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GophersWatching the start of a recent kihon session I was  reminded of a fairground stall where the objective is to hit gophers with a mallet as they randomly pop up and disappear back into holes. People were starting to bow as their partner finished bowing; others were taking sonkyo as their opponent moved into kamae. Not a particularly unusual spectacle, but ask kendoka at almost any level of experience “when does keiko start” and they will tell you “from the first rei”. So, we have got the theory right, but we don’t always put it into practice.

In kendo as in sumo, the term tachiai is used to describe a bout or demonstration. Tachiai literally means to stand and meet and if you are lucky enough to watch high level kendo you will see that from the initial rei through to sonkyo  and kamae there is total engagement between the two partners. Some teachers describe this as “mind contact” others talk about the meeting of ki (spirit or life-force).  In fact this is the real meaning of the term kiai. At the highest level kendo calls for total awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings and even involves mirroring an opponent’s breathing, (aun no kokkyu).

Obviously it’s extremely difficult to reach this level of harmony. Doing so may take a lifetime’s practice. If we are to stand any chance of reaching this hallowed ground, we need to start by co-ordinating our physical movements from the earliest stages of our kendo careers.

When we make the initial standing rei before keiko, we should make eye contact, raise the shinai to the hip and bow 15 degrees from the waist in unison with our opponent. We then take the  three steps forward at exactly the same time, moving as one into sonkyo; drawing the sword at the same time as we drop into position.  When in sonkyo we should try to make contact with our mind as well as the tip of the sword. Only when we feel that this contact has been made should we stand up together.

When we stand, we should either keep our position or step slightly forward, never back or to the side. This is when we should take time to read our opponent before making the first kakegoe. Most of us can’t achieve aun kokkyu, but we can ensure that we breathe in quickly and retain our breath for as long as possible. We should release half of our air on the initial kiai and keep the remainder (nokori) to expel on our first strike.

Mind-reading may take a lifetime’s practice, but we can at least start by moving as if we can read our partner’s actions.

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Is a song used to educate young skiers on the body part positions required to give the balance to ski correctly.  In kendo we have no similar prompts, but we definitely need them. Skiers who get it wrong, learn quickly by falling over, whereas in kendo you can continue to make the same mistakes for years.

Most students lack the ability to think holistically, which is not surprising, as kendo requires a range of movements which seem totally unnatural and unconnected.  The ability to move hands, feet and body together and to merge this with breathing and kiai are essential to achieving ki-ken-tai-ichi. Furthermore incorrect balance and posture make it almost impossible to hit with relaxed hands to the detriment of hasuji and tenouchi. Even relatively seasoned kendoka suffer from thinking sequentially. I regularly remind a third dan club member that his hand and foot timing is out and that he is using too much upper body strength. He regularly counters by explaining that “today I am working on my feet, or hands”, or whatever his current preoccupation happens to be.

Even after you have all the basics working correctly, it is easy to change the whole picture. When people change one element of their kendo, everything else is affected. A slight change of balance alters the timing of your footwork and the amount of upper versus lower body strength that is used in a technique. So you start by making a small correction and find you have to overhaul your whole kendo style.

How to avoid this? Why kihon of course. But, you need to ensure that you think “big picture “. With suburi, you should concentrate on achieving ki-ken-tai-ichi as you make each strike. For kirikaeshi and uchikomigeiko, you should ensure that you finish each cut correctly and that your timing is spot on. You also need to ensure that all of these exercises are carried out with a feeling of ichibyoshi, the timing of one, where you raise the shinai and strike in the same movement. Of course, correct breathing will help you achieve this.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you should keep the speed of kihon practise to a level where you are in control. Do not race ahead of yourself just to do it quickly. Of course speed is important, but get it right first and then make it faster.

So as far as I can see there are no real short cuts, or we maybe we could borrow the skiing memory aids “Atama kata hiza ashiyubi”, but it does not quite fit the tune.

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