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 (smile).    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 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, I began to notice tension and pain in the shoulder, upper back and neck area.  Soon after that, I began a journey to relieve the pain and have more relaxed shoulders during matches and in general.

In the past several years, though still a work-in-progress, I have 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 that these can help prevent, reduce or release the tightness in my shoulders.  The speed of their effects can vary.  Some provide immediately noticeable relief while others a gradual, almost imperceptible, one.

Ways to Relax the Shoulder

I’ll first list off the ways that I have explored and expand on some of them later:

  • Physical approaches:
    • Pressure-related:  Deep-tissue 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, Slapping therapy
  • Mind-related approaches:

Some Ways In More Detail

  • Deep-tissue 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.
  • 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.


How to See the Chance for an Ippon (Translation of 一本を取るチャンスの見つけ方 by こごろ一様)

This is an English translation of a second article in Japanese by Kogoro-Sama  from Web-Kendo at http://www.web-kendo.com/002001/column05.php with his kind permission to post it (Thank you Kogoro-Sama).   Translated by KendoNotes.

In kendo where winning or losing is decided in the blink of an instant, the one who strikes when one should strike to take advantage of an opportunity wins the ippon (point).

One cannot win in kendo by only striking blindly.

So, in kendo, securing the ippon in terms of timing is very difficult.

With regards to discovering and ascertaining this opportunity when one should strike, Takano Sasaburo (a swordsman of the highest level during the initial period of the Showa era (1926 to 1989) who developed the present Nippon Kendo Kata) described the “Seven Opportunities” in his literary work called “Kendo Teachings” which follows.

  1. Avoid the essence of the opponent and strike the emptiness.
    • Avoid where the opponent places his/her attention and strike where there is no attention or energy.
  2. Strike at a stiff head or a suspended mouth
    • A chance appears when the opponent expects something to happen or when the opponent is about to move.
  3. Strike if you see movement of kogishin (a confused mental state resulting in hesitation).
    • The term “movement of kogishin” (the state of doubt and hesitation) refers to when neither the intention of striking nor the spirit to defend functions.
  4. Strike when (the opponent is) at home.
    • At home (when tired or confused) refers to the state where the spirit and body does not move and there is no change.  This is a good opportunity.
  5. Strike when (the opponent) is rushed.
    • An opportunity arises for sure when the opponent is rushing or impatient.
  6. Strike when (the opponent) is exhausted.
    • Strike when the opponent has exhausted his/her energy or spirit.
  7. Strike when the sword tip (kensaki) drops
    • When the opponent is in chudan or jodan kamae, strike at the instant the sword tip drops.

To hit a point, one must judge these (opportunities) instantly and make a decision. As the ability (of the opponent) goes higher, such opportunities become rarer and finding such moments become more difficult.

This is not something that can be mastered overnight. However, major progress is possible by keeping these opportunities in mind while one practices keiko day to day.  Also, conversely for oneself, it is important to avoid succumbing to the same seven opportunities that the opponent is looking for.

In kendo, “seeing” is most important. In particular, in shiai (competitions), whether one can see the state of the opponent and oneself determines the match.

There are often times, when one thinks both people are quietly in kamae (the “on guard” position), that a match is determined by such moments (opportunities). It is imperative to react upon detecting such opportunities.  Conversely, one should not give such opportunities to the opponent.

Aren’t these things as described, which cannot be achieved or obtained by only speed or physical ability, needed in kendo?

In order to take advantage of these moments (opportunities) in kendo, apply seme (pressure) on an opponent during a shiai.  Moreover, if one sees things from an earlier perspective, the fight (shiai) starts from the day-to-day keiko practices (beforehand).

I believe that this concept of seizing such instantaneous moments is the way of the sword.  In this regard, doesn’t this seem to be a deep aspect of kendo?

Open-Focus, Mushin and Kendo

Several years ago, I came across an insightful book The Open-Focus Brain by Dr. Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins [Fehmi].  According to his biography, Dr. Fehmi holds a Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA, has worked with sports teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and the New Jersey Nets and has certification as a “speed and explosion specialist”.  And according to the book cover, the principles described therein could not only help alleviate mind-related illnesses such as depression and anxiety but also help enhance sports-related performance.  I describe here the open-focus concept and its relation to 無心 (mushin) and kendo.

What is “open-focus”?

The authors note two general states of mind or approaches to “paying attention”.  The first is a “narrow-focus” approach where our mind is sharply tuned to a particular task, sensory input or thought.  The image of a dog clenching a bone in a tug-of-war with its master comes to mind.  The second is an “open-focus” approach where our mind is diffuse, non-focused and relaxed yet still alert – not attuned to any particular task, input or thought.  The image of a dog lying relaxed on the floor whose ears and head can instantaneously perk up due to a sound undetectable by humans comes to mind.

This relaxed yet alert state reminds me of a story of an infield baseball player from decades earlier recounted in a talk by the co-founder of Peregrine Semiconductors, Rory Moore. The player looked like he was sleeping while standing with his head tilted. However, as soon as a batter hit a ball his way, the player would move immediately and pounce on the ball like a cat.

What is the value of open-focus?

Based on his neurofeedback studies of the brain using electroencephalograms (EEGs), Dr. Fehmi found that the narrow-focus approach tends to illicit brain waves with higher frequencies referred to as beta waves (13 to 50 Hz).  It can be associated with an emergency mode of paying attention, higher heart rates, higher respiratory rates and greater energy required to maintain this heightened state. In contrast, the “open-focus” approach tends to illicit brain waves with lower frequencies referred to as alpha waves (8 to 13 Hz).  In this state, the author discovered that

My muscle tone softened, and I moved with a newfound effortlessness and fluidity… Anxiety evaporated.  I felt extraordinarily present, centered, poised, open, lighter and freer, more calmly energetic and spontaneous.  I laughed and smiled more.  Untoward events no longer threw me the way they had before… I was in the zone” [Fehmi, p.31].

For those into sports and kendo, this is generally the state we wish to be in where our body moves with ease, our strikes are effortless and smooth and our mind is clear – unfettered by thoughts, worries or fears.

How does open-focus relate to 無心 (mushin)?  

I believe the two are equivalent. Mushin translates to “no mind” or the “absence of mind” in English.  The following description from [Wikipedia] reads like one for open-focus:

 [Mushin is] a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. 

Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction or what is felt intuitively. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intention, plan or direction.

How can we achieve open-focus (or mushin)? 

The answer to this question is rather remarkable.  When Dr. Fehmi initially “tried” to generate alpha waves, he failed.  However, when he eventually and finally “surrendered” and gave up trying, he discovered to his surprise that he was able to generate strong, clear alpha waves.

He developed a set of exercises to help induce this state [Fehmi, p. 63-70]. They are a set of objectless images to foster “an awareness of space, silence, and a sense of timelessness” [Fehmi. p.39].  Here are several examples of his exercises to meditate on:

  1. Can you imagine the space between your eyes?
  2. Can you imagine the surface of your tongue?
  3. Can you imagine the space inside your ears?
  4. Can you imagine the volume of your index finger?

With practice, he and students of his exercises were apparently able to move into or maintain the open-focus state at will.

How can we achieve open-focus or mushin in kendo? 

We could practice the open-focus exercises as mentioned above and become more skilled at moving into that state.  Alternatively, we could put into practice the well-known saying in kendo:

 遠山の目付け [enzan no metsuke] – Look to the mountain in the distance.

I recall senseis advising students to avoid looking intently at one particular part of the opponent such as the kote or eyes but rather to see the entire person.  Another term I have heard used to describe this is “Soft Eyes.”  I surmise that by gazing far away to a mountain behind the opponent, one can then see the entire person, court, dojo and environment with diffused attention – without paying attention to one aspect or body part of the opponent.

Incidentally, the book describes a similar way of “looking” where we relax our eye muscles while also paying attention to areas in the periphery around an object of initial focus:

I noticed that the brain-wave training broadened my attention; I took in the world visually in a very different way. I now perceived larger scenes without focusing on any one element and with much less effort [Fehmi, p.34].

What are the benefits of open-focus (or mushin) in kendo?

I believe that the practice of the above saying and open-focus has a number of practical and psychological benefits.  First, we can become harder to “read” and can avoid telepathing our intentions to the opponent.  For example, if we are intent on hitting kote, our eyes and kamae may reveal this to the opponent.  Second, I believe our reaction time can be faster.[1]  When I remember to practice with open-focus, it seems that my body can perform, for example, oji-waza during kihon-geiko much more quickly than had my mind been focused on anticipating the initial movement of the opponent.  Third, it seems to help increase my awareness and sense of the opponent.  For example, there are times when I can perceive an opponent’s wish or intention to initiate a strike (perhaps due to changes in facial expressions or body movements) and can “invite” (with hikidasu) the opponent to attack.

Lastly, prior to and during matches, shiai‘s and shinsa‘s  it can help us be more relaxed and less anxious – free from thoughts, distractions or emotions that may hinder us from performing our best.  We can shift our mind away from thoughts related to the fear of losing or failing, or, on the flip side of the coin, an excessive attachment or requirement to win or pass.  Instead, we can be present in the space and time of the match in a diffuse, non-focused way.  At a deeper level, this may require that we let go and surrender what our mind may be attached to.  By doing so, we may be able to do kendo more effortlessly and while in the zone.


I have only recently started applying the open-focus approach to my kendo practice with the aforementioned benefits.  Part of the challenge is remembering to adopt this mindset and making this a habit.  I anticipate it will have additional benefits in life outside of kendo, too.


[Fehmi] Les Fehmi, Jim Robbins, The Open-Focus Brain – Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body, Trumpeter Books, 2007.

[Wikipedia] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mushin_(mental_state)


[1] From a neuroscience perspective, the control path starting from the visual sensory input to eyes, to the brain and eventually to the muscles is likely shorter and faster in this state.  There is likely less processing (or thinking) at the brain enabling a faster response time to the point where we may function with so called “muscle memory.”

Copyright 2016 KendoNotes.com


Techniques Needed to Win in Kendo (Translation of 勝つための必要な技術 by こごろ一様)

This is an English translation of an article by Kogoro-Sama from Web-Kendo at http://www.web-kendo.com/002001/column04.php  with his kind permission to post it (Thank you Kogoro-Sama).   Translated by KendoNotes.

In many sports, winning or losing is very often attributed to differences in the physique or the physical ability of a person. In kendo, however, this is not necessarily the case.  Certainly, there are those in kendo who will strike often and indiscriminately as long as they have the strength.  However, this approach does not necessarily guarantee that they will win.  Furthermore, those dependent solely on physical strength or power will fare poorly against a strong kendo player.  In fact, this approach can have the opposite desired effect and can even be counter-effective.

In kendo, other important aspects are needed (for winning). Certainly, being fast and having a larger body type can be advantageous.  However, Miyamoto Musashi has written the following on this aspect in The Book of Five Rings.

In the art of war (fighting), the valuing of fast sword movement (or sword play) is not the right path. Sword movement labeled as slow or fast depends on whether one matches or does not match a rhythm (or beat).   . . .

The skilled swords man is one who indeed sees slowly and does not miss the distance (with another person). The person skilled in these aspects is one who sees without fuss (with calm).

From Translation notes by Kamata Shigeo (Kodansha) from Mushashi Miyamoto, The Book of Five Rings.

This is an extremely important point.  Winning is not guaranteed by having only speed or a big build.   It also involves quickly grasping the rhythm (of your opponent) and the opportunity to strike the opponent.  It is said that one cannot necessarily win against an opponent without knowing the opportunity to strike.

It is very important to understand the opportunity of when one should strike in kendo. It is not an exaggeration to go so far and say that winning depends on whether or not one takes the lead (先 saki) before the opponent does in kendo.

It is incorrect to wish to attack the opponent only when one feels like striking.  One cannot win unless one truly understands the condition of the opponent and oneself, and one seizes that must-strike opportunity.

At my dojo, we have witnessed on multiple occasions the spectacle of a 70+ year old sensei easily dodging a young high school student and easily striking the student when the sensei saw an opening.

There is certainly something that the elder sensei could see that that the high school student could not see. Isn’t this the reason one can be active in kendo despite one’s age?

So, for these so called opportunities to strike, when do these occur?  And what identifies them?

I think I will write about this point next time.