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.