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I started studying iaido in December. So far, training generally consists of paired kata and exercises with bokken and solo kata with shinken (real, sharp swords). Last night's class was entirely with shinken. Although I studied aiki-ken and aiki-jo (based a lot on Saito's curriculum), there was very little carry-over from my previous experience to iaido. Not being able to rely on my previous experience means it is a lot easier to approach iaido training with a fresh, open mind. As a result, I'm seeing my aikido training, and the crossover from sword to empty-hand, from a different perspective.
This gets to the difference between received wisdom -- something we learn based on others' experiences -- and earned wisdom, which our own experiences create and reinforce. Good learning requires a careful mix between the two. One needs both a teacher to demonstrate proper technique, and many thousands of repetitions of actual practice to become proficient. The interplay between received and earned wisdom happens in the constant iterations of practicing and getting corrected and then working on the corrections during practice.
With that in mind, _what_ one practices is as important as _how_ one practices. I strongly believe that there needs to be some empirical validity to one's practice, otherwise one could learn to perfectly perform techniques that don't work. This is especially true in the relationship among aikido, the sword arts, and aiki-ken.
In my previous dojo, we never, ever professed to be learning an actual sword art. We knew there were differences between aiki-ken and the koryu sword arts. We understood aiki-ken to be a series of sword movements and techniques designed to emphasize the fundamentals of aikido. That's fair enough as far as it goes, but I was always a little dissatisfied by aiki-ken practice. The logic seemed circular to me. If aikido has many basic principles of movement and technique derived from sword, then why study a sword system derived from aikido? This approach seems to reinforce the received wisdom without offering the opportunity for earned wisdom. There was no way to test the sword part of aiki-ken independent of aikido.
To me, the situation with aiki-ken is a lot like learning languages. People who study foreign languages find that the study helps them immensely with their native languages. I studied German in high school and college. English shares common roots with German and the similarities in vocabulary and grammar between the two are striking. Learning German helped me become better at speaking and writing in English. I don't think that learning a subset of German designed to highlight fundamental principles in English would have helped me to the same degree that becoming fluent in German helped.
Wouldn't it be better to learn a sword art as its own discipline and experience the crossover between sword and aikido in a more authentic manner? I'm fortunate to train in a dojo that offers both aikido and iaido as separate arts, but with conscious attention to the fundamentals they share. I'm learning that the important fundamentals are not in the gross movements, but in the subtle and precise attention to detail: efficiency in movement; the difference between stepping back and sinking back; a little drop in center used to power the sword cut; and the proper attitude during kata. These are the some of the fundamentals of sword (as I understand it so far), and I have no doubt that becoming fluent in sword will help me become more fluent in aikido.