The small sad symbols of winter are melting out of the snowbanks in front of the coffee shop this morning as an hour’s stolen time makes me rush through my dark roast.
We did the Welland iaido seminar yesterday which is an interesting format with four groups and five instructors who rotate through the groups. An hour and three kata at a time gives us a view of everyone and gives the students a chance to see the “big guys” all in one place.
Every year I say the same things to the same levels, we learn the footwork in the kyu / non-kyu group, we work on power in the shodan group, nidan-sandan gets drilled on the details and the yondan-up group gets yelled at for not trying hard enough to learn.
Considering we are making it harder and harder to get to yondan you’d think they would be learning-beasts but of necessity they are mostly teachers and they have put in ten years training. I suspect calling them lazy and inexperienced is a bit inaccurate if not downright unproductive. Me, I asked them to be a bit more humble and ask more questions.
I always ask for questions, I’m Mister Kuchi Waza. I’m the explainer apparently, not the one who demonstrates or the one who shows, the one who explains. I think that’s hilarious because thats the three of us old guys in a nutshell. The guy who feels it, the guy who loves the details and the guy who thinks too much about it.
I ask questions because I want each level to get what they need. The beginners get the footwork but they need to ask what’s happening where. It’s a curious thing that we figure knowing what the opponent is doing is “riai” to be learned later as a special secret. In partner practice we know from day one what our partner is doing, we can see him there in front of us. In iai, I was told from the first what my opponent is doing, but it seems that things have become strict, and students are expected to work it out for themselves these days.
So here’s the secret, your opponent is where the kata says he is, and doing what he has to be doing when you do what you do. Read the book and when it says turn 90 degrees that’s where he is. OK it’s not really a secret but it helps.
The shodan level needs to repeat repeat repeat, their questions center around “how do I make it whistle on this angled cut” or “how do I lift it on this angle” and the answer is inevitably “you need to practice until you get it”. We had fun with that.
By sandan you are supposed to know the 12 ZenKenIRen kata. Hey, surely you can learn learn 12 small kata in 4 years? The questions here are all on details, what angle exactly, what height precisely.
Four and five dan is where you learn how to cut and we figure you need another seven years to do it. Well there’s a little more than that but it will do as a stand-in for the rest of it. The last of the technical stuff comes in here, the stuff that isn’t “put the tip here”. At this stage folks need to shift from hitting the grading points to hitting the opponent. Their eyeballs need to turn from inside to out as I usually say, stop looking inward to remember just what angle the sword should be here, and look at where teki is, and hit him.
If you’re teaching at 4 dan you know all about the grading points, so that’s what you teach and that’s what you demonstrate in class. When you get in front of someone as a student there’s a major shift that has to happen, you have to turn off the teaching mode and turn on the student mode once more. You have to admit that there may be something that you don’t know. You have to be humble to ask.
But that’s hard because you do know it all. You know the book, you have it all in your head. You know everything that you’ve been taught up to yesterday, so what do you ask? You can’t ask for something that you don’t know about can you? And besides, if you’re a teacher you’re supposed to know it all right? Your students ask, you answer, so if your sensei asks if you have a question your proper answer is to say no, you don’t. I changed my question to “what are you working on” which was a little better all around.
The thing to remember here is that your sensei isn’t your high school math teacher. He’s in class to give you everything you need, not everything he’s been told to stuff into your head by the school board. You’re there to learn, he’s there to teach you, neither of you have to be there so don’t waste your time. Either of you. Have something to work on, something to ask and ask it. If you’re teaching that class you have to push them, figure out what they need to ask for because, as I said, they often don’t know what to ask for. I almost never talk about the details of the kata with this group, they know it and if they don’t, they can read. I try to find ways for them to self-learn, to teach themselves how to go where they need to go.
Yesterday it was the back knee in tsuka ate. They know the back foot is supposed to be square to the front, they know there should be power in the thrusts and the cut. Do you know that? Sure you do. Can you self-check without looking down at your foot?
On the thrust to suigetsu stamp your right foot down and pop your left knee half an inch off the ground at the same time. If it isn’t square you’ll end up on your face. Thrust back and then cut to the front but as you start the cut pop that knee off the ground again. If you want to check the thrust back, use a bokuto and hit a wall. If your front leg isn’t propping you correctly you will hurt your shoulder.
Simple, and you don’t even need to admit you’re working on it.