Moving Zen, The Art of Iaido

With so many different styles of  martial arts out there, it can be a challenge to find something that feels like a great fit.  Especially if you feel a little out of shape and perhaps life has caught up to you while raising a family or tending to a career. Most of us want to experience the energy and the benefits of martial arts training, however the thought of physical injuries after viewing current trends in combative sports, prevent many folks from exploring any program at all.

      Iaido is an ancient Japanese sword practice that is based on philosophies that have been around for hundreds of years. Although the history that Iaido represents may be one of warfare and martial conflict, its current application combines mindfulness with physical movements to create a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

And you won’t get punched in the face.

   Regular weekly training will heighten the spirit while strengthening the body along with countless self-improvement benefits. With Iaido, you can quiet your mind and find your inner confidence by controlling your thoughts while brandishing a Japanese sword. Few things are more empowering.

The benefits of this artform are far more than the leg and core strength obtained from regular practice. Iaido turns into a lifestyle, and its complete curriculum helps you repair the alignment of your mind and body. Not only can Iaido help you lose weight, increase core strength, and improve balance, but it will help you reduce daily stress, calm your thoughts, and deal with both the internal and external conflicts we live with every day.

There are so many reasons to begin training in Iaido, but it’s helpful to understand what it is and how to get started. This way, you can reap all of the physical and spiritual benefits of this ancient practice starting at any age. No one is too old to begin training.

So what is the training about?

     Iaido is a traditional Japanese sword art whose origins date back hundreds of years. It’s organized into groups of movements (waza), which are practiced solo.  Each of these forms consist of drawing a sheathed sword, making one or more cuts, and then re-sheathing the sword. This is all done from a controlled mind and body while visualizing an enemy. The focus here is control of the sword, which in turn cultivates control of the self.

Many westerners compare it to a western movie with a quick draw gun fight but with swords. Usually, after a few classes, it’s discovered that Iaido is much, much more.

       Also, folks usually look up Iaido videos on the internet and see a practitioner training from a kneeling position. This immediately frightens some folks away, afraid of their bad knees getting worse from training. However, nothing can be further from the truth. Kneeling techniques (seiza) are less than 20 percent of the curriculum, and they all have standing versions. Iaido is also one of the few martial styles that has the least amount of injuries. Any sprains or pulled muscles are self-inflicted, as there is no partner. When training with a licensed teacher, all body mechanics are designed to protect the joints rather than injure them.

    Emphasis on etiquette, repetition, proper posture, breathing and timing makes Iaido physically and mentally challenging and very rewarding. The sense of satisfying engagement while swinging a Japanese sword (katana) is unmatched. 

During practice, prescribed footwork and moderately challenging postures are emphasized while maintaining an open mind and controlled breathing. Drawing the weapon and cutting at the same time takes a combined effort of upper and lower body while not rushing the thought process. All of this is done while keeping both mental and physical pressure on the imaginary opponent. This is more challenging than most folks perceive.

Iaido students training

You then perform movements to return the sword to the sheath (saya) while keeping your eye on your fallen opponent, not your sword. Beginners feel this is the most difficult component of the waza. Concentration is critical for success.

It is true that no person of sound mind walks around outside in public with a sword. However, all of Iaido’s movements relate to everyday life….

The first movement is building up body tension while calming the breathing. This prepares the practitioner for action without causing the potential opponent to have reactionary stress that could result in unnecessary physical action. This way you have the upper hand.

The next basic movement is the preparation and drawing of the sword slowly but deliberately, giving the opponent time to change their mind before its too late. Because once the sword leaves the sheath, two lives have dramatically changed from a bad decision. This term is called “Nukitsuke” the “life of Iaido”. It happens in the blink of an eye.

Iaido students performing Nukitsuke

Other movements follow as well, including a mercy cut for an imaginary fallen opponent who is suffering from their bad decision. (Kirioroshi). Also a movement which removes the blood from the blade. (Chiburi) This also represents the surviving practitioner cleansing their conscience because it was necessary self-preservation.

Sensei Duffy performing Chiburi

All of these movements translate to modern daily life. Instead of a conflict with swords in the 15th century, Iaido turns into dealing with a hostile person in a parking lot, or a complicated conversation with your boss at work. Training keeps the mind focused and sincere in times of crisis. The preparatory training helps prevent setting yourself for failure. This is because any incorrect posture you make in the dojo occurs because of something you did incorrectly one or two movements before the error.

Practicing these waza on a weekly basis actually transforms students into more confident prepared individuals. Improving themselves while also improving those around them. This is the purpose of “Budo”. (Martial way)

Unlike competitive arts, the goal is not to win, but rather not to lose. There is a big difference in the thought process and the goal.

“If two samurai were to draw swords and fight. There were generally three outcomes to a duel. In the first scenario, you win and live while your opponent dies. In the second scenario, your opponent wins and lives while you lose and die. In the third scenario, you both die. Although one may win the duel, he may die afterward due to his injuries sustained from the confrontation.” Says Sensei Jeff Driscoll, one of the top instructors in the Yamato Ryu Nippon Budo Kai. An international organization dedicated to the preservation of Iaido and other Budo arts.

Sensei Driscoll also adds:

Sensei Driscoll Teaching Iaido

“Keeping this in mind when one practices the art, the realization is that 2 out of 3 possible scenarios have you meeting with death for entering into a duel with your opponent. The realization of this lends to a different mindset, recognizing the severity and consequences of entering conflict with others.”

It’s these lessons and thought processes that are part of who the Iaido practitioner (Iaidoka) is. While at the same time conditioning the body as well.

Getting into this art requires minimal equipment at the beginning,  all one needs is a wooden practice sword called a “bokken” or “bokuto.” And some loose clothing. Metal swords are not needed for quite a while, as proper footwork and body mechanics are the initial focus. When the practitioner is ready for a metal sword, a non-sharp lightweight one is purchased from a proper supplier in Japan. These weapons are called “Iaito” they have everything a samurai katana has, except for the heavy sharp blade. Sharp blades are never allowed in most dojo.

Throughout the Iaidoka’s martial career, she or he will notice an incredible improvement of concentration, organization skills, and physical fitness. Confidence, empowerment, and leadership skills are also a byproduct of Budo practice.

Keeping your mind and body sharp is very important as we age. And while cognitive and physical attributes decline as the Years go by, Iaido helps keep your body and mind strong. Often, while not even realizing it.

This is why some folks consider Iaido, the art of the sword, moving-Zen!

Thomas Duffy

Sensei Thomas Duffy is the Chief instructor at the Budo Academy located in Providence Rhode Island. He is a licensed instructor for the Yamato-Ryu Nippon Budo Kai

Thomas has been a student of martial arts for over 35 years. His journey has taken him to several arts including Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Jujutsu, Kempo and eventually Iaido, and Kenjutsu which he has been training in passionately for well over 20 years.

For more information about Japanese sword arts, please visit the dojo webpage at

Published by The Budo Academy

Instructor at the Budo Academy

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