One of the key things in Iaido is not about unsheathing or swinging the sword. It is not about cutting with it or stabbing with it. A key thing about Iaido is etiquette.
I am told for a beginner, etiquette is more likely to result in failure for the first grading than skill level. Of course, skill level is important, but it is naturally expected that proper use of the sword comes with many hours of practice, whereas etiquette is about respect and is easy, in theory.
Etiquette begins as I enter the dojo.
1. I bow to Shinzen (the shrine) from the doorway or entry point.
2. I take my sword out of its carrying bag.
3. I smooth the sageo (the cord that connects my saya or sheath to my hakama or pants) against the saya.
4. I grasp the sageo with my left thumb.
5. I tuck the three layers into my palm and place my fingers on top to hold them in place.
6. As I bring the sageo bundle to my sword, I swap my fingers for the saya, so the saya is now holding the bundle in place and I put my thumb on the tsuba to ensure my sword cannot fall out of the saya.
7. Next, I take my place in the dojo by rank/seniority. Etiquette says I must not cross in front of a sensei. I believe this can apply to any student of higher rank or seniority to oneself. It seems like common sense to me to give respect to someone with a sword, even if I am also carrying one. In my opinion, this concept of respect should also apply to the world outside of the dojo.
8. Once I have taken my place, Sensei informs it is time to bow in. Contrary to many martial arts, I do not bow to Sensei at the beginning of class.
Shinzen ni Rei – The Bow to the Shrine
1. With my sword with in my left hand at obi (belt) height, I turn to face Shinzen, which is positioned on the left wall of the dojo.
2. Prior to bowing, my sword’s blade is facing Shinzen and I must move it to my right side at obi height, while keeping control of the sageo, and while rotating it to a position where the blade is facing away from Shinzen. Some schools of Iaido are less strict on the control of the sageo, but mine requires me to maintain the thumb loop and as I change hands, my right hand must find the loop. This is achieved by paying close attention to how I grasp the bundle I have made with my sageo.
3. I bow. The bow to Shinzen is 30 degrees with eyes open, but looking down. One of my sensei has advised that to ensure my eyes are in the correct place, it is best to keep them fixed and move my head as that will automatically point my gaze downward. He has also advised that while in other arts it is custom to keep your eyes on the target, other than the disrespectful aspect of keeping eyes on Shinzen, if God wants to strike me down where I stand, I will not be able to stop it from happening regardless of where my eyes are looking.
4. I return my sword to my left side and turn back to the forward position.
5. I go into seiza.
To rei – The Opening Bow to the Sword
1. I hand my sword to my right hand in a horizontal position. As I do that, I control the sageo. In the horizontal position, my left hand should be palm down about one fist width from the end of the saya and its thumb is lightly grasping the sageo. My right hand should be palm up with its thumb on the tsuba (the part of the sword handle that separates the blade from the handle).
2. I place my sword down in front of me with the tsuba in line with my right knee. The blade is facing outwards because I am preparing for battle.
3. With my left hand, palm down, I gently tuck the sageo against the bottom end of my saya in one brief motion and have it join my right hand on my lap. There is room for both of my hands in between my knees and the sword.
4. I place my left hand and then my right on the floor in between my sword and knees. They make a triangle.
5. With my elbows touching the floor or by going as low as possible while keeping my spine parallel to the ground and with my neck in line with my spine, I bow to my sword with my eyes open. I am asking my weapon to see me through this battle.
6. At the end of the bow, I take my right hand off the floor and place it on my lap, and then I do the same with my left.
7. I pick up my sword with my hands just as I had placed it.
8. With my sword held by my right hand, I let my sageo drop into my lap for a moment.
9. With my left hand, I locate a place in the layers of my obi that is closest to my body and it is also in the center of my body. I make an opening to place my saya into.
10. I slide it through until it comes out the left side of my hakama.
11. By touch, I locate my sageo and I place it on top of the bottom portion of saya sticking out of my hakama. Then I loop it around the saya and bring the loose end to the center of my body.
12. By feel, I secure my sageo to my hakama by making a loop, pushing the loop through the bottom of the hakama strap, pulling it through to the top, then making a second loop, which I put into the first loop. I tug on the first loop until it grasps the second loop.
13. I ensure my tsuba is aligned where it should be for the style I am performing and I am ready for battle.
Za rei – The Closing Bow to the Sword
1. I enter seiza.
2. I undo my sageo by tugging on the second loop.
3. I slide my saya out of my hakama and let go of the sageo.
4. I hand my sword to my right hand, which grabs the sword almost like it is a cup, but my index finger secures the tsuba.
5. I smooth the sageo with my left hand and create a loose bundle which I pass to my right thumb.
6. I place the sword upright outside of my right knee.
7. I pivot the sword horizontally to the left and as I place it on the floor, I shift the tsuba slightly forward, so it is not trapping the sageo beneath it.
8. With my thumb still holding the sageo, I gently draw the sageo down the length of the saya.
9. I bow to the sword as before only the sword’s blade edge is facing me and I am thanking it for getting me through another battle.
10. I pick up the sword with my right hand as before and I place it upright in between my knees.
11. With my left hand, I grasp onto the saya around the middle point and smooth the sageo as far as I can go before I have to bend down to reach further.
12. With both hands, I bring my sword to my left hip at about the sword’s middle point.
13. I make my thumb loop as before and hand the sword to my left hand.
14. I stand.
15. I bow to Shinzen.
Sensei ni rei – The Bow to Sensei
1. I move the sword lower than obi height, about mid-thigh.
2. I bow to my sensei and say, “Domo Arigato Gozaimashita”, which is a highly formal way of saying “Thank you very much”. This bow is similar to the bow to Shinzen only my eyes do not have to be fully downward, just not obviously staring at my sensei.
Pondering My Pain Points and Other Things
One of the ways I learn is by writing things down, analyzing my pain points, researching the issues, thinking about what actions to try, taking action, and revising my approach based on the results of the actions I took.
I struggle with etiquette. Maybe it is because I am a big picture person and etiquette is all fine detail. Perhaps it just takes a long time to get one’s body to remember all of the steps.
I continue to have trouble maintaining control of my sageo, but I am improving.
Seiza is another adventure for me. I have been told I am to tuck one side of my hakama into my knee as I sink down into position. After several months, I continue to struggle with this. There are a couple of methods for hakama-biki in other sets of kata, but not for the standard set that is practiced for grading. The idea with the hakama-biki is to prevent the hakama from getting hooked on my feet, so I am not caught on my clothing as I begin the kata. I have been struggling with my entire outfit for a while now. I lost weight from when I began Iaido in June 2013 and I regularly get caught up in my gi sleeves. I also often end up with my feet hooked up in my hakama. Perhaps I struggle with my hakama because I do not like wearing pants 😉
I know it is taking me a very long time to learn some basic skills in this art, but I am not competing with anyone other than myself. Despite my struggles with the wardrobe, I know I can cut with a katana. The rest will click into place at some point and until then I just have to keep trying. Most things I learn much quicker and despite the frustrating aspect of the pace at which I am improving, I enjoy the challenge that Iaido presents me with and I think it is important for me to have something that forces me to try to look at the finer details.
Thank you to my sensei and senpai for helping me with this post and for patiently working with me each class.