Ways to Relax Tight Shoulders (肩に力を抜いて!)

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, therapists, 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.*


I have struggled with tight shoulders for many years in kendo.  For the initial years, I was likely oblivious to them – noticing them haphazardly at times after a shiai or keiko had I been stiff, slow, anxious or with a 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, after 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 in tune with my shoulders, more aware of my state of mind and more relaxed there during practices and matches.  This is largely due to an array of tools and techniques (listed below) that I have learned thanks to many others and with exploration over the years.  I have found some of these, like deep-tissue self-massage therapy and posture checks, 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 that I have explored below and expand on some of them later.  For me, the pressure-related approaches provide immediate physical relief.  And the mind-related approaches can 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 [1], 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.
  • Mind-related 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.
  • 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.

Bon courage!

[1]  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.

** One way of noticing tight shoulders in others is by viewing their shoulder positions from behind when they are fighting.  His or her left shoulder may be noticeably higher than the right one or both shoulders may be raised.

Copyright 2017 KendoNotes.com



Healing Kendo (癒しの剣道) by Nakamura Sensei – Forward and Part 1

This is an English translation of the Forward and Part 1 of a seven-part article by Nakamura Sensei, 7th Dan.  The link to the original article in Japanese is: http://www.geocities.jp/gazo_asidachi/kumagro_niki/iyashino_kendo/iyashi_01.htm.  I thank Nakamura Sensei for his kind permission to post this translation.  Translated by KendoNotes.


In my kendo, I keep in mind the fun of doing it.  When I strike, I aim for the feeling of a good men, the feeling of a good kote, the feeling of a good do, the feeling of a good tsuki.  Accordingly, this differs slightly from regular keiko as well as basic keiko.

Stated simply, it is “Healing Kendo.”

Since passing the age of 50 perhaps, I have lost confidence in my physical strength.  My shoulders hurt and my arms hurt when I extend them.  When doing kirikaeshi, my back muscles hurt.  When doing hayasuburi, my calf muscles get pulled.  A variety of problems arise.  From such conditions, I believe this is how my present day kendo was born.   I practice the fundamentals for 30 to 40 mins in front of a mirror and practice basic strikes with my men on for another 30 minutes –  not even this if there is no partner.  I practice these on days other those days for regular keiko.  Though I say I am doing this, it is only once a week.  There are no hundreds of hayasuburi, not even uchikomi, kakarigeiko nor kirikaeshi.  Only a relaxed and efficient (non-excessive) kendo that I refer to as Healing Kendo.

In this page, I introduce a part of my approach to seme in kendo.

Part 1

First of all, though I shall write about how to do seme, please think about your present men-uchi.

From issoku-ittouno-mai, are you not striking by performing seme starting with your right foot and then pulling in your left foot for tsugi-ashi?  At the moment of striking, are your right foot and hands not starting to move at the same time?  Usually, this is how most people strike.  With this, one succumbs to a perfectly timed kaeshi-waza [1] from an opponent.

Now please think back to the fundamentals.  I think one is taught that issoku-ittouno-ma-ai is the ma-ai from where one can strike with a single fumikomi using the right foot. From this ma-ai, one can strike a men even without a tsugi-ashi [2].

Please think on this a bit more.  Older folks like myself cannot reach the men by striking with only (a single step with) the right foot from issoku-ittouno-ma-ai which is too far.  Well, then how do you think can we strike?

The 8th Dan Senseis at their age can very easily strike men.  They draw out the opponent by applying seme with their right foot (hikidasu).  They strike at the moment the opponent comes forward by half a head-length.  The opponent is coming in to get hit.  When I tested for 7th Dan, I was able to pass with kote and men strikes as my opponent came in – drawn out by a seme with my right foot (of course, a seme starting from my hips).  Now I can perform seme much better compared to that time.

I would like to take good care of what I have acquired and mastered thus far.

And I shall share and explain seme.  I write this thinking that it will help instruct myself, too.  Although you may already be at a level to pass (shinsa), please read this while thinking “Heh” (as in ‘Oh’).  In my present day kendo, I strike men from a ma-ai where the sword tips meet.  At times, from closer distances, too.  Of course, it is with one step.

Though this became a little bit long, I shall write on how to seme and enter.  If it is ok with you, let’s continue this journey.

(Continue to Part 2)

[1] Translation note:  I believe 技 (waza) instead of  業 (waza) in 「返し業」 was intended in the original article due to the context and the same kun-yomi.

[2] Translation note: I believe this is in reference to an initial small step (tsugi-ashi) which can precede the fumikomi and men-uchi needed especially from touma.


Ways to Check and Improve Your Posture for Kamae – Wag Your Tail

You have probably heard Senseis instruct new students learning kamae to stand straight with the chest pushed forward and the shoulders back.    The same instruction can apply to higher level kodansha as captured in an instructional video for those going for 4th or 5th Dan Shinsa grading in [DVD08].  In the video, the Senseis call out certain candidates to correct their posture not only for the chest and spine area but also the neck and head.  There is a marked difference in appearance when seeing a kamae with a good posture vs. one with a hunched posture.

An Easy Way to Check One’s Posture.

As explained to me by a chiropractor and a massage therapist, one can perform a “Wall check”.  This involves finding a wall and standing with one’s back against it with the following body parts (ideally) touching it:  the buttocks, the shoulder blades and the back of the head (with the chin tucked down towards one’s chest).  For those familiar with yoga, this is essentially a vertical version of shavasana – also known as the “dead man’s pose” where one is standing instead of lying down.

Here’s a few youtube videos which describe the check:

It may be a challenge to maintain a good posture in kendo if it is not already ingrained into the body’s muscle memory in and out of the dojo.  This may be exacerbated by the increasing amount of time people these days tend to spend seated in chairs or glued to computers and smartphones.  How often are we seated slouched with our pelvis tucked forward, chest caved in and spine rounded?  Certainly, building awareness, developing a habit of checking one’s posture or asking fellow dojo members to check one’s posture in kamae can help.  Here’s some more tips.

Tips to Help Improve One’s Posture*

  • Imagine the top of the head pulled upwards with a string when in kamae, standing or seated.
  • Sense the tailbone and direct it towards the rear instead of the front when in kamae, standing or seated.  Or, imagine a tail and wag it towards the back.
    • This teaching, courtesy of Keita Kasahara-san, though somewhat bizarre, seems effective as it helps pivot the pelvis away from a tucked forward position towards a straightened one that supports the spine.
  • Stand or walk with the arms extended, palms facing forward and the thumbs pointed outwards away from the body [Gainesville].
  • Breathe in deeply where the full lung capacity is reached.
  • Tighten the abdomen muscles.
  • Imagine the ears positioned over the shoulder bones with the chin tucked in.
  • Hold the shavasana posture in a horizontal position on a firm flat surface.
  • Sleep on a firm but comfortable surface.
    • Indeed, there are some who advocate sleeping on a firm surface without a mattress [Paleo].
  • Here’s a website with more tips [PowerofPosture].

Wishing you good posture and a strong kamae!


[DVD08] 剣道模擬審査 四・五段編 DVD, スキージャナル株式会社 (Ski Journal, Japan), ISBN 978-4-7899-5535-5、2008.

[Gainesville] Gainesville Physical Therapy, “Posture Check”, youtube video, 1:24 mins, Oct 2014.

[Paleo] CaveManGreg, “Sleep – Which Surface is Best?  Paleo Diet and Living (Blog), May 2011.

[PowerofPosture] The Power of Posture (Website)

* 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.

Copyright 2016 KendoNotes.com

Body Maintenance for Kendo – Part 1: Deep-Tissue Self-Massage Therapy

When I was younger, I did not appreciate the value of stretching, warming up or massage therapy.  Now that I am older, I understand.  My muscles are stiffer for a day or more after a kendo practice.  With age, there is a noticeable slowing of my strikes due to the tightness in the muscles.  To counter this, I have incorporated ways to keep my muscles relaxed and loose, maintain my posture and shorten the recovery time.  This helps me maintain some level of ease, agility and speed in striking – not only for regular practices but also for competitions, gashuku and shinsa.  Moreover, I feel much better, lighter, more relaxed and more confident in kamae – a feeling which can spill into my everyday life.  I hope that this article may be of value and help to others with issues and experiences similar to mine.

So, what do I do?  I use a combination of deep-tissue self-massage therapy, stretching through yoga and particular yoga poses, posture management, a well warmed-up body, sports tapes, nutrition and rest.  I describe the first item on deep-tissue therapy in detail here and provide an overview including the remaining items in the article “Ways to Relax Tight Shoulders”.  Please note the disclaimer below.*

Deep-Tissue Self-Massage Therapy

This is an effective approach for loosening tight muscles in the neck, shoulder, rotator cuff area, glutes, quadriceps and calf.  If you can see a good massage therapist regularly and, in particular, immediately before and after a kendo practice, you are blessed and need to read no further.  Otherwise, you are in luck.  There are many devices and instructional videos available for applying deep-tissue massage to oneself without a therapist.  And there are many additional health benefits and healing properties from such therapy – also known as pointed pressure therapy [Bean75].

Depending on the sensitivity of the muscle area, I use a tennis ball or lacrosse ball.  I’d suggest using the tennis ball if new to this and the lacrosse ball later when the tennis ball seems too soft and loses its effectiveness.  Self-applied massage therapy involves lying down on the ground and placing the ball between an area of tightness and the ground (or leaning against a wall with the device between oneself and the wall).   It is passive in that it uses the body weight and gravity to do the work.  Part of the trick is moving your body or the ball to find the right spot and applying sufficient weight over the target area. This may require finding a particular pose with the body to adjust the amount of applied pressure.

Here are some sample youtube videos and exercises below which describe how to apply deep-tissue massage to oneself.  Many more can be found by searching with keywords such as “lacrosse ball therapy [muscle area].”

A few things to keep in mind as explained in such videos and by therapists are: being gentle with oneself by not over-doing things, shifting the body and poses slightly to find the “right” spot and amount of pressure, breathing deeply and relaxing into poses and drinking as much water as needed afterwards.

Side Story

Many years ago, I witnessed massage therapy applied after a kendo practice at a local dojo at Nakano-Sakanoue near Shinjuku, Tokyo.  After completing our individual bows to the Sensei’s and to one another, a kendo person applied thumb pressure therapy to the forearms of a famed Sensei 小沼宏至 Onuma Kōji (Hanshi 8th Dan).  His forearms muscles were tight and needed relief.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a therapist at the dojo to provide deep tissue massage relief before and after a kendo practice?


[Bean75] Roy E. Bean, Helping Your Health with Pointed Pressure Therapy, Parker Publishing Co., 1975.

* 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.

Copyright 2016 KendoNotes.com