Thursday, July 31, 2014

Balance

Marsten Sensei said something at my last shinsa, back in 2013, that has stuck with me ever since.  He was addressing the group of us and explained that kendo is like a chair, with the four legs being made up of shiai, shinsa, keiko, and kata.  He said that we needed all of them to have successful kendo.  Now I know that this won't apply directly to everyone, but the idea is the same for people that have no desire to compete.  What is a chair with 3 legs?  A stool!  I believe whole-heartedly that these four elements (or three, in some cases) are needed to create full, rich kendo in someone, but I'd like to add that all of them need to be balanced to reach full potential.  Have you ever tried to sit on a chair with uneven legs?  What happened?  I'd make a guess that the chair would fall over, or break. 

I enjoy all aspects of kendo.  I train a lot, by myself and with my dojo members.  I enjoy kata in the same way, as a solo endeavor and with a partner.  I also regularly compete in our regional taikais throughout the year, and I participate in shinsas for testing whenever I'm able.  One of my ultimate personal goals is to make my shiai kendo and my regular, every day kendo one and the same.  I do this by working hard on my basics and techniques, trying to move properly at all times (no bendy kendo!) and having overall "beautiful kendo", as one of my sensei would frequently comment on.  In my mind this can only be accomplished by putting in the same amount of focus and dedication to each part of my kendo.  If I practice hard every week at my local dojo and do well there but let it fall apart during competition, what does that show others?  If I perfect my kata to the best of my ability at my level but I neglect my regular training and keiko time, how can I apply what I've learned between the two?  And if I have a strong showing at each shinsa I attend, but am lazy and unengaged at regular practice, how will that be viewed by everyone else?  I would think that any answer to these questions would be more on the negative side.

I've been thinking a lot about this during our semi-annual kata study that we do at our dojo.  I'm lucky to be in a place where these points are important and we are given ample opportunities to improve our abilities, both by practicing together with other members and by ourselves.  I've noticed a lot of people that I admire in kendo have a good balance between all of these aspects.  They test well; they take kata seriously and work to improve it each time; they show beautiful kendo at tournaments, win or lose; they do their best at regular practices and work to improve themselves and everyone that comes to train.  I hope to emulate these traits in my own way, through my continued training and focus on balancing the four legs of my kendo chair.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Layers and Curtains

Kendo is an interesting art.  There's not much to it, physically.  The footwork and attacks are all relatively simple, compared to some other martial arts out there.  There's a handful of different movements and even less targets and attacks, but all is not what it seems.  Kendo is about layers, and curtains.  You peel back one layer, peek behind another curtain, and all of a sudden there's more than you first realized.  A men strike is a men strike is a men strike, but it can mean vastly different things depending on if you are a beginner, upper kyu, or upper dan.  I love this aspect of kendo.  Easy to learn, difficult to master, and when you think you've got one thing down you discover another dimension to it which makes you see it in a whole new light and gives you more to think about and practice.

This mindset comes up to me all the time, as a lot of the advice and instruction I get are things that I've heard before.  Maybe not in the same way, but along the same lines.  It seems, though, that each time I hear it, or practice it, there's more going on.  Or there's something else to add to it to make it stronger.  When I learned to strike men, I focused only on what my hands were doing (for good or bad).  I thought about the correct structure of my swing, about hitting the target correctly and accurately, and about using tenouchi to give it that nice snappy feeling.  When I felt comfortable with that, I began to think about my body and what it was doing.  What are my feet doing when I strike?  What about my upper body?  Am I leaning?  Am I moving from my center or are my arms leading my movement?  So many new things to consider once I got down the actual motion of hitting men!  Now when I strike men, a lot of my thoughts are on my pressure on my opponent, or his/her pressure on me.  Is there an opening to be taken?  Can I create an opening from my current position?  Can I even hit them from here if given the chance, or do I have to adjust my distance?  In my own example here, I can see many, many layers that are being built upon one another to make one single men strike.  I also know that there will be many more layers added upon what I have already built in the years to come.

Layers are not only present in shinai kendo, but they also show up in the kata.  We have been studying kata again lately at the dojo and a lot of what I'm focusing on now involves distancing, timing, and my connection with my partner.  Before my mind was filled with the physical movements themselves and making sure I had those right.  Now that the basic "shape" of the kata are burned into my memory, I'm free to turn my concentration to other aspects and to explore the kata and begin making them more robust.  The kodachi kata, in particular, is where our focus has been, and I'm glad to have this time to bring them up to par with the first seven kata that I have learned and to bring them all, as a whole, up to new levels through this practice and focus on different aspects.

We've also been going over some interesting things at the dojo lately.  Not any one strike or technique in particular, but rather what happens before, during, and after.  We've been breaking these three pieces down and building them back up, and I've found that I definitely need to work on the "after" part of my attacks.  This seems to be my weakest link, due to footwork breaking down, or my kiai ending too early, etc.  I'll try and remember this in the coming weeks so I can really focus on it.  Next up, I would say that my "during" needs some work, as I'm not always as accurate as I'd like to be.  Also I still need to work on relaxing and using strength right at the very end, like Stroud Sensei has shown me a couple times now.  I've done a lot to build up my kamae, and the "before" my attack, so I feel like at this point that is my strongest area.  At least for now, for where I'm at in my training.  I'm looking forward to breaking it down and building it up again once I get to that next layer, or when I pull back that next curtain to reveal what's waiting behind it.