Some fellow members at the dojo where I practice have asked about ways to relax tight shoulder muscles. What follows is my journey in this area and ways I have explored with the help of friends, my chiropractor, massage therapists, yoga instructors, meditation teachers and sensei‘s. May this article be of value to all who may be experiencing a similar issue and in need of relief. Please note the disclaimer below.*
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. – Chinese Proverb
I have struggled with tight shoulders for many years in kendo. Early on, I was likely oblivious to them – noticing them haphazardly after a shiai or keiko had I been stiff, slow, anxious or with a very strong desire to “win” or do my best. During my years in Japan, a teacher and professor, Yokoyama Naoya (横山直也) Sensei, would admonish me with a gentle smile saying “Relax the shoulders” (肩に力を抜いて, katani chikarawo nuite) when he noticed my tense shoulders at practices.** Then about ten years ago, when the tension and pain in the shoulder, upper back and neck area became more prevalent, I began a journey for relief and healing there.
Though still a work-in-progress, I have now become more aware of my shoulders and state of mind – and more relaxed there during practices and matches. This is largely due to an array of tools and techniques acquired over the years and listed below. Some, like deep-tissue self-massage therapy and posture checks, have become indispensable. They not only help prevent, reduce or release the tightness in my shoulders, but they have also helped me strike hits with more ease (less stiffness) and speed. My body feels better and more responsive.
Ways to Relax the Shoulder
I list off the ways below and expand on some of them later. For me, the pressure-related approaches provide immediate physical relief. And the mind-related approaches provide relief when the source of the tension are from thoughts and stressful situations.
- Physical approaches:
- Pressure-related: Deep-tissue self-massage therapy, Lacrosse ball therapy, Foam rolling, Acupressure.
- Stretching: Yoga, Stretches, Pole stick stretching, Chin-up bar stretching.
- Posture related: Back, chest and spine positioning when seated, standing or walking, sleeping on a more firm surface.
- Motion related: Arm motion, Tai-chi, Lifting-up the shoulders to the ears tightly and then releasing and relaxing them.
- Temperature-related: Exercises to warm up and build heat in the shoulders , Heat therapy (e.g. sauna, hot water bathing with or without epsom salt, hot yoga), Cold water therapy.
- Breathing: Deep breathing exercises, kiai with all one’s energy.
- Others: Acupuncture. Big kiai.
- Mind-related approaches:
- Mindfulness-based approaches:
- Focusing attention of the mind on the breathe or breathing,
- Mindfulness-based meditation (building greater self-awareness) – Watching the thoughts and the mind.
- Moving into mushin 無心 (the zone, flow-state, open-focus):
- See Open-focus, Mushin and Kendo.
- Practicing 遠山の目付け (enzan no metsuke) or “soft eyes” and letting go.
- Thought-based approaches:
- Listening to the body
- Consciously checking the shoulders during warm-ups, keiko or a match.
- Practicing the practice and making the practice a habit.
- Mindfulness-based approaches:
Some Ways In More Detail
- Deep-tissue self-massage therapy (this links to an article with further links to videos and more details) and Lacrosse ball therapy are the most effective and immediate ways for me to relieve shoulder muscle tightness or pain. If and when a massage therapist is unavailable, it is possible to find relief with the lacrosse ball – though some hard-to-reach areas (e.g. under the arm and rotator cuff) may require some contortion of the body.
- Some stretching examples include these 60 Sec. Stretches to get Knots from Shoulders, Upper Back & Traps and yoga poses such as these 9 Yoga Poses to Help Relieve Neck and Shoulder Pain. Many online resources can be found using, for example, the keywords: “Stretches (or Yoga Poses) for Shoulder Tension”.
- Pole stick stretching refers to the use of a long pole (e.g. broom stick or bamboo pole) to facilitate deep stretching of the various parts of the shoulder muscles. Here’s a couple of video examples: Rotator cuff stretches, Frozen shoulder exercise – pole mobility.
- With regards to posture, part of the cause of my shoulder and neck issues stemmed from poor posture when standing or seated especially when using a laptop for extended periods of time. A head and neck positioned forward instead of above the spine, a forward leaning spine and forward-hunching shoulders apparently (and perhaps obviously) place a large amount of stress on the muscles struggling to support unnatural body positions. The challenge is in noticing this since it is difficult to see ourselves. I only became aware of this thanks to my massage therapist and chiropractor. “Ways to Check and Improve Your Posture for Kamae – Wag your Tail” addresses these issues.
- The Mind-related approaches have become increasingly effective for me. At a shiai or shinsa, for example, thoughts racing through the mind, excitement, anxiety or a feeling of un-centeredness can arise which may contribute to inducing tension in the shoulders and body. To counter this, the cited approaches can help calm the mind and body and eventually relax the shoulders. Their value and effects may take a while to notice or realize. Part of the challenge is becoming more aware of the mind and body, moving to that state of flow, or filling the mind with empowering and energizing thoughts.
 This tip was suggested by Shigetaka (Shane) Kamata Sensei (8th Dan) (Thank you!).
* Disclaimer: the content herein is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
** A way of noticing tight shoulders in others is by viewing their shoulder positions from behind when they are in kamae during a match. One of the shoulders may be noticeably higher than the other. Both may raised. Or, the shoulders may rise (for example, just before initiating a strike).
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