Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Why study swordsmanship in the 21st century?

Why study swordsmanship in the 21st century?  This is a really good question.  Its not typical that we all walk around with swords challenging each other to duals.  Its not normal that modern warfare is carried out using steel swords anymore (why haven't we invented light sabres yet?!).  So why study swordsmanship in the 21st century - and Japanese swordsmanship at that.

I’m been grappling with this question for some time and answers come in dribs and drabs.  The answer I give below, I believe, is a rational one and one that hopefully many of you will share.  It essentially comes down to the concept of what does swordsmanship teach.  I believe that swordsmanship teaches self-defence, at least in the historical context.  There was once a time when you could be challenged to a dual, and when your skills as a swordsman would have dictated whether you lived or died on the battlefield.  Those days are of course gone, so where then does the threat originate in the 21st century?

Its interesting that many people still take up martial arts because of the threat of physical violence.  It is interesting to note that last year an estimated 22,000 muggings and robberies occurred in the UK, the majority of which occurred without physical injury to the victim.  Thats 0.037% of the UK’s population.  

However, in contrast 24,000 people died year from diabetes and 9.3% of the population continue to suffer from it.  64% of adults were classed as obese, 124,000 individuals suffered from heart attack, a massive 44% of people were clinically diagnosed with stress, and 9% of the population suffered with depression.  A massive 80% suffered from a bad or weak back, 47% suffered from repeat chronic migraines, and 51% suffered from asthma.  The list could go on and on.  

Coming back then to the point in question, by trade I’m a risk manager.  I assess and advise people of the risks they are exposed to, the likelihood of them occurring and what options are available to them.  I don't believe I have to tell you that the risk of physical death or injury from poor health is more likely than that from physical violence.  This to me is what swordsmanship directly combats in the modern world.  This is what modern self-declare guards against.  

Martial arts use traditional methods to allow the practitioner to reshape and redevelop their body.  We use traditional systems and concepts to challenge and stimulate the brain.  Patterns, forms and routines are used to teach.  They are also used to better learn fundamental concepts of what it is that you are doing, whether these be timing, balance or distance routines.  According to a study published by Neurology in 2010, these brain teasers also help prevent dementia in those who practice them.  Now that, to me, is an interesting byproduct of training.

Swordsmanship has numerous benefits over hand to hand combat systems.  In Judo, Jujutsu, Aikido and Karate physical contact is required to train with another.  These sports are often deemed high impact in that you are often thrown and land on the mat with a thud.  To limit the impact the person being thrown learns to break their fall (break fall), thereby limiting the impact.  The problem is that an impact still occurs.  This is usually unproblematic when you are in your 20s, not so unproblematic by the time you are in your 50s and 60s.  Swordsmanship doesn't suffer from this in that there is little physical impact on your body, bar the movements that you yourself are making.   This results in swordsmanship being nick named, the “grandpa” art, in that you can keep doing it until you are very advanced in age.  Threat of injury and degenerative bodily ageing rarely stop a practitioner from practicing, meaning that practitioners can continue to keep themselves socially mobile and physical fit for longer thereby improving one’s quality of life.

Anyone who has ever done a hard sword session can attest to the physical demands it can place on the body.  This core bodily routine is an excellent way of losing weight and keeping in shape.  On the contrary, the speed or variability of the routine can be tailored to a slower audience allowing the session to be more mentally challenging and less physically demanding should the occasion require.  This, I feel, is the great versatility of swordsmanship.  It can be made to carter for all needs depending on one’s audience.

Swordsmanship isn't however just a session of physical wellbeing, it still continues to teach the traditional elements of martial arts such as:-  how to use the body as a weapon, how to use a sword with precision and how to defend one’s self in a fight.  But in a true fashion of self-defence I also believe that swordsmanship also protects it’s practitioners against the greater threat of injury or death, that being the threat of poor health.  With this in mind, this is why I believe we should study swordmanship earnestly.

So why Japanese swordsmanship?  Firstly, Japanese swordsmanship has survived the transition into the 21st century, unlike many western forms of swordsmanship.  Secondly, the impact of zen on the martial arts has meant that the Japanese typically look at martial arts a little differently from westerners.  In the west when boxing and sword fighting were no longer deemed the latest in warfare we switched those arts to sports.  In Japan they switched those arts to ascetics.  The Japanese method of ascetics often means that older unfit individuals can still continue to train and benefit from something that is both historically authentic but which meets the physical needs of the practitioner more relevantly.  After all, sports are great when you’re in your 20s and 30s, but beyond those years their appeal begins to wane for some.

It is with all the above in mind and to this end that I would conclude that to be passionate about swordsmanship, to fully train in it, and to fully understand it, is to fully protect one’s self, and one’s family, from the greatest threat posed - that of poor health, not just physical violence.  I believe, and I might be biased here, that the art I study and teach - Shinkendo - is the exact embodiment of what such a style of swordsmanship should be in that it is interesting, exciting, and fun, but it also has an massive beneficial impact on one’s physical wellbeing and health the longer you train in it.  This to me is good self-defence and exact why you should train in swordsmanship.