Waking Up Your Training
"Are my skills and abilities confined to the boundaries of a kata? Do they disappear when the situation becomes variable and fluid? How can I learn to feel the changes as they happen and flow with those changes correctly?"
At some point in our training careers we each begin to ask ourselves these questions. As students gain technical skill, they naturally begin to wonder if they are capable of carrying that skill into a situation where there may be no rules at all. It is at this point when students can begin to work on "waking up" or "awakening" their practice of a technique or kata. This idea came to me after talking with Unsui Sensei about randori (sparring). I asked Sensei how long the study of randori should be emphasized throughout a career of Budo. His answer was very simple: "When kata feel like randori and randori feels like kata, that should be long enough." From this answer I began to understand that the feeling of being prepared for anything must be brought into the practice of kata. "Waking up" your technique could be defined as keeping a mindful attitude of preparedness.
There are many exercises that can be done in the Dojo to "wake up" and push our training to grow and mature. The following is an example that I hope will be of some assistance.
A few weeks ago in my Dojo we began class by practicing the Sanshin no kata as a warm-up. We practiced in the air to a count, then I had students pair up and practice it with each other. Normally we would have continued to the kihon happo, but I decided to study Kukishin Ryu kodachi instead. We began with the first kata of the Shoden scroll, Hicho no ken.
In this kata the Attacker stands in Daijodan no kamae with a sword and the Defender stands in Seigan no kamae with a kodachi. When the Defender shows an opening, the Attacker cuts swiftly with migi dogiri. The Defender springs forward, like a bird of prey through the air, piercing the Attacker’s body.
At first we studied this kata by concentrating on the form and order, checking kamae and footwork. As I watched students practice, I offered suggestions until each student understood a little bit more of how to improve their training according to their own habits of movement.
Next I suggested each student practice the feeling of the kata more carefully. For the Attacker, this meant holding an intense feeling of readiness to cut the Defender. At the first moment of weakness, the Attacker would cut with the suddenness of lightning.
For the Defender, this meant using Seigan no kamae correctly. This kamae is used to frustrate the opponent by drawing small circles in front of his eyes with a short sword, and using intention to control the opponent’s actions. Hicho no ken is a wonderful kata to use to understand Seigan no kamae because you learn to "prop up" the opponent against the tip of your blade and then guide him in by showing a small opening.
I could see and feel the intensity increase as students concentrated more on the feeling and worried less about checking their footwork and positioning. After a while, one student asked how to maintain the realism of the Attacker’s cut so that she could be a good training partner as the intensity and speed increased. Normally I might have advised her to concentrate on her job performing a simple attack and then assisted her training partner with his timing. However, I felt that everyone was ready to go to the next step with the practice, so we changed to a variation that would lead to "waking up" both the Attacker and the Defender to the feeling of Ma-ai (distancing/timing interval) that is only understood when the situation is truly intense.
In the henka, the Attacker performs the same opening attack, but as he cuts, the Defender shifts back, just out of range, then enters by guarding with his blade and using yoko aruki. The henka finishes with the Defender attacking the opponent’s eyes. After practicing and changing partners many times, the students each began to capture the feeling of this henka.
I then asked them to decide in advance to perform either the basic form of the kata or the henka as they liked. Even at this point the students’ movement had not yet come alive, and so I gave further instruction to the Attackers. As they cut down, Attackers were told to be more aware of the Defender’s movement. If they noticed the Defender moving away, they were told to reach out further with the cut to catch him retreating. If they should notice the Defender leaping in, they should contract the cut and catch him as he closes the distance. With this change, the feeling of randori was introduced into the training. Each Defender immediately found it was necessary to wait as long as possible in kamae and to not give away their intention. Each Attacker also found that changing to catch the Defender could happen at different times and with different levels of difficulty, depending on the Defender’s skill in hiding his intention and his sense of ma-ai. For both participants it became necessary to practice an increased level of preparedness and apply that to their skill in executing the kata. In short, knowing what the realistic timing is for such changes is based on the feeling of the moment and the skill level of each person.
At first when you train this way, it is as if you return to a level of skill where everything falls apart. You are faced with the humility needed to pursue Budo training effectively. However, once you begin to control the power of the ego, your skill will return to you and you can find moments of clarity. Then you know that you are really getting somewhere.
In practicing this way as an instructor - that is, by varying your training methods to meet the needs of the students - your skills and those of your students can effectively take the lessons taught by the kata to new levels of understanding. Our class on Hicho no ken is just one example. I hope that it serves to inspire you to find other safe ways to awaken your own training.