Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023
The posture should be so that the face is not directed at the floor, but also not too far upwards and both shoulders should be neither stiff nor slouched. At the same time the stomach should be pushed forward instead of the chest, do not bend the hips, do not stiffen the knees and the straight body should be turned towards the face of the enemy so that it appears wider.
It is necessary to always behave so that the everyday posture is the same as it is during combat and the fighting posture the same as it is in everyday life. This should be carefully observed.
“My sensei always said” to keep the face flat. This is Ohmi sensei of course, and he means to keep your head erect and your face perpendicular to the floor, tilted neither upward nor downward. Combine this head position with shoulders that are flexible and toned, hips under the spine (not tucked in like a scolded dog but not stuck out for twerking either), and unlocked knees and you have your typical kendo stance, one designed to be strong and mobile.
This stance, for Musashi is actually even more square than the usual kendo stance, in that the feet are together in what we often call “shizentai” the toes are in line with each other. If you stand in this posture you will indeed look tall and wide, the shoulders, head and hips will combine to give your body the appearance of both vitality and alertness and this carries through to your mental attitude.
Don’t believe me? Try slouching in your chair right now, roll your shoulders forward and let your knees fall apart, put your chin on your chest. Now check your breathing, is it shallow and ragged, all up in your chest? Posture is everything.
There has been some discussion with my students over the years since we practiced with Imai soke of Niten Ichiryu and he introduced a hasso position to us that seemed to be much different than what we were taught. It was not of course, but it was modified to create a very specific mental attitude. Our usual stance can be described if you assume hasso with your feet together (not touching but shoulder width, shizentai). Now adjust the elbows so that the forearms are parallel to the floor. This puts the index finger near your right ear. Tell you what, stick your right thumb in your ear. You will now see that the left hand is the same height as the mouth, which is where the right hand usually is. The bokuto is not at 45 degrees, don’t try or you’ll wrench your wrists.
This is our hasso. Now take that position and drive your hands back along the line of the bokuto toward the tip, bring the elbows together and wring the wrists until the left hand is by your ear, where the right hand was. At the same time as you do this, raise your chest and tighten your stomach. Have you done it? What does it feel like?
If you have done it correctly you have, first, moved part way through the cut and stopped at a different place from hasso, more toward furi kaburi. In fact you are at the point where the tip begins moving toward the target. Secondly, you have raised your center of balance, your focus in your body, and your adrenaline levels considerably. More simply put, you have become much more aggressive. Your posture has changed your mental state.
When we first practiced in this way I was working with my long time friend Jeff Broderick who was visiting from Japan. After several times through the kata “hasso hidari” I managed to make quite hefty contact with the side of Jeff’s head. The control of my swing was gone due to the adrenalin rush, and so was my concern. I really and truly didn’t care that I had just clocked him.
Why had Imai soke changed the kamae? To make a lively and dynamic embu I suspect, in fact, Colin Watkin sensei has mentioned that at an embu soke might lean over to him and say “I’m going to try and kill you”.
Musashi speaks several times of making the body big, of squaring up to the opponent so that he is covered completely. This is part of the mental warfare that happens in a duel and Musashi was a master of that. Nobody likes to face a larger opponent so squaring up will help to disturb your opponent’s mind. Is this a rule? A law? No, of course not. When you strike your opponent with your shoulder you will pivot 90 degrees like a swinging door and drive through his chest. When you strike you will also drop into koshimi, a stance that turns the hips to the side for stability and power. To stay square is to use only the shoulders and arms to strike, you must move the hips to use them.
The final statement is often overlooked or misunderstood but it is very important. Musashi says that we must make our everyday posture our fighting posture and vice versa. This does not mean that we ought to slouch around off balance and inattentive while we’re trying to fight. Our everyday posture is quite possibly garbage, so statements from our sensei like “natural style” or “shizentai” should be understood correctly. Once one figures out or is taught what a correct posture is, one should practice it constantly until it becomes our everyday posture. Then they will be the same.
Now this must mean that we are not trying to move around the office in our special ninja-walking style or standing in some sort of creakingly-low horse stance. You need to go half way so that your combat stances are functional in real life. Musashi did not approve of special ways of walking or complex stances. By making your everyday posture the same as your fighting posture he is following the proverbial middle way but more important than that, he is half way to fighting, even before the fight starts.
Beside that, standing as Musashi tells you to stand is a lot more healthy than slouching. And now that we know that sitting for any length of time will kill us, no matter what sort of exercise we get otherwise we have no choice but to stand.