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Iaido: A martial art with a “cutting edge”

Iaido is a practice of control, accuracy and coordination.
It is also a great workout for the upper body!

My Chopsticks NY reports have led me to explore and discover various arts and traditions of Japan, some more physical than others! From water painting to Okinawan karate, I know that each report requires my full attention… but nothing prepared me for ancient weaponry in the art of IAIDO.

Iaido is usually referred to as “the art of drawing the sword.” It has evolved from 16th century samurai techniques. As an authentic martial art that proved its martial values in a time of constant battle and warfare, it was preserved and passed on directly from teacher to student over generations. Nowadays, iaido has evolved into an introspection and meditative art.

The group is executing an 8-direction kata known as
“happo-giri” where the body balance is shifted from one leg to the other.

Since the early 70’s, the spirit of iaido is kept alive at the New York Budokai. Founded by Sensei Otani, the dojo (school) has now successfully been passed onto one of his early students: sensei Phil Ortiz. In one corner of the room a little shrine is set-up with a few sticks of burning incense and a cup of rice and water. After a respectful bow to their master and practice partners, the dedicated students start their combinations of standing or kneeling kata (forms).

Each movement is composed of 4 principle elements: drawing the sword from the scabbard (saya), striking or cutting an opponent, removing blood from the blade (chiburi), and then replacing the sword in the scabbard (noto). All movements are generated through core breathing and hip movements back and forth and generally initiated by moving the left foot forward.

The Kumitachi technique consists of partners coordinating timing and accuracy.
It is practiced with wooden swords for safety.

Students of all ages and backgrounds are welcome. The more experienced members of the dojo take great pride and enjoyment in describing the philosophy of the school, the correct way of handling the sword (for instance: the blade is always facing you when you pass the weapon to another member) or the position of the body during a kata. The atmosphere is jovial and animated before and after practice, but when the iaitos (swords) are out, everyone’s focus is on the execution of the movements.

Each member experiences the practice at his/her own level, but commune with the same spirit and towards the same goal: reflecting on oneself. Iaido is not a sport and does not cultivate the contemporary fascination for competition. During the class, the students focus on mastering the art of controlling the sword and finding inner self. As Sensei Phil Ortiz says “repeating the katas is all about finding yourself.” Your ego becomes your virtual opponent and each kata gets you closer to finding inner peace. The sword becomes an extension of the body and each movement flows with your own breathing pace. The surprising peace found during practice can seem paradoxical with the heavy piece of armory handled. Despite a few failing attempts at pulling my instrument out of its scabbard, I found myself drawn into the serenity and empowering sensation of becoming one with my sword.

Sensei Phil Ortiz has over 40 years of martial arts experience.

Japanese martial arts, like Kendo (Art of Japanese Fencing) have gained recent popularity in America. They share a common purpose: mold the mind and body, cultivate a vigorous spirit, show respect and courtesy to your partner and forever pursue the cultivation of oneself but the two arts differ in many ways. In iaido, the students do not make contact, but visualize imaginary opponents while performing different attacking and defending scenarios. Besides, iaido practice provides no armor to protect one’s body and the sword is made of metal (not bamboo).

After two hours of practice at the New York Budokai dojo, I feel more focused and empowered. The swords are respectfully put aside but their auras remain. The concluding words of Sensei Ortiz send me back to reality with a revealing strength “ If you can defeat your ego, you can defeat anything.”

—— Reported by Ruth Berdah-Canet

New York Budokai
520 8th Ave., (bet. 36th & 37th Sts.), 16th Fl.
New York, NY 10018