Kyudo · Tenouchi - the Grip

Hanshi Teachings Part II: Big Thumb

This is Part II of a series of posts called, “Hanshi Teachings” about things I’ve learned from the hanshi level teacher in my dojo.

The first thing he noticed when he saw me was my pitiful tenouchi, hand that grips the bow. He told me I needed to relax my grip more, especially in my middle and ring finger. He then went to explain that we don’t really need them at all in kyudo, and we really just kind of set them on the grip and don’t use them except to keep the bow from shooting from our hand during hanare, release. No matter what I did I couldn’t seem to relax them, so he took me to the makiwara, straw bail for practicing, and showed me how you don’t need your middle or ring finger, or at least don’t need to put any pressure on them while handling the bow. He did this by shooting while gripping the bow with just his pinky and thumb. Only just before he released did he put his middle and ring finger back around the grip to keep the bow from shooting out.

I tried it for myself, and it was really difficult at first. I couldn’t balance the bow well in my hand, and found a lot of extra pressure coming into my thumb. This is what it’s supposed to feel like, and so we’re supposed to position our hand and thumb so that’s it’s not the thumb that takes all the pressure of the bow (like I had been doing earlier) and then gripping the bow excessively with my fingers.

I had a teacher in Toyama try to explain this to me before, but I never got it. A year later I was finally ready for this piece of advice. That’s how a lot of things go in kyudo, teachers will tell you the same thing, tens, hundreds of times, and finally one day it will make sense. That’s how this was. I finally understood that we don’t need any strength in our fingers, and more importantly, we must keep our thumbs absolutley straight to keep enough pressure on the bow.

We must keep our thumbs absolutley straight. For beginners, I don’t think you can make it straight enough.

The hanshi would guide me in the makiwara practice bail. While I entered the daisan (two thirds draw) posture he’d tell me,

Not enough, straighter … “

Then I’d move into the full draw,

“You’re losing, it’s not enough …”

During the full draw he continued,

“Not enough, more more more more …”

Then the release. We did this over and over again. I was starting to get it. I thought I had it straight enough. Maybe I did. But he kept telling me, “more, more!”

If we think it’s enough and forget to continue pushing and straightening our thumb, the pressure will slacken and our tenouchi will fail. We must have some focus on our thumb throughout the whole form of shooting.

I see now how important it is to keep the thumb straight, and it is one the problems with my technique I have successfully  improved.  When I see others who bend their thumb, I can see how much they are limiting their technique. The pressure stops and builds up in their hands.

But then everyone is different, maybe that works for them.

But I don’t think so … yeah … gotta keep that thumb straight.

Making your thumb straight doesn’t fix all problems with the tenouchi though, and there are ones I’m currently working on now.

My tenouchi has gone through a lot of rough periods, and I ran into one teacher the other day who really exaggerates the straightening of his thumb. He puts so much pressure on it it bends backwards. I tried and immediately had great success. But after a while I started putting too much pressure in my hand and my tenouchi fell apart again.

When I started with this I had the image of “big thumb”. I just told myself “Big Thumb” through the technique and it helped me a lot. That fell apart because I put too much effort into it. But now I’ve found a good image that fits, and it’s just,


I don’t put too much focus or strain in it, I just tell myself “thumb”, and it’s just the perfect amount of focus. Just remembering the thumb is enough. Put the “thumb” in your mind, and that is enough. To forget it is false, so is putting too much focus on it. Just remember your thumb, all the way through the release into the zanshin posture and you’ll be on the right track,

I think.

What’s your experience with the thumb in kyudo?

Stay tuned for Part III in this hanshi series: “Backs of our Shoulders.”


3 thoughts on “Hanshi Teachings Part II: Big Thumb

  1. I’m enjoying your posts very much and I do hope you will continue to share your journey.

    Just reading about your problems and the solutions you have found helps me feel less alone about my struggles in kyudo.

    The issue with my yunde thumb is an on going one for me; I’ve don’t think I’ve ever been able to get my thumb near straight, let alone straight enough.

    You’ve also put me at ease with your mentioning of teachers telling you numerous times of the same issue before it clicks. I’ve recently started to feel like I was letting my teachers down when I fail to remember or comprehend the repeated advice. I suppose I just have to remember that we all learn at different paces and hope the advices will eventually click.

    Good work on your posts. I look forward to reading more. Best wishes on your kyudo journey.

    1. Thanks for reading! And the wonderful comment, too. What a slow journey … this kyudo stuff … I don’t lie or exaggerate when I say I’ve been told the same stuff tens or hundreds of times until I start to get it. One of the most important things about kyudo is getting used to the fact that people will continue to tell you the same advice over and over and over and over and over again. It’s not cause we’re dumb, or suck, or weren’t meant to be good at kyudo, it’s just really difficult. One day we’ll finally get it, and then unbelievably forget it again the next. Any teacher worth their salt won’t feel like you’re letting them down, but I’ve definitely felt like that over and over again, I suppose that’s a good thing, keeping us motivated. Funny thing is, all these secrets I’ve learned from hanshi, are really just the most basic techniques. They are so simple, and everyone should know them, however actually being able to is completely different. Not many people do … that’s the scary and exciting part about kyudo. Good luck to us all!

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