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.