Kendo — holding the fire in your belly

Kendo is one of those wonderful paradoxes.  There is, on balance, not a large number of techniques to learn, especially when compared with other martial arts. However, getting those things right takes an enormous amount of time, patience, frustration, and dedication to perfect.

I wanted to write something this month that talked a little bit about keeping the belly stoked, as a metaphor for both the need to maintain diligence through the inevitable frustration, and something I have been working on as part of my own physical practice. While I'm currently focussed here on kendo, much of what is said here can be applied to any martial art.

First to the physical. One of the big challenges in kendo is the attempt to develop speed and power without becoming tense. This is a widely acknowledged difficulty for people starting kendo, but is also something that kendoka of middling experience and ability (up to and including 3rd dan) have to continue struggling with. Psychological pressure will often manifest itself as physical tension — grips tighten, shoulders rise, heads tilts, posture breaks. Often, the effect of this is to start punching or chopping with the shinai, rather than to replicate the well practised swinging arc during suburi waza.

A common problem, and one that I continue to chip away at, is a disconnection that happens above and below the waist. It might sound odd, but cutting in kendo—well doing anything in the martial arts— requires you to use your belly. Something that instructors (including myself when in that role) will say time and time again is to connect with your core: Move from your belly, not your shoulders. But students attempting to enact that advice in their physical practice (including myself when in that role) continue to replicate the same incorrect movement patterns, rushing in an attempt to "do" rather than settle into a mindset of "doing it right". Often it is because it is hard to get in touch with what "right" is.

So a few of self check questions to evaluate every cut that you make:

  • Are you starting from a good posture and grip (do you know what a good posture ought to feel like)?
  • Are your hands, arms and shoulders relaxed both in a static kamae and as you swing?
  • Are your hips starting square to tekki? No really — are you pushing through with your left hip sufficiently to ensure you are properly straight on target, and your feet perpendicular to your hips? This is often harder to accomplish than it sounds.
  • Can you feel the tension in your belly that helps to connect the lower and upper half?

I find that when I do properly engage my core, my belly feels like it is burning; a steam boiler ready to power forward motion. It can be exhausting, but when you get it right, you cut straight, true and quickly.

The second use of "fire in the belly" I am currently reflecting on is linked to sustaining the mindset to fully commit to doing the right thing •every•single•time•. In this, there are two barriers that need to be overcome. The first is that, as mentioned, the whole process can be physically and mentally exhausting. Until it becomes ingrained and you can start to develop functional efficiency, it is hard work. Doing it incorrectly seems far more natural, much easier, and against a partner of similar or lesser ability, it can become easy to kid yourself that you are doing it properly.

The second barrier is the difficulty in developing the desire and capacity for critical self observation. Isaacs sensei from Brisbane's Kenshinkai recently talked about the need to be systematic and consistent with your own reflections on practice, especially when you do not have someone critically observing and nudging you in the right direction. Even in cases where you have access to continuous external feedback, unless you have a desire to respond to that and improve, you will be essentially flying blind to your own poor habits, save for that niggling doubt that slowly erodes your motivation to keep going, wondering why you are finding it so hard t improve.

I would contend that the reason why so many people plateau and eventually drift away from the martial arts is down to the fuel they uses to stoke that belly. If you are driven by ego-related factors— kudos for winning, being seen as hard/successful/worthy— you will eventually run out of reasons to keep improving, or indeed to show up to training at all. There is always a finite amount of that fuel, and it can be stolen from you through defeat, or injury, or being too comfortable in your relative ability.

A sustainable alternative source to stoke that other fire is desire to continue holding yourself to account, be present in every action you take, and commit to a continuous process of self criticism and self improvement. Not because it says anything about yourself other than you are determined to doing the right thing. It is about the perfection of technique and your presence in a moment. However, that take patience and planning. Some things to try include:

  • Keep a training journal to record not only techniques and choreography, but to also evaluate how you psychologically engaged with training.
  • Seek out the most difficult people to train with. Not only those that are the the most accomplished, but also those that have the least experience. Teaching is always learning, and consciously taking on the motodachi role will help to develop your own sensitivity and understanding of your practice.
  • Take opportunities to observe the practice of others. Critically engaging with what you see will also provide valuable insights.

In doing this, you can start to change your focus from the pursuit of "doing" the right thing, to "embodying" the right thing,