10 Things about Kendo (from a Beginner’s Point of View)

“When was the last time you did something for the first time?” This thought-provoking question unfailingly prompts me to take stock of the things I have done. Thankfully, 2014 has been a year of a few firsts for me including crossing off what has long been in my bucket list – Kendo. In the past months that I have practiced it, I could not help but think about a lot of things like:

1. You’re either committed or you’re not.
Commitment is tested early on. The ones who stick after giving it a few tries are the ones who have likely come to terms with the demands of learning it. It may seem boring to some who prefer constant variety. There are only few techniques to learn unlike some martial arts or sports. You repeat the same basic drills over and over again. And it is not something that you just do at the dojo. Taking care of your kendo-gi, hakama, shinai, and bogu likewise takes time. You have to be prepared to devote the time required for it. It is either you are fully into it or you are not. Half measures will not get you anywhere near to learning what you need to learn.

2. Forget easy.
It is not going to be easy if you are doing it the right way (read: as properly as a newbie can). There are no shortcuts to progress in Kendo – pretty much like in life. And that means taking the long road that does not guarantee swift and smooth going.

3. Listening will get you far in inching forward.
You do not advance by leaps and bounds. Instead, you painstakingly inch forward day by day or every keiko depending on how often you practice in a week. I have read that there are even those who have been at it for 50 years who still consider themselves as beginners.  Listening to what our teacher says has helped me a lot. I also noticed that in a group of beginners, those who actively listen usually get better at it more quickly.

4. Start with a clean slate. Think tabula rasa.
Emptying the proverbial cup applies big time. Forget what you think you know. Or retain what is useful and get rid of the rest that could get in the way of learning. Prepare to be a beginner for years. And that includes refraining from teaching others techniques that you have barely learned well yourself.

5. Focus. Be aware. Be present.
Focus and awareness may sometimes seem like contrasting ideas. Focusing tends to drown out a lot of things around you, which is good when you want to block the distractions. But in the months of practicing Kendo, I realized that focus and awareness should go hand in hand. You work at strengthening your focus while still being aware of what is happening around you. Maintaining awareness without losing your focus is tricky. But it allows you to be fully present in every moment. It will help you respond appropriately to whatever comes your way.

6. It’s okay not knowing what you don’t know.
Humility is one of the many things Kendo cultivates. It teaches you that it is alright not to know what you do not know. The faster you acknowledge it, the faster you absorb whatever it is your sensei is trying to teach you.

7. Respect
You learn to breathe and live respect in Kendo. I used to think that I am a respectful person. But I quickly realized that I still have much to learn about it. One of the challenges for me is to genuinely feel respect for people who show disrespect. I used to believe that respect is earned. From what I understand so far, rei is unconditional. I am not quite there yet, but I am working on it.

8. Mindset
Your mindset will define you as a kendoka. It will influence everything you do moving forward.

9. Make every keiko count.

“You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it: I never saved anything for the swim back.” ~ Vincent Freeman, Gattaca (1997)

This is one of my favorite film quotes. You probably would have to watch the movie to fully appreciate the impact of that statement. I watched it the same year I became part of the national team in my other sport and it has helped me since. It taught me that the only way to improve in my sport or at anything in life is NOT to hold back. The moment you make every practice count, you give yourself the chance to become better.

Two hours of keiko is no joke, especially once you transition to bogu class soon after the basic drills. It can be tempting to take it easy to save energy for what you think is the hardest part of the training. But doing so robs you of the chance to stretch yourself past your current limits. If you want to improve, you have to make every practice count by giving it your all every step of the way. Realistically though, it would be hard to be at 100% all the time, especially when you are a newbie. It is also difficult when you are recovering from an injury or illness. This is where knowing yourself can be very handy. Understanding your abilities and your limits help you learn to distribute your strength and power to help you last as long as you need to without sacrificing intensity and quality.

10. At the end of the day, it’s all up to you.
I think how far you go is ultimately up to you. Your sensei, senpais, kouhais, and the level of training you get can only steer you towards the direction you need to go. What you learn and how you use it is all up to you.

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