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Posts Tagged ‘kendo breathing’

downloadWhenever I come back to the UK after seeing high level kendo in Japan I am struck by one major difference in our kendo- we show far less kihaku. I don’t mean that our kiai is not loud enough, but overall we do not show the same inner force and explosiveness that our Japanese peers demonstrate.  Kihaku refers to the strength of spirit that we bring to our keiko. Outside the dojo in everyday Japanese a more usual translation would be “vigour”.

How this difference is manifested is difficult to explain, but let me try. It starts from the moment we stand up from sonkyo; instead of a “let’s wait and see what happens” attitude we should be fizzing like a piece of magnesium in water, looking for an opportunity to strike. When we find that opportunity we should explode, accelerating after we strike and taking our determination into zanshin.

Partially, the way to achieve this is through correct breathing – taking a big breath before you engage, releasing part of it through kakegoe, holding the remainder in tame and then emptying yourself on the strike.  Breathing alone though is not enough. We need to be in a state of constant readiness, able to attack at will. When we do strike it needs to be with total commitment. Win or lose we have to give it 100 per cent of our energy and effort. Our forward movement, particularly for men needs to be as fast as possible, picking up acceleration as we strike.

The strike itself should be sharp, not hard. A fast relaxed swing with good tenouchi is the way to do this and it goes without saying that our fumikomi, posture and strike should be as one.  Not everyone is in a position to do this. If you are in the early stages of your kendo career then you are still working on getting the basics right and it is almost impossible to put maximum effort into a strike when you are still thinking of the best way to do it. When technique is practiced until it becomes second nature, then it is the time to leave conscious thought behind and give it all you’ve got.

In my younger days I was delighted to be given the nickname “bullet” by my Japanese sempai. I was sure that this was based on the strength and speed of my attack. It was only later that I learned that the real reasoning behind the name was that when we hit the bars of Kyobashi after training, I was considered unstoppable. Still it was a confidence builder while it lasted.

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SheepThe Christmas and New Year holidays mean kendo down-time for many of us. Here are some practical tasks that might help improve our kendo to try over next few days, before we get swept up in the pleasant routine of next year’s keiko.

  1. Wash your hakama and keikogi – I am a long term fan of the Japanese ritual of Osoji, making sure that everything is clean and in good order for the coming year. Starting the year with clean dogi feels like a fresh beginning to your keiko.
  2. Make sure shinai and bogu are in good condition – Check take, tighten tsuru and nakayui and replace old himo on bogu.
  3. Treat yourself to a pedicure- buy a foot file, or better still get a professional chiropodist to remove the callouses and hard skin inflicted on your feet by last year’s training. If you miss them don’t worry, you will soon be able to build up another set of kendo hooves.
  4. Find a role model – Think about teachers and senshu whose kendo you admire, ideally find someone with similar physical characteristics to your own. Look at their kendo on YouTube or read anything they have written about their own kendo philosophy and training habits and choose elements to introduce into your own practice.
  5. Practice suburi at home– Chiba sensei in his all-Japan prime used to do 3,000 continuous suburi every day, a few hundred would be a worthwhile activity for most of us. Words of warning –buy a short suburi shinai or watch out for low ceilings and light fittings. We don’t want to alienate our nearest and dearest at this time of year.
  6. Practice breathing – I don’t mean the standard life sustaining in and out stuff, but kendo chokoki tanden  kokyu, breathing in deeply and holding the air in your tanden before breathing out quickly through your mouth. Ideally you should do this sitting in seiza.
  7. Analyse your kendo – think about your keiko over the past year and the elements that felt “right”. Reflect on advice you have received and try to filter out any contradictions. If you have video footage of your kendo look at it in detail and try to understand the points that you should work on.

And that’s it! Another kendo year nearly over! Thank you for reading my blog in 2014. For local kendo friends, I hope to see you  at Sanshukan on Tuesday, I also look forward to meeting up with international friends in Brussels, Tokyo and various other locations over the course of 2015. Rainen mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu. Have a great kendo year.

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Following the recent Mumeishi seminar,  Sueno sensei attended our regular Tuesday practice and taught another session to add to the information that he gave us at the weekend.

As before he put us through some very simple men and kote drills and reinforced the importance of correct kiai in achieving good technique. I have long been aware of the difference that good kiai makes in kendo and wrote about it in the early days of this blog http://wp.me/stBQt-kiai . Sueno sensei however dealt with the subject much more eloquently and I feel that it’s worth summarising his explanation.

Before moving into the drills, he repeated the point he made at the seminar, that “There are many paths to the top of the mountain”. A good way of saying that different teachers have different approaches, but that in kendo the end goal is always the same.  The drills themselves consisted of students working in pairs, starting in issoku ito maai with kakarite stepping into his or her own cutting distance and concentrating on delivering a men strike with correct ki-ken-tai- itchi timing. Each partner would make two large men attacks then receive two. After several repetitions, instructions were given to make the strikes smaller.

Once everyone was into the rhythm of exchanging men attacks, Sueno sensei made the following point. “Before starting the attack breathe in quickly through your nose; hold the air in your abdomen and make a big shout releasing some of the air. Then make your kiai as you strike, releasing the rest of your air as you move through to safe distance. As you strike your kiai should grow in volume and in pitch so that it increases your energy and acceleration and pulls your posture up throughout the attack and zanshin.”

He continued to point out that if you allowed your kiai to diminish as you hit, it would have the adverse effect, causing you to lose power and “grind to a halt”.

To demonstrate the feeling of “holding breath in your abdomen”, sensei suggested that we try to tense the muscles in our stomach and abdomen, which everyone could and did. Then he instructed us to put tension into our shoulder and chest muscles at the same time, which nobody could.

We then returned to the drills with the emphasis on just edging our feet into our own preferred striking distance rather than taking one clear step in.

As Sueno sensei says “There are many paths to the top of the mountain” and I would be happy to have many of the Hanshi sensei as my guide. However in much the same way as does Chiba sensei, Sueno sensei has the ability to make complicated kendo concepts appear simple and logical.

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I was asked to suggest a theme for this weekend’s Watchet seminar and I decided on braking and acceleration. No I have not started giving driving lessons, but based on observation of high quality keiko compared with the kendo of less experienced kenshi, I am convinced that what sets the two apart is the ability explode into action from a standing start and to stop in a similarly short interval.

Shiai are won in the blink of an eye. As soon as an opportunity is created, we need to push-off and hit in the timing of one. Once we have achieved ippon we need to stop our forward movement and assume correct zanshin equally instantly. For many people in the early stages of their kendo career the pattern of their attack is along the lines of – lift the shinai, step forward, hit and run through, building momentum only after the strike. Most people have heard the expression ichi-byoshi , this means to lift and hit in one smooth motion. The ability to achieve this relies not only on correct footwork and posture, but also on accurate breath control.

The ideal sequence is to take a deep breath whilst still in safe distance, release some of it as kakegoe whilst retaining the remainder in your abdomen as you step into you own preferred striking distance. Only when you see the opportunity to attack should you expel the rest of your breath by way of kiai as you strike the target. Your furikaburi and strike should be in one smooth motion as you push off from the left foot and make fumikomi with your right, smartly bringing up your left foot in hikitsuke. In the case of a men attack, where your opponent obliges by stepping aside after you hit, the explosion of your waza should allow you to smartly move through to a safe distance to turn and assume zanshin.

With kote or tsuki this is not always possible; you need to stop in front of your opponent in a strong kamae, without “running on” and potentially putting him or her in danger. This is where the brake comes into play. Stopping when you are in full spirit depends on good balance and posture. You need to ensure that your weight is between your feet and that you have a straight back and a low centre of balance. If you lean forward you will lose all control.

Get these two elements right and you move from being the kendo equivalent of a three wheeler van to shaping up like a sparkling new Lamborghini.

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Breathing is important in kendo. Come to think of it, it is generally important. Specifically to kendo however, the way we breathe has an enormous effect on our progress and on the effectiveness of our technique.

The breathing style used in kendo is known in Japanese as Aun no kokyu. We breathe in through the nose hold the air in our abdomen and then expel the air through the mouth. This is the type of breathing associated with yoga and meditation. In kendo however we use aun no kokyu to aid the explosive power of our waza and in concert with our kamae, as a force to repel attacks. Try breathing in as your opponent is moving into striking distance and the chances are that he will attack and you will not be able to resist. If he tries the same approach when you are either holding your breath or slowly expelling air, you become far less vulnerable.

As a general rule we breathe in when we are in safe distance, hold the air in our tanden, expelling some by way of a kakegoe shout in issoku-ito-no maai. We then reserve what is left of our breath until we strike, letting out the remainder as me make our kiai and take zanshin. We only breathe in again after we are back in safe distance. Kendo-no-kata, whilst teaching us many other elements of kendo, gives us a perfect illustration of the correct way to breathe. If we use the first form of the Tachi-no-kata as an example ; both uchidachi and shidachi breathe in on taking jodan, both then hold that breath until they make their respective men attacks, releasing air on their kiai and breathing in after completing zanshin.

In shinai kendo we are in a strong position when we are replete with air or slowly exhaling. So for example with debana men; we breathe in before we make our initial seme, release some breath as we step in, hold our breath in tame and then explode into the technique whilst letting out our kiai. What happens if you run out of air? My suggestion is that you move back to safe distance, breathe in and try again.

There are lots of opportunities to practice correct kendo breathing. One is of course during mokuso, particularly after keiko when we may be out of breath and need to slow things down. The idea is to breathe in quickly through the nose, hold the breath in your tanden for as long as is comfortably possible, then breathe out slowly.  Another classic approach is through the practice of kirikaeshi, aiming to complete the first shomen, nine yokomen and the second shomen strike in one breath.

Whichever way you do it, the most important point with breathing is not to stop.

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