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

Solo Martial Arts practice?

Spring 2020 is upon us with the fears of a spreading highly contagious virus. Full contact combative arts and MMA gyms are already anticipating the financial pain from less and less attendance for obvious reasons. Nobody wants to touch each other!

Two friends at my day job, practice at an MMA gym. They have both admitted to me they have not trained in a few weeks in fear of getting sick. One of them asked me about how the attendance is with the “Sword Stuff” that I teach are going.

I explained to them that most Traditional martial arts have PLENTY of opportunities to practice solo without physical contact and still get a good training session in. Because of this, my student attendance has not dropped one bit. As there is always time for kata practice. In fact It’s a major portion of what we do. He then asked me what a Kata was….

Pinan Kata

Myself and other teachers have noticed that the current generation of potential students in their 20’s and 30’s have never even heard of Iaido or even Shotokan! When I mention Kempo they’ve responded that they know of past MMA fighters like Chuck Liddell, but that’s all they know. I then Explain about all these wonderful traditional arts, and the many benefits that would actually help them not only in the combative arena, but at work and with their daily life. Not to mention at the age of 50, we start to ratio our training and getting up for work the next day because of how much its going to hurt. (Myself Included)

Ground Defense taining

I have meet plenty Folks in their 40’s, 60’s and above, that certainly regret the injuries that they have received in the competitive arena over the years. Some of them wish they could continue training martial arts, but they “Never learned those old Karate forms” or “It’s to late for me to start over” I tell them It’s not to late, and they should seek out a traditional school immediately. I try to explain It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that helps us in our lives. However when someone spends their early lifetime chasing a trophy, it can be difficult explaining.

Unfortunately I believe the current view of Martial arts for these younger folks is the aggressive smack talking mma trophy winning fighter. The problem with this is when a sport becomes a profession and you need to win to pay your bills, all of the martial values that these young folks never learned about go right out the window.

Budo never gets a “fighting” chance.

Iaido Practice

I tell these younger folks that when they start to lose fights (and money) to come see us traditional teachers to experience so many other important benefits in martial arts for day to day living. It certainly beats losing a match or prize fight.

I currently have a student in his late 50’s training sword arts with me and it has vastly improved his life. He admits to having some ADD issues and he told me the solo sword art of Iaido has taught him to focus and pay attention to detail. When he takes some time off from the dojo for work, he notices a big difference. Because of his age he often tells me he wishes that “This new art called Iaido was around” back when he was fighting as he feels he has missed out. I keep telling tell him Iaido is about 400-500 hundred years old. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention…

On the other end of the age spectrum, I also have a competitive mma fighter in his 30’s that comes to me from time to time for conceptual Kosho Ryu Kempo training. He told me he loves the Naihanchi Kata Bunkai that I taught him to help with his ground game. The concepts Kempo teaches on how the body responds to tension and movement really help him. So with his half-empty dojo due to the virus, I told him to start practicing his kata laying on the ground! Pretty good idea eh? Not only does the stuff help him but he may decide that traditional arts like Kempo or Karate can offer him more than a piece of plastic and metal on a shelf someday. And he has a head start for when he gets older like me.

Kata practice on the ground

I also had an ex full contact kickboxer come in one time that “used to do forms” at a Tae Kwan Do school. I asked about kata and any Bunkai from the forms.(movement application) I just got a funny look, and was told they would just do forms and then put the gloves on. So I went over a basic kata movement and demonstrated that a down block is not just a down block. We then explored that exact same blocking movement and how it can also be throw, a strike and even a joint lock. She was blown away and has been training with me for over four years now. All because of a down block movement in a Kata.

Traditional Jujutsu Throw

Now please don’t get me wrong, I have no bad feelings against MMA at all, and I feel it’s very effective. After all Kosho Ryu Kempo is certainly a MMA style art. So from a competitive view it’s very satisfying for me. However, If I found myself in the ring with a “Jacked” pro, I would be practicing my Kempo escaping Kata towards the nearest exit. This is because my teacher always tells me “Don’t be stupid”. But that’s Kempo.

So folks I think this Corona hysteria brings opportunities for folks to explore solo martial arts practice and I implore traditional arts instructors to get away from what art is “better” than MMA in their promotions and focus on the roots of teaching all martial arts, Kata. Emphasize that you don’t need to touch anyone to start training. You may get some more students to teach which is important. After all we all learn more about our arts by teaching…

I also ask any potential students considering martial arts to have no fear of the evil viruses out there and to seek out traditional dojos. If you are fearful of contact or a room full of sweating heavy breathing angry bearded men. I’m sure most teachers would be happy to teach you a kata or two in a private lesson. You could then practice at home and be ahead of the game when we all hit each other again.

It beats a treadmill, trust me.

Our organization Sei Kosho Shorei Kai International has locations all over the country and even in Europe. If there isn’t a location near you, contact us and we will find a traditional school for you. As we have many friends across the globe. And we would love to to make some more.

So please share this post and help traditional dojos like yours get some future teachers.

Tom Duffy

Tom Duffy is the chief instructor at the Rhode Island Budo Academy located at the New England Martial Arts Dojo in Seekonk Massachusetts.

He has had multiple years training in both competitive and traditional martial arts. He currently teaches Japanese sword arts and Japanese Kempo/Jujutsu. For more info please visit our site


Thanks for taking the time…

Kata is Conflict Resolution!

Betchya didn’t know that!

Our teachers tell us all the time “The Kata is the art”. So I always feel sometimes students feel guilty when they don’t practice their forms/Kata. Without them we don’t get our belt and that’s the only incentive. Most teachers have also heard folks tell them they love Kata, but because of the exercise component. There is so much more to it than a series of movements and cool self defense moves.

While some folks gravitate to some modern arts, wellness clubs or even a college course to learn a “new concept” called conflict resolution, The Asian cultures have been doing it for centuries. Through KATA.

Students practicing Kata

Some of the modern arts that promote this don’t even include kata in their curriculum. This surprises me.

Nothing connects our mind and bodies to seek out that perfect day better than Kata.

I’ll explain what you’ve been missing….

So picture this, you are driving to work to a very challenging job and you say to yourself “Today will be a great day!”. You arrive at work and don’t even get past your coffee break to realize your day is going downhill fast. Usually it’s because of something that’s out of your control.

One the way home from your lousy day, you choose to go workout or take your art class, go running or whatever it is you do for recreation. You picture in your mind what a great evening you are going to have because now YOU are in control of the event or activity you are attending with high hopes of it being PERFECT!

Guess what….you have a bad workout, or your head just wasn’t focused that evening. So you feel you wasted the expense when you could have been doing something else worthwhile.

Sound familiar?

So how do we deal with this?


Kata won’t fix your day or your dance class, but it will help YOU deal with the disappointment and teach you to strive for perfection. So maybe, just maybe…. you’ll get a realization it was you and not your boss or your cheap running shoes that ruined your day.

Kata is so important because it connects you with how you think your day is going to be and how it really plays out. I call it “Reality check training.”

Here’s why,

Which martial art has a teacher with the perfect kata?

NONE! why?

Budo is the strive for perfection knowing that we will NEVER achieve it. So we practice it week after week to give it a try. The old masters used to say “Training ends with death”. The older I get the more I agree with them!

You see, budo is very challenging, so on the way to the dojo we create in our minds, visions of awesomeness only to get humbled each and every time, then that reality check comes. And sometimes we don’t even need our teachers to show us. We can just FEEL it. And that is what kata is, a feeling of your own being. Kata is where you come from and where you are going, It truly is in your own control, regardless of mental or physical challenges.

It differs from a regular workout with short term goals and a personal trainer blowing smoke up your behind for your credit card number.

Your personal reality of expectations consists of your thoughts, goals and dreams. This what you have on the inside

The reality check consists of things like your mean boss or those lousy running shoes. This is what you have on the outside

Rarely does the outside and the inside of us match perfectly in daily life. We live all day with tiny little reality checks.

The current trends of the youth (and the adults) not being able to handle life’s stress could be because they don’t know to deal with life’s reality. We have no teachers and we don’t know how to teach ourselves without help. Counselors these days have very busy waiting rooms..

The “reality check” is caused by a situation in which a person’s vision clashes with new situation perceived by the person. How we train to handle it is up to us. It’s not easy

Student practicing Jo-Staff Kata

Social media’s quick gratification of “Likes”, absent parenting and a quick “good for you!” or a trophy from peers can do more damage then you may think. Kata can help…

Kata is a drill of little “mini reality checks” for a period of time with constant feedback of correction both inside from yourself and outside from your instructor. (There’s that inside and outside thing again).

The more Kata you do in one session, the more tired you get both physically and mentally while dealing with the reality check. One can imagine the heartbreak and pain of kata the more fatigued one becomes.

No Pain no Gain!

One big difference between Kata and a gym workout or a treadmill is Kata is so much more than a stress outlet, it teaches you about your character, not just how far you are willing to run or how many reps you are willing to do. Kata takes practice practice practice with a teacher. If you skip the gym for a month you may have to “start over” at that lower weight or reps again and you’ve lost everything you worked hard for.

Kata stays with you for life…. including the lessons.

Oh and you learn self defense techniques which is what brought you into the dojo to begin with….Right? Think about it.

Kata never stops, when I was a young Bruce Lee fan learning Pinan/Heihan style forms in a Tae Kwan Do school, A down block was a down block. No questions, that was the end of the lesson. Just get stronger for the bigger kicks coming at you. As I got older and developed my kata I was able to understand when an older teacher told me the down block is really a throw while escaping a kick.


Kata grows with us. Ask any Orthopedic Doctor how many non-competitive martial arts injuries they get in their office per week. Then ask them how many football kids limp in the waiting rooms. Yes as we get older Kata means something different to us…

Not only does A Kata performed for a lifetime bring back memories of lessons and teachers but it also teaches it’s own little “reality checks” in the Kata itself, which means we need to reach even deeper to swallow the life lesson!

Iaido Sword Kata practice

Imagine how I felt when I was told I had been practicing a sword Kata wrong for 12 years….


No, I got excited. It was a new lesson and it’s easier and actually enjoyable to absorb because I have been practicing that Kata for 12 years…..incorrectly. Also I was able to apply that lesson to other Kata. It was an eye opening budo experience that I would not have enjoyed if I didn’t practice.

Make sense? It may not, unless you practice Kata.

YOUR Kata will NEVER be as good as you think it can be.

It’s human nature to judge other people based on what they do on the outside which are their actions. In the meantime we judge ourselves based on our insides which are real intentions. (There’s that inside-outside connection again.)

Wait, so Kata teaches us Human Nature?


Every time you practice. Study yourself instead of the students beside you. When you study yourself, you are studying human nature. Most humans behave the same…

And none of us are perfect, right?

Once you figure this out, your lack of perfection no longer matters because your journey to the achieve the perfect kata is gone. Working on making it perfect is the desire and the fun.

How many times have we heard that famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote “Life is a journey not a destination” He was a pretty smart guy and teacher. He would have been a great Martial Arts teacher.

Pinan Kata

   Kata helps us on this journey making the world at least a place that’s understandable through our own little private checks and balances. It also provides a physical/mental workout and awesome life preserving skills as well. Not to mention the fun, especially with a room full of others yelling and screaming and hitting things….

Give it a shot!

So what happens when that dedicated student does mange to perfect a kata (In his or her eyes) and makes that destination with nothing left to look forward too?

We have more kata….

Now go practice…

Thanks for taking the time to read my post.

Tom, Rhode Island Budo Academy

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