Sandan Program (Kendo)

 

Image Courtesy of Trinh Ho
Image courtesy of Trinh Ho

Being a kendo nidan is being a person just outside a window display looking in. Then again, that is probably the same for a kendoka at any level but I feel this most strongly now as I am just considering taking the sandan exam next year.

Taking a self-inventory I find so much that needs to be learned and developed, though that is in itself a good thing. Looking inward and seeing nothing is cause for concern.

In the next 9 months my focus will be on the following:

1. Reiho: how I carry myself, how my bogu is worn, and cared for.
2. Kiai: working on finding my true voice. A voice that is effective.
3. Sutemi: learning to open myself up in every way in jigeiko, committing to single actions with alacrity and purpose. Pushing through regardless.
4. Basics: continuous improvement of my footwork and the quality of my strikes.
5. Conditioning: building physical strength and stamina through exercise, developing my lower body and my lung capacity.

With these 5 personal initiatives, I am confident that I will be in an advantageous position in 2015.

Details:

1. Buying new himo for my do, properly folding the hakama and, if necessary, actually ironing the hakama I use for regular training.
2. Committing to a real kiai, not just clearing my throat and exhaling. Directing my kiai to my opponent and, when striking, making it clear and loud (as per my sensei’s instruction).
3. Thinking less of hitting but, instead, hitting with purpose and commitment. Be willing to be hit and not reacting emotionally; making each strike a true combination of my will and my body.
4. Focusing on posture, tanden, ichi-byoshi, and fumikomi. Slower but better has the advantage over faster and sloppier. Kendo is a marathon, not a sprint.
5. My program of heavy bag work, kettlebells, and the training from the NYC Ballet will provide a good basis for the above 4 details and the above 5 areas of focus.

Finally, I will explore my artistic side. My skills are rudimentary, but I enjoy writing and calligraphy (Western and Asian) and I will explore that with greater effort.

Way of the Warrior in the 21st Century

2013 ShinsaAs a kendo practitioner I am attracted to the concept of being a “modern warrior” but I really don’t know what that means. The concept is seductive and empowering but mis-application can lead to ridicule and even injury.

Step one in exploring this concept is understanding what is a warrior. I completely agree with Wikipedia’s definition of the term “warrior.” It is a person dedicated to the art of war and who’s world view and personal behavior is bound and defined by a personal and philosophical code of honor which dictates his (or her’s) every action.

Definition of honor, in my mind, is the concept of a higher code of ethics and personal responsibility that exceeds the value of the life of the person. In effect, death should be less frightening than dishonor.

Are modern soldiers warriors? The term “warrior” is applied to soldiers in the US as a sign of respect, especially in light of the terrible treatment that Vietnam-era soldiers suffered at the hands of their citizens.

In reality, though, soldiers are not warriors. Their behavior is dictated by military policy that demands obedience over anything else. The reason is sensible and derives from the time of fixed-formation movement as far back as ancient times. A soldier cannot ignore an order even if it goes against his code of honor (though he can ignore an order that goes against military policy but that is not the same thing).

Are mercenaries warriors? They can pick and choose their fights and have more freedom than soldiers. I suppose that is possible but most mercenaries (or contract soldiers like those who protect ships from pirates or who work for military contractors) are usually fighting for money which is not something that appears in ethical or moral codes (unless there is an Ayn Rand-themed band of warriors that I don’t know about!).

I think the door has closed on the warrior concept being realized in current times but that doesn’t mean that we cannot take some of the higher concepts from the warrior codes and apply them to our lives, here and now.

Budo, the Japanese concept of the modern martial arts does this really well. A person can study martial arts (whether a budo practice like kendo or the actual science of swordsmanship like one of the traditional sword styles that do not have a sport application) and just taste some of the deeper concepts that once permeated the air of those ancient warriors.

In practice, one can choose to be just, treat others with dignity, and dedicate one’s life to a physical and mental practice that expands their view of themselves and the world around them.

It may be just a taste of a bygone age, but it can still be a sweet and satisfying one.

Keiko – Feb 7, 2014

My calf muscle hasn’t fully recovered it seems and I also know that I was very dehydrated. However, practice the other day was instructive. Some key learning for me:

1. Hydration begins not before the workout but, rather, at the beginning of each day. Drinking water and tea is necessary for stamina and muscle efficiency.

2. Engaging the core. When I do that my moves are more efficient and effective. Activating my lower front and back muscles relaxes my body and lets me focus. This needs to be done always, not just in kendo. It is key.

3. My shoulders drag (but that could be related to not engaging the core) and I need to work on ki-ken-tai-itchi. One thing I can do is focus on striking and then having the foot hit the ground. This may actually help propel me forward after the strike so there is a 2-for-1 reward here!

 

Horse Stance

HorsebackI was chatting with a co-worker and she told me about her experience in equestrian sports and how, as a rider, her goal was to connect with the horse in a symbiotic way, allowing her to direct it.

The connection with the horse required that she would be sitting with spine straight, head and neck in neutral position, abdomen and legs taut and engaged but hips flexible enough to roll with the movement of the horse. If that sounds familiar to people in kendo, it should.

My sensei said that good and correct kendo is done using the body as if one is riding a horse. Spine is straight, chin tucked in, lower back and abdominal muscles tensed and in use, allowing for smooth movement of the upper body.

It is interesting to me how all of the traditional war skills of the past require similar body movements and concepts. For those not involved in martial arts or riding, the rules still apply, though. I recommend that anyone interested in knowing more about this should visit Kelly Starrett’s YouTube channel. Kelly is a medical professional and a CrossFit owner and he has a valuable series of videos on body movement and health. This video is a good introduction.

With that, I will now ride off into the sunset…

Litterae Primum Anni

2014

2014 came in like a lion for me. It was a busy December and with work, vacation, family responsibilities, and assorted errata, I’ve only just had time this week to consider my plans for 2014.

Everyone does this, of course, and most plans do not survive the first series of challenges or obstacles (to paraphrase the military maxim that no plan survives the first day of battle). So I’ve decided to make small but meaningful or fun goals.

And not for the entire year but for smaller chunks of time (months or a quarter). Small steps are what make up a long journey (paraphrasing yet again, as “…the journey of a thousand steps begins with a single step.”).

So some immediate goals or steps for me:

1. Kendo: practice with intensity or meaning as opposed to going through the emotions. Even if that means I gas out sooner, I will over time grow my mental and physical stamina. Small failures lead o success in this sense.

2. Work: be more mindful of my own needs and goals. Ensure that, while I achieve the goals given to me, that I also benefit from my efforts through learning more and taking away positives from every project and initiative that I am involved in.

3. Personal: Take time for myself but in a meaningful way. Sitting in front of a screen passively is not beneficial. Instead, take smaller bites of personal time but enjoy them and make them useful.

Three goals to apply in the next several months in ways both big and small.

Lightness Of Being

Arjuna StatueI had an incredible practice last night. After a good showing at the PNKF Taikai I was feeling confident that my efforts were finally paying off. My sempai had told me that my entire game would change once I started lunging forward (instead of down which really clips my wings).

So last night my game plan was to on focus smooth lunges forward, light swings, and better kiai and floor presence.

That last term, “floor presence” means a mix of really committing to one’s actions, having a comfortable bearing, perhaps even some swagger. It only comes from a natural feeling and not artificial moves or thoughts. For me, that meant choosing to enjoy what I was doing and doing so in a manner consistent with which I truly am as a person.

As a result I truly enjoyed practice. I felt light, smooth(er), and I was not sore the next day as I usually have been in the past. I also was getting more distance and finishing each match with a reserve of energy. I also smiled and even laughed!

That is the joy of kendo that I have been looking for. Even with some tough opponents last night, I felt that “peaceful abode within” that Krishna speaks of in the Bhagavad Gita.

This will be my kendo.

Workout Notes: Oct 27, 2013

Torn ACL DemoComing back from an injury is a mental as well as physical process.  My ACL injury literally hobbled me to the point where I could not do anything.  I have been back to regular kendo practice and am working on getting myself to the level that I was at pre-injury but I have also allowed myself to get distracted from my kendo experience by some of the support work that I do for the club (which I do willingly and which I enjoy doing #noexcuses).

This week’s practices have been disappointing  and need to get myself to what Georges St-Pierre calls the “white belt level.” That is, drop my ego and expectations and start from the beginning, going hard in the paint and embracing the death and destruction that precedes growth and evolution.

And it can be the lightest of touches that starts it all off. To quote the world’s greatest (and most mis-understood) philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “Precisely the least, the softest, lightest, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a flash, a moment – a little makes the way of the best happiness.”

So this week I have a few commitments, some soft touches…:

1. Continuation of flexibility training. Hip explosions and yoga have been great and I need to retain that.

2. MOAR squats! Air squats with a weight bar. This will suck…

3. Kettlebells. KB swings are great for hip and torso strength and flexibility.

4. Suburi, daily.

Breathing

Respiratory SystemSuch a fundamental act and yet something that many people never consider.  Functionally, the body’s demand for air causes inhalation followed by exhalation. The air allows for the release of energy via respiration. More here.

In some forms of meditation one is taught to site erect and breathe in through the nose and then out through the mouth, with the belly and diaphragm doing the work instead of the lungs.

In kendo this is taken a step further where one’s breathing is connected to physical movements; air being pushed out in time with footwork and strikes. Eventually, a form of “disassociated” breathing is attained with the needs of the body syncing the act of breathing with movement; thereby releasing a person to focus more intently and efficiently on their actions.

The simple act of mindful breathing, of just being aware of the sound and feel of breathing, provides one with a sense of comfort and awareness of themselves and their surroundings. Mindful breathing or meditation have been shown to reduce blood pressure and increase mental acuity.

Breathing is a gift that should be appreciated!

 

Yes, U Mad!

Roy Batty in the RainI was chatting with friends after kendo practice last night and I brought up my experience from the previous week which I had posted here.  One of my friends (who coincidentally was an old boss of mine from my days in shipping and logistics) said that what I described was indeed an emotional reaction.

His view was that, no matter how aggressive your opponent is, if you begin reacting to that aggression instead of your own strategy, then you are falling into the trap of emotion, which leads to defeat on many levels. He went on to say, that anger is a form of “losing your mind” and forgetting yourself. Another friend also agreed.

This really struck me and it puts my experience into a different place. Viewing it from my friend’s perspective, by falling into anger, I completely lost the engagement and the only value of it all was my delayed understanding of what I had allowed to happen.

I’m grateful for this learning experience and I will be extremely mindful in the days to come.

U Mad, Bro?

U Mad BroA couple of weeks ago at kendo a friend of mine asked me after class, “Wow, were you mad during our jigeiko?” The question caught me off guard and I think I said something stupid like, “No, but maybe you were!” Yeah, I have to work on that…

Anyway, there certainly is a fine line between aggression and anger in any kind of combat sport. In kendo, the goal is self-improvement and personal growth through the study of swordsmanship and sport. My friend’s question triggered a few days of introspection as I respect his judgement and observations.

In the heat of a sparring session, especially with an aggressive opponent, the symptoms of frustration and eagerness to score can take many forms. I know that I felt a desire to break through and score.

Looking at it now, it is not anger so much as it is a decision to not accept a course of action and using all of my will to change said course.

Yet the comment stuck with me and I am using this as an opportunity to ensure that I what do comes from a spirit of fullness and not one of frustration or anger.