Tanren: 7 Points To Consider When Training
Tanren in Japanese means to forge or hammered into strength, like a new sword getting shaped on an anvil.
The first time I saw an Aikido Tanren was at Mic Marelli Sensei’s ‘Aiki Kunren (Shuren) Dojo’ on the North Shore of Sydney. It was made up of a tyre and encased in a box made out of timber. I used it a few times however I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Oh, I wish now, I did.
The second Aikido Tanren I saw was in Iwama Japan. This time I was an Aikido uchideshi and was required by Saito Sensei to hit it two hundred times a day. YES, you read that correctly. We had to hit it 200 times a day.
Every time I passed it during the course of the day (during cleaning or going to the outdoor toilet) I have to hit the Tanren 20 to 30 times to do my two hundred hits a day.
Although my Japanese is limited, I relate the word (name) Tanren to forging, hardening, disciplining and tempering. The word came from Japanese sword making. Similarly, as Aikido uchideshi(s), that’s what we all went through when we trained Aikido in Iwama and at the Tanrenkan.
Although I learned many Aikido lessons from hitting the Tanren, I couldn’t write them all in this post.
Let me share with you 7 things to consider when training with this tool.
1) If Possible Avoid Using Your Bokken or a Bokuto
On my first day as an Aikido Uchideshi, I used my brand new lightly coloured Japanese oak bokken to hit the tyre, as a result, the tip of my bokuto got tyre marks and it became black. I was not impressed. Please use a Tanren Bo (A Tanren bat/stick) or a Suburito instead. My favourite is a small but fresh log (not dried) about 1 metre long with a whittled wide grip handle. These tools are heavier than your Bokuto and will act as weights. This is probably the closest thing to weights training as far as Aikido training goes. The added weight will enhance your core strength. The wide grip also resembles the circumference of a man’s forearm.
2) Do All Seven Ken Suburi to Achieve Your 200 Hits Per Day
I did 30 reps for six of the seven ken suburi, except the 3rd suburi of which I did 20 reps. Let me give you a heads up. Wielding a heavy Tanren Bo 30 times may seem to be easy on your first set, however, you have another 170 hits to go. Take your time and don’t be in a hurry.
I measured my heart rate a few times and my average is 155 beats per minute (bpm) on a 1 Tanren hit per 1-second cycle. This is my sweet spot on a base (resting) heart rate of 55 bpm.
When I tried to double my speed (that is 2 Tanren hits per second) my technique became messy and my average heart rate shot to around 170 to 180 bpm. I felt dizzy. It is not a good idea to be dizzy when doing martial arts and especially on bukiwaza. If you are out of breath or dizzy, stop and recover.
I highly recommend that you take 10 to 15 deep breath cycles to recover before the next set.
The Tsuki on 6th and 7th suburi have pretty much three versions. The first version is Tsuki (thrust) the top of the tyre, keeping in contact and mimicking a side slice (right index finger knuckle on the side).
The second version was Tsuki (thrust) the actual tyre. The third version is to Tsuki (thrust) the inside circle space of the tyre. I prefer the first version because I still have the friction from the tyre, it gave me that connection with the Tanren.
The second version needed a bit more control. I’ve bounced off the tyre a few times and tipped over the whole Tanren when I did the second version. I’m not a fan of The 3rd version because it felt like I’m thrusting air and I didn’t feel a connection with the Tanren.
I left the 3rd ken suburi last because the movement is slower, meditative and the Kiai longer. It is a good meditative way to finish your 200 Tanren hits for the day.
3) Be Mindful Of Your Footwork and Breathing When Doing Tanren Training
These two factors will determine your timing. The Tanren is stationary so you have to spin on your axis like a top. To achieve this, I had to be really mindful of my footwork. I’ve overstepped forward and hit the Tanren using the middle of the Suburito and I’ve also missed the Tanren because I stepped back too much.
It is important to stay relatively on the same spot and spin on your axis like a top.
The Tanren Bo or Suburito are heavier than the bokken, they require more energy to wield. By coordinating my footwork with my breathing, not only my timing and coordination improved but I also lasted the 30 reps (per suburi) that lead to the daily 200 Tanren hits required.
Remember to breathe in when raising the sword and Kiai (totally breathe out from the diaphragm) when cutting. Make sure your back foot lightly hits the ground at the same time when the Tanren Bo powerfully hits the Tanren.
4) Make Sure Your Right-Hand Index Knuckle Is on Top of the Tanren Bo or Suburito When Cutting
Have a look at how Sensei grips the sword. Look at where is the right index finger knuckle placed on the Tanren Bo.
This is basic Ich No Suburi (1st Aiki Ken Suburi). Cut completely and finish with your right index finger knuckle on top of the Tanren Bo or Suburito. If the right index finger knuckle is on the side, you are holding back on your cut. Let the Tanren Bo or Suburito cut.
Don’t force it to cut.
Compared this action to ‘wringing a wet towel’ to get all the water out.
5) Avoid Letting the Suburito Bounce or Vibrate
Now, this is the technical challenge, the Suburito is only allowed to hit the Tanren once per cut. Avoid letting the Suburito bounce, vibrate, or hit the Tanren more than once. You will hear a vibrating sound when the Suburito hits the Tanren more than once.
To achieve this, make sure your right index finger knuckle is on top and as soon as you hit the Tanren with your full-cut, immediately raise your sword to do the next cut (don’t linger).
Please avoid gripping the Tanren Bo or Suburito too tightly to stop the vibration. If you grip too tightly, you will take all the jarring and vibration in your arms and in your body. This jarring is not good for your joints, back and your form.
This is a technical skill and the second bounce can only be eliminated with the proper form. Practice this skill a lot and be strict on your form and sword cut to eliminate the bounce.
6) Do Tanren Exercise With a partner and use each other’s energy to keep going:
Like going to the gym, it is better to do Tanren training with a friend or partner. If you have a partner you can use each other’s energy to keep going. You can also awase (blend) each other’s timing and speed.
7) Use your Tanren For Target Practice
If I had to choose between precision and power, although I’d rather take both, precision is the key. When doing Tanren training hit your target properly.
I went to the hardware store to buy myself an oak dowel to use as a Jo. Avoid using your main Jo for tanren exercise because it will break the tip of the Jo (staff).
I d0 20 Jo Suburi, 13 Jo Kata, and 31 Jo Kata on the tanren. I built the tanren above. Notice there are ‘X’ all over it. They mark the vital points to hit during Jo kata. The trickiest one to hit was the lower targets low thrusts and Gaedan Gaeshi.
I would encourage everyone that has done Tanren Training before to spread this post. I really believe all Aikidoka around the world would benefit from Aikido Tanren Exercises.
Let me share with you a video I found of Osensei and Saito Sensei doing Tanren Exercises. Back then, they didn’t have the rubber tyre encased in a timber box like we do today. Instead, they used sticks bound by rope.
To conclude. The Aikido Tanren is similar to the boxer’s heavy bag. It gives us Aikidoka a chance to hit something hard without holding back. This training exercise will dramatically help your Aikido. It will strengthen your body and improve your form.