When it comes to the Japanese way of the sword, it’s fair to say there’s more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, external movements play a major role in drawing a blade and effecting a cut, but the internal skeletal and muscular mechanisms are every bit as important.
Often called the “inner principles” of movement, they have four main components.
The primary element of action is breathing. The flow of air into and out of your body is directly connected to how smoothly you flow from movement to movement and how polished you look.
Your inhalations and exhalations should be calm, smooth and full. It’s essential to observe the transition from moving air in to moving air out. If you lack proper muscle control, it will be noticeable to an opponent who’s looking for an opening to attack or to a judge who’s grading you as you cut. Beginners tend to gasp for or gulp in air because of nervousness or overextended action.
It takes time and effort to cultivate the ability to stay well oxygenated. Try repetition drills that raise your aerobic levels and stationary meditation that calms and centers you.
2 Footwork Places Stance
Don’t stand flatfooted with your feet relaxed. The bones of your feet can move a considerable distance within the skin that encases them. Their musculature must exert firmness to take up that slack. Use your muscles to anchor yourself to the surface you’re standing on. Grip it with your toes and brace yourself as if you’re resisting a strong wind.
You should allow your heels to settle onto the surface so they provide a direct connection from the bones in your legs and hips to the ground. Then, when you drive from your heels, you can move with minimal delay.
Imagine a wild animal, coiled and ready to spring into action. It’s poised, with its breath flowing in and out, muscles ready to strike. Use your breathing to relax and energize your muscles and to keep them fresh. Release the tension in your body to avoid stiffness and cramps.
3 Stance Supports Posture
Your posture should provide balance for your intended direction. Feed it too much, and you telegraph your intentions. Give it too much angle, and you lose your balance point. Give it too little, and you stress your structure and fatigue your muscles more quickly.
Don’t let contracting muscles shrink you. Strive for height in your posture. Use the length of your arms and legs to enhance your stature. Your hips and core are the connection and energy-transfer point for generating power and moving it through your swing.
Carry firmness in your hips, the small of your back, your buttocks and your tailbone area, but it doesn’t stop there. That firmness must wrap all the way around and up through your pelvic girdle, where it contains your energy. With practice, you can create energy and hold it in place before spreading it throughout your body.
4 Posture Supports Swing
Strive to ground your structure from the waist down and elongate it from your torso to the base of your skull. This may sound contradictory, but the balance of power and unified articulation of these areas depends on your inner awareness. That connection and the energy of your grounded structure are transferred to your shoulders during the downward swing. Your shoulders and the rest of your being must “cut down” through the target.
You should strive for technical clarity in sword action. Effective cutting technique doesn’t require a big demonstration. Time and practice will refine the inner principles until they’re invisible. In ancient times, they had to be, for when two samurai dueled, a stiff or cumbersome action was all that was needed to telegraph a man’s intention and allow his foe to end his life.
(Photos by Rick Hustead)