I practice regularly with people who are training to achieve 4th, 5th and 6th dan and I am often asked for my opinion on what they need to change to effectively make the step up. Most of these students can demonstrate good technique and footwork and given clear opportunities can make effective waza. Often though the element they need to work-on is more internal than external.
Nearly all kenshi are familiar with the term kamae, meaning posture. Fewer of us are aware of ki-gamae, which the ZNKR’s kendo dictionary describes as “the state where one’s whole body is alert and ready to react to the moves of the opponent’s body and mind that precede a strike”. Whilst this may sound unnecessarily complicated as a concept, in reality it is simple. A cat looking for the best opportunity to pounce on a mouse does not intellectualize the process; she just strains every sense to find the perfect opportunity to attack.
Ki-gamae is a state of being both calm and settled and having a heightened perception of your opponent’s intention, and being in a position where you can strike in an instant. We can’t achieve this by strength of mind alone. We need to have good footwork, constantly bringing the left foot up to the correct position as we move forward, and even more importantly we should have the ability to control our breathing so that we are able to exhale at the point of attack.
We have discussed this before, but the general outline is that we breathe in through the nose and hold our breath by tensing the abdomen. We then expel part of the air as kakegoe and then use the remainder of that breath to explode on making the strike. If the opportunity to attack is not instant we need to retain the breath until we see the chance to strike (tame).
Obviously ki-gamae is not reserved for grading examinations and shiai, we should be in this state of awareness every time we visit the dojo and in each keiko from the opening to the closing rei. By keiko I also mean kihon-geiko, so every drill should be undertaken with full spirit. In this way we make strong ki-gamae an integral part of our kendo. Given enough practice ki-gamae and ki-zeme move from being terms in the kendo dictionary and become as natural to us as they would to the cat looking for dinner.