Just recovering with a large dark roast at my local cafe in Calgary (a Starbucks, I’m in the suburbs) taking an inventory of all my aches and pains. My forearms took a beating this weekend after three days of practice (always feels like four since we drive from Calgary to Edmonton for a class and then back to Calgary for an evening class on Sundays) because I was swinging my iaito for most of it. Jodo was a relief on Saturday afternoon.
During class I kept wondering whether I’d said before what I was saying. It sure sounded familiar to me, and I wondered if it was time to just pack it in. After all, pretty much all I have to say has been written down in my books and said in my videos hasn’t it?
Well perhaps not. What’s there is a few years old, oops, close to 20 in the case of the basic manuals of my koryu iaido now that I think about it. I might have a bit more to say since then. (Said it in the new manuals out this year… ba dump bump) But surely I’m just repeating the same stuff for new people, like some old prof in front of the blackboard doing the intro chemistry class for the umpteenth time, even the jokes can be dated to 20 years ago.
That’s not what teaching is about is it? I teach because I learn when I do. Someone asks a question and a whole set of new associations may click together in my head. This is especially true if I’m teaching koryu, but even with the standardized set of iai or jo (kendo federation) I find new ideas forming on their origin and meaning.
For instance, we were discussing the various sword etiquettes of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu as compared to the many used in Muso Shinden Ryu and then compared those to the etiquette of Seitei Gata when I realized that no instructor I’ve listened to for the last couple decades has even mentioned that Seitei comes from the koryu and so a brand new explanation of the different opening and closing sword bow has shown up beyond “the opening is MSR and the closing is MJER”. Hadn’t thought about that before.
Nothing to say? Several times this weekend I actually cursed myself because I was nattering on about some obscure historical point or other rather than watching the class swing their swords. I talked so much the back of my tongue got tender where I bit it last week.
Form vs Function
I got onto my form vs function hobbyhorse at one time over the weekend. Too many people figure iaido is all about hitting the grading points and doing it “the right way” which really means doing it the way I do it (for teachers) and doing it the way I was taught (for students). There is more than one right way, and there’s a hell of a lot more than what’s written in “the book” when we’re talking about kendo federation iai and jo. The only way to truly understand these arts is from a functional point of view. Does it work? Did you live or die after that kata? When you are in this or that checkpoint position are you stable? Can you generate power? Can your opponent blow through your posture? Or are you just posing for the judges? A lot of my students fail exams for fairly low rank because I’m teaching them things other than what the judges want to see. I teach adults and they can take the failure, eventually they pass and some go on to the higher ranks and become well rounded judges because they’ve been exposed to more than one “right way” to do something. They even find their own “right way” to do things and often teach me something new.
There are too many things outside what is written in the book to figure that even seitei gata has one “right way” to do it. Those who have gone through judging seminars will know that what we look at for lower grades is not what we’re looking for at higher grades. What is “correct” is correct for the level of experience, not what any individual judge had been taught as correct by their teacher. Judges have to understand the range, not the point and that range slides up a scale with different grade levels.
So can I, or should I teach the passing points to each rank? If I had three dozen students I might do that, have different classes for different ranks, but I don’t. I’ve got three or four students of varying experience and rank and I don’t have infinite time with them. I teach from function, as I was taught, not from form. I still say “this is the finish point of the cut” but I care about how the sword got there more than being there at the finish. Makes for difficult judging because the lack of concentration on the grading point is usually combined with a decent movement to get there.
Saving it for the next generation
Speaking of my books and videos, we had a discussion about having a record of what our sensei did. Take video of your sensei while they are alive, they won’t live forever. You don’t need to have perfect performances, or ideal lighting, you just need a reminder of “how he did it”. You figure you know? That you will never forget or get confused by other teachers, other ways of doing your kata? You’re a better man than I. We were talking mostly Okuden here, the top level of the koryu, something that teachers don’t teach often, that students don’t practice much.
At least take notes. You won’t regret it later, even if you have something else to do or somewhere else to be, don’t waste the time you just spent in class by forgetting what you just learned.
Leave it outside
Consider that while you are in class you can’t do anything for the mortguage, your bad relationship, the expensive car repairs or the weather. You are stuck where you are for an hour or two and you’ve got someone who is trying to distract you standing up front. Allow yourself to be distracted, concentrate on what you’re being taught and let those obsessive cycles of thought be broken for a short time. You may even be able to just “leave it at the door” given enough practice and eventually you might be able to “leave it at the door” whenever you need to.
And that is my seminar report for the Calgary Iaido and Jodo Seminar of August 8-10, 2014.