Westerners are attracted to iaido because it’s a fascinating method of sword fighting with roots that can be traced back more than 400 years. They like the formal training the art entails, as well as the ritual and tradition that inspire them to wonder what it would have been like to wield a sword in battle against a warlord’s army.
“Another reason people like iaido is because instructors usually discourage them from over-emphasizing competition,” says Minobu Miki, a karate master who’s studied the sword art for more than 40 years. “That helps them control their ego and avoid having to prove themselves as they journey toward enlightenment and a higher level of mental and spiritual development.”
For practitioners of other martial arts who wish to embark upon the iaido journey, Miki offers these eight steps to mastery.
1: Find the Right School
It’s best to enroll in an iaido school that’s internationally recognized and certified. That will ensure that you’re learning proper technique from a qualified instructor in a safe environment, says Miki, who is the chief instructor of the Japan Karate-do Organization.
While karate schools can be found in just about every town in the United States, iaido schools are rare. That makes learning iaido similar to learning how to fish: You have to go where the fish are. A good way to start your search is to inquire at local dojo that teach karate, aikido and other traditional Japanese arts.
2: Obtain the Right Equipment
You should buy at least three swords for your arsenal. The first is a bokken, or wooden practice sword. As a beginner, you’ll use it to hone your techniques. Consider getting two or three bokken because eventually you will have to practice sanbon kumitachi (pre-arranged three-point sparring drills) in which more than a little wood-on-wood contact will occur.
The second type of sword is a dull metal practice weapon. Like the bokken, it’s used for solo practice and partner exercises.
The third type is a samurai sword with a live blade. Although such a weapon may be your prized possession, don’t take it to the dojo unless your instructor tells you to. In the wrong hands, it can be deadly.
As an iaido stylist, you’ll need a three-piece uniform: a hakama (pleated trousers), a keikogi (heavyweight jacket) and an obi (belt). You may also need to purchase a pair of black tabi (traditional split-toed socks).
3: Adopt the Right Attitude
“Many people think that iaido is about attaining a high rank, cutting objects with a sword, and looking cool by carrying a sword and wearing a hakama,” Miki says. “But that is not what the art is all about.”
Rather, iaido is a serious form of training, and you must dedicate yourself to learning etiquette and protocol. You must adopt the formalities of caring for and handling the sword. You should know that even though your primary physical task is to learn how to draw your blade, cut your opponent to shreds and return it to its scabbard, you will likely never have to wield your weapon against an attacker.
4: Learn the Right Basics
True warriors know that the hardest part of combat is not the fighting but the waiting. Likewise, learning the formalities of iaido is tedious and time-consuming. They include learning the proper manner for entering the training hall, the etiquette for beginning and ending class, the way to bow to the sword, the method for picking it up and putting it down, and the technique for attaching it to your belt. The proper methods for cleaning, transporting and storing the sword are also covered.
You’ll also learn how to position your body. Iaido teaches three such positions: shoden, which is the full kneeling position; chuden, in which one knee is up and one is down; and okuden, in which you’re standing. Each position has its history and applications — for example, shoden and chuden could be used if a samurai became injured or crippled in battle.
“The person who is true to his training at this early stage will progress rapidly,” Miki says, “and in time he will have a basis to practice iaido at any training hall in the world.”
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5: Develop the Right Mechanics
In iaido, your ability to draw and cut depends on your ability to properly grip and swing the sword. For the standard one-handed forward grip, wrap your fingers and thumb around the handle. Your grip should be tight from your little finger to your middle finger and thumb but slightly loose at your index finger. It should feel like you’re …