Without the benefit of a private dojo for toshikoshi geiko, my first practice of the New Year took place yesterday. This hatsugeiko was a great way to get back into the swing of kendo and with my wrist injury now mending, I am once again able to call on some oji waza to use against my fitter, faster juniors.
Perhaps because of the holiday break or maybe because it is a reflective time of year, a number of people asked me to help evaluate their keiko. The common theme was that we all seemed to be operating at a single rhythm, by which I mean that there was no real differentiation between the speed of approach, attack and follow through. This could of course be attributed to a surfeit of Christmas pudding, but more likely the cause is just general tension and inability to relax.
Many years ago, I was given some advice by Kikuchi Koichi sensei, former Vice President of the BKA, more recently of Shibuya dojo, that the feeling in kendo should be “like a feather in a hurricane”. This has been a constantly memorable image, signifying to me that kendo should be light and flexible but driven by a great elemental force. What sets great kendo players apart is the ability to instantly transform form a totally relaxed state to explosive movement.
Most of us will never achieve this, but there are certainly ways in which we can get closer to the ideal. Good posture and balance and a relaxed, flexible kamae are all necessities. Correct footwork too is essential, with the ability to drive off from the left foot as soon as you see the opportunity. Most importantly the cut itself must be done with relaxed shoulders, elbows and wrists. If you use too much shoulder power, it makes your attack heavy and slow. The feeling on making the attack should be as if you are being pulled upward and forward, accelerating through the strike into zanshin.
This is all very easy to describe but very difficult to do. The ability to relax, particularly in stressful situations such as shiai and shinsa, needs strict mental as well as physical preparation. You need to control your breathing and put aside the kendo sicknesses of fear doubt and perplexity. Whilst the ideal of “a feather in a hurricane” may not be achievable, you may avoid looking more like a pudding in a blizzard.