What is iaido?

Inspired by an article written by our leading Sensei.

When I read the article written by our leading sensei, 7 -dan Renshi, I immediately recognized the dilemma on how to describe what iaido exactly is. How do you explain to an outsider what iaido is? And more specifically, what it means for you personally.

And because the article described something that is hard to put in words I became even more motivated to tell my story. Because maybe some of you who practice iaido will recognize at some point that the practice of iaido becomes more and more a personal journey. A journey that is not easy to describe to others because the experience you have are sometimes so subtle or serene that already the effort on trying to put this into words would demolish the actual experience.
And yet I want to give it a try. Also because I feel it is good to acknowledge the fact that iaido is much more than just perfecting a form.

Ever since the moment I started my training within the dojo of Kendo Kai Higashi in Arnhem I haven’t had a single training in which I wasn’t challenged. Already after just a few weeks training as a beginner I experienced a strong deja vu in which I literally lost my balance. It seemed that I was in the right place.
Every time I entered the dojo I would have mixed feelings. It was coming home mixed with fear. Coming home because it became obvious that something in iaido made me feel at home. Coming home because I could find some sort of peace in the iai.
Fear because every time I was confronted with my inner demons, the darker sides of my being in all its subtle shapes.

This fear can be an excellent instrument to improve one’s iai and it can serve you as a stimulator. But on the other hand it can manifest itself in a negative way. And when this happened my exercises became aggressive and very tense. Also I would find myself doing battle with myself just to find a way to have a good training.
Most probably that several teachers must have wondered why I gave such a stubborn impression. If so, I would like to apologize now. Never was it the words spoken to me that caused my stubbornness but it was my inability to handle my demons…

Now, after 6 years of training, I have the luck that some of those demons became known to me and I learned to see that the actual training of iaido can have such an impact on how to deal with the dark side of your being.
Every moment in the dojo, or better said, every moment that I practice iaido, gives me the ability to confront some of the demons in such a way that it stops being an obstacle; “saya no uchi”.

Still, every time I put on my hakama and gi and I prepare myself mentally and physically for the training, I realize that I’m entering a soft battle with myself. Sometimes I literally imagine that my opponent is really me who is standing in front of me. I do this to create a clear image that the victory that I might enjoy will be just as quick erased due to my own presence.
As long as I am present within the action, in the battle, I will never be able to stand up after a kata with full sincerity.
It happens several times that when I intent to start a kata I have to convince myself to continue with the form. In a way I could sit in seiza that long just to wait for the right moment to put my hands on the sword.
For this reason I have experimented with the time you can permit yourself before you actually have to draw your sword. This resulted that during my individual practice I sometimes was sitting for more than 10 minutes in seiza just “waiting” for the right moment to come to action.
The challenge here was to find out for how long I could hold my grip on being present without losing the ease, my iai. In other words I was trying to find out when one of my demons would claim victory over me.
The drawing of the sword could then only take place when the grip on being present wasn’t lost. It almost then sounds like a paradox to draw the sword. You could say that the simple fact of drawing one’s sword could be an act of slicing your inner demon into pieces. And it is this paradox that makes iaido so interesting and beautiful to practice.

Being, to be fully present, is something you can see as an unchangeable line that shapes itself through all that has shape as well what is shapeless. This “being” is also there when performing a kata, when practicing iai. Eventually it is the attention to the “demon” which is the performed action which is on itself the motion of stepping out of one’s self. You could say that the demon will manifest itself through the practice of a kata.
every impurity in your performance will be a disturbance in the line.

Some years ago I attended for the second time the National championship for iaido. After the second pool I was out. This was a considerable disappointment for me. Especially since the year before that I managed to enter the knock outs. After the championship I asked the leading sensei what he saw in my performance. Or actually I wanted to know what he didn’t saw. He told me that before my iai was stronger.
This got me thinking until it became clear to me that our daily life is being exhibited in performing iaido. Ever since that moment I learned to see that nothing is separate from anything else and that we are not just viewers to a private show but that we are part of it all.
Everything is being displayed in what we do and how we do it. Especially when this “doing” is anticipating so strongly on your ability to be fully present. And even more when this doing is concentrated into one single action.

And to discover that iaido has such a rich history which you can explore and experience after opening yourself to it is an even greater gift to receive. But perhaps the real richness lies in the moment when you find the ability to give yourself to the moment with the sword in which your demons become nothing more than private dance partners instead of oppositions.

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