Be a tree.
Put yourself in the ground and be a tree.
Let your waist be submerged in the ground, with your long legs as roots reaching down and out deep.
Sprouting from the ground is our torso, built around the shaft of our spine that reaches straight up to the sky.
Our arms are branches that reach out from the trunk, far, but perfectly balanced by the strength of the center that sinks deep into the Earth.
And let the very very top be fluff. Whispy fluff at the whims of the wind.
How does that feel?
Did you successfully become a tree?
The tree helps us learn two things:
1.) Our base needs to be unquestionably stable.
When we are in the dozukuri from before we start to raise and draw the bow, one could argue that 100% of our tension is in our lower bodies and waist so that we can relax our upper body naturally. Our feet must be properly connected to the ground twisting outwards as we turn the backs of our slightly bent knees inward, spreading apart the bones of our hips, squeezing our butt muscles, and filling our tanden with energy and air. We should be able to test this by having someone push on our hips and legs from different directions. If we topple over or bend easily from the pressure, then we’re probably doing something wrong. When my teacher showed me this the other day he told me to push him as hard as possible and instead of crumbling over like I did, he slid across the floor maintaining his posture and stability. We should be like this to some degree throughout our entire form, I think. Of course pushing on the low of our back is the weakest point in our structure (something I originally learned from tai chi … man I miss “push hands” training), but maybe that’s a good place to test our stability. Have a friend slightly push you, and see how you can get best rooted.
2.) Make our tops empty and soft.
What are our tops? Your hands, head, and the empty space below our sternum (the bone in the front of our chest).
The easiest here to understand is the hands, imagining them like the ends of branches. Here’s one little test: Squeeze your hands into fists and then try to move through the eight stages of shooting. What happens? A whole load of focus is taken from the rest of your body and put into your hands, your center of gravity rises into your chest, and your body becomes full of trapped pressure. Now try to move through the eight stages of shooting with your hands completely relaxed and empty. What happens? Immediately I notice my shoulders and backs of arms, which are very important muscles to be used in shooting, and when I sense further, I notice my spine, waist, stomach, and feet, which are the most important parts of our form because they give us the structure of strength and balance that allow for a natural release and shooting of a straight arrow. Our hands have the very important roles of handling the bow, string, and arrow with which we shoot, but their job is one of sensitivity, holding to proper form, and getting out of the way so that the bow and your core structure can do the work of shooting. In one weird way, I wish I could shoot the bow without my hands!
Empty your head! Get all those perverted thoughts of skirts and underpants and hitting the target out of your mind! There’s another thing I’d rather shoot without, my head. The headless and handless archer … that’s my dream. Think about it this way, we only have so much energy to shoot the bow with. Where that energy goes is very important. Haven’t you ever heard how our brain uses more energy than any other part of our body? Take all your worries and fears and arrogance and calculations out of your head and find a better place for it. I recommend your tanden (center of gravity and power located a few inches below your belly button and a few inches inside from the surface). I guarantee your shooting will improve.
Empty that space below your sternum, too. Ever heard of this? The other day with my teacher was the first time since I started this whole business of shooting bows and arrows. So, I was very confused and skeptical. When I was in the dozukuri form my teacher poked that small spot (where if you get hit you get the wind knocked out of you) and told me to empty it. I exercised my tiny little brain and did what I thought was emptying it and my teacher said, “Yes”, so I was very excited. He told me again when I was in the full draw and I had no idea how to do it. After that we didn’t talk much more about it, but I started to think about it more and more in my practice. How the hell do I empty it? And what does it effect? Well, I found out that it takes a whole lot of tension out of my upper body and puts it in my tanden. The result is a more stable lower body and more relaxed upper body. More tree-ness. Awesome! I found that when doing this in the full draw, it’s like taking a mat of hair out of the drain letting all the water flow out. All the tension in my chest emptied while the backs of my shoulders became unlocked, allowing them to actually expand to the sides (left hand toward the target, left elbow to the imaginary target in the opposite direction of the real target) with what feels like real nobiai (expansion). I’m still working on this though, and have to admit, it’s a real stretch of the imagination and quite a difficult task to do on command. Usually I try it in the full draw, and right when I feel something like an opening, I release … making for a super fast release (hayake), which is not good, but maybe I’m on the right track.
There are many teachers who like to fill their chest and spread it apart … but this is a bit different and not my preference for now. Try what you like, and don’t be rude to others if they do it a different way and don’t intend to change. Try not to get angry and blow up at a teacher who tries to impossibly push something on you, which is a REALLY big challenge I’ve had to wrestle with. And for teachers, try not to impossibly push things on your students, because I guarantee it won’t have the desired effect of improving your student.
Trees are not only great for the environment, but masters of wisdom. Why not take a minute, or hour, and see what they have to teach us?