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By Myoken Dojo, Aug 12 2017 06:51AM

It's not often I write a blog these days. My thoughts are often in such a state of flux that by the time I've finished writing I've reconsidered the whole thing and no longer agree with myself. There is so much to consider, so much to learn, and rather than setlling into a comfortable old(er) age, it's becoming increasingly intangible and fluid, and, not to put too fine a point on it... frustrating!.

At the summer seminar this year, yet again I was being pushed to be more soft, more smooth, use less power. I know, there is no perfect goal in any of these things, so there is no ultimate point at which to stop thinking about them and working on them, but as we sat for the end of seminar photo a though occurred to me: are we using swords that are too heavy and too long?

As I sat next to Oshita Sensei, who as a fairly standard sized Japanese is considerably shorter than me as a slightly (!) overweight European we became the same height. This is not new to me, but it took on a significance that I had not appreciated before. The height difference is due to the legs, not the torso, and consequently their arms are also shorter. There are techniques in iaido where we all feel like gibbons, because we cannot make the same shape with our arms, (Soe te Tsuku for example) or where we have to compromise because a knee gets in the way (Sonkyo Yoko Chiburi for example), where for them it fits naturally (as you'd expect, as it was devised and designed in Japan by Japanese).

What is the significance of this? Well, quite simply that if their torso is fairly much identical in size and strength, then the ability of shoulders (which we shouldn't be using anyway), abdomen and lower back are about the same, but because of the arm length they use shorter - consequently lighter - swords and swing them closer to their body. The mechanics of that is quite simple, they don't need anything like as much body muscle control when they make their cuts. Given the same sword, we swing it in a circle farther from our body, and additionally we use a longer, heavier sword with the centre of mass further away, and having longer arms and trying to follow their timing, the sword is moving faster, we have a 3 or 4-fold disadvantage.

As a gift for Elena for passing Godan (a big assumption on my part as I ordered it 3 months before the grading) I purchased an Okuden range iaito made deliberately lighter. It's 2.4 shaku weighing 770 grams. I tried it the other day, and I can do all the thing's I've been truggling to do with an 890gram 2.5 shinken. Oshita Sensei's iaito is 2.35 shaku and weighs about 800grams.

How can we compete with that? A lighter sword one can buy, shorter will take some getting used to, and if it's too short will look odd and be difficult to control at saya banare and noto.

Now, where can I get my arms shortened?

(The comments above are my personal opinion, and represent my current thoughts. They are not to be considered as advice in any way, and certainly do not originate from sources higher than myself)

By Myoken Dojo, Jul 13 2016 09:20AM

There are two aspects to hitting the target: being in the right place and arriving at the right time. I'm only considering here the issue of being in the right place.

I am occasionally asked by students something like "What happens if the enemy moves?". It is a significant question and an important point, but it is driven by irrelevance. Let's take ZNKR Seitei Mae, nukitsuke for example. Some people say that you should cut with the boshi, some say with the monouchi. When we get both of these answers from hanshi, clearly neither is wrong. The book doesn't specify. The book says to hit the enemy's right temple. it doesn't say if the sword moves forward through the cut nor does it say whether the sword cuts across the face or along the side of the head, whether it cuts perpendicular to the centre line or whether it pushes forward diagnally. We are told that we must hit the temple, we are told that the shoulders should be turned to 45 degrees, and we are then told exactly how much to move forward to make kiritsuke (kirioroshi). The correct forward movement must hit the target at the correct distance where we imagine it to be. Therefore, logically if you hit with the monouchi you must interpret that the enemy's head moves back, if you cut with the boshi you must interpret that it doesn't.

Does it matter? Not really. The description of the form, it's logic (Riai/Bunkai) is a shape to give a basis for learning correct body movement.

Lets take a step back. I often see beginners doing paired kata leaning forwards so that the monouchi is correctly positioned over the target. What this means is the feet were in the wrong place, so they lean forward to compensate. One mistake to cover another, with the perception that hitting the target is the important thing. If learning to hit the target is the issue, then they achieved it. I would argue that learning to judge the correct distance - putting the feet in the right place - and maintaining correct posture is the point, the purpose and aim of the training. When you can do that the sword will hit the target.

So it is in iaido. If you concern yourself with what the enemy is doing, what you are cutting, you are putting all your attention into the end of the sword and taking your attention away from how your feet and body are delivering the sword.

When you see that the enemy moves, then the training that led to knowing where to put the feet in relation to the enemy will still enable you to hit the target. So learning the correct foot movement is only the first stage, understanding the foot movement comes next, being able to adjust it depending where the enemy is comes next. When these things are working correctly the sword will always finish on the target.

First metsuke, then ashi sabaki then tai sabaki. Last is ken sabaki

By Myoken Dojo, Jun 7 2016 08:30AM

Since we started the beginners course in September last year Elena and I have tried a new approach to teaching beginners. Elena has a degree in Sports Coaching, so we decided to adapt (please don't be offended) methods taught for teaching children. The basic principle is to have fun, not let them get bored and not let them have time to think about, or overthink, what they are trying to achieve.

In the past we had both been very intense, trying to help students learn as much as possible and improve as quickly as possible, and in the process the drop out rate was about 90% or more, and those we retained seemed to either not value what they had learned or quickly loose the foundations when they tried to progress. So we decided to just let them have fun.

Of course there must be some teaching, but we kept it to an absolute minimum. "Do this" (show them Honte Uchi... no explanation - at all, nothing - just do this. Back and forth across the dojo till they were sweating, us doing our practice at the same time, doing our best performance. We noticed that some watched and gradually adjusted to match, but we said nothing. Then Gyakute Uchi... "Do this"... no explanation. Back and forth across the dojo.

After a while (an hour or so) "open your thumb like this" (some had worked this out for themselves), "and finish with the end of the jo on the centre, if you can and about face height." No pressure, no shouting. And then do it again. 2nd week the same and 1st kata. No explanation. When we watched what they were doing we could easily have given in, stopped them and have spent all the lesson teaching and improving, but instead we held our tongues, joined in, showed them what we do and left them to practice.

They loved it.

Iaido came later, first they need to learn to use a sword, so basic suburi: men uchi, kote uchi, kirioroshi, with me, no explanation, just watch and copy. After an hour I showed them the technique in Kendo no kata 1 and 2, no formality, just cut, get out of the way, cut. If they were to see a video of what they were doing then, they would most likely agree that it was awful, but we let it go and allow it for now.

They loved it and they all came back.

As they progressed we gradually added bow to each other, bow to the front. Later adding the Japanese names. Shi Uchi kotai: at first random chaos, but not interrupting the get on and practice feeling. Later walking together in time, later handing the weapons correctly. All over a period of about 6 months. The focus was always on doing it as many times as possible, just the way you do it now. More teaching would follow, but not yet.

Similarly when they started iaido, I showed them a kata and said do this. I practiced directly in front of each one in turn as they gradually tuned in to what I was doing. No pressure, no lengthy explanations, just do it and do it and do it.

From the teacher's perspective it is very difficult to not jump in and try and change things, but from the start we wanted them to work so hard that they didn't have time to think too much, to avoid overthinking. Later we would add just a detail here and there for them to focus on, but nothing more.

6 months in and we have 75% retention of new students. Their progress in relation to Ikkyu and Shodan is perhaps slower than other dojo, but none of us is concerned about that. No pressure. When they are ready they will be there and in relatively high numbers I think. In the spring, if they can afford it and take the trouble I suspect we wiill have about 10 taking ikkyu jo and iai, maybe more We'll see how it works out.

As we move forward now, about 6 months into the experiment, what we find is that

1. they learn new things: kihon, kata, whatever, much quicker and

2. When they learn something new all the foundations of posture, footwrk and so on are retained.

This gives me hope that in the long term as we gradually become more formal and traditional in the training, the fun element will be retained and the foundations will be solid for future growth.

This is now the method of Myoken Dojo. I'll keep you posted.

By Myoken Dojo, Apr 11 2016 09:40AM

Yesterday we had the grading at the BKA Spring Seminar in Cambridge.

Unfortunately we had a couple of failures in the lower grades which, while not impossible of course, so many is a little unusual. These lower grades are the foundation on which all your later development will be built. This is why we must be a little severe at the basic levels. Not overly, but it is important that we don't give the message to the applicants or anyone watching, that the foundations don't need to be sufficiently secure. Not perfect, this doesn't exist. The foundations are built through shodan - sandan, without which yondan is impossible. it is much more difficult to reinforce inadequate foundations while you are building on them than it is to make them strong in the first place. This means that if you don't get it sufficiently correct now you will have severe problems incorporating it later. From this perspective I hope you will see that "failing" the grade, i.e. being told you haven't yet achieved the required level, is for your long term benefit and should not be considered too much as a failure in the short term, except inso far as it (I hope) inspires you to press forward.

If you failed to show the required level in your embu yesterday, apart from the couple who had the kind of unusual accidents that you hope to leave behind you in pre-grading embu practice, there are, I think, 3 basic areas to continue working on.:

1. read the ZNKR book as translated into your native language. It is available in English, translated by Mansfield Sensei and available from Nine Circles.

2. get the foot work right. Work from the ground up. If you are standing in the wrong place or facing the wrong direction nothing that happens above it can be correct.

3. Don't stop when there should be no stop. Practice these actions so that you can make them as a single uninterrupted movement.

By Myoken Dojo, May 27 2015 12:39PM

Transferred from previous website

Originally posted on 21 may 2015

In my opinion using video is a great tool to help us develop our training. Having a teacher is important of course, because they give us new information, but many of us think that what we are doing is more correct than it actually is, and resent/resist/disbelieve the repeated criticism that what we are doing is not correct when we think we know that we’ve fixed “that bit”. Video doesn’t lie. (Nor, usually, does the teacher telling us what we’re actually doing, but with video we can see it for ourselves.) But how to interpret it?

If we’re too arrogant we will see only what is good and perhaps think the performance is great, missing the glaring errors that others can see. If we’re too pessimistic we will see the errors, not see the good points, miss our actual progress and feel worse for watching the evidence. Both of these views imply a perceived “perfect” performance against which we measure ourselves, for better or worse. Perfection doesn’t exist, there is only change, deepening understanding, new choices, improvement (hopefully) followed by further study, deeper understanding and so on. We cannot be perfect, nor is there a perfect example. Striving to improve is laudable of course, but it can become an obsession causing us to lose sight of who we are now, doing what we do now, the way we have so far learned to do it. If we can learn to accept this, then we can learn that our performance is neither great nor rubbish, it just is what it is.

I believe that video can only be useful if we try and discard both of these views and see ourselves naturally and without emotion. Simply, “this is what happened”. We can then more appropriately compare it with the mental picture we have of the person or people we wish to emulate, and simply ask “how is it different? What can I change to make it more similar to the model?”

For me, learning to do this has been the greatest advance I have made in Budo, and it has been very recent. Thanks to Kurogo Sensei (Jodo Hanshi), who stayed with us for a short while in February this year, I now have learned to just allow myself to be who and what I am. I have relapses, and still sometimes feel bad about what I do, but generally I am finding myself more accepting, this allows me to be more relaxed, as a result I can now better feel what I am doing, think less and produce a better performance.

Video is now my best teacher. It is neither kind nor harsh. It has no emotion, no agenda, it just reflects who I am.

By Myoken Dojo, May 27 2015 12:38PM

Transferred from previous website

Originally posted on 22 december 2014

Most people who care to read this will understand the term Shu-Ha-Ri. Basically it describes a 3 part (3 very unequal part) process of learning. Shu represents the stage of following your teacher and learning his way, Ha means looking around to see what other people do, and how they do it, Ri means going it alone once you’ve learned enough to be considered a master of your method.

Recently I was reading an article by Ishido Sensei in which he listed a number of attributes required for passing 8th dan. One of them stated that at the level of [passing] hachidan there is only Shu. So by this I should deduce that to pass hachidan one doesn’t need to consider anything other than the way your teacher teaches it. I have to say here, as an aside, that I struggle to understand and follow what my teacher is teaching me, I have no time to look elsewhere for additional information and guidance, so I can easily accept that in real rather than theoretical terms.

The second thread of my thinking refers back to a conversation I had with Morita Sensei a few years ago. I’ve related this conversation before, but I’ll repeat it here as it is essential to my topic. He said, looking at the wall opposite, that if hachidan is the top of the wall, then on that scale, 7th dan is half way up, 6th dan is only half way to 7th dan, 5th dan half way to 6th and so on. (The point he was getting to was that a strict 6 division kyu grade system when shodan is barely 2cm off the floor is ridiculous, but that is not why I am recounting it now). Once that had sunk in a bit, I asked him what is after 8th dan, and he said take off the roof and it is everything that is above!

These two points taken together indicate quite clearly that hachidan is barely significant when considering the levels of competence and understanding that can be achieved. Watching my teacher since he passed his hachidan a few years ago I see him surge relentlessly forward, and I have no doubt he will continue to do so as long as his body allows him to.

This means that us mere 7th dans are only half way to the starting line.

The journey of budo is an endless one, and there never comes a point where one can rest and say that we know it all. The difficulty for some people, I believe, is that the journey is so long, the distance between the upper grades so vast, that it is impossible to perceive the distance that has to be traversed to get from 5th to 6th dan for example. It is not just 5 years of training, but 5 years of intense learning that is required to have any hope of making the jump. To achieve 7th dan in 6 years after 6th dan is, I believe virtually impossible without the regular intensive input of a senior. I took 13 years to make the jump, and I am now beginning to realise that really, getting to 7th dan after 25 years of training was only scratching the surface.

There is no room for arrogance at any grade, no time to stop and rest. I have been virtually resting for a year now, and feel the time wasted has to somehow be regained. 8th dan in 10 years? I doubt it. But if these things become too heavy, the scale too immense to ponder, then we must return to the simple pleasure of training and learning for its own sake. This is what many of us forget to do, I certainly am guilty of it: to enjoy the practice, to learn like a beginner, to remain humble in the face of an almost impossible task: the task of struggling to reach the start line.

By Myoken Dojo, May 27 2015 12:37PM

Transferred from previous web site

Originally posted 19 November 2014

On Saturday 16th November we had a great practice. Six people turned up for Jodo, which is a good turnout for a dojo that’s been running for less than two months. There was Elena (teaching), myself and four beginners of slightly varying experience, but all ungraded, so the session was mostly kihon. One hour of Honte Uchi, Gyakute Uchi and Hikiotoshi Uchi, both as sotai and tandoku dosa (i.e. without a partner practicing solo, and with a partner holding a sword and standing in a cold sweat hoping the beginner with a jo remembers what to do).

After this intensive kihon where Elena works just fast enough for people to cope but not so slow that they have much time to think, I was pretty exhausted, given that she and I had arrived half an hour early and worked together on Koryu (this time, I with the sword or Jo was in a cold sweat, not because she didn’t remember what to do, but often I didn’t).

After the Kihon, one more experienced student worked with me on the first three kata while the others learned Tsuki Zue. Again I had the instruction to not let him think too much, which meant I had to do a whole load of kata.

After Jodo we had 90 minutes of iaido. Again ungraded students of varying experience, so we spent an hour on kihon and suburi and 30 minutes on Mae and Ushiro.

Then followed my big mistake. After three and a half hours training I didn’t do any stretching. People got talking, money collected, paper work done, change and go. It’s so easy to forget.

Monday morning the predictable stiff legs and painful back. A little bit of stretching, but it was so sore. Tuesday the same. Today, Wednesday morning I got up at 5.30 and did two hours of stretching and gentle exercise. Now I can move again, but from now on stretching will be included at the end of every class. I’m married to a massage therapist, I should and do know better, but we all forget. And I think the biggest danger is that slight stiffness is shrugged off, especially when we’re young and believe your body is indestructible. But all the work we do when our bodies are stiff accumulates damage that builds up into problems later.

One of Elena’s students at her body stretch class in the Cornwall Yoga Centre in Truro is a personal physical trainer. When I first met him a couple of months ago, for all his skills and knowledge and fitness, he was as stiff and hard as you could imagine and lacked any significant flexibility. Weight training and cycling with no stretching had left him with none but basic mobility. I saw him again last week after about 6 stretch sessions and a couple of massages and the difference was quite astonishing.

Whatever exercise you do, however old (young) you are, however fit and however flexible you think you are, your body is not indestructible. It will deteriorate as you get older and the only way to minimise the deterioration is to stretch adequately after every training session.

By Myoken Dojo, May 27 2015 12:35PM

Transferred from previous website

Originally posted 18 October 2014

It seems 2015 will be a good year for Myoken Dojo. It’s about time! During 2013-14 the dojo dwindled to very few students and those seem to be doing less training than previously. It can be disheartening at times when the club, as many do, pass through the low points of these cycles. In December 2012, as many know Elena Vatolina (Now Elena West) moved here from Moscow and brought with her considerable experience, especially in Jodo. She was a student of Ide Katsuhiko Sensei who died in 2006, and is now a student of Ueda Kayoko Sensei, and demonstrates much of their strength of spirit. Indeed, Elena has taken part in the British National iaido and Jodo taikai 2013, and 2014 and has 4 fighting spirit medals to show for it. We have a strong team.

On the down side (temporarily, I hope) Chris Weight of Plymouth dojo after getting married has disappeared to South America for an indefinite time leaving the Dojo to Bill who had an accident the day before Chris left and is unable to walk for perhaps a year. So Plymouth dojo is temporarily closed.

Back to the up side. What has been achieved in 2013/4? Detlef, my student in Bologna , Italy passed 6th Dan Iaido. Elena passed 4th Dan Iaido and 5th Dan Jodo. Sam Gerlach passed 4th Dan Iaido. Elena and I have moved to Truro and started a new dojo. The turnout initially was disappointing, but we seem to be gaining some new students. Hopefully we can hold on to a few, there certainly seems to be some enthusiasm. But, above all else, I think the greatest point of optimism is the support we are receiving directly from our Japanese teachers.

When I was in Japan in May Oshita Sensei (8 Dan Kyoshi) offered to come to visit in November 2015, and so he will be teaching the Okehampton seminar next year. Please note on your diaries: 27-29 November at Okehampton Ashbury Hotel (usual venue). More recently Ueda Kayoko Sensei (Jodo 8th Dan Kyoshi) offered to come in February, and now Kurogo Genji Sensei (Jodo 8 Dan Hanshi) has asked to come too. Please note, if you are interested we are taking bookings for this NOW. Application form is available for download on the events page of this web site: 13-15 February.

How can a dojo not succeed with this support? Well, we need to work with it, to train, to advertise, to attract members, and once we have them they need to be encouraged to work to support the dojo, to attend events, to train regularly and make progress themselves too. Basically we cannot grow unless everyone does their part for their own progress and works as a team to mutually support each other. So, let’s do just that. Existing students need to train regularly, new students need to be inspired so that they can appreciate what is to be gained from their hard work. The dojo needs to be a place that is treated respectfully so that we, and especially beginners, can appreciate it’s value. We need to break out of our comfort zones, to travel to events where we can learn and simultaneously promote the club by our dedication and success.

By Myoken Dojo, May 27 2015 12:34PM

Transferred from previous website

Originally posted 12 July 2014

What have I learned after nearly 35 years of training? Basically 2 things:

1. I know enough to realise how little I understand

2. I understand enough to realise how little I’ve learned.

Fortunately I have a teacher who will never let me forget these two things.

By Myoken Dojo, May 27 2015 12:31PM

Transferred from previous web site

Originally posted June 16 2014

In his blog “Shugyo” Andy Watson says:

“Looking after your own health is an important and instrumental part of one’s martial arts training – isn’t it? I don’t believe that in martial arts the student should rely on their teacher to tell them how to look after themselves in terms of health.”

[Shugyo, but the way, is an excellent blog, and I recommend it to all iaido students, and I would encourage Andy to begin writing more]

… but on this point I have a different opinion. Now, to be clear, I am talking about my dojo, not open seminars, and I am talking about serious students, not everyone who walks in the door.

In my opinion (and it is only an opinion) I believe that what I should be doing in the dojo is helping people who want to be my student to emulate what I do. That means to help them to get somewhere close to where I’m at now, and I think the only way I can do that is to make them do what I did for myself that led me to where I am. This has to be tailored to some extent to individual needs, which in turn is often shaped by the student’s individual commitment. But rather than drift away from the point by qualifying it with various real world situations, let’s look for a moment at a perfect case.

In this case the student is totally committed and will do all that he is asked. He learns with moderate speed and is available for all events he is recommended to attend. So I begin showing him how I learned the basics and gradually teach kata and improve his techniques. I make him work hard when the training is required and relax at other times. Of course, he is not me and what he needs will from time to time be different, and I am not my teacher so what I am able to show is not the same, but for all intents and purposes I am showing him, as best I can, the path I took to get where I am and he is following. With enough training he will get there.

There is however another parameter that needs to be considered: time. The time we have in which to achieve our technical and performance optimum is determined by two things:

1. The day we start

2. The time when our body can no longer cope with what we are asking it to do

The first of these is out of our control, the day we started is fixed. But the second is to some extent within our control. By looking after our health (again see Andy’s blog for what this means, rather than me repeat it here) we can to some extent extend the time we have to train.

So going back to my ideal student, if he is in good health, fit, active and is concerned to maximise his life expectancy and his ability to train for maximum years, then I have nothing to worry about. But if the student has a poor diet and is overweight and unfit, or due to work conditions, or other exercise regimes and ignorance does no stretching so his muscles are hard and unhealthy and inflexible, or he smokes heavily so that his breath control is virtually zero and blood circulation problems maybe causing foot and hand deterioration, in each case the students’ potential to learn what they have asked me to teach them is limited by these factors, then I believe it is my place to advise how their progress is being hampered by their self-destructive choices.

My personal experience informs my method of teaching. As I have mentioned before, in 2005 I had a back injury that left me unable to walk for a few months and unable to train for nearly a year. The path back to health has been a long one. I chose to avoid the NHS poison or knife method of fixing it and went to an osteopath then later for remedial sports deep tissue massage. Over that time I have spent in excess of £5,000 on treatments, but am now in reasonably good physical shape. A lower back weakness remains that is being dealt with now, but I can do all kata now except Tanashita. It has been a long and painful process. At times I have been close to giving up, but encouragement from family and friends have kept me going and now, I think, I am again making progress.

So when I’m in the dojo and I see a student who can barely breathe due to smoking, or can hardly stand or kneel due to excess body weight, or who cannot move through certain not too difficult positions due to body stiffness and inflexibility – students who are not old in the scheme of things (50s early 60s) and who are wanting to progress to higher grades, maybe 5 dan, 6 dan – should I not tell them what they need to make the progress they desire? Or should I wait till they are shocked into action by a serious soft tissue injury like I had, or they are diagnosed with cancer, or they have a heart attack, or need repeated surgery? If I have any compassion for these people I would not want them to suffer these serious consequences, and so should I not talk to them about it? Or do they need the shock in order to wake them up?

If the art is to progress into a next generation we need those who are going to be that next generation to be fit and able long enough that they can in turn pass it on. I feel it is my responsibility to try and help make that possible.


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