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My Martial Arts Journey

An essay I wrote for a course I took on learning:

My martial arts journey began in 2010 with Shotokan Karate, where I worked my way up to a blue belt. My reasons for joining karate were mainly because I was curious about martial arts and felt I needed to do something active after completing a degree in business. I chose my school or dojo (doe-joe) based on having the teacher or sensei (sen-say) as a classmate in a couple of business classes. I was not athletic prior to this, and I was overweight, which made the workouts difficult. During the journey to blue belt I eventually was able to do 1,000 kicks for the fundraiser the dojo had that year. Later, I decided to try out Goju Ryu Karate, but my life was filled with multiple stresses and I could not focus on learning new things, so though I truly enjoyed my time at my second dojo, I doubt I can recall any of the exercises or katas (kah-tahs) I worked on during that period.

I moved to a new city and knew I needed a martial art in my life. This time it was for a love of martial arts and not simply a need to be active that I was interested. I did extensive research and visited many dojos as I knew more about what made a good teacher and school. I initially looked for karate dojos, but most were not near my home or work and at that time the idea of a 20-minute drive being considered close in proximity was ludicrous to me. I came from a small town where the furthest distance across town was about 30 minutes, so a 20-minute drive was far!

I spoke with my sensei and she advised that it’s not the particular art, but the teacher that was the most important thing to look for. Armed with that guidance, I checked out two Aikido dojos. At one I watched a class. There were two senseis there, one like mine and another that was dismissive of my interest. The other dojo I participated in a class and I did not enjoy the throws. I also knew I was particularly interested in weapons and since Aikido practitioners don’t touch weapons until several years of training have happened, I decided Aikido was not what I was looking for. Next, I tried Taekwondo. It was alright, but I barely broke a sweat, the other students were not accepting of other martial arts, and the cost was exorbitant. I watched some other styles of martial arts at a few other places and I felt that weapons were an important thing for me.

That led me to searching for weapons-based arts and I discovered Jodo (Joe-Doe). I initially thought Jo would be similar to Bo, which I had experience with from the weapons portion in my Shotokan days. They were not similar in the slightest. I had to speak Japanese words as I hit imaginary foes. I had to keep a stance that wasn’t square, which was annoying for me because my karate sensei was always trying to get me to be square. I felt like I had to unlearn the things I knew. Around the same time, I also started Iaido (Eee-Eye-Doe), which is a sword-based martial art that requires a square stance. I’d go to Jodo and have to be in a stance that wasn’t square, and then I’d go to Iaido and need to be square and my brain and body were so upset by the changes I could not do both at once. Unexpectedly in some ways, I decided Iaido was what I enjoyed the most. I say unexpectedly because I never thought I’d be into swords. The square stance was familiar to me, so I’m sure that helped.

Nothing else was familiar. With karate, we used Okinawan words, but now I was doing a Japanese art. I was used to a stance that was low to the ground and as wide as could be because that’s stable in karate. In Iaido, a stance like that causes one to lose power on frontal attacks, which are almost all of the attacks with a sword. Karate stances are better for side to side moves and defending against side attacks. The long and wide karate stances also make it harder to move forward to close the longer distance needed to move to hit the opponent with a sword. Karate is about being close to one’s opponent. With Iaido, one does not want to be too close or the sword can become useless. I am still fighting with my stance. Every once in a while some kata will make my old stance resurface. I learned it so well it became a habit. Old habits are hard to break, but it’s important to break them in order to be open to learning new things.

At the start, Iaido looked much simpler than it is and I did not think it was hard to swing a sword. I was dismissive of the complexity, which meant I was not in the best place for learning. I was soon overwhelmed by the amount of steps involved in learning early techniques like gripping the sword handle, unsheathing it, and cutting with it. One does not simply put one’s hand around the handle in any old way. One must ensure their hand is positioned correctly and that each finger is gripping in specific ways, which are different for nearly each finger. The thumb and the index finger encircle the sword handle or tsuka (soo-kah), but do not grip the handle. The middle finger grips loosely, yet enough that the hand does not slide up and down the tsuka. The ring and pinky fingers are where the power is, so they are the main grippers. The tsuka should be in the V that is between one’s thumb and index finger to ensure the hand is on top of the tsuka rather than under or to a side. The index finger should be placed a finger width away from the tsuba (soo-bah) or sword guard. That’s a lot of information to take in on just the position of the hand and fingers and the sword is still in the sheath or saya (sigh-ah).

To get it out of the saya, one uses their left thumb to break the seal between the sword and the saya as it can be quite tight. The right hand and arm will push the sword, not pull it, out as the left removes the saya from it. Then many other sets of instructions are needed to perform the multitude of cuts that may be required. Even the way the sword comes out of the saya changes depending on the situation, but at first one only learns these basics and the first horizontal cut followed by a vertical cut on the centre line. One learns the left hand performs most cuts and the right is responsible for ensuring the correct angle. A vertical cut is performed in a similar way to casting on a fishing rod.

In the beginning, the instructions on grip were an overwhelming amount of individual pieces of data for me and now they comprise a package called grip. At first there are many sessions of practicing these basic skills that apply to many situations, then they become something that is only occasionally reviewed at a deep level, which usually happens when new members join the dojo, because the current members have learned to chunk all those steps into one fluid motion that is automatic. It’s good to review those basics from time-to-time anyway. The basics have been written about many times over the centuries and are often debated. I’m sure my sensei could find several areas needing correction in my explanation, his sensei several more, and his sensei’s sensei even more. It is a martial art where one continues to learn and grow.

Iaido is a sword art that has no opponent. Practitioners must always pretend an opponent is challenging them, and they must be convincing about it. Part of that is about how and where one looks, which changes frequently. Much of the time the gaze is not focused on one individual, but on everyone and everything around. If the opponent can’t tell where one is looking, they can’t see one coming to attack them. Sometimes one will deliberately look at an individual to communicate something like that they are one’s next victim if the opponent does not decide to back down.

If one focuses too intensely, they may not be open to visualizing their opponent. This visualization technique is called metsuke (met-soo-kay). Similar to how when driving one should be looking further ahead than where they are and use peripheral vision to see much more than the car in front of them, an Iaido practitioner must see more than the opponent that is directly in front of them. As this opponent is also invisible, they have to be able to visualize a person fighting them. Generally, there are specific agreed upon positions that the opponent will end up in depending on the attack one uses. There is a need to bounce between a diffuse mode where the opponent could do anything to the focused mode where one identifies an attack is coming and chooses appropriate combinations of offensive and defensive techniques. Those things need to be selected fairly quickly to block properly and launch a counterattack.

Katas have many steps and once one has learned the chunks, they must be able to practice the whole kata on their own without the sensei telling them what to do every step of the way. Being able to recall the steps is important and, at first, one may find oneself constantly consulting YouTube. Eventually one will be able to tell if the smallest thing is incorrect when practicing, like perhaps if one’s foot positions are switched or a step was missed. As the chunks become ingrained, it’s common for questions to arise. Many what-if scenarios pop up, so we often run through demonstrations. This exploration of ideas often leads to discovering that many things in Iaido are done the way they are done because the alternative was loss of a body part or one’s life.

I hear the goal in higher level grading situations is often to convince the judges one knows the steps and that one’s use of them will keep one whole and alive. To convince them, one must be guarded. One’s eyes should stay in a diffuse mode of seeing everything around and only focus if the intention is to have the opponent think one is staring somewhere or to instill fear. One does not want the opponent to ever see one make a decision or one gives away much of one’s power and edge. It’s somewhat like a poker face. One also needs to show them that one knows when one’s opponent is blocking, running away, or attacking from various directions.

At the highest levels, Iaidoka (students of Iaido) use live blades. A live blade is like a loaded gun and can actually kill someone so much practice is needed before one uses one. Practicing a little every day will keep the techniques fresh in the mind and body. Once it’s in one’s memory banks, one will continually refine it and add one’s own nuances to the kata.

It’s probably quite evident that I love my martial art and had I not been open to trying something new, I never would have discovered it. I think it’s important to broaden my passions, not simply because I might miss out on something, but also because I learn something new about myself and make new friends. A wide variety of passions is especially helpful for my second career as an author. I also cannot remember the last time that I was bored.

- Roy Iaidoka


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