I love swords, so I designed a course on how to use them to succeed in life

Text saying: Uncommon Courses, from The Conversation

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course:

“Samurai Swordsmanship”

What prompted the idea for the course?

When I was very young, I was intrigued by swords. Maybe that was a result of watching too many sword scenes from Errol Flynn movies. At any rate, the result was that when I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I began participating in European fencing, which is a style of competition using a foil – which is a sword with a light, flexible blade – or a rapier with a protective tip. This style of competition is very popular and can be seen in the Olympics.

Then I saw a gentleman demonstrate techniques and movements with a samurai sword, a Japanese katana, and I was instantly hooked. I began training in iaido – which is the art of unsheathing and using the Japanese katana.

The katana is a sword developed during the Kamakura period – from 1185 to 1333 – and it became my passion. The idea for this course came from my desire to share this passion with others.

What does the course explore?

The most obvious subject covered in the class, which I teach at the University of Tennessee, involves the various techniques of using the sword. The techniques are from iaido and are centuries old.

In this course, bokken are used to practice the techniques. Bokken are wooden training tools which are used to ensure the safety of beginning practitioners. The techniques taught in this course are very close to the same techniques that the samurai trained with hundreds of years ago. But, in addition, the course delves into the mental and emotional aspects of iaido.

Iaido is about maintaining mental and emotional balance in the midst of turmoil. This course explores some of the strategies that enable the student to achieve that mastery over themselves. A good example of that would be the use of positive self-affirmations. For instance, if we were to look at ourselves in the mirror and think to ourselves, “I am overweight and out of shape,” we are programming ourselves to have a negative self-image. By using positive self-affirmations, we change that observation of self to, “I am working toward being in the kind of shape that I want to be in.” We are then programming ourselves to have a more positive self-image because we are improving. The self-image that we program into ourselves has a large influence on our daily interactions with the world around us.

Why is this course relevant now?

In our modern culture, people often maintain an extremely fast pace. Information and stimuli bombard us at a rate never seen before, and it can be overwhelming. Being able to maintain a sense of calm and inner peace in the midst of this maelstrom is key, and a very real challenge. Iaido is centered around achieving and maintaining that balance.

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

The martial arts are so much more than a recreational pursuit. If used properly, lessons learned from martial arts can be applied in a peaceful, nonviolent manner every day, allowing us to achieve our true potential.

What materials does the course feature?

Research has shown that when students process information in different ways, they are more likely to retain the information.

Based on that, in this class the students see the techniques performed, then they perform the techniques, and then they sketch and describe the techniques. This provides an opportunity to not only process the information multiple times but to process the information in multiple ways.

What will the course prepare students to do?

At the end of this course, students should have a good foundation in samurai swordsmanship, specifically iaido.

Essentially, iaido is about helping students learn how to find peace and harmony within themselves and how to maintain a calm and peaceful manner when faced with a stressful situation.

The students will learn realistic swordsmanship as well as self-defense techniques. Also, students will receive the benefits from the physical workout as well as an appreciation for a holistic approach to a healthy lifestyle.


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