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 holding a pistol with your index finger relaxing on the trigger. Your second hand should adopt a similar grip, and there should be a small space between your hands.
To develop a proper swing, Miki says, you must start with the horizontal cut. He teaches a three-step process that works in unison with pulling the sword from its scabbard. The sword is drawn slowly for the first one-third of the swing, then for the next third your arm and shoulder add torque. The final third is fastest, with speed being generated by a quick flexion of your wrist.
This process is important because it helps you make an effective cut while allowing you to maintain control of your weapon.
6: Learn the Right Way to Cut
Every time an experienced iaido practitioner draws his sword, he thinks of ichigeki hissatsu, or “a single cut must kill.” He knows that the sword is primarily an offensive weapon and that the cuts are designed to inflict serious injury.
The primary movement, which is considered by many to be the lifeblood of the art, is the horizontal cut. Others include the downward cut and diagonal cut. Reverse-grip techniques include the upward cut, horizontal cut and diagonal cut.
Cutting always ends with chiburi, a movement intended to shake blood off the sword. “There are two types of chiburi,” Miki says. “The first is a wide swinging motion where the sword is stopped abruptly. In the second, the sword is at the side of the body, and a quick wrist snap shoots the blood off. When the iaido student is skillful enough with the basics and can execute proper vertical and horizontal cuts and chiburi, he will be ready to learn kata.”
7: Perform the Right Kata
A kata is a formal exercise in which you perform a set of movements against an imaginary opponent. Each kata emphasizes certain techniques and principles used to defeat different opponents in different situations.
“With iaido kata, there are no frills and no fancy stuff,” Miki says. “There are 11 kata from the kneeling position, 10 kata from the one-knee-up position and 10 kata from the standing position. There are several more kata that are done in a combination of kneeling, sitting and standing positions. They were made by experts who composed them by drawing from their actual fighting experience and their many years of training.
“The first kata taught in iaido is my favorite because it has all the contents necessary to bring forth the essence of kata training,” Miki says. It proceeds like this: From the kneeling position, you rise to the one-knee-up position, draw your sword and execute a one-handed horizontal cut. You then perform a two-handed downward cut and stand to execute the chiburi. Finally, you sheathe your sword.
Most iaido kata follow a similar format.
8: Find the Right Partner
Partner training allows you to progress with a greater understanding of the kata you’ve learned. It helps you develop proper distance, positioning and movement. It also helps you learn how to apply pressure to control your opponent.
Partner training with two opponents is invaluable as you strive to develop correct timing and “eye intensity.” Eye intensity refers to focus during combat. Miki advises you to look at your opponents as a whole, a complete object. Don’t stare at a certain spot such as the chest or eyes.
Miki teaches two-man kata using the bokken because the clashing of swords is often too fast and furious to risk using metal blades. If dull metal swords are used, the pace must be slowed noticeably. Although the movements are pre-arranged, reflexes can still be developed, and you can learn how to cover openings as you adapt to the movements of a living person.
Iaido helps you improve your fitness level while you learn sword-fighting tactics and strategy. It also teaches you skill and coordination with the blade. Before long, you’ll walk with a quiet inner strength and confidence, and you’ll become so mindful, observant and aware that troublemakers will start avoiding you.
You’ll also gain a true understanding of bushido (way of the warrior), which can help you conduct yourself in a positive, ethical and virtuous way. That is the essence of iaido and what being a samurai swordsman is all about.
About the author: Floyd Burk is a San Diego-based karate black belt with more than 40 years of experience in the martial arts. He is also senior adviser to Independent Karate Schools of America.
(Photos by Floyd Burk)