Iaido and the Beginners Mind.
Shoshin – Beginners Mind. Most traditional Okinawan and Japanese martial arts practitioners are extremely familiar with this term. For me, this term came springing to life in vivid color when I began the study of Mugai-Ryu Iaido a little over a year ago. As a lifelong karate practitioner, I’ve cross-trained in many martial arts over the past three decades, and have been able to adapt fairly easily.
Enter: The Sword. I found very quickly that the principles of power, speed, and movement do not transfer easily from karate to iaido. It was frustrating, but I’ve always been stubborn, so I stuck with it, accepted corrections, and continued training and practicing. What draws me to Iaido is nearly the polar opposite of what drew me to Judo, Kung Fu, and Karate. I began training in high school for self-protection, and continued into adulthood. I’ve learned more than I ever imagined, and have used my skills on countless occasions in the line of duty. I started like everyone does – tying on a white belt and standing in the back of the dojo trying to keep up. Over the years, I’ve advanced in skill and rank, earned recognition, respect, and friends all over the world.
Iaido is none of that to me: I am 99% certain that I’ll never have the opportunity or the need to defend my life or my loved ones with the sword. Still, I train. There is something very special about being accepted into a small fraternity of people that still train in the ways of the warriors of ancient Japan. There is no promise or expectation of rank. There is only training. We practice and we learn. We conform to the methods set by generations before us. If rank comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. If you want a black belt, no problem, wear one…or white, or blue, or mustard, or pink, or green. The kaku obi has one purpose, to hold my sword. Color doesn’t matter, as Iaido doesn’t traditionally recognize kyu ranks (normally associated with colored belts). We train to gain skill, to carry on the old ways, and to do our small part of preserving the ancient arts. This is enough.
Iaido isn’t for peasants. That was true then, and is true now. Many people fade away or quit training when the reality of Iaido related costs becomes apparent to them. Initially, a couple hundred (US) dollars is required for purchasing basic equipment (keiko-gi, hakama, kaku-obi, and bokken). Later the iai-to and shinken will need to be purchased, this can easily run close to a $1000 for economy models, and up to $3000 for a quality Japanese blade. There is a reason that Iaido is called “the expensive hobby!” When we begin cutting (tameshigiri) the costs accumulate even more rapidly; I’m already finding that the economy blade that I purchased last year wasn’t cutting it- pun intended. So, I recently purchased another higher quality blade. Add in the tatami for cutting, accessories such as new sageo, tabi, various kaku obi, etc. and you may find that you need a part time job to support your new Iaido habit!
This, in my opinion, is one of the reasons that some people quit Iaido within a few months. The costs can be overwhelming, along with the visions that they too would be magically transformed into a samurai were soon dashed as the students realized that Iaido practice is hard work; this coupled with the stark reality that they should expect to train and practice for a very long time with little or no chance of rank advancement, relatively speaking in comparison to karate.
Some stick to it, others fade away. In our dojo, we have had three karate students quit Iaido this year within a few months of starting; Iaido is hard work, requires intense focus, and the rewards come in the form of training. For those that have already been training in other martial arts for a while, Shoshin (beginners mind) is imperative to progress.
While I’m learning a lot and having a great time doing it, I realize that Iaido just isn’t for everyone.