Last week I published a loose translation about tenouchi which was quite popular. However, when I was reading the original piece, and again whilst I was translating it, I was struck by the sheer detail of description and it made me uneasy. Now, I know that many people like to read quite detailed descriptions about techniques and what not (and I’ve translated my fair share of them for kenshi 24/7), but I am generally not one of them. In fact, when it comes to things such as tenouchi and fumikomi (for example) I think that overly detailed descriptions are almost useless (for the majority of practitioners that is).
As someone who coaches students on a day to day basis, how then do I teach something like tenouchi?
It’s simple: I don’t… (at least, not in the manner of the last article).
The first thing I do is to show students how to hold the bokuto/shinai in their hands. I basically say:
“Hold your hands in this way . Grip tightly with the bottom fingers and leave the others loose.” And that’s it.
From then on I’ll just ensure that they aren’t pinching with their thumb+forefinger and that there is some looseness around that area. Making unnatural shapes with their hands is also a no-no (people coming from an iaido background will often make affected shapes with their hands): “hold the shinai naturally.”
The next step for beginners is lots of suburi. I focus almost on extending the arms (more so the left) and cutting down to around chin level (on men strikes). I emphasis a sharp downward strike with hikitsuke.
That’s it. I don’t teach any squeezing of anything: “just swing up and down naturally” I say, “don’t think too much.”
The next step is to actually hit something. Usually this is a partners shinai, but it could be a tyre or some sort of uchikomidai. Here the emphasis is almost completely on relaxing the hands after striking: “after the cut relax the tension in your shoulders and hands.”
Kirikaeshi: the secret ingredient
What I do now is simple: have the students do loads of receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi everyday for the first few months. In the beginning this can simply be shomen (cut 1 shomen, then do 4 shomen forward, 5 back, repeat) and/or yokomen type (cut 1 shomen, then do 9 yokomen, repeat).
“Slowly and carefully cut large, cut round, and cut strongly” is the mantra I use. The only thing I warn students about here is rebounding up after a strike: “after hitting relax and leave the shinai where it is.”
Now all I do is step back, keep quiet, and let kirikaeshi do it’s job: the students will work it out for themselves naturally without prompting.
The next step
After this the next step is doing the normal type of kirikaeshi plus moving onto normal kihon practice. By this stage many of my beginner students will have pretty good tenouchi and I don’t need to interfere much at all. Great! It is now their responsibility to ensure that they are using their hands correctly across multiple different kinds of techniques (tsuki being the one where many struggle).
Note that I always start every session with multiple receiving-on-the-men-kirikaeshi, partly as a way of checking tenouchi before moving on to other techniques.
The instructors main role: striking and being struck
The best way to teach a student about tenouchi, however, is to strike them correctly. In the same vein, the only way to get feedback on a students tenouchi is to be struck by them. If their tenouchi doesn’t “feel right” I tell them so and tell them to work more on it (I don’t bother going into minute analysis).
As far as I am concerned, then, striking and being struck is the most important way to develop tenouchi, if not the only way (obviously repetition and time is required). It’s also faster than overly verbose instruction.
… and that’s my secret to developing good tenouchi in a nutshell (assuming you were actually interested in the first place!!).