The Tipping Point – 23 Jan 2014, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

While I’m usually one of the first to say that you can learn all there is to learn from the first kata of whatever school you are learning, there is a problem with doing one kata only, or perhaps more likely if you’re talking iai or jo, one set of kata. I’ve noticed that those schools who concentrate on seitei tend to a bit of tunnel vision. Zen Ken Ren iai or jo are the sets of 12 kata that the kendo federation uses to test their iai and jo students for their dan ranks, they are defined in books and video and they are intended to be done in a certain way. As a result, they tend to be taught rather physically, with every aspect, every twitch and angle emphasized with equal vigor so that a student might not have much idea about what’s important. While the seitei have their special characteristics, those schools who teach only a limited range also tend to obsess over details that might best be left to arrange themselves. It’s what I call the “small range” problem. If you have a small range of experience or techniques and lots of time to practise, you tend to have a problem separating things that are important from things that are stylistic. An example is the path of the sword toward the scabbard as you put it away. In most lines of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu the sword goes back in a flat path, more or less parallel to the floor. In our particular line it moves in an arc, up toward the left shoulder and down again. Now we do it that way for a particular reason having to do with zanshin, but I can make an equally valid argument for the flat path using exactly the same reasons. The bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter which you use, as long as you’re using the one your sensei told you to. Yet beginners ask, agonize and argue about that shape. They don’t have a lot of experience to call on and fall back on what they know. As good students they figure what sensei told them is what’s correct. Recently in our dojo we have been moving rather quickly through a lot of sets of kata in a couple of different arts and schools. I totted up the kata that we’ve done around here over the years and they top out at over 240. Silly when you think about it, but we study five different arts and in some cases a couple different schools in the art so the kata add up. They also repeat, which is not such a waste of time as you might think. The fact that one school or one level of practice will do a kata slightly differently than another is a valuable chance for students to discover what is important. Simply subtract the variable bits and pay attention to what remains. The group I’ve got in front of me now is roughly a cohort, they all started within three or four years of each other I think, so we are moving at a roughly logical pace. In the last few years they have moved through seitei and a little bit of koryu at a snail’s pace as is usual with beginners. They struggled with each kata and each took about the same amount of time to understand. The usual questions about what foot goes in front of which, the usual worries about a couple of degrees of angle in a cut. Trying to keep every detail present and sorted in their heads. Recently though, we’ve been moving through several sets of kata that are relatively short and don’t involve either seiza or tate hiza to any great extent. They are also partner practice which makes a surprisingly big difference in speed of understanding of what the movements are all about. A couple of weeks ago we seem to have reached a tipping point, and now the class is learning a new kata to “practise it” level in ten minutes rather than two hours. What happened? First, some of the new kata are variations of ones they already know, but mostly the students are starting to see the kihon beneath the kata. They have seen enough variation to start understanding what is important and they are concentrating on that, ignoring the occasional crossed foot or missed angle. They have seen enough to realize that the art really does boil down to “avoid getting hit and hit him”. How many ways to get offline? More than one and less than twelve, right, not so hard. How many ways to hit someone? Well an infinite number of angles but only a foot or so of distance if you’re swinging with the usual technique, add another couple of feet once you learn how to shorten up the sword. Not so hard, get out of the way of his attack and smack him, worry about sorting out the style points later. Like I said, they seem to be over the tipping point and into collecting kata at a great rate. I hope I can get away with this for another couple of months before they turn and force me to concentrate on those style points in the core kata for a while.

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