One of the best series of general instructions in our group had to do with the the need to build strength and train one’s muscles. Usami-sensei asked us how many times a week we practised, and how many arrows we shot in a month. He said that to really make progress you should shoot every single day, and average at least 1,000 arrows per month, so around 30-35/day. This is necessary to train your muscles both for strength and, I think, to “do the right thing” when called upon. In this he was looking back at his own kyudo career, which began when he was just five years old. I’ve heard the same thing from other teachers, mainly hanshi, that they more or less dedicated their lives to kyudo, practising every day, putting everything they had into each arrow.
It seems impossible at first, with the demands of work and daily life, but maybe that just reflects the level of my commitment! I don’t think life was any less time consuming in the past than it is now. It’s just that, instead of using “labour saving devices” to save labour, we use them to speed up our lives, and this exhausts bodies and brains that haven’t changed in 10,000 years. But that’s a topic for another time! The surprising thing was that there were people who do manage to practise that much. One participant from Nagasaki related how she did indeed go to the dojo every day, averaging about 1,500 arrows per month. Impressive.
The thing is, sensei said, you can practice even when you aren’t in the dojo. “How many of you have gomu yumi?” He asked, and then “How much do you use it?” The consensus seemed to be that many of us have them but few use them very much. He said that “arrows” “shot” with the gomu-yumi count, so for those unable to make the trip to the dojo every day, all is not lost, and we can still get in our 30-35/day. “However,” he said, “you have to use the gomu yumi in the right way.”
This launched a fascinating discussion into just what the “right way” is. He held up the usual beginner’s gomu-yumi, shot it once, then said, 「これはだめ」, “This kind of thing is bad.” The reason is that, especially for beginners, while it might let people go through the hassetsu, what also does is train people to grip the bow tightly, a major and costly mistake.
What makes it costly, he explained, is that habits form quickly, and once you form a bad habit in kyudo, it takes ten years of practice to undo it. So particularly for beginners, using this kind of device is actually harmful, and he’s essentially banned it from his dojo as a teaching tool (“It’s for advanced practitioners who just want to do some practice in a hotel room”). He then went so far as to suggest that the reason people don’t progress more quickly these days is that they form bad habits and then have to spend years and years undoing them. So, better not to create them in the first place. Back when he started kyudo, before the war, they didn’t have gomu-yumi, and used bows, takeyumi, in fact, from the very start. He then showed us several exercises that beginners could use to develop good habits.
The first was to hold the bow and the bowstring at shoulder height, 15-30cm in front of your body, form tenouchi with the left hand and use the fingers to hold the string. Then draw the bow slightly (somewhere between the unstrained 15cm and shoulder width), wait a bit, then “release” by opening up left and right from the centre of your body to get full extension left and right. If you do this correctly, not only will you experience what it is like to have a good hanare, but yugaeri will occur naturally. Or if it doesn’t, then is the time to get students accustomed to not gripping the bow so tightly. Of course, if they grip it too loosely, the bow will go flying, so if people are doing this in a group, there needs to be a good amount of space available.
The second exercise was much like the first, only instead of holding the bow directly in front of you, you extend the left arm as usual to shoot, and draw the bow again. Not a full draw but something less. I tend to draw to the left elbow but in any case he suggested no further than about the left bicep (he said “the shoulder” but didn’t really seem to draw it that far). Then you count off 9 seconds and again release from the centre, extending left and right to a full zanshin position. Again, yugaeri should occur naturally.
He explained that this is the way they were trained back in the old days (followed by two years at the makiwara before shooting at targets), and as a result of that they made fast progress. He looked around at us, all 2-dan through renshi 5-dan, and said that if he took students who were just starting, and trained them in this way, in a couple of years they would be at our level, because (a) their muscles would be properly trained by daily practice, and (2) they wouldn’t have bad habits like gripping the bow. The latter is particularly important for those of us who may not have that many decades left for correcting bad habits!
So how does this translate into the proper way to use a gomu-yumi?
First try this. Hold your bow out in front of you at shoulder height, arm’s length in front of you. Now draw the bow and bowstring apart to shoulder width, using both arms equally, and hold that for 30 seconds. Most of us found that this was not so easy, and we start to shake. He told us not to let ourselves shake (easier said than done), and then after an interminable 30 seconds, we could relax. He said that this was the equivalent effort of one arrow (30 seconds is about the time from habiki to hanare), and the reason it was hard for us was that we hadn’t trained our arm muscles properly. Furthermore, he said, beginners usually start with bows that are too strong, and what happens when you do that is, because the arm muscles are too weak, we bring our left shoulder up/forward and rely on leverage to compensate. This is another bad habit that I definitely have!
Thinking it over, I think one reason I use the draw weight that I do was economic… you expect to get stronger in time, so choose a bow stronger than you can really draw properly, thinking that you will grow into it. But what happens along the way is that, in order to draw the bow at all, you end up developing bad habits. In addition there is also a kind of “real men use strong bows” attitude that you hear from time to time, though oddly I hear it more from women than from men.
Anyway, forget all that. In fact I heard some suggestions that beginners, regardless of their physical strength, should start with bows in the 6-7kg range, then increase the draw weight once they have gained proficiency and training.
Now back to the loop of rubber tubing.
Instead of holding the bow out at arms length, do the same thing with the rubber tube. I find it best if I tie the loop so that when drawn just slightly taut, it’s about 15cm across, as if you were holding a bow without any tension. Now just as before, draw the loop apart to shoulder width and hold that for 30 seconds without shaking. That’s one arrow. Now do it again. Do that 30 times, while watching television, listening to music, whatever… and you’ve just done your 30 arrows for the day without ever setting foot in the dojo. There two important points. The first is not to use your hands to grip the rubber. Instead try looping it over your just your thumbs, as far down toward the base of the thumbs as you can manage, the idea being that, in hikiwake, the contact points for the bow and the bowstring are indeed mainly your thumbs. Second, be sure that when doing this, you keep your hands, wrists, and forearms oriented so that the plane of their dorsal surfaces (the back of the hand, outside of the wrist, outside of the forearms) is perpendicular to the floor. The point is to strengthen the muscles in the outside of the forearm, with the goal of being able to draw the bow (hikiwake) with arms alone. If, in contrast, you turn the dorsal surface (back) of the hand up, you’ll use different muscle groups, so don’t do that.
Sensei said that if you can’t do this with your current bow — draw with just the arms, without bringing the shoulder in or up — then the only solution is to use a weaker bow. This is also something I can attest to from experience, since I started the seminar using a stronger bow, but after this advice switched to the weaker one for the remainder of the seminar and shinsa. It made a difference. I also find that, as a practice session goes on, my form tends to fall apart as I tire, and I start “inserting” my shoulder because it’s the only way to draw the bow. It seems like a reliable indicator of the problem. Perhaps I should simply rest.
In any case, it’s obviously something that I, at least, need to work on.
Another exercise is to start with the rubber tube loop at arms length, but then bring it in, to about 15-30 cm from your body (the reason for the 15-30 here, and above, is that normally at kai the plane of the bow and the arrow is about 15cm in front of your body). Then I seem to remember the idea was to count to 9 seconds and then release, again in both directions, though it seems to me that if you do this, and the loop is on your thumbs, it would send the loop flying, so… I may not be remembering this right. The curse of wearing kimono is that they have no pockets where you can reliably keep a camera or other recording device, so I had to scribble it all down later. Maybe someone who was there can clarify?
- Just a note as I try to actually follow sensei‘s advice on non-dojo days: if you find that the rubber tube puts too much stress on your thumb joints I think you can get pretty much the same results but looping the tube over both wrists and drawing the arms apart in the same way
Another suggested exercise that we can do anywhere was, when carrying some load, like groceries or luggage (but not too heavy) at your side, instead of letting the bag or other object simply hang down from your relaxed arm, flex the wrist so that the back of the hand is parallel to the floor or ground (dorsiflexion). If you hold the load with just your fingers (maybe the middle and ring fingers only), it puts a load, again, on the muscles of the outside of your forearm, and should also be held for 30 seconds, after which you can relax and then repeat. It may look a bit odd, walking down the street, but who cares? There are always stranger things going on, at least around here!
So I found this all very interesting… the analysis combined with Usami-sensei‘s long experience of what works and what does not.
I do have some qualms… Usually in discussion about building muscle strength the suggestion is to do sets with a small number of repetitions (3-5) using a relatively heavy load. The converse, using sets with high numbers of repetitions (10-60) and a lighter load is said to improve endurance. So I’m not sure about this “hold for 30 seconds” technique. It may be possible to build muscle strength and endurance more quickly by other methods, but he’s the hanshi so I figure I’ll try it his way for a year and see. He told us that if we do this, by next year’s seminar there will be a noticeable difference, so… why not?
The one caution I have already discovered is that you must listen to your body and choose the resistance of the gomu-loop so that you don’t over-strain your muscles or the joints of your thumbs/fingers. If you injure yourself, you’ll have to quit until you recover, and in that interval you’ll probably lose any benefits that you’d accumulated and have to go back to the beginning. Go slow and steady.
What I did was go to a hardware store and try out tubing with different thickness until I found one that, when stretched, seemed to offer a bit less resistance than my bow. If I can do 30-35 repetitions with that on days when I’m not in the dojo, I’m set. Then after a time, if it gets to be too easy (say, when I can do 50/day), I’ll try “upgrading” to the next thicker tube. These are just my ideas, though. If anyone has better/different thoughts, please let me know! Maybe we can do some experimentation and share results.
Also I want to add some drawings or images to this to clarify things, but after a week away I have a lot of work to catch up on, so hope to do that later.