This article was originally published in the May 1991 issue of The Iaido Newsletter. The complete back issues of this journal are now available at SDKsupplies.
Yes, I realize that Iaido has been practiced for about four hundred years longer than there has been a "New Age" but the pre-existance of a technique has not prevented it from becoming New Age so far. Iaido is ripe for inclusion on the bookshelves, right between Crystals and Jungian therapy.
We can all agree that Iaido is not practiced for self defence, unless of course, we fall through the alternate universe interface (AUI) and end up cast as the hero in a fantasy novel. Like all the other Budo, once the initial training is over, the next 20 years participation has to be undertaken for some reason other than the off chance you will get into a barroom fight. Just what that reason is, is seldom if ever discussed. There are good reasons for this but I will ignore them since if I didn't this article would be pretty short. There is no actual need to know any of what is discussed from now on in order to obtain the benefits of Iai; if you have something that needs to be done around the house go do it.
So what is it that makes Iaido a candidate for the Channeling to Tarot shelf.
Iaido is, in actual fact, what the New Ager would call bodywork. It is a means of using the body to bring the mind and reality into closer agreement. To put it another way, it is a method used to learn how to live in (through) your body. The name (Iai) itself refers to your position with regard to your body stance, and by extension your position in the universe. By stressing correct and precise body alignment to transfer maximum power from the ground through the sword you train the mind to regard yourself as connected to the world. You are not something that acts on and is acted on by something outside the bag of skin we erroneously call our self. While connecting the body to the dojo and to the sword we are, at the same time, reconnecting the mind to the body. When facing an oncoming sword there is no time to deal with an information interface at the eyes and then another one wherever the "body" meets the "mind". Without having the opponent included in your "mind" there is a gap which, to give it the technical name, is a suki. This weak point is the opportunity for your opponent to break your defence.
When performing kata your mind must be totally diffused through your body. When you focus your attention on one thing you create the illusion of a mind/body split since "there is the mind" (attention) and "there is the body" (angle of the right hand perhaps). Try performing a kata with the attention fixed (fushin) on one point and the whole thing falls apart. If you practice like this the subroutines for playing volleyball may get triggered while you're not looking and you start leaping to your feet or something equally embarrassing. The only way to do kata is to keep the mind free to range throughout the body (fudoshin).
Yes, as you know, even this is not enough for Iai. The mind must also range outside the skin to include your position in the dojo, your attention must encompass your stance and direction on the floor and an imaginary opponent as well. If you don't achieve this integration of mind, body and environment the katas fall apart. You can prove this easily by starting a multidirectional kata (like Shihogiri of the Kendo Federation Seitei Gata) at a different angle to the one you normally use.
The concepts of Sei and Do in Iaido reveal a slightly different angle of approach to the integration of mind and body. Sei is calmness, quietness and Do is action and violence. When you sit ready your body is exhibiting Sei, stillness, while your mind must be Do, active. When you start to move and especially when you are cutting, your body is Do, activity and your mind must be Sei, as calm as possible. If you don't achieve this balance your kata will be rough edged. Through working toward a seamless transition between Sei and Do in your "mind" and "body" you come eventually to realize that they are one and the same.
This is a central axiom of bodywork, you can modify the mind by working on the body. In the west the conception has often been that the body is a "mirror" of the mind but this is slowly being replaced by the idea that there is no mind apart from the body, nor is there a body without mind. When the mind is in turmoil the body is tense, relax the body and the mind becomes calm. Iaido entrains a body and mind awareness that is in balance, able to respond instantly as required but not tense enough to be in stress.
Iai includes aspects of the New Age other than bodywork.
Meditation is one such aspect which at first glance seems to deal exclusively with the mind. On deeper analysis it is revealed to have the same goal as bodywork.
If one wants to be simplistic, meditation can be described as being of two different classes. The first and most familiar is the type where one concentrates on something, a mantra, a problem, a mandala or a kata. This concentration acts to keep all extraneous thoughts from arising in the mind.
The second type of meditation is simply to sit quietly and allow what thoughts arise to do so. The trick here is not to get attached to any one of the thoughts and let it drag your mind along with it, you keep your mind where your body is, in balance.
Iai practice produces both types of meditation. As a beginner (and who isn't) one is fully concentrated on the kata to the exclusion of all other thoughts. If one is not paying attention, there is a very real risk of injury. Slightly less dangerous (depending on the instructor) is the fact that the technique will almost immediately fall apart if you start thinking about mortgage payments.
This is not to say that this type of meditation is unlike the second. Even while concentrating on the movement as a whole one must watch against getting caught up in one little aspect. We have all had the experience of trying to correct the angle of a cut only to see the rest of the kata blow up in our faces because we are no longer concentrating on it. Here we see fushin and fudoshin again.
As you train the subroutines and start to let the body take over more of the concentration on the kata you will still be using the mind to maintain focus but you will now be able to start noticing other thoughts in your mind. This is where the second type of meditation becomes evident. You must maintain fudoshin, an immovable mind on the "mental" plane, one which does not become attached to the extraneous thoughts that you can now notice since your whole attention is no longer taken up with the movements. At this point in practice you might consider some sitting meditation.
The most difficult aspect of any practice of the way (Do) is to learn to let the thoughts go. They arise and then drift away the same as the small aches and pains arise and go away in our bodies. When the wrist starts to ache in Iai practice, more exercise, violent stretching and lots of concentration is guaranteed to make a small problem larger. The same goes for thoughts, small ones can be put into a "loop of worry". You think of a problem, then concentrate on the further difficulties, then the impossibility of solving the problem, the further difficulties that will make the problem larger, and zoom, you are in a cycle. These thought cycles never reach a conclusion no matter how hard you think about them. They only stop if you break the cycle by such methods as drinking (bad idea), exercising (OK) or some other distraction.
Iaido, with its repetitive practice would seem to be a good example of a physical cycle which would be the mirror image of the thought cycles. Nothing is further from the truth as we all know. If we are practicing in good faith then not one kata will ever be the same as any other that we do. Iaido practice is a method of learning how to break cycles. If katas are done mechanically, without involving the mind (paying attention) then we fall into a pattern, we make the same mistakes over and over without even realizing we are doing it. In order to continually improve our skills we are forced to learn how to break these patterns without breaking the form of the kata. This same skill teaches us how to break the thought cycles as well.
Maybe its the university atmosphere but I always figure that there should be work to do outside of the assigned time slots. Iaido practice three times a week is not too bad for North America but I like to work on something full time. (Full time is whenever I think about it, lots of you know me personally so I can't even pretend to be perfect.) Perhaps a way can be found to assign homework from the Iaido classes.
As far as the bodywork aspects of Iaido are concerned, there is no need to confine practice to the dojo, you are actually expected to carry the practice home with you. This homework can be as simple as paying attention to how you walk, without actually correcting anything. Just watch and get more in tune with the way you move.
Here are some hints that may help you develop a private practice. These are all physical exercises and they have a mental component that you can easily figure out. In most cases the same word refers to both the physical and the mental activity. Think of the word balance.
Work on maintaining an even distribution of weight across your body. Stand on two feet instead of one, sit on both cheeks of your buttocks, try to keep the shoulders horizontal no matter what you are doing. Balance Sei and Do (In and Yo, Yin and Yang).
Keep the shoulders relaxed at all times. This is the same as keeping the neck relaxed. As the shoulders or the neck tighten you become a stiff necked person. Your centre of gravity rises and your head becomes fixed. Drop the shoulders and free the head.
Almost all motion is initiated from the head. The body position follows the head, so the head must be free to move. Keep it in balance atop the spine so that the neck muscles don't need to work to keep it up. If the neck gets stiff it creates tensions that transfer throughout the body. Pull in your chin and stretch the spine up to the sky, keep those disks out of compression.
The diaphragm must be free to move so that the breath is natural and full. If the diaphragm is constricted only the chest can be used to breathe. This is too shallow and leads to nervousness. Whenever you are out of balance and feeling anxious free the diaphragm, take a big belly breath and drop all the weight off of your shoulders into your hara.
Keep an awareness of your body. Don't allow any nervous twitches or jumping of the legs, watch and relax every time this is detected.
The hara is the centre of your physical and mental balance. Keep an eye on it and continue to belly breathe. A soft stomach means an unstressed stomach, who knows, this might mean one less ulcer.
UNSTRAINED BODY POSITION
It makes sense to work with gravity, not against it. Don't hold up your bent head with the neck muscles, or force them to be a bridge between the head and the shoulders by propping your hand under your forehead. Put your head where it is supposed to sit, above your spine. When you slouch against back of a chair with your butt on the edge of the seat you force the muscles of the lower back to act as cables to hold the bridge. In no time the muscles become fatigued and prone to damage. After you stand up the back takes very little abuse before going into spasm.
Think of the body as a set of stones (bones) that work best as a column in compression not as a cable in tension.
When you are in a chair, keep balanced, the feet should be flat on the floor, the head balanced on top of the spine, the spine on the back of the chair. Sit so that the bodyweight is transferred to the support (the chair) without needing muscle action to hold it up. The shoulders should be down and the neck relaxed, the diaphragm will be free to move if you are not slouching.
When you are getting up, don't use your arms to push yourself up, instead use your legs under your body. Concentrate on lifting the head to draw the body up, smoothness counts. If you think about pushing your head toward the ceiling your muscles will naturally align your body and your spine will actually lengthen in the process making you more open. Contrast this to crunching over and lurching forward out of the chair barely in control.
After getting over the first screaming agonies of this sitting position, a lot of Iaidoka start to find that they prefer sitting in seiza to sitting on chairs. There is a reason for this. From seiza it is very easy to find the natural balance of your body. Swing to and fro a bit until you find the apparent balance point, sit for a while and then locate the muscle fatigue to identify problems with your posture. Have someone else arrange your body so that you are symmetrical. Once you are in balance you can sit until your lower legs fall off from lack of blood.
The lotus position has a few variations and is one of the main meditation positions. You need a cushion or something under your rear end to get to an unstrained position. Personally I've never been able to get into balance in any of the lotus positions.
When you walk keep the knees flexible, never locked, and you won't be forced to fall forward out of balance in order to move one foot in front of the other. The calves should also be kept flexible and light so that you don't move up over the toes on each step. A lot of wasted energy goes into the up and down bouncing that so many people use when walking.
Make sure your head is not bouncing around. It should ride smoothly on your neck in its proper balanced position. Don't look at your feet, they are right where you left them, instead, look ahead at the ground you are about to cover and at your destination. As an exercise, think about where your head went, you can see everything else but where is your head? See D.E. Harding "On Having No Head", (Arkana Books) for more on this interesting subject.
The shoulders should be kept aligned square to the direction traveled, the arms free to swing naturally. It is important to keep the shoulders down and relaxed, like you were carrying a couple of shopping bags (cloth of course). All of these postural adjustments should be done naturally, with full relaxation. It will do no good if you force the body into a different position by muscle power. All of us can get tense without instructions, it is learning how to use relaxation that is hard.
Just as for the shoulders, the arms must be relaxed. There should be no tension as they swing naturally. The elbows out, shoulders swaying, "weight-lifter" swagger that one sees in the gymnasium makes for a very high centre of balance which, in a martial artist, is dangerous.
It is very important to keep the stomach and lower back under an even tension. With too little tension in the stomach, the lower back curves too much and is subject to damage by jarring it. Too much tension and the lower back becomes stiff as the muscles fight the abdominals, the shoulders round off and the balance becomes awkward.
When your hips move they should swing from the legs not the waist. The motion must be driven by your stride instead of the lower back. The hips should ride level to the ground as if supported on shock absorbers (knees), not in bumps over the toes. Keep the legs flexible.
If the stride is too long, you can't stop still at any moment. Stay inside your balance, walk with control, not falling forward and catching yourself continually. Move from the hara not from the shoulders. Keep the arms relaxed and swing them freely to balance the legs.
STAIRS AND RAILINGS
This is an important exercise, don't use railings. Keep your hands to yourself at all times. Grabbing anything puts your body immediately off balance so don't touch. Practice moving by leading with your head not your arms.
WALLS AND POSTS
In the same way, never lean up against anything outside of your balance. You should always consider that the support is about to fail.
If you run, you can use the same method of correction used in Iaido to correct your running style.
A. Keep the stride in control, not stumbling forward.
B. Keep the head level as in Iaido, no extra motions to bleed off energy.
C. If you suffer from cramps or other problems, concentrate on loosening the muscles without stopping the run. With the practiced ability to focus on certain body parts this becomes easy.
D. Keep your breathing deep and controlled instead of accidental. If you need more breath, adjust your pace to allow faster respiration.
One can also make a case for running to help the Iaido practice. The knees are tightened up as the leg strength increases. The increased stamina means less control is lost due to tiredness in the dojo. You can use the run to loosen up your forearms. Run with the hands flopping instead of tight, and the elbows bent just far enough for balance. This will relax the shoulders. Never worry about looking silly, take a look at your fellow runners. Remember to run with a forward motion of the arms not sideways. This is the same as keeping your elbows in when doing Iai.
As you can see, there is a good chance for lots of homework in Iaido
if you want it.