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 23 December 2011

The koryu marathon.....not.

Okay I should point out now that this wasn't a marathon, I just set myself the target last Wednesday of doing each shoden form once, chuden twice and seated okuden three times. Not actually that many kata considering what some people put themselves through but I was trying to work on quality rather than quantity.

So WTF does that mean exactly?

Well, my expectations of myself are that I shouldn't have to do shoden forms lots of times before I feel satisfied in any session that I have done one well. That may sound a bit arrogant, I don't mean it to be and I don't claim to have mastered shoden or anything high sounding like that. What I mean is that I try to challenge myself to do shoden forms to the best of my ability with one strike only and not gradually working myself up to pulling a rabbit out of the hat. It's actually quite a nice kind of training, one slows down, one focusses and one's rhythm feels a bit more meaningful....almost like doing an embu but with no one actually watching.

I don't claim to have the same experience in chuden or okuden which is why I give myself 2 and 3 times each kata respectively but I do still have the expectation that the kata should feel fairly stable by the time I get to the final go at each form.

My more recent focus in terms of curriculum has been hayanuki and seated okuden. For those of you who are newish to this iaido malarky, hayanuki is an exercise of going through all the chuden forms continuously. The sequence tends to be specific to different teachers although our dojo (and I think Ishido Sensei as well although I have heard him recite a different order once) is 1, 2, 3, 6, 5, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10 and as one comes back into iai hiza at the end of one form so this should transition into the beginning of the next.

Many people go through this almost as a kind of athletic exercise and I also do this sometimes if I think I have been physically lazy in any session....but to be honest I don't find it very satisfying to do this kind of throcking other than the satisfaction of making you puffed out. What I much prefer is to do hayanuki with a perceptable ebb and flow so that each form is done just to the same ability as doing them individually but with a kind of critical connection between each one. Practitioners of Gohon no Midare might understand what I am trying to get at here. What I think I mean (although I'm not sure I am explaining it well) is that the quietness of the connection between each form should amplify the action within the form just as the Kan- (of Kankyukyojaku fame) elements of the kata (such as furikaburi and iaigoshi) contrast the -kyu- elements (such as kirioroshi).

I have also become something of a fan of doing hayanuki one handed (err...that is the right hand) as it does force one to become even more sensitive to the course and position of the sword. My sensei commented on Wednesday that my noto was much better when I did hayanuki one handed than with two and I guess the reason for this might be that the left hand has an even more positive grip of the saya than it normally would.

Anyway, that's my chuden practice at the moment, on to seated okuden.

I used to kind of push seated okuden to the back row of my mind, to me they consisted of:

  • Three nice opening kata
  • Two interesting diagonal kata
  • A stupidity sandwich of two ridiculous kata with a good one in between

Plus they were in tatehiza.....again! Just when you though chuden was going to knacker your knees and feet up, here comes okuden! Some of you will shrug and say

"what's the problem?"

but I'm sure more than 50% of people would say

"ugh, I hate it when my toe knuckles are bleeding at seminars"


"what is that funny lump growing on the top of my foot?"

These are all valid statements and questions (i.e. I have also suffered them) but I guess I now want to find what is there in okuden which is worth training for. I think I am starting to find that special thing but I first want to share something which has been going through my mind in the last few months which is.......do the inner and primary principles of MSR/MJER iai echo through the various teachings? That is, are there parallels in raw technique between the forms in one set to the other? I don't think it is something that I will be able to answer anytime soon and my money would be on Richard Stonell finding the answer first. But let me demonstrate what I mean by the following simple diagram:

You can probably see what I mean. Let's put standing okuden to one side for a moment but you can see that the first kata of each set is a basic maegiri (front cut) as I would think would be the same for nearly all koryu iai. Rotation followed by a nukitsuke and kirioroshi is common to both shoden and chuden and a block to a cut to the lower leg is common at all three levels. I mentioned this at the Koryu Seminar in Poland recently and tried to show where the commonalities lie. I'm not sure why I am interested in this, it just seems elegant, as a scientist would say. I think it's elegant because it shows possible evidence of a gradual evoluation of the kata. Furthermore (and I know that some people are mad about this but I don't know why) it shows how some kata work as counterattacks for other katas or at least how some katas are counterattacks to the counterattacks to earlier katas (yes, you read that right).

Kasumi, as an easy example, shows clearly what to do if the enemy dodges the nukitsuke in Yokogumo (or Shohatto for that matter). What happens if the enemy does a devastatingly strong cut in Toranoissoku? Then get lower and use the higher point on the sword to block as in Sunegakoi.....it goes on.

Anyway, that's just a diversion but it helps me to keep interested in okuden when my toes are screaming in pain not to be bent back any further.

"It's in the interest of academic study!" I scream back to them.

"Come down here and say that!" they scream back.

I have already developed a keen liking of Tozume, enough for me to pick it as one of my koryu forms for my 6th dan grading and from that anchor point I have worked on the others.

Kasumi I really like and for years haven't been able to do it with any sharpness, due largely to the length of my sword and lack of training of course. Something must have clicked recently and the double cut has become quite sharp. I like the way that this form can be upgraded to reflect one's proficiency which I will explain here:

  1. In the elementary stages one performs Yokogumo, rotates the sword and draws the left knee forwards to perform the returning cut. The right foot then moves forwards as furikaburi and kirioroshi are delivered.
  2. In the next stage, the sword is almost fully drawn before rising up. At the last moment the body rises into nukitsuke and continues the rest of the form as above.
  3. In the later stages, one does it like Ishido Sensei after some 60 years of training.....well anyway, dreams aside, the initial draw and returning cut are all performed within the raising up of the body and the kirioroshi is just poked in with a final shift forwards of the body. Gahhh...

Since the Gothenburg seminar this year where Ishido Sensei taught our group the seated okuden, the other kata have become more interesting and more challenging as the final objectives were revealed. I won't go into them now but will save them for another blog soon and will continue my exploration of the other forms shortly.

In the meantime I wish everyone a very enjoyable Xmas and look forward to seeing and training with you in 2012 (the Chinese year of the chicken kebab!)

Friday 16 December 2011

Getting back to it

When is it a good time to come back to this? Maybe I should ask myself why I stopped posting.

Many of you I am sure are aware of the situation in Europe regarding the grading and some of you will know about the repercussions from the last European Iaido Championships. I like to hope that some good will come from the bad but hoping isn't the only thing to do.

I wanted to take some time away from the post and in fact away from the focus on my 6th dan preparation. I think in the last couple of months I have tried to drop myself into what I guess is a typical iaido training situation. I have done some helping and developing of our own dojo members, I have been doing some koryu exploration for myself and I have been teaching some in Poland for which I am very grateful. Not forgetting also that I have been painfully busy with work and in developing internal processes and strategy in the BKA, something that has eaten into not a small amount of actual training session time.

My own sensei has said nothing about my 6th dan preparation since the grading, something I am grateful for as I am sure he understands that what I don't need is any post-event debriefing, reconcilliation or citation. What I needed, and what I got, was space. And time.

So, what's brought me back? I think if I was going to name one thing it would be the very sad loss of Christopher Hitchens. I won't spend more than a paragraph in this blog trying to explain who he was, his reputation precedes him but he was, in his own words, a contrarian. He was to others a humanitarian, a sceptic, an atheist but to most, a formidable debator. His writings and his spectrum of live debates are a testament to his clear thinking, wit and ability to communicate. I admired him intensely and doubt there will ever be more than one person in anyone's lifetime like him.

I don't pretend to be anything like him although I try to see things as he saw them. To a degree it changed who I am. His death reminded me that his way wasn't to sit back in depression when things were bad but to take action, even if that action was just to communicate your feelings and thoughts.

And so I found myself this evening, having read his obituaries, starting to kick myself that I wasn't communicating anything when this blog appeared to have gained a little bit of interest to people. So here it is.

Where is it going?

I'm not going to mope about my failure at the grading, I am going to use this next duration of time to make myself even more ready to take the grading than I was before. And my hope is that I am going to do it with a little more clarity of thought than I had before.

Let us begin, by going backwards.

I like koryu. I like the fact that it offers a bit of freedom of taste and personal interpretation to the art. I like the fact that a lot of the original form or meaning is lost in time and we sometimes have to interpret it for ourselves. I like the fact that there are some forms which I find devilishly hard to do and that some people who are junior to me can do them with a whole lot more ease, style and sharpness. It is something of a leveller and I like that idea.

I like taikai. They prove nothing. They test everything. They are a context where we sometimes show a little bit of what is going on inside of us. At other times they are opportunities for us to pour on decoration and pretence and in fact hide everything that we are inside. For me, when I do win, I have about five seconds of the joy of victory and then I only feel gratitude and warmth to those people who have been able to come to the taikai and put in the same effort that I have. Sometimes it doesn't matter if the judges are watching or not - the taikai is a conversation with the other player and is unique in that regard with a solo-kata martial art. Taikai will push, pull, stretch and squeeze you. It will sometimes make you do iai in a way that you have been told to not do but in the heat of the moment, a little bit of rule breaking is the only thing that will see you through. For me they are not competitions with anyone but yourself. I am careful to try and display my trophies and not store them away. Not to display them for anyone else, I don't have any need or purpose to communicate how I have done in taikai to anyone, but to remind me that if you start something then you might as well do it to your very best ability and effort.

I like gradings. I like having an objective and I think it is useful to most people. Most of all though, I like the idea of transition. I like the idea of a person taking a discrete period of time and using it to change themselves entirely. Call it shugyo, call it a moment on the road to Damascus, we have an image of what we should be like for a particular grade and then we push ourselves to become like that image. Only when we get there do we realise that our initial image wasn't completely accurate - or maybe we see that the image has changed because our perspective has changed. Some things are subjective and relativistic but that doesn't stop them from being real or useful to us.

Despite the kind words and feedback that I got from the grading, I'm not a 6th dan yet but I am going to make myself one.

Let us begin...