A fairly common assumption from those who are deeply into the grading thing is that if you can’t do seiza you can’t do the seiza kata and therefore you can’t pass a grading and so you can’t do iaido. An easy confusion of the meaning of grading. Your skill does not come from your rank, your rank (ideally) reflects your skill.
One can always modify the kata according to physical limitations, it’s up to the sensei and the grading committees to deal with the changes, and to decide if they are “iai” or not. It’s up to the students to do their iai as faithfully as they can. Between the two a balance is usually found.
Even worse than seiza tends to be tate hiza, sitting with the weight all on the left leg rather than both. If your knee is a bit wonky there’s no reason not to use a position where the back foot is toes down on the ground rather than further down on the instep. Better than not doing it at all, but with any modification of the kata, keep working toward the ideal form as much as possible.
Take a closer look at the tate hiza position, the major problem is twisting the knee by cranking the left heel into the centre of your butt. This puts tremendous pressure diagonally through the knee as you rise. Couple this with a right foot that’s out ahead of the left knee where it pushes you back into a seated position while you’re trying to rise and you’ve got even more pressure on that knee.
Try swinging the left foot more into a seiza position and bringing the right foot as deeply back into your centre as you can. I used to be able to rise straight up from tate hiza while keeping the left foot tucked up against my butt. (A bit old and fat for that now). That takes the pressure off the left knee.
As for siting comfortably in seiza if you have no knee damage, that is usually a matter of practice and stretching. To stabilize the knees and also help stretch, try the following:
Sit in seiza, drop the arms directly down at the sides and relax the shoulders, keeping the back vertical, slowly rise up and flip the toes under. Now flip them back down and slowly sit back into seiza, concentrating on relaxing the quads as you hit the seated position, then tighten the quads once more and start rising for the second rep. It’s those tight quads that tend to make the knees scream, but if you’ve got big hamstrings your knees may be pulled in strange ways by the leverage… again if you can relax the muscles and let them squish out to the sides you’ll have less pressure through the knees.
As for tate hiza… I adjusted to that by using that position every time I was in a bookstore looking at books on the bottom shelf. Too bad nobody goes to bookstores any more.
Iaido is concerned with the approach to an ideal form, with that form buried deeply in effective transfer of power from the ground to the tip of the sword.
Now how you read that statement is usually related to where you are in your iai career. It’s fairly common to hear “hey he passed but he can’t even do seiza” from students who are only a few years in. They see the approach to an ideal form in terms of what it looks like.
Several years later and usually they understand that the approach to an ideal form has to be made in a real world, and that the art itself changes when done by different people. We don’t make changes to iai, but iai becomes different when practiced by some people.
I’m not talking about muscles that need to be stretched of course, in that case you need to work on it and get there. I had a student years ago whose hand was mangled in an accident. He told me he’d never be able to hold the sword properly and I simply told him to get as close as he could. Several years later he held the sword so well you’d never suspect any problems at all.
But for those who cannot work further toward the ideal, it is incorrect for them to attempt to do iai in the “correct” way since it would put them at a disadvantage in the real world. For instance, another student had a degenerative neuromuscular condition that made him lose balance, and made it hard for him to find the hilt with his left hand. On a test he did his standing turns with a pause while he caught his balance, and he did everything one handed. He passed and the question was, of course, asked.
The answer is that for him to try and turn, find the hilt and cut in a continuous movement would put him off balance and moving into an opponent’s range without control of his cut. This would be wrong, incorrect, and I’d fail him for it. He didn’t change the art, the art changed around his condition and circumstances and it was up to the grading committee and his sensei to understand that.
In Japan and some other countries those who can’t do seiza or tate hiza are accomodated by giving them a different set of all standing kata for their test. In Canada we don’t do that, we simply have a set way to do the seated kata while standing. The thinking is that some of the folks who can’t sit seiza are still going to be instructors one day and we need to see how they do their seated kata so that we know they understand the dynamics and can teach those who are still sitting.
In the last few years I have sensed a move toward a more small-minded iai, one that is looking to fail rather than looking for reasons to pass. In this climate it’s easy to fail someone for a uniform fault or for not being able to get into seiza. For those caught in that system I would like to remind you that iaido is not grading.
A sword teacher in 1580 would perhaps teach kata from tate hiza or seiza because it was practical (“it’s the way we sit”). Given a set of students who might have been injured in the wars, would that teacher tell an old vet that he can’t learn anything because he can’t sit in seiza? No of course not, the teacher would adapt his art to the soldier and the ideal of having to do seiza would not even arise. It would be stupid to teach techniques from seiza to someone who would never be in seiza.
What is different now? Is your iai a fossil to be preserved in stone forever or is it a living art? Do we sit in seiza as a matter of course these days? Is passing a grade the goal of your art?
If you are told you can’t pass because you can’t sit in seiza or tate hiza, the solution would seem instantly apparent. Don’t bother grading. It won’t affect your practice of the art. If your sensei is teaching you, you’ve already passed the only important test in the arts.