Friday, December 31, 2010

Cross-training 2: extra training

Members of the Butoku Washinkai who visited Nanseikan in Oct 2010,
practicing a special drill we use to develop upright posture. It was a lot of fun as you can see!

Cross-training is where you regularly do some other kind of exercise in order to help your main activity, in this case kendo. Usually it means doing something completely different such as weigh-training, running or swimming. However I think extra solo training in kendo movements such as suburi and footwork can also count as cross-training.

Why do cross-training?
In previous generations it is likely that people were, on average, physically stronger than we are now. They may have not lived as long due to poor diet and lack of modern medicine, but generally they would have done more physical exercise either because they walked more as transport, or they did more physical labour because they didn't have machines to help them. They also didn't have so much free-time.

In the case of Japanese people, they would have been very strong in their legs and lower body from sitting on the floor. A lifetime of sitting right down on the floor rather than half-way down onto chairs and couches can make a big difference. This is one of the reasons why kendo has evolved the way it has. There is a great emphasis on legs and feet in kendo, maybe because this was naturally a strong point of the Japanese. This difference has been noticeable even up until recently.

Different reasons for cross-training
  • Basic — If you find that your natural strength or energy levels are always being tested by kendo training, in other words, if training leaves you feeling wrecked, then it can be helpful to do some other kind of exercise to build up your basic fitness. This is for people who are fairly new to kendo and who maybe have not done any other sports or martial arts before.
  • Technical — Another reason may be to help with technical issues, such as using too much right hand when cutting. This kind of training uses kendo movements done by yourself to help develop strength and skill, e.g. left-hand only suburi to develop left hand and arm strength.
  • Elite — Lastly, if you are aiming to improve your level of kendo and feel you are ready for intensive training, such as if you are preparing for a high grading, or if you want to do well at a major competition. This kind of training is for people who are already quite fit and ready for kendo, but want to be even more powerful and be able to develop stamina to last for a greater length of time. This is kind of training is similar to that used by elite athletes.

Principles of cross-training
If you want to get really serious about cross-training there is a lot of info on the net such as Caleb linked to in his previous Shugo-Nanseikan article on cross-training.

In the meantime, here are some basic pointers as to what to consider before starting a regime.

(5-11 y.o.) Cross-training does not really help you if you are still in primary school.

(12-14 y.o.) If you are in year 7-9 then some cross-training can be useful, especially if you are a bit unfit and having trouble lasting until the end of training. But in general just regular attendance at training is enough. You may find that some basic training, or some technical training might be helpful.

(15 y.o. +) If you are in years 10-12 in high school or at university, all three kinds of training can be beneficial, depending on what your needs are. It is at this stage that elite training really becomes possible for the first time.

Working out a program - amount
Exactly what you choose to do depends completely on what you want to get out of your cross-training, your age and your current level of fitness and experience. This needs to be worked out between you, your sensei, and in some cases a qualified fitness consultant

In principle, someone with little fitness who is new to kendo does not need to do very much extra training to notice a big difference.

On the other hand, someone who is quite experienced and who is already quite fit will need to do a great deal more cross-training than the beginner in order to see a difference. However at this level, the difference between winning and losing is tiny, and almost entirely dependent on how much you train. There is an old saying used by sports coaches, "When two competitors of equal skill meet, the winner will be the one who has done the most training."

What to do?
This is a question that can only really be answered in talking with your sensei, however I have some personal guidelines that might be helpful.

One thing to keep in mind: it is necessary to exercise the right muscle groups. Exercising the wrong ones can have at best no effect and at worst, actually be bad for your kendo. For instance doing chin ups to make your arms stronger won't help your kendo as your biceps (muscles on the front of your upper arms) are not so important for swinging the shinai correctly. You might even start swinging your sword like Arnold Schwarzenegger—eurgh!

  • Lower body (legs, stomach and hips) - in my opinion, developing fitness in these areas is most important for most people. This is why all Nanseikan training starts with zokin. If you come to training you will know already what that is! Running (as Caleb mentions in his original post) is very good of course, as is cycling, my personal favourite. Other static exercises (ones you can do in one spot) like lunges and burpees are also very good, and there are many, many different kinds. Also swimming that focuses on kicking can develop overall leg strength. Finally, practicing ashi-sabaki (kendo footwork) in your own time is definitely good, as it develops the correct muscles.
  • Upper body (shoulders, arms, chest and back) - in my opinion the best upper body exercises are all based on kendo movements. Weights should only be used by those aged 16 and over. Free weights are best so that you swing them like a shinai. However shinai or suburi-to (extra heavy bokken) are best. Hand-grips are good for improving hand-strength but again, only for upper high school or uni students and older.
Non-strength training
So far all my cross-training tips have been to do with developing strength and/or fitness. But there are other kinds of less physcial cross-training you can do.
  • Meditation - helps to calm and focus the mind. The benefits of meditation are hard to describe, perhaps because they are a little bit different for everybody, but it is certainly very beneficial for kendo. If you do it, you don't have to do it for long. A solid 5 minutes is enough at first. But you must do it regularly. Every day, and at the same time each day, is excellent. Just do the same as mokuso. The aim is not to think about anything at all. If you find that hard (and you probably will!), try listening to every sound around you, no matter how small and hear the direction that it comes from.
  • Tai-Chi - this is an ancient form of Chinese exercise that is a bit like moving meditation done standing. The focus is on breathing and moving the whole body in harmony and the movements are based on kung-fu (or is Kung fu based on Tai Chi? I'm not sure... :D). Of course you need to have an instructor for this, but it is probably the single best martial art to cross-train in for kendo.
  • Yoga - is an ancient Indian form of exercise that's very popular and like Tai-Chi focuses on breathing and harmonious movement of the body into many different positions that stretch the muscles and stimulate energy. Again, you would need to go to separate classes for this.
  • Image training - this can be done anywhere and you don't need to go to separate classes for it! You simply imagine yourself doing the kind of kendo you want to do. A good way to start is think of someone whose kendo you admire and then imagine yourself as that person, doing that kendo. This is sometimes called visualisation. You might already do it and think of it as day-dreaming! Well it's pretty much the same thing.
So, a pretty long post, I hope you made it to the end. Happy cross-training!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Kiai 気合

気合 is a term used in a lot of Japanese martial arts. Ki is a difficult word to translate but it can mean both energy and also spirit. Ai means meeting or harmony. In kendo we usually think of kiai as being something to do with the voice, but that is not strictly what it means. Kiai is a form of communication with your opponent, letting them know your intention to give everything to the match. It is possible for kiai to be completely without sound.

The AJKF Kendo Dictionary defines kiai as:

"The state where one is fully focused on the opponent's move (sic) and one's planned moves. Also refers to vocalisations one produces when in such a state of mind."

So we do use our voice to express kiai but kiai is not just the voice. In Japanese the shout itself is called kakegoe 掛声. The voice is how we begin to understand kiai, using our shout very carefully and deliberately to show our intention. This is why we say ki-ken-tai-itchi is:
  • ki 気 (energy) = the shout
  • ken 剣 (sword) = the cut
  • tai 体 (body) = the right foot
  • itchi 一致 (as one) = happening together
Different kinds of kiai
There are different kinds of voiced kiai in kendo. They include:
  • kiai that tests your opponent
  • kiai that creates an opportunity
  • kiai that expresses your intention to cut
Kiai that tests your opponent
This is the kiai that you produce as soon as you stand up from sonkyo when in a match or keiko. It announces your resolve, your courage. In a sense it asks a question of your opponent: "Are you ready? Because I am!"

This kind of kiai is also used throughout the match as the two kenshi vie for supremacy from the distance of to-ma.

There are no set words or sounds for this kind of kiai. Everyone eventually develops their own sound with their own "words" (which of course aren't words at all). Often one's kiai will change over time, even after it has reached 'maturity'.

Kiai that creates an opportunity
The previous kiai can easily lead to this kind of kiai. There is an old school of naginata that has a specific word for this kind of voiced kiai, and that is yagoe 矢声, or "arrow-voice". It means sending your voice out like a weapon that strikes your opponent even before your attack does.

This kind of focused kiai is not an easy technique to achieve each and every time, but we could say it comes from a very powerful intention to overcome one's opponent. Usually the opportunity that such a kiai gives us to attack is extremely small, especially with experienced opponents, so there is no time to sit back and watch for their reaction. You step in with your body and your spirit, confident that you will overcome them, and then you attack with confidence immediately.

Kiai that expresses your intention to cut
This is the kiai that happens when you cut. It must be in unison with your cut and your body movement. It is either "MEN!", KOTE!", "DO!" or "TSUKI!"

In the beginning it can sometimes be difficult for shinpan (referees) to detect an inexperienced person's intention through their attitude, especially since kyu grade matches can become very messy. So it is necessary for the kiai of junior kenshi to be very clear as well. As they become more experienced it is easier to tell what their intended target was and whether they have achieved their aim, so this is when the actual sound of "men", "kote", etc, becomes a little blurry. It is not so necessary for a senior kenshi to pronounce the words properly, or even at all, for the shinpan to know when they have scored correctly.

However even if your kiai is not clear in terms of what it sounds like, I believe it should still be loud, it should be long and it should start at the moment of cutting, not after or before. Lately there has been a fashion for Japanese kenshi of university level (sometimes as high as police level) to produce their kiai quite a moment after their cut has been made. Personally I believe this is a kind of affectation and should not be imitated.

What is a good sound to make?
Apart from the names of the datotsubui (target areas), the best kiai sound I believe is "Yaaa!" With experience you will find a sound that fits, not your personality, but your body. But you will come up with it naturally. In the meantime, "Yaaa!" is a very good start. It is simple. It prepares your body for action. It can be projected easily and forcefully. And it doesn't mean anything embarrassing in any language that I know of!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Zanshin 残心

Zanshin translates as "remaining mind". In basic terms its kendo meaning is follow-through. Zanshin in its fundamental form means moving forwards after completing one’s attack and hence passing by one’s opponent, then at a safe distance quickly turning and taking up kamae ready to continue, regardless of the success or failure of one’s previous actions.

In other words, you follow through the same whether your cut scores or not. It is the readiness to follow-through both with your body and your mental attitude.

Zanshin is a natural by-product of one’s commitment to, and momentum from, the attack. It cannot be added if/when one sees one’s attack has been successful. If you do try to add it on after you've seen that your attack worked, then it only shows that the attack itself was a fluke.

Kiai in the form of a sustained, powerful voice should be used to assist zanshin:


Zanshin is expressed in the Bokuto Kihon not as follow through, but as a mindful drawing back to distance, maintaining focus on the opponent by keeping the kensen pointed at their throat. Your threat is not lowered until you return to kamae.

Zanshin is expressed in Nihon Kendo no Kata in various ways appropriate to the techniques employed in each kata: sometimes following through (sanbonme, nanahonme), sometimes drawing back (gohonme), sometimes taking a new kamae such as jodan (ipponme, ropponme).

Zanshin and sutemi are inextricably linked. Your commitment to your attack results in a momentum that cannot be stopped and must be expressed somehow. This expression is zanshin. It also can refer to a kind of "situational awareness". This is a term used in Military and Law Enforcement training to describe a mind that in always alert for danger.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Seme - overview

Seme 攻め means to attack, in the sense of 'to storm a castle'. When I was first learning kendo it was translated as 'pressure', that you put pressure on your opponent. I think it is that too, but it is more than just pressure.

How does it work?
I have spoken about seme a few times in different articles, and very often in the dojo. It is one of those things that is easy to talk about but hard to put into practice!

Seme is a force which creates the opportunity for you to strike your opponent.

Seme does not happen accidentally, it happens because you make it happen. In English we usually say that someone 'creates seme'.

You create seme by convincing your opponent that you are about to do something that they will not be able to stop.

So you have to be able to threaten your opponent convincingly. There are several ways that can happen. The first group are physical threats:
  • you threaten them with your size
  • you threaten them with your speed
  • you threaten them with your appearance (how you look in their eyes)
  • you threaten them with your kiai
  • you threaten them by closing distance
  • you threaten them by knocking their shinai off-line
  • you threaten them with your attacks
There are also non-physical threats, known generally as kizeme 気攻 which are much more subtle and come mostly through experience. These are outside the range of this article. However in principle they have a lot to do with knowing your opponent and being able to stifle their plans, creating a sense of threat with little or no physical movement on your part.

But to return to the physical actions above, let's look at them one-by-one.

Threaten with your size
This is easier for big people because they are used to seeing others react to their size all the time in everyday life, but it is still possible for everyone to create a sense of size to their kendo. To do this you need:
  • good posture, so that you are as tall as possible
  • a well-shaped men, to create an imposing shape
  • well-looked after dogi, especially a hakama that is straight and the right length
  • self-confidence
  • the feeling that you are looking down on your opponent, even if they are taller
  • an enormous kiai – there are no height limitations to this!
Threaten with your speed
Of course this works for people who are naturally fast, but speed is not just how quick you move, it is whether you can move before your opponent. It means being first by seeing the opportunity to act before your opponent does. Everyone can improve their speed by:
  • regular suburi at home
  • other exercise, especially for the lower body like running, bike riding or soccer
  • getting to the dojo before training and being ready at the designated start time (not arriving at the designated start time and being ready 10mins later)
  • being first to understand instructions and act on them
  • being first person to put on men and be ready in line
  • being first to do keiko with sensei or experienced visitors
Threaten with your appearance
This relates closely to 'size', and many of the points are similar. If you have clean and well-maintained bogu and dogi (including tenugui that is washed and ironed before each training) you will make an impression on your opponent as someone they should take seriously. The way you act when not training is also important: no chit-chat during training (before and after yes, during - no.), no chewing gum, no leaning, no sitting down with legs outstretched, no leaning against the walls or furniture, etc, etc.

When fighting, your face gives away a lot about you and your intentions. Keep a calm and emotionless face – it's more threatening and less tiring than a war-face.

Always keep the best posture you can. Pull your chin in, shoulders down and back, tilt your pelvis back slightly, weight even on both feet, glide lightly across the floor. The way you stand should show a sense of grace and dignity. It will make you seem tall, whether you are or not.

Threaten with your kiai
When each keiko starts, you must begin with your best kiai. This is the first waza (technique) of any keiko.

Over time, your kiai will naturally become stronger, more impressive. This is not just about how loud you are but about your character. You kiai tells your opponent that you will never give up, and that you are confident in your abilities. It is an upward spiral – your kiai will also give you that confidence. As you say it, at that very moment it becomes the truth.

Threaten by closing distance
Being the first to close the distance to your striking distance (uchima) is the way we train basics (kihon) at our club. From far distance (to-ma), step confidently in to striking range (uchima) and kiai "YAAA!". Then cut men and follow through. This is our normal sequence.

So this closing of distance should be familiar. The main points are:
  • do not step in unless you have a strategy
  • step in with utmost confidence and decisiveness always
  • always aim to step in straight and take control of the centre-line (chushin). Never go around your opponent's kensen!
  • step in and quickly come to a position from where you are balanced, ready, and can strike. This means stepping in without crossing your feet.
  • bring your back foot into position with lightning speed
When the tip of your sword crosses that of your opponent, it is like invading another country. Be ready to go all the way to the capital city and capture it decisively without hesitation, then you will have conquered your enemy competely!

Threaten by knocking their shinai off-line
This is not just a technique for creating an opening, it can also be research into your opponent's mindset and how they react. Do they flinch? Do they start to attack as an automatic reaction? Is their grip weak or strong?

Done at the right moment and with enough tenouchi, a slap of the shinai can also have a strong psychological effect, worrying or distracting your opponent enough that they forget their strategy for a moment. It can be done with or without kiai, with or without fumikomi. But it should be done no more than about twice in any keiko or shiai. It must always have a purpose—either to create an opening to attack straight away (as in harai waza) or to observe your opponent's reactionotherwise it becomes a sign not of your confidence but of your nervousness.

Threaten with your attacks
This is what it all comes down to – will you follow through with your threats?

"OK", says your opponent to themselves, "they look confident and they sound pretty loud. Are they really that tough? Oh, they've stepped in to range... what are they going to do about it?"

If your opponent is thinking that way, this is good. But if they get to have that whole last thought, then you haven't acted, but have just stood there looking impressive when actually you're just a paper tiger. Pretty soon your opponent will know they can control and dominate you mentally without too much trouble. No matter what you do to try to create seme, it won't have any effect, because it carries no threat. They know that nothing's going to happen. This is where seme becomes difficult.

This is how it should sound in your opponent's mind:

"OK. They look confident and they sound pretty loud. Are they really that tough? Oh, they've stepped in to range... wha--"


Just as they start to wonder, you cut off that thought with your attack. Even if it doesn't score, you've now got them on the back foot. They know you will attack if you need to, that your seme has a real threat to it, and that you are now controlling their thought process, not the other way around.

This is the beginnings of seme.