Short answer: Focus.
Long answer: it all started with a 講習会, koushuukai. I suppose you could translate it as a sort of day seminar. I went to one before my very first kyudo test to go over the formal entries, procedures, and exits in the actual dojo for the test with other real people. A long time has passed and yesterday I went to my second koushuukai. It took place in Usa City, (not to be confused with my hometown in the USA!) and was for people in northern Oita Prefecture. There were 22 participants, which apparently is on the smaller side compared to past seminars, and was led by two sixth level teachers (rokudan kyoushi) from other parts of the prefecture. During such seminars they usually call on people outside the area to give the students eyes they’re not used to.
The morning was long. First there was a yawatashi, formal ceremony where one of the teachers shot, then everyone shot zassha sitting form like in tests, then we went over the correct ways to sit, stand, and walk, and then we went through the procedures involved in shooting during tests which involved everything but the shooting, like taihai (entering the dojo) and hadanugi (taking off the sleeve of the kimono).
For those who don’t know much about kyudo, or who are just beginning, learning such menial things as walking and sitting and taking off your kimono can seem dreadfully unrelated and boring, and to be honest …
it can be!
But once you start to see the importance of these movements, and the connections they have to our shooting and being as a whole, it really starts to get your attention.
It was all great practice, but really difficult to get helpful one on one help on all the little details one may be worrying about. A few people got tips about really big problems. My very first teacher in Toyama did an amazing job ingraining these things into me when I first started, and I happen to like the formality of it all, so I don’t think I had any mistakes that really stood out, yet I know there are many small ones hiding under the surface. I learned a couple new things, refurbished the basics I already knew, and was tired and sore from all the formal sitting in the kiza posture and watching the teachers correct other people.
Then afternoon started with 射礼, sharei, formal shooting procedures. Only about half of us actually practiced the taihai in the morning while others watched, so in the afternoon it switched and the first half (involving me) just watched the others. for about two hours all I did was sit in the formal posture of sieza and watch.
This was looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooonnnggg.
I sat on my legs until I couldn’t feel them, stand up with them completely numb, scamper away where no one can see my face twist with the pain of the pins and needles return blood to my feet, and then repeated that cycle a few more times.
I was super tired. We got a break. I saw another lady who seemed equally as drained as I and told her it was coffee time. She felt the same way, and we escaped to a vending machine for desperately needed hot brown caffeine.
Refreshed, there was only about an hour and a half left of the seminar and I was braced for anything. After so much sitting and doing nothing, now with a coffee, anything would be good. The others told me we were going to shoot which surprised me and so I got my stuff ready to go.
Little did I know how exciting this was going to be.
With all the formalities, and standings, and sittings, and waitings, it was time to just work on shooting technique,
I’ve had a lot of ups and downs lately. Lots of just solo time. Lots of one on one time with my teacher. Lots of tournaments. All making for a kind of downward spiral. My technique has somehow become warped, and my mind lost. How is this possible under so much attention and action? The answer is hidden in the mystery cloak of kyudo. Regardless, I was super pumped to get fresh pointers on what I was doing, and I got it about 100 fold more than I expected.
The shooting areas were separated into two sections, one teacher in one and one in the other. We lined up and shot in one, retrieved arrows, and shot in the other. We had two cycles of this, which meant I had two chances with each teacher.
It’s amazing what a good teacher can see and say about your shooting. It’s amazing what a good teacher can see and say about 22 different archers. Each teacher took time to help everyone after every shot, without taking too much time away from others. The answers were amazing. These were two really really good teachers. Each of them had very different things to say about my form, all of which was priceless.
One of the teachers helped me with my aim. He told me I was actually aiming behind the target and needed to adjust. In addition to that, he said my aim changed when I pulled the bow from the daisan posture to the full draw. Instead of moving straight down to the target, I’d start in front, go behind, and then move again. Instead of this I need to aim straight and not change my aim through the draw. But these are very difficult things to manage, and impossible without someone standing behind you to help. Regardless, it was super helpful and I know to be careful of this. I’ll get help from others during future shooting. The teacher also told me that I was blinking at the release, which is one of my horrible habits. It was funny and also very depressing to hear this because I’ve tried to fix it lately, apparently unsuccessfully. When he said this I could hear the teacher I usually train with with behind me laugh, because it’s something he tells me about everyday. At the end of the seminar, the teachers said that what were told to be careful of today were probably things we’ve all heard before …
welcome to kyudo, where you will be told the same things over and over again. Until you get it right, it’s wrong. It’s difficult, frustrating, seemingly impossible, but it’s real, and we can overcome our problems. This is kyudo.
So that was great, but it was with the other teacher where monumental progress was made.
I shot while we watched and she gave me a shocked look.
“That was really hard, wasn’t it?”
I said, “Well, I guess so” not really understanding what she meant and she came to explain further. She told me to get into the yugamae posture and pushed on the bow and my arms. They were dead stiff and I pushed against her. She told me to relax them because this stiffness was making me weak. She said I was pulling the bow with only my shoulders and forgetting about my torso. She said a lot more I didn’t understand and this was taking a lot of time away from others, so she saw someone else from the same dojo I was from and told them to tell me later what she said.
So I went back and asked the others what she meant. One of the teachers from my dojo told me again that I was just using my shoulders and hands and forgetting about my torso. This teacher told me to get into the full draw position with my empty hands and she grabbed my lat muscles (latissimus dorsi) and pulled them apart. “This is what you’re missing” she said.
“As an exaggerated image you need to stretch and pull your lats out to the side like they’re tearing apart, further and further and further, unbelievably further throughout the release.”
Something clicked and I said, “YES!”
I didn’t understand the feeling completely, but saw a path, and went back to the first teacher who told me.
I tried what she said, missed, but she said, good, I’m on the right track. She said “try harder“. On the next shot I concentrated as much as I could on stretching my sides apart in the full draw, stretching stretching stretching …
“Not yet, not yet, not yet, try harder try harder, not yet …”
The arrow hit the target. I don’t think I’ve every tried so hard. She smiled and said, “See? Just try harder 🙂 “
It was arguably the best arrow I ever shot and inside me it ignited a flame. This is the flame that will guide my shooting. Spreading apart my lats … spreading fully and completely for the full 8 seconds … and concentrating on that throughout the release.
Along with this I felt a lot small bad habits in my technique just disappear. By holding this image, my spine remained straight which kept me from leaning forward, my right arm didn’t drop in the release, my left hand didn’t fly up, and I relaxed my shoulders and arms while pushing the bow completely with my whole body. I didn’t think about anything except that image.
I forget completely about hitting the target.
Holy shit, I completely forgot about hitting the target I was so involved in the feeling of spreading my lats apart in the full draw.
Completely immersed in focus on the proper form, the target is hit.
Apparently all the waiting and standing and sitting in the morning paid off, and I felt like a whole new archer.
Today I went back to my training, humbled, and ready for my new points of focus. Just focusing on the points I was given, the results were miraculous. I’ve never hit the target as much as I did today, and I wasn’t worrying about hitting the target. I practiced for a long time. Many different people came. I usually get nervous and start missing under the heavy eyes of others, but my shooting only improved under the pressure.
But it wasn’t about pressure, it wasn’t about hitting the target, it wasn’t about anything other than focusing wholly on what I was focusing on. Spreading my lats apart, holding the full draw for eight counts, trying not to blink at the release, and also keeping the bottom of my hand connected to the bow throughout the whole form (another gem I was informed about during the seminar), it was so easy, just do this and the target is hit. But it was also really fricken hard, requiring every drop of my soul. The feeling was electric. I felt strong at the release.
This is the beauty of an honest release.
This is why I can’t quit this art.
I know I will fall again into despair. I know I will lose my way. I know I will forget how to do it all. But I know I will find the path again, thanks to hard work, the teachings from on high, and going to seminars such as these.
Good luck to us all.
Thank you for reading.