Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Solitary Sword Sessions (Iaito and Bokken)

Yeah, alliteration. Couldn't resist.

So, following on from the previous blog, here are some more details on what I ended up as a general scheme for sword sessions, done entirely by myself. This system developed over several weeks of trying this and that, and wanting to get a handle on things again. On a purely practical level and ignoring philosophy and such like, the aim of the practice is to make Sword and Mind As One. Ken Shin Ichi Nyo.

'Sword' means both, shinken and bokken, real and wooden sword. This guiding phrase would be the name of any dojo I'd establish, if ever. I may expand on rationale behind this at some stage, but for now it'll have to do. Let's take it as a given for now. The purpose of sword training therefore would be to become so familiar with it and its use and handling and just its presence, that it would indeed not only become an extension of one's body but also one's mind—all of which has a number of biomechanical and psychological ramifications. More on that later, too.

So, with this in mind, here's what I do. Note also that training takes place outside, usually in the early morning or at dusk, because of the temperatures. This may change in winter, when temperatures are lower, and it can get quite chilly in the morning. I have ample space to roam—we're talking 'acres'—all grass, some of it dense and some not so dense. I keep a suitably large area cropped short enough, so I don't have to concern myself about snakes, which like longer grass, especially in the summer, and also because that way I know where I'm stepping. The terrain is sloped to various degrees; never really flat, which makes for interesting practice. None of this nice polished dojo floor.

Basic training consists of four parts, which usually take between 45-60 minutes, depending on circumstances. The phases—except for the first one, which is the most predictable—may be of different lengths.

Phase 1: Suburi (cutting air).

Done with a iaito, and used as a warmup. Start slowly, 50-100 cuts per cut-type. Include the standard ones, but also add those usually neglected. Aim to get the iaito to make a sound cutting the cut every time, indicating a good hasuji. If it doesn't, repeat the cut, and only when it's done right, continue counting. Cuts speed up through the cycle of cuts, but only to the level where the quality of the cuts remains untarnished. I don't believe in people getting themselves sweaty with crappy cutting. It teaches the brain bad sword habits, which take too much work, and wasted time, to unlearn later. I've seen it happen time and time again.

Basic rule with iaito training: if the cut doesn't have a good continuous sound, evidencing a satisfactory hasuji, you haven't made it and need to repeat it until you get it right. No exceptions.

This is followed by a few rounds of happogiri, plus some ghost-tameshigiri. The latter is something I first introduced into my lessons while still in Dunedin. You pretend you have really a tall cutting target, taller than yourself, and that you have to cut it up into thin slices, according to these patterns, but with more cuts per pattern if this is suitable. The purpose of this exercise is to get the cut at every level to be accompanied by a satisfying sound from your iaito, indicating that your hasuji in correct for all cuts. As you move your arms up and down—and down and up, because the practice includes returning to the starting level—the biomechanical shifts mean that grip and cut that work at one level don't work at another.

Phase 2: Pretend-Fighting.

Using a bokken.

In one area of the ground are a number of holes, in concentric circles with varying radii. I punched these with some stakes. Into these go arrangements of varying numbers of thin bamboo sticks, about a man's height. Some still have thin branches, because it's wild bamboo we cut at a friend's place. The sticks are pretend-enemies and the branches can serve as pretend-arms if required.

Once the sticks are set up, there follows a series of what amount to scenario developments, of, if you will, fight narratives. You stand this way and that with relation to the sitcks and run through the narratives that suggest themselves, trying out as many as possible. This is a bit like what you do when you try to narrate the background to standard kata in the dojo; only this is much, much more complicated and demanding.

Basically this phase is all about fight tactics, practiced withput anybody present. The absence of people superficially might make this appear like it is pointless and artificial, but it isn't. On the contrary: it's a self-training exercise in a skill that's immensely important when you're faced with real unpleasant people, who want to beat the crap out of you. You learn here to create quick narratives that represent situation-assessments, and to grade them in order of probability, practicality, fatality and so on.

I usually develop these narratives by going through each that occurs to me slowly, with an almost Tai-Chi like speed. The ultimate aim is, of course, to then play the same thing faster and faster, until each adversary takes less than a second to process; optimizing your movements as you go on, adding close-contact elements into the mix, making your moves more efficient and learning not to develop tunnel-vision, and so on.

The bokken may be in a scabbard and have to be drawn, or it can just be in your hand. This is an exercise in planning for serious self-defense, at close quarters—even though using the bokken—and also at a distance, pretending that your opponents may have anything from no weapons at all, to knives, to sticks, to swords to handguns to shotguns. Endless possibilities, and each requiring different tactical considerations.

Phase 3: Throw-and-hit Practice.

Using a bokken for this, ususally in a scabbard, though sometimes just holding it in two hands, one hand on the grip and the about halfway down the 'blade'. If the bokken is sheathed, this is a practice designed to take the mechanics of drawing the sword out of the equation and learning how to focus on hitting something with it. If it is not, it can be made into a different kind of timing exrcise of various levels of complexity.

The target are bamboo sticks, usually of the thinner variety—though the ticker ones also have a use, because they behave so differently—about a foot in length. They are thrown into the air in different ways—straight, spinning, higher, lower, closer, further away—and should be hit, preferably in the center, by the bokken as they come down. The starting aim is to hit them as late as possible and to do it in such a way that the bokken is drawn and the cut follows immediately. If you have too much time to set it all up, that defeats the purpose: you're supposed to learn how to draw lightning fast and at the same time have a clear notion of just how fast it is and how that relates to the target as it comes down and where it's going to be and what angle it's at and so on. I ensure that all kinds of cuts are used, single- and two-handed. The aim is also to have the grips on the bokken right and one's cuts precise and effective; that the sword comes out gracefully; that it comes as close to the ideal way of doing this as possible.

There's also the variation where the aim is to shred the bamboo in as few powerful and precisely-placed cuts as possible, again with the best possible technique. All of this is excellent practice at all levels, and variety is ensured. This is never boring and excellent cardio-workout besides.

Phase 4: Warm-down and Drawing Practice.

There are many ways of drawing the sword—and cutting from the draw—that aren't taught at the traditional schools. I always found that irksome, especially once you've advanced a bit in your practice. It's also counterproductive to limit oneself to the limited set taught and considered a part of this 'style' or that. Familiarity with the sword requires that it becomes an instrument used in all possible configurations, including those involving the draw, and associated with a whole plethora of possible body positions and movements.

And speed. Speed is essential, and I try to work myself up to go as fast as I can, without bad habits showing up, like not drawing the sword completely before cutting, which is usually accompanied by a little "snick" sound where there should be silence. Oh, yes, and drawing as quietly as possible overall. Another challenge added to the mix.

As a warm-down therefore I go through an increasing number of possible draws and variations on these themes. It requires inventiveness and focus, but isn't as athletic as Phase 3 tends to be, and so serves as a warm-down very well, without actually one losing focus. I hate wasting my precious training time doing things that appear to have no real use.

I also make sure that the many different ways of chiburi and noto are taken into account. Again, styles tend to focus on only one or two. I tend to string the TSKSR and the MJER chiburi together with MJER noto at the end; or sometimes use just the TSKSR style, followed by their style of noto.


That's basically it. No actual kata are involved, because I don't have the time, and I use this practice both, as a development of Ken Shin Ichi Nyo, as well as a work-out. For the moment it does fulfill its purpose, and it's fun besides.

Blog's long enough. More later. Maybe.

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