Iaido - The Art of the Sword

Doing business definitely is not easy these days, and it usually involves a lot of psychological pressure and physical weariness. Many executives end-up with such tension and fatigue that they age too fast and are often exposed to health related problems such as heart strokes. If you want to keep young, healthy, and avoid a nervous breakdown, you certainly need to de-stress, relax, and re-energize yourself. You also need to learn to concentrate in way to be able to focus on thorny tasks and issues. One way to overcome daily stress is to meditate, either in passive or active modes. This can be done through various techniques – yoga, taichi, qigong, zen, iaido – that all aim towards a same goal: gain control over one’s ego and temper, get a better balance and better health, a relaxed body and a clearer mind.

In Taiwan, Taichi and yoga are probably the most popular activities. However, iaido, or the Japanese art of sword has been made fashionable by the movie “The Last Samurai” and is becoming the new trend these days. Let’s have a look at this fascinating and beautiful art that dates back to feudal Japan.
Iaido is derived from Japanese swordsmanship and Zen Buddhism. It was devised to give samurais an edge at defending themselves on the street (off the battlefield), while at the same time providing them with a method to exercise, relax, focus and meditate, and offering them a way to offset the violence of the battleground.

Iaido is rather an upscale activity. Since it’s mostly taught on a private basis and because it involves some expensive basic equipment, it can therefore be a bit costly at the beginning. The equipment includes a traditional outfit – Japanese hakama (or pleated trousers) and kendo jacket – as well as a sword. The sword especially can be quite expensive; but people who want to start in a cost-effective manner can practice for a few months with a wooden sword called boken.

Iaido is best practiced at home, in a park, or on a rooftop early morning or at sunset. It can be done singly or in groups, and being a very refined art – as are most Japanese arts – it is a long-term endeavor. People who start learning Iaido often keep practicing for a whole lifetime. However Iaido doesn’t take much time: a 15~20 minutes daily practice is sufficient.

Iaido, an ancient art.

Men dressed in black, swirling and drawing their sword at lightning speed...
This is Iaido, the most fascinating of all martial arts (Iaido is also called batodo or batojutsu).
Although the art may seem obsolete at the time of nuclear weaponry, there is much more to it than just cutting air with a Japanese sword. Iaido began with the Katori Shinto Ryu, a 16th century school that included the use of many weapons from sword to sticks, and emphasized the fast draw and instant use of the sword, whereas moves called "katas" are repeated incessantly for years until perfect mastery of the technique.

As a fighting art in the modern world this may seem superficial and inappropriate. However, the meaning of Iaido was illustrated thousands of years ago by Sun Tsu in "The Art of War": "The martial artist who trains fully and correctly will develop an ability to recognize difficult situations and avoid them, or will engage the conflict before it has grown to become uncontrollable, or better will maintain a state of mind and body that will offer no opportunities for an aggressor."

The kanji character 'I' can be read as 'itte' and ai' as 'awasu' in the phrase 'Tsune ni itte kyu ni awasu' which means: "wherever you are and whatever you are doing, always be prepared." Being prepared means to have an aware state of mind and to have trained rigorously, so that if necessary a decisive technique can be used to end a conflict. Similarly, in today's business environment, one must be confident and prepared to act decisively when required. In daily life, when crossing a road and a car appears from nowhere, is your body sufficiently balanced and your mind sufficiently clear to deal safely with the danger?

"The finest blade stays in the scabbard"

This famous expression means that the goal of Iaido is to develop a mind in harmony with itself and the world. By mastering the sword, you control yourself and subsequently you'll be more able to control a situation and to ultimately choose a peaceful settlement. To reach this harmony, one will train both his mind and body through katas and Zen meditation, until every move can be performed effortless to near-perfection.

Stages in training

Iaido has this particularity to involve both “passive” and “active” meditation, or both seated and moving exercises.
First there is Keiko, which simply means training or practice. It consists of learning the essential movements by slow repetition, and understanding how the techniques would work in a real situation. With this practice the swordsman begins to understand the principles of Metsuke (correct use of the eyes), Seme (pressing or pushing), Maai (combative distance) and Ma (timing). This study takes about five years of regular practice.

Then comes Tanren that means to forge the person like a sword's blade, with hard work, sweat, and many hours of dedication, folding together the hard and soft elements in the body, mind, and movement. The student increasingly practices without so much concern for the correctness of the movements, trying to capture a feeling of Shinken Shobu (a fight to death with a real sword). During this phase, posture improves, movements become more natural and techniques become more effective thanks to better control and timing.

As confidence increases and Kigurai (bearing) develops, training moves into a phase called Renshu. Ren means to polish the spirit and character through continued practice of details and interpretation and to demonstrate a compassionate nature that shows no egotistical pride and arrogance. At this stage the actions become slower and softer, resulting in refined efficiency.

In Japan, serious batojutsu practitioners also often learn tameshigiri or cutting techniques. Tameshigiri consists of cutting makiwara -- bundles of rice straw strapped together -- or stalks of bamboo. In Taiwan unfortunately, this practice is not possible, since we are not supposed to own sharp sword. For more on tameshigiri, visit www.shinkendo.com

The Class.

After learning basics of how to hold a sword and do proper cuts the beginner is gradually introduced to the katas. The All Japan Kendo Federation has 12 katas; we have 20 in Yoseikan Iaido, not including suwari (seated) forms and ura-wasa (counter techniques).
The moves are derived from the most popular of old styles (koryu). There are also some old style katas from various schools. At the Yoseikan, we also use two-man techniques (kumidatchi). These katas are being first practiced with wooden swords (bokuto or boken).
People wear a hakama (baggy pleated trousers) and keikogi (training jacket). An obi (sword belt) is worn under the hakama cords to hold the sword in place. The hakama is usually black or dark blue, and the keikogi is of matching colour or white. A white hakama can be worn in the summer or for special occasions. There is no indication of grade by any means in the costume. The practice always begins with a warm-up, meditation, and an opening etiquette consisting of a traditional salute. Out of safety concerns, people in most dojos practice with non-sharp swords. The sword is an extremely personal item, and every practitioner has his own sword.
Iaido is an increasingly popular activity in the modern world where people need relief from the daily stress. Iaido has properties similar to those of Taiqi or Qikong. It helps people gain control over their ego and temper, get a better balance and a better health, a relaxed body and a clearer mind.

There are only few Iaido schools in Taiwan. People interested can contact the local kendo federation, or the Yoseikan -- that offers both group and private classes -- at 0930-004243 (www.budoasia.com).

Copyright 2006 - GZ.


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