Heat Got Me Down

Dead in the DesertI felt like this last night at kendo. The heat in the gym was stifling with the outside temperature outside still around 85 degrees Fahrenheit at 7:00 PM. As soon as I donned my helmet I started sweating buckets.

We had two visitors, both very strong and athletic players who participated in our workout of high-intensity kakari-geiko and shinsa training. This type of practice has been a new initiative for us as we looked at what other successful clubs had been doing in terms of training and preparing for competition as well as improving standards.

The entire session was very intense and I could not keep up, even though I was receiving as motodachi for most of the time.  The heat was too much for me.

I felt bad, as if I let myself and my club down and, in a sense, I had as I was not able to participate in the later part of class. It was a chastening experience as I had been very excited about upping my game and being a contender.

Taking this as a defeat, I went home and showered up and cleaned my gear before going to sleep soon after.  The next morning, as I prepared for work, I went through what I needed to make sure that I don’t fall short:

1. Not just running but running with equipment or some weight on and in assorted weather patterns. I still feel that sprints are necessary for kendo and, frankly, I hate running. It bores me even if I have good music.

2. Focus on quality kendo and not degrading my efforts just in order to keep up a fast pace. Going full speed doing kirikaeshi but doing so without full big swings and good footwork is just a waste of time. It is better to start slower but correct and then build up from there.

3. Drink water more consistently throughout the day, not just an hour or so before working out. Water and performance are linked together.

4. Don’t eat a large meal, even earlier in the day. When you eat, especially in hot weather, eat smaller meals.

5. Stretch and get acclimated to the heat before class starts. You know there’ll be a “hump” so get over it before class starts.

So now I look forward to the next high-temperature class!

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Just Relax Your Shoulders…

I was chatting with a friend about kendo, specifically about the need to swing smoothly without tension slowing one down.

You can’t relax because people tell you but instructors are always saying, “Relax your shoulders, swing smoothly. As if just saying it will make it so.

To loosen your shoulders you need to accept the fact that tension exists. Just “relaxing” doesn’t happen. To relax certain body parts in order to fulfill a function requires that the tension is soaked away. It just doesn’t magically disappear by force of will.

In terms of sports, specifically the sport of kendo, the goal is to allow for smooth movement of the arms and legs in a single phase. To do that, the “distraction” of tension needs to be removed.

LumbarIn kendo we’re told that the ‘koshi” (back muscles in the small of the back, also commonly know as the lumbar region) and the ‘tanden’ (the area below the belly button) need to be in play. Meaning that they are tensed when executing any movement.

Along with good posture and breath control (breathing out slowly but continuously), these action taken as a whole, dissipates the tension from the upper body, allowing for smoother and more efficient strikes. Less energy is required which is then better utilized for speed, stamina, and power.

Deep Survival

Who lives, who dies, and why. This is part of the title of Deep Survival, a book about why some people  survive while others die in accidents and other human tragedies.

The author, himself an adventurer, begins with the story of his father’s last mission over Germany during World War II. The lone survivor of a B-17 bomber shot down by the Germans, he survived the crash, the severe injuries, and the prisoner camp to come back home, start a family, and live a full life.

As his father’s son, he felt compelled to understand what contributed to his father’s amazing story; basically the Right Stuff that enabled his father, his comrades, and succeeding military people and civilians from then to now to be able to survive horrific events.

Using stories of ship wrecks and mountain climbing and hiking accidents, the author finds and examines the commonalities of the survivors mindsets and actions.

What makes a survivor is also what makes winner at life. The keys, according to author Laurence Gonzales, are:

1.  Humility. Accepting where you are and what got you there. Being open to the world around you.

2. Laughter. Being able to make light of situation so as to better manage it.

3. Spirituality. Seeing the intertwined beauty of the world and one’s place in it. Feeling the higher purpose that we all need to serve in order to serve ourselves.

4. Rationality. Controlling one’s emotions and using them to drive one to survival. Creating a workable plan and apply consistent actions. Being able to make, at times, the necessary cold and hard decisions required for survival.

5. Courtesy. To oneself and fellow survivors. Treating them with respect as a way to ensure that one retains a sense of self.

As a kendo practitioner, this resonated with me. The philosophy of kendo is one that emphasizes courtesy and humility as well as a cold and calculating rationality with an emphasis on a clean victory, empty of the hubris that the ancients gods of Homer’s time punished.

In practice and on the floor in competition and exams, the practitioner uses all of these characteristics to strengthen himself, to honor the judges, and to unsettle the opponent. The fight is often won before it is started because the battle plan, like the survival plan, consists of the spiritual and physical attributes and learnings that lead to success; deployed rationally but with a full commitment.

Whether in sports, business, or in daily life, one must have a plan built from one’s life experiences, philosophy, and education (from schools that include the “school of hard knocks”). Every day is an addition to the lesson plan that will one day be called upon for victory or survival.

Move Your Hips

I’m coming back from a knee injury and have been focusing on my flexibility and form in kendo as a precursor to getting back into full training.

In my last few classes I have been thinking about my form, especially how I use my hips. We’re all taught to press forward with our hips, the small of the back and the left foot driving us forward but, when I watch our class videos, I see that the theory is not always practiced.

There are two reasons:

1. Lack of mindfulness, forgetting posture and basics.

2. Lack of fitness. Soft bellies and weak legs end up making one lean forward from the top to make up for what is not happening down under.

Thankfully due to my injury, I have been very mindful of my form and in my last few classes I have noticed that my energy level is higher and my tension level is lower. In the past, I was easily exhausted, flinging myself around thinking that I was being strong and fast when I was really far from it.

Instead, by having my hips forward and with pressure held down in my tanden (the area around the navel) and breathing out throughout (or as close as I can in this case!), my strikes are solid but not cruel.

The “living sword” versus the “dead sword” as the old swordsmen say.

2013 UW Taikai

Pixelated UW Taikai 2013I participated in the University of Washington’s 2013 Taikai (kendo tournament) today and it was a mostly positive experience for me, despite an injury.

The quality of the players was good and the combat was fierce, including me. Even though I did not go to the next round, I do not blame my injury. I had enough in me to get the job done but my opponent out-powered me and I did not rise to the challenge until it was too late in the round.

Nonetheless, I played a better game than I had before, being more mobile and aggressive (and I think landing a nice kote, but I won’t dwell on that).

I walked away with good information and experience for my next taikai this summer. Some of the things that I will work on:

1. A strength program now that I have gotten to the point with my exercise program where I can start adding weight routines.

2. Cardio and plenty of it. Time for either a good rowing machine or lots of stair sprints!

3. Continue to focus on good kendo but start including multiple techniques and more tai-atari.

The truth of tournaments is that they are sometimes a better test than actual rank exams. Your ego is on the line and the play is fast and aggressive with players using multiple techniques and being a lot more physical.

If you can win or just persevere while others drop out, you have something substantial to take back to your dojo to work on.

Concentration

Amaluna

 

 

I went to see Amaluna, the Cirque du Soleil show which just ended its run in Marymoor Park.  Amaluna is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and has themes of light vs dark, good vs evil, and innocence turning to knowledge.

Prospera - Cirque du SoleilLike all Cirque du Soleil shows, Amaluna was a fantastic experience with great dancing, acrobatics, music, and art. However, one of the most powerful parts of the show was a very quiet but powerful scene in which a performer created a rotating fan with a 6-10 foot radius, picking up each of the long objects with her feet.

It was an amazing experience from a kendo or martial arts perspective because of the sheer concentration and physical balance that was required by the performer in order to pick up each part, balance it, and then continue until it was completed. Additionally, there was a performer sitting in the formal position, known as seiza in Japanese, off to seiza1the side. She was a gymnastic dancer and her poise when sitting was as compelling as the performer she was watching, with perfect form and radiating strength and stillness.

This impacted me and has become a useful benchmark for me as I train and judge my progression in all aspects of my kendo training.

 

Nidan

Mark Men - PNKF ShinsaI passed my nidan (2nd-dan) exam in kendo on March 2nd. I’d been training for this since August and I went in with a feeling of comfortable accomplishment. Whether or I would pass or not, my sense was that I was in a comfortable  nexus point, between wanting to pass and also seeing this as a single way-point on a longer journey.

My preparation for the exam was a return to the basics of kendo. An emphasis on posture, introspection, and commitment to every strike (well, mostly…that last point is a work in progress but I feel that I am adequate to my level for now). I also did gym training to support my kendo efforts.

Things that I did well at my exam:

1. Strong kiai

2. Good breath control

3. Basic, strong strikes, pushing from my hips

4. Not backing away from my opponents

5. Strong and comfortable sonkyo.

There is a lot more that I need to work on but, at this way-point, I will not rest on my laurels as I know that the next two years before I test again must be filled with even harder work.