When we think of martial arts, we picture Bruce Lee kicking bad-guy tail, and looking super-cool doing it. What we might not consider is martial arts’ softer, meditative side that connects mind and body. That theme is no stranger to archery.
That makes sense because archery helps clear the mind and improve focus. Yoga, of course, also promotes clarity and muscle strengthening. Karate takes those qualities and adds discipline. And the Japanese art of Kyudo connects all three by blending elements of focus, discipline and precision.
Translated from Japanese, Kyudo means “the way of the bow.” The Kyudo website explains the craft as “synonymous with the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty.” As one of Japan’s oldest martial arts, Kyudo includes hunting, war, games, court ceremonies and contests of skill. It was first used about 250 B.C. when early Japanese hunters used the Jomon bow. It’s said the bow was a symbol of political power, and Emperor Jimmu wielded one to show his authority. Indy Week also notes that “Kyudo is infused with philosophical influences from both Shinto and Zen Buddhism, making it a ritualistic practice” that originated with Japanese warriors who used its techniques in battle.
When you step into a Kyudojo – a practice hall for Kyudo – it’s clear it’s not your average archery range. The atmosphere is spiritual, with archers incorporating a sense of meditation into every shot. If/when you decide to try Kyudo, note that you can’t enter the dojo (short for “Kyudojo”) unless you follow the exact steps to honor the tradition. Japanese writer Sayaka Matsuoka explored the Meishin Kyudojo in North Carolina for Indy Week. She recounts learning from the Kyudojo’s owner, Dan DeProspero, that the “proper way to enter the Kyudojo, DeProspero teaches me, is to remove your shoes, leave them on the stone, and then step onto the wooden flooring in your socks. Done any other way, it’s seen as bringing the outdoors into the space of the Kyudojo.”
Practicing Kyudo helps you let go of the outside world and focus on the present. By ensuring nothing from the outdoors touches the practice space, it symbolizes leaving your worries at the door. You’re encouraged to shed any and all strife and come into the Kyudojo with a pure heart and mind.
Members of the Kyudojo shoot their arrows in order of their rank. Those of the lowest level go first and highest shoot last. Each participant shoots once and then sits down until their next turn.
Matsuoka was impressed at the cultural appreciation Kyudojo members showed her culture. “Growing up in the States, I had lost so much of my heritage,” she wrote in Indy Week. “But here in the middle of rural North Carolina is a small group of people who have so much respect and care for a culture that isn’t their own, going to painstaking lengths to get every detail right. This, I realize, is the furthest thing from cultural appropriation: This is cultural exchange at its best.”
DeProspero teaches her taihai, which means the precise movements of preparing to shoot.
“We begin by learning the different ways of walking, turning and kneeling,” she wrote. “Then we repeat the steps while holding the bow and arrow. Needless to say, we mess up more than once. Our steps are too big. We don’t turn correctly. We move too fast. I consider myself pretty adventurous, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The Kyudo technique website breaks down the eight stages of shooting a bow: footing, correcting the posture, readying the bow, raising the bow, drawing the bow, completing the draw, the release, and the continuation/lowering of the bow.
Stance is vital for maintaining stability: “As a rule, the feet are spread the distance of one’s arrow length, or yazuka, with the big toes set in line with the target’s center. The angle of the footing should be 60 degrees with the weight evenly distributed so the center of gravity is maintained between both feet.”
And to correct the stance, the site advises: “Special attention must be given to the so-called three-cross relationship, where the shoulders, hips and feet are held in line with one another, parallel to the floor and straight to the target.”
All the prep work for keeping the arrow on target is important, but there’s more to it in Kyudo: “The shooting does not end with the release of the arrow, it ends with zanshin. The word zanshin is a homonym. It can mean ‘remaining body’ or ‘remaining spirit.’ Both definitions explain the period following the release when one continues to hold one’s position and send the spirit forth, even after the arrow has reached the target.”
Hikiwake, or drawing the bow, requires the archer to draw the bow at forehead level, and then lower it to mouth level. That differs from drawing as you lift the bow to mouth level, and then using the mouth as an anchor point as we’ve come to do in recreational and competitive archery.
Kyudo is an ancient spiritual practice that’s meant to build deep connections between archers and their mind. With organizations in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, you can find a place that respects this culture and helps you immerse yourself in a new world.