(Note: I originally sent this email to my students prior to an iai practice.)
A note on training:
Lately, we’ve been focusing on basics, going over the shoden level seiza forms over and over again. There’s a reason for that. I’m still not satisfied with our basics.
In all traditional Asian combative arts, there is a strong emphasis on reaching a particular expertise in the repetition of proper form, none, perhaps, more so than in iai. Since iai proper does not have competitive matches (although lately they have instituted a kind of forms competition in some organizations in Japan) that pit one person against another, the only way to evaluate expertise in iai is through perfection of form. This emphasis has become such a fetish in iai that even some koryu folk will admit that watching iai is nearly as exciting as watching grass grow or paint dry. It is just going over a form, over and over again.
However, that is why I keep emphasizing working on basics, all of us, myself included. Proper form is really important in iai.
When you study a particular ryu, or ryuha, you are basically trying to reach an appropriate level of “form” that indicates you are in line with a certain way of doing a kata, a series of linked movements. There may be variations from one dojo to another, and one teacher to another in the same school, but there are some basic signposts that declare that you either “get it” or you don’t: Your timing, perhaps, or the way you move, handle the sword, the angle of your chiburui, or angle of the cut with the sword. This is one step beyond simply repeating the steps, or procedure. This is polishing the steps and instilling in them the particular WAY you move with the sword in hand.
When you begin to “get it,” your swordwork begins to assume an actual personality: that of your own, of course, but also that of the ryu you are performing. That balance, that tension between individual character and the characteristics of the ryu is the hardest to attain, as beginners. When you start with iai, everything may seem random and arbitrary. If you progress, however, and you observe other ryu, you should come to a realization that there are implicit reasons why you do things a certain way, and why another ryu does things a different way. You will begin to grasp the differences in timing, technique and mental kamae (posture). What many of you who have been doing it for some months need to do to break your logjam is that you have to somehow internalize the ryu’s sensibilities as your own, and subsume what your mind and body seem to want to do under the mantle of the ryu’s methods.
You may want to slouch and hunch your shoulders because all your life, that’s how you stand. Or your body wants to use your shoulder and arm strength instead of your hip muscles. You have to consciously, mentally, force yourself to make the corrections. The other part is you also have to make the connection with your own body, forcing it to move that way too when you perform the kata. Again, there may be long-standing habits in your body that you have to break.
You have to see what is being done, internalize the concept in you mind, but you then have to transmit that movement to your body. A lot can mess things up in this two-step process. Be aware of what you are seeing and doing.
Koryu study is basically this: you break down bad habits and try to institute new ones, hopefully better ones. I know, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of training, but training without thinking or self-correction is no improvement. You are simply reinforcing bad habits and making them harder to break. I think it was football coaching legend Vince Lombardi who said something like, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
What he meant was, even if you put in time and effort in training, if you are training the wrong way, you aren’t really getting any better, you’re only getting better at doing something badly.
Thus, being cognizant in training means you have to be self-aware of your mistakes and self-correct, always doing a kata and then never being happy with it, considering it from all angles, and correcting your mistakes, forever striving to approach the model of the kata demonstrated by your sempai and sensei.
Even the best teachers I know are never satisfied. Of their own kata, they would say, “Mada, mada (Not yet, not yet)” They were constantly polishing their skills. These were men and women who were superb in their arts, yet they were never satisfied. And that dissatisfaction was what, perhaps, caused them to excel as far as they did.
I don’t feel adequate in my own skills. But every time I do a kata, I try to improve it. Do I need to tip the edge one degree up or down? Am I using too much right arm in that cut or not enough left? Am I leaning too far forward? I try to remember what my teachers have told me, and work on their advice, over and over again.
Finally, going back to your mental approach: You also need the ability to self-evaluate. That means you have to see clearly whether or not you are doing things right for yourself. You need to tame your body and ego so that they do not get in the way of a truthful, honest feedback. I am reminded that the second kata of the Takeuchi-ryu kogusoku is called “Sumashi Miru (Seeing clearly).” Ono sensei once told me that not only does it describe the technique of the kata (looking right at the opponent and challenging his/her mental aggression) but it may also describe a very important heiho (martial strategy) of the ryu. You have to be able to read a situation clearly, without blinders of ego, fear and doubt. In advancing in a koryu, you have to see clearly what you need to improve and work on it every practice session.
A teacher may guide you along the way, but a teacher can’t carry you to the end. He or she is only a guide, who points the way. It’s really up to you to walk that road and get to your destination yourself. The really hard work has to be done by you, as in other aspects of your life.