So I have had such a busy last two days, I wasn't able to get a proper blog post up. But fear not, I have one today!
Let me mention one of the things that stuck out to me from Wednesday's practice. Before we started practice Sinclair Sensei had a question/answer period for questions about kata. One of the questions that came up was how fast or slow should each movement be, and this led to an explanation about the "pace" of kata. Sensei said that each movement has a purpose, and we should look into the purpose and meaning behind each one to determine if the movement should be tense, relaxed, fast, or slow (this was actually going to be my blog title for Wednesday). Let's use Kata 1 (Ipponme) as an example. lowering your sword and stepping back to the proper distance is a slow, relaxed movement. There's no immediate danger of attack since you are far out of reach of your partner. Coming to kamae and then to Jodan kamae is also slow and relaxed, for the same reason. But when you take those three steps back to striking distance, that's where it starts to get intense. The steps in should be quicker than the steps away. You are coming into striking distance for both your partner and yourself, and this requires a certain level of focus and alertness, which should be reflected in your movement. The strikes themselves (both Uchidachi doing Men and Shidachi doing Nuki Men) should be fairly quick. You wouldn't swing slowly at a real opponent, would you? Not at all. You would swing quickly, but controlled. This is the same with the two strikes by each side. The step back by the Uchidachi and lowering the sword by the Shidachi are also fairly quick movements, and things start to relax again (just a bit) when Uchidachi steps back for the last time and Shidachi advances and raised up to Jodan again. This movement should be quick, but not as quick as the strikes themselves. As Uchidachi, you have been beaten, and as Shidachi you are still pressuring forward to make sure Uchidachi has in fact given up. I'll work in the future to think through these situations in each kata, so that I can try to find the right rhythm and pace for myself.
Now then, today's practice was intense, to say the least. I've been going to each of the intermediate classes this week, and in total I have done 12 hours of practice between each of the dojos and team training (we did suburi and core exercises today). I don't say that to brag, but when I look back at the week, it seems amazing how much time I can devote to something I love to do when I have the time to devote. I would say it's almost like a part-time job, with the amount of time I spend on it (and that 12 hours doesn't count any of the at-home training I do). But unlike a part-time job (most of them, anyway), I love what I'm doing so I don't mind putting in the time at all. Plus it's very motivational to look back a few months ago and be able to see the differences between then and now, and look forward to even more progress in the future.
We started off with warm-ups and the Kirikaeshi, which we have been going over in depth in the intermediate classes. After a few slow rounds we did a couple more rotations at "normal" speed. I'm still working on breathing, and I think I'm getting a little better at it, but still not able to do Kirikaeshi on three breaths. We also did a few rotations of Kirikaeshi Do, in which we hit each side of the Do instead of doing Sayu-Men. I feel more and more comfortable with Do with each practice I do. I noticed today that hitting Do on the right side of my partner felt a lot stronger than on the left side, since the right side of our partner is usually the side that we aim for at my level of experience.
Next we did Men, Kote, and Do drills, but we performed them by starting at toma-ai, which is a distance of further than one step to striking distance. Ando Sensei was leading this part of class and had us perform a three-second kiai before we struck, and then we stepped in for proper distance and then hit Men, Kote, or Do, depending on the drill. I believe that I'm pretty good at hitting with the tip of shinai these days, since I have been practicing it for months now, so I usually don't even have to think about that anymore. I love it when I finally feel like I'm making progress with a technique I've been working on. Step through one door and you have many more open in front of you, though. Each technique I learn opens up the door for more improvements. These improvements, for me, include good follow-through steps and turning and being ready at all times.
We moved onto doing a few Men drills in which we tried to do five Men strikes (hit and go through ) on just one breath. I made about three and a half before I had to take another breath. It is definitely harder than it looks, and falls into that breath control category that I've been working on with Kirikaeshi. McNally Sensei said that it's easier to do if we are relaxed and take our time with each strike instead of trying to rush through all of them. Even with that advice, though, I couldn't do a full four strikes before I had to take another breath. It's not a drill that we do often, but I appreciate the opportunity to practice it from time to time.
Kote-Men and Kote-Do were next up today. My Kote-Men, for the most part, were ok. I felt a little sluggish, but after a few rotations I was hitting pretty quickly. And then it all fell apart when I had Ando Sensei as a partner. I hit three Kote-Men strikes ok, and the last two I was too far back and caught his Kote and stumbled by him...Practice, practice, practice. Kote-Do was a little better. I tried to focus on doing Kote in place and then stepping slightly to the side for Do, and I felt like I was more accurate with the Do strike in general. I also tried to make my Do strike as small as I could, keeping the kensen (shinai tip) out in front of me instead of letting it float behind me while I brought the shinai around to hit my partner's side. I still had a few stumbles, though, but overall it's getting better.
We had one last Men drill before we took a break. We had to hit Men, then turn and hit Men x2, and then Men x3, and finally one last Men. Luckily this wasn't all to be done on one breath, or I might have passed out. I tried to keep my Men strikes big, like Ando Sensei showed us, but when I'm moving forward that fast it's hard to bring the shinai all the way back like that and then all the way forward again and remember to have proper tenouchi (grip). I think I did ok, though. At least I had no complaints from any of my partners.
After the break, McNally Sensei led us through some waza geiko. First on the list was Kote-Kaeshi Men. Our partner would hit Kote, and we would block and whip our shinai around to hit Men. I had to do a few of these as Hiki Men, since some of my opponents moved a lot faster than I could get the shinai around properly, and I also noticed that I kept catching my Men when I would circle around. I had to experiment with it a bit to finally find a movement that didn't disturb my Men. I wasn't the fastest in the world with this drill, but I felt like I was striking in sync with my fumikomi step, so I felt good when I would do the technique. I tried to wait for my opponent to strike so that I didn't hang my shinai out any longer than I needed to. Plus it helps to do the technique faster because you can use the momentum of your opponent's swing to whip your own shinai around to strike. Definitely a technique I'll need more practice on, though.
Kote-Suriage Men was next, and McNally Sensei absolutely destroyed me on this drill. But he did give me some good advice, he mentioned that when I do the crescent movement to knock my opponent's shinai out of the way, and that need to rotate my hands. This keeps me from launching my hands straight up into the Kote strike, and allows their shinai to slide off to the side as they hit. I tried this with a few other partners and had more success, but still I was just a bit slow with it. As all of the sensei have pointed out before, though, quality Kendo leads to fast Kendo, so I should be more concerned with doing the technique correctly and not doing it fast.
Debana Kote was the last drill that we did before pairing up for jigeiko. For the most part I did ok with this technique, since it's one that I've been practicing for a while now. I focused on trying to catch my opponent's Kote on the way up, not when they were coming down to strike. A few times I would actually launch at them before they started to move and was able to hit their Kote just as they started to raise their hands to strike. I also experimented with moving off in different directions after the hit.
I was only able to do a couple rounds of jigeiko today. I stepped wrong on my foot and ended up getting some pain along the outside edge of it, so I thought it best to not push it for the day. I'd rather cut out a few drills for one day than keep going and not be able to practice for a few days while it heals. I had jigeiko against my friend Matt and Ando Sensei. I am definitely getting bolder, at least with people I know. I was able to hit a couple of good strikes on Matt, including some multi-hit waza (Kote-Men-Men, etc). I'm starting to recognize openings a lot more, and I'm even fast enough now to hit some of them. I just wonder if he was taking it easy on me.
The fight with Ando Sensei didn't end nearly as well for me, but I imagine those fights to be like trying to fight a brick wall. I can hit it all I want but nothing ever happens, however I do get feedback and learn a lot from those times. I had one decent Debana Kote on him, as well. On a scale of 1 - 10, I would say it was a 5. Not the best, or fastest, but I think it was acceptable. I recognized one other opening, for a Men, and I stepped in to hit straight Men, but I underestimated the amount of distance between us, and feel short. My shinai stopped a couple of inches from him. I had to laugh about that one.
A few thoughts from today:
Men: Be sure to become familiar with my reach and the amount of distance I can cover with fumikomi. It can be a deal breaker, sometimes, as I found out in jigeiko with Ando Sensei.
Kote: When doing multi-hit waza, be sure to execute a proper Kote strike. This is the reason that I got caught up with Ando Sensei today. I was not giving enough credit to my Kote strike, and ended up fumbling it.
Do: I think that it's feeling a lot better these days. I can feel the solid strike of my shinai against my partner's Do more and more, so I still need to concentrate on footwork. Don't raise the toes, don't take a huge step to the side, and execute proper follow-through steps and zanshin.
Suriage Waza: When performing this move, my hand should move slightly out and rotate to deflect my opponent's shinai. The movement should be like a crescent-shape. Move out to deflect and then back to center to strike.
Kaeshi Waza: First thing is to drive my left hand up. This will give my shinai the proper angle to block my opponent's strike. I should also try to "catch" their strike, so that the momentum will swing my own shinai around to counter. It is ok to perform this is a hiki waza, if my opponent is way faster than me.