September 14, 2009 / 10:08 AM / in 8 years

Kendo: crossing swords, singing masks

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Kendo may not appear to be the most likely fitness regimen but the modern martial art based on ancient Japanese swordplay gives the entire body a workout, even the vocal chords.

“When you move in kendo you make a voice, almost like singing,” said Noboru Kataoka of the vocalization that to the uninitiated sounds more blood-curdling scream than song.

“That makes your body very relaxed and soft,” the master teacher, or sensei, of the New York City Kendo Club said in an interview. “If you don’t make that voice the muscles get tense.”

Kataoka learned the fundamentals of samurai swordsmanship as a 16-year old in Kochi, Japan. He has been teaching kendo, which means the way of the sword, for 32 years.

”You develop deep breathing,“ Kataoka said. ”You use both arms equally, so even when you’re older you can move your arms.

“Kendo is an even exercise. The whole body gets strong,” he said. “It’s a lean body, not like pumping iron, because in kendo you have to move fast.”

There are as many as 8 million kendo practitioners worldwide, with about 3.5 million in Japan alone. Competitive tournaments are held worldwide.

But whether you aspire to tournament competition or just a flat stomach, fast is not nearly enough.

“You look for beauty in the fighting,” said Kataoka, a competitor who holds the rank of 7th Dan, “The beauty of your posture, the elegance of the moves and beauty of your mind.”

He likens it to ballet.

“There is a certain form. If you hit with an ugly form no one wants to play with you,” he said.

And this grace must be sustained while lugging around 8 kgs (17.6 lbs) of chest armor, robes, helmet and a face cage fearsome enough to give Darth Vader pause.

“That’s your protection.” Kataoka said of the uniform, which dates back to the 18th century and is designed after the armor of the samurai.

Even the bamboo swords, or shinai, are 100 years old.

“It’s bamboo so when you get hit you feel it but it doesn’t hurt. If it’s pain you cannot enjoy kendo,” he said.

Dr. Jonathan Chang, of the American College of Sports Medicine, says martial arts like kendo offer a complete, rigorous workout for the upper and lower body. But he cautions that they might not be suitable for everyone.

”Prior injuries, such as a knee sprain or rotator cuff tear would limit participation,“ the orthopedic surgeon said from his office in Alhambra, California. ”And the extra demands of the tools increase the risk of injuries to the upper body.

But he added that when someone is well coached injuries should be minimized, but cannot be eliminated.

Kataoka believes anyone from children to older people can do Kendo, albeit at different levels.

He agrees that quality instruction is key.

“If you do kendo you need a really good teacher, or else it becomes a street fight.”

Kataoka says Kendo is more dance than brawl, but with a difference.

“In dancing you must move from rhythm which comes from outside. Kendo you move to your own rhythm,” he explained.

“But you must have form. You only hit with the top of the stick, you yell in an educated way.”

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