This month's "The Mirror" column was written by A.J. Garcia.
As a few of you know, I'm also now studying Iaido--have been, coming up on four years--and have bagged a couple of certificates in the process. Our top senseis came from Japan a couple of weeks ago and gave classes and exams. I was able to attend only one class with the visitors, an early morning one, due to work. Doesn't sound like much, neh? And yet I made a mental connection in that class concerning something I've been trying to achieve ever since I started.
My second time around in Aikido, I trained in a Ki Society dojo. We all know O-Sensei studied sword as part of his initial martial arts training, and I'm sure some of that technique/spirit filtered down into Aikido, although I'm also certain it was far more in the form of core principles (posture, intent, etc.) than necessarily in specific kata. Ki Society has a series of exercises called "Oneness Rhythm Taiso" (or, Relaxation Taiso), with various repetitive physical motions done to music, often done at the start of classes after you've stretched. It's a bit esoteric, difficult to do correctly and rhythmically, and at times leaves one to wonder, why do them at all? I faithfully trained in them for years without really figuring out how to apply them in any practical sense, other than to perhaps make my Aikido movements more graceful.
Another thing I learned from my Ki Society studies was a principle called "non-interference", basically not giving your uke any resistance. The point being, if uke feels any resistance on your part when your bodies meet, they will be able to use that resistance against you, making your execution of the technique harder. If they feel no resistance from you, you can basically direct their motion however you wish, because they have nothing to "grab onto", even though they may have your arm in a crushing grip. You give them no clues, physically, as to what your next movement will be, so they cannot pre-compensate for it. While Ki Society tends to emphasize this far more than most other styles, if you've worked with an experienced teacher of any flavor of Aikido, you have probably at least once had the experience of being thrown so "invisibly" that you never actually felt him/her lay hands on you, suddenly arriving in a far corner of the mat confused
about how you got there.
Part of this "non-interference" is also not resisting yourself. It's to be in a place posturally where the body does not generate any internal tension. Sometime you only need to move your spine, or arm, or leg, a quarter of an inch to make all the difference in the world. Ever stood totally relaxed, your upper body perfectly balanced on your hips? You feel energized, and it's effortless, you barely feel like you're standing at all. We are instructed both in Aikido and Iaido: don't hunch; don't lean out so you're not stable; keep your legs under you, centered; use hip power; complete the motion you're doing before you switch to the next one, instead of slopping the two together. It's part of the concept of always being ready to move, in any direction, at a moment's notice, from a totally stable (and relaxed) position.
So, when I began studying Iaido, I wanted to incorporate that non-interference concept into my practice with the sword. I figured there had to be a way to let the sword do what it was designed to do, be a precision instrument slicing cleanly through tissue and bone, without having to exert enormous force or hold body tension to achieve that. The blade is sharp enough to where you shouldn't have to. I wanted to apply just enough strength, no more; be a surgeon, as it were. Yet, while I've been working on this for a couple of years, I haven't been very coherent about how to approach it in my own mind; applying it to an art where strength of execution is expected is a challenge. I have been doing my best to maintain "non-resistant", yet stable, posture, and to try to lighten the effort I put into my strokes without losing power. Still, there seemed to be some body-connection I was missing.
In class that day, we were doing Shomen, the very first kata, and the one you are always tested on. It's the Iaido equivalent of an Aikido "20-year technique." On the downstroke that cleans the sword of blood, prior to it's resheathing in the saya, the visiting sensei said to me, "You don't need to _move_ the sword--just let it drop, let it ride the wave." The way he phrased that suddenly clicked with me: a memory from Relaxation Taiso of a "swinging" arm movement--slightly pausing at the top of the motion (I always wondered why we had that pause), then dropping. Aha! So, the sword is held over the head, and then the hand holding it drops naturally down and to the right, no effort needed...it just falls, riding the wave. I tried it and it worked beautifully. No effort in the motion, no resistance in my body.
I know how to do it now, how it should feel.
I'll be riding more waves, in other kata, in the future.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.