Wednesday, August 31, 2011

First Cutting Practice

This past Saturday, I tried my hand at tameshigiri (target cutting) for the first time.  This is an exercise for more advanced Siljun Dobup students.  We use (very!) sharp swords (shinken) to cut rice or bamboo mats (tatami) that have been soaked in water overnight.  The mats are rolled up and they are about as dense as human flesh.  Kind of freaky?  Maybe.  Harder than it looks?  Definitely!

I've been studying Siljun Dobup for just under two years and have been managing Sword Class NYC since last summer, but this was a brand new experience for me.  I had practiced the techniques hundreds of times, but holding that sharpened blade in my hands took my training to a whole new level.  Going into this training session, I was reviewing all the minutia of making a good cut in my head: Relax the shoulders; cut forward, not down; make a big circle; make a strong stance; don't overextend the wrists etc.  I was sure that if I could just make a good cut, this would be simple.  Definitely not the case.

Grand Master Seong complemented my form and posture, but when it came time to actually cut the mats, my blade actually bounced off.  I had this super-sharp katana and two years of training and I couldn't even cut a rice mat?!?  How embarrassing, especially in front of my teacher and fellow students, let alone the grand master and creator of the form!  I was frustrated with myself and immediately began running through the list again- Relax the shoulders; cut forward, not down. . ."  I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong.  Master Seong told me I needed more "power".

As I watched other students take their turns, I started to see what I needed to do.  I am certainly no master of the blade, but I have the technical skills to make this cut.  My problem wasn't in my shoulders or wrists or even in my feet, but in my head and my heart.  I was simply using muscle to make my body do what I wanted it to.  Sure, my form needed some tweaking, but the real problem was that  I wasn't mentally or spiritually invested.  My desire to perform well and demonstrate my skill had derailed my focus.

On my next try, I shut down my litany of "Cutting To-Dos".  I narrowed my focus to only include my blade.  I gathered as much Chi (Qi ) as I could and trusted my muscle memory to get the sword where it needed to go.  It certainly wasn't perfect, but I cut that mat!

I orginally started studing this art partially for the physical benefits, but more so for the mental and spiritual ones.  In a city as fast-paced and busy as New York, we are all constantly multi-tasking.  We have our smartphones in one hand and our grande lattes with an extra shot in the other (I do, anyway.) and bounce from task to task to task all day.  Siljun Dobup gives me an opportunity to focus my energy on one thing and one thing only- my blade.  While this has always been something I am aware of while I train, my main focus has been on perfecting the cuts and forms themselves.  Of course this is important, but it can only get you so far.  I will continue to practice and refine my skills, but it is time to concentrate more on my chi.  It is a muscle like any other and can only get stronger with exercise.  It is difficult to apply the ability to cut tatami mats to your job or relationships, but strong chi will benefit every aspect of your life.

Watch out tatami mats!  I'm coming for you!

Check out the video of my cutting practice below and see more videos here. 

Sara is the manager of Sword Class NYC and a 2nd Geup in Siljun Dopub.  You can contact her via Sword Class NYC's  e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.  Keep your eye peeled for more of her blogging here!

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