“In the beginning, if you forget about focusing on your breath, you will easily lose concentration. Always keep your breath in your center.”
-Awa Kenzo, “Zen Bow, Zen Arrow”, pg. 41.
息合い, ikiai, breath, this is the connection between all archers. From beginning to end, no matter who or where, we are all given the gift of breath. When we seem lost with the bow, it is the breath we can return to, that very first most powerful step. Sometimes simply remembering my breath can solve problems immediately. And other times, it doesn’t seem to change a thing.
So how should we breathe?
“Breathe in a circle. Belly breath is healthy. Chest breath is ordinary. Shoulder breath is sick.”
-Awa Kenzo, “Zen Bow, Zen Arrow”, pg. 46.
Someone who does kyudo while breathing in their shoulders will have serious disadvantages with their technique. Those that breathe with their chest will probably be like many archers, still impeding their full potential. But those who breathe with their bellies allow their technique to blossom. Most will probably be like me, trying but still not quite getting it.
So how do we breathe with our bellies?
I was told to use outward breathing when I first started kyudo, and have never since heard anything else.
I first remember being introduced to outward breathing in Tai Chi Chuan. I learned there where two types of breathing: inward and outward. Inward is what probably most people commonly use, expanding the belly on inhale and contracting on the exhale. I’ve also heard of this being called “belly breathing” and that it helps to relax. Outward breathing on the other hand is when you expand your belly on the exhale and contract on the inhale. I was told this is used to focus and enliven the body. In Tai Chi Chuan I also heard this type of breathing was used to stretch and exercise the internal organs which are vital to the movement of energy, chi. I’ve never heard of talk concerning our organs in kyudo, but surely similar effects are found in the bow. What I find to be most interesting though is, I remember one of my Tai Chi Chuan teachers explain the phenomenon of peng, which is very related to the bow. Peng is translated as “ward off”, and used to push. This technique is often used by the arm, but that’s just the basic image. My teacher told me to peng with my whole body. Even places that seem like they should not move, could in fact expand using peng. He told us to try to peng with the skin on our forearm. I’m not sure if I did it right, but I thought it was an interesting idea.
Back to kyudo, the key element we utilize is that of expansion. Most obviously, we expand to the sides pushing the bow and string apart. But we also expand through our spines up and down. This shouldn’t just be left right up and down and our belly, but everything. The skin on our arms, the hair on our head, our entire bodies. Through the use of outward breathing, we ideally expand in all directions. LIke clouds infinitely billowing out of nowhere. LIke a an adult grown from a baby. Like a flooding river.
Until just the other day, this is as far as I’ve thought. Using these ideas of breath I tried to fix my warped technique to no avail. So I asked my teacher how to breathe. He said what I expected him to by mentioning outward breathing. He told me to touch his stomach and feel it expand with his breath, which I was also familiar with.
“Right, so you expand with the exhale and contract with the inhale…”
“You expand with the exhale, and expand with the inhale.”
How can you expand your belly on both?
I just shut up and tried and amazingly it kind of worked.
Even if we use outward breathing and expand on the exhale like we should, by physically contracting our bellies on the inhale we raise our shoulders, putting tension into them, raising our center of gravity,thus hurting our technique. So by expanding on the inhale as well, we eliminate that possibility. Though it seems impossible to infinitely expand all the time through our shot, what I found was a great feeling of stability.
It was like feeling like a mountain.
My shoulders, my belly, my head, my spirit, my thoughts, all unmovable. Remarkable.
By focusing on only expanding out I was able to prevent any contraction in my joins, and so only pushed, only expanded and it required no tension in my muscles, like a balloon only expanding. This is what we want, only expansion. My right elbow only goes to the side, not up or down or out or in. My left hand only moves toward the target, no where else. Pushed out by breath, we extend beyond the release, ever still expanding. through our final stance in zanshin with our arms extended out. The release of the arrow is not the finish. We continue to breathe beyond, forever expanding in all directions.
It is there in our relase that judgement is made. Were we able to expand smoothly and softly, waiting for a crisp and expanding release? Or was it the abrupt release of trapped pressure, short and jerked. If the latter, then we must take care to focus on our breathing pushing out, ever out, finding place so that we can ease the tension and have a relaxed yet powerful release.
Right now this is what I’m working for.
In a day I may experience a few great releases where my hands and arms are found fully extended and level with my shoulders in the final zanshin stance. Other times I end up on a slant with my left hand slanted up and my right arm too low, both the result of built up pressure in the hands, which is due to the built up pressure in my shoulders, made worse by not keeping my spine straight, all affected by weak breathing.
If I could point out one last small pitfall in breathing, often we’ll do proper outward breathing, but do it too fast. For me I take my last breath after leaving the daisan posture, breathing in until the arrow is at the level of my eyes, then I begin to exhale. It takes about two seconds from there until my full draw and from there I expand for about six to eight seconds until the release. I try to continue the exhale through the release and through zanshin. I then won’t take a breath until I return my eyes from the target after yudaoshi. That leaves for about a 12 to 14 second period of time to breathe out. But often I’ll spend it all too fast, leaving me nowhere to go, static amid expansion, and from there is very hard to recover and make a good shot.
Often times I’ll have my breath spent and stomach completely expanded after only two seconds right when I get into the full draw. Sometimes I’ll manage through the whole draw to run out and exhale just at the relase, which wastes all of the good expanding tension you maintained until then. We must be prepared to breathe out the whole time to ensure maximum relaxation of the muscles and full expansion. So spare yourself, expand and breathe out, but make it small, incredibly small. A good practice is to put your mouth under water and breath out so that one little bubble comes out a second. That’s a trick my first teacher told me in Toyama. I was shocked to find out how hard it was to do.
So yes, infinite expanion with the breath. Bring yourself to life with your breath. Otherwise you’ll find yourself brittle and shaking in your draw, only to shatter at the release.