Tuesday, December 28, 2010

High on Kiai

Last night was another endurance lesson.  I'm still fighting with this sore throat and stuff in my lungs (yuck).  It's hard to keep the pace up when you can't breathe very well to start.  Also last night I managed to cut my foot open, right on the ball of my left foot.  After some heavy tape application I was back on the floor, but it definitely affected my fumikomi.  So what did I do to counter-balance this?  I worked on having a high spirit every second that I was out there.  I think that I succeeded, for the most part.  I remember Sinclair Sensei telling us about how our kiai should be pushed out from our abdomen and "center", and I saw a video yesterday in which Sumi Sensei talks about the same thing.  Kiai isn't something that I've really focused my attention on before, it just sort of happened.  What I did last night was let it happen, but to make sure it was happening in the right way by pushing it up from my center.

We went over some new drills last night, and a couple that we haven't done in a while.  The focus of the night seemed to be on Kote drills, including Kote, Hiki Kote, and Debana Kote.  I felt pretty good with all three, and I remembered to pressure forward on the Kote strike and then push through as hard and fast as I could.  I felt like I was pushing the Kote out more, instead of just bringing my shinai up and then down to strike.  With Hiki Kote I think I still need more explosion there.  Sensei has told me before that I need to eliminate the pause from between tsubazeriai and actually striking the target, and I think it's creeping back in.  I'll remember to work on this later.

Debana Kote also felt ok.  I was able to strike in a straight forward position like we have been going over lately, but Sensei advised me that I need to turn faster after striking so I am in a ready position more quickly.  This will help me to set up to strike or counter as needed.  So after the strike I should immediately turn to face my partner again.

We worked on Do a bit last night, too, going over Kote-Do and Men-Taiatari-Hiki Do drills.  I have to say, when I look back over the past few months up until now I can see how drastically my Do strike has changed.  My speed and power behind it (not too much power, hopefully), as well as accuracy.  More often than not I hear the satisfying cracking sound of shinai on Do contact and I smile a bit on the inside each time.  It was such a problem for me before, and now I feel comfortable using it.  I even threw it out in jigeiko a few times last night, one notable time against McNally Sensei when he went for Men.

I can feel the emphasis I put on flexible wrists coming into play more and more, and it's starting to feel like something I'm doing without any thought, so I think I can safely check that issue off of my list and move onto something else.  Also I do feel like my posture is straighter while I move and strike, but I'll have to ask Sensei or someone else about it so I can tell for sure.  Both of these issues I've been working on pretty solidly for the past couple of weeks.  I'm hoping that I'm working on these issues in an effective manner, especially after Sensei talked to me about the primary basics theory.  I want to train smarter, not harder.  Hard training will get me results in the end, but smart and efficient training will get me results in less time.

I was able to do jigeiko with the Yudansha again last night, and I gave it my all.  Despite that, though, I felt slow, sluggish, and like I was a bit out of it.  Not sure why.  I kept getting distracted by things outside of the practice.  I'm usually pretty good at focusing on what's going on in front of me when I train, but last night I was off in space most of the time it seemed.  I'm going to chalk that one up to a one-off issue, since I don't normally do it, but I would love to try and figure out why I was doing it in the first place.  I was still able to train and I got in a few hits here and there (although Andy and Dan seemed to dance around my hits pretty effectively).  Sensei gave me some advice about jigeiko, and said that after I strike I should try to move through on the side instead of moving straight through my partner, so I don't "punch" them in the face as I more forward.  I think I did this to Ando Sensei accidentally a couple of times, so I'll try to remember that for the future.

There were good times and bad times last night, but I feel that despite the bad and my own health and other issues I still did well.  My exhaustion was a sign that I, yet again, pushed hard during practice, and I feel like I reached another level with my spirit.

A few thoughts:

Kamae:  McNally Sensei told me that I have a great kamae, perfectly straight and centered, but he said that for people at a higher rank than me that leaves my Kote wide open.  He said that I should try moving my kamae just a bit.  He suggested moving the kensen over towards my partner's left eye, instead of right at their throat.  This subtle movement will help to shield my kote from strikes.  I might play with this in the future to see how effective it is for me.

Kote:  Again, that feeling of pushing the Kote out instead of just down was good last night.  I think I got the nod (or grunt) of approval from McNally Sensei on the Kote drills.  I just need to make sure my left hand is coming up high enough for the strike before driving the shinai down and forward.

Jigeiko:  I'm doing good with keeping my hands lower now during my follow-through, but I need to make sure that I'm moving to the side of my partner during jigeiko, instead of going straight through them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

One Thing at a Time

This past weekend I was sick.  Missed work on Friday, and carried on fighting it all through the weekend.  I hate being sick.  If I could eliminate one thing from my life it would be that.  I feel like it wastes so much time when I have to recover.  Time I could be using to do other things, like exercise, or Kendo...

Last night I was fighting off the last of my sickness.  Everything felt better, except for my throat and lungs.  I was still coughing and dealing with a dry/scratchy/sore throat and some other issues there, and I could tell my energy level wasn't up to where it usually is.  I took it easy, though.  Stepped out as needed, and made sure to not over-extend myself on the drills, and I was able to stay in the entire time.  Go me!  We also had another "guest" last night.  McNally Sensei, who left our dojo in September for college, is visiting his family right now and came to practice last night.  He will also be with us tomorrow night.  Having him there felt like old times, times when he would push everyone to try and match his level.  It's something I strive for.  To be at that level, and then to finally exceed that level. 

Sensei talked about some concepts of training with the intermediate class last night, and his advice and insight was something that I carried into my training.  He talked about different ways to train, and the way that most people train is to take a handful of issues that they have and try to correct them all at once.  So over a course of a couple months they touch on everything a little bit and are only able to fix a few of the issues that they have, if they are able to fix any during that time.  On the other hand, one can take one issue and concentrate on it, focus on it solidly for a couple weeks and be able to fix that issue, and then move onto another issue and fix it in a couple more weeks.  This method of training will see greater results over time than trying to fix everything at once.  Do you still have other issues and receive advice on them during this time?  Of course you do!  But you take that information and store it for later, until after you are able to correct the initial flaw that you have with your technique, your movement, your spirit, etc. 

This is actually a very elementary suggestion for us, as I remember Sensei going over it with us when we were in the beginning class.  He says to pick three things about our techniques and work on them.  One issue about our shinai work, one issue about our footwork, and one issue about our spirit/kiai, and work on only those issues at one time.  After I heard Sensei's talk last night I couldn't believe that I had let that piece of information slip my mind.  Coupled with the primary basics concept that he presented me with a couple of weeks ago and the way to change my own training slapped me in the face with its obviousness.  I had fallen into the trap of trying to correct too many things at once, and I'm glad to have heard this information at a time when I really needed it.

Practice itself went by pretty smoothly.  No real big issues, other than me pacing myself.  My Kirikaeshi is still coming along.  I had a dreadful time trying to keep the right breathing rhythm last night due to my throat, but I do feel like I'm slowly getting faster with it.  Sensei talked about how each cut should be not only with downforce but with a forward-cutting motion, even the Sayu-Men.  As we advance we are presented with more advanced thoughts and techniques, this being one of them.

Men drills were done with an emphasis on explosive speed.  Going from zero to one hundred percent in a second, and we practiced from uchi ma and from to ma.  I feel that my timing while at to ma is pretty good.  I take into account the advice that Sensei gives us about not stopping our feet when we start to move forward, and to press the shinai forward before striking.  But I feel that I hit too deep a lot of times, so I either have to take smaller steps or I have to start from further out.  Again I feel like I can cover a huge distance with my steps and with my fumikomi, so I have to start further out than even I think I can reach.  Hopefully I'm not breaking posture while doing this.

We broke into Mudansha/Yudansha groups about halfway through practice and did a extended period of waza geiko.  I was able to work entirely on Men (with one Kote drill thrown in for variety).  I went over the drills we did earlier, where I attacked from uchi ma and to ma, and kept the emphasis on snapping my wrists (shinai work), keeping my posture upright and naturally straight (body/footwork), and keeping my kiai going until I turned back to kamae(spirit).  I'll continue to work on these for a couple more weeks, and hopefully by then my concentration on these areas will make them into habits.

Jigeiko felt pretty good last night, even though I only really got to go with two people because our rotation kept getting messed up, and because there were only four of us in the Mudansha group (myself included) with bogu.  Again, I concentrated on mostly Men strikes, even in jigeiko, and I was able to get in a few really good strikes.  I also practiced taking the center, and I tried to throw in some Ai-Men when I was able to see the opportunity.  This is a technique that I'm slowly developing, and I know that if I keep at it I'll be able to turn it into a very powerful technique.  One last thing.  Seme.  I used it, and it was actually quite effective a few times when I was trying.  Now if only I can get into the mindset of following that up with an attack.

A few thoughts:

Men:  Explode more on the strikes.  I'm doing ok now, but I need to be able to go from relatively stand-still to striking and pushing through in an instant.  I notice sometimes I "fidget" before I strike.

Wrists:  They are feeling a lot better and more flexible, but now I have to watch out and make sure I'm not dropping my kensen too far behind me again.

Posture:  Haven't heard any issues with me leaning into the hits these days, so hopefully this issue is almost gone.  Luckily I can practice this one anywhere I go, not just at the dojo or when I'm at home doing suburi.

Kiai:  When I get tired my kiai starts to suffer, and I need to still be able to continue it all the way through with my follow-through and after I turn to face my opponent again.  Get into a good habit now so it stays with me later on.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Driving the Shinai

"Who is driving your shinai?"  This question was posed to us at the end of class last night by our sensei.  The answer, of course, is obvious; you are.  Simple as it is, though, it has many implications in our training.  I thought I would expand on my thoughts and feelings on this subject, since most of our drills last night involved controlling and "driving" the shinai in one way or another.

To me, the simplest manifestation of this idea is that you are in control of where your shinai lands, and you are responsible for the accuracy of your strikes.  It may seem simple, but it takes a lot of practice to be able to strike the same spot consistently at higher speeds.  In a nutshell, it's harder than it looks!  Digging down a little deeper, we come to how hard, or soft, we hit.  This is also a demonstration of shinai control, and one that many of our partners will appreciate.  Sensei went over a few drills that we can do on our own time to help develop better control of the strength and power in our hits, which involved taking a towel or some other object and wrapping a tree branch or bar or something that you can hit that is about the height of a Men strike.  He gave us four examples of suburi to try:

  • Stop the shinai above the target, about 1/2 to 1/4 inch
  • Lightly tap the target.  
  • Hit with the amount of force that you believe is correct
  • Hit with more force than is necessary
For people who currently have or have had issues with hitting too hard (most of us, we took a poll last night), these exercises can help us develop proper control and tenouchi (grip) when swinging the shinai and when striking a target.

Digging even deeper, we see that controlling the shinai comes into play in a lot more areas.  Sometimes very obvious, and sometimes very subtly.  We went over a few drills last night that involved moving the shinai and kensen to get our partners to open up for us, and then striking a variety of targets.  Each of the movements to get our partners to move out of center were very subtle (the slight "J" movement used before striking men, or the lifting the kensen up at the opponent's face before striking Hiki Kote), but the strikes afterwards were quick, explosive, and a stark contract to the slight movements from a moment before.

Big, explosive movements are obvious, and can show our true intentions.  If we suddenly jerk our shinai to the side to try and get our partner/opponent to open up they might expect that you're trying to bait them (which you are).  But if the movement is subtle, gentle, almost seemingly accidental they are more likely to go for the bait and spring the trap.  I believe this to be a very effective and very powerful technique, and one that I will continue to work on.  I honestly felt a little bit of inspiration when going through some of the drills last night, as I had never thought of doing some of the movements like we did last night.  I hope to be able to someday use these techniques and thinking effectively in my own Kendo.

A few thoughts:

Men:  We practice striking from To maai a few times last night and I tended to step a bit too close and hit a little too deep on a few of them.  I'll either have to practice starting further out, or making a shorter fumikomi.  I'm still playing with distancing and learning to use that effectively.

Kote:  During Hiki Kote we were given the chance to try hitting from different angles with the shinai, but he said to make sure to keep proper, upright posture while striking.  Many people get into a bad habit of leaning their bodies while trying to strike, and this is something that we are going to try and avoid.

Jigeiko:  Sensei told me last night that I'm staying in the "middle distance" too long.  I am within my striking distance, but I tend to hang out there a bit too much.  He said that I should either attack, set them up for a counter (oji waza), or I should back off and set myself up again.

Wrists:  I'm still working on my wrists, trying to get them more flexible during my strikes.  I can do it when I think about it, but now I have to transfer that into a habit that I can do without thinking.

On a side note, I had my first foray into teaching solo, with the Valley dojo members last Friday.  I felt a bit awkward and out of place having to be on the Sensei's side of the room, but everyone showed up and everyone gave just as much effort to me as they do to our Senseis in the Valley.  They are a great group of people and it was a pleasure to teach them!

On another side note, it is my birthday today, and I am going to get beat up with Kakarigeiko tomorrow at training.  Wish me luck, and if I die from exhaustion I will miss writing these posts =)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What Are You Working On?

This is a question that Sensei has been asking me a lot lately.  Usually after practice when I step up to bow to him.  The more I think about it, the more answers I can come up with, and the more I think about it, the higher my bar of standard for myself raises.  I've been told I have beautiful Kendo, and when I really think about it, I guess I do considering my level of experience and training (which isn't much).  But I always want to strive for more.  I never want to lose that hunger to keep progressing, keep learning and improving myself.  It's one of the things that drives me in Kendo.  I have a definite passion for it, that much I can say without hesitation, and even though I know nothing I continually push myself to take more steps along this path.

The first things that pop into my head, and the things I'm concentrating on most right now, are keeping a straight posture, and making my wrists more loose and flexible.  Now, straight posture, to me, doesn't mean rigidly straight back.  It means having a "natural" straightness to my stance.  We talk about this a lot, mainly when it comes to holding the shinai in kamae and with the legs in kamae.  It does apply to many other areas, though.  Naturally straight isn't locked in place; it's a relaxed position, with the slight curve (from the kneee, or the loewr back, or the elbows).  Things are neither locked in place or bent out of place, they are natural, and, well, straight!

My wrists are an issue that pop up here and there, but I've been concentrating on them for a few weeks now, ever since I was first told that they were too tense.  Wrist movement is a key component in a good, fast shinai swing.  As it was explained the wrists should bend back as the swing starts, so that the upswing and the wrist motion are all one, not two separate movements.  The way I understand it is that on the downswing the wrists should snap out last, kind of like a wave.  The energy running from your shoulders, which are driving the sword down, through your arms, to your wrists (which snap forward) and then out through your shinai to connect with the target (Men, Kote, Do).  I might be wrong on this, though, so don't take my word for it, but this is how I understand the movement, and it makes sense to me.  Up and back, down and forward, power through the left hand, guidance through the right.

Will my thinking change on these areas?  I would say most definitely.  As I grow in experience, things that made sense before become more refined, until they are entirely different ideas, but for now this is what I know and it has helped me a lot. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Takado Sensei

This weekend we had a special "guest" with us.  Takado Sensei returned to train with us after being gone for a few months.  I say "guest" because a lot of us still consider her part of our dojo, myself included.  Having her back, even for a short time, was like filling a hole that was left in our training and I think that a lot of people felt it, judging by the level of Kendo and the high spirit that we all had on Saturday.

The main focus continued to be pressing in with our shinai before we strike, and we went over a lot of kihon drills to emphasize this.  First in place, with no Men or Kote on, and we continued from from there into our normal practice.  I, myself, also worked on keeping a straight posture and bending my wrists back and making them more flexible as I began my swing.  I've been too stiff, and I would like to eliminate it from my strikes as soon as possible.  It will add some much needed speed and (less needed) power.  I've also been working on trying to keep my swing rather uniform with the way I hold my Kamae, as Billy showed me a couple weeks ago.  Not straightening my arms out when I raise up to swing, and instead letting them stay "naturally straight" like in Kamae.  It seems to be going well, so maybe soon I will ask Billy to watch my swing again and see.

I didn't actually get to practice with Takado Sensei, since we were split into Yudansha/Mudansha groups, but still the energy was there.  Everyone as at the top of their game on Saturday, giving their all, with very high spirits.  I would have loved to just sit back and watch it and take it all in (I did step back momentarily but was quick to jump back in after a round or two).  It seemed like we were all feeding off each other and the overall spirit of the training that day to keep going, to keep pushing.  I know personally after I stepped back in I was fresh and ready to go and stayed in for the rest of the practice time.

Jigeiko was really fun for me on Saturday, and I worked on (among other things) striking first.  With a lot of people I experimented with striking immediately after bowing in, and for the most part I was successful with it.  One of my friends commented that he did not see me coming that fast, because a lot of people get into a pattern of bowing in and then taking time to settle in and get into the match (or the practice).  I do this myself, but I was trying to eliminate the wasted time, as Sensei has been advising us to do recently.  It proved to be a good strategy, but like all things I'll try not to do it too often so that people don't expect it from me.  I also tried using a bit more oji waza, including Nuki Men and Debana Kote.  I can do Debana Kote in drills, but in jigeiko it's way harder to get the timing down because you have to anticipate what your partner is going to do, or entice them into doing what you want (which is also something I'm trying to work on).  Also I've been trying to develop seme in my practice, putting that unseen pressure on my partners during jigeiko.  Since I'm farily new to this, it's a hard concept to grasp and try and implement, but as I practice and study it I'm sure things will become clearer for me.

After practice I had a chance to talk to Takado Sensei.  I'm hoping that we will be able to do jigeiko and practice together next time she visits.  She did tell me that I have beautiful Kendo, and she said to not lose that.  Don't worry about points in matches or anything like that, just keep my beautiful Kendo.  I was very honored to hear this from her, considering she has an enormous amount of experience, and I will definitely take her words to heart and continue to develop my beauitful Kendo.

Some thoughts:

Ai-Men:  I'm think I'm starting to get the hang of it.  There were a lot of times when I would go against people and we would end up knocking each other out of center and neither of us would hit our mark.  Other times I was able to hit Men fairly easily and straight.  I'll continue to work on this technique, as I can see a lot of potential with it.

Debana Kote:  In order to use it more effectively in jigeiko I think I need to create the opening myself instead of waiting for one to happen.  That way I can be in total control of when the moment arrives.  I'll work on opening my Men for people to try and force their movement.

Nuki Men:  It's looking a lot better than it did at PNKF, and I'm able to hit while going forward with most people.  I'll continue to develop this technique, as well.