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We are back in the Netherlands for a new appointment with the Kiryoku interviews to learn the story of another high-level European budoka, Aad van de Wijngaart sensei, kyoshi 7th dan of jodo and iaido, fascinated by Japanese blades since the age of eight and since then following different Do, including karate.
Let’s discover through his fascinating experience how he lived the beginnings of iaido, how he developed his vision accompanied by his sensei teachings and what his suggestions are on how to really transmit a passion.
Van de Wijngaart sensei, thank you for taking the time to talk about you, your history and your iaido, from the european dawn of this discipline until these days. What about then starting with something about your life?
I was born in Rotterdam, in August 1959. I studied history at Leiden University and also did the teacher’s course for that subject. So I have some idea of didactics.
However, after finishing my studies I soon found work as a freelance writer focusing on IT and science. I’ve been doing that ever since. It gives me the freedom to fit budo into my life.
So, you are a sensei not only for what is about iaido, rather a lifelong professional teaching career at 360 degrees. What about iaido then, when and how did you start?
As an eight years old boy, I was inspired to make a katana. But because of the limited materials available to me, not to mention my limited skills, it didn’t look quite right.
Almost twenty years later I was teaching karate. I bought a book about various martial arts, that also had a few pages about iaido. That was love at first sight for me! But it was long before internet and I didn’t know that there actually were people practicing iaido in the Netherlands.
Nonetheless, I found a little book in German that described the seven (!) Seiteigata. And I bought a sword. A daisho, actually. Of course it was a replica: top-heavy, and without bohi. With those two resources, I trained myself for a year.
Talking about influences and back to the beginning, how then you developed in iaido since the beginning and what dan grade did you reach?
For my training, I used the old dancehall of the students’ club where I had been a board member. The floor had been repaired with little nails, some of which I had to hammer back in before each practice session. And I didn’t know about kneepads…
But in September 1984, a Dutch martial arts magazine published an announcement for an iaido beginners course. It was taught by Louis Vitalis, who held the exalted rank of yondan in this art. I joined the course and after 15 two hour classes plus the first Dutch iaido seminar, I passed the shodan examination.
Soon after, I joined the nearest NKR dojo, Kendo Kai Den Haag, and I’ve been at that dojo ever since. By the early 90’s however, there were only three members left for iaido. Because of personal circumstances of the other two, I had become the highest graded member. They asked me to take responsibility for teaching. I accepted the challenge and we organised a beginners course.
Happily, over the years the dojo has grown quite a bit. We now have about 35 members for iaido and 20 for jodo.
I’m nanadan kyoshi now in jodo as well as iaido. My only other dan grade is shodan in karate. I probably should mention that I also dance Argentine tango, since that has taught me a lot about softness, connection and continuity. I really needed that after karate. On the other hand, karate did give me flexibility, strength and body awareness.
A love at first sight but that has never cooled down. On the opposite, it has strengthened over time and that offered you a way to understand it intimally. What does iaido represent for you, what does it offer you?
For me, iaido is a fascinating challenge. I try to understand it in all its depth, to discover its most basic principles and make those my own. To embody iaido, eventually.
Of course, that’s quite ambitious! I’ll never get there. But I always try to find the meaning behind what we are taught. As an example: techniques in iaido should start softly, not like a jerking action. But that softness then turns into great speed. How is this possible?
Part of the answer is in Henneman’s size principle. This physiological, well-proven theory describes how the fibers in a muscle are activated. They are organised in groups. Whenever a muscle is told to contract, at first the smallest groups of fibers are fired by the neurons. This is why we humans can use our body for subtle, fine work like painting or playing music. When power needs to be increased, bigger and bigger groups are added.
This process takes time – though not much. It’s important that we give our body this amount of time: otherwise our coordination may be impaired.
Often, people try to work around this by tensing their muscles before the start of the cut. They use the opposing muscles to create the resistance that mobilises the muscles to their full power.
This may be one interpretation of ‘tame’, which translates as storing, in this case of energy.
In my humble opinion, it’s not a good idea. First the tensing takes time, and then it takes time to relax the opposing muscles. You are wasting both time and energy. All the while, the opponent is impatiently waiting for you to kill him. And finally the technique becomes a semi-controlled, jerking action.
This is probably why the fourth chakuganten of Mae says that there should not be a pause (”ma”) in the vertical cut. (“Ma o oku koto naku kirioroshite iru ka?”)
The logic of iaido is ultimately about how to use a sword to kill people as fast and easily as possible. Based on that logic, katas were developed as didactical instruments to build fighters in a society that was mostly at peace. So I look at every kata for the specific lessons it teaches our body, mind and/or soul.
Of course, I take the same investigative approach to jodo. If you follow the ZNKR handbook closely, you’ll find important clues about how to use the body to move the jo. I think this is something many people neglect. That’s a real pity.
I find iaido just as fascinating and beautiful today as it was when I first set sight on it. The difference is that now I’m in a position to share that love with lots of friendly and enthusiastic people. Through teaching, not just in the Netherlands, but also in other countries.
Loving to share one’s own knowledge and experience is one among the most beautiful feeling that truly reflects the deep passion of a teacher: do you think there is any difference comparing japanese teaching approach, as your sensei’s to you, and the western’s, as yours to your students?
In this case, the difference may not be quite so big. The Japanese Sensei that I’ve always followed is Ishido Sensei, of course. And he is not typical Japanese, at least in his teaching approach.
He realised that he had only little time to introduce these Europeans to something that was very different from their own world. So he looked for ways to make things clear. To explain how iaido works. I try to follow his example.
There can be no improvement without change, so I try to be critical of my own perceptions of iaido (and jodo). As Ishido Sensei once advised me, I film every minute of my personal practice. It’s quite revealing…
With such a long career, when did you start thinking of teaching? Have you developed any preference for a specific class of students, for their unique requirements, for example children, competitors or adults?
I started teaching karate in the early 80’s; iaido and jodo in the early 90’s.
Personally, I like to provide time for questions when I’m teaching. I always try to answer them as best I can. The great thing about questions is that they give me an insight into how students think about iaido. And they make me think too: about things that may have escaped my attention or that I always took for granted. Trying to answer such questions has taught me a lot about teaching and about iaido.
And finally it’s nice if you can give people something that helps them. That’s a source of joy: sharing with people. Basically I’m like a child in a beautiful garden, taking in all the wonders, trying to understand them, and sharing my joy and discoveries with others.
But of course, iaido is a physical activity. You’ve only mastered a technique if your body has learned how to do it right without thinking, and that takes a lot of focused physical practice. With my students, I’m open and positive. I try the see the good things in anyone’s iaido. But I know exactly what I want and I never give up.
So I aim for a high standard, not only for myself but also for them. Some of my students learn very fast, others have things that work against them. But each of them deserves my full attention. As long as they are willing to learn, I’m there to help them.
I should also mention that I’m a fanatical notetaker, trying to learn something not only from seminars, but from every class I teach.
I think you mentioned an critical topic, as the importance for a teacher to listen and to be taught back through the connection with students. Lessons based on such foundation has surely developed through time, so how is your typical iaido lesson nowadays?
It takes an hour and a half. The last third of every class is free practice. That’s nice for the students because they can do katas that they enjoy or want to improve. And it’s nice for me because I can take time to give attention to every individual student and connect with them.
Furthermore, it forces students to take responsibility for their own development: to consciously look for things and ways to improve. It stimulates them to also train outside class.
About personal development, do you think non-japanese iaidoka can really understand the culture and “philosophy” behind the iaido?
This question makes me think of the time when Japanese musicians started to record western classical music. Many people said that they had excellent technique, but would never ‘get’ the spirit of Bach or Beethoven. Nowadays, some of my favourite Bach recordings are by the Japanese conductor Suzuki Masaaki. (I happen to know Louis Sensei also likes them, by the way.)
When a journalist asked Suzuki if a Japanese could really play Bach, he answered that he was actually more qualified than most Europeans. Because, like Bach, he was a devout Christian while most Europeans nowadays are not.
So, to answer your question, it’s obvious that for Japanese it’s easier to access the traditional culture that produced iaido. But it’s not a black or white issue. I’ve heard of Japanese who walk into the dojo in their shoes.
And when you dig deep enough into iaido, you’ll come to layers that are the same for all of us.
As we are stepping deeper into the topic of development and how things changes through time and experience, what do you think about the future of european iaido?
Many years ago I discovered that there were actually more mandoline orchestras in Holland than practitioners of iaido. Have you ever seen a mandoline orchestra? I haven’t. I don’t know how many such orchestras there are are today, but the number of iaidoka hasn’t grown much, at least in the Netherlands.
What did grow, was our level of understanding. And so new beginners also start at a higher level. A mudan may even beat a sandan, a yondan and a godan at the European Championships.
However, there’s a risk for iaido to become dominated by small dojos of ambitious people that are also close friends. That may scare off new beginners. And, well, nobody lives forever…
So we must keep attracting new beginners, preferably young people. Well-publicised beginners courses are a good way to lower the threshold of your dojo. Make your new members feel welcome and help them deal with this strange new world.
Most of all, show them you’re enjoying budo, as Ishido Sensei told us during the jubilee seminar in Eindhoven. Because why do it if you don’t enjoy it? Nobody’s paying you a salary.
In addition to welcoming beginners by making them aware that they are joining a truly open group, what would you recommend to those who are initialally approaching iaido?
The things that you learn first will tend to color your iaido forever.
Try to find a good instructor and do your best to understand the teachings properly.
And as an instructor who relates correctly with your students, what is a particular budo teaching that you like the most to transmit?
It’s said that the instructor is the needle and the students are the thread. Because they follow the example of their instructor.
It’s like raising children: they may not listen to your advice, but they will copy your behaviour. And your mistakes.
So the most important thing that we can do, as higher grades, is setting an example of continuous self-improvement. We need to feed our love for iaido by training, studying, teaching, sharing.
Once again i reached the end of these interviews without realising how much sensei time i have abused, kidnapped every new time by these charming stories which i always want to know more about.
So, while i can only thank you so deeply for the time you dedicated to answer all these questions, there is still a final one we are used to close with: can ask i about any funny anecdote about your iaido life?
As I said, my first sword was not an iaito, but a replica, without bohi. During the beginners course, all the people around me were creating impressive swooshing sounds, but my cuts were silent. No matter how hard I tried to force the blade down.
I thought it was because of my bad technique or lack of strength. But one day, one of the other beginners had bought a new sword. During the break he let me try it. I did a kirioroshi – and then looked around to see who had made that sound. It took me some time to realise it was me.