Iaido is More Than You Might Think
by Robert Wolfe
Iaido is a martial art that provides a lot more than social distancing! But let’s take a look at that particular benefit, to start. Most martial arts require close, physical proximity, if not physical contact, and many areas of the country currently have restrictions in place that essentially preclude normal training. Although some styles of iaido also incorporate paired, combative forms with bokken (wooden swords), even in those schools the overwhelming portion of training is practice of solo forms with either a shinken (a “live,” i.e., sharpened steel) Japanese sword or an iaito (an alloy-bladed, blunt training sword). And that requires space.
The maximum reach of the average person holding a Japanese-style sword is at least five feet, measured from the center of the body to the kissaki, the tip of the blade. So, figure a minimum ten-foot diameter circle around each iaido practitioner. But regardless of whether the swords are shinken or iaito, you don’t want blades clashing, so add another two-feet of separation between the ten-foot circles, just to be safe. Generally, a group practice will require at least 12-feet between individuals. (That distancing can be somewhat less, if everyone in the group is doing exactly the same thing, in the same direction, at the same time, but will still be a lot more than the six-foot minimum separation typically recommended.)
The important point is this: Virtually the entire, typical iaido curriculum can be practiced entirely normally and very productively even under mandated restrictions. And “productively” includes benefits you might not imagine.
Purely in terms of physical exercise, iaido can provide a light, moderate, or surprisingly intense workout, at the discretion of the practitioner. On the high-end, I will say the most sore I ever was following a weekend seminar was after two, six-hour days of iaido training — Thanks, Mr. Lange! — and I’m saying this as someone that back in the day helped train semi-professional kickboxers, as well as trained extensively in a variety of arts including an especially brutal style of jujutsu. I was so sore after that weekend because proper iaido training, even at a slow to moderate pace, hits virtually every part of the body and can extensively condition the core. At the low-intensity end of the physical spectrum, training can be gauged to provide measured, gentle, and developmental exercise for a student just starting out or dealing with some type of special, physical circumstances.
The mental challenge of iaido training can also be quite intense. Ultimately, training is a process of composing and configuring the body in accordance with an idealized form that can be pursued but never attained. This requires a very high level of self-reflection, analysis, and honesty — essentially the ability to identify, consider, and correct what might be profound or very subtle divergences from the idealized form. Additionally, the solo forms being practiced are codified answers to the problem of surprise attacks, answers developed hundreds of years ago by Japanese warriors that experienced (and survived) such assaults. In solo practice, the “attackers” must be visualized in great detail. Otherwise, practice becomes nothing more than going through the motions, or performance art.
Which leads us to the spiritual component of iaido. If the physical and mental components of training are proper, practice facilitates the development of a calm and centered spirit that has the ability to respond instantly to the unexpected without loss of composure. This is a very different thing than the constant, high state of alertness advocated by some modern, tacti-cool aficionados — always in no less than “Condition Yellow,” head on a swivel, eyes scanning for threats, hand ever-near the concealed holster…
That’s no way to live.
Iaido, like other traditional forms of budo, is all about living better.