“Practice makes perfect”. Or you could more accurately describe it with “Practice makes permanent”. The importance of practice is universally acknowledged within most disciplines particularly with the martial. Kendo, as it falls into that category, is no different — if you suck at something your sensei will usually give you the default reply “More practice!”.
But what then is “practice”? Whenever we talk about practice we usually refer to a kendo class. More specifically we associate practice to the actual application of waza, or the doing of kihon. This is by all means correct as it is the stuff where we actually do something that mostly (qualifier) matters in kendo. There isn’t a YouTube channel for people masterfully doing sonkyou in magnificent slow motion or one showcasing the intensity of kendoka standing in line waiting for their turn — it’s the Ippon Omnibus that invades your feed for a reason. However I feel that there is too much focus on the “doing” and not enough on the spaces in between the “doing”. Most people fail to realize that it is actually how you use these spaces that dictate and allow you to maximize your opportunities when action needs to be taken.
MKC’s Kosuge sensei in sonkyou for the start of jigeiko while Villaroya waits for his turn. Photo of Manila Kendo Club by RyanBondoc.com.
Let’s consider a normal weekday practice for the Manila Kendo Club. For simplicity’s sake let’s not take into account preparation time, discussions, and the varying times it takes to execute the different waza and drills and only consider it from a human resource perspective. Let us assume the normal day case where we usually have 3 people lined up for each motodachi. Given a single line of 4 people, unless you are (un)fortunately the motodachi or the senior at the end of the line, you will only be doing things a quarter of the time in each drill. How would you then utilize your ¾ of “not doing” to make full use of your ¼ of “doing”?
Kendo is all about giving it your all. Ki-ken-tai-ichi. Sutemi. These terms define the quality that is expected of you in each of your strikes. This, along with the limited opportunity that you have to perform the instructed drill, means that it is your ability to switch on your focus and engagement fully that allows you to maximize your turn. However, maintaining this high level of performance throughout the whole session is a tall order (task for alliteration!) to ask. Each drill consumes your mental capacity, fatigue will set in, and the quality of your strikes will start to diminish. It is then important to not just gain the ability to engage yourself fully, but also to disengage yourself proactively in the same capacity. It is this undulating rhythm of intense stress and complete release that allows high level performers to sustain excellence in a prolonged period of time. You can feel this rhythm in the macro of breaks between sessions, in your turn performing a drill and waiting in line, to even the micro of breaths taken in between stepping out and into your maai.
The small breaths taken in between stepping out and into your maai allow you disengage yourself proactively to maintain a high level of performance. Photo of Manila Kendo Club by RyanBondoc.com.
So how you do you actively recover? I suggest imagining fluffy bears riding dancing rainbow unicorns as they canter into the sunrise (not judging). Or if that turns out to be too difficult for you, we can settle for a more physical metaphor — breathing. Breathing is very much connected to your heart rate and consequently your levels of stress. Controlling your breathing then has a direct impact in your ability to recover and return to baseline. There are many techniques to achieve this, but the simplest one that I make use of are slow deep breaths. Just deep and slow breaths, fully taken and exhaled for at least twice as long as it took you to inhale. Prioritize your recovery before anything else — you can check out your sempai’s debana men later once you’re marginally 100%. This might take 5 good repetitions at the start. But the better you get at shutting everything out and releasing fully, the easier and faster it will take you to recover. And once you’re back and intact it’s time to get back into the grind and do it all over again.
Controlling your breathing has a direct impact in your ability to recover and return to baseline. Photo of Manila Kendo Club by RyanBondoc.com.
When performing drills, most people think that their turn starts the moment the person in front of them finishes. They casually step forward and as they bow ready their shinai at the hip, only then do they begin to focus and internalize quality. In most cases their first strike is experimental — their body not yet fully prepared and setup to perform. Something usually feels off or unexpected, from which you adjust accordingly, remembering and understanding the mechanics more clearly for your second turn. It’s mostly there, but there’s a little bit of tweaking necessary to remove some friction in your flow. And as finish your third try, senses heightened and fully engaged as you step into your formula for “best”, you are left with only one more turn to perform and internalize this level of quality. And as soon as you have finally executed your task to your satisfaction, it is over. In a set routine of 4 strikes, the only one that mattered during this run was the last one, with the rest as necessary preparations and adjustments taken unnecessarily during the drill and not before.
Of course this is an exaggerated example (for dramatic flourish and literary impact). However it is a common occurrence, albeit in varying degrees, that wastes both your time and the motodachi’s to the detriment of both. The best way to maximize your opportunities to improve is to eliminate your preparation times during practice and shift most of it beforehand.
Start your preparation when the person in front of you starts. Project yourself into that turn, flex and loosen up the muscles you need for your posture. Adjust the weight on your feet, and the strength in your core to what a good kamae feels for you. Release the tension and in that last breath as the one ahead of you finishes, feel your focus rise and sharpen, your objective clear and defined, and step in with purpose to begin your turn. And by beginning with internalized quality, it will compound through repetition and permeate throughout your performance.
Flex and loosen up your muscles, then sharpen your focus as you begin your turn. Photo of Manila Kendo Club by RyanBondoc.com.
The universe is largely characterized by its vastness. There is a reason why we call it Space (the final frontier). But recent discoveries by astrologists found that the space in space isn’t just the empty void that we thought it was. Something actually fills this perceived void and in contrast to its initial perception, is the one that actually defines the structure of the universe. Throughout its vast web encompassing the entirety of the universe, where this substance is not present is where the observable miracles of our reality exists. Is it actually this “emptiness” that defined existence, not the other way around.
And as I stubbornly insist in astrosciencing the sh*….significance of spaces in our daily kendo routines, I hope its importance does not escape your attention as you get drawn into the excitement of practice. It is the silence between notes that creates music. It is the space between stars that allowed them to burst into existence. And it is equally the few slow breaths, deeply taken, that gives rise to the excellence that defines beautiful kendo.