July 10, 2014 ◆ Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
“To sensei – Celebrating 30 years of excellence in the martial arts.” I looked at the trophy, in the lobby of the dojo where I was attending a seminar, with some skepticism. There was no doubt the inscription referred to our host, an aikido teacher who could not have been much older than 30. When I asked about the trophy, he proudly stated that his students had indeed given it to him.
“But 30 years?” I said.
He was immediately more defensive. “I started when I was six!”
Many people in the US think martial arts practice is for children. There is, in my opinion, nothing more adorable than lines of kids in their practice gear, dutifully going through their kata, being led by their teacher. But I always find myself wondering: where are the grownups?
As one of my koryu budo (old style martial arts) colleagues once put it – you start karate as a kid because you want to fight. Once you have been beaten up enough in tournaments, you decide to take up a more traditional style; hence his interest in swordsmanship. My colleague started as an aikidoka (not the person I mentioned in the above paragraph). After time had worked its magic on certain parts of his body, he switched to weapons arts – in his 30’s.
I was a competitive fencer in college. After moving to NYC and getting a “real” job, though I continued to take fencing lessons, I began to realize that I would need a lot more practice to be a viable competitor. I would also need to sacrifice what had now become very precious weekend time in order to compete in tournaments. I’ll be honest and say I just did not have it in me. As a newly-fledged adult, there were new demands on my time – work being one, and sleep being another.
After several years of practicing foil in NYC (and not competing), I stumbled upon Japanese swordsmanship completely by accident – at the movies. Some of my fencer-friends and I used to go to an arthouse movie theatre in the West Village to watch samurai movies. One night, my soon-to-be teacher and a group of his students gave a demonstration between showings. I was hooked. Here was a practice where the only competitor was oneself; where I could practice as much or as little as my schedule allowed, and was, moreover, beautiful to watch. Perfect. I was 30 years old; in fact, beginning the study of swordsmanship was my 30th birthday present to myself.
Swordsmanship has been the gift that keeps on giving. Outside of enjoying the physical and mental activity, I have traveled around the world, both as a student and teacher, and met some truly amazing people. It’s not for children – swords are dangerous weapons, even the practice variety. There are no tournaments (except for kata competitions, but they are not required). Swordsmanship requires some time, some commitment, and some maturity, to do well. But the good news is that almost any able-bodied adult can do it!