Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Martial Arts and Me

I have a long on-again off-again affair with the martial arts. Through my late teenage and young adult years I was a student of Shudokan, an Okinawan style of karate-do that descends through Toyama Kanken. When I moved away from my hometown, I didn’t pick it up again. It isn’t like the style is taught all that many places and I just never acclimated to the idea of having to re-learn or restart in a new style, though there are other Okinawan and Japanese styles having much in common with Shudokan.

Moving back, for reasons both complicated and expired, I had again enrolled with my old instructor. This time my family attends as well. They are taking karate-do and doing all the things I remember from my youth.

I flirted a bit with iaido (iaijutsu to some) before moving back, and as luck would have it there is an instructor for Japanese sword at our dojo. So instead of karate, I’m enrolled in aikiken, the sword forms created as an adjunct to aikido training, with our sensei adding more traditional iaido and battojutsu forms and the standard seitei kata.

Sword training isn’t directly practical for self-defense in the same way karate is. If you aren’t living in the Highlander TV show you probably aren’t carrying a sword around with you day and night, ready to duel at the drop of a hat. The training CAN be applied to improvised weapons like broomsticks and pool cues, but much of our work focuses on drawing and sheathing, which is completely unnecessary with a stick you grabbed in a bar.

The training is more about overcoming mental barriers. The adversary in this case being one’s self as all the martial arts maxims term it. But with more focus on this particular conflict than against another outside oppenent. It requires focus, dedication, patience, observation, and stamina. Improving these things would, of course, make you better able to handle dangerous situations. Physically-speaking, the improvements in your arm strength, agility, reaction time, and perception of maai (the time/distance combat interval) would all be a great advantage as well. Because I already have some karate training, I’m finding that iaido does a lot to hone the aspects of combat that are much harder to explain or get an easy grasp of.

Japanese and Okinawan karate teach you to be mentally defensive (never be the initiator) but once ‘it’s on’ they are an aggressive, offense-oriented approach. Get in quick, dispatch with a one-hit one-kill mentality, get out. And my iaido training hasn’t really changed that, but it does make me understand more about how the approach to get in works, how to view a weapon in the hands of an opponent (assuming you see it ahead of time), and how to really get into zanshin (awareness/readiness) from a daily repose-state as opposed to firmly planting your feet, going to fighting stance and readying a kiai—or maybe actually busting loose with one!

I’ve read a lot of comments from various instructors about supplementary martial arts training. The majority seem to think additional instruction is fine after one has a good solid grounding in their primary art. Commonly iaido is taken along with another more practical, popular system. There is much that is different in iaido that will require some arduous unlearning if you are enrolled in another art, but I think there is an advantage to having experience in another system, owing both to the self-defense being taught there and the ability to see the deeper aspects that iaido training sooner and with more clarity because martial arts movement, etiquette, terms, and traditions are already fundamental and not cluttering up the new learning your doing in iaido class.

Now don’t get me wrong. You are practicing slicing open someone’s abdomen. You are practicing bring the sword down a direct kill shot bisecting their head. In the best iaido classes these are not taught abstractly. Part of the function of iaido is to hone your clarity and calm in a threatening situation. Nothing is more threatening than the idea of someone pushing the edge of a three foot piece of steel through something vital. After a certain amount of experience it is practiced with an iaito, a metal (though blunted) sword, the use of which carries risks. But is also fun. You are trying to put on the mentality of the samurai. If you are a fan of jidaigeki (sword drama in Japanese) as I am, this can be a really big thrill… and quite enlightening as you learn which aspects of cinema swordfighting are really practical and which are just for the camera.
So good stuff. Not sure how much I will actually blog on this particular aspect of my life since growth is slow, and it is all rather internal. No belts given really. If I had to give myself a rank, I’m probably 1st kyu, the equivalent of a brown belt in most karate styles. There are tournaments for it, but not really where I live. I will probably spend more writing time on the aforementioned jidaigeki or other martial arts films, and general martial arts comments and observations. That will change of course if I ever accidentally stab myself or another student. Then I’m sure I’ll have to write about it.

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