Last week, I injured myself during kendo practice.
The short story first.
I went to kendo practice last Friday, and after some intense effort, I felt a pop in my left calf, as if someone had hit me with the tip of their shinai. When I turned around, there was no one. I waved to my practice partner, standing on one foot. Practice for the day was over, and the experienced people around me knew what had happened: I strained my left calf.
Now for the long story.
Learning from Some of the Most Inspiring Teachers
I first started Kendo in New Zealand under Graham Sayer Sensei, Ken Wells Sensei and Alan Stephenson Sensei. Through them and the club at large, I had a chance to participate in kendo training camps that saw the visits of teachers from Japan, Inoue Sensei and Alex Bennet Sensei amongst many others. Through all of their teachings, I learnt proper etiquette and the importance of the basics. Above all, I was taught the meaning of “beautiful kendo,” both in its physical and mental forms. Those were my favorite parts of the entire learning experience. The teachers I met during my time in New Zealand were the first people to teach me the value of controlling one’s mind, not only for the immediacy that a kendo confrontation represents, but also for the long term benefits in my own personal development.
Then, I moved to South Korea, and while I haven’t experienced too many clubs in the country, I have been to enough of them to realize that the mind is nowhere as important as one’s ability to strike strong and fast. It has lead me to lose some of the interest I had in the practice and I lost a lot of time wishing I was doing kendo rather than actually setting foot in a dojo.
Back To Practice and Negative Thinking
An opportunity to practice for week in Japan was the kick I needed to get back to practice on a regular basis. For the past four months, I went to the dojo twice a week on most weeks. During that time, I had to face the fact that I had forgotten a lot more than I expected, and that my body had aged since I last practiced regularly. Katas were all gone from my mind, and my ability to practice with bogu (armor) on was greatly diminished. Fortunately, the later came back reasonably fast. However, the dark cloud of my negative thoughts came back rushing like a galloping horse in no time as well.
Having learnt etiquette as the foundational part of my kendo practice early on, the lack of it tends to bother me a lot. Where I currently practice, what seems to be common sense for me is not obvious at all for other students. No one lines up following ranks at the beginning and the end of practice. People just setup wherever there is space. When wearing bogu, the himos (lines used to secure the armor to the body) should be well secured, the loops and tips should be well aligned, and each set of himo should be landing where it looks the cleanest. Saying that this is not the case where I practice is an understatement. I recently pointed out a himo that had come completed undone to one of my sparing partners, only to hear him say that it was ok and that we should just go ahead with the fight. I had to insist, telling him that it wasn’t safe, for him to relent and accept to secure it properly.
Next comes the strength of strikes based on level: the higher level the kendoka, the more chances to hear the ringing in one’s head after they strike men (kendo’s name for the mask). Where I used to line up quickly to practice with higher grades back in New Zealand-so that I can learn and grow- I tend to worry about such encounters here in Korea, only thinking about how much it’s going to hurt when they strike.
Finally, there is barely anyone to give feedback and advices where I practice at the moment. Every once in a while, our teacher comes and gives a couple of pointers, but she is mostly taking care of lower grade students without armors, or doing administrative tasks in the office, thus leaving us to our own devices. And as far as I can tell, advice or pointers appear to be bad form. I once pointed out to one of my sparing partners that she constantly look at the point of my shinai when I lower it into a different stance. As soon as her eyes go down, I struck, every single time. When I mentioned it, she seemed annoyed that I would bring it up, and we never talked about it again.
So this is my mind when I practice kendo these days: “why are most people not using their kiai? (Screaming)” “this person’s himos are all over the place,” “I don’t really want to fight this person because it’s going to hurt,” “why is this person letting dangle their shinai when it should be in chudan? (basic stance when facing someone)” “Why is our teacher not providing beginners with proper basics?”
And just like that, I fail to be the student that my early teachers tried to make me. I fail myself, and I fail to practice beautiful kendo, by letting my thoughts pollute my mind while I practice kendo.
However, the practice of kendo itself is the most direct teacher of all.
The Road to Injury
I work remotely. While I like to work in an office outside of the house, the industry I worked in has greatly suffered recently, forcing me to take a pay-cut for a few months last year. So I stopped paying for an office and worked from home for a while. This has made the amount of movements I used to do everyday come down to very little, until I couldn’t take it anymore, and decided to get a membership with a shared office company. From last week, I found a place that is 30 minutes walk from my house, providing me with a nice hour of walk everyday.
I practice kendo on Tuesdays and Fridays. Following last Tuesday’s practice, I felt a slight discomfort in my left calf. I decided that it was nothing more than a cramp due to the combination of kendo practice and restarting to walk everyday after too many months of not having done so.
When Friday came around, the discomfort was still there, although barely noticeable. On that day, however, it was important for me to go to the dojo to pickup my gears before going to Japan, about 10 days later. This made it the last practice before travel, and I didn’t want to miss it, knowing that I most likely would change dojo when I get back. Indeed, despite my grievances, I do like my current kendo teacher. She has always been very kind to me. On that day, two people that I hadn’t met before were attending the practice. It was made clear that they were higher ranking kendokas.
Practice began and warming up quickly made the discomfort in my calf subside. As we started with several rounds of Kirikaeshi (going back and forth, striking the top of the protected head multiple times), I found myself facing partners who’s himos were all over the place with no sense of etiquette whatsoever, and higher ranks who smashed their swords like baseball bats on the top of my head. I could feel something building up in the back of my mind as I pushed past my feelings to try and do the best practice I could.
Then, the hammer fell.
I faced one of the senior kendokas in free practice, who for all I knew, had come with a lead infused bamboo sword to practice. As we faced each other, he found an opening and struck me, making me pause for a moment due to the loud ringing in my head. In hindsight, this is when I lost control of my mind. All I could remember thinking was: “Alright, my turn to get a piece of you.” I lounged with all the energy I had left, hoping to get a good equalizing strike.
I felt two pops: one on my head inflicted by my more experienced opponent, and one in my left calf. It was the first time I felt this sensation and had to turn around to see if someone may have struck me in the leg by mistake, since many of us were practicing in a tight area. There was no one there, and the rising pain made it very clear what had happened.
A Kendo Lesson Without A Teacher
What followed isn’t quite as interesting as what led us here. My teacher asked me what the problem was, I explained, she gave me ice and a compression sock. She had been there before.
However, I can’t stop thinking about this: I allowed my mind to be destabilized way beyond any kind of acceptable point, and kendo showed me that I was wrong. Those words that flashed through my head before I lounged forward were the complete opposite of beautiful kendo. They were simply unacceptable.
I learnt this lesson the hard way, but I somehow feel exalted. No matter how painful it is, and how it is currently affecting all areas of my life, this entire situation has given me more food for thought than I have received in the dojo for a very long time.
I am now doing everything I can to speed-up my recovery, and I am very much looking forward to some inspiring practices in Japan, for kendo has always been about challenging the mind to me, not how fast and how strong I could strike.