Lack of Stretching in Kyudo

This is something that has always really bugged me about kyudo practice: the lack of stretching.

Perhaps this is because I grew up playing sports where stretching was required by law for youth and school sports teams. From then on it was ingrained into me that if you’re going to be using your body, you had better stretch beforehand to prevent injury and maximize potential.

Not only that, but it also feels good. Stretching was a great ritual I utilized before practice or games to relax and “get into the zone.”

Since high school I’ve practiced karate, tai chi chuan, and aikido, all of which included at least some kind of stretching before hand. I’m pretty sure my aikido teacher wasn’t all that fond of stretching. Often times I felt like he was kind of just rushing through it so we could get started with the practice, but even then we always did our stretching.

My tai chi chuan teacher said, “Do the form everyday. But if you can’t do your form, at least do the stretching. Do the stretching everyday. Every day you don’t do your stretching you fall two days behind.” I really liked that. Finally, someone who valued stretching as much as me.

But then I started kyudo, and there was no stretching.

When I first started kyudo, it was in a two month introductory class. The teacher would address us and then tell us to stretch a little. My mind flicked like a switch and I started moving my shoulders around in preparation. Everyone else however, kind of looked around uncomfortably and didn’t know what to do. The teacher then showed us a couple stretches for the shoulders everyone kind of did them, and 60 seconds we were done.

In this introductory class we spent a lot more time just moving around or listening to explanations instead of pulling bows full on, so intense stretching wasn’t all that necessary, but even after the class finished and we all moved on to our official practice, I noticed nobody else really did any stretching. My first teacher in Toyama, who also ran that introductory class, always did some kind of stretching. He’d move his shoulders around and stretch his back, but it never lasted more than two minutes. That’s definitely the most stretching I’ve ever seen in kyudo. I’ve seen others do similar little shoulder stretches, but none of them last more than a minute.

What about our backs? And our legs? Both of which are supposed to be the main muscles we use in pulling the bow.

What about your wrists and hands and fingers, which need to be used with incredible sensitivity under great pressure while pulling the bow?

What about our necks, which need to be turned taut in our form, and our jaws, which need to remain relaxed throughout?

We certainly aren’t doing any running or colliding in kyudo, but we are using our bodies, specificially our backs, legs, and shoulders intensely while shooting. The better we relax and prepare these muscles, the better we can use them to shoot, and better express ourselves, and thus better hit the target, right?

I’m not sure how most archers rationalize this lack of stretching, but I bet most people just don’t ever think about it.

After the two month introductory class, I began my individual practice of kyudo, coming to the dojo on my own and began the common training. I went in the morning when there were but a few other people and would usually start stretching in the changing room before I got changed. My teacher saw me once and told me not to stretch in the changing room because it would interfere with others getting changed, and I also got the hint he thought it was weird.

So then I would stretch after I got changed in the main area of the dojo outside of the shooting area. In the dojo in Toyama it was like a hallway where people would line up before entering the shooting area, put their bows and arrows, and walk through. I’d do my stretching here, but the area was small. I was definitely getting in the way of others, and it also seemed weird.

A couple times I went just outside the dojo to stretch, but my teacher would look at me like, “What are you doing? Let’s get started shooting.“, and … it also seemed weird.

I think these are the two driving common reasons for all of social behavior in Japan, if not a little less so in the whole world as humans:

We don’t do something because, 1.) it gets in the way of others, and 2.) it looks weird.

This is really big in Japan.

This is why we don’t eat on trains or buses.

This is why we don’t carry big back packs in public.

This is why we don’t listen to music loud in our cars.

They all get in the way of others, and look weird.

I guess it’s the product of so many people living on such a small island for such a long time.

Like it or hate it, it’s the way it is.

So back to stretching, I’ve always felt really strange doing it no matter where or how I do it.

When I moved here to Nakatsu I’ve experienced all the same things. I even have a reputation for taking a long time stretching. I think I’ve come to realize that the best thing to do is do the majority of your stretching at home in private, and then come to the dojo so that you’re all ready to go. But I don’t do that. I settle for my own small stretching routine done at the dojo with my best discretion to stay out of the way of others, and I try not to care what others think so much. If I have a lot of time it will take ten minutes. If I want to just get started shooting I make it five minutes. I refrain from doing any stretches that require sitting on the floor, because that just gets me too much attention.

Are there any other real reasons why we don’t stretch? Or are there some deep reasons to why we refrain from doing things that get in the way of others or seem weird?

Perhaps one reason can be found in practicality. In kyudo there is an emphasis on being ready to shoot whenever, wherever, however. At any moment you should be able to shoot your best shot. If we get used to small routines or practices, then we will rely on them to perform our best, and when we don’t have a chance to utilize them, we will fail. This is actually how I view using the makiwara (shooting-practice hay bail), before doing your first two arrows of zassha  (sitting form). If we get used to getting warmed up with the makiwara before our practice, what will we do when we go to tournaments and tests where we can’t use them? With the tensions that build up in tests and tournaments, I believe we should be ready to go in an instant and shoot our best two arrows immediately without practice. So perhaps this idea of being ready at any moment also applies to stretching.

One more reason for a lack of stretching may be found in the idea that people in Japan often don’t like to do preparations in front of others. This to me seems more like an unsaid rule. You won’t have many people outwardly telling you this, but I think most people here feel uncomfortable while doing preparations in front of others. One of these preparations could be stretching. Another could be simply getting changed at the dojo. I’ve noticed most people come to the dojo already changed into their hakama (traditional training outfit). People come in cars directly from their homes, so this isn’t much of an issue. But isn’t that kind of weird, from an American’s point of view? I thought so at first. Why don’t you just get changed at the dojo so that you can go out in the world without wearing your traditional outfit?

The idea of hiding our preparations really hit me when I was once told to not face the kamidana (shelf holding a small shrine that hangs over the training area) while putting on my kake (shooting glove) because we weren’t supposed to show our preparations in front of the gods. So perhaps these common beliefs in modern culture are related to ancient beliefs related to the local deities? But later I learned that this also wasn’t necessarily good because if we turn away from the kamidana while doing putting on our gloves we’re showing the gods our rears. This isn’t good, so we should just face the shooting area normally when we put on our gloves.

So there we have it, a lack of stretching in kyudo. I don’t like it, but perhaps there are some gems to be found in the idea. If anything else, as a foreigner in Japan I’ll do my best to follow the local ways. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” and all of that.

But one day if I build my own dojo, stretching will definitely play a bigger role.

Stretch your bodies before you shoot!

Thank you for reading.


11 thoughts on “Lack of Stretching in Kyudo

  1. As a teacher in other Movement arts, I always do some form of stretching even before sitting Zazen, I got this from Chan practice. At one time I even did TaiJi before Kyudo to help, stretching and focus. I stretch at the Dojo before shooting. I see others a few do so as well.

    1. I would love to run through the tai chi form before pulling the bow. Certainly that would get some of the others’ attention. Glad to hear others are stretching. How long would you say you stretch for? How long would you say others do in your dojo?

  2. Well, it kind of makes me feel less weird to know that there are other people in the world wondering about stretching in Kyudo! When I started practicing, I was too focused and worried about the form and the hassetsu to think about stretching, but I think that’s precisely the reason why I reached a point where I thought: there must be a way to improve the way I feel my body, to soften my movements. And then I started stretching and warming up on my own. I think it’s just natural; in winter the weather in my hometown is so cold that I can barely feel my feet or hands. For me, it would be impossible to start pulling the bow like that.
    Now I think that stretching is (or should be) a very important part of practice, that helps you improve the form and, of course, can prevent many injuries. I’m really happy that you have written this article talking about this importance.

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I definitely definitely definitely think we should stretch ourselves before we pull the bow. By doing kyudo don’t we naturally start to better feel our bodies? If all this tension is blocked and we can’t feel, or can only feel tension, shouldn’t we release that tension by stretching. Good luck with your stretching and shooting. Ganbarou.

  3. I puT the link to this post up on a Facebook , Kyudo board. Interesting array of comments, basic, some stretch , some don’t, depends on the school.

      1. Bodhi Hanna Kistner, Alexandru Matei, Chris Sjögren and 35 others like this.

        Jordan Taylor I shoot target recurve, and our club juniors despise warm up and stretching! I wonder if it reminds them of other sports they don’t like doing. But we make them do it. I think because they are standing still they think they don’t have to. Instead of doing static stretches though we encourage dynamic stretches for the shoulders and neck.
        June 17 at 1:13pm · Edited · Like · 1

        Florin Baiduc I’m not sure where this guy trains, but surely there’s a lot of stretching at my dojo, before shooting and during shots. And were encouraged to take breaks and stretch, and at seminars were thought by 7 Dan teachers how to do it properly…
        June 17 at 1:37pm · Unlike · 3

        Nicolai Sichlau Well actually – most elite sports have stopped static stretching like this. but its a ritual that dies hard. It’s proven to make your muscles weaker. – Static stretching is damaging for the muscle fibers, it weakens them and decreases your strength from 3 to 8%– plus it weakens the surrounding fibers as well. – So actually the Kyudo wisdom here is actually very sound.

        From a revolutionary perspective it makes perfect sense, the pre-historic man didn’t get any chances to “warm up” – muscles are meant to “explode”.

        What you want to do is warm up your muscles, doing similar exercises, with lower intensity.(Dynamic stretching) – but no static stretching. – you can do your static stretching after your training.
        June 17 at 3:11pm · Edited · Like · 7

        Zen: For every “study” proof there is another that says BS to the other study.

        Pre-historic man did not spend 80% of his working hours, at a desk, behind a steering wheel, in front of a computer, raining a train…
        Years of training in active sports show a modern body needs some type of warmup to reduce the chance of injury.
        June 17 at 3:31pm · Like

        Zen: Riding a train, not raining. Bloody
        Auto correct !
        June 17 at 3:34pm · Like

        Colman Reilly Yeah, as far as I can tell – having tried to work it out lately – current best practice is warmup before exercise – range of motion stuff and something to get the blood moving – and static stretching to increase flexibility once you’re warm, either after exercise or as a thing in itself with its own warmup. Static stretching before you exercise seems to be considered useless or actively damaging, depending on who you ask.
        June 17 at 3:39pm · Like · 1

        Ditlev Palm pre-hist man did not have auto correct – Lucky guy sunglasses emoticon
        June 17 at 6:56pm · Like

        Padraic D. Hallinan Interesting. For Iai we typically perform isometric stretching before starting. At classes in my gym we do a cardio round as a warm up and static stretches at the very end.
        Thinking back though, I don’t recall ever warming up before (western, target, recurve) archery. I taught classes too (no formal training, not into fitness at the time either) and wouldn’t have put people through warm-ups or stretches of any kind. Never even crossed my mind until this post that I really should have been doing something. 😐
        June 17 at 7:08pm · Like

        Elmar Schmeisser For me, I warm up doing specific activity related movements, stretch after to loosen over-tightened muscles. For kyudo, that some hassetsu without tension, then with the bow without releasing.
        Yesterday at 4:22am · Like

        Seren Se It’s something that’s been confusing me too.. But since I’m new it feels even weirder. Now what I do is stretch when I’m getting changed in private. Or in the dojo if others are getting changed , busy etc.
        Yesterday at 5:25am · Like

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