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Iaido: yoga with menaces

I've recently been practising something called iaido (or iai, or iai-jutsu), which I can best describe as a combination of yoga and ballet, with swords. Iaido practice can be traced back to medieval Japan, but was systematised into the form we now have it in the 17th-18th centuries, when the era of the military samurai was drawing to a close. Iaido is often practiced as an adjunct to kendo or other forms of Japanese swordsmanship, but there is little overlap in the techniques and drills that are taught.

Iaido is a series of solo sword drills, carried out against an imaginary opponent. These drills start, and end, in a position of readiness, rather than outright aggression. So, in a sense, they are similar in execution to the kata of other Japanese martial arts, such as karate. Apart from the most distinctive difference -- that you're wielding a big pointy thing -- iaido techniques differ from karate in that they are very short. Even the longest of the well-known techniques have fewer than ten distinct moves, and take less than 30 seconds to perform. This does not make them easy, either to learn or to perform -- the technical precision expected in iaido far outstrips that of karate.

Nearly all the iaido sword drills begin (after certain formalities) with a rapid, attacking draw of the sword. Because the draw is so important, iaido practitioners wear a sword in a scabbard, tucked into a sword belt. Usually the belt is worn with hakama and gi -- more on this later. After the draw there are then a series of attacking and defensive moves, the last of which usually represents the decisive dispatch of the imaginary opponent. Most of the drills conclude with chiburi -- ritually shaking the bloody from the sword -- re-sheathing of the sword, and a return to the starting position.

Done properly, iaido is extremely elegant. There is a combination of slow, fluid movements and rapid, forceful ones. It is this, coupled with the emphasis on precise control of body position, that puts me in mind of ballet. However, the periods of quiet -- almost meditation -- between techniques creates a yoga-like feel as well, as does the fact that many of the techniques involve body positions that most people cannot achieve without training. Well, most people my age, anyway. In reality, iaido isn't like anything else. It certainly isn't like kendo, despite coming from the same roots.

The sword

Because it is a solo practice, iaido can be performed with a sharp sword, a shinken. This is generally inadvisable when training in a small room, for obvious reasons. Shinken are often used for displays, and for tameshigiri -- the practice of cutting real objects (usually rolled-up matting) with the sword.

For day-to-day training, most practitioners use an iaito. This is a katana (longsword) constructed in exactly the same way as a real, sharp sword, but blunted, or partially blunted. Apart from being blunt, the iaito handles exactly the same way as a real sword, and must be maintained in the same way. Because iaito are not (most decisively not) made of stainless steel, they are prone to corrode and must be properly looked after. Stainless steel is frowned on not just because it is inauthentic, but because it tends to shatter, rather than dent, if hit on another object, which is dangerous.

Beginners usually practice with a bokken (wooden sword), not because it is necessarily safer, but because a decent iaito is very expensive. However, the handling of a wooden sword is very different from that of a steel one, even when the weight is the same.

For iaido practice, metal swords are usually fullered -- that is, forged with a grove on each side running the length of the blade. Wooden swords usually replicate this groove, too. Although the fullering has become known as a `blood groove', the purpose of fullering is not -- despite popular misconception -- to `let air into the wound' or `make it easier to pull the sword out of the body'. Forging a groove allows material (and therefore mass) to be removed from the blade in places where it contributes little to stiffness and strength. Consequently, a fullered blade can be lighter for a given strength (for the same reason that a hollow girder is not necessarily less strong than a solid one, despite being much lighter).

But there is another important purpose of the groove in iaido: if the sword cut is made properly -- with the blade held exactly parallel to the direction of motion -- it will make a satisfying whistling sound during the cut. Even a slight twisting of the blade away from the direction of motion suppresses this sound, which therefore serves as immediate feedback of the correct hand position. Nevertheless, there is much more to making a good sword stroke than the angle of the blade, as novices soon find out.

Unlike the medieval European broadsword, the katana was never a kind of semi-sharp bludgeon. Full-plate metal armour appeared relatively late in Japan's military history, and was too expensive for all but the most aristocratic warriors. Consequently, an effective sword was one that could be wielded quickly, and was extremely sharp, so that it would slice through leather.

The katana (and, therefore, the iaito) is only effective when used to cut with a drawing, slicing action. Once the sword `bites', it must be pulled through the wound to cause significant injury -- a hammer blow just doesn't work -- try cutting a slice from a loaf of bread with only downward pressure and you'll see what I mean. A large part of iaido training is intended to master this rather difficult, but fundamental, aspect of sword technique -- how to make an effective sword cut.

Dress and etiquette

Because it is a solo practice, iaido does not require armour or other protective clothing. Most practitioners wear traditional japanese hakama (pleated skirt-trousers) and gi (cotton jacket). The hakama and sword-belt (obi) work as a unit, and are tied together. The scabbard of the sword is held between the loops of the belt, which traditionally encircles the waist three times. The scabbard is tied to the belt with a cord (sageo), which traditionally stopped it being dropped in the heat of battle.

Etiquette is very punctilious in iaido -- much more so than in the unarmed martial arts. There is a tendency for a badly-handled sword to get dropped or tangled during bowing and formalities, so we have a very precise sequence of actions in handling the sword when it is not being worn. One of the opening formalities is to bow to one's sword, which requires it, and its scabbard, to be untied, placed on the floor, then re-inserted in the belt and retied. This is done in a strictly choreographed way as is, to be honest, the whole of iaido training.

Clubs, styles, and lineage

It is not entirely clear how swordsmanship was taught or practiced very early in Japan's military history (prior to the 16th century or thereabouts). Very possibily sword skills were passed from master to apprentice in a form of on-the-job training, as was largely the case in medieval Europe. However, there may have been schools as well, maintained by the military aristocracy. We do know that formalized systems of sword training were established in the 16th century.

We also know that Japan settled into a period of relative internal peace, while still being governed by what amounts essentially to a military dictatorship, between the 17th and 18th centuries. It is reasonable to assume -- although this point is contested -- that there was a move away from swordsmanship as a battlefield technique to swordsmanship as a manifestation of Zen and a way of self improvement at about the same time.

Whenever and however it happened, the practice of solo sword forms became a distinct art from other kinds of sword training, such as paired forms with blunt swords, and fencing in body armour. These were practiced and, of course, are still practiced, in martial arts like kendo. But iaido as we now have it is not merely solo sword training, it is a specific kind of solo sword training, with particular methods, character, and traditions.

We can speculate that other kinds of solo training were extant in Japan but, for one reason or another, did not survive. We can further speculate that the ability to draw a sword rapidly and dispatch a single enemy -- the essence of iaido as it is now practiced -- is an important feature of duelling, rather than a useful battlefield technique. Duelling was still common among the Japanese aristocracy well after internal warfare had largely ceased, and that may explain why iaido survived while other forms of solo training (if there were any) did not.

Arguably, the peacetime applicability of iaido is shown by the fact that many iaido techniques -- and all the elementary ones -- begin from the position of seiza (kneeling). This is not a natural position to adopt in battle, nor is it one in which even the most martial Japanese aristocrat would usually be found wearing a longsword.

The other notorious use of the longsword in peacetime is in the practice of sepukku -- ritual suicide. In its most lurid form, a samurai who wished to make an end of himself would disembowel himself with a shortsword (harakiri), and a close friend would perform kaishaku -- lop his head off from behind with a longsword. There is a distinct (and, to my mind, unsettling) connection between iaido and sepukku, and some clubs still practice the proper performance of kaishaku.

The word iai (i-ai) probably originated in the 17th century, but it seems not to have been widely used until quite recently -- perhaps not until the 20th century. The suffix do (`way') almost certainly dates from the 1940s, when many Japanese martial arts were re-branding themselves as philosophical `ways' in preference to systems of fighting.

Iai is difficult to translate and may, for all we know, have had a completely different meaning in the 17th century. Its modern meaning is something like `being present' or `being in harmony', and it is often explained that this describes the core of the training, which is about awareness and focus (zanshin). However, the symbol we read as i can also mean `to be seated'. So it is at least possible that iai was part of a phrase that meant something like `sword training in a seated position'.

About a half dozen distinct styles of iaido still extant trace their lineage back to founders in the 16th and 17th centuries. These styles are known as ryu or ryu-ha, often translated as `school'. The current head of a particular ryu is known as soke, which means something like `head' or `leader'. If we translate ryu as `school', it isn't unreasonable to translate soke as `headmaster' or `head teacher'.

There has been, and indeed still often is, intense rivalry between the different ryu, although to an outsider (or a novice) they seem very similar. There is considerable overlap between the forms practiced, particularly the more elementary ones, which may anyway have been imported from earlier schools. There are differences in emphasis, and in etiquette; as is usual in the martial arts, adherents of one school are invariably able to explain why their ways of doing things are better than anybody else's.

In the 1960s, the Japanese governing body for kendo (ZNKR) made efforts to promote iaido training among kendo players. This was an attempt to re-establish the martial origin of kendo, which was increasingly seen as a sport. The ZNKR engaged representatives of each of the traditional ryu-ha to create a standardized system of elementary iai forms that kendo players could all practice.

This iai system became known as seitei (`standard'). Like many things created by committee, seitei lacks the richness and breadth of the ryu-ha styles, but this is not seen as a failing by the ZNKR (as I understand it). The objective was to create a standardized adjunct to kendo training, not to establish a new ryu. The official position of the ZNKR is that people interested in an in-depth exploration of iai should join a traditional school and do it properly.

Be that as it may, my experience is that the seitei system is disliked by some traditionalists. That's not because the techniques taught are necessarily bad ones, but because kendo players (it is claimed) doing seitei are just going through the motions, treating it as a dance rather than a way of killing people. Whatever the merits of this argument, it is nevertheless true that clubs in the UK which practice iaido (rather than kendo) are usually associated with one of the ryu-ha: typically Muso Shinden Ryu or Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu.


An iaido session typically starts with formalities (bowing, etc), and may involve the whole class practicing the same techniques at the same time. However, it isn't uncommon for people to practice particular techniques individually, over and over again, under the supervision of an instructor or more advanced student.

Unlike in karate, where even in a class devoted wholely to kata, a particular kata is unlikely to be practiced more than a few times, in iaido it is common to practice the same technique for an hour or more.

Alternatively, students may practice particular moves over and over again -- drawing the sword, striking, chiburi, even the precise forms of moving between standing and seated positions. As I mentioned earlier, it isn't particularly difficult to wield a katana in a way that looks like it may be effective. But to strike properly -- maximizing damage to the enemy whilst minimizing your own effort -- requires thousands and thousands of swordstrokes to master. Some clubs use the suburi -- a wooden sword-like object which carries all its weight at the tip -- to practice striking.

The suburi shows up deficiencies in cutting form very quickly, as well as developing the necessary muscular control. However, develoment of upper-body muscular strength is not necessary, or even particularly desirable, in japanese sword arts. Lower-body strength is a different matter.

All the elementary techniques of the traditional ryu-ha, and most of those of seitei, start in the seiza position. This is kneeling on your lower legs and knees, buttocks on heels, back straight. Rising rapidly from this position is hard on the knees, and practitioners commonly wear knee pads. However, knee pads won't protect your muscles from the stress of rising from seiza to standing, and sinking down again, several hundred times in one session. Iaido is an exceptionally good workout for the leg, gluteal, and lower abdominal muscles.

The reason for the dominance of seiza techniques is not entirely clear. It may be that Japanese aristocrats did actually fight duels starting from seiza (although there is little evidence of this). It may be that a samurai had to be able to defend himself from being attacked whilst kneeling, which was the traditional seating position for formal meals. However, it would have been pratically difficult, as well as a breach of etiquette, to wield a katana in a house -- the walls and ceiling would get in the way.

To my mind, a more convincing explanation is that training this way builds the strength and endurance necessary for effective standing techniques, in the same way that practicing huge long stances in shotokan karate makes short, practical stances more stable. Moreover, it can be argued that making sword cuts whilst kneeling stabilizes the lower body, making it easier to focus on what the upper body is doing. Whichever of these explanations is correct, if any, iaido training stresses the lower body in ways that are very uncomfortable, and remain uncomfortable for a long time. Some, more advanced, techniques start from the tatehiza position -- sitting on one heel, the other knee raised. These are even more challenging and uncomfortable.

What's it all about?

Seen as a martial art, the day-to-day usefulness of iaido has to be questioned. Its sword techniques cannot be extended to use with a stick, as they rely specifically on a razor-sharp edge. Whilst I can imagine being in situations where people mean me harm, I can't imagine ever being in such a situation whilst carrying a longsword. In fact, the military and defensive applications of the sword are pretty limited in rural Hertfordshire these days, as they are in most places.

Like karate, iaido is a good form of strength training, particularly for the lower body. It is also good for developing balance. It isn't particularly aerobic, particularly for a beginner, because it is necessary to practice the techniques quite slowly to get them just right. So it's not much good for general fitness training.

To my mind, iaido works best when regarded as a form of armed yoga. To do iaido properly requires that the practitioner clear his or her mind of all other distractions -- it requires intense concentration and focus, over an extended period of time. If you don't know where your little finger is, it's probably in the wrong place.

Iaido is also historically very interesting. There are very few martial arts currently being taught which have a demonstrable lineage back to medieval times. Many claim to do so, but iaido is one of the few that can substantiate such a claim. If you're practicing Eishin Ryu or Shinden Ryu today, you're practicing the same kind of techniques as the samurai of the 17th century. Personally, I have no particular regard for the samurai, and think they were products of a culture that was ethically and spiritually bankrupt. (There, that should get the hate-mail pouring in. Again.) But it's interesting, all the same.

[ Last updated Tue 22 Feb 19:28:25 GMT 2022 ]