What’s the right bow strength for you?
Most teachers, books, and practitioners will say something to the effect of, “You should use the bow strength that’s right for you.”
This statement sounds simple, but it’s one I’ve rejected for most of my time with the bow.
Now I’m finally coming to understand it.
My personal version has always been, “Use a strong bow so that you can use it to strengthen yourself and get used to it and then use a stronger bow.”
This isn’t necessarily bad, unless you start to ignore other important factors blindly for the sake of pulling a stronger bow …
Like most importantly: Your body.
Secondly: Your technique.
I’ve sacrificed both over and over again by trying to pull a stronger bow, and I’ve failed too many times.
What suffers from this failure is my body, specifically my left hand and right shoulder.
What follows are some personal stories about my experience with heavier bows and injuries, so if that doesn’t interest you then you should probably stop and surf else where cause it’s going to get lengthy. Otherwise, grab your best blog reading beverage and stay tuned.
So, back back back around when I was a shodan (first level) or earlier maybe, I tore the skin on my left thumb. I would love to go back and see exactly how it happened. Most likely from gripping the bow too strong. But anyway, I tore the skin, didn’t think much of it, taped it up, and kept shooting.
It hurt. I didn’t tell my teacher about it because I was embarrassed. So I just bit my lip and kept shooting. To my surprise the injury didn’t heal (DUH!) and actually got worse. Due to the miracle healing techniques of the human body, my thumb started to change and find a way to protect itself.
A large mountain callous formed at the base of my thumb after finally taking some time off (how long did I take off exactly???). It depressed me and went along with a lot of other factors that made me feel like I wanted to quit the bow and move on with my life. I actually went to the dojo probably on three different occasions believing them to be my last, but for some reason I kept on going. I think because I was trying to find the right time to tell my teacher, but for some reason a chance never came up. In some ways I kind think my teacher kind of understood this and did whatever he could to avoid that conversation. I don’t know.
I was concerned about my hand and at a kyudo drinking party I asked him straight up, “Can I do kyudo with this?”
He did his best to quickly dismiss the conversation and said, “Of course you can. If you pull the bow right it won’t have an effect at all.” And it was done.
I wonder if it was one of those things that a father would lie about when taking off a band aid of his boy’s knee.
“Pops, is it gonna hurt?”
“No, not at all!”
Or I wonder if he really does believe that with proper technique the giant callous wouldn’t effect my shooting. I certainly have not perfected the grip, but I’ve had this for years and one thing’s for certain, it’s not the same as a hand without a mountain callous.
Anyway, I’ve learned to shoot with this callous and for the most part it isn’t a problem, except for one thing: The skin is more prone to tearing there than before because it sticks out and rubs against the bow more than a hand normally would.
When trying to use stronger bows, this is likely to happen, and has, leaving me with no choice but to wait for the torn skin to heal taking weeks of nothing but waiting.
With bow strength, the first bow I ever touched was probably an 11kg, then moved up to a 13kg and settled at a 14kg when I took my shodan test. Afterwards I moved up to a 16kg and remember having trouble there and kept switching back between the 14kg and 16kg. (All of these bows belonged to the dojo I was at and free to use. Lucky me.)
Finally I moved from Toyama to Oita where I am now and came to a dojo that didn’t have many extra bows lying around for people to use. There was one 13kg that was for the beginner’s class, but that didn’t feel right. Luckily I got in touch with a teacher who had lots of extra bows and said he would lend me some. He had a 16kg or 17kg yonsun nobi carbon bow which was strong, but I started to use it for a while. Then I started to use what I believed was an nisun nobi (which is the right size for me) 18kg take yumi (bamboo bow), which I would eventually find out was far far weaker than 18kg.
Anyway, this whole time I didn’t tear the skin and then went to a 20kg bamboo bow.
This guy felt strong.
But it felt good.
I loved the strain it took to pull it, and I felt like my potential was peaking as I used my entire body to pull the bow. I wasn’t perfect, but this was awesome and making me better. I hit well, and life was good.
Until something happened.
I think I started to warp my technique around the bow and instead of shooting from a balanced position using proper technique (tateyoko jumonji, nobiai, tsumeai), I was instead leaning against the bow in various spots, which doesn’t allow for proper expansion and balance. The use of my hand was affected and I eventually tore my skin again. I knew I couldn’t push through it, so I took minimal time off, taped it up, and came back as soon as possible (which was too early anyway).
The wound didn’t perfectly heal, and because I was being light on my hand, my entire technique was screwed and my shooting was pathetic. I had a test a couple months later that I had already signed up for, so I had to do all that I could to show up to that test healthy, which meant taking a full 2 or 3 weeks off and returning to a lighter bow, the 18kg which I realized was probably more like 17kg (which was still a huge overestimation).
So I waited, healed, and came back with the weaker bow.
I was healthy and took the test.
Both arrows went under the target and I was furious with myself.
I was sick of pulling this bow that I thought was too light for me. I talked with my teacher about it and he said I wasn’t ready for the 20kg bow yet. I was going to the Miyakonojo tournament the next week and was determined to do the best I could, so I secretly took the heavy bow without my teacher knowing and practiced on my own.
I was paranoid about my hand and did all I could to make sure I didn’t tear the skin.
That I was successful with, but then out of nowhere my right shoulder started to hurt, something I’ve never felt before.
I can’t believe it! Finally I could pull the heavy bow and my hand was fine, but now my shoulder hurts! I contemplated taking the light bow to Miyakonojo but then said screw it and just went with the heavy one. I’ll only have to shoot 4 arrows right? And if I get that far and keep going then I’ll do whatever it takes for the next few arrows, right?
I applied skin medicines to my hand and hot patches to my shoulder paranoid of getting hurt.
At the tournament I nervously went to the makiwara to test my shoulder and it seemed alright.
Yosh, it’s all good. Time to shoot my best four arrows.
When it was finally game time I went to the mark to shoot, and when I pulled the bow sharp pains came in my shoulder. It got worse with each arrow, and with the last, by the grace of the kamisama above, I actually hit one lucky arrow, which in my opinion I didn’t even deserve.
So there I was, with a bum shoulder, and took a couple weeks off.
Again, after a frustrating week or two rest I returned with the lighter bow.
I practiced hard, and although I really wanted to pull the heavier bow, I was doing the best I ever had, got ready for the upcoming test, and passed.
Alright. Time to quit messing around. NOW it’s time to get back to that heavy bow. NOW I’m ready.
Around this time there were also two other factors that supported this: The upcoming kentai prefectural tournament in the fall, and I was finally ready to buy my first bow. I felt ready for a heavier bow, and wanted to be sure not to buy an expensive bow that was too weak. My confidence was soaring and I was afraid of getting a bamboo bow that would drop in strength below my level. I really wanted a 20kg bow. So I even thought maybe I should get a 22kg (foolish me) bow which at the most would drop to 20kg. I realized that was beyond me and thought OK, let’s do 20kg, and at the worst it will drop to 18kg. So I talked with my teacher and decided to look for a 20kg bow, but I think he was a bit hesitant.
Eventually a group of us got out and finally measured the strength of our bows. There is a machine to measure bow strength in the dojo but it’s old and inaccurate. My teacher had another small device so we put it to use.
Side Note: Carbon bows won’t change over time, but the strength of bamboo bows will drop over time, and so I think most people who pull bamboo bows probably don’t know exactly how strong they are unless they actively measure them.
The heavy bow that I wanted to use was 21kg when first bought and now had fallen to 19kg. The lighter bow that was actually 19kg when bought, which I thought might be 17kg at the lightest, was actually … 15kg!
I was pulling a 15kg bow? A kid’s toy???
I thought this was unbelievable but after talking with my teacher I remembered him saying that this bow had broken once before and was repaired. Probably due to that history the weight has dropped so much.
I was shocked, and embarrassed … to the fault of my false pride.
So, I decided I was going to shoot the heavy bow I really deserved, took that heavy bow and took extremely careful precautions to not tear the skin in my hand while preparing for the 20kg bow I was planning to buy and be ready to be my best for the kentai tournament.
I applied a skin cover medicine that acted like an extra layer of skin above my own. I used light taping. And then I applied a leather cover over my thumb (can’t remember what they’re called but you can find them in kyudo stores). This is no way to go to a test or tournament, but I had neither for a while and had only one goal: Get used to this heavy bow and don’t get injured.
I did that for a week. Then took off the taping. Another week and stopped applying the skin medicine. Another week and I finally took off the leather cover.
There I was, all bare skin against the bow.
I shot minimal arrows and made 100% sure after every arrow the skin hadn’t torn and wouldn’t tear on the next.
YOSH! It was working.
Very slowly and carefully I was shooting and doing fine.
I wanted the skin to form a tough layer against the bow, but it was still soft. Whatever. No tearing yet, and that’s all that matters.
I kept shooting, but soon my arrows were going all over the place.
It was so crazy I was transported to shooting I was doing before I was a shodan.
Then I shot and the string pre-released from my glove amid the draw, another kyudo nightmare I had to go through for a month or two when I was a shodan.
WTF?! What is happening? A lot of my last posts are around this time, and one big problem was my vertical line. So I worked on that and it helped a bit, but my arrows were still way too random. I checked myself in the mirror at the makiwara practice bail and it seemed fine. But when I went to the target it was all screwed.
Frustrated I kept shooting. I probably should’ve stopped and gone home to rest and come back again, but I kept going. At this point my right shoulder started to get sore, but guess what I said …
“Fuck it, just keep shooting.”
So I brought the mirror into the shooting area to see what I was doing at the target. (A helpful shooting method you should try, but not without the permission of a teacher and not while others are shooting.)
Ah-ha! I found it. This whole time I had been shooting and my hand was fine,
BECAUSE I wasn’t applying the right pressure. I was soft on my hand, making my tenouchi ineffective, making me yurumu (let off the pressure of the bow) at the last second which sent the arrows in random spots, and it also destroyed the tsumeai (form and tension) in my body making for a weak release, and making it impossible to expand.
So, while watching the mirror I pulled the bow making sure I kept a proper tenouchi. The effect was miraculous but damn that felt like a lot of pressure on my sensitive hand. Also, the pain in my shoulder began to creep back in a little at a time.
But guess what I said …
“Fuck it, just keep shooting.”
I was drunk by the idea of returning to my best shooting. I looked at my hand to check for tearing, and I was still good, but it was getting red, and I wasn’t taking a break. My shoulder hurt a little more, making my full draw short (2 to 3 seconds compared to my normal 6 to 8).
Alright, time to really let it go and do my best …
There I pulled with a proper tenouchi, and there in the full draw,
I felt a tear.
I quickly released and looked at my hand to find a tiny tiny tiny beginning of a tear.
It was so small in fact the old me would have kept shooting, but that old me also let the wound get out of control and fully tear open keeping me from the bow. I guess this is some knowledge I’m thankful for having from previous injuries, realizing the problem before it gets out of control.
But that was it.
I still had one arrow to shoot but that was it. I was in flames. Eyes wide open. Super pissed. In fact I’ve never been so furious while shooting. I was alone, which allowed it to explode more than usual.
After all this careful planning and execution to do this right over 3 weeks, I ended up tearing my hand again! Why is this happening to me?! I belong with this 19kg bow! Why me!?
Furious I cleaned up and stormed home, stuck in a dark cloud. My right shoulder began to hurt more, and was in no shape to pull even if I wanted to.
I looked back at my left hand and realized that it really hadn’t torn, but had just begun. At this point it was fine, but to be 100% sure that it wouldn’t evolve into a tear I was going to rest for a week. For the sake of my right shoulder I would take that week to rest as well.
I eventually cooled down and understood.
I am not ready for this 19kg bow.
I am a healthy, physically fit, 30 year old that has been physically active since I could run around in the woods. Last fall for a period of a few months I pulled the 19kg bow and it felt awesome. I want to be strong. I believe I can do it. Regardless, the fact that the skin in my hand will still tear means one simple thing: Now is not the time for this 19kg bow. As strange as it is to me that my right shoulder hurts, that is further proof that this isn’t working. I could tape up my hand again and fight through the pain, but then my technique will go out the window. No tateyoko jumonji, no nobiai, no tsumeai, hayake.
All for what?
For what I believe is what I deserve?
Through all of this I’ve sustained unnecessary injuries, seen proper technique dissipate, and completely lost heijoshin, a sense of mental balance.
I lost myself under the pressure of the upcoming kentai tournament and prospect of buying a new bow.
“It’s what you have to do!”
No, it’s not.
Guess who you pull the bow for?
There’s no need for pride and injuries.
After the storm.
I cooled down and thought.
I will wait for things to heal for a week and go back to that 15kg bow for the time being. It’s a huge shot to my pride, but it’s either that or no shooting at all. I don’t have every bow available in the world to choose as I like. I can cry about it but nothing will change. There’s no use in life as an archer injured or ignorant of proper technique. That’s not the archer I want to be.
I contacted my teacher for advice and he said to wait on buying a new bow until we figure things out.
This is not where I want to be. Stuck in my computer staring at my hand, feeling the pain of my shoulder, idle for a week until I go back to a bow weaker than what I want. But I am also thankful for this experience for the knowledge it will give me. I have used the bow to explore my limits, and I have found some. I didn’t quite break through them like I wanted, but this game is far from over.
Slow, steady, progress.
We stand. We strive. We win. We fall. We get up. We try again.
This post took a lot of courage for me to write, as it’s not something I’m very proud of. But what is all of this for? Kyudo. Blog. Martial arts. Art.
We want to see all the cool parts of this art and feel special, but what’s at the very bottom, throughout the whole, and is the end product?
Perhaps if we can share these stories with each other we can get a better understanding of Truth, better align for Goodness, and thus produce something of Beauty.
Art of kyudo.
I look around me at my family and friends and mountains.
What is all of this for?