In class I casually mentioned that sword practice is very therapeutic. When asked why, I realized that my statement was intuitively based. This set my Left Brain in gear. Here are 6 benefits that he came up with. They have both physical & psychic components that are unique to sword practise.
LetÕs tackle each in turn.
In sword practice Awareness extends about 2 to 3 feet beyond the perimeter of the Body, as the PractitionerÕs attention should generally be on or around the tip of the sword, as that is where the action is. Further the arm-hand-finger complex actually feels the tip of the sword without touching it, just as the painter extends to the end of his brush and handwriting extends to the tip of the pen. This extension beyond our normal perimeters tends to break up the distorted notion that we are locked inside our Body as a Person. This reaching beyond the usual boundaries occurs naturally as the practitioner directs the tip of the sword towards a target, or, on a more practical level, avoids striking fellow classmates or other environmental obstructions when practicing Forms as a Group.
This extension into the surrounding environment encourages involvement in the external world, rather than retreat into an internal world. One subconsciously cultivates the sword-masterÕs essential role as protector of the realm - as someone who must stand up for justice - defend the weak – or beautify the world. This extension is somewhat of a necessity because one has first cultivated Balance in Tai Chi and then Extension in Swords. This extension of consciousness beyond the limits of the Body can be, but is not inherent to either Tai Chi or Yoga.
A second aspect of Sword has to do with the eyes and watching the sword tip or the edge of the blade. Then range of vision is so narrow that it is easier to practice one pointed concentration than with Tai Chi, where the point of concentration is ever changing – from different parts of one revolving hand to the other – to an elbow and perhaps even a shoulder. Although one-pointed focus is the target of Tai Chi , it is much easier to attain with the sword, where oneÕs range of focus is on the two or three inches at the tip of the sword, where all the slicing and stabbing occur.
Again due to the directed vision of the eyes into the outer world- there is a parallel urge of the practitioner to engage with the real world instead of withdrawing. Yoga, of course, cultivates one-pointed attention, but it is generally directed inward rather than outward – with parallel results.
The inherent nature of a sword, two sharp edges and a point, leads to a heightened precision of movement. Although this same precision is also part of Tai Chi, it is easier to fudge the movements – as sloppiness in motion, pretends to be flowing, lightness, or continuous speed. While this is also possible with the sword, the parameters of precision are much narrower. In the hand-to-hand combat of Tai Chi the body has multiple striking surfaces – various parts of the hand and foot, not to mention elbow, shoulder and even the head. The sword has only two – the tip and the edge of the blade. – which are both clearly defined.
Further there is always a leading edge with the sword. This should change rapidly with precision from the little finger edge, i.e. the forehand, to the thumb edge, i.e. the backhand. There are also rapid changes in the direction of the blade as it moves from side to side to clear away obstructions.
Because the overall motion of the sword is supposed to be a constant speed and continuous, spiral motion becomes a necessity at the transitions – the changes of direction. This enables the sharp edge of the blade to be constantly leading rather than lapsing into flatness. The flat of the sword blade rarely leads; and if it does it should be intentional.
Frequently the transition from one direction to another has to do with circling around an opponentÕs wrist. Because of the nature of the target, the utmost precision and control is required. A body is large, while a wrist is very small. Again this sharpness leads to attention to detail, which again expands conscious awareness by the necessity of attending to the subtle blade changes around a subtle and ever-changing target. In parallel fashion it teaches the practitioner to adapt subtly to an ever-changing world.
In contrast the poses of Yoga tend to be static. And while the dynamic Tai Chi movements are intended to be precise, they can easily degenerate into bluntness due to the extreme complexity of the target as well as the striking surface.
Further this extreme precision or sharpness that is required when slicing or stabbing is extremely useful when exorcising personal demons or taming monsters. These supernatural creatures, spawned at an early age, are easily able to circumvent a dull or imprecise attack. Cultivating the sharpness of the slice also tends to be very useful when uncovering the hidden self by ruthlessly slicing away the false ego that corrupts our true Being. Surgical precision is necessary when extracting the unessential in order to avoid damaging, injuring or even killing the essential.
The targets of the sword are more distinct, as there is only a limited attacking surface and fewer. Also the primary targets are the wrists as the sword extends our reach nearly 3 feet beyond our body and the wrists tend to be closest and most vulnerable. An opponent without a sword is relatively defenseless. Cultivating an external target further extends us into the outer world – with the precise goal of molding the surrounding world rather becoming a victim of circumstances. Thus target cultivation encourages a proactive, rather than a reactive, relationship with our environment.
This distinct feature of sword work is of utmost important. Hand-to-hand combat requires a certain stability to avoid being uprooted – swept away, as it were. This is especially true of Push Hands practice, where oneÕs feet are always planted. However rooting is ineffectual against the sword, which easily stabs and slashes the soft tissues of the Body with very little strength required. Witness the lethal nature of a tiny razor blade in the right hands. Because the danger associated with the slightest strike the sword practitioner must cultivate lightness in both feet, hands and body. In the implied hand-to-hand combat of Tai Chi one can take or deflect a body stride with the body itself. Not so with the sword. Hence the legs and arms are of necessity raised much higher to avoid potentially lethal slashes. Even Body, herself, is required to curve inwards to avoid strikes to the belly.
While extreme body lightness is required to avoid the sharp blade, sword lightness is also required for offense, as some of the most lethal attacks can occur on the retreat, while circling around the wrist. The delicacy of movement requires a lightness and flexibility of the wrist that is primarily a feature of sword work.
In parallel fashion the lightness of the body translate into a lightness of mind, which is necessary for detaching from the false conceptions generated by Brain. Without lightness Being is submerged in the quagmire of the Person. Unable to disentangle oneself due to the weight of the thoughts - the importance attributed to them, Being eventually drowns – as destructive habit patterns are inadvertently reinforced over and over and over again. Inadvertently one becomes a hapless victim of fate - fodder for the cannon - a pawn in the external game. Under these circumstances how is one to avoid a zombie-like existence or a premature death – whipped hither and thither by internal emotional states – battered and broken by external misunderstandings.
A final advantage to sword work is that it teaches yielding. In hand-to-hand combat the usual strike is direct and with power – a punch, kick, a body strike, or an elbow stroke. Fa jing is a technique that is cultivated which has to do with issuing power. If yielding or neutralizing are employed it has to with using the opponentÕs energy against them. In contrast the yielding or retreating motion of sword work is frequently also an attack. There is no need for issuing power or strength due to the sharpness of blade. This teaches that conflicts can be resolved with subtlety rather than brute force. Rather than tackling a problem head on, one can solve it through finesse. Again although Tai Chi incorporates yielding it is defensive rather than offensive, while Yoga is static.
LetÕs end with a statement of relativity. Sword work is especially valuable for those who are under-involved in the world as it teaches extension, target, yielding and subtlety. Yoga, on the other side, is especially valuable for those who are over-involved in the world, as it cultivates awareness and quietude. This leads to our last point. Sword work without meditation is akin to work without rest.
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