Returning to the Zen of Iaido

At the beginning of the month, I returned to martial arts training. I was on hiatus for approximately five years, so I was a bit rusty. When I visited my dojo in September, I found that I was craving stillness. My body, mind and spirit were yearning for the zen of Iaido. Why did I stop?

As you well know, there are only so many hours in a day. I wanted to dedicate more time to my own professional development as a musician. During that time, I accompanied five choirs, studied jazz piano, took a contemporary music examination, singing lessons and sang with a live band. Oh, and started to play other instruments.

Fast forward to today. Although my studio is smaller than it was back then, I am writing more and exploring other projects. My days are still abuzz and it's a challenge to find that stillness.

There was a sense of homecoming on my first day back to Iaido training. Ka Muso Kai has changed too during my hiatus: new name, new training location and other folks have come and gone; but when I stepped into the dojo, all that vanished. I was home.

During my first week of training, I made several discoveries:

  1. I was completely out of practice with meditation. When sempai called out "Mokuso", my heart was racing for quite a while. With each progressive week,, it has improved.
  2. Muscle memory is extremely powerful. Holding my iaito was akin to hopping onto a bike for the first time in years.
  3. Having some knowledge of the Japanese language levelled up my understanding of Iaido. For instance, although I was rusty on the steps to "Kesa giri", I knew that I would have to do a diagonal cut.
  4. My problem spots of old are still my problem spots.
  5. Using a mirror during at-home practice makes a huge difference.

My iaito. Photo by R-M Arca.

One thing that I've been doing when I practice at home is to empty my mind of nearly all thought. I focus on what my next action will be. Then, I try to quickly attain stillness before executing the action. I can't remember whether I did that the first time round, but has resulted in less corrections and repetitions.

Being able to shed all unnecessary thoughts and emotions, save for the ones needed to execute the kata efficiently is a skill that can be transferred easily into any situation or crisis. That calm but steely focus sure came in handy when dealing with a minor fire recently.

In truth, you can find zen in any activity - baking, writing, photography - it doesn't have to be martial arts. For me, however, the zen of Iaido is where it's at. Jodo, is another thing altogether, which can wait for another time.