They are the signs that point us to elevated technique.
They are the way we communicate with invisible theories.
They are what ignite our imaginations, bringing our kyudo practice to life.
More than I have experienced in any other martial art, image training plays a major role in the practice of kyudo. It is how teachers and students communicate together. Just explaining technique and the movements of the body can easily become dry and difficult to perceive. Instead of such explanations, images are used as powerful ways of communication that allow us to easily cut corners. Often using images allows us to play with techniques we haven’t even learned yet.
For example, when first learning the bow a teacher will probably tell you push the bow and string apart instead of pulling. By doing this we will naturally start using the structure of our bodies, our bones, our elbows, and our legs … using our bodies as a whole to push the bow and string apart, instead of just pulling the bow and string apart with the strength of our hands. By doing this we are utilizing a lot of different and difficult separate techniques, but without even explaining them. All we need is one compact phrase, an image.
It really is magic, isn’t it?
This is the difficult, and yet at the same time easy part about kyudo.
We have all these seemingly disparate techniques that feel unnatural, requiring a lot of training to engrain subconsciously into our bodies, and yet most of these techniques can be instantaneously conquered by the use of images.
But more than just overcoming technique, it’s fun.
And it’s Freedom!
We can use whatever image we like with our kyudo. Our images affect how we feel in our practice, and translate to what we do. Nobody’s set of images will be the same as another. Even if we use the same images, for example, pushing the bow instead of pulling, all of us will see and feel this differently. So how we practice kyudo will be completely different from everybody else, even though it seems like we’re all doing the same thing. This is our expression. This is what makes kyudo an art. This is what puts the art in “martial arts”.
Images are effective ways of communicating various small seemingly disparate techniques in simple compact phrases, and they are also super fun.
For one more example, I’ll leave you with what may be the king of all kyudo imagery:
The line of the arrow.
Often times when I feel all is lost, all my teacher needs to say is “Focus on the yasuji,” and most everything fixes itself.
There are a myriad of ways one can interpret this, but for me it is the line of the arrow extending to infinity in each direction.
Where this image helps me most is in the kai (full draw). In the kai it looks like we are just standing there waiting to release, but what we’re really doing is utilizing nobiai and expanding from the center line in our chest equally and infinitely to the left and right. We must release amid that expansion outwards to the left and the right. However, often times I will find myself stopped in the middle of the full draw, not exending, dead, waiting for a release which I will forge using the strength of my hands. By focusing on the line of the arrow extending in both directions, our shoulders and elbows and left thumb mimic the arrow and extend in both directions. Continuing to focus on the line of the arrow will allow us to “follow through” the release, extending along the line of the arrow. The arrow has no choice but to fly straight into the target.
I can’t even imagine how many small techniques are used with various parts of our body to make a proper release in kyudo, but they can all be instantly mastered by focusing on one simple thing:
the line of the arrow.
The tricky part about all of this though is consistency.
On average, my teacher will give me an image to fix my technique, and it will magically work in an arrow or two. I will feel the image, and slowly evolve with it for a few more arrows, three to six or twelve more, but then it will start to fade. I get cocky and say, “I GOT IT! I’LL NEVER FORGET AND MISS AGAIN!” I start thinking about other things. Or my concentration just can’t remain fixed on the image, and it fades.
The image I used yesterday won’t necessarily work today.
There are some key images that usually work for everybody. Some others that work especially for us. But what’s important is using a wide variety of images. Use the ones that work. Throw the useless away.
Often I’ll have a great image, forget it, and months, or even years later it will come back.
Don’t worry, we can’t forget heaven forever.
What images do you use?