Budo practice is exhilarating. I’ve been searching for the right word to describe how I feel about practice and how it makes me feel for years. Obviously I’m kind of slow if I’m just now figuring this out, but hey, after more than 25 years of exhilarating budo practice being thrown around, choked unconscious and beaten with sticks, maybe there’s a reason it’s taken me so long to figure it out.
People always ask if budo is fun, as if it is a game or a sport. Some bits of it are fun, but they are an awfully small portion of my budo practice. It’s difficult to call long practice sessions trying to master the proper swing of a sword, or the best way to unbalance someone, or the proper technique for sweeping someone’s weapon out of the way “fun.” They are challenging and intriguing and full of learning, but fun is not the word to describe them. That feeling when the sword flashes through the air and feels like it is doing the cutting itself and you’re just along for the ride? Exhilarating. The moment when you touch someone so their balance vanishes and they don’t even know you’ve done it and the throw happens as if they had jumped for you? Exhilarating. When you get the sweep just right and your partner’s weapon effortlessly whips around and behind them and maybe right out of their fingers? Definitely exhilarating.
Even when I don’t make those great leaps in understanding or technical ability though, budo is exhilarating. The focus it requires and teaches is wonderful. Getting every part of my body and mind to act as one, coordinated whole just feels fantastically exhilarating. Iai is certainly one of the least exciting forms of budo to watch. When done properly it is every bit as intense as any of the paired practice forms such as kenjutsu or jujutsu. Everything comes together and drives forward with an intensity and force that blocks out the rest of the world and leaves me panting with exhaustion in minutes. The ability to focus like that on something, even for a short while, is an amazing feeling. It’s certainly not fun, and it’s definitely not relaxing, although it does seem to drive the tension and stress out of my body and mind. It’s exhilarating.
Then there is paired practice like kenjutsu or jodo or any of the other delightful weapons we train with. You and a partner are actively trying to bash each other with big sticks, and getting hit is a real possibility if either of you makes a mistake. There’s just no way to call this “fun.” What it is, is fabulously focusing and energizing. The rest of the world vanishes as you focus on your partner’s intent and your own. There is no room for your mind to hold onto anything else. If you try to, you’re going home with big, beautiful bruises. All you have room for is the awareness or your partner, her weapon, the range at which that weapon is dangerous and where yours is, and how she is moving. She attacks filled with the intent of smashing you into the ground and yet your movement is just enough to avoid being struck while your counterattack steals her space and leaves her dangerously off-balance and unable to move, all in a single heartbeat of action. Absolutely exhilarating.
The free practices, known as randori in judo and aikido (though they are quite different) and ji-geiko in kendo, are deeply intense, energetic, powerful practices with you and your partner both giving everything to the training, whether you are focusing on developing and refining specific techniques in an unstructured situation, or going at it full-on to dominate and master your partner. It’s not “fun” in any sense of the word that I’m familiar with, but it is wonderful. Often it’s quite uncomfortable, especially when then bruises are tender. Still, the feeling, from the moment someone says “Hajime!” until well after the randori has ended, is one of exhilaration. I’m out there working with my whole body, and trust me, when those small muscles all over your body ache they next day you know you were using the whole thing. You’re also using your whole mind trying to figure out the puzzle your partner is offering you. Some days you figure out the puzzle in front of you, and some days you are the puzzle that is being figured out. Either way though, it’s exhilarating. When I take a really big fall, thrown by that 275 lb (125 kg) guy who sends me flying half way across the dojo and then lands on me, and I get up without any pain or problem because the ukemi was good, it is exhilarating knowing I can survive something like that. It’s even more exhilarating than when I throw him, although that is a different kind of exhilaration, the exhilaration of achieving something I really wasn’t sure I could do. When it’s all over and someone yells “Yame!” and we all bow and thank each other, the feeling of exhilaration continues. It lasts out the door, all the way home and often well into the next day. That feeling of doing things that are truly difficult, both throwing and being thrown, succeeding and failing, is exhilarating.
Budo is not fun. Fun is too small a word for what I feel when I train. Fun is a game of euchre at lunch, watching a baseball game with friends. Fun is pick-up basketball or a tea party with your kids. These are worth doing. They are fun. But they aren’t exhilarating. They don’t leave your body and mind flushed with the intensity of focusing completely on one thing and directing all your energy to one target. They don’t leave you exhausted, wrung out and relaxed from the work of gathering all your energy into one focused mass and throwing it at your target through the budo.
That’s the feeling I get from budo practice, exhilaration. At the end of practice I’m wrung out and exhausted, with my brain dribbling out my ears from the effort to do everything well, to analyze what I’m doing to and try to improve it a smidge every time I do it. How else can you describe the feeling of someone genuinely trying to beat you with a stick while you block and dodge and control his attacks without getting hit? The feeling of getting that 275 lbs guy up in the air and flying, or the joy when someone makes you fly and go slamming into the ground and it doesn’t hurt is just amazing. It’s exhilarating. Now I know what to say to all those people who ask if budo is fun. I tell them “No, it’s exhilarating.”