Physical Training July 2006
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Latecomer's Journey

copyright © 2006 Arline Wolfe, all rights reserved

                            “In the sword there is no sword;
                                  make a sword of the body.
                             In the body there is no body;
                                  make a body of the spirit.
                           Like a firefly, round; by its
                                  radiance, apparent.
                           Waiting not, scheming not,
                                  thinking not, pausing not,
                           As if pressing a gourd in water.”
                                                                       Kunii Zen’ya

       I began the study of iaido in January of 2004 when I was 47 years old. I was looking for a practice that would fulfill my desire to learn more about the concept of Budo. Zen Buddhism has been an interest of mine since I was in high school. I have worked in an academic library at St. Lawrence University, located near the Canadian border in upstate New York, since 1988. St. Lawrence has a small collection of books pertaining to Zen as well as other schools of Buddhism that are appropriate for a liberal arts college. With easy access to these scholarly publications, I was able to continue my informal and frequently interrupted pursuit of studying writings that depicted various aspects of Zen Buddhism while working full time, “homesteading” on a small family farm, and raising three children. 

       As I continued my reading, I became aware of the concept of Budo. This really grabbed my attention, and I had a very strong desire to continue my studies in this direction. I began to realize that I needed to find a way to practice if I were truly going to incorporate the elements of Budo into my daily life. Living in such a rural community, the odds were not good that I would be able to find a legitimate activity to pursue my goals. Even with four colleges located in the vicinity of Canton and Potsdam, the area is so rural that finding a meaningful setting for the serious practice of a Zen related study would prove to be very difficult.

     When I was thirty, I joined an American version of a Shotokan school of karate dojo with my oldest son, who was five years old at the time. The first few years were worthwhile as I became more physically fit, enjoyed the process of working together with my son, and gained some much needed self confidence. Unfortunately, after approximately five years, I became frustrated with the instructor and the particular karate school. The local politics of the club and poor attitudes of the instructor as well as some of the higher ranking students, began to have a negative effect on my training.  I realized that my participation in this particular club could not possibly bring me closer to the study of Budo. My son was beginning to lose interest as well. I became increasingly discouraged and frustrated, so we decided not to continue our membership.

   Several years went by and I had all but given up on the notion that I would ever find a “real” martial arts organization in the North Country. I was very, very pleased, yet somewhat skeptical, when I became aware that a kendo club had formed on campus at St. Lawrence University.

   Isshin Kendo North Country proved to be just what I was looking for. The sensei, John Maisonneuve, conducts kendo and iaido classes that are very formal and disciplined. Instruction takes place in an environment that stresses proper etiquette and integrity first.  After the importance of reiho is emphasized, careful attention is then paid to the correct development of the basic techniques that form the foundation of both kendo and iaido.

     Isshin Kendo North Country is affiliated with Isshin Kendo of Montreal. Maisonneuve sensei makes several trips to training halls in Montreal, as well as Toronto and Ottawa throughout the year. He also attended various summer camps and seminars in the United States as well as Canada. Maisonneuve sensei not only makes an enormous effort to continue his own training, but also he strives to ensure that he his handing down the way of kendo and iaido properly to his students.

   My second son, Tristan, and I have embarked on this journey together. After nine months of kendo, we began our training in iaido. The two disciplines appear to complement each other as the appropriate skills acquired simultaneously seem to enhance both forms of Budo. In addition to attending classes at at St. Lawrence, on occasion we have accompanied our sensei to other dojos and have attended some summer camps and  seminars in both kendo and iaido.

    Iaido is very centering and has a way of instantly stopping all the mind’s background chatter. The more I work with the sword, the more it seems to become a companion, an entity which brings one to a different plane of existence. This phenomenon is very hard to put into words, and even harder to explain to those who have not studied any kind of budo. 

    There is an inherent beauty in iaido. The katas contain an aesthetic which is both spiritual and concrete in character. I play the modern flute, and I find that there are some aspects of these katas which remind me of classical music. There are particular patterns of expression contained within a movement of classical music such as phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, texture, tone, and tempo. I find these elements to be present in the katas of iaido when one considers the outward quality of their design. The esoteric dimension is much more subtle and only barely evident to the beginner. It is the long quest for this deeper and more spiritual level of iaido that is most intriguing to me.

   On a more practical level, iaido as well as kendo, have been real motivating factors in the relentless effort to stay in shape physically as well as mentally. I find that I must work out regularly in order to stay fit so I can progress in these Budo disciplines. Yoga, weight lifting and aerobic training all are essential in creating a strong physical foundation for practice and injury prevention. As one ages, this type of comprehensive training becomes more and more critical. Mentally, I find that I must use the centering aspects of kendo and iaido practice in every day life. In order to make progress in the class, I need to work at keeping my mind disciplined outside of the dojo. I struggle with performance anxiety and really have to focus to stay calm when attending seminars and gradings.

    The fact that there are not many women who study kendo and iaido has not been troubling nor has it been a concern for me. I have met students from many regions of North America as well as other parts of the world, representing many different ethnic groups and coming from various fields of work and study.  I find that the vast majority of people who commit themselves earnestly to the path of kendo and iaido are very understanding and supportive. Age and gender are not of any real significance.

      It is not uncommon for my friends and colleagues to wonder how I find the time for iaido and kendo. I try to explain that the more I practice, the more energy I have. It is necessary  

Arline Wolfe is a member of Isshin Kendo North Country Canton, New York

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Physical Training July 2006