Being Bamboo: Finding Relaxed Strength

Bernie Gourley

July 2 2012

When considering what I learned at the Fifth Annual Gi Yu Dōjō seminar, the first lesson that came to mind was being strong without tension. This may apply to all budō, but two of the three elements of the seminar really hammered the lesson home. Tension in spear-work breeds exhaustion; tension in live blade cutting breeds frustration.

            After the first sōjutsu session, I noticed that the outer-back portion of my deltoids were sore. Given the unusual location of the soreness, it was easy to track it to the way I tensed those muscles as I locked in the spear during tsuki. Clamping the spear-shaft under my armpit, straightening the lead arm, and rotating the lead hand to a palm down position, I often performed the right actions, but I did so in the wrong way. By spastically contracting and holding the muscle taught, I burned out the muscle. Tsuki must be strong. However, the weight of the weapon, the fact that its length must be briefly cantilevered from one’s body, and the need to withdraw it like a bullet means even a supreme athlete, much less me, could become quickly worn out using the weapon. I thought about how exhausting a few minutes of sparring can be, and then about samurai on a battlefield with armor and a long-shafted yari. I’m not denigrating the importance of fitness when I say that I can’t imagine a person being fit enough to still be standing when the battle is done if they relied on an inefficient use of their muscles for strength.

            In our martial art, as in many others, analogies from nature often offer insight. As I thought about what in nature is strong but not tense, bamboo first popped to mind. This plant gets its strength from the alignment of its fibers and its flexibility. I mentioned the importance of alignment in sōjutsu above, but the relevance of flexibility required some thought. Flexibility is letting the weapon do what it does. Sandhu-Sensei spoke of this in the cutting session when he told us to let the weight of the blade do the work. The same concept seemed to apply to the spear as well. One gets the spear moving by putting one’s body weight in motion, and, its inertia overcome, the spear’s momentum carries it into the place where one can lock it in with the proper alignment. In this way, the tip is driven into the target with the force of one’s moving body weight using minimal effort.

            There’s a mental analog to the tension that interferes with strength. In live blade cutting, it seems to me, there cannot be a moment’s doubt that one’s blade will breeze through the target. That confidence, or strength of mind, is born of a mental state of “nothingness” or mu. Thoughts and concerns about success or failure are the mental analog of wasted effort. Just as muscle tension keeps one from feeling and correcting physical errors, wandering thoughts keep one from the necessary resoluteness and clarity.

            This is but one of many lessons I took away from the seminar.