Tenouchi and appropriate action

Within the martial arts tenouchi is a fairly high level concept which literally means “inside of hand” (te/hand no/of uchi/inside) and which can be translated as grip. Understanding grip is obviously very important. What I offer here are just some general observations as they pertain to two-handed cutting weapons and how those observations translate into a couple of “life-lessons”. However, it should be clear how understanding grip is also important to the archer or in hand-to-hand combat; in particular in the latter understanding your opponent’s tenouchi will be important.

If you’re right handed, you will grab your two-handed sword with your right hand over (not on top of, dummy) your left hand and hold it kind a like you’re shaking someone’s hands only you hold the sword handle instead. Now onto the challenging part part of describing how not to hold it like a baseball bat (if you do, the handle will break out of your hand when you actually hit something bigger than a puny baseball). The strongest part of your hand for pressing is the bone in the palm near the wrist on the pinky side. You want to get this bone in play [when you integrate the sword to become much like a prosthetic limb] but anatomically you can not put it on top of the handle, however, you can get it halfway there. If you feel the bones in the palm your hand just above your wrist you’ll find one of the pinky side and one on the thumb side. Grab the handle with your right hand so the top right side of the handle presses into that and the meaty part of the thumb (between the second and third joint of the thumb counting from the finger tip) lies on top of the handle. Do the same for the left hand: meaty part directly on top, divide in the top left of the handle. This will feel a little awkward at first.

Now just wrap your fingers around the handle. You will notice that if you press the blade down on something you can actually do this with substantial force without the handle breaking out of your hand.

However, you don’t want to squeeze it hard constantly. The appropriate grip must be utilized. It is probably easier to describe an appropriate grip by explaining what it isn’t. (Incidentally, I don’t know what the correct tenouchi is but I do know some examples of what it isn’t.) Beginners will often grip too hard(*). While this makes for a strong cut, it doesn’t make for a particularly fast cut. Worse, such cuts tend to end up close to the body and the beginner swordsman will thus give up a lot of reach, typically 5-10″, as well as speed. Sometimes the beginner will also hold it too weakly. This results in embarrassing situations where the tip is plunged into the ground, the sword is knocked out of one’s hands or the sword simply slips out and adopts a ballistic trajectory.

(*)I believe this stems from the following problem: For the majority of people, their index and middle finger will be their strongest fingers and comparably their pinky will be rather weak. For a swordsman the little finger and the ring finger are the two strongest fingers. This makes sense if you are trying to prevent something from slipping through your hand. Those two fingers have “their back” against the other two fingers. If you were trying to hold something with your middle and index finger you would find that they had no backing.

The grip must be appropriate for what the sword is doing. When it is striking, the grip only need to be strong enough to hang onto the sword. (This leaves room for a quick reversal without working against yourself). Only when the sword hits must the grip be strong. Again, this is very awkward because a sword is a strange thing to handle.

However, we do it quite naturally when we pick things up. Go ahead and pick something up. You’ll note you use exactly as much force as you need to to pick it up. No more no less. You aren’t squeezing the object despite not even thinking about it, nor is the object slipping out of your hand. Now move the object around from side to side or up and down. Note again how you subconsciously apply a little bit more force every time it changes direction. This is actually a tremendously hard thing to do. Humans can do it with a fragile thing like an egg without even thinking about it. Programming a machine to do the same is hard. It is the same for a sword. If we had been born with swords in hands and we spent as much time cutting things as we did picking things up and moving them around, our tenouchi, our grip on the sword, would be appropriate as well.

If you want to get an idea—the hack so to speak—tenouchi for a sword cut is similar to casting with a spinfishing rod. You cast and bring the tip out. When the tip is where you want to hit, you stop the tip by wringing your hands. I believe this wringing is simply another hack to bring larger muscles (your lats) into play. The same technique is used for one-armed push ups. Irregardless, the wringing works and “powers up” the sword or the fishing rod as it may be sending all your energy into the tip. This either sends the lure flying out or it splits or cracks the target you’re striking with the sword. For the fishing rod, you’re done. The sword you just let fall unopposed by yourself until you either stop it or move it in another direction e.g. to parry a counterstrike. The important thing to remember is that when the sword is “powered up”, it is my understanding that you’re committed to the motion. The key then is to only apply the minimum amount of power to get the job done—with a sharp sword, that’s astoundingly little.

Yet, when considering “real life” our “grip” on things is often surprisingly inappropriate. Often too much force is applied. We build our houses too big, our transportation too fast, our food to full of fat and sugar. (We don’t seem to go about things in a way that is too small or too weak so I’m not going to comment on that problem.) When too much force is applied it is impossible to remain nimble or reverse course in the face of counter strikes. The worst part is that we are often the ones working against ourselves thus preventing us from action. This is a problem with our “reality”-tenouchi so to speak. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t have a good grip on reality—it is after all where all of us have spent all of our life(**)—yet it seems that this is not actually the case.

(**) I’m sure I’m going to get some comments on that one.

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Originally posted 2011-03-04 00:44:26.