A Reason to Train

People come to the dojo for a variety of reasons. Probably everyone has a story that is as unique as that person’s life, yet, we all find ourselves in the dojo on the mat, together. Iaido is a mostly individual practice. Visualization of an opponent is essential, and there are times where we use each other to understand spacing and timing, but most of one’s time is spent training in what child psychologists and early-childhood educators call “parallel play.” It is not training that engages with another person. This makes Iaido training a lot safer. Instead of connecting with another person and feeling how that person’s body moves, we connect with a sword and try to discover how it wants to move.

A sword does not say, “Ouch” or tap when a person moves it incorrectly, and due to the shape and design of the Japanese sword, there is a correct way for the sword to move. A lot of people think they can move the sword any ole way they want to. They think that as long as they can hit something with the sword that it will cut, or cleave through a target like it was butter, but in reality, a sword only cuts one way. A sword wants to slice along its arc, or it wants to stab along that same arc. Regardless, due to its shape, the Japanese sword wants to move on an arc. As a student of Iaido, we must learn to connect with that arc and help the sword move the way it wants to move.

Years ago, there was a salesman who was selling swords on TV. (In a few years, this post won’t make much sense. People will ask, “What is QVC?”) As part of the program, the salesman was going to show how strong and sharp the swords were and he began banging a sword on a hard surface when, suddenly, the sword broke, recoiled and stabbed him. “The sword gods were smiling.” He survived, but he was hurt pretty badly. Like watching someone slip and fall on the ice, it became a “blooper” that people would watch for a chuckle. It was not that salesman’s finest moment, and is really quite scary. If something is misused, someone could get hurt. That’s why it is very important to learn how to connect with the sword and learn how to feel it’s movement. If a person can connect with a sword, then that person can connect with other aspects of life encountered off the mats of the dojo, and Iaijutsu becomes Iaido.

Freeze and Thaw

Winter is here. Snow covers the ground and the warm-up to daily highs in the 30s makes going outside a desire instead of a chore, but inside is warm, quiet, and reflective. It’s easy to settle into a comfortable position and stay in the hibernation mentality accompanying Winter.

The best and most difficult way to accomplish something is to just start, find the movement and help it continue. In Iaido the sword is at rest until it gets the impulse to move, and then it wants to move until it comes to rest. This is simple to understand, but at times difficult in practice. Many pauses and stops in the movement occur when the sword should keep moving. It is common for a beginner to stop and admire the cut, or allow his mind to drift to something clamoring for his attention. Furuya Sensei said that Iaido’s movement within a technique was like a drop of water on an inclined plane. The droplet rolls down the slope never stopping. As we progress, there are places within the technique where the slope becomes steeper and the flow faster, then the slope becomes more shallow and the movement slows. This looks like a stop or pause because the eye has been following the faster movement and perceives the slowdown as a stop, but really the movement continues.

A beginner learns the technique in pieces typically. First, eyes and hands, then raise to the knees and up on toes, blade halfway out, then step forward and complete nukitsuke…and this is the way a beginner thinks as opposed to doing Shohatto.

This is no different from our lives. There are no stops or pauses in training in the way. It continues with or without us. We must learn to join the movement and flow instead of succumbing to the freeze of Winter. O’negai shimasu.

The Tree, Not the Blossom

There are many lessons for us in every moment of our lives. We often neglect the importance of these moments because they seem so ordinary. For some reason we need our lives to hang in the balance in order to reflect deeply enough. This is probably the reason Zen Buddhism became so popular in the samurai class, and why the cherry blossom was such a powerful symbol as well. Many samurai fell in the fields of battle while still in the spring of their lives, and the process to be at peace with that sacrifice at a moment’s notice required a great deal of reflection.

This year I had the opportunity to accompany my daughter on a journey to Kalamazoo, Michigan. She had a synchronized ice skating competition in late January. When the location and timing was announced, I reacted with, “Why would they schedule the competition in Kalamazoo in January? The weather is not ideal.” My wife laughed and acknowledged my logic, but it wasn’t given much seriousness until the week before the competition when a once-in-a-generation Polar Vortex was predicted to descend on the entire area. My wife began to express concern and her anxiety for our trip and safety began to increase. Winter Storm Jayden was its name, and on Monday our flight was cancelled. We rebooked, and on Tuesday that flight was cancelled; we rebooked, and on Wednesday that flight was cancelled. The competition was on Friday, and we were supposed to be in Kalamazoo Wednesday night. We were running out of options. We did, finally, get on a flight that arrived Thursday and we were able to make the competition, as was everyone from my daughter’s team. The driving was treacherous. We witnessed the aftermath of many cars losing control, and observed a red mid-size SUV thread the needle between two other cars on its way into the piled snow along the road’s edge, a soft landing for a frightening event that became a reminder for me to drive slowly and carefully.

At many points in the process, I considered cancelling the trip. My wife declared that she was, “Calling it.” The trip and the competition was not worth our lives. What is worth our lives? We are here for only an instant compared to the span of time that is the universe. What is worth our lives? The question repeated itself at every weather report, flight cancellation, and mile driven along the treacherous roads. What is worth our lives?

Living is the simple answer. Living is worth our lives. I hope to see you on the mats, soon.

The Evolution of Training

When people pick up a sword or bokken for the first time under the watchful eye of a teacher, they usually find the sword, for all its outward simplicity, to be very complex. Swords are not like lightsabers; they cannot cut through anything in any direction. There is a specific cutting edge, and even within that edge, the first third(from the tip)is for cutting-the “monouchi,” middle third for deflecting-the “nakahodo,” and the third closest to the hands is for blocking-the “tsubamoto.” [This is the common wisdom, but we were taught that the back of the sword-the “mune”- by the hands was for blocking(You cannot block a sword. You have to get out of the way!), the sides of the sword-the “shinogi”-were for deflecting, and the edge-the “ha”-was for cutting, with an emphasis on the monouchi.] Most beginners struggle with the grip and leave their hands to the side with their thumbs on top. This grip is the easiest to disarm because the thumbs are weak compared to the hands. It takes many years to get comfortable with the proper grip.

With the proper grip, the extension and arc of the sword must be developed. Many beginners use the sword like a club and think that they must “hit”. This is very common for Kendo practitioners who begin Iaido. Because they are so used to using a shinai, their focus is on hitting instead of slicing. Furuya Sensei would say, “Contact, not impact.” The sword slices on an arc. It’s shape tells us that. It is not like a Scottish Claymore use to cleave through or pierce heavy armor. Training the correct grip, sword arc and timing requires a lot of input from the teacher, and a lot of time. These movements are not natural and are quite difficult to learn. It takes years to learn the proper cut. The impurities of the “natural” movement surface and must be corrected or the student will never learn the proper way to use a sword. This type of training is called “Renshu” or “Forging Practice”. This type of training is often difficult as it makes us confront the frailty of our own egos, but that is the way.

In this confrontation, as the student is trying to reconcile the way he is doing it with the way the teacher is telling him to do it, the reasoning behind why it is done that way surfaces. Japan’s history is interesting to study, but all history is interesting. Learning about how we developed as a species and all the individual cultural perspectives allows the learner to become more human. Patterns emerge from the contrasts in the respective cultures and that allows a broader perspective on what is truly a human impulse as compared to the unique forces of a given time and place. The samurai in the Satsuma clan were well known for their and skill in battle. Their particular calling card was an unstoppable overhead strike. After battles, it was common for swordsmiths and strategists to walk over the battlefield to see what could be learned from those who lost their lives. Why had they failed? The pattern that emerged was that many of the dead were found with their own swords embedded in their skulls cross ways with another vertical slice creating a “+” shape. It was determined that they had tried to block the overhead strikes of the Southern Satsuma samurais. The resulting logic was to teach the samurai facing the Satsuma not to block the strike. Instead, techniques for deflecting the strike and countering were developed as well as techniques to get out of the way of the strike. Hence, Sensei’s lesson about “You cannot block a sword. You have to get out of the way!” This type of learning can only be passed down through “Keiko” or “Reflecting on the Past.” From Keiko, we are able to discover the “Why?” to all the techniques of swordsmanship. Keiko is even more valuable today than it was just 150 years ago because no one engages with swords anymore. We must look to first-hand accounts and documented engagements in order to learn the “why?” behind the technique. Otherwise, our technique becomes empty fantasy that has lost the martial and is only left with art. This is one of the reasons Furuya Sensei recommended that we read The Sword of No Sword: Life of the Master Warrior Tesshu. Master Tesshu’s way was grounded in Keiko.

After a learner has been through Renshu, reasoned with Keiko, that learner could be ready for “Minari” or “Watching and Learning.” Minari is a type of training that allows the viewer to consider the renshu and keiko of others along the way. It is common for students to get injured as a natural part of the aging process, the older we get just sleeping can cause injury! Some injuries prevent us from stepping on the mats of the dojo, but that does not prevent us from training. Minari allows us to see and learn things we may have missed, and feeds into our keiko, or its evolution “Shugyo”-“Religious/Spiritual Training”.

The types of training unfold to us with each successive step along the way. It always starts with Renshu, which leads to Keiko, that inspires Minari, which develops Shugyo, and after more time a learner will have been “Kyoiku”, “Raised/Nurtured in the teachings”, which makes it possible for the learning to leave the dojo and create “Sumikomi”, “Live-in Training” that can be seen as training in every moment of our lives. O’Negai Shimasu.

Beginners Wanted

There are many teachers in the United States and worldwide teaching martial arts. Training with Izawa Sensei has provided me with opportunity to train in Japan, Romania, and even teach in Hungary. I am very blessed to have had these opportunities and impressed with all those Aikido teachers and students from around the world. It is beautiful that people from different cultures with different languages can come together and exchange in a language of Aikido.

People seem to come to train in Aikido and Iaido for many reasons. Some students want to increase their health and approach the class with an exercise mentality. Some students want to learn about the tradition and culture, while others want to recreate a fantasy that they saw in some form of entertainment. Some are doing it because their parents make them and others because they are compelled to do it. All those reasons are discarded once training begins; they must be discarded and left behind so that we may stay safe. When someone is attacking, there is no time for reasoning. We must get out of the way, or blend, or get hit. As beginners, we get hit a lot, but the physical confrontation is not lasting, instead it is the confrontation of the mind that lingers. It is the ego that gets hit the hardest and the chain of the ego’s mechanisms of preservation begin, if we let it. Someone with a beginner’s mind will accept the failure and work to succeed. This is a healthy, growth mindset and usually results in quicker learning, but many beginners do not accept the failure. I see this most in adults. Children seem to be much more flexible with learning. They expect to struggle and fail, because they accept that they don’t know. Adults tend to expect to know how to do things, and forget that they are beginners. A child has only had a few years of life, but an adult…they’re supposed to be experts, right?

The adult “expert” then goes into trying to make himself look like “an expert” and mask his vulnerability exposed by failure with speed, or power, or both. This usually has really bad results. He either hurts himself, or, worse, someone else. He tries to force the technique by muscling through the movement. If he is using a sword, this results in cutting the saya, straining a muscle, being off balance, or damaging the sword. If he is using another person’s body, then his partner experiences pain in some way: being overstretched, being thrown down in a rough way, or having the person fall down on top of him. This is bad, and it all leads to more ego confrontation resulting in embarrassment or injury.

The “expert” is interested in results, and only focuses on results. The “beginner” focuses on learning and the process of learning.

In my training, I try to be a beginner. For many years after I became Shodan, I still wore a white belt. Even after Nidan, I still wore a white belt. I only wear a black belt because Izawa Sensei requested me to do so, he believed it would confuse people who didn’t understand or were new to the dojo. New people always want to know what rank we are, and when they can wear a hakama. I usually try to discourage these people from training because they aren’t usually interested in learning the art. Their thinking is focused on the superficial body, but not the internal mind.

I remember Furuya Sensei telling me I should wear a hakama to assist with the teaching of the Children’s class so that the kids to tell me apart from the other students, and Gary Myers Sensei was standing there and said, “You mean the beard won’t be enough?” I can’t remember what Furuya Sensei said in response, but he wanted the children to be able to tell between teachers and students. There were adults in the class who were students, but it goes to the core of my philosophy on teaching and learning. All our teachers are still learners, they are just more experienced learners. They are not “experts.” They may have already walked the section of path that we find ourselves treading, but they are still discovering what is in front of them. The moment is the master, and we are all its students.

As you walk your path, do it with a beginner’s mind. Be kind to yourself when you fail. Shed your expectations and discover. O’negai shimasu!

The Stable Center

In the beginning of Iaido training, the focus for most is on the sword. A beginner often wants to “cut” and hear the “whoosh” of the sword or bokken. At the very least, the beginner wants to hold a sword and swing it. It’s probably what brought the person into the dojo in the first place. The beginner receives instruction from the teacher about grip, stance, arc, timing, visualization, and relaxation, but the beginner wants to see and hear the results of training hard by swinging the sword and creating movement and playing samurai. After a while, the fantasy fades and real training begins, or the person quits because real training is not what he thought it would be.

Posture is paramount. The head and hip should be vertical and form a stable axis around which everything can move. Stability of that axis, once established, remains the focus as movement is added. Extending one’s arms shouldn’t pull the body one direction or another. The added weight of the sword shouldn’t alter the axis as the cutting motion begins, ends, or meets an obstacle/target. The stance in its varied width and breadth should support the stability of the axis so that all movement is connected to the cutting motion and the cutting portion of the sword. A stationary axis is easier to control because it’s easier to identify the different forces acting on the center.

Then, movement of the axis is added. First, up and down, then forward, then …let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The center must remain stable. If the center is not stable, any movement will pull the center off its course. As dynamic beings, we are in constant change and motion. As we travel through our lives, there will always be forces that try to pull or push us in one direction or another. If we are to continue, we must be able to resist those forces and maintain our paths.

To move our center up from a seated, seiza position, there is a force that builds in the center and finds vertical movement as the place of least resistance. This force pushes our center up and we find ourselves on our knees with our toes curled. The center expands as one foot steps out creating a triangle with the ground as its base and our center as its apex. Tension continues to build from the connection that our feet have created and our center is propelled further until we are standing. The expansion is complete. One foot is forward, the other is behind on parallel lines shoulder-width apart. The back leg is straight. We are stable. We then bend the back leg and begin contraction, lowering our center to the ground until our knee from our back knee comes to rest on the ground creating a straight line from the tip of our heads to our knee. Then the front foot slides back so that both knees are on the ground, toes lie flat, and we lower the center back to seiza. The whole time the head and the hip are in a straight, vertical line.

A stable center is necessary for the transfer the maximum power to the tip of a sword, or any tool. Only from a stable position can we act in any way that can have impact.

Dojo-A Place of the Way

Looking up the definition of “dojo” in a translation dictionary, one may find “place for practice or tournament (martial arts).”  The literal translation has been “do”=”way or path” and “jo”=”place”.  “Place of the Way/Path”  In all the arts that have “do” at the end: Aikido, Kyudo, Jodo, Kendo, Iaido, Judo,…. there is a differentiation between the “technical” or “justu” and the elevated, transcendent, lifelong, “do”.  One could be proficient in Iaijutsu, but miss the higher, unexplainable Iaido.  This differentiation is the essential component of a dojo.

The path is a solo journey.  There may be others near by, but the path is an individual’s to take.  There will be times when there are many people around and going in the same direction, but there will also be those times when there is no one to be found, except ourselves.  It is ourselves that we must confront. It is ourselves that we must accept. It is ourselves that we must inspire and love.  And it is ourselves that we must transcend.  This is the “way”, “path”, or “do”.

A dojo is a place for the practice of that journey so that when we confront the world we can accept the problems, inspire solutions, love the work, and transcend.

The teacher’s role in a dojo is not to just teach the jutsu, it is also to create an experience that invites the student to walk the path.  It is not idle, friendly chit-chat.  Creating the experience can be direct instruction, observation, and/or modeling.  It is never empty.

The student’s role in a dojo is to steal as much as possible.  Squeeze as much knowledge out of every moment.  Analyze every movement, word, and intent; then do it again to interpret it from another perspective, then another, and another.  To be a student is to never stop thinking about the lessons so that learning is infinite.  Then, the world is the dojo.  O’ negai shimasu?


Injured Life

Injury frequently gets in the way of training. There are many types of injury, too. Some injuries are physical, some are mental, some are emotional, but they all require rehabilitation. Some injuries present little difficulty in recovery, these are minor, but others require a large amount of time and detailed, consistent, professional work in order to get back to an operational state.

From September 2006 to March of 2007, the greatest amount of tragedy, to that point, occurred in my life. September brought the death of a grandmother and two uncles. November brought the death of my step-father, and March brought the death of Sensei. Five deaths in six months created a hole in my heart that for many years became the defining factor of my existence. I would often find myself weeping after the impulse to pick up the phone and call the missing loved one, but slowly, I began to smile at the memories. It’s eleven years already, and I frequently find myself laughing at the things they would say or do.

My heart was injured, but that’s because I used it. My body gets injured, but that’s because I use it. If I am to bring honor to anything, I must use it to the best of my ability, with the greatest care, and though I never have the intent to do harm, it is inevitable that there will be injuries, after all, that’s living.

Common Language

Iaido Tanshinjuku glossary

It’s always a good idea to review some of the common language we might use in the dojo.  The list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start.  Please ask your teacher if you have any questions about the language of your art.  It is important to speak a common language.


One of my students has a sword that was forged from what we suspect was a bell like this one at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto.  It is pictured below.  It is a beautiful sword and Furuya Sensei indicated that its smith, Masataka was one of the well known modern smiths who had studied under the two top smiths of the Showa period, Kasama Shigetsu and Takahashi Sadatsugu.  The sword was made using metal from the main hall of the Narita Shrine in Narita.

It’s amazing how a material like metal can be reforged to make something completely different.  Intense heat, and the pounding out of impurities, tempering, and polishing are all labor, time intensive skills.  It makes me think how each one of us can reforge ourselves through training.  O’negai shimasu.