Disclaimer and Stuff

Firstly I would like to say that all of the material contained within this blog is of my own opinion and any inaccuracies in technical content or other's personal quotations are completely my own.

Secondly I would like to thank everyone in advance where I have used photos of you or photos you have taken. I have quite a library of digital photos and virtually no record of who took them so I hope you will take this general thanks as adequate gratitude. If there are any photos of you or taken by you that you would like removed please let me know.

Thirdly, some articles have been published on my dojo website if you would like to read them in an easier format

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7th dans achieved. Come and visit Ryoshinkan Iaido and Jodo Dojo Website at www.ryoshinkan.org

Friday 26 February 2010

Iaido 6th Dan Training Session 5

My Sensei has had it made clear to him now that I am ramping up my training to prepare for my 6th dan, I thought I would drop a hint to him on Wednesday in case he thought that I had been thrown out of my house...

It seems strange to me now how much one can feel that they have absolutely no competence in what they are doing one week when the preceding week (or hour or minute) one can demonstrate an uncanny naturalness in demonstrating a technique. Like the story of the centipede who, when asked how he ever walked, found that he no longer could when he gave it any thought, to change, reconstruct and integrate new factors into ones form can lead straight back to being stuck solid.

In this instance it was a period of reforming my shohatto, the only kata I practiced on this particular evening. I was told by my sensei that the mechanics and tempos of what was going on required more attention to their individual emphases, some requiring vehemence, some accumulation, some moderation, some spontaneity...the resultant juggling act had me dizzy.

For example:
  • The hands need to grip the sword with a feeling of compressing the centre rather than lifting.
  • The above however must be done without thought or intention but should be generated by a feeling in the body.
  • The projection of the sword with the right hand must be exactly matched by the retraction of the left hand. This must neither be too fast or too slow - the essence of shohatto is suppression and warning rather than outright attack.
  • At the right moment however the attack must overtake and overcome the enemy.
  • The right hand should fix the mune of the sword against the bottom of the saya whilst retaining a virtual tension to make the sword leap out at sayabanare.
  • Up to this point, tame must dominate without the kata losing its exuberance and dynanism.
  • The kata must remain un-busy must must also flow and accelerate but retain control and moderation - all the time!
All of the above sound very philosophical, I have witnessed them all becoming physical manifest in my seniors. It is very easy to talk about them and understand them from a mental perspective, it is also easy to perform certain aspects of them in isolation, it is easy to contrast them with poorer executed technique - it is something else entirely to exhibit them consistently.

I said to my sensei to please come back in two weeks and that I would need some time on it. He said not to let these points restrict the dynanism of the form - all changes would have to be taken on board with a combatitive pace on and it was pointless to try to integrate them at artificially low speeds. The battle commences....

I spent quite a lot of time trying to implement these factors often finding that they reduced the speed of my kata to a crawl, I think I am going to have to work at these things approaching from both ends of the speed scale and hopefully meet in the middle.

I am slowly getting used to looking down my big nose after cutting to offer the correct metsuke - I had no idea that my snout could create seme towards a downed opponent.

So not wishing to be too pesimistic I will do my best to identify my good points about this form....


Ah yes, I have now discovered how to make the sword reach a horizontal plane earlier just before it flies off to nukitsuke - I'm going to keep this to myself for a while just in case I'm pulling a Eugene but it seems to work quite well and I'm not breaking any rules. I'm gradually getting my right shoulder down a bit at the end of nukitsuke and must work on cutting from the belly to cement that position. I believe my furikaburi is right on the spot at the moment with it's plane of movement back being preceded by an adequate amount of seme and a following continuous cut without it being rushed. Kirioroshi is a bit low at the end and I need to moderate that a bit - I think I'm getting too enthused with cutting big! Chiburi is still a bit unsure and I nearly scalped myself on Wednesday trying to do a Shoden-style ochiburi timing but it is at least getting "stronger" and isn't hurting my arm as much as it used to. Noto comes and goes but I definately need to keep my left hand far more forwards of the koiguchi than I have done in the past - it fixes everything!

More training tomorrow at Hilary's once I have finished fixing everyone's swords....

Have a good weekend dear reader.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Iaido 6th Dan Training Session 4

I guess part of the reason for this blog is to identify inspirational moments in my training; hopefully those items of clarity that occur and will make the difference between me being a 5th dan and a 6th dan (or a rock and gonad as some of my dojo peers would say) will become either more manifest in my form as I write about them and consign them to memory or will give me a record to look back at in order to set my direction in the future. As one progresses in their chosen art I believe those moments appear to become more rare, almost as if you are running out of diamonds scattered in the rough. Perhaps those enlightening moments change in their nature, becoming less about learning and understanding a point which is explained to you or discovering something you are doing wrong and more about realising the expediency and efficiency of "good" toho (swordsmanship or sword methodology) through training and research alone. The surprises get generated from the inside rather from the outside.

But why blog them?

Why not just write them down privately?

I have to take these questions seriously if I am to take my own 6th dan preparatory training with any sense of honesty and not just consider the shinsa to be another stripe on the sleeves following a foregone conclusion of me passing - I sincerely don't believe this is the case and even if there was a guarantee of leniency to the degree that I need not do much more than turn up for the shinsa, this is not how I want to take my 6th dan grading. Just as it did for my 5th dan, I want it to change the way that I do iaido.

Perversely, maybe I am seeking feedback from people who read this blog to the point that it becomes useful. If that is the case then it is a fairly new concept for me. I don't go out my way to get feedback from people, I prefer to train in iaido by myself and listen and filter general teachings of iaido to a larger population, discarding that which I don't believe and incorporating that which I do. I am quite keen on self-critique of my iaido by reviewing a videoed training session than have people tell me what I am doing wrong - arrogant I know, but it's just who I am.

I hope that the opening of my eyes and ears for feedback is one of the reasons why I blog this and that it marks a change in the way I train. Anyway with this confession now firmly in the conscious ether, and possibly forgotten, on we go with diairy (get it?).

On this Saturday I got myself to Hilary's dojo for a hopeful stab at some undisturbed practice and thankfully she put me down the end with the other gradees so I could get stuck in with some training. This was after a bit of cutty practice during which I was quite glad to notice that the extra arm-strengthening exercises I am doing (including climbing) is reducing the tendonitis in my right arm. During zengo giri practice (or cutty forwards to chin, cutty back to tummy as it is more popularly known) I spent a bit more focus in feeling the cut becoming a reaction of tension in my lower frontal abdomen. It becomes very interesting to leave your arms out of your conscious control and become aware of the action of the feet and the tension in your tummy. I found my whole lower body feeling like it was taking a tightness-relieving morning stretch. There was muscular tension but in a nice way, my legs felt poised to spring and the cutting rhythm started to run away with itself. I found myself at the end a little out of breath but it was in such a good way, no pain in my arms or joints, just the feeling of a good workout and stretch. I have expressed a rather negative view on Kendo World concerning the supposed benefits of ken-suburi practice and I still stand by it. Only now after quite a few years of training can I actually feel the benefits of suburi practice (I mean from doing suburi right now) and I believe more and more that it isn't a simple exercise for all the class to do in an uncontructed manner. It is something that should be trained in very precisely and consciously even if the minimal result of RSI-avoidance is to be achieved. In fact I believe that it is such a critical maker-or-breaker of ones technique that it should be discouraged from practice unless under the supervision of somebody of either a mid-high grade or experienced enough to know the difference between good and bad practice. I won't even begin to harp on about the dangers of doing repetitive o-chiburi practice without care and supervision...

We divided into training areas and I jumped down with the other grading candidates, Alex and Andy. In the last couple of days or so I have been giving more thought to my koryu kata for the grading and I have recently been corrected about the shitei waza - it is two koryu and three seitei - thank you Peter!

Now that shohatto has become a decided form for me (perhaps unless Mae is a shitei waza) this leaves me only one more kata and I have decided to leave my options open until the shitei waza are determined. By this I mean I am going to focus on a selection of koryu and will follow the following rationale:

  • If a shitei waza is decided that resembles one of my koryu selection then I won't do that koryu kata - the training for improving that koryu should improve the similar seitei kata and I see no reason why I should restrict the challenge of the grading by demonstrating the same toho twice. A good example of this is Yukizure and Soetezuki - they both have very similar initial draws (which I think is probably the most technically challenging part of the kata) and so I will train in Yukizure for the benefit of both Yukizure and Soetezuki, but if Soetezuki is decided as a shitei waza then I won't do Yukizure.
  • If the above doesn't occur then I will aim for the higher plane of my koryu - I think I will go for seated or standing okuden depending on the floor and my percieved stability at that stage.
Anyway I am pretty sure that the shitei waza will influence my choice of koryu on the day but I have now narrowed it down to:

  1. Shohatto (unless Mae is a shitei waza)
  2. Oroshi (I have discarded Ukigumo - I did it for my 5th dan and nearly every opportunity to do koryu at a taikai - time to move on a bit I think).
  3. Towaki (unless Tsukaate is a shitei waza)
  4. Tozume (unless I'm hungover)
  5. Yukizure (unless Soetezuki is a shitei waza)
  6. Rentatsu (unless Ganmenate is a shitei waza)
  7. Midaredome (unless they confirm that I'm not allowed to do Jodo for my Iaido grading)
Knowing my luck I will probably get 1, 4, 8 and 9 as shitei waza...

This may sound very obsessive to have such a strict preparation of form selection in place but it is currently important to me that I am not focussing on only one or two koryu and discarding my practice of the rest of them. I don't believe in being the thing which I think is called something like "sanbon nanadan" or in my case "nihon rokudan" i.e. a person that passes a kodansha grading knowing only 2 or 3 koryu. My own set of beliefs include that if you are taking a 6th dan grading (or 5th or 4th for that matter) that you should have a 6th dan ability of the entire koryu level that is appropriate at that time. That is, 4th dans should be demonstrating a 4th dan level of skill of shoden, 5th dans showing an even better ability of shoden/chuden and 6th dans showing a further higher level of chuden/okuden. From that, the candidate selects their favourite kata from that set but not disregarding the fact that all the kata at that level should be passable for the grade they are going for - that is, reach the grade level you are going for and then demonstrate one step even higher.

Therefore I have quite a workload ahead of me. In all honesty I don't think I will be able to demonstrate 6th dan'ness in all the MSR koryu by the time of my grading but that will be my training objective even if I don't achieve it.

Anyway, back to the lesson today, I went through the aforementioned koryu and most of seitei. I am still sensitive to this misalignment when sitting forward in seiza and today I checked my toes and sure enough they weren't aligned with the centreline properly. In Mae and from nukitsuke I tried to drive my front knee forwards (as advised by a 7th dan reader of this blog) to stop myself crabbing. This seemed to work quite well but I then found my hips were dropping as I wasn't propelling my rear thigh and hip forwards strongly enough. My sempai of yonder, Alan Nash, always told people to drive their hips strongly forwards when performing furikaburi and I am now acutely aware that I am lacking in action in this particular area. I really need to take on board some of the advice I was dishing out to one of Hilary's students today about the lower body and forgetting what the arms are doing - but for that I need some training time for myself, I need to forget about the sword, I need to make some mistakes and learn from them, I need.....an enclosed squash court (and some money to pay for it)!

My quick and dirty evaluation of my Seitei in general today was thus:
  1. Mae - not too bad, want to get more stability in nukitsuke and sort out my crabbing in furikaburi. Ochiburi changes are coming on nicely, noto is going through some positive changes by itself as well.
  2. Ushiro - better than Mae in my honest opinion.
  3. Ukenagashi - still working on slowing down each component movement without losing the forms sharpness if/when they are all linked together.
  4. Tsukaate - middle age spread is making it difficult to get my big ass up and moving, the draw and hikinuki of course need a bit more work. Yoko chiburi rubbish as usual.
  5. Kesagiri - currently my worst seitei form I think. Having big problems with the draw and making the two cuts as well connected as I would like. This is probably from absence of practice with this form.
  6. Morotezuki - not too bad but got to keep on top of this one as it has the propensity to become stunted, robotic and ineffective.
  7. Sanpogiri - feeling good about this one. The changes in the rhythm and the sense of urgency is sharpening it up. Jodan yoru no chiburi needs a bit of work to finish in the right place.
  8. Ganmenate - pretty good, need to stop stopping after turning to the rear, proud of accomplishing the turn without falling over or cutting my sageo off, stabbing my hand etc.
  9. Soetezuki - overall form up to the stab needs some work.
  10. Shihogiri - still working on the kote uchi so that I don't end up headbutting the opponent. Overall I have to keep the sense of timing change and urgency in the form but try to slow the whole thing down a bit. A bit of poise here and there won't do any harm.
  11. Sogiri - not too worried about this at the moment.
  12. Nukiuchi - got to work on the feet a bit as being a bit lazy on the evasion.
(BTW, future potential taikai opponents, if you are planning to use the above points to plan your training to beat me at my weak forms...DON'T BOTHER...just because I think certain forms are bad it doesn't mean that other people don't say to me "that's your best form!") ;-P

After a bit of a hack I was becoming more aware of the carnage going on around me and decided to do that most popular of iaido self-development methods - imposing your opinions on others. Today was quite useful actually as a lot of people were doing seitei and that is definately one of the best arenas for examining your own basic technique and understanding how bits of the body activate movements. One particular point of interest was the crabbing issue in Mae/Shohatto. One of the readers of this blog (I won't mention your name, Dan) found his right foot going out too far to the right as he stepped out and forwards. I showed him that not only did his knees have to come together during nukitsuke but his ankles had to separate slightly more when elevating his feet into a toes-under position. This would get the shins more parallel than they were and thus improve the positioning of the front foot. I smugly showed him the answer and then made a mental note to check if I was making this same mistake next time....

Anyway, I guess that's the end of this slightly extended post. Jodo tomorrow....

Thursday 18 February 2010

Iaido 6th Dan Training Session 3

So, not too much progress last night as I was leading the session. I thought I would make the most of the "freedom to play" and got everyone above a certain level to hack through the koryu one form at a time.

In the two hours we completed shoden, chuden and some of okuden tachi waza after asking the seniors to peer review each other for Gyakuto. It was interesting hearing their feedback to each other and understanding what they understood helped me to understand, if you catch my drift.

What was useful was, in training Yukizure and Tsuredachi I have been steered to make the last cut extremely sharp and expedient which has led me to research how to cut off all the unnecessary movement from that point and therefore move quickly without becoming busy. I have had to geometrically plot where the sword needs to be moved to in a straight line so that it is above the head when the head has been moved into the "cut now!" position. This is of course quite true for any form however in these forms it is far more challenging as one is changing directions, moving and cutting pretty much simultaneously. It was interesting to see how the others interpreted the more relaxed grip during kaburi in the okuden forms last night. I have discovered what I think is the right answer in that the inertia of the blade creates a decline in the sword angle as the handle is quickly lifted. This creates a very smooth and continuous cut hopefully and is not the same as simply letting the tip drop while you start to lift the hands. I think this is an important precursor to incorporating inashi into the kaburi.

I now have to work in this sequence of movements into the natural flow of the kata without thinking about it, not easy - I need to get some training time alone to work on this...

Anyway, should get some training time to myself on Saturday when I go to Hilary's class.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Iaido 6th Dan Training Session 2

So I went to Hilary's Saturday class on Saturday and Chris Sensei turned up as well. After some more spontaneous cutting practice (that is to get the cut timing developed from good preparation rather than a conscious decision) he sent Hilary and me down the end of the dojo to monitor each other's practice.

I wanted to make use of the floor markings here and see if I was crabbing over to one side or t'other. Sure enough as I practiced Mae I was creeping over to the right, not by much but enough to make me wonder why it was the right side consistently. I sat down again on the line and even then felt that I somehow wasn't aligned. I looked down and there the line was, equally spaced between my knees but still I felt I was askew. I sat up more straight, still feeling askew. I finally looked behind me and noticed that my big toes were just slightly off the centre of the line. Correcting this brought me back onto the straight.

I was amazed at how such a pedentic and minor adjustment would change how much alignment I would feel.

So anyway, onto the kata...

I realise, as most people do I'm sure, that the pulling up of the knee during furikaburi is the major cause of lateral shift (as well as worth making an inclusion in the grading criteria for Ushiro!). Furthermore, the first action of the right footing moving out during nukitsuke can significantly add to that.

I tried working on nukitsuke as well to try to stabilize it, working on the tame that Chris Sensei and Peter West Sensei had mentioned to me.

I should here now explain the origins of a phrase that myself and Steve Boyes came up with some years ago to describe my next quandry. The phrase we created was "pulling a Eugene" and came from Eugene Herrigel's book Zen and the Art of Archery. In the book he describes how, in order to create a feeling of spontanaity and the moment of an action from within, he would release the string of his bow very gradually with the thumb until the tension overcame the friction and let fly. Eugene felt this was exactly what his master was talking about. The string would release effortlessly at a timing that always surprised Eugene. It felt right, it looked right, it must have been right.

One day his master was watching him practice and he asked to see him release an arrow again. Eugene proudly demonstrated his new-found skill and let one fly. His master thanked him, took the bow off him and sat down with his back to Eugene meaning the lesson had ended. Eugene later found out that the master wished him to leave the class if Eugene was going to cheat him. Suffice to say Eugene learned that artificial means to achieving a misinterpreted end were not part of the way.

Anyway, Steve Boyes and I coined this phrase to mean trying to achieve something that actually required dedicated training by doing something a bit iffy as a short cut (we discovered a lot of these - not to say these were the right things to do, they were cheats that didn't work in the long run).

So back to the main story, I am thus very wary of Pulling A Eugene in budo training, anything that sounds like a sneaky fix usually doesn't work. The particular situation in question is when to move the foot forwards when performing nukitsuke - every teacher has a different opinion I should add! Some will say the foot should be in place before sayabanare so that the sword travels with stability. Some say that the kissaki and foot should move at the same time so that you're not in a position to be cut waiting for your kissaki to catch up. My own sensei's opinion, and the one that I stick to is now that we should be able to do ALL of the timings including getting the kissaki flying to make contact and to finish moving as the front foot finishes. Anyway, I experimented with getting the foot into position earlier and hey presto, my kissaki travelled in a beautiful flat arc and finished at the exact right place. Hurrah, I thought. Uh oh, thought the devil within.

I am aware now that I may be committing half a pulling of a Eugene on this as I believe that for Chuden the sword must be quickly on its way and the body has to catch up. For Seitei this isn't specified so anything other than which gets broadcast from the ZNKR central seminar is purely opinion and, I think, depends on level.

Anyway, I'm spending too much type on too specific a point for now. Hilary and I were asked to work on other kata and it became clear that in order for me to sharpen up my iaido I would have to smooth off some of my cutting (especially going through furikaburi) in order to reduce the lengthiness of my form. This is something I am now working on through my okuden practice and will probably write about a bit later.

Friday 12 February 2010

Digging up files

I was so taken aback by the number of people that were interested in my blog that I thought I would share some files I used to help me with my 5th dan training.

I had written a Seishinkan Dojo Members Pack article on progressive training after witnessing the fairly slow lack of progress from one of our members who was trying very hard to pass their grades and I tried to study and understand what was happening. I did some research on learning patterns and wrote the chapter linked below:


I can't remember if we ever got this into the members pack but it now forms part of the BKA Level 2 Coaching Course.

I have to be honest now about my geekiness and admit that quite a lot of the above chapter was to justify me using mathematical analysis (in it's simplest form) to judge my own progress in preparing for 5th dan. As the article indicates I watched my previous weeks embu on video on Wednesday nights after training and tried to score my performance to see what elements were progressing, which were getting worse and which needed attention. I have attached this on the link below, if you can be bothered to have a look don't expect anything revelationary...


In fact I only managed to log three lots of embu before I got bored of scoring it so pedantically. However I think practicing to evaluate to such fine detail gave me a bit of a skill in doing it much more generally and pinpointing things about my performance that I should work on. I do however still think that the spreadsheet is a good way of of improving performance if one is either short of feedback opportunities or doesn't have much time to prepare for their grading. It's great for prioritising your training focus and ensuring that you don't end up doing a fantastic Mae followed by a pathetic Ukenagashi.

Anyway, the weekend is nearly here and I hope to be going training to Hilary's tomorrow and get a bit of time just working on my own stuff. I must also remember to look into booking a squash court out for myself somewhere locally to do some solo practice. Everyone else seems to do this except me...

I should also just add that very few of the photos I am posting on this blog are recent, they are mainly just to break up the text a bit.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Iaido 6th Dan Training Session 1

I should add here the purpose of this blog. At the moment it is to be something of a training diary for my 6th dan Iaido grading which I am due to take in the UK in summer 2011. It's still a year and a half away but I really want to make sure that my "transition" to 6th dan has a meaning and a tangible change (hopefully for the better).

My own rules for this blog are:
  1. To be honest; to avoid arrogant stances as well as insincere humility.
  2. To not write disrectful things about other people...unless they really deserve it and I would say it to their face.
  3. For it to be readable for any geeks who happen to come across this blog.
Anyway down to business...

I set in my own mind to actively start my 6th dan iaido training last night at our regular Wednesday practice. Now the weather is a little bit better I am trying to strengthen up my arms as well as improve my fitness by going out in the garden and doing 75 cuts left and right with a suburito. I think up to now my home training has focussed on embedding the Jodo koryu curriculum in my mind but I think I now have to pay more that the slightly casual level of attention to Iaido.

Thinking back to my 5th dan Iaido grading preparation I had the luxury of being able to be left alone and asking Tony Brocklebank, one of the dojo seniors, to video my embu nearly on a weekly basis for me to take home and study in huge amounts of detail even to the extent of plotting my perceived progress in the various elements of the kata on a spreadsheet. I don't think I will have as much free time to do that now so I must ensure that every moment of training time is used properly.

My first question to my sensei, Chris Mansfield, last night was to ask what was the first kata he recommended for my first koryu form. As I expected he said for me to do Shohatto, the best and most appropriate kata for a Shinden iaidoka doing an Iaido embu.

I worked on trying to improve my stability during this session. Sensei talked to me for quite a while about the difference between 6th dan and 5th dan and I remember the thing he emphasised most was having a clear understanding and contrast of the "when" factor i.e. timing of the kata. He made me do some cutting exercises to work out how making conscious decision on cutting didn't always work and in fact having a "feeling" of preparation would lead into a well timed cut.

We also looked at my performance of Yukizure. Again he noted that my preparation was late and that the whole kata could be sharpened up by quietly preparing earlier and then making the entire first cut happen in one cohesive, well-timed movement. I then had to focus on metsuke for the second cut as well as sharpening and shortening this movement. Having just practiced this outside I feel at the moment that I should avoid the "inashi" action and focus on two distinct cuts instead but linking them with good awareness and metsuke.

So anyway, that's probably enough for this first posting although I would like to write down here my current choice candidates for my three koryu:
  1. Shohatto - a must have for the first kata
  2. Ukigumo - a nice long flowing kata with opportunities for rhythmic changes
  3. Yukizure - a nice flash sharp kata showing a slight penetration into oku
  4. Towaki/Tozume - as Yukizure
  5. Ukenagashi (seme version) - I feel I can do this particular version quite well
  6. Oroshi - again a nice flowing kata with a potential for really hamming it up!
  7. Toraissoku - this would be to challenge me to do this kata as well as Harry Jones or my sensei can do it
In terms of those seiteigata that I need to work on:
  1. Ushiro - to sort out my ochiburi
  2. Ukenagashi - just coz. I need to work on keeping the thing sharp but removing busy'ness
  3. Tsukaate - gotta get my hikinuki working better.
  4. Kesagiri - because it's just difficult
  5. Soetezuki - have to work on making this a kodansha level kata regarding timing of the thrust.
  6. Sogiri - it's likely to be a shiteiwaza
More later...