Passing the Test

2017 09 28 - 00:54

It's a bizarre mix of desire, trepidation, and impending vomit, when sensei tells you he wants you to test for shodan.

When we are preparing for grading, we do endless run-throughs of the waza we've chosen for our gradings - those of us who are allowed to choose, that is. Past a certain point, the committee chooses the waza for you - for the seitei portion, that is; for the koryu, it's a choose-your-own-samurai-adventure.

Doing things standing, means my choices are limited, as the first four waza are from kneeling positions; and you are no longer allowed to do standing versions of kneeling waza for a grading. So, I get to choose from Kesa-giri, Morote-zuki, Sanpo-giri, Ganmen-ate, Soete-zuki, Shiho-giri, So-giri, and Nukiuchi. I don't like Kesa-giri, and anyone who tried So-giri at my level would get thrown off the island for being arrogant - it's a very finessed and particular waza, and not one for a semi-beginner. So, that leaves me six to choose from. We have to do five. So, I'm going to be dull and do the same ones I did for my ikkyu grading: Morote-zuki, Ganmen-ate, Soete-zuki, Shiho-giri, and Nukiuchi.

Apparently, my reiho's in good order, so that's a good chunk of the battle right there. Reiho is the most important part of the entire process. You can fail just for crappy reiho, no matter how perfect the rest of your performance is.

So, we've now progressed beyond the whole do your waza in order, don't drop your sword, and don't make a face thing. Now we need to work on the inner self-judgement conga line, and not shaking like a spastic monkey during the test - given how much I adore public performance (that's my sarcastic voice).


Aiming For A Target You Cannot See

2017 09 21 - 14:34

I've never understood golf. What point is there in aiming for a target so far away that you can't even see it? (*)

I was mentioning this to a friend yesterday, and he put it in a context that makes sense - though I don't think golf itself ever will - that golf was like Iai; that it's about self-improvement. The self-improvement I get - in regards to Iaido, very much so - and the invisible target certainly. Sure, there's grading, and that's a goal or target, but the real improvement isn't about the grading; nor can you grade what effects the budo arts have on you personally. Iaido itself is an art of striking opponents that must be imagined, envisioned, pretended, as if they were actually there in front of you. You fight yourself in this way, on so many levels.

When I first started Iaido, I didn't even know it had grading. Now, I do them, but it's not why I'm there. If I wanted to get a certificate on my wall for doing something, I'd go after something that's easier than Iaido is, and takes less time.

Really, more than anything else, I go because I like my budo buddies. I like getting out of the house. I like doing something that's a bit off the beaten path. I like my sword. I like the activity. It's all good.

(*) Although I'm told that people with good vision actually can see it. That's a context I can't share.



2017 08 13 - 20:05

I really need to work on the niceties of my reiho.

Not just because I could fail a grading for bad reiho faster than I would for mistakes in the waza, but also because it bothers me that it not nearly as tidy and precise as it should be. Reiho is the most important thing. I'm not kidding when I say that you could fail a grading for bad reiho even if your waza are perfect. It counts for far more than anything else. Bad reiho means bad manners and lack of respect.

During the koryu form of the kneeling part of reiho, one must grasp grasp the middle of the saya with the left hand, and the tsuba with the right, in such a way that every time I do it I feel like I'm going to pitch forward on my face. It's the left hand part that does me in, because I have no issue with the seitei form of this part of reiho. I don't think anyone's noticed it yet, but in order to make sure I don't pitch forward, when I have my left hand down to grasp the saya, I actually place the heel of the hand on the floor briefly and put a little weight on it, then kind of push myself back up, because I don't think I can get back up otherwise. If the sword were a little closer than it is, I could probably manager it properly; but it's got to be far enough out that I can bow to it without touching it or the sageo. In the kneel part of Muso Shinden reiho, though, the angle of the sword relative to the body is much greater than in the seitei form, and the tsuba is in line with your right knee. In the seitei form the angle is less and the tsuba is out past your knee. Maybe it's the right hand part  after all, because I'm leaning farther out.

Either way, It's not elegant; nor is my seitei reiho.

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2017 07 23 - 02:03

In my dojo, during the summer months, we concentrate most of our time on koryu - reiho, waza, etcetera. So far this summer we've been learning some alternate versions of some of the koryu waza - Koranto (two steps forward instead of three), Seichuto (stepping back upon rising, rather than stepping forward), and Gyakuto so far. The first set of Muso Shinden koryu waza already has two versions of In'yo Shintai - the first one the sword cuts forward as you step back on the second unsheathing, and in the second one the sword cuts down and to the side a bit during the second unsheathing. Apparently there's another way to do that one as well.

With Gyakuto, there's a method of noto whereby, rather than doing it partial Jikiden style as we do with Ryuto, Junto (MSR's version of Kaishaku), and Gyakuto normally, the sword is held flat in front of you parallel to the floor with the right hand, while the left (of course) reaches for the saya and brings it to the blade. I'm not loving this. I found it incredibly awkward. ("More left hand" is the single most repeated term in any Iaido dojo.) Of course, I also found Jikiden style noto incredibly awkward when I first started learning it. It's... a bit harder with a blade that's longer than what Jikiden folk normally use. My sword would have to be at least an inch shorter than it is, for me to do Jikiden style noto properly. Size matters - an inch can make a lot of difference. I can see a lot more pierced between-the-thumb-and-pointer-finger webbing in my future ... or a lot of scratching of the inside of the saya, which is not at all healthy for it. A split saya is nobody's friend; and all the noise you make doing it, is a big dojo nono anyhow. Apparently this flat-style noto is more common in Muso Shinden than the way we normally do it.

We've got a couple of oddities in our school; by which I mean my dojo's lineage. One of the more obvious things, happens when we kneel for reiho to sensei and to the kamiza. In most schools when you place the blade to your right side the ha, or cutting edge, faces inwards towards you. In our school we turn the cutting edge out. It's a more aggressive posture.

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Open Carry

2017 07 13 - 17:55

When I was packing up after class yesterday, having made the decision to not change into street clothes because it would mean missing the bus, a kendoka who was waiting made a joke about me wearing my sword to really make sure no one would bother me.

Now here comes an interesting question of legality.

My sword - which I already knew - is not illegal. It is not on the prohibited list of weapons in Canada's criminal code. However, it is still a weapon, and could be used in an offensive manner if I chose to do so. I was under the impression that I could not openly carry it; that I had to keep it in its bag when not at home or in use at the dojo. Turns out, not so much. I just spent ten minutes on the phone with the police to clarify it. I can openly carry that sword when not in its bag. If I use it as an offensive weapon, or in any situation where it is assumed by another to be an offensive weapon, then I'm subject to prosecution under the law; but if I'm just walking down the street, I can have it in my belt.

I don't believe I'll ever be doing this, but now I know.


You wear it well

2017 07 03 - 02:05

The process of dressing before entering the dojo - putting on the keikogi, the obi, tying the hakama, setting it all right - helps to shift you from being 'out there' to being 'in here' - in the dojo, and in the right frame of mind for what you're going to do.

Appearance is important on a lot of levels - respect for others as much as respect for the self and for the art. If you look like crap, it's like telling your fellow budo that you have no respect, either for yourself or them. Your appearance also affects your performance. If you're dressed sloppily, it's thought that you'll perform sloppily. During an all-day seminar, for example, things loosen and shift, so I take every opportunity to go to the ladies and take everything off and put it all back on again. Fresh dressing resets everything, resets the mind, helps you feel ready again.

In some aspects of the translation of the Kanji that make up the word Iaido, even, it means "a state of preparedness/readiness". Really that refers to being prepared for the attacker, but readiness includes more than just how fast you're able to get your hands on your sword.

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2017 06 22 - 00:05

Finally, we've worked out what the problem with my chiburi was - and it's been an ongoing issue with me in one way or another - breaking the wrist. In chiburi I was doing it either during the downward swing, or right at the end of it. It was causing me to slap the blade down, and that's sure not what the samurai intended.

- - -

I am coming up on my second Iaidoversary next month, and although I'm not always one to celebrate anniversaries, I do use them as a time of reflection. I think about who I was and what I was doing when I started, about how far I've come, about the people I know, the people I keep meeting, the sense of community that I've felt sometimes, the way in which this art has become so much a part of my life that I could not imagine it not being there. I remember saying that the first time I picked up an iaito, it was like picking up a paintbrush - I had this "why hasn't this been in my hand my entire life" feeling. It has long since ceased to be merely a thing at the end of my arm that I wave around separate from me.

Am I good at it? Not really - not yet. Sure, I passed Ikkyu, but that's not hard - do the waza in order, don't drop your sword, don't make a face. I suspect that when I test for shodan at some point in the future, it'll be a whole different story. I'm hoping that I'll at least find the tape this time around; I lost it during Ikkyu testing. I was never good at nine ball either; but that never stopped me from playing. I'm better than I was. Things get a little better each week. Honestly, though, with some things I'm just not capable of assessing myself. I wouldn't know if I was good at it unless someone else told me.

I have never really belonged to a "club" before. I was in Girl Guides, but I never truly felt at home there. Feeling like a stranger in my own house is not an uncommon thing for me though. But in the dojo, I forget what separates me from other people. I forget about separation entirely. Being there has given me this art, given me a concept of dedication that I'd never experienced before, given me friends, given me a thread that runs through my life - like my art does, given me something to be proud of and look forward to.

I remember seeing something somewhere - Aristotle or Socrates, I can't remember which - about lives that are too busy are barren. I think it's because you never truly stay in one place long enough to find what is truly important to you. I used to worry about that, about not being 'busy' enough. I thought that if I wasn't doing 'enough', or 'more', that meant I was wasting my life. I realised a long time ago that a quiet life was just as valid a thing as any other, and I recently realised - when I encountered the idea of the barren busy life - that picking a few things that complete or augment you, that you love, that bring you peace, joy, or contentment, was more important.

Being too busy is just noise - you won't be able to hear the music.

And speaking of music, my complete and utter lack of jo-ha-kyu is like a melody with no rhythm; or, rather, an unchanging one. (Rather than moving in 4:4 time, move in 3:4 time; like a waltz, only with somewhat different emphasis - slow, quicker, quick-stop - slow, quicker, quick-stop - slow, quicker, quick-stop. All actions should begin slowly, speed up, then end swiftly.) I'd never thought about that until my sensei said something to me about my lack of rhythm in class today - he made that analogy, about a melody that doesn't move; and much like not breaking my wrist, jo-ha-kyu came together better than it normally does.

One of the things that my sensei has us do, is demonstrate for the class whatever it is he's teaching us. We learn a waza, do it a few times together, then each of us in turn will demonstrate it for the rest. Most of the time we do this with the specific intent of having the rest of the class point out things that could be improved or things that were done particularly well. He's teaching us to evaluate. This is as important to your own work as it is to the person you are critiquing. Today, though, he switched that habit up a little. He'd give us each a koryu waza to do, and along with that, we had to give two main points - things that are different from seitei, things that are significant to the waza, things that would be important to know were you teaching or explaining the waza to someone else. I used to loathe this sort of thing with a firey hot passion. I hate being the centre of attention in that way; hate being under scrutiny by so many eyes at once. I hate being stared at. It's why I don't sing in public. Today he explained why he has us do this, has us explain points and try to teach - part of it is because at some point in our lives - either at work, or volunteering, or something - someone's going to need us to do something, ask us to do something, and we'll be able to just do it. It's to help strip away performance anxiety, to teach us to learn how to teach. Knowing something is one thing, but knowing how to explain it to someone else is a completely different matter.

In the dojo, at least, I've long since lost my distaste for demonstration. Maybe one day it'll carry over into the rest of my life.

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What you see

2017 06 08 - 12:13

Teaching is not just a matter of the instructor holding forth while you absorb the knowledge; at least not in our dojo.

Frequently, what we do is after sensei shows us something, we demonstrate it for each other one or two at a time. After we're done, everyone is invited to comment. We each share what we noticed as good or bad, wrong or right, about our fellow iaidoka's progress and performance. Since everyone does things differently, and everyone is at a different level of progress, and each of us will notice different things than the others do, it's very informative method of doing things. It helps us to assess our own progress, as much as it teaches us to be observant.

Our sensei is on a different path, however; so while he's - and we - are generally looking at each other's form and jo-ha-kyu, for example; we are looking at his intent and purpose when he demonstrates for us. He goes last, and we have to estimate his actions, and comment on what we see.

This works only because we have a small class. If there were more of us we wouldn't be able to work this way. The value of observing others in this way, is like the value of teaching others - it solidifies your own knowledge, when you teach it to someone else.

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Iaido waza

2017 06 02 - 12:59

I put together a list of all the Iai waza that I know of, and stole some info off Wikipedia to flesh it out.

To level the playing field, most everyone learns Seitei Iai waza as set out by the ZNKR, governed by the Canadian Kendo Federation here. These sets ensure that people from different schools are taught something that can be more fairly judged. Each different school of Iaido has different waza. I don't know that any other than Muso Shinden Ryu (the form I study) and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu are taught in North America. I know of at least four or five other styles.

You'll notice that between MSR and MJER there is some name similarity - some of those waza are the same as the ones in the other school, some have the same intent but are done slightly differently, some are different waza but given the same/similar names. Junto and Kaishaku, for example, have the same purpose/intent, but are done differently (from what I've seen). I picked this one because it has some other considerations attached, which I think I've explained before: this waza emulates the actions performed by the second (kaishakunen) for a samurai who is committing seppuku (ritual suicide). Some don't consider it a waza at all, but more a form of etiquette. In my school, and in Jikiden schools also that I know of, this is never performed in front of outsiders, would never be used as a demo, and would never be used as part of grading, out of respect for its original purpose and those involved. You *can* find videos of both Junto and Kaishaku on YouTube. And if you choose to watch them, I'll explain the actions.

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Iaido Weekend (Guelph, Etobicoke)

2017 05 22 - 12:00

Prior to taking up Iaido, I'd always used square knots in the right over left first fashion. A holdover, no doubt, from years in Brownies and Girl Guides. Right over left and under, left over right and under. But since Iai, it's all knots from the left, and everything on the right is always underneath everything on the left. The left side of the keikogi always covers over the right; knots are tied with the left over the right, and so forth. I point this out only because it's now crossed over into things I do outside of Iai.

It was a long, tiring - but satisfying - weekend. Two days on the feet at two different Iaido events. I'm happy to sit for a little while.

Saturday at the University of Guelph was largely with Galligan Sensei - although an English 7th dan did come for a while - but I can't, for the life of me, remember his name. One thing he did bring up - or at least I think he brought it up, I was a touch mentally distracted - was the purpose of Jodan. I'd always thought of it as a "getting out of the way" move, but it is - or can be - a striking move. He had us 'attack' the wall. I think moreso for placeement than anything, but it reshuffled my thinking on that particular position. Galligan Sensei never fails to blow my mind with how much information she can pack into each moment she's speaking, and still be so clear and concise. This year I didn't take away any points on the various waza, but I finally have shifted my focus when it comes to the power one must put into the left hand. I always knew that, that the left hand is the power and the right hand is the guide, but it just never totally sunk in - for lack of a better way to put it. It's been a bit of a hard one for me, because I'm so right side dominant.

The trip through the bowels of construction at UG to get to the new - and very nice - changerooms, was an adventure. Going through the old - and not so nice - changerooms, wasn't entirely unlike a bad 70s/80s youth-centric horror film where you know that whoever's in the gym locker room alone, is going to get snuffed. It's the scene where the entire movie-going audience is shouting, "Don't go in there!" - but you have to go in there. It was very... orange.

I did get some guidence from Green Sensei regarding standing reiho; but the point I did forget to ask for clarity on, and also forgot to ask Cruise Sensei during the session on Sunday, was about bowing to Sensei if one must do it standing. If you are doing a grading, it's easy - there are only two bows in and two out - one to the sword, the other to the judges. The problem comes in the dojo where, in my school at least, there are four bows in and four out - standing to the shinza, kneeling to the shinza, kneeling to sensei, kneeling to sword. I'm going to guess that if you absolutely must bow to sensei standing, you do it the same way you'd do it during grading or to the shinza standing. My budo buddy during the day for some paired exercise, was a much higher rank than I am, and made me more conscious of seme, of pressure, of the "don't do it" demeanour one must show to one's opponent to put them off drawing their sword.

What I did get from Cruise Sensei yesterday, is a pretty clear idea that most of the koryu waza will be easily adaptable to standing forms; and I finally feel comfortable with most of the first omori-ryu set, except seichuto - that one I still need to learn. It wasn't until we went through them on Sunday, that I realised I did know them better than I thought I did. I wanted to get some more refined pointers regarding standing forms, but there wasn't really enough time. We went from just after 9 until 4. It's a long day. He also refined the position of the sword regarding kneeling bows koryu style vs. seitei style, as well as some other refined points on koryu vs. seitei. But I'm going to need a refresher on those. I also need to ask if judges are going to be fussy about which version of a koryu waza one does during grading. I hope he does another koryu session at some point; or that someone does.

I slept like a rock last night.

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