Physical Training Oct 2010
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From the Teacher's Corner 11:

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

Four years ago, we went out of province to attend a seminar which featured Sugino Yukihiro Sensei. It was his first visit to Canada in almost 2 decades so it was a special event. The organizers were an aiki group and they had learned some Katori Shinto Ryu decades ago but had not had contact with Sugino Dojo since. It was their first time as well in a long while and so I think the shock of what was to come hit them equally hard. I have known Sugino Yukihiro Sensei since he was one of my teachers in Shinto Ryu when I had trained in Japan. I had an idea what to expect. But they didn’t.

The seminar started off with the usual perfunctory ritual and everyone was happy to see the headmaster in his first visit to Canada since 1989. Then we were told to line up in pairs to do basic cutting exercise. I must mention that our hosts outdid themselves because there were in excess of 70 seminar participants. And with my own small group of 2 students and a few other visitors, we were about 75 or so in number. So, if you do the math, that’s 37 pairs. Luckily we were in a collegiate gymnasium that could easily house this number.

Once we started the cutting, it became kind of funny. It was just practice of the basic overhead cut (shomen uchi), named maki-uchi. My two students relished the chance to practice this and they were doubly thrilled to do it in front of the headmaster whom they had never met. They had heard me talk about him for a decade but never had the chance to meet him until now. So they were not about to pass the chance up to impress the headmaster. They were enjoying every cut. He would come over and correct a minor point but to them it was like the Holy Grail. They were laughing and having a grand old time.

Tong and Sugino
Mr. Tong demonstrating with Sugino Sensei at the seminar

With the other students however, it couldn’t have been more opposite. I was walking around helping Sugino Sensei. With 37 pairs of practitioners, you can imagine it would take a lot of time to correct each student and give them some advice. As I was circulating around, I kept hearing complaints.

“Why are we doing this?”
“When is this going to be over?”

At this point, we must have done about 100 cuts. And with his corrections of various students and making sure each student got some attention, 30 minutes must have passed already.

“I didn’t pay this much money to do only this!”
“What a waste of time…”

At about 150 cuts,
“When is this going to stop?”
“My arms are killing me!”

By this time, I had circulated back to the original starting point where coincidentally our two hosts (themselves teachers of aikido and judo) were doing their cutting and they were situated two pairs over from where my own two students were.

It was funny. My students were saying things like “Yeah, this is great!” and continuing to cut with gusto, relishing each chance to work the technique with the subtle corrections they had just received from the headmaster. They were not tired. Maybe tired is the wrong word. They were not bored. Maybe that’s a more appropriate word.

I walked past the two hosts, making a show of going to help the pair of students (who were two pairs past them) who seemed to be struggling. As I passed the hosts, I overheard them say, “What in the world is he doing? Doesn’t he realize that if he doesn’t do something more interesting, that no one will come back!?”
The other host replied to his counterpart, “This is a disaster…”

I was appalled. What did they expect?

As I circulated around again, you could see the enthusiasm flagging. Students were giving up. Many stopped altogether. When Sugino Sensei approached, yes, they would pick up their bokuto (bokken) and do some cuts. Once he left, they stopped and started complaining to each other, commiserating about how gruelling the practice was. It was sad to see.

When he looked over, they would resume cutting. When his attention was turned elsewhere, they relaxed and resumed chit-chatting.

I hear more complaining.
“I didn’t pay $200 for this.”
“What a waste of money.”

Of course, Sugino Sensei took his time examining each student. He probably felt it was his moral obligation and duty to make sure each student got personalized attention and received some advice to make their Shinto Ryu better.

You might ask, well, why would they complain openly if they knew you were circulating around, helping Sugino Sensei? They must have known that you might report it back to Sugino Sensei. Well, the seminar was held in Quebec and they were speaking French. We were les Anglophones; we did not speak French. We spoke to them in English. So they probably assumed that we didn’t understand a bit of French. My two students didn’t understand French, that is true. But I had the pleasure of taking French Immersion in Grades 7 & 8 so my hearing and reading are not so bad. Can’t speak it for the life of me though. How ironic. That the French I learned decades before would someday come in handy!…

Well, suffice it to say that once he announced break-time, you could not see people run out of there faster. There was a lot of grumbling in the hallway during that break-time. But my students were happy as clams. I think we were the only happy ones there!

After the break, it was back to more gruelling training. If the physical pain of continuous cutting and movement of the arms and legs was bad, this next hour and a half was worse. This next session was focused on kamae. Static pain. Like Yoga, holding postures and stances forever, with musculature control, is a different kind of excruciating pain. You really come to realize how much core strength you really have or don’t have.

And Sugino Sensei felt it important, in this first landmark seminar, to make sure everyone received good training. So, now it was holding a posture like jodan for 20 minutes, while he and I circulated around correcting all 74 people! The groaning became worse.

After 20 minutes, he announced “back to seigan”. Groans of relief. Finally, a chance to relax. Then he announced, “kogasumi!”

Kogasumi is a posture where you hold your sword horizontally above your head to block a cut, like a two-handed parry 5 in sabre (for you Western fencing enthusiasts out there). The newness took everyone by surprise, but 5 minutes in, the groaning began anew.

It was kind of comical in a way. Sighs of relief then groaning and moaning. Over and over again, in a repeating cycle. And with each cycle, Sugino Sensei and I would start again, up and down the lines, correcting each pair.

The complaining and muttering did not stop.
“If it’s going to be like this tomorrow, I’m not coming.”
“I hope he does something better tomorrow.”

And of course, the minute his back was turned, the students relaxed and took a break. They thought he couldn’t see them or did not notice that they had relaxed.

At one point, Sugino Sensei and I crossed paths down one of the lines. As he passed me, he stopped and said to me, “You know, the ones who try hard and persevere to hold the kamae are the ones who will progress…” Then he resumed his walk to correct the next pair.

It was a really good piece of advice. I have never forgotten that moment or that piece of philosophy.

He knew what was going on. He knew they relaxed and took a break once his back was turned or if he was at the far end of the gym or seemingly engrossed in correcting a particular student.

But it was a test.

A test of character.

How tough are you? How strong are you? Not physically. Oh, no. Mentally. Spiritually. Psychologically. Do you break easily?


I have never forgotten that moment.

Sasamori Sensei, headmaster of Ono-ha Itto Ryu, said a similar thing in my interview with him. He mentioned that the key to success in budo was, in his words, “steadiness” and “continuation”. Steadiness, like steadfastness. Staying the course. In other words, perseverance.

The other interview I had in Japan was with Kajitsuka Sensei of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu (Ohtsubo branch) and he said, in a similar fashion, that a good rule to live by in budo training is to “continue it, keep doing it, and don’t stop.”

So the next time a student asks you why we are doing kihon (fundamentals) over and over again, you can relate this story to them. It is a true story and a good moral lesson. After that, then you can tell them to keep practicing.

“The ones who try hard and persevere are the ones who will progress…”

Good advice.

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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