Friday, 30 December 2011

Holiday Breaks in the Martial Arts

The end of the year is always a great excuse to celebrate with friends and family. In the martial arts, it's a chance to show your instructors and fellow students what you've learned in the past 12 months and, at the same time, exposing what you need to work on in the next twelve.

We had three different celebrations this December, and unfortunately, had to miss out on a fourth due to scheduling conflicts.
  1. Mu Mon Kai (Iaido) - last class of the year - Consisted of regular practice, a taikai, a special demonstration, gift giving, annual club elections, and celebration dinner
  2. Sei Kyu Kai (Kyudo) - Noshakai - Consisted of a taikai, a prize shooting, nosha, and celebration dinner
  3. AYC (Iaido) - Toshi Koshi Keiko - Consisted of 100+ kata practice, and celebration dinner
I will go into more detail later due to a lack of pictures at this time. This won't be a problem anymore as my honey bought me a new iPhone 4S with 8MP camera! =D Yay! Can't wait to use it at the next event. ^_^

The end of the year is also a great excuse to let yourself go. Facilities close, classes are cancelled, and numerous social gatherings, loaded floor to ceiling with delicious foods. 

Last weekend was the first time in a while of having no scheduled practice, and it felt weird.  Averaging five days of martial arts training a week, with one rest day, and one for recreation (basketball), it's not often that I get two straight days of blank space to fill. I didn't feel relieved, I felt unproductive. If you feel the same way too, then you might also have a case of MAIAWOL.

It is often taken as cliche or overly romantic when one states that the Martial Arts Is A Way Of Life, but really, there's nothing mystical about it. To me, there is nothing more relaxing and tiring, easy and difficult, esteem boosting and ego smashing, than the Martial Arts. And as a result, nothing feels more life-affirming than the opportunity to train and interact with your dojomates.

So now, at the end of the 2011, the only thing I feel is excitement for 2012. A new year to celebrate what we've achieved. A new year to continue facing the unknown with confidence in myself and the support of those around me; and a new year to seek out challenges and opportunities to grow and contribute to the community.

P.S. I feel so fat right now.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Funday Monday! Series #3-9 Rock Wave

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays Everyone!

Let's celebrate the season with our final kata in the Gan-ryu series, Counters to Eishin-Ryu.


Wednesday, 21 December 2011

MMKDG - Session #8 A POV on the Progression of Martial Arts Training

Date: Sunday, December 11 starting at 11:45am in the Heritage Lounge at the JCCC
Participants (4): P. Schramek [5D], M. Suen [3D], P. Suen [3D]
Topic(s): A Point of View on the Progression of Martial Arts Training

Recently in Kung Fu class, we were taught how each movement should transition from one to the next, flowing in such a way that the energy created previously, is not wasted.  Physical laws of gravity and momentum are harnessed by the body to maximize power with minimal effort.  This is concept is more difficult to comprehend and implement in Iaido due to the nature of the art. Staying low to the ground and moving slowly, do not lend well to the forces we're describing, however, the mindset is the key. It may seem counter-intuitive, but in order to maximize your control and power, you must first lose control and relax. Only then, will your body be free to act when you mind commands.

Take your typical walking kata in Iaido. When is your intention set? Are you attacking at the first step or just going leisurely on your way? What if an enemy attacks you in the middle of a step, how can you react? While your body may be flowing from one movement to the next, your mind must be flexible enough to flow and focus when necessary.  It important that your mind is calm and not be concerned with worry, or fear, for these negative emotions fragment your mind and your body so that they are unable to act as one.

Have you ever noticed that everything you becomes easier when you are in a good state of mind? When you are calm and happy, relaxed and malleable, your actions and intentions will flow naturally to a positive outcome.

How do you get to this state through martial arts training?
  1. Train in the physical. Balance. Strength. Flexibility.
  2. Train in the mental. Balance. Strength. Flexibility.
It is not an accident that I chose these descriptors for both types of training, but progression is the key. 

What is the path and how do I know when I've made an achievement?

Schramek-sensei noted that he's often most of the way through a current grade before he realizes that his level has reached it. (i.e. Only when he was close to grading for Godan, did he feel he had finally reached an adequate level to be considered a Yondan).

This awareness has also been described as a quality that, only those that have achieved a certain level will be able to see what others cannot see. Or in other words: "the more I know, the more I realize how little I know"

So, while the training will allow you to perceive the path, it is your mindset that will determine how you travel down it. (see reference to

Eventually, everyone reaches a state where they must make a choice. To see what they are lacking and to challenge themselves to become better.  However, if you let your mind get trapped, or stuck, you won't be able to see your choices. Hence, you must be flexible.

Meditation allows this. It allows you to see your own demons or traumas, and gives you the choice to overcome them. To see beyond what is in front of you to what is all around you. To be content with oneself and celebrate it as a group.

One of Japan's most famous swordsmen, Miyamoto Musashi, had achieved such a level. He no longer needed to compete to prove himself. He started learning from his friend Takuan Soho about meditation, and eventually gave up fighting, both physically and mentally.

Now I'm not saying meditation is the natural progression from martial arts training. In fact, I believe they are one and the same, and must be treated the same if one is to find the ultimate benefit.  Meditation is not only training of the mind, and Martial Arts is not only training of the body. Each person must choose their own vehicle. One that aligns with their own values, personality, and character to take them along the path.

Where do we begin?

Both meditation and martial arts start with physical training. Whether through sitting, running, breathing or jumping, one must forge the body to open up the mind. It is like those days of doing kata after kata, until your muscles ache and your joints are screaming out for relief. Your body will be forced to release the excess strain.

Similarly, when you put your full self into your training, your mind must push all extraneous thoughts and worries away. It is like you are filling it up with so much, that there is no room for anything else.

You must also try looking through different perspectives and try to understand how you are different. When interacting with people, a lot comes through subconsciously. The training will help you become aware of this. Sometimes this doesn't come easy. Sometimes you might have to try to verbalize what you think and allow your subconscious thoughts to bubble to the surface. 

How do I know what I think, until I see what I say?

In Meditation it is called "Journaling". In Iaido, it is called the "Mu Mon Kai Discussion Group (MMKDG)".  =)

Monday, 19 December 2011

Funday Monday! Series #3-8 Cascading Waterfall

Up until now, the Gan had been dispatching some of the best samurai in Japan with pure skill. His strength, speed, and a mysterious ability to adapt to the most un-winnable situations has helped him prevail through some harrowing battles. 

With only a paltry number of members remaining in the expedition, they could no longer rely on technique alone to win the day. Their strategy was to use Takiotoshi to lure him in and win with deception.

After all we have seen, there couldn't be more than just physical ability behind every Gan victory, right? Could there also be a deep, calculating mind behind each action?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Seikyu Kai - Gingerbread Kyudojo

The JCCC hosted their Winter Family Festival this year on Saturday, December 11. The annual highlight was a Gingerbread House Decorating Contest. Staff, volunteers, and members were given the opportunity to create teams to represent their disciplines at the JCCC.

Lead by a few enterprising individuals, the JCCC Kyudo Club (Seikyu Kai) jumped at the chance to flex their creative muscles. Members of our team split various duties including purchasing materials, baking, molding, assembling, transporting, and of course, accepting our prize. =P

It was decided early on that the best way to represent our club was to create a gingerbread kyudojo with gingerbread archers. Over the course of two weeks, preparations were made until finally, it was construction day. With the raw materials completed, the team ran over the planned layout.

Assembly required several steps which included the building of a frame, modelling the small pieces, and final decoration.  The team worked meticulously for over 3 hours, eventually coming up with a prize worthy arrangement.

With the final product settling in place, the construction team were joined by some "taste-testers".

Our dojo reporters, Hanna and Raymond, provided an in-depth look at the completed project.

The next day was very exciting. The festival was scheduled to run from noon to 4pm, so we wanted to get our submission into the display area early enough for all participants to see and judge. 

Our Iaido class finished promptly at 3pm and we made our way to Kobayashi Hall. The ballots were already being counted, but luckily we were able to make our contributions! Three more votes for Seikyu Kai! =D

We crossed our fingers as the results were being announced and felt relieved and excited when the fourth, fifth , and sixth place competitors were called up on stage. Even with thirteen other entrants, we felt confident that we'd manage a spot in the top 3. And then our number was called! Third Place! An excellent result for our first time in the competition. 

Of course, now that we know who we're up against, we know how to beat them. >:)

Go Seikyu Kai!

Friday, 9 December 2011

2011 Eastern Canada - Fall Iaido Grading

Toronto's last few days of above seasonal temperatures ended rather abruptly on a Saturday morning in early December. While it is difficult to prove any correlation between a bitter, chilly day and an Iaido grading, the historical evidence just can't be ignored.

The parking lot at the Etobicoke Olympium was once again jam packed with family cars and minivans, a clear indication that the annual youth swimming competitions were in full swing. I watched enviously as the lucky few, who were able to find space in the small, front parking lot, made their way casually to the looming black building. The rest of us drove an extra 200 meters towards the stadium, where the large lot was quickly filling up.

Michael and I hastily made our way across the field, inside, and down the stairs to meet up with Ohmi-sensei and Hanna. Volunteers from the Etobicoke and Hayakawa Iaido clubs were already registering participants, and were just about to start setting up the dojo when we arrived. Grabbing some masking tape and a few more eager helpers, we proceeded to tie up all the divider curtains and rolled up the floor mats to a non-intruding corner.  Chairs and tables would be moved onto the floor later for judges and spectators.

The day would start with a seminar from 9am to noon, and was an ideal way to warm up and forget about the crisp temperature outside. As CKF's Iaido Chief Examiner, Ohmi-sensei proceeded to divided the participants into ranks and assigned two instructors to those groups:

1. Mudan Group - Carole Galligan-sensei (6 Dan), Ed Chart-sensei (5 Dan)
2. Ikkyu Group - David Green-sensei (Renshi 6 Dan), Peter Schramek-sensei (5 Dan)
3. Shodan Group - Eric Tribe-sensei (Renshi 6 Dan), Enore Gardonio-sensei (5 Dan)
4. Nidan Group - Stephen Cruise-sensei (Renshi 7 Dan), Takeshi Kimeda-sensei (Renshi 6 Dan)
5. Sandan+ Group - Kim Taylor-sensei (Renshi 7 Dan), Jim Wilson (4 Dan)

Participants worked hard on reviewing the qualifications for the rank they would be challenging and received excellent advice from their group's respective instructors.

Michael and I, while not grading this year, were asked by Ohmi-sensei to be on the floor, so we settled in behind the Sandan+ group to take in as much as we could. As the grading was only hours away, Taylor-sensei made sure to focus his advice on only the key elements for each rank.    He encouraged each person to really "show the difference between Koryu and Seitei" and "demonstrate their understanding of the timing and feeling of each kata". Interesting points to think about for our upcoming exam next December.

We broke for lunch at 12pm and the judges were selected and assigned to divisions. All together, 10 Iaido sensei performed judging duties this day:

From Mu Mon Kai, Toronto - Ohmi-, Galligan-, Gardonio-, and Schramek-sensei
From Etobicoke - Cruise-sensei
From Guelph - Taylor-sensei
From Toronto - Kimeda-sensei
From Ottawa - Green-, and Chart-sensei
From Montreal - Miller-sensei

Getting Ready


Graders from MMK and Affiilates performed admirably, earning a total of 25 passes out of 29, including two 4 Dan.

Breakdown as follows:
  • AYC -1/1 successful, 1 x nidan
  • Kenshokan - 12/13 successful.  3 x ikkyu, 5 x shodan, 4 x nidan. 
  • Mu Mon Kai  - 8/10 successful, 3 x ikkyu, 3 x shodan, 1 x nidan, 1 x yondan
  • Brock - 1/1 successful, 1 x ikkyu
  • Rochester - 3/4 successful. 1 x ikkyu, 1 x shodan, 1 x yondan.

It gives us immense pride to see Kenshokan leading the way. As a long time martial arts instructor, Wilson-sensei has been able to cultivate a strong Iaido presence in the small city of Peterborough, Ontario.  In just over two years, the level of students have been most impressive, and we've no doubt this trend will continue into the future. 

Tribe-, Kimeda-, Cruise-, Ohmi-,Taylor-, and Galligan-sensei

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Right Place, Right Time, Right Mind - part 1

To train properly in a martial art you need three things:
  1. The right instructor
  2. The right location
  3. The willingness to learn
But is that really three things, or is it just one?  There are good instructors and good dojos all over the place. They could be down the street, or they could be half-way across the country. The important thing is that they exist.

So let's look at #3. Is this really a Yes or No question or, in fact, a scale from Unwilling to Willing? The further down the scale to willing, the more likely you'll go out of your way to make the training possible.

It's your choice. An article written by Dave Lowry and found on provides an amusing and practical example of this:

So which one, of the many alternatives you have in life, would you choose? Do you relax and play video games, or do you go to the dojo? Do you try some other hobbies, or do you go to the dojo?

The benefits of the martial arts come from dedication and commitment. And it's not just showing up in class. It's working hard for every minute and every second. It's thinking hard about what you are doing and how you can improve. It's being there for your kohai and providing guidance. It's, in one word, a Responsibility. And until you are an instructor, that responsibility is solely to yourself. By not making it to the dojo, who are you really cheating?  

Now bring that mindset, that effort into your everyday life. Your work, your family, your self-growth. Work harder to become a better person:
  • Be committed and dedicated to all things you do (as you would in your training)
  • Be reliable to your family, friends, and colleagues (as you would with your dojo)
  • Be empathetic of other people's situations (as you would with your kohai or students)
  • Be supportive of other people's opinions (as you would with your dojomates)
This is how the martial arts make people better. 

    Monday, 5 December 2011

    Funday Monday! Series #3-7 Sword from the Sky

    It was not longer an trip for exploration, but a fight for survival. The Emperor's best samurai were being taken down one-by-one at the sword of the one man they were searching for. 

    There was no running. The dense forests were like a maze that constantly changes, as if the trees themselves, were moving at the will of the master of this land. Attempts to lay markers, to indicate paths previously taken, quickly and mysteriously disappeared into thin air.

    There was no hiding. Whether climbing into the thick foliage of the thousand year old trees, or burrowing deep into the soft soil, the expedition crew were violently forced out of their camping grounds by the fierce creatures of the forest.

    And so it came down to another encounter. Again, The Gan did not carry a sword. Experience would now tell us that this would not matter. It would be fatal to underestimate the situation. Unfortunately, the brave soldier sitting across from him would not have the opportunity to learn from this mistake. 

    Thursday, 1 December 2011

    MMKDG - Session #7 In the presence of masters

    Date: Sunday, November 27 starting at 11:45am in the Heritage Lounge at the JCCC
    Participants (4): P. Schramek [5D], M. Suen [3D], P. Suen [3D], Yunle [2K]
    Topic(s): In the presence of masters

    It's interesting how a change in scenery can often open your eyes to things that were always right in front of you. Over the course of our discussions, we've inferred multiple times how each individual is different. They have different body types, different perspectives, different personalities, and a multitude of other peculiarities that make a person unique. With this understanding, it's not surprising to see, that with a greater variety of experiences, the more one can learn.

    Michael, Hanna, and I have had the privilege to train with a variety of Iaidoka in Canada, the United States and Japan, and we've only begun to scratch the surface. With over 20 years in Iaido, Schramek-sensei was able to provide us a story of his own. It's unfortunate that I can only paraphrase a story that brought such evocative imagery of a time and place related so closely with our lineage.

    It was over twenty years ago when a group of us, lead by Nakamura-sensei, made a trip to Japan to practice Iaido under Yamashibu-sensei (It wasn't clear which brother). My first impression of the man was how small he was, but he had such a bright demeanor. He was always smiling. Because of his size, his cuts looked amazingly big. It was!  

    You should know that, at this time, Nakamura-sensei was very new to Iaido as well. We were all really experiencing this martial art for the first time, and until this trip, had not known what real Iai looked like. We didn't even know what Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu (our koryu) was, as our brief training was in Seitei only. Although from the same lineage as us, Yamashibu-sensei's MJER wasn't all that similar. Due to his large sword and small body, he had to angle when drawing or sheathing. (Our dojo teaches MJER with Nukitsuke and Noto as straight as possible towards the opponent)

    Yamashibu-sensei would later take us to Ohara to visit Haruna-sensei, a person who defined another level of mastery in Iaido. Haruna-sensei was great because he was able to show his Iai in a way that you just know is right. Like perfection. Now, obviously, no one can attain perfection, but when you watched him demonstrate, it just felt complete. Even my wife, who knew very little about Iaido, could see his balance and control. He was able to perform the optimal movements for his body.

    The training was arduous, but rewarding. There was very little talking, even from the Sensei. Occasional corrections were given, but mostly the influence came from showing us. When space was limited, we would take shifts on the floor. It was quite different than how the seminars in North American when the Sensei visit from Japan. Due to their limited time with us, they try to cram as much information as possible for you to work on during the year. The focus is on the group, rather than the individual. 

    Iaido has changed so much in the last 20 years.  With each new person reaching the highest level of the art, they add their own interpretations and views, but all within the framework of the basics. In the end, there is always a best way to cut, a best way to walk.  That is why is it so important to master the basics. 

    What are the benefits of training with the masters?

    I remember a description Stephen Cruise-sensei once told us about how he trained in Japan, as well as how he runs his class. The open class, free practice setting, where the dojo is training as a whole, creates a shared environment. Although you are training on your own, your peripheral senses take in the sights, sounds, and energy of the rest of the class. There is a connection between everyone in the dojo, working hard, building on each other's accomplishments. So imagine what it's like to build on the abilities of the best in the business.

    How do we learn?
    1. Words - Low effectiveness due to the need for multiple interpretations. The Sensei must first interpret their actions/knowledge into words. Then they must speak those words. As you listen, you must interpret their words so that you may understand. At this point, you may already be far off course
    2. Watch & Repeat - By watching your Sensei demonstrate, it's like an imprint in your mind that fades quickly. Before that happens though, you feel like you're doing their Iai. Like a ghost/spirit helping guide your movements. Although it is still not optimal as your mind is busy recalling the performance and your personal style takes over.
    3. Working simultaneously - Like a puppet letting your Sensei draw you around. Training together allows your mind to be free to examine and think what, how and why you are doing certain movements. In a sense, you become connected like the example of Cruise-sensei's dojo.
    How can/does this work?

    The human brain takes in more than you consciously realizes. When you allow it to be free and not let it become rigid and stranded on specifics, it will teach itself the optimal way to act. That is why it is important to trust in your proficiency of basics. Allow your body to figure things out within the framework of the basics.

    An example of this: A hypnotist asks his audience to try to recall how many lamp posts they passed on the way to the theatre. No one could remember. But when put into a trance, each and everyone of them was able to recall the exact amount. You see, the brain might not have consciously recorded this information, but the information is there, nonetheless.

    Professional athletes use a similar technique. Before each competition, they spend time thinking about what they are doing. Swimmers doing strokes. Sprinters doing a starts. All of this, in an attempt to re-ignite the pathways in their brain that they've experienced and reaffirming them so that when the time comes, it just happens. Ultimately, you are at your best when you're not thinking about what you're doing. Conscious thought is slow.

    An example of this: A specific point for the Seitei kata #3 Uke nagashi requires your foot to be placed along a line. Initially students would have to keep checking and correcting, until naturally their foot is placed in right place for maximum balance (see MMKDG #6) and power.

    However, each person arrives at this point differently. We all learn differently. As we examined in the MMKDG #4 Analysis of Hachidans, we all do things differently. You must continue practicing until you become less dependent on instruction (note, not independent), and more dependent on self-realization, because only you know how you feel. Take all the words and just do it. Within your understanding. Within your body capacity.

    What about teaching?

    Schramek-sensei's mindset is: If a person is supposed to be doing something horizontally, why is he not? What is he thinking? What part of his body is the cause?

    This approach is about looking for the cause and fixing it from the basics, rather than fixing the effect which may not improve the overall foundation.

    I've experienced this personally with Japanese Sensei in Canada and Japan. Each correction they gave improved my ability and understanding of all kata, whether it be Seitei or Koryu. It improved not only my overall Iai, but even outside of Iai, in the case of body posture, breathing, balance, power. These types of influences can be worked on for years on end. So take advantage of your time with the masters and then come tell us your stories.