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Posts Tagged ‘kiai’

ritsureiDespite my regular attempts to grab attention with ironic references to kendo as “stick fighting” or as a sport, I firmly believe that it is a shugyo, a Zen martial art based on Taoist and Confucian philosophy, developed with the aim of developing the human character. As such reiho , the physical display of courtesy is an integral element.

In Kendo, a Comprehensive Guide I devoted much of the book to the description of reiho and chakuso and still only scratched the surface, Your remarks on my last post prompted this attempt to describe some of the aspects of reiho in slightly more detail.

Reiho can be easily categorised into the obvious and the kendo specific. The obvious includes the things that we would consider polite behaviour in most societies. For instance don’t chat when an instructor is talking”, or “don’t slouch or lean on on walls in class” are instructions given to school children around the world.

As a child, I was told to ask permission when I wanted to leave the dinner table. In the same way you should do so when you need to leave the dojo, not just for the sake of politeness, but so that those running the session can keep track of you, if for instance you became unwell.

I could continue with this list but there is little value in describing the obvious. Instead I have tried to list some of  the points that are specific to kendo or budo.

  • Rei – This used to be a lot more complicated, as anyone who has watched elderly Japanese ladies striving to hit the correct angle for the exact social circumstance might realise. Now in kendo we bow to each other at an angle of 15 degrees from the waist keeping the back straight. The key thing is to make eye contact and then continue it throughout the bow. At the dojo entrance and to our instructors we bow to 30 degrees. For zarei we form a triangle between our two hands and lower our forehead directly above it keeping the back street. You should exhale as you bow.
  • Sonkyo – This salutation is unique to kendo and sumo. Ensure that after rei you come to correct distance and then bring your shinai over and down to chudan using the most direct path as you drop into sonkyo. When you finish your keiko or tachiai you reverse the process, ensuring that you put your right hand on your right thigh as you return the shinai to your hip. This signifies that you have no further intention of drawing your sword, but that you are able to do so if your opponent breaks the peace.
  • Entering shiai jo – you can take as many steps as you like before you bow, but bow correctly and take only three steps to the kaeshi sen and sonkyo.
  • Shinai – Kendo is “The way of the sword” and the shinai symbolises the razor sharp katana. We should not walk over other people’s shinai or touch the jinbu of their or our weapons. We should not use the shinai as a walking stick nor drag the point across the floor and we should not bang it on the floor to signal yame.
  • Hakama – After my last post someone commented on one of the Facebook groups that he has seen hundreds of ways of wearing hakama. I personally believe that there are only two ways – right and wrong. The hakama invokes the spirit of budo with pleats representing the Confucian values “gin,gi,rei, chi, shin – makoto” (benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, faith and sincerity). The left leg goes in first and comes out last. The waistband should be level with the navel. The ties should cross under the tanden. The koshiita should sit above the ties at the back. The hem of the hakama should clear the toes and slant upwards from front to rear.
  • Kote – like the legs of the hakama, these go on left right and come off right left. Reasons given are that it left the right hand free to draw the sword or to draw a bow string when under attack.
  • Tenegui – folded inside or draped outside the men for rei, customs vary from dojo to dojo, but however you do it, keep them freshly laundered and contemplate their meaning before you put them on.
  • Kiai and kakegoe – should be short and sharp; it should not sound as if you are bragging about the point you just made.
  • Sempai and kohai – Unless we are part of the Japanese system, we will never fully understand the structure and obligation of these relationships. Dojo etiquette however should however be based on mutual respect. Feel free to cross the dojo to make zarei to your teacher, or even to tidy and pack his or her bogu, but only do so as a genuine token of respect.

These are just a few examples of the way we should behave in the dojo. To make a comprehensive list would be a major undertaking.

I hoped to give more explanations of “why” we do things and over the years have asked a number of sensei about some of background to kendo reigi.In most cases the answer is “because that is what we do”. Perhaps one more point of reigi is that we should show the tact and politeness to accept the “sonno mama” (way it is) of kendo.

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Ninja fingersA number of people have confessed that they were drawn to kendo after reading books by Eric Van Lustbader or Trevanian who ‘s works featured heroes who had developed supernatural powers from their studies of the martial arts. This romanticised view was not limited to a few western authors.  Japanese mythology also accredited supernatural power to the “Way of the Sword”. More recently manga have continued to give kendo this sword and sorcery image.

I believe that there is a grain of truth in most legends. When you consider the ability of elderly kendo teachers to dominate younger, fitter opponents with the power of their minds (kizeme) it’s easy to realise that kendo transcends the purely physical.

Having thought for some time to see if my 45 years of kendo practice have given me any superhuman abilities, I realised that I am able to stay sitting comfortably in my morning commuter train seat while my fellow travellers fight their way to the exit, and I still beat most of them onto the Bakerloo line. Now I appreciate that this does not compare with the ability to levitate, as seen in many Hong Kong Kung fu movies, or the power to make birds fall from the trees at the sound of your kiai, but it’s a start.

On a more serious note, I believe that kendo does help develop the ability to stay calm under pressure, to strive when the odds are against you, to be confident yet modest and that empathy and fighting spirit can go hand in hand. Where I am not clear is whether these attributes are unique to kendo, or if they are as easily learned from other martial arts or team sports. I am also unclear as to how long it takes to acquire these qualities.

I am also interested to know whether physical mastery and mental development proceed at the same speed. Can you become a physical expert who does not grasp the nuances of kendo philosophy and vice versa? I have heard people give very well thought out rationales on the deeper meaning of kendo before they have acquired basic hand and foot co-ordination.

I would really like to hear your comments on whether kendo has changed you as a person and if so in what way. How long it took to make any appreciable change in your personality and whether you think that change would or would not have happened if you did not practice kendo. If you have learned to levitate or bend spoons without touching them, please tell me about it.

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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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Kiai and sae

kiai2Many of my kendo friends are aware that I drone on endlessly about sae or snap. Often kendoka who have good kihon and timing, fail to make decisive ippon because they do not finish the strike sharply.

This could be because they are using the too much right hand power or because they are pushing the shinai forward rather than cutting down. Often though, lack of sae is caused by ineffective kiai. It’s hard to explain this without demonstrating, but if your kiai is slow, lacks energy or comes before or after the point of impact, then it will not help you make a successful attack.

Kiai should be sharp and explosive and delivered exactly at the moment you hit the target. Its purpose is to focus all your physical and mental energy on the cut. It emphasises that nothing else exists for you at that moment, only your total commitment to the strike. Some people believe that kiai is made to alert the shinpan that they have scored a point, or that it is a declaration of intent, a bit like naming the pocket in a game of pool. This is far from the truth. Premature kiai means that your energy tails off too early. Using it to claim your point means that your energy peaks after you need it most.

Your kiai should be made in the spirit of sutemi, throwing every last particle of air into a totally unselfconscious scream as you hit. It will naturally continue briefly as you move through into zanshin. In fact a sharp single kiai will automatically make you accelerate past your opponent. Do not be tempted to elongate your kiai into something like the noise of a car with starter motor problems. Me-e-e-e-e-en simply makes you sound needy.

The mechanics of good kiai are simple. We have looked at them when we talked about seme and tame. You take a big breath in through your nose when you are still in safe distance, then let half the air out as a kakegoe shout; something simple like” ya”. Holding the remainder of your breath in your abdomen you step into your striking distance. Once you have broken your opponent’s centre or pre-empted his attack, raise your shinai and strike down at the target in the timing of one, expelling your remaining breath as kiai. The idea is not just to focus your shout but to commit your entire spirit.

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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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Sumi sensei at Imperial

Sumi sensei at Imperial

I am trying to recover after 4 days and 5 nights of keiko with Sumi, Uegaki, Tashiro and Mori sensei.

We have just finished the annual Sumi seminar and by the final day there was a clearly visible improvement in the standard of Kendo for all participants. On the last day we held a grading examination to 5th dan level and for the first time in my experience, 100 percent of the candidates passed. Of course the sensei worked on improving technique and posture and a lot of focus was put on correct footwork, but in my view, the biggest improvement made to everyone’s kendo was through improved kiai.

I sincerely believe that in the UK, we fail to teach beginners the importance of correct breathing and strong kiai and that this has a major impact on the ability to finish waza correctly. Whereas if correct breath control is taught, the technicalities of finishing a technique tend to take care of themselves. Ideally, you should breathe in sharply and hold the air in your abdomen, then let out a small amount of this air as kiai or kakegoe before you enter cutting distance. You should then expel the rest of your breath sharply as a loud kiai at the point of striking. The difference between Kendo with and without this is similar to comparing a bout between two professional heavyweight boxers and a friendly slapping match.

As we get older and move up the grading ladder, kiai or perhaps more appropriately kihaku (the strength of our spirit), becomes more important. Muscle power decreases, so we need to resort to the strength of our mind or spirit to break an opponent’s centre as we make an attack.

Watching people like Sumi sensei, who I have had the privilege of knowing for many years, you can see this transformation. Whereas twenty years ago I feared the speed of his attack, one is now transfixed by the strength of his ki.

So, coming back to our more immediate kiai concerns, what is the best way to train? The answer given loudly during the seminar was kirikaeshi. Deep breath, kakegoe, shomen and 5 yoko men with kiai without breathing in again – then stretch to shomen and seven yoko men. When you can do that go on to the whole forward and back sequence in one breath. It hurts! but, it will make one hell of a difference to your Kendo.

Post seminar practice at Imperial College – Sumi sensei in the second row center.

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