I welcomed March, which also happened to be Women’s Month, with a simple goal of doing something, no matter how small, for the women in sports advocacy. Somehow, along the way, small milestones just piled up. I couldn’t think of a better way to end it than how it did – being with like-minded people who inspired and re-energized me to dream and do more.
I am beginning to sound like a broken record when it comes to practice and venue safety. I have been repeatedly raising these two concerns for a long time:
1) lack of proper hydration during our kendo training and
2) the hazards some damaged parts of the flooring pose (as evidenced by a growing number of people who suffer from wounds after stepping on sharp edges on the floor)
There seems to be a recurring theme that comes up every time we discuss the said issues. I always hear that it is because we follow the “traditional martial arts” type of training. This has always left me stumped. The message I seem to be getting from it is that Traditional Martial Arts are not for wimps. And that those who practice it should get used it or unquestioningly endure.
I have no problem enduring hard training unquestioningly. But it becomes a concern for me if puts my health and safety at risk. I find the lack of sense of urgency to address these issues alarming. I believe that those who are in positions of authority at any sports club need to ensure the safety of their athletes.
I have been trying to understand what “traditional” training methods entail in their context. Most of the materials I found say something along these lines:
I haven’t found anything that says that:
1) We should not put strict safety measures in place
2) We should not take breaks for rest and hydration at appropriate intervals
What I find most alarming is that conditions are ripe for dehydration in the type of venue and training we do. The dojo itself has poor ventilation. And we sweat profusely, especially in bogus class. It is not usually because of the heat and humidity. The vigorous training that we do make us sweat a lot. Yet, we do not take enough breaks to rehydrate.
I really do not understand why we are doing it like this. Even the elite athletes I know observe safety practices in training. I wonder what is driving us to this extent when most of us are doing it for fitness and fun.
To be fair, there have been attempts to implement suggested hydration and safety checks after the issues were raised. But after a short while, it somehow reverts back to the old ways. I wish we could be more consistent on this.
Just recently, club members have been asked to sign a quitclaim. I have not received a copy of it yet so I do not know what’s in it. But even with a waiver of liability, I think it is still the responsibility of any sports club to provide a safe training environment for its athletes.
Kendo practice is always a challenge even on the best days. But yesterday’s keiko stretched me past my limits more than I could count. It was my first practice after two weeks of resting and recovering from the recurring pains from an old knee injury and sore Achilles heels. I would have to say that it was also one of the best training I had in a long while. Not because I felt good and did things right. But because I came across the toughest walls I had to scale to survive the almost three hours of keiko.
Keiko in Semi-Darkness
The twice daily rotating 3-hour long power outages have been a source of suffering for many of us here in Mindanao. And things are expected to get worse as the country enters its “summer” months. The scheduled blackouts though have only affected us briefly before during keiko. And I think it was towards the end of practice. Yesterday was the first time that we started training in semi-darkness. There was only one source of light. I was told that the rest of the fluorescent light bulbs were not connected to the facility’s generator. It was also somewhat suffocating since we could not use the electric fans that usually offer some relief from the heat and humidity. Even at 6:00PM, it was still hot. While there were windows in the dojo, almost all of them were blocked by tree trunks, shrubs, and many other things that keep the fresh air from flowing in.
We trained in these conditions for about two hours before power came back. And we somehow ended up continuing practice without plugging in the electric fans. I think this was one of the reasons why it was tougher for me yesterday. There were times that I found it hard to breathe. I just kept repeating this mantra in my head that I could do it. That I must never give up no matter what even if my body is telling me otherwise.
Getting Assigned to Take the Lead
Before keiko started, one of my kouhais told me that he was asked by our club manager/president to take the lead. Both our club manager/president and the vice-president were in Hong Kong to take the 1Dan exam (which they both passed) last Friday.
So I was surprised when during mawari geiko our sensei approached my kouhai when he started giving instructions. He told him that I will be taking the lead on the motodachi side. I was not supposed to move from my spot during the rotation. I had to quickly prepare myself mentally and physically for the responsibility. Even as one of the senior members of the group, it is rare for me to be assigned responsibility at anything in training. I was not used to it. It added to the things that I had to deal with during the grueling session. For me, it meant that I really should not stop at any point or take a rest even if I feel like I could no longer carry on since I had to set an example.
Emptying My Mind During Jigeiko with Sensei
If there is one thing many of us in bogu class shares, it would probably be that feeling of dread before jigeiko with Lim-sensei. I even noticed that some members opt to line up for jigeiko with Kazu-senpai – our other 3Dan instructor. I used to do it myself before I go to Lim sensei. But last month I started to challenge myself to do jigeiko with sensei right off the bat. I figured that it was the only way to overcome the dread and improve myself no matter how little each time.
All of us were already tired by the time we have to do jigeiko. Kazu senpai was not around so everyone had no choice but to do it with sensei. I was not expecting much from myself at this point. I just did my usual mental self-talk telling myself that I can do it. I also decided to empty my mind going in. I just wanted to do whatever I have to do without thinking much about it. I do not know what happened, but it was one of the best jigeiko I had with sensei in a long while.
Yesterday’s keiko made me think about what Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, said about Olympism:
Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of a good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
I would have to agree once again that indeed there is joy found in effort regardless of how much pain and suffering you have to put up with in the process.
My kendo journey hit a wall in 2015. I lost my commitment and drive. And I even went on a long hiatus twice. I only came back a month before a scheduled kyu evaluation last November. I of course failed the grading given my lack of training and progress.
I am still struggling to rekindle my motivation. But at least I have been able to drag myself to the dojo to continue training.
There are several external and internal factors at play that pushed me to the brink of quitting. I have tried to do something to address both early last year. But I quickly realized that I am powerless in dealing with the external stuff. I figured it is best to leave them alone. It is a tall order for me because I am wired to observe, analyze, and act. Unfortunately, I seem to operate differently than what others are used to. Given the lessons I have learned, I decided to focus more on myself. I need to learn how to accept the nature of my current kendo environment without compromising the things I stand for.
I am still working on completely letting things go. It is not easy to let things slide when they have a direct or indirect effect on my progress. But taking baby steps leaves me empowered. Kendo is teaching me a lot about humility. It is teaching me to endure the unpleasant and irritating things even if they impact or derail my training. Above all, it made me realize that taking the higher ground is easier said than done. But taking a small step towards that direction feels like a major achievement.
But my need to learn and improve is so strong. I am desperate to understand more of what I am doing because I learn better that way. I have yet to find a mentor to help me with that.
Today though, I am just happy with these discoveries I had while reading some kendo resources:
“Yakusoku in general means “promise”. So the targets to be struck are already decided (prearranged). Therefore, if you have the targets to be struck in certain order, i.e. “onaji no waza uchikomi geiko”, it is a yakusoku geiko.
Now if we apply the definition of yakusoku geiko, all the training for techniques such as debana kote, men kaeshi men and so on are all yakusoku geiko, because both motodachi (receiver) and kakarite (striker) know what target and how they should strike.
So yakusoku geiko is a general term for training in which the practitioners know what targets should be struck.” (Source: Kendo-Guide.Com)
“…continued practice of men and taitari followed by hiki waza“ (Source: kendoinfo.net)
“In jigeiko, the higher ranks will make openings to the lower ranks so that the lower ranks can learn good opportunities to strike.“ (Source: Kendo-Guide.Com)
Knowing these terms and understanding their purpose is a big deal for me. We have been doing them during practice but I did not know that there are specific terms for them. I feel that now I can optimize their benefits more. It also made me understand a bit better why the senseis and senpais I have done jigeiko with use them. Hopefully, I could use this newfound knowledge to be a better kakarite. It may even help me become a better motodachi to my kouhais.
Learning all the Japanese terms is not an easy feat given that it is rare for us to use them in the dojo. But I find that knowing the term and the rationale for each drill or technique helps me execute it more properly. At least as properly as a newbie like me can.
The three-day visit of the Manila Kendo Club (MKC) senseis and senpais together with Ono Masahiro sensei who came all the way from Hong Kong rekindled the drive I used to have in Kendo. It may not be back to its old form, but I feel relieved that the spark is still there.
A big part of me still feel like I’m trapped in a hamster wheel. Where all the time, effort, and money I invest into this martial art that I love seem to be leading me nowhere. It’s like I’m just doing things for the sake of doing them with little or no room to correct myself in the process. The lack of feedback has long left me uninspired. I was shocked and grateful at the same time in the sheer amount of feedback, insightful observations, and the corrections I got from the visiting senseis and senpais. It was exactly the kind of training I’ve been looking for. Because I simply cannot progress on my own. I’m a beginner after all. I need teaching and guidance. I can’t exactly teach or correct myself based on what I read or watch on videos alone. I believe that relying on self-training will not compensate for the value of feedback and proper training. It will only reinforce the bad habits and wrong techniques I’ve acquired in the past 18 months.
Sometimes I question myself why I still keep doing this knowing that I seem to be getting nowhere. I guess I love Kendo that much that I can’t quit it despite all the disappointments and misgivings I’m having. I just wish that I could actually make progress with it instead of being stuck with the same mistakes that I’m unaware of because of the lack of immediate feedback.
It’s been two weeks since the MKC visit. And here I am wishing that we don’t go back to the same routines again. As I watched everyone during the kyu assessment, I noticed how most of us really have weak basics that we need to work on. But I find it hard to work on my basics when we focus more on speed than proper execution of techniques during keiko. I find myself wishing all the time that I could just train with the beginners. Because there’s nothing I need more now than to work on the things I need to improve on.
On another note, yesterday’s practice tested my patience early on. Warm-up was a noisy affair with several kouhais (junior members) telling our club manager how many we should do for each of the suburi drills we’re doing. Our club manager was asking the Japanese 3rd Dan senpai who was the most senior member there since Lim sensei wasn’t around yet and many were throwing out numbers at him. I think it was a breach of etiquette as we are supposed to stay quiet during practice. Besides, it’s not up to them to decide how many we should do. Two senior members are discussing it and we just have to wait and do whatever they decide on.
Outlook/mood in Kendo lately: Struggling and feeling stuck.
Any lingering doubt that November has been a particularly challenging one for me has been blown to bits this morning. Failing my kendo 1st kyu assessment earlier today, the last day of the month, was like a fitting farewell to the grueling four weeks behind me.
I welcomed this month with one goal in mind — to prepare as much as I can for the kyu assessment. After all, that was what made me decide to give kendo another try. I initially thought the increased pressure at work that called for longer hours and learning new stuff were the only hurdles I have to overcome. But I was wrong. The challenges just kept piling up that I felt like I was drowning. The worst part came when my dad had to stay at the hospital for several days. I was able to breathe normally again only after he came home a few days back.
Failing is a bitter pill to swallow. But as soon as the initial disappointment and sadness faded, I could actually think of some reasons to be thankful for.
1. A confirmation of what I already knew all along – I almost gave up on the assessment knowing that there’s no way I can perform well. Today’s disastrous results proved what I already knew after my second day back in training:
2. Supportive kendoka – Ma’am Ruby, who is one of my first batch co-members, not only managed to make me come back. She also taught me Kata 1-3 every time we practiced beginning a few weeks back. Then there’s Paul and Alain who taught us Bokuto 1-9 last Wednesday and Thursday.
3. A good reminder to myself on the importance of trying despite the odds being stacked against me – The day before the kyu assessment, our club manager who was supposed to be taking the 1st kyu evaluation with us, said that according to the Manila Kendo Club (MKC) senseis we can only take up to the 2nd kyu. I was happy to hear this because I thought that I’m really not qualified for 1st kyu. So I went home thinking that I’ll be trying to pass 2 kyu the next day. I even spent some time reviewing the Bokuto 1-9 before I slept and as soon as I woke up this morning. So I was completely shocked when we were told that we’ll be taking the 1st kyu assessment instead. I didn’t even had time to practice Kata 1-3 before the assessment. I used up the spare time I had before the start of the evaluations practicing bokuto 1-9 which I was expecting to perform for 2nd kyu. In hindsight, I should have stuck it out with 2nd kyu or went for 3rd kyu instead of going for 1st kyu. But something good still came out of it because I learned thatI can rise to the challenge and give it a try no matter how all the odds are stacked against me.
4. A testament to the importance of just showing up regardless of how many hurdles I have to overcome – This quote I shared on day 1 of pre-kyu assessment training with the MKC senseis and senpais together with Ono Masahiro sensei from Hong Kong inspired me to just show up despite the toll of the hellish weeks I’ve had.
5. The lessons learned – I learned so many things in the three days of training with the visiting senseis and senpais. I wish we could train like that more. But I’ll take whatever I can get as a gift. And our gracious guests have generously taught us a lot. For that I’m extremely grateful.
The old kendo drive is still missing. I miss the enthusiasm and excitement I feel the moment I step into the dojo. It has not been fun for me since I came back. But I am hoping that this is just a phase. That I would soon get myself out of this rut. To do that, I have to rethink and readjust my beliefs about kendo training with our club.
1. Embrace ambiguities
Kendo is simple. And that is what makes it seem so complicated. It is subject to personal interpretations. This often leads to a lot of ambiguities. Progress is often hampered by differing instructions from different people. There are no clear standards of teaching. At least that is how I see it from my quite limited experience and perspective. There are subtle, and sometimes glaring, differences in various clubs’ practices. Maybe this is because it remains to be a traditional martial arts. There appears to be no strict rules on how to conduct training. Instead, teachers impart their individual knowledge and skills to students. But I always had this impression that kendo follows a set of principles and methodologies that aim to preserve its spirit. So I am curious about what makes it seem so ambiguous.
2. Non-verbal instruction is key
I have come across several references on non-verbal instruction in kendo training. I think this makes sense since kendo is also supposed to be an exercise in mindfulness. Paying attention to what the sensei is doing is key to learning. I have to readjust my expectation from hereon. While I thrive best in clear verbal communications, I will have to learn to focus on squeezing every bit of lesson I can get from the senseis’ actions.
3. Set a personal goal and stick with it
My reasons for taking up kendo has always been clear to be from the beginning. I want to learn the discipline and principles behind it. I just want to play beautiful kendo. I still do not like the idea of competing in tournaments. I feel like I will only be comfortable doing it once I learned the basics as well as I can. I have no illusions that I will be able to master kihon. But I can always strive to learn them the best way I can. I think it is important to have a clear purpose for taking the kendo journey. It centers me when begin to feel adrift.
4. Listen to your body
There are many levels of pain in sports and martial arts training. There are physical and mental agonies that must be endured to improve. But there are also the kinds of pain that can do more harm than good to the body. I am lucky to have learned over the years how to distinguish between different types of discomfort in training. I am at a point in my life where I do not let pride prevent me from acknowledging pain that puts me at risk of getting injured for fear of being seen as weak. I believe that the only way to become better in whatever sport I do is to listen to my body. Because nobody will be able to do that for me.
5. Help yourself
Help is always welcome. But I no longer expect to get any when I need it most. I have been burned enough to learn that I have to rely on myself if I want to make whatever little progress I can.
6. Get used to the confusion
The ambiguities often lead to confusion, at least on my part. Instructions keep changing depending on who are giving them at any given time. So it is like a cycle of learning, unlearning, and relearning. This makes it harder to gauge how much I have actually learned in more than a year of training.
7. Remember that it’s a personal journey
I still have not figured out what being a senpai means in kendo. I have learned by experience that my feedback is not welcome, at least to some of my juniors. I am also still trying to learn how to be a kendoka. For now, I am leaning more on the idea of letting my kendo speak for me. I want to focus more on my personal journey. But I also want to be one of those who will be the first ones to help, if needed. Because I know how it sucks to feel like you are floundering alone.
Excruciatingly long. That is how I would sum up yesterday’s kendo practice for several reasons. It was physically, mentally, and emotionally draining for me. Training lasted for almost four hours — at least for us who arrived at the dojo early.
I left home early so I would be at the dojo before 5:00PM for our 6:00-8:00PM practice. But traffic was heavy so I arrived at about 5:05PM. Sensei was already there. I had to rush through my pre-practice routine. I had to hurry and change into my gi and hakama, set up my bogu, and stretch. I had to skip footwork practice since sensei called us to gather around the dummy.
Big Men Dummy Practice
I felt good doing this drill. I thought that maybe I was doing it right. Sensei did not call me out to correct me even once. It was either I was indeed getting the hang of it or he just did not see me when I committed mistakes. All in all, I was happy with how I approached this basics practice. My focus was intense. My mind was quiet. And my spirit was strong. I felt like I was “in the zone”.
This drill was introduced about a month before I had my two-month hiatus from training. It was a variation of the haya suburi. In haya suburi, the footwork is still there but focus is more on the speed (i.e. at least that was how we were doing it). On the other hand, the “suicide” version is like jumping in place while swinging the shinai in typical suburi movements. For some reason, it is more tiring than haya suburi. Maybe because each one of us had to count to ten while doing it. We had to keep at it until everyone is done. Multiply that by the number of attendees and you have a killer warm-up.
Yesterday, there were more of us than last time. It was the first time that I was almost at the end of the rotation. This is when the mental aspect of my old training resurfaced. I dug so deep to get me through without cheating on myself. I just wish sometimes that there is someone I could find inspiration from. Someone I could emulate and encourage me by setting a good example. Instead, I just had to focus on finishing the painful exercise with the goal of not slacking off.
This is where the emotional aspect reared its ugly head. There were instances when I felt so frustrated and angry — emotions that have no room in kendo practice.
Frustration #1 – One of the club’s biggest kendoka hit my men so hard. I felt like a nail being hammered down. It was painful. I usually let painful blows slide. But last night’s abuse on my head was just too much. I wanted to cry and just walk out from there. I have always wondered why we do not seem to care about this. I feel like I am the only one worried about it. And raising the issue seems like I am a complainer. But it concerns my head. I am less worried about the pain than its cumulative impact to my brain. Is it really safe to receive painful blows like that repeatedly in a span of one or two hours of training? I feel that we are too focused on advancing and doing all sorts of more complicated techniques that we overlook the importance of learning tenouchi properly. Some may think that I have a low threshold for pain since they do not seem to mind at all. But I know how it feels to receive the correct strike. If there is a correct way of doing it, we should be learning that. I am aware that I have not learned tenouchi well either. That is why I either try to control the power behind my strikes or I ask for feedback if I am hurting my partner.
Frustration #2 – I used to have a hard time doing kote-men even before I stopped training for two months. We did not do it often before. But it seems like it is part of the regular drills lately. I knew right from the start of last night’s kote-men practice that I was not doing it right. My confidence was chipping away fast. One of my partners who was a senior member of the group was obviously frustrated that I could not receive kote-men properly when I was motodachi. He did not seem to realize that I was having a hard time. He said I was doing it wrong. I was waiting for him to teach me how to do it correctly but he did not. What was the point of telling me I was wrong if am not told how to do it right? Is this how we are supposed to deal with our partners in uchikomi-geiko?
I am just glad that I survived kakari-geiko, especially since I was already reaching the end of my limits before we started it. I somehow managed to get hold of my emotions and carry on.
The club’s president said we have an extra hour for kata practice. When I asked him who will teach us, he told me that it would be self-practice. I explained that I have not done kata before and that I do not know how to do it except from what I have seen on videos. I also asked him if it would not be better if we could practice with a partner. In the end, he agreed to teach us. I practiced kata 1 (uchidachi and shidachi) for the remainder of the allotted hour.
General mood in yesterday’s practice: Good–>pissed–>resigned–>sad
I feel refreshed and lighter practicing kendo after shedding all that unnecessary baggage I’ve unwittingly carried in the past.
My sole focus now is to improve because:
I’m back to zero. Really. It’s like I’ve had to learn everything again from scratch.
My stamina is at record low.
My basics are pathetic.
My tenouchi/shibori seems non-existent.
My timing is off — by a lot.
My footwork, especially my fumikomi-ashi is laughable and just wrong in so many ways.
My zanshin isn’t as near as it was before.
And even my kiai is not as it used to be.
Given all these, I spent most of the time relearning everything. It was a tall order since there were new techniques and drills I had to learn as well. So when one of the kouhais who leads the group now (apart from our club manager) asked me for feedback after practice, I told him that I can’t give any because I’ve been focused on how to improve my own kendo. I also felt that I had no business discussing someone’s mistakes when I’m doing a lot of things wrong myself.
During uchikomi-geiko my kouhai partner asked me if she was doing the technique right and to teach her how to do it correctly. I told her that it’s my first time to do it as well so I might end up teaching her the wrong thing(s). Besides, in an environment where many are just too eager to teach that even newbies have no qualms about teaching just about everyone, one less person doing it shouldn’t matter much.
I’m not saying I won’t share feedback or correct a partner if needed. But I will not do it haphazardly. Because if my goal is to help someone improve, I have to be more conscious of what to impart. I don’t know if that would be taken as selfishness on my part. But I think it would be more selfish to teach anyone something that I can’t even do right. The best people to do that would be the senseis or senpais who are teaching us, especially if it’s during keiko. I think I’d be of more help improving my kendo and setting an example by how I approach every practice.