A smile flashes across Mark McAllister’s face as he shows off his latest iaido certificate.
“This is the seal of the Emperor of Japan,” he says, as he points towards the stylized chrysanthemum flower at the top of the glass-framed certificate. “It’s really cool to be part of something that is so much older and bigger than me,” he says.
Described as the way of the sword, iaido is a martial art that first emerged in the mid-1500s during Japan’s Shogunate period when a caste of military nobles (Samurai) ruled. The purpose of iaido is to develop awareness, centredness, sincerity, a calm mind, and mental and physical harmony through the practice of traditional sword techniques that aim for maximum economy.
While the Samurai lost power a long time ago, their swordsmanship with its unique teaching techniques and traditions has survived and McAllister now wants to share it with others through the dojo that he and Stuart Branson will run out of Prospect Lake Community Hall on Mondays from 6 to 8 p.m.
“It [iaido] trains the mind and the body to be really aware of what is going around [it],” he says. It can especially benefit people who might be dealing with physical and mental issues such as anxiety, he says.
The 40-year-old Saanich resident speaks from experience as he describes his journey into iaido. He is sitting on the patio of his home in the Prospect Lake area. It lies at the end of a narrow road that eventually turns into gravel. Firs mark the edge of the rural property and screen out the late August afternoon sun. It is quiet, even serene and McAllister’s mood matches the feeling. But it was not always so.
McAllister’s path began with a serious collision in 2008. He was riding his scooter to the University of Victoria, where he was studying fine arts, when he was struck by a vehicle.
When McAllister woke up alone eight hours later just after midnight, he had no idea why he was lying flat in a hospital bed. “I don’t remember anything [about the accident],” he said. “I was totally unconscious.”
McAllister says he still remembers the sounds that his body made when he woke up in hospital.
“I tried to sit up, and my whole body made this series of cracking sounds,” he says. “It was all the fascia [connective] tissue in my skin that had hardened from the accident.”
McAllister left the hospital that night. “They just let me out, and that was it,” he says.
But if McAllister escaped more serious injuries, the collision soon left him in a permanent state of haze. Feelings of chronic fatigue, frequent migraines of great severity, and dizzy spells started to undermine the quality of his life and relationships, none more important than his marriage.
“And it wasn’t until after I was married, that I realized that I had all kinds of issues, anger issues, over-stimulation,” he says.
One physical factor was the loss of the pituitary gland only discovered last year. Located in the back of the human skull, this pea-sized gland secretes a series of hormones including testosterone, regulating a series of other hormonal glands. The force of the collision “pulverized” it, said McAllister. “It’s extremely important, and often it’s the first thing to go in a brain injury.”
Unable to receive rehabilitation through the provincial automobile insurance system, McAllister joined an outpatient rehabilitation program for persons who have had acquired brain injuries.
“They encouraged me to find something that I could do to help me with my balance, my co-ordination, and I remembered that my sensei from karate had practised iaido. So I checked it out and fell in love with it the first night,” he says.
Since then, he has honed his skills to achieve the status of third dan under iaido’s ranking system with 10th dan being the highest.
While McAllister might be “pretty low on the totem pole,” he has acquired enough knowledge and skills to teach others. He said the idea of launching a dojo emerged after achieving third dan. Eager to give back to the martial art that had given him so much, he jumped on the opportunity, because he wants to help others who might have experienced something similar to him.
“What I want is for people to go, ‘Hey, I’m in this situation,’” he says. “I want people to feel as helped as I was by it. That’s basically it. It really helped me a lot.”
McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Interested parties can also learn about iaido here.