Tuesday, March 10, 2009

yo-yo #33: blood-red 888

this is just the yo-yo i happened to pick up. it's a great yo-yo, and i love the color (which is in some way relevant to the topic i have in mind). i got it from a friend (mike salcito) last week at an nc yo-yo meet. i traded him a green monster skyline, which i will not pretend that i'm not going to miss. this is a blood-red 888. mike said it was only available in europe (but i wouldn't know anyhow). the 888 is cool because, to my mind, it really "takes no prisoners". it was designed to set a new standard for consistent, progressive play, and that's exactly what it did.

i'm also typing this on my wife's laptop, and holy hell... she has a way better keyboard than i do. holy hell.

anyway... this morning, in lieu of my normal zazen ritual, i yanked out my shinken (or katana if you prefer, a japanese sword) for a much needed iaido practice. i'm embarrassed to admit that it had been months. i dusted off my blue keikogi and black hakama (which, it could be argued, makes me look like a bit of a girl - it's not a dress... it's pleated PANTS, dammit!) and i headed out to the spot behind my house where i like to practice. it's a warm day, and the birds are singing again. (for frame of reference, here's an old video me doing some iai in said spot: http://www.vimeo.com/1786917 )

iaido is the ceremonial, ritualistic, japanese martial art associated with handling the long sword. i say "handling" because the more you do it, the more you come to realize that every moment of carrying it is incorporated into the art, even prior to getting on the mat. most people would associate it with "drawing the sword", but that only represents a splinter of its function and true nature. iaido is one of the budo (ways of war), and that "do" character specifies not just a "method", but a true life "path". there's a lot to pay attention to.

in practice, iaido contains a great deal of ritual in terms of taking care of/respecting the sword, wearing the sword in a very specific way, drawing the sword from its saya (scabbard), performing one or more cuts against an opponent (which you have to visualize), and returning the sword to your side.

since it's really just you alone (unless you're in a group practice, which i really never do anymore), your brain is positively inundated by each misstep and mistake. although i've trained in iaido for over a decade (shit, i'm old), i usually feel like a bit of a failure when i practice. unlike aikido, the other japanese art that i practice, there most definitely IS a right and wrong way to do iaido. granted, each instructor may differ on the finer points, but the hallmark of iai is the fact that it's guided by an ideal. since it's not an application-based art (no one carries swords these days), it's all about studying and retaining the traditions of japanese swordsmanship. one might argue "what's the use in that if you can't use it on the street?", but practicing iaido requires a lot of dedication and discipline, both mental and physical. it teaches you how to command your body and mind to a level of attention that many martial arts ignore. though you'll never use the techniques of iaido in a fight, the awareness and understanding of life and death that it espouses help to ensure that you'll be able to avoid or defuse one.

iai is broken into different kata (forms). each school has their own set that have been handed down from teacher to student, in many cases directly from origins in feudal japan. as in all martial arts, there are tons of fakers and phonies, and if you aren't able to separate them from the legitimate sources, then on some level, you deserve what you get. although the style i trained in has a fancy name, "muso-shinden ryu iaido", and i've practiced the kata of that style, i mostly stick with the setei kata now, which are a set of basic techniques that many different schools have agreed on, which utilize and represent aspects of each tradition. learning a kata is a lot like learning a yo-yo trick. you have to break it down into its elements and reference points. you have to repeat it over and over in order to get anything meaningful out of it. you oscillate between periods of being totally exhilerated by it and totally bored with it, but after awhile, it kind of becomes a part of you.

when i practice, i like to do all of the setei kata 3 or 4 times each, and then pick one or two from the muso-shinden ryu catalog to focus on. some of them start standing, some start on your knees in seiza, and some start in the often-excruciating battle-armor-half-knee stance, tate-hiza. after training today, i got to thinking about yo-yoing and how it relates to this martial tradition. yoyoing has its own "kata" in the standardized tricks that we do. the sport ladder trick-list that's a staple of any yo-yo contest gives examples of tricks that have been deemed to be "important". their presence on the list identifies them as tricks that yo-yoers "ought to know". a key difference between the martial arts and yo-yoing is that you don't NEED to conform to any specific trick-ideals to be a good yo-yoer. lots of highly respected yoyoers couldn't find their way through the ladder (certainly not in 2a). as a martial artist in virtually any tradition, you absolutely have to work your way "up" through a set of techniques, and as you progress, you remain duty-bound to retain them. that's the standard format for the dissemination of knowledge. as the budding warrior makes his way through the kata and waza (technique), he develops in two ways. 1.) he learns the full scope of the material that makes up his art and 2.) he builds the discipline to use his art appropriately.

yo-yoing has none of that stuff, really. in the budo, what force "regulates" the students? it's really a 3-pronged attack. the student is regulated by the teacher, by his/her peers, and by the grueling art itself. if you want to study a martial art that's worth anything, those 3 guiding lights will, at some point, need to beat some respect into you. if learning an art just amounted to walking up to some benevolent "master", forking over a thousand bucks and receiving your own teaching license and crisp black belt (sadly there are schools that effectively DO this), what would it be worth, really? it's not just "going through the motions". in truth, "going through the motions" is what ends up building your character as a martial artist and as a person.

is there any regulatory force in yoyoing? awhile ago, if you wanted to freestyle at a big contest, you had to do "compulsories". these were kind of like a ladder on steroids, wherein you had to perform a series of tricks of incremental difficulty, and were judged not just on whether you completed them, but HOW. it was a lot like being judged for a dan exam. the highest compulsory scores moved on to freestyles. now that the days of compulsories are no more (and i'm not arguing that's a bad thing), you never need to demonstrate "canon" as a yo-yoer. the forums have become the primary regulating force of the community, usually dispensing half-baked judgment on videos, new yo-yo's, and players. yo-yoing is a very free and experimental art form, and no standards are perceived to be required. in any case, when you practice yo-yoing, you don't repeat the same sequence of tricks (unless you're practicing for a contest). and i certainly can't imagine an iaido practitioner just jumping around freely through various kata and waza. it would be feel more like a dance or jam session; more like yo-yoing.

also, how many samurai owned 50+ swords? even today, an earnest iaido/kendo/batto-do practitioner would typically own one, or at most, very few swords. they're expensive ($5k+ for the real deal from japan), and of course... how many do you need? sure there are a plenty of sword collectors out there, but in my experience, not many of them are really practitioners. i've known a lot of iaidoka, many of whom are very serious about their art, but i've probably only known a handful that have more than 3 swords, and one of them imports swords for a living. yo-yo's are comparatively cheap, and kids can buy a lot of them. this blog is evidence that i have many myself. but in owning many, do you begin to dillute your approach to any one of them? that is to say, in owning 100 yo-yo's, is it really possible for me to fully invest myself in a single one, and use it to express my clearest self? to a samurai, the shinken was a manifestation of the soul. if i own 100 yo-yo's, has my soul been cut into 100 fragments like something out of harry potter? i only have one japanese sword (well, and another i received as a gift from my sensei, but that one's a "wall-hanger"), and i treat it like its a family member. even when i go through a stretch without practicing with it, i take it out to oil it (or mabe just to look upon it). having just one of something really instills a familiarity and a sense of caring or appreciation for it. not judging at all; just stating a pronounced difference.

the most obvious difference though, lies in the fact that, contrary to SO many ill-informed perpetuators of the urban myth, no one ever killed anybody with a yo-yo. when you pick up a shinken, which is basically a 3-foot razor blade, you can't help but feel a little awed; by its history or by its grim and blatant functionality. swords are for killing people. anyone who says otherwise is twisting (and thus, disrespecting) the "nature of the beast". when you pick up a yo-yo, you pick it up as a toy, or if you're really serious about it, as a tool for self-discovery. who picks up a yo-yo with reverance? who does so with serious presence of mind and with intent? i'm not saying you need to hold your yo-yo like your going to slay samurai with it, but... in a sense... well, maybe you should.

one of the things the martial arts teach us to do is to approach EVERY aspect of our lives with intent; with abandon. there are no useless, trivial moments. so when we pick up the sword, there are rules for picking it up. rules for carrying it, walking with it, bowing to it. how long do i bow? what should the inclination of the head be? where should my hands be when i'm holding it at my side? how should i carry it through a doorway? these rules and details were born of the fact that swordsmanship is about TAKING LIFE. it's a serious deal, and a little bit of disrespect or careless ignorance can be fatal. even now, as a "way", it's about taking your own life to an extent; about extinguishing our own inherently selfish preconceptions. not only are there no standards for things like lifting a yo-yo from its spot in your case or tying the slipknot, but virtually no one even considers those "incidental" moments with any presence.

so how are they similar, if at all? easy.

within each, the ideal remains both wonderfully, beautifully unattainable.

think of a yo-yo trick you can do perfectly. perfect. textbook. every time. if you have an answer to that question, i honestly feel kind of bad for you. where else have you to go with that trick?

one of the most beautiful elements of yo-yoing is the fact that there is ALWAYS a way to refine your own technique. ALWAYS a way to refine your own attitude or performance. the very idea of perfection becomes paradoxical. the only thing that's perfect is the MOMENT... THIS moment. that's absolutely true of iaido as well. in a sense, no one has ever performed an iai kata perfectly. sure there are masters who are far beyond my ability to critique, but perfection? no way. and no thanks.

the greatest martial artists are just like heliotropic flowers that slowly bend toward the light. they are guided by the sun, but never will they reach it. even our "sleepers" should be treated this way. and i'm not saying we go around bitching about how imperfectly awful we are either. it's not about self-deprecation. it's wonderful, because when you realize that there IS no end to the journey; no goal aside from playing fully within the moment, we can really recognize that the PRACTICE is the goal, itself. why am i practicing yo-yo? to gain respect in the community? to win worlds? to get sponsored? no (apologies, and perhaps an uncontrollable surge of pity to those of you who say "yes"). i'm practicing because i'm practicing. it's how i want to experience this moment, which is bigger than the community, more epic than worlds, and more sacred than any sponsorship. and although i'll learn some tricks and invent some others, i'm gratified to know that i'm not truly capable of experiencing the full breadth of any one of them.

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