them, free the weapon from their body and go for a second cut.)
There are fast bits in the video but there are also slow bits in which the swordsman almost pauses. Importantly there is a sense of rhythm rather than a flat out single pace. My Iaido instructors refer to this as jo-ha-kyu, which they roughly translate as slow, fast, faster. Wikipedia gives the translation as, “beginning, break, rapid.” Either way it describes the acceleration within a technique. And here’s the important bit. Jo-ha-kyu doesn’t happen once during a kata, it happens multiple times over. Drawing the sword for the first cut (nukitsuke) has jo-ha-kyu, as does lifting it and performing the second cut (furikaburi to kirioroshi).
As a complete beginner I tended to go at a single pace. This is understandable – I was learning the basic movements I needed to make. As someone who has inched slightly off the beginner scale it is time for me to start implementing that change of pace. Sometimes I get it right and it’s amazing how much more right the technique feels. I’ve moved from waving the sword around to actually doing the cut. For a short while I enjoy the feeling and then reality brings me down to earth as the next technique falls apart. It’s a long, long road to travel with Iaido!
If I think about it jo-ha-kyu is likely to be present in Aikido and Japanese Jitsu. As with Iaido a single technique will contain multiple occurrences of jo-ha-kyu. This Friday I’m back in the Aikido dojo, so I’m going to see how this principle works out. Rather than rushing like a mad thing I’m going to try and see where the rhythm is.
Iaido. It’s not slow. It’s not fast. It’s like a wave gathering and crashing on the shore, over and over again.
Imagine yourself performing a technique. It can be a solo kata, or it can be paired exercise where you are attempting to throw someone or put a lock on them. But you make a mistake. You fluff the technique and the person remains standing or the weapons end up in the wrong place. What do you do? Beginners typically go,
“Oops, let me try that again.”
Those who are more advanced have probably learnt that rather than persist, move on to something else because now your opponent has an idea what you are trying to do and will resist you.
Whatever level you are at, what do you after it’s all over?
A few weeks ago our visiting Iaido instructor mentioned that we shouldn’t dwell on the mistakes. Instead, he suggested, each time you start a new technique begin it from afresh, unhindered by the thought of what went on before. If your mind lingers on the mistake than it becomes a bigger issue in your mind and you are more likely to repeat it.
Now I don’t think he meant ignore your mistakes. My sword cutting technique has got very sloppy of late, and so I have been practising that slowly, with thought to what my hands and arms are doing. Rather than think of what I have done wrong I am instead trying to concentrate on what I can do right to make the cutting more effective.
Another suggestion from my Iaido instructor was finding a momentary pause within yourself before starting a technique. If you like a shorter version of the small meditation we do before and after class. Use that moment to clear away those thoughts of what you are doing wrong, calm your mind and then wholeheartedly enter into the technique.
Yet again this seems such a simple idea when I type it out, but it’s a tricky thing to put into practice!
A three day seminar of Iaido may have moved my sword work forward a little but it left my knees extremely battered! Almost as battered as my boken from doing tachiuchi no kurai (the paired exercises we do) which is now partly held together with cricket-bat tape. There were a number of small but important things that were highlighted to me. These, combined with some comments from last nights class got me thinking.
As I read that list I think that most of that could apply to my Aikido. Also, I know logically that this is all bad form but my body still carries on doing it. If I stop halfway through a technique then I become aware and can correct the issue. The brain knows it’s wrong, the body is just refusing to go along.
This week my Iaido instructor said that having a weapon in your hands is distracting. It moves you away from thinking about your body and you concentrate on what is in your hands. My old Stav instructor was also of this view. Both stated that ideally people should concentrate on learning weaponless martial arts in order to understand body movement better.
So this week I am not going to pick up any of my weapons before next class. (The nukitsuke can wait for now). Instead I am going to concentrate on the body movements and repeat them until eventually it becomes brain = yes, body = yes. I realise this doesn’t make for a very exciting blog post, but then this blog has primarily been about jogging my memory!
I love training with my aikido teachers. In particular on of them is always an inspiration to train with, be it him teaching a class or us training one-on-one together. He encourages me, helps me out when I am stuck, remains humble, isn’t frightened to admit a mistake and is an all round good egg. One of the things I admire is that he (like some of my other instructors) have that wonderful way of making a technique look effortless but when you are on the receiving end you know it is deadly. It’s the effortless look that causes many people to think aikido is ineffective, but that’s a debate for another day.
On Friday a combination of circumstances led to me driving past my aikido club just in time for training. I hadn’t planned to be there, so lacked the right kit, but I thought a break in my journey for a few hours of aikido was a good idea. I was delighted when I found the above mentioned instructor was teaching the class.
Martial artists know the importance of instigating movement from the hips (or your centre). The body creates strong movement from the hips, it prevents an over-reliance on upper-body strength. Sooner or later someone will be physically stronger than you but few non-martial art people work out how to be mechanically stronger. What I took away from last weeks lesson wasn’t just about hip movement, it was about which hip in which direction is the principal driving force.
I’ll start this simple. In Jitsu and Iaido we learn that there are two ways you can move forward.
Try it. Which one creates the most power? If you get a friend to hold out an arm and try and stop you moving is it easier to push against them from the back leg, or pull yourself on the front leg? Back leg wins every time. Your body is driving against the arm, rather than the muscles in one leg.
What my aikido instructor showed us, and we successfully showed amongst ourselves, is that which hip that drives a hip turn is as important as which leg drives a step forward. Conventionally aikidoka are told, “turn the hips.” This causes the forward one to rotate back and the backwards one slightly forward. Which is good, you do generate more power than by using the upper body alone, but that power is limited. And because the forward hip is now moving away from your opponent then the power and direction behind your defence is now reduced.
Instead we were shown to drive the back hip forward. This achieves two things. Firstly, to successfully do this you have to drop your weight. Dropping your centre of gravity is a common theme across martial arts! Secondly, you no longer produce an inadvertent move backwards, and subsequent power reduction. Instead you continue to drive towards the opponent. I’ve written about the need to do this for both Iaido and Jitsu.
The class went through a variety of techniques with each one utilising this modified hip turn. Wow! We were all feeling the effects of it by the end of the class! For me it was a real light-bulb moment. There has always been this nagging feeling in my mind that my aikido tends too much to the passive side. And if that is because I have unknowingly been including a minor retreat in my techniques then this makes semse.
So for a random drop in on a class I came away having learned a great deal. Hip, hip hurrah!
So I’ve hit that point which, without doubt, I will encounter over and over again on my journey through learning aikido and jiu jitsu. At this moment in time “that point” is occurring in aikido. Experienced martial artists will nod and know where I’m coming from. The thing is, I’ve stalled in my progress. Techniques are just making so little sense and I emerge from each training session with a feeling that I haven’t been as receptive as I should because my session has felt like one big muddle.
Strangely the one thing I don’t feel is frustrated. Rather I feel an abstract, “oh look, I’m having to work harder to gain a better understanding,” and happily continue on with my training. So these musings are born from a curious, rather than conquering, mindset.
For an example of my stalling, when even the simple question was raised to us, “which hand is going to meet the mat first when uke falls out of this throw,” it left me thinking, “uh?” The senior grade next to me muttered, “come on girl, you know this.” Well yes, I did know that one side met the mat first, in this case the right, but for some reason my brain was just not functioning on any sensible level to formulate the correct answer.
In many areas of my life people have accused me of not seeing the woods for the trees. Part of me wonders if this is what is happening here. I’m so busy thinking, rather than actually doing and feeling, that my mind has gone into overload. I seem to recall a similar moment in jitsu. My sensei’s response there was to make me deal with a line of attacks without pause. Did the trick nicely. Someone rushing towards you ready to knock you out with his mate rapidly closing in as well, followed by another and another. . . You don’t think, you just defend again and again.
Or maybe I’ve reached the end of one rapid learning curve, now is the time to refine what I have learnt and people are helping me with that. Bad habits are best corrected early. Or another way to look at it, I’m being encourage to fine tune what I have.
Or the third option, people feel it’s time to stop being soft with me, that I need to learn to deal with attackers that have a bit more purpose. Now seeing as I wrote once on the challenges of being an uke then I am truly delighted at increased tenacity on my uke’s part. And the best bit is, they are still willing to spend the time to show me how to be better. Training must be more satisfying for them if they can launch a decent attack.
So. Stop thinking so much, start doing.* Be aware that learning is never a steady process, but one of acceleration and breaking. And continue to enjoy the challenges and teaching I receive.
* And I am well aware that writing this blog is part of me over-thinking!
I’m a PhD candidate at a UK University. The other day I was marching across campus to attend a meeting with my supervisor. There were numerous doors from one building to the next and along the way I managed to slam a heavy fire door into the little finger of my left hand. I immediately rushed to the kitchen and applied cold water and ice in an attempt to reduce the swelling.
Consequently I was five minutes late for my meeting.
When I walked into the supervisors office I explained the reason for my lateness, and finished it with, “this is a disaster, I’m going to struggle to do my iaido practice.” (The left hand and the tension and release of the left finger is a major part of the control of the sword.)
My supervisor frowned. “Never mind that, can you still type to write code and complete the report?”
Well that aspect hadn’t even crossed my mind!
Eventually I spluttered the reply, “well, I can type with one hand, but I can’t cut a sword with one hand.”
What ever martial art you do there must have been the first time your sensei/teacher pushed you to the limits until you were physically tired and barely able to lift your arms to block, or find the energy to think of a different throw or arm lock to the one you had just done six of. There’s something exhilarating, if physically exhausting, about pushing yourself to those limits. Sweat drenched, muscles screaming from lactic acid build up, lungs gasping for air and still Sensei shouts, “keep going, I didn’t say you could stop!” And when you do, finally, stop and inwardly acknowledge there’s going to be some bruises and aching muscles tomorrow, your face has a huge grin on it.
We must be mad. But it’s fun!
The guy on the right must be tired if he’s gripping bis sword by the sharp end! Image: http://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-swords/bastard-sword/
What use do these intense periods of training have? I live a fairly gentle lifestyle outside of my martial arts. It’s highly unlikely I’ll be attacked by a set of Japanese samurai on the streets of the UK. I don’t lead the sort of lifestyle that results in large numbers of people trying to pick a fight with me. Does this mean these tests are a little over-the-top
During one of these sort of tests at Iaido last night we were training one on one alternating between attacks and defences. Sword cut straight to your opponent, they block and then they carry out a counter-attack, which you block and respond with another attack, and so on. In the middle of it all Sensei called out, “your best Iai comes out when you’re tired!” Does it? I tucked the thought away, carried on, and after class gave the statement some thought.
When you’re tired you stop thinking, There’s no energy to think and so your body reverts to the muscle memory you have built up through endless repetition of exercises. This is why towards the end of those sessions we default to the techniques we know best. My “default techniques” in Jitsu are O Soto Gari, Tai Otoshi* and Ippon Seio Nage and in Aikido it’s Irimi Nage. These are techniques I learnt and understood early on in my training and so are firmly ingrained into what I do.
I have not been doing Iaido long, around a year. We rarely do these sort of pressure tests (three times since I started) and last night was the most intense of those tests to date. What become clear to me was how poor some of my techniques are. How wobbly my basic cuts are, how my body movement is all over the place, and how my blocks fail to block (hence today’s bruised hands). My default is not good and I need to gain that muscle memory. We all know that the only way to improve that default is to practice as much as I can.
So does your best martial art performance comes out when you’re tired? Once you have reached a certain level then I think this statement is true because your default is good. Like many people I tend to overthink what I do and I know that when I stop thinking things flow more naturally (if throwing someone on the ground and putting an arm lock on them is natural). If I want to achieve a default of being good in Iaido then I need to put more practice time in and spend longer focusing on the basics.
I don’t think it’s enough for me to just do the basics. The practice time is the time to do them with thought. I need to think about my body posture, which muscles need tension, which ones need to be relaxed, how the fingers tighten during the cut, the length of travel during the sword, how I move into the cut. . . The list goes on. I need to do those cuts with consideration again and again. And when I’ve done that and my arms are aching, then I need to go wild and just do the technique with no step-by-step thought. And that’s just one day. The next day the same, and the same. The beauty of Iaido is that you can practice so much at home even if my neighbours do think I’m odd when I do practice on the lawn.
I felt quite determined at the end of the session yesterday as I was suitable embarrassed at myself for my performance. Things take time to master, but that time is the time spent training not sat on my backside between lessons.
* Tai Otoshi has to be one of my favourite throws when done from a punch (not the way it’s done it judo or BJJ). The moment someone comes at me with a good roundhouse punch I don’t even have to think, it’s a case of absorbing the punch, whipping the hips back, moving the leg back and all the while dropping my centre. I love that throw!
After iaido training last night I mentioned my 30-day challenge to one of my instructors. If I do focused practise for at least ten minutes a day for 30 consecutive days then I will reward myself. My reward? Purchase of an iaito. An iaito is an unsharpened, but still rather pointy and capable of stabbing yourself with, metal practise sword. It will be a step-up from my bokken (wooden practise sword).
My instructor gave me some good advice. Rather than practice a whole kata in the time I have available, break the kata into components and practice a component each day. The moment he said it I thought, “how obvious, why didn’t I think of that.” I have come close, practising my sword cuts (which remain in dire need of improvement) but not the other parts of each kata.
Tonight I focused on the chiburi going from seiza (kneeling) to standing. Chiburi is the act of removing blood from the sword by means of a downward flick. As you do so you rise smoothly from the kneeling to standing position, feet hips width apart and knees slightly bent.
The first five attempts went OK. By ten I could feel the move becoming smoother, my feet starting to reach the correct finishing position. By 15 my thighs were complaining. By 20 I had to pause for a couple minutes, switch sides and start again from the other side. It occurred to me that high thigh strength is required do this move smoothly and repeatedly. Time to increase my weight at the gym when I do squats!
Best of all that concentrated ten minutes allowed me to start focusing in on things that I hadn’t noticed I did before. The most obvious was pushing off from my back foot rather than rising from centre. These little details get lost when you focus on doing an entire kata. So I am going to pass on my sensei’s advice and say, break down your throws, katas and locks to focus in on a certain step or body movement.
On Sunday I attended a seminar in Niten Ichi-Ryu. This is a sword style that our dojo only trains in once a month so it’s good to travel, train with others and spend a day covering stuff that would normally take several months of teaching time to get across.
The warm-up was left to ourselves to do. So having done my stretches I moved into practising the basic hasso cut which differs to the iai cut that I am used to doing. Our dojo only has two hours of Niten teaching each month, so I try my best to practise out of of class. I’m slightly hampered by having a house with low ceilings (no room to swing the sword) and the downsides of the British weather (wet, numb hands in cold, driving rain don’t really do it for me). But when I can I do, because some practise is better than none.
Or is it?
I was practising my cuts up and down the dojo when the Sensei came over to me. There were a number of things that were leading to my cut being inefficient and next to useless. I gratefully listened to his advice and did my best to correct things. But as the day went on my cuts kept reverting to those very same mistakes that had been pointed out to me. In addition, my sword cuts weren’t straight they were going off at odd angles. Niten is a paired technique. At best it’s unfair to my training partner when I don’t cut straight, at worse it means I end up hitting them by mistake because I can’t do a proper cut.
On the way home I mulled over this basic cutting exercise. Two thoughts developed.
Then I was struck by the gloomy thought that it might be better not to practise at all if all it was going to do was make mistakes and ingrain them in my memory. But it wasn’t long before I thought, “rubbish!” Part of being able to do a technique is knowing the steps and having confidence. If I never practised then I wouldn’t have any sort of confidence, I would be hesitant and uncertain, and I would make even less progress. It’s only by making the mistakes that they get picked up on, I can improve and move on in my understanding. Because sooner or later I will make those mistakes and it’s better to make them sooner.
In addition, just because one part of the technique was in need of correction it didn’t follow that it was all terrible. (My teachers may well raise a sceptical eyebrow if they are reading this!)
Training at our Niten Ichi-Ryu. Photo from Heijoshin Dojo, UK.
It’s too easy to get hung up being perfect. If we obsess with perfection that we become too scared of making the mistakes that are needed. Then we forget that martial arts is about the journey not the end goal. It was Churchill who said, “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
So, am I practising right? I’m practising, and that’s better than not practising at all.
The weather has improved in the UK during April. This means I can now go outside and practice my kenjutsu sword cuts without my hands turning blue from the cold within 5 minutes. Lately I have been going through some of the basics of furikaburi to kirioroshi.
Furikaburi is moving the sword from the horizontal cutting position to the overhead position ready for the downward cut that is kirioroshi. These two moves are seen from 14 seconds to approx 17 seconds in the video below.
The kirioroshi, in common with many other martial arts moves, looks deceptively simple but has a lot going on. It’s the left hand that creates the action, the right is there to guide and stop the weapon from crashing ever downwards. (Don’t believe anyone that tells you Japan had no left-handed swordsmen, they were all left-handed.) The most common cry from out Sensei when we are practising this technique is, “more left hand!”
The position with which the hands grips the weapons is important.. The hands go over the top rather than around the sides, and at first this feels uncomfortable. As the sword descends in to the cut the grip tightens from the little fingers towards the index finger, and it is this that has suddenly clicked in my mind. Before it felt like a rather odd motion. I was told it contributed to the cut but being told something and feeling it are two different things.
Yet now I see/feel/get it! It’s the tightening action that brings about the swords initial movement, not the wrist and arm movement. It’s the tightening that controls it’s descent before bringing it to a halt. That’s only taken 1000’s of cuts to realise this. No doubt it will take 1000’s more to make it flow more beautifully.
Enough typing. Back outside to keep practising those cuts!
A very quickly written post. Today is International Women’s Day. The Internal Aikdio Federation is using it to promote and encourage woman in aikido – #AikidoWomen.
I strongly feel that any traditional martial art is beneficial for women (I know nothing about modern ones, but I suspect the same applies). I appreciate that for many women walking into the first class can be daunting, especially if the class is all male. But do it! I walked into my first jiu jitsu class not knowing anyone, and within two hours I had fallen in love with jitsu and made friends with a group of diverse people. If it helps then take a friend with you to that first class, even if they sit on the side like I have done for someone in the past. No one will mind, in fact they may have done the same thing themselves.
Yes, the practical side of a martial means you learn some form of self-defence skills but there are many other benefits. I have seen shy women starting a class and over time their confidence both on and off the mat increases. Martial helps improve your general fitness, but in a slow and steady way that crash gym courses don’t do. Very few people are super-fit when they start a class but over time your health improves.
All clubs take it easy with beginners. If falling is required then you learn to do so in a safe way that helps prevent injury. Initial attacks that you learn to defend from will be done in a slow and controlled way. We want our beginners to stay and learn!
The best thing about martial arts? I don’t know! There are so many to choose from. Friendships, learning a new skill, being able to face down your fears, having fun….
So women, take up a martial art. Men, encourage women in your life to take one up. For those in the UK I have provided some links to some national organisations. These websites will in turn provide lists of clubs so you can find one local to you.
I am loving this blog post from Kai Morgan!
“Your body is the vehicle for your soul to touch, taste, smell, feel and have amazing experiences. The reason we know our truth in any given moment is because we feel it in our body. We’re given the body so that we can know our truth . . . ” The post Discover your Depths…
Ego – def. a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
Saying someone has a large ego or a super-ego is generally meant as an insult yet arguably we need some ego in order to keep functioning in daily life. Lack of self-esteem can be a larger issue than an over-inflated ego even if the former is easier to deal with in other people.
Last night in Kenjutsu the subject of egotistical people (those who are excessively conceited or absorbed in themselves) came up during training. I hastily add that no one in that dojo has ever struck me as egotistical but that doesn’t mean I haven’t encountered a few egocentrics both in and out the dojo. Of all the places I dislike egotistical people the dojo has to be the main one.
Studying and training in a martial art is a path of continuous learning. It’s impossible to know everything on a martial art. On a simple level every person you train with will be different in their attacks and react in different ways to what you do to them, both mentally and physically. At an intermediate level your own body changes as you get older and techniques you could once do have to be adapted to allow for the ageing processes. Japanese martial arts and Zen Buddhism refer to the importance of Shosen, lacking preconceptions when training, thus maintain a beginners mind no matter how advanced your training is. Sounds easy, but often our egos get in our way.
A few years back I was at a weapons seminar with a fantastic instructor who showed us some techniques with variations I hadn’t seen before. After a while he called a halt and called out two people. Pointing at an older man he barked, “how long have you been training?”
“Over 30 years,” came the reply.
“And what about you?” asked the instructor to a younger girl.
She looked up at the clock. “I started for the first time 40 minutes ago,” she said quietly.
“Yet she, ” continued the instructor, “is the only person doing what I asked.”
Ego, and to a certain degree habit, had got in our way. Our minds decided they knew better than our eyes. We had attended that seminar to learn new things not to repeat stuff we thought we knew.
Sadly you occasionally see inflated ego in those that teach. The one thing that makes me grit my teeth are instructors who wont admit they have made a mistake. I’m not expecting a full apology, just a quiet, “I’ll do that again.” Yet I have encountered teachers who try and pretend their mistake is a genuine technique even when it blatantly is anything but that. My favourite instructors are the ones that make mistakes, and better still those that take the mistakes and use to demonstrate how easy it is to fall into a incorrect technique trap. It proves to me those instructors are human and I can relate them to far more than the ones who never appear to cock-up.
I don’t think Shosen is easy to develop. There’s a fine balance between being open to new ideas and being so overly critical of yourself that nothing is ever gained. I had a wonderful example in Aikido training a few weeks back. I was training with someone who was just having one of those blank moments (we all get them). I patiently went through the technique and at some point he queried what was being done. It would have been easy to have dismiss this confused almost-beginner to my admittedly-not-very-long four years Aikido practice, but something made me listen. Instead we went slowly through it and together produced a working technique. We both learnt something that day and probably both gained more respect for each other.
I guess we all have to watch our egos. However, I am going to have one very self-centred moment and say this. Within six days I passed my 4th kyu Aikido grading and my 5th kyu Iaido grading. I just needed to put that on the blog somewhere!
Meanwhile, be you an instructor or student please leave the ego at the dojo door.
An interesting article by Deborah Klens-Bigman on the benefits of Solo Iaido practice. The only thing I have to add is that if you circumstances force you to train at home then please check the ceiling height by carefully drawing your weapon!
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