by Phillip Starr
It seems like I’m always telling you to sit back and watch other students in class so that you can learn what not to do. Well, this time isn’t much different. Sorry.
Next time your teacher calls someone up to perform a given form (or maybe even if he does a form himself), pay attention…but today we’re not going to be paying attention to the form, per se.
We’re going to pay attention to what happens before the form starts…outwardly.
We’ll call the person doing the form “Elmer.”
Once Elmer is standing in the spot from which he intends to execute the form, watch him. Odds are that he’ll begin in the proper basic “natural” stance, whether it’s “attention” or “informal attention” or whatever. He’ll assume that stance and then almost immediately break out into his form.
Is that wrong?
Well, not necessarily. But it is a bit hurried. I mean, he’s acting as though he’s sort of anxious to get it over with. Like it’s an exercise; jumping jacks or push-ups or whatever. And if that’s the case; if he really is in a bit of a hurry, then the entire set is bad.
Because his mind isn’t focused and his spirit is scattered. He isn’t really rooted into his form. He doesn’t feel it. He’s just going through the moves like a good robot. His techniques and stances and such may be technically correct but he isn’t really doing the form.
Let’s take a moment to look at the Japanese art of drawing and cutting with the sword which is known as iaido. Different schools of iaido utilize various kata (forms). Some use identical or very similar kata and some are very unique to a particular style. But regardless of which school a given kata comes from, one thing is always true.
They’re short. Really short.
I mean the entire kata may consist of the draw, one or maybe two cuts, and then the sword is re-sheathed. And that’s it. Granted, there are many, many small and subtle movements that must be perfected if the kata is to be performed correctly. This is something that the “sport” crowd always misses. They grasp the sword and swing it like a Louisville Slugger and although their high-pitched kiais (which often sound like a cat being sexually molested) and fancy uniforms may make the kata look impressive, it’s usually one huge mass of errors from start to finish.
But that’s not my point. The point I’m aiming at can be seen if you watch a skilled iaido practitioner as he prepares to execute his kata. Once in the proper position (which is usually kneeling in the case of iaido, but it wouldn’t matter if he was standing), he half-closes his eyes and takes three deep breaths.
You ask if this is done to relax his body? Well, of course. But more importantly, it “centers” his mind and spirit. He breathes down into his dantien (tanden in Japanese/Okinawan) as his posture is made correct:
* Ears pushed slightly up away from the shoulders.
* Sphincter slightly tightened.
* Coccyx slightly tucked forward.
* Feet flat on the floor.
* Shoulders and chest relaxed.
There’s no hurry. If he isn’t ready after three breaths, he can take more.
Then when his body, mind, and spirit are ready, the form begins.
Notice that I didn’t say that HE begins the form. The FORM seems to begin itself…
He feels every movement and savors each one. He doesn’t try to rush through it like we do when we’re hungry and slamming down a Snickers. He may appear to move quickly but inside, he’s taking his time. Feeling. Tasting the movements with his body.
This is very important in iaido if, for no other reason, so you don’t muck things up and cut yourself! But the skilled swordsman never worries about that. It never enters his mind because he’s done the kata so many times and his movements are precise.
I think this is a lesson we can all take from iaido. Next time you prepare to practice a form, take three slow, deep, abdominal breaths and “center” your mind and spirit while you root yourself. Then let the form begin when it’s ready.