The form of sword I study mostly derives from Aikido.
Aikido is predominately a defensive style of martial arts, focused on momentum. The art has a lot of catches and throws, but very little striking. It’s not exclusively empty-hand though, as aikidoists also practice forms with three weapons: knife, short-staff, and sword.
Aikido comes to us from Japan, where it derived from an older and fiercer form called Aiki-jutsu. The way my first teacher explained it, after the Meiji restoration it was very unpopular to study “jutsu”, or ways of combat. So all the -jutsu schools began teaching -do instead, or ways of life. Ju-jutsu became ju-do, aiki-jutsu became aiki-do, et ceteras. Same techniques, but boil out some of the fierceness and make it more like sport.
In seminar I once watched an aikido master demonstrate the sword roots of our empty-hand techniques. He had a student do an attack at him, and he caught and threw the student. Then he’d pick up a boken, and they would repeat the exact same attack and throw, but with a wooden sword in the teacher’s hand. Then they did another throw technique, and another.
It blew my mind: each one of the throwing techniques we studied twice a week derived from a sword cut.
A boken, literally “stick-sword”, is a wooden practice sword.
To this day it’s still tiny a point of pride to me that out of the whole pile of boken available to him in that seminar, this master teacher had picked my boken to use for his demonstration.
Some years later, one of my friends smashed that particular boken over the head of another friend. That was not a graceful move, and fortunately the stick opted to break and not our friend’s head.
Grace is a good word here. Aikidoists try to always move gracefully, in all parts of life. Ai-ki-do literly means “harmony energy way-of-life,” or more colloquially, “the way of harmony.”
One of my teachers used to emphasize that if someone is throwing fists at you, your aikido is late. You should have met the energy of the argument and redirected it into something better long before it got to the point of violence.
But hey, if you are at the point of violence, let’s still move gracefully. Let’s gracefully apply some technique to make sure we come out on top of a submission hold, not underneath someone’s boot.
My sensei also taught me a solid choke-hold. Grapplers would call it a rear-naked-choke. It’s not strictly aikido, but it did come in useful in combat once. Being able to slip through an opponent’s defense to get behind them is a very aikido thing, even if the final submission technique used is not strictly an aikido pin.
This is the idea of a graceful sword cut that can evolve seamlessly into a catch and throw technique. It’s about understanding the energy that is given to you, bending with it, and becoming strong in the places it is weak.
Aikidoists call this principle “musubi.”
Literally translated I think that means something like “tying the knot.” It’s not an official principle of aikido, in that it’s not one of the three rules the founder specifically called out with numbers. But it’s a quasi-official principle, in that at least one of the founder’s highest students wrote a book half-dedicated to the idea. I’ve half-read that book. It was dry, but lovely in its philosophy.
From that book I got a better way to describe it: Musubi is a dynamic balance.
Balancing a stick on your hand is static balance – you’re trying to hold still, while understanding the weight of the tool, and making subtle reactions to keep the system stable.
Compared to this, catching an attacker’s momentum is dynamic balance – you’re trying to move in a way that falls in perfect synchrony with your attacker’s weight, then make subtle shifts to tilt the whole moving system to your advantage.
It’s absolutely a yin-yang sort of thing, where forces in motion are twisting around each other in perfect harmony. It’s said that musubi is the moment when cause and effect become indistinguishable from each other.
Accordingly, as I’ve studied sword, and staff, my own approach trends towards art a lot more than violence. That is, my focus is on finding the perfect momentum of a sword cut, and how to chain them together gracefully without ever stopping to pose. I’m not working on making the loudest thwack or fastest woosh.
Sensei used to say work on precision, and one day you’ll just realize you’ve become fast.
I got into spinning staff as a way of better understanding the motion of a sword cut. Ancient wisdom says you have to throw a thousand sword cuts to understand what makes one good one. I figured, might as well get that first thousand over with as fast as possible. I had admired dancers who spun fire staves, and aikido had a staff as a weapon, so I started trying to blend the ideas.
I do practice making thwacks. I have hanging targets I chip at now and then. But I spend more time practicing tangles and untangles.
My favorite training toy this summer has been a length of heavy rope I looped between two elevated anchors. I’ve been trying to tangle my sword in the ropes, then from motion, unknot the tangle and spin the tool around into a solid cut that sends the bundle of rope flying. Or I spin staff in the middle of the loop and try to keep from tangling.
Then I go over and chip at a heavy hanging wood block with real edged weapons. That one skins my knuckles sometimes, but I think it’s good to also know how face into a heap of momentum full on with claws.
The idea of musubi is to blend with momentum, then twist the system to your advantage. Once you have that advantage, if the right action is a throw, choke hold, spear-blade in the face, or to just dis-entangle and let go, that’s your choice.
Musubi is about gracefully sliding into a perfect moment where you have enough control of the situation to make that choice.