Friday, December 13, 2013

My First Iaido Practice

What a very special day in my budo life. After this much time on the earth, I've come to really appreciate beginnings, "first days", and such. Our life is sprinkled with them sparingly here and there. Any day we begin a new training, or anything at all I imagine, it's the first last and only time that will ever happen. I will appreciate this first day and the great changes that will grow from it.

I feel like a puppy that just learned a new trick. Man, it's been a long time since I started something new like this. So fresh. I am the unmolded clay, and today were the first imprints. When starting something where so many movements are unknown, so much honest concentration is used, nothing but focusing on what your teacher just told you and trying to put all of those pieces together before he comes back again. It's been a long time since I've been in this place.

And MAN do I reek of newbie green wood. :)

So, last week I went to watch a class. After that, he said come back next Friday to fill out paper work, and maybe I can do a little training ... a little he said while smiling. Well, I brought my aikido dogi (training outfit) and hakama (black traditional Japanese warrior skirt [ha, I like that description]) first to see if it would work to train in, and then to actually use in it in case it was alright to start swinging weapons around. Maybe he would have me watch again, or maybe he would have me train. In case of the latter, I was damn well going to be ready.

So I got up and went through my morning routine. Saddled the bike, and began the thirty minute ride to the dojo. It rained all night, but had stopped just before I left, lucky me. I cruised at a medium high speed and it felt great. Then my bike slipped on a metal grate and had a little mini crash falling over and scraping my hands. Luckily I was right in front of a conbini and there weren't more than a handful of people in cars to see my embarrassing folly, so I went in, cleaned up, and continued on. I got to the dojo a few minutes early and Sensei walked out just as I pulled up.

"Ohayou gozaimasu!"

"Oh, ohayou gozaimasu!"

We both had big morning budo smiles.

I went in, we chatted for literally a minute and then he asked me if I brought my dogi.

"Yes, I did" :)

He said go ahead and get changed.

SEE! One must always be prepared to pick up the stick and swing.

I was really glad he asked me to get changed, of course because that meant I was going to train, but also because I was worried about my random pieces of a uniform working out. I have my aikido dogi, but I wasn't sure if it was different than the dogi they usually train in. It's a different company, and a little different, but as far as I know, a dogi is a dogi and it's good to go. What I was really curious about was the hakama. I have a hakama for kyudo, and I'm all good and used to it, but it always looked a lot different than what non kyudo people used. When watching my aikido partners put their's on, for some reason it looked so different. But I began to put mine on while sensei watched, and he said that it's all good. There's just one difference in the last bit when you tie it. I have to say, I felt super awkward at first, half kyudo, half aikido, starting iaido. But after I started swinging the sword I forgot about it all, and I now stand as this strange amalgamation starting a new journey in iaido. My super hero outfit is good to go.

He said at first we'll start with iaido, and after a while if things are working out I can begin the jo.

That's perfectly fine with me. This time, slow and steady is OK. Let's start with iaido and move from there. OK OK OK.

During this time there is another woman student who apparently just started about a month ago. She's in the same boat and hasn't started the jo yet either. It looks perfect. We can begin together in iaido and continue to wherever we go. It seems as though my Friday mornings from now on will be like this: Sensei, the other woman, and I.

We started training, and the teacher spent his time between the two of us. He gave me a bokken and showed me how to swing it in the mugai-ryu iaido fashion, then told me to do it a bunch while he taught the woman. He came back in a few minutes and showed me how to swing it while stepping. Then he'd go back to the woman and come back a few minutes later to show me what I was doing wrong, then go back. Then he came back, showed me how to unsheath and sheath the wooden sword, then went back. Next time, he gave me a real sword and told me to practice. WOW THIS IS COOL! I thought, and dangerous, so I was super careful and slow at first. But after a few times you get used to it and I ended up leaving the dojo without losing my fingers or killing anybody, so I'd say it went well.

But wow, this is all new.

And I totally suck at something again.

Perhaps it's not quite that. You can't really suck at something if you've never done it before. You can only suck at something if you've already had experience in it.

A more accurate sentence might be: I suck at kyudo.

This iaido, is just completely foreign ground, like arriving on Jupiter for the first time.

And oh how much I love it. I couldn't slice the broadside of a drunken samurai if I tried. Everything is weird and wrong and awkward. I couldn't help but laugh at myself looking the mirror, concentrating so hard on doing a simple movement and being so wrong. How many times have I been here before in all of the other arts I've tried? How many times have I been just a stupid white belt, and here I am again. It's a thrilling feeling, and I understand that this is what it's about. It's about starting something completely new in a world where you know nothing, and making the steps of progression which require nothing other than simple time, effort, and instruction. This is how it goes, and nobody just walks in moving like a master.

But, it is different this time, and my past experience does have a great effect on this new beginning.

"How so?" you ask?


I think a lot of learning a new martial art, and being good at one, includes two major things:

First, is fitting the shape. This is about putting your body in the places it needs to be in order to do what you're trying to do. We attempt this at first, and maybe we get the general points, but our bodies expend a large amount of effort in doing so, and often find ourselves off-balance and tense.

Next is relaxing. Can you fit the shape while not expending extra effort? Can you move through those shapes and keep your balance?

I think once you achieve these two goals of fitting the shape and relaxing you can start moving on to more intermediate techniques ... but for now ... in the beginning ... it's all about these two points.

So for me, my budo experience makes this a bit easier or faster. When I first begin, I'm just as fumbly as the next beginner, but when I look at my teacher and listen to his voice, I'm picking out specific points I know he is trying to emphasize. I focus all of my attention on what he is trying to get me to do, and I'm mimicking him as closely as possible. My eyes and ears are soft, picking up everything without expending extra energy on the uneccessaries. There is nothing but focusing on the task at hand, but also everything else in the periphery at the same time. This is fitting the shape. Next is relaxing. Of course I'm finding myself off-balance and tense at times, but I can feel that my recognition of this is much faster than it used to be and I can immediately relax the muscles. So it's not perfect, but it's fast. Also, I suppose there is a sort of obeying straight lines and circles in budo as well. Behind all of the movements are shapes and circles, and aligning your body and movements with them is what a lot of budo is about. For example when you cut horizontally with the blade you make a large arc. Once the teacher tells me this, I make connections to the wide arcs used in aikido and it helps me. Also, when sheathing the blade, one must make the blade and the saya (sheath) a straight line, and sheath the blade along the line. In kyudo there are a lot of movements where you must keep that straight line while holding the bow or arrow, and so that feels familiar as well.

But along with that positive experience, are also old habits which can disrupt the new technique. There were two big ones that I noticed, and will have to be careful to watch out for.

First is the position of the hips when swinging the sword down. In Aikido we practiced with a bokken (wooden sword) which is dangerously similar. I say dangerously similar because they are basically the same weapon, but are used differently. In aikido when we swing the sword down, we start and end in the hanmi position (belly button facing a forty-five degree angle from the front instead facing straight ahead) and cut at a slight angle. In iaido (at least with this first introductory strike), we have the hips facing forward the whole time, and so the blade follows a straight vertical line. Now matter what I do, my hips naturally rotate changing it all, which will be something I need to be mindful of when practicing iaido.

In connection with that, when bringing the sword over your head, in Aikido we would let the sword flip down our backs before swinging again. I suppose this practices relaxing your body and flowing instead of inserting strength, and so I got used to it. But in Iaido, this definitely won't fly, and when bringing the sword over your head, you definitely don't go past parallel with the ground. Interestingly enough, this was a big problem I had with aikido at first. I didn't understand why you let the sword move so far back, and I thought it was incredibly unpractical. I suppose that is because the purpose of the aikido sword is to help empty hand techniques and relaxing, whereas the purpose of iaido sword is to ... best cut something (?).

Wow ... what is the purpose of iaido!? I don't know ... but you can bet I'll be writing about what it might mean.

OK, so next big difference is in stepping/walking. He had me practice swinging the sword while taking steps forward. This is like sliding forward, permanently staying in a right (or left) fighting stance, but you're really stepping forward. It's like a step-drag movement in karate. Actually that is exactly what I thought of when going through this. Also, I was naturally stepping like I do in kyudo, where your feet don't leave the ground. In kyudo you slide your feet across the floor as you walk, maintaining your connection with the ground. However, in Iaido, he said we must step forward and bring the back foot forward by stepping, not sliding. He said we must step forward keeping our weight above our center of gravity. He demonstrated this by holding a stick straight up and down to represent his body weight. If you connect the bottom of that stick to your foot, and step forward with that foot while keeping your body weight on your back foot, the stick goes diagonal, which is not what we want. Instead, we keep our body weight above our front foot, so that when we step with that foot, our body weight is above it, keeping the stick vertically straight. This is so we can keep our balance and have a stable structure once we make that step. That all clicked with me well, and I was impressed with how clearly the sensei was able to convey this point. The part that is difficult for me is not dragging that back foot. No matter what, my instincts tell me to let it drag, but I'll have to work on picking it up slightly when stepping.

I left full of new things to practice on my own, and next time I'll come back ready for more, with a pocket full of cash and the required paperwork. Just as I thought in the last week, I didn't know how much this training was going to cost, but I knew it was going to be more than what I had been used to with aikido and kyudo. It ends up being about $50 a month for iaido. When I decide to start jodo it will become $90. That is definitely more than I'm used to (kyudo $10 a month, aikido $30) ... but then again I'm also getting a teacher's almost full attention and beckoning when I'm with him. This is different from kyudo when you go in by yourself and receive instruction as a volunteer favor, or aikido when your renting dojo space and working with quite a few other people. I understand, I can pay, and there's no problem.

But it's hard not to think about money when it comes to budo ... but that will require another post.

I also need a sword. Before when I talked to Sensei I thought he said I could get one close by pretty quick, but today when I asked he said I should find one somehow or maybe get one on the internet (from a credible source of course). It's important to have a real sword in the early training in order to get used to the weight and feel, but on the other hand I don't know how long I'll continue this so dropping a lot of money on a sword right away isn't such a good idea ... mostly because I'll beat up the sword and scabbard a lot with my flailing technique in the first couple years. But I need one.

When I left the dojo, I met the main sensei who had just picked up someone from Tokyo who had come to train.

I'm not sure exactly what the situation is, and I'm running out of steam on this blog as you are too probably ... but I think the Sensei who is teaching me is the second in command, with the main Sensei teaching at other times with other people. But I met this Sensei by coincidence when I was leaving and we had a great little interaction. We made chit chat and he was super nice and funny ... more like a normal Japanese old man than the other guy. Basically he asked what sword I was using and said I was borrowing the other Sensei's. He said using another person's sword was not good. So I asked what I should do and that I was ready to get one as soon as possible. I saw the wheels turning in his head and imagine some kind of solution will appear next week when I go in.

This is how people stay young, by trying new things that they are really interested in. I feel like so many old channels of excitement have lit up in my imagination. All of a sudden I want to do a lot of dorky things I like to do like play zelda video games, Magic the Gathering card game, and read fantasy novels for some reason. I want to ride my bike into the forests. I want to create. I don't want to destroy myself, I don't want to forget, I don't want to run away.

Until I get the real blade, I thought about how I was going to practice all I was learning on my own. I have a whole week! At this point I can't go 15 minutes without running through the freshly learned material.

So, I bought my first sword,

for 158 yen at a children's toy store.

You do what you can with what you have.

Wish me luck.


  1. Have you ever read Autumn Lightning by Dave Lowry?

  2. I did about a couple years ago, and I remember having mixed feelings about it. Maybe I'll give it another try after some more time with the sword. Have any other iaido book recommendations? Anybody???