When I was younger, stronger, and dumber, I used to think that there was only one best way to train in budo, and that was to train as intensely as I could, straining my physical stamina to the limits.
Now that I’m older, weaker and not quite so dumb, I have come to realize there are many training modes, and they all have their merits, depending on the eventual general goal you are striving for, which is overall mastery of your art, in all its aspects.
The different modes of training can also be utilized within one training session, or they can be separated according to the situation.
For example, the most intense physical training pushes you to your limits. It challenges you to give it your best. It’s the best modality for sportive competition, young people trying to test themselves, and for physical endurance and health, as long as it is not overdone. On the other hand, sometimes scaling back and working slowly on technical or theoretical aspects of training helps you to more easily absorb new information, or to refine and polish your rough edges as far as techniques go. Then there are moments where you train but the goal is not so much perfection of form but widening one’s breadth of spirit and heart. More on that latter anon.
The levels aren’t precise steps. They have fuzzy transitions from intense, exhausting physical training to lower physical activity but more mental and cognitive thought, to even just not doing anything physically but visualizing the skills and actions in your head in order to mentally integrate them into your mind, body and spirit.
Good athletes and coaches know this. That’s why they combine the usual training regimes with light “no-pads” workouts before a football game, and regular chalkboard discussions about techniques. Good coaches encourage good athletes to previsualize their game skills before the game, relaxing their entire body and imagining how they will play successfully. Enough research has been done to show that such mental rehearsals and mental repetition of techniques really does help the athlete, musician or artist perform at his/her mental and physical peak.
It is such a given that training modes should vary that it’s a wonder it’s not used as much in many budo schools. I can hazard different reasons why this is so, but it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, among the more competitive sports budo, the notion that you scale back physical training may strike the teacher as “weak” or “wimping out.”
That’s a pity, because they are ignoring decades of sports research and proven methodologies. And “Well, my sensei has always taught it hard core like this so I’m going to teach it his way” is also antithetical to the notion that budo is based on maximum efficiency of movement and action (as the founder of Kodokan Judo, Kano Jigoro, would say, “Seiryoku Zenyo: mutual endeavor and maximum efficiency”).
This topic occurred to me because I was reflecting on two incidents; one very recent and another from years ago.
Recently, it was my good luck to have a senior member of the iai system I study visit Hawaii on vacation. Since he and his wife (both highly ranked) were mainly here for the warm weather, they didn’t pack much by way of martial arts training gear, but he brought a saya bokuto, a wooden sword with a plastic sheathe that he used to practice in the early mornings in a corner of a park in Waikiki. When my schedule permitted, I would join him and he worked on improving my form. It was very informal. We dressed in Bermuda shorts and t-shirts. If it drizzled, we put on baseball caps and sweat shirts. Sometimes we went through the kata at full speed, but most of the time we slowed things down, concentrating on getting the form right.
Then we managed to schedule a time when he came by my little dojo to work with my students. In that case, we were dressed in keikogi and hakama, and used iaito. The cuts and techniques were done a bit faster, a bit crisper, and of course there was a bit more formality. As a friend would say, it’s atarimae. It’s to be expected. When you are in a formal dojo setting, you do act more formally. If you’re in t-shirt and shorts, trying to work through forms step by step, you take it easy, relax, and think things through, taking time to stop, go back to a mistake and redo them, and slip into an easy, relaxed pace.
I found that the two kinds of practices enhanced my understanding of iai immensely. You need the precision and physically demanding workout of a formal practice session. But sometimes it helps to just go out into a park and go through things informally, stopping and thinking, “Hmmm. Do I really step this way or do I step that way at this point? How am I holding the sword above my head? I should slow down and see what I’m doing with my footwork in this kata…”
I enjoyed working in those different modalities so much that when another iai visitor came through on vacation, I deliberately balanced a training session at the dojo with one in which he and I worked out informally in t-shirt and shorts, under the eaves of a building (to avoid passing showers), overlooking a beautiful Japanese garden. The session at the dojo was jam-packed with training, going through a whole set of forms and trying to fix the techniques precisely. The session by the garden was informal, with lots of questions and answers about the meaning behind the techniques, with less emphasis on speed and more on the process, methods and concepts embodied therein.
Visualizing one’s techniques is also not only practical for strengthening those synaptic nodes in the brain, leading to better physical performance. It probably helps in creating a better mental and emotional state in the mind of the practitioner.
And, although this last story involves tea ceremony, you could just as well use it as an example for budo training.
I used to know a fellow tea student while I was in Japan. We were in a mixed group of students studying at the main headquarters of the Urasenke School of Tea, comprised of foreign and Japanese students. For various reasons, somehow we managed to really bond together and enjoyed not just training intensely together six days a week, but also arranged to be with each other socially afterwards, going to dinners, sightseeing and attending tea-related events. Perhaps it had to do with my very young and exotic American rooommate from Los Angeles, just finishing up college at UCLA. The Japanese female students swooned over him and I ended up being the intermediary, having to translate all sorts of puppy-love letters stuffed surreptitiously into his kimono in between practice sessions. One thing led to another, and soon we all ended up friends.
For my part, I got to be close to the older students from the Japanese group: an older Nikkei (Japanese American) who entered the Japanese language group, an older woman who had given up a career in midlife to train to become a tea teacher, and a woman, E san. She and I were roughly the same age and enjoyed many similar activities, such as museum-hopping and Noh drama. Oddly enough, her major in college had been German literature and mine was Japanese literature, but we shared similar general interests in world literature and the literature, poetry and philosophy of tea ceremony.
I asked her once how she got involved in tea, and why she decided to enter the very intensive three-year mastership program at Urasenke. She replied that she hadn’t really planned on it originally. As a college student, she chanced upon a sweet old Buddhist nun who taught her tea once a week in a quiet, old nunnery in the forests surrounding Kamakura. She would take a train ride from Tokyo on the weekends, walk through bamboo and pine groves, and she and the nun would have a bowl of tea and informally practice together. She felt it was such a stress relief, especially when it was during exam time, to sit in a tatami mat wooden room, looking out at a forest of pine and bamboo. So she originally started tea just for the peace and tranquility she experienced from visiting the nun in the forest temple.
One day, however, the nun told her that she should seriously consider advancing in tea licenses so she could eventually teach tea to others. E san demurred. She wasn’t interested in being a tea sensei. She just wanted to do tea like that, in the middle of a forest in a secluded temple, no big deal about teaching or acquiring students. But the nun persisted. “I’m not going to be around forever,” the nun said. E san didn’t give that conversation much thought until one day she went to the nunnery to find the tea hut boarded up. She asked around and another nun told her that her teacher had passed away. She decided to follow the nun’s last wishes and entered the Urasenke School of Tea. She felt obligated to carry on the nun’s legacy somehow.
Even though the training program she was in was hectic and intense, trying to cram a lifetime of training into three years, E san said her most vivid idea of what chanoyu really is all about was still defined by those peaceful weekends sharing a bowl of tea with the nun. Even in the most grueling training sessions (and believe it or not, those sessions CAN be grueling!), she said she would try to hold that image of tea ceremony in her mind.
Eventually E san received her teaching license and became quite a popular teacher in Kyoto, which seemed to abound with tea sensei on virtually every street corner. Much later, I caught up with her and a mutual friend and shared some tea and cakes. She was just recovering from a long illness, she said, and had some aches and pains, “but nothing to worry about.” She kept on teaching, sitting in seiza as best she could, and some yoga exercises were helping, she said.
But about a few months later, I was shocked to hear from friends that E san, who was only in her mid-40s, had passed away. She had leukemia but didn’t even tell her friends and students about it until it had become so severe she had to stop teaching. She returned to her family in Tokyo and passed away quickly thereafter.
At the wake, the parents told my friends that E san loved tea until the day she died.
“She would be lying in bed, but we would sometimes see her hands moving, quietly. So we asked her what she was doing, and she said, ‘I’m going over the temae (tea “kata”) in my head.’”
She loved tea so much, even when her body was unwilling, her mind still went over the forms, lovingly. I would like to believe the focus necessary to recall the movements helped ease her discomfort. I would also like to believe that by visualizing her first, most intimate moments studying tea with the nun in a Kamakura temple, she also was bringing forth a kind of tranquility and peacefulness to her own self before she passed on.
While this story is about tea, I think it has great meaning for anyone in budo and about visualizing, and how “practice” need not be limited to the strict confines of the dojo. It can be done outside, in a spare moment, in regular clothing, informally, not so intensely, and even without using one’s body, but just by moving one’s mind.
And on another level, such training is not only to help you become a better technician. In the case of E sensei, it gave her moments of quiet happiness during her physical pain, as she remembered sharing a bowl of tea once, long ago in her youth, with the elderly nun, deep in the green woods of Kamakura.