Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mokuso and breathing

Last week I spoke at training about breathing during mokuso. This is a very important topic and you should think about this when you are not at training.

Anatomy of breathing

When we breathe normally, most of us use less than 50% of our total lung capacity. It is said that children under about 2 years of age use much more of their lung capacity every time they breathe, but that we lose that ability as we grow older.

Most of us breathe in a very shallow way, using just the top part of our lungs. When we are asleep or doing very heavy exercise we naturally breathe much deeper. When we yawn it is because our brains are a bit short of oxygen and yawning is the body's way of making us stop what we are doing and taking a very deep breath that fills our entire lungs.

thanks Wikipedia

The part of the body that helps us to breathe is the diaphragm (pronounced - "die-a-fram"), which is a thin sheet of muscle under the lungs. When the diaphragm contracts, it makes the space inside your chest grow larger, which in turn creates suction that draws air into your lungs. People who train to use their voices such as opera singers and stage actors learn how to control this muscle consciously. They learn how to breathe like little children again.

Breathing in mokuso

A simple way to start breathing from your diaphragm is to do what babies do. When you breathe in, push your stomach out. You will find that you take in a lot more air with not much more effort.

When you breathe out, do it quite slowly. The outward breath should last for at least twice as long as the breath in.

Make sure your face is relaxed and calm. Don't think about anything at all. Breathe in and out through your nose. Keep your back as straight as possible without straining.

How long should we do mokuso for?

Mokuso should be done long enough for everyone in the dojo to become calm, and a very deep silence to occur. The Dojo Captain should measure about three deep breaths before clapping to signal yamé. In clock time this might be between 20 and 40 seconds, however clock time really becomes irrelevant during meditation. A good mokuso won't be achieved if someone in the group is looking at the time! You know a deep silence has occured when the Dojo Captain claps and you get a little shock. You might even feel like you have no idea how long that mokuso was. 

Why should we breathe more deeply?

The reason it is good to take in more air is it fills your blood with oxygen. This helps to reduce how tired you get, helps you recover more quickly, and helps your brain to work more efficiently. It also helps to calm your mind, and with some practice, can actually change the way you think. Many people also believe it extends your life and keeps you healthy.

It is very hard to breathe like this all the time, so mokuso or meditation gives us the opportunity to concentrate on doing it deliberately.

It is still not very well understood by science, but meditation and breathing can enable people to do amazing things. I believe that it can help to increase our awareness to the point where it is possible to predict the future. Not a long way into the future, just half a second or so, but that's more than enough for kendo.

Other kinds of breathing

There is at least one other kind of breathing you can do during mokuso. This special breathing is designed to increase your ki (気). I mentioned it at training, however I won't go into detail here. If you want to know more, see me at training.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Zokin - cleaning the floor

We always clean/mop/polish the floor before training. This is partly because it is a big part of Japanese culture, but also because it is good exercise for the lower body and for balance.

Cleaning the floor by hand in such a careful way really helps you to feel like the dojo belongs to you and that the floor is very important. You literally and metaphorically become close to the floor!

When the local church youth group has had Friday pizza night and left ground in pineapple pieces and ham all over the floor (like there was this morning!) then a really good scrub is needed anyway.

Naoki Eiga used it as a way to go back to basics and reconstruct his kendo from scratch.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Start each training session slowly

Yesterday I observed that everyone went into their first kirikaeshi in a rush. As I mentioned to you all, this had the effect of ruining your kirikaeshi and possibly putting you in a negative frame of mind for the rest of training. Cuts and footwork were not synchronised, cuts were off target and generally the effect was that everyone's kirikaeshi looked terrible and left them feeling like their kendo was also terrible. This can be easily avoided.

It is important to start slowly, even if others around you are rushing.

When you are only training once a week (or less!), it is very important to get the basic movements correct before you attempt to do them fast, each and every time you start training. If you are training three times a week or more then you can start each training at full speed. But less than twice a week and you need to re-learn the movements briefly at the beginning of each training. By the end you will be back "up to speed", but at the beginning you will often be rusty.

In the beginning, do your cuts, and especially kirikaeshi, as slowly as you need to, in order that each and every cut lands on target and your whole body is moving in unison. This takes conscious effort, especially if others around you are going quickly. You will need to force yourself to slow down.

Slow versus sluggish
Going slowly on purpose is different to feeling sluggish. Sluggishness is when your mind wants to move quickly but your body doesn't seem to be responding.

Moving slowly, on the other hand, is when your intention is to move slowly. This is a good way of warming up a sluggish body. Don't try and go fast, but allow your body time to respond.

Slow versus fast technique
Sometimes we feel good in our bodies, and yet our technique seems to be worse than normal. This is also when starting slowly can help. The phrase Shingitaiitchi (心技体一致) means "mind, technique and body as one". So it means getting the technique, the energy in your body and your intention all to match up. If any one of those things is lacking, if one is racing ahead of the other two, then nothing will work. After you have integrated the three aspects together you will be able to speed up your overall movement.

Practice at home
If you practice at home, you improve the rate at which you develop skills at training. Even though you have no training partner, doing suburi or even just footwork drills can help enormously. Then when you are back in the dojo, things will flow much better for you.

Perfect practice makes perfect
It's true. Don't practice mediocre technique. It just means you are training to become mediocre. Make sure when you are doing things over and over that they are the best you know how to do. Even if you are not sure what's wrong, you should ask if you feel like your technique is not working as it should. Check yourself regularly. Imitate the people whose kendo you admire. Aim for the ultimate swordsmanship. That's the way to develop your kendo.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kendo and geometry: are we robots?

A geometrical explanation of arc from Wikipedia

I've mentioned this before at training and it may be difficult to grasp at first hearing, so I'll explain it here again for those curious.

The body doesn't like geometry

Most martial arts popular today are unarmed arts. They focus on one fighter using their body against an opponent to gain advantage. This means that it is two human bodies clashing. The human body is an organic, flexible thing, with precise ways it can move and precise ways it can't move. Understanding the difference is very important in arts like Aikido, Judo, Jujutsu and so on. Throws and locks involve one fighter wrapping (part of) their body around the opponent to unbalance or subdue.

In short, there are no absolutely straight lines. Unarmed fighters might talk about the "line of attack" but this is an abstract or imaginary concept like chushin. It is never a completely straight line. The human body doesn't ever fit a completely straight line.

Kendo, of course, is different.

We still have our bodies, which are human and flexible and hate straight lines. But we have our sword, which is perfectly straight, and this is where all the difficulty in kendo begins.

The geometry of kendo

For any attack to function properly in kendo, we have to move the sword according to its nature, not ours. We must think in terms of geometry, in lines, planes and arcs. This applies to both shinai, which is straight when seen from any angle, as well as bokuto and Nihonto (real sword), which are curved in side view but straight when seen from the top or bottom.

The sword will only cut if it moves through the air perfectly straight. Any wobbles or wavering will mean the sword will either not cut properly or will bounce off the target. With the shinai this is seen when the cut slides off or glances the target area. For the cut to "stick", the downswing has to be geometrically straight, moving through a two dimensional plane. Actually it helps to think of the sword itself as a flat, two dimensional object, like a piece of paper, rather than a three dimensional object, which of course it is.

Making theory work

This is fairly easy to understand in theory, but much harder to put into practice. Even experienced kenshi can have difficulty with making every cut land properly. The reason for this is our bodies. We move in three dimensions very easily: up, down, sideways, in and out, around and around, often all at once! Our elbows are simple hinges that move in only two dimensions, but they are connected to shoulders that are ball-and-socket joints, so our arms can move in almost any direction.

But to be able to cut effectively with a sword the way we do in kendo, it would almost be better to have shoulders that were simple hinges which only allowed our arms to move up and down.

To be able to move in this mechanical way takes a lot of muscular training. In kendo, we call this kind of training suburi. It is only through lots of suburi that you can train your three dimensional, flexible body to move in a two-dimensional, robotic way.

Speaking of which, have a look at this video of a kendo robot built by a South Korean University. You might get a better idea of how the human body moves by watching the way the robot's arms and shoulders have been made.

It's not bad at kendo, but it does make the beginner's mistake of using too much right hand!

What about the rest of the body?

It's not just about the arms. Your feet have to get you into the right position and your spine should always be vertical, no matter which direction you cut is moving. These are important principles in kendo.

Another important principle is that the cut should nearly always be done so that your hands finish with a feeling of coming towards your centre of gravity, in other words, your hara. It is a fact of human biomechanics that while it is possible to train your body to do almost anything you like, certain movements are naturally easier and more stable. Try drawing a straight line on a piece of paper. Draw the line coming towards you. Draw another starting close and moving away from you. Which was straighter? Which part of the line wobbled most? I'll bet the line coming toward you was straighter, and the closer your hand was to your body, the less it wobbled.

This same principle works with the cut. The more we can keep our hands moving directly in front of our body, the more stable and controlled our movements will be.

But I don't want to be a robot!

I'm not saying robots would make better kenshi, they wouldn't. But some parts of kendo technique need to be practiced over and over until they are as consistent as a robot would do them. And this practice doesn't stop because our whole lives we need to keep our muscles trained. But when they are well-trained, we can move in amazing ways, using both the body's flexibility and its stiffness for our purpose.

Watch this video below of Indian classical dancer Savitha Sastry from the Bharatanatyam tradition. Particularly watch how she moves from 1:40 onwards. She is always balanced. She can make incredibly beautiful shapes with her arms and legs: sometimes straight and sometimes curved. The extent to which she can bend her wrists would have taken years of flexibility training. She can move her arms to an exact angle and then perform another move before returning her arms to that exact angle again without checking herself. She can accelerate, decelerate, balance, glide or stop on a dime. She makes unnatural movements look strangely natural and yet we can't really work out how she has done it, because her smile makes us think she is using no effort.

My point is Ms Sastry's training would have been just as rigorous and robotic as ours, probably more so. But the effect is far from that of a robot. It has simply allowed her to do things that no person can do naturally. And yet when she does, you can't see the effort so it looks like she's making it up on the spot.

If you can do kendo like this, then you can be my teacher. Seriously.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The 2011 Tour de France from a Kendo perspective

Cadel dodges spectators on the Alpe d'Huez stage of the 2011 Tour de France

It was very exciting to watch Cadel become the first Australian to win the Tour de France. In the hundred years of the race only two non-Europeans have ever won the race and both of them were Americans. It is a massive achievement.

There have been some parallels between the way Cadel won and what we aim for in Kendo. He was gracious and humble in victory, just like a Kenshi. He did what was required to win and nothing more. And he saw the precise moment when he needed to act and he acted decisively, throwing everything into it and holding nothing back.

For those of you who didn't watch the race or don't know about it, the Tour de France is three weeks of cycling around France with each day representing one "stage": a distance of anywhere between 50 and 200km, through all kinds of terrain. Some stages are short and run as time trials, with each rider starting at three minute intervals and trying to clock the fastest time for the course. Other stages are much longer as the race travels around the French countryside. There is much riding through mountains where the smaller riders generally have the advantage. And then there are many flatter stretches where the big, powerful riders can take over. Racers compete as part of a team, and each team has a lead rider, who is the one all other members of the team are helping to win. A team member who is not the lead rider will never try and challenge for first place, but rather they will work together with their teammates to prevent other teams' lead riders from beating theirs.

At every stage the rider with the most points based on their time so far is awarded the "Yellow Jersey". Very often the rider with the Yellow Jersey is not the same rider who is the winner of a particular stage, but they are the most consistently fast overall. There are other special jerseys representing those who are currently in the lead in different divisions (white for best young rider, green for best sprinter and white with red polka dots for best climber or "King of the Mountain"). But the Yellow Jersey is the one everyone wants.

Throughout the 2011 Tour de France, Cadel never wore the Yellow Jersey. But he was never further back than third place. Then, on the third last day, on the stage to Alpe d'Huez, Cadel saw some of his rivals stage a breakaway. This is where a rider puts on a sudden and sustained burst of speed in the hope of creating such a gap that they can maintain the lead until the end of the stage. Sometimes this leads to victory and sometimes it just leads to exhaustion. It takes a lot of courage, stamina, and knowing your own body as well as the course to stage a successful breakaway.

When his rivals took off, Cadel was left at the front of the 'Peloton'. The Peloton is the name for the main group of riders and it sticks together a bit like a large flock of birds. The reason for this is that it is much easier to ride behind someone else, than it is to ride by yourself. The lead riders carry you along in their slipstream.

Cadel drags the Peloton up the mountain

When Cadel saw the others charge off into the distance, he was wary of wasting effort to chase them down by himself. He waited to see what the rest of the Peloton would do. Everyone just kept to the same pace as if they were happy to let the breakaway group go. This was where Cadel realised he had to act. In his head he did the calculations about the next two days: tomorrow would be a 42 km timetrial and the day after a slow day where the owner of the Yellow Jersey would, by tradition, remain unchallenged all the way into Paris and the finish line. In other words, Cadel knew that if didn't have the Yellow Jersey by the end of the timetrial he could not win. And he knew that there was a limit to how much time he would be able to make up over a 42 km time trial. If his big rival Andy Schleck put on too much of a lead today, he would never catch him tomorrow. Now was the time he had to give chase, and he would do it by himself if necessary.

Which is what he did. He led the Peloton for more than 15 minutes up through the mountains and managed to keep Schleck's lead down to 57 seconds. Being in front meant he was using far more energy than everyone else, and 15 minutes at top speed riding up a mountain is hard at the best of times. But he had to risk exhausting himself if he was to stay in with a chance. Looking back, this was the moment where his victory was set up. This 15 minutes would prove decisive.

The second last, and most decisive day came and Cadel still wasn't in the Yellow Jersey. He would let someone else have the honour and psychological advantage of wearing it. Perhaps being in yellow would give Schleck the edge in the time trial. But Cadel had timed his run well. In not needing to own the Yellow Jersey, Cadel had not overdone it. He used as much effort as he needed to stay in the top three, now second place, and in doing so had left something in reserve. The time trial would be where he would spend everything he had been saving for the last three weeks.

In the end Cadel not only caught up to Schleck's lead but overtook it by a minute or so. He was so fast that he finished the time-trial with the second fastest time, and finished the day being awarded the Yellow Jersey. That meant so long as he stayed on his bike all the way into Paris, he was the winner.

It's nice to have the Yellow Jersey during the Tour de France, but there's only one day where it really matters who wears it and that's the last day. Cadel let others mind it until he needed it, then he made it his.

Humility, no wasted effort, seizing the opportunity: that's Kendo.

The last stage, the ride into Paris, is traditionally a relaxed affair. Cadel enjoys champagne during the race—how French!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

How can I perform drills realistically?

Doing basics realistically is a big part of kendo. If you do not perform them in a way that is realistic, you may be developing habits that will hold your kendo back.

On the one hand if you rush your movements in an attempt to make them fast, you risk distorting your technique so that you may never achieve a winning point, a real yuko datotsu.

On the other hand, always performing waza slowly may not allow you to make the most of the brief opportunities to strike when you are faced with a "live" opponent.

There must be a balance between both sides. Things are made even more complicated when you are performing waza in drills as motodachi. How can you be realistic in spite of the fact that you already know what your opponent is going to do?

What is "realistic"?

"Realistic" means where you are performing the drill or technique under a similar kind of stress to what you would experience in jigeiko or shiai. It means performing at your highest level, and without feeling that the situation is safe or easy. When you succeed with performing a waza done in this way, you should feel a sense of achievement, not just a sense that you've done yet another men uchi.

The main way of being able to do this is from experience. In other words, the more experienced you are, the more easy it is to flick the "realism" switch.

So, yet another reason to get to training as much as possible!

How can I be realistic?

There are two situations to consider in this question.

When you are the one performing the technique (kakarite):

Firstly all the preparation for the cut, what happens at the beginning, should be correct. So, correct kamae, good posture.

Next, you need a big kiai and at the same time, you need to really observe your opponent. What are they doing? What is their build? How should you be attacking them?

Next, seme-ashi and maai: step in to an appropriate distance. This is VERY important. Exactly where you come to before your cut will depend on several different factors (your size, your opponent's size, whether your opponent is standing still, moving towards you or moving away from you, the type of cut you are performing, etc), and will decide whether your cuts succeeds or not.

Next, the cut. If your intention and your technique are in harmony, in other words if the speed you wish to move and the speed your body actually moves are the same, then your technique will be smooth and integrated. In kendo this is sometimes called shingitaiitchi 心技体一致 (mind, technique and body as one).

Next zanshin. Whether or not your technique is smooth or successful, following through as if it has been, without any sense of disappointment or satisfaction. Your zanshin should be big, and a natural result of the power of your preparation and the cut itself. I have spoken at training before about how I feel our zanshin is too weak. Particularly I noticed this about my own zanshin while watching video of my 6-dan shinsa. We all need to work on this.

Lastly, reflect: did you really score the best cut you could? Would that have scored ippon in a match? Did you try your hardest? Yes? No? Why? Think honestly for a moment, find your answer and then move on. Don't be disappointed or beat yourself up if you made a mistake. Don't get too cocky if your cuts are all brilliant. Just reflect, adjust if necessary, repeat.

As the person receiving (motodachi):

When you are receiving it is important first to know what the drill is that you are receiving.

Next you must observe the kakarite's movements.

Do not react until you feel some genuine intention to attack coming from your opponent.

Only then should you show an opening, and then the opening should be clear but not too large.

When you are performing a more complicated drill, such as one where you perform some action first like a men cut, you must know what the drill is going to be. You must also try genuinely to win, to score ippon. This is how you make it a proper practice for your partner, to give them a 'live' partner even though it is a pre-arranged drill.

However you must also then forget it is a drill and just focus on going for the men cut. By that I mean, try to forget that you know your partner is going to attempt, for instance, suriage men. Just imagine it is a match and that there is an opening for men in front of you and you go for it, 100%.

If you do not forget it is a drill to practice men-suriage-men but you try all-out to win, then you will, without meaning to, change the angle of your cut so as to stifle the suriage-waza of your partner. You will certainly win the ippon, but you will have ruined the practice of your partner. This is not good.

It is very easy to do this when you know already what your partner is going to do. It may give you a momentary pleasant feeling to score a nice cut. But it is not real and it is frustrating for your partner and anyone who trains with you.

This is why being a motodachi is usually the job of a senior grade, because it requires maturity and some experience to be able to perform the motodachi's role correctly so that it is both realistic, and is also a benefit for your partner. By maturity I mean it requires someone who is able to put their partner's need to train above their own need to win, to think of someone else before themselves.

We can all start thinking about this and trying to put it into practice no matter where we are in our kendo journey.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hiki waza 引き技

In kendo, hiki waza are techniques performed going backwards. Usually they are performed from the position called tsubazeriai.

Hiki waza need to be practiced to be really understood, but there are a few simple ideas that can help you to perform hiki waza more easily.

What hiki waza are there?

There are basically three kinds of hiki waza:
  1. hiki-men,
  2. hiki-kote
  3. hiki-do

When to perform hiki waza

Hiki waza must be performed when you are at a distance that is too close to be able to cut with the monouchi (top one third) of the shinai's blade. Usually this means when you are close enough for your kote and your opponent's kote to touch.

Hiki waza cannot be performed if you have moved forward towards your opponent in order to close distance and attack. In other words you can't run in, attack and run back out again. If you run in, you follow through forward. If you are already in, you may cut and retreat.

Basic pointers on how to perform hiki waza

Hiki waza should be performed with a single step backwards. This step can either be a fumikomiashi (stamping step) or suriashi (sliding step). Beginners in particular should start by using suriashi. Experienced kendoka who are having trouble with correct striking distance should return to using suriashi as well, so as to fix their retreating movement.

Ideally, hiki waza should be performed with as straight a posture as possible. This helps with accuracy of the cut, especially for hiki-kote, and with overall body timing and movement (that is, getting everything to happen at once) and zanshin (following through).

Zanshin is performed moving backwards, away from the opponent. As with kihon waza, you should keep the finishing position of the cut after hiki waza as you retreat. Then at a safe difference return to chudan no kamae. The one exception to this is where, after a small, fast hiki men, it is acceptable to lift the sword into a furikaburi position. This is where the sword is held straight up above the head at a 45 degree angle.

Seme for hiki waza

Like all techniques in kendo, opportunities don't just happen, you need to create them, using seme.

Seme for hiki waza is created using both your hands and the movement of your body while still in tsubazeriai. This is a situation in kendo where circular movements become as important as straight ones.

To create an opening from tsubazeriai you need to combine both the pressure of your hands on your opponent's hands as well as the rotation of your body from the hips to create a new chushin (centre-line). Prior to attempting hiki-waza, try to brush aside your opponent's sword by controlling their hands. You can also push down to induce a counter-movement, e.g. push down on their hands, when you release their hands will naturally spring up a little showing an opening for hiki-do.

In fact there is almost as much variety in these shikake (attacking) openings for hiki waza as there are for kihon waza going forwards.

As Musashi might say, you should practice this well!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ki-ken-tai-itchi and unweighting or "How to get your right foot and cut to land at the same time".

At Nanseikan we often use the term kikentaiitchi (気剣体一致) to refer to the timing of the right foot with the moment of striking the opponent with the sword. It is one of the most difficult aspects of kendo technique. Many people spend a long time trying to achieve it. I spend a lot of time trying to explain it, but I never feel like I can do so in words. It is something that just needs to be practiced with the body to be able to understand.

However there are a couple of important points worth thinking about when it comes to KKTI.

Suburi timing vs sho-men uchi timing

One of the difficulties comes from the the fact that we teach beginners one kind of timing when they first learn suburi, then expect them to learn a completely different and contradictory timing when they start to hit their opponent.

Suburi timing involves lifting the hands for the upswing as soon as the front foot slides forward, with the downswing coming as the back foot slides into place.

Sho-men uchi on the other hand requires no movement of the feet or body with the upswing, but then a co-ordinated lunge and step forward with the whole body when you strike. The stamping step is called fumi-komi ashi. The action of kicking off with the back foot to drive your body forwards is called fumi-kiri dosa.

Being able to do both these two conflicting timings whenever you choose is quite difficult but will come with practice.


No, I don't mean "waiting"! I mean how you weight each foot when you do kendo. Many people say you should have your weight a bit towards your back foot, say 40% front, 60% back because you cannot move your front foot when you weight is resting on it. That's wrong for two reasons. Firstly you can't move your front foot when there is any weight resting on it. Secondly it means you are starting by leaning backwards with your body, which doesn't fit with the kendo mindset of always attacking forwards.

There is a very clever way of getting around this problem of "un-weighting" the front foot without having to lean backwards first. It is clever because it also helps us with achieving kikentaiitchi, and even many other shikake waza such as harai waza, ose waza and makiotoshi waza.

You fall forwards.

With your weight evenly on both feet, apply a small amount of extra pressure with your left heel (which as we know is always slightly raised in kamae).

This will cause your centre-of-gravity to move forwards. In other words you will start to lose your balance because you body is moving forwards but your feet are staying still. At the same time as you apply this pressure with your left heel, push your left hand forwards. This starts your backswing.

Just as you reach the point where you are really about to fall over, your swing should be at its apex (highest point, which is 45 degrees above your head for kihon waza). At this point your feet should not have moved, which means your shoulders will be closer to your opponent than your front foot, not a position you can stay in!

So before you fall flat on your face, kick off with your left foot.

At the same time, bring your sword down to cut the target area. Allow the sole of your right foot to land flat on the floor, which is the fumi-komi ashi.

Then bring your left foot up and continue to follow through using okuri ashi.
When the cut and the right foot are in unison, this is the basic achievement of kikentaiitchi.