“Junan undo and kokyuho are the foundation of all taijutsu and thus it is important to practice them every day.” - Soke
Many teachers of martial arts gloss over stretching and breathing techniques as part of their instruction program. This may be for a number of reasons, such as they feel it is a simple thing anyone can undertake independently, or perhaps because they have not had adequate instruction on the subject themselves. For those of us in the Bujinkan, we should be aware that Hatsumi Sensei has always emphasized the importance of flexibility and breathing exercises in his writings, and includes them in the Tenchijin (Ten ryaku no maki). Those familiar with early videos and photos call how remarkably flexible Soke was even in his 50s and 60s, and this suppleness has continued into his 80s. This short article will address stretching and the breathing techniques that go along with doing it properly, two of the most important aspects of the budoka’s training routine.
Junan taiso can be translated as “exercises for becoming flexible or supple.” The root of junan (ju = soft, supple, gentle) is the same as used in judo and jujutsu, while taiso refers to conditioning the body. The foundation of junan taiso is found in East Indian yoga, which undoubtedly traveled to Japan via China during the period when there was such abundant cultural exchange. Indeed many of the poses in the junan taiso are precisely the same as those of traditional Indian yoga schools.
As anyone that has studied the yogic tradition can tell you, yoga itself is not simply a physical routine of adopting postures to improve elasticity (although this is certainly part of it). It is a complete system of enhancing strength, energy, flexibility, agility, and balance by synchronizing the breath with a series of methodical stretching and range of motion exercises. Proper breathing is absolutely vital to making progress in yoga, and plays an important part in our junan taiso. Without going into excessive detail, the key point to remember when stretching is to breathe fluidly, deeply and slowly. In virtually all yogic postures, including those found in the junan taiso, you should breathe out as you lean into the stretch. If your routine emphasizes long stretches, you can relax the stretch just a bit once you have expelled all the air in your lungs, refill them, and then continue stretching the muscle group as you breathe out again – repeating as necessary until you have completed that phase of your routine. Different traditions may have different breathing methods, so this is only a generalized recommendation.
Before addressing the stretching exercises let us briefly discuss kokyuho, or breathing exercises. These can be found on other Japanese arts such as aikido, and are distantly related to Chinese qigong (chi kung) practice. Soke provides three forms in the Tenchijin (also called the Shinkokyu San’aun). These are the shomen kokyuho (frontal breathing), seiza sayu shinkokyu (straight sitting, left and right breathing), and the shinten shinkokyu (extension deep breathing). The aim of kokyuho is to increase lung capacity by filling the lungs completely with air and expelling it in a slow, fluid manner. Breathing should be circular and not start and stop. These exercises also stimulate blood flow and the circulation of qi (Jap. ki), or biokinetic energy. Ordinarily breathing exercises are done before the stretching regimen to synchronize your breathing and put you in a proper state of relaxation. However, in many yoga traditions, meditation and deep breathing is done after the stretching. You can experiment and discover what has the most benefits for you.
There is a marked difference between warming up before class and having a proper stretching routine that will increase your flexibility and enhance vitality. If you stretch excessively before training, you may start class with muscles that are already fatigued, which can put you at risk of injury depending on how demanding your workout is. Simple warm-up exercises and light stretches for five or ten minutes maximum should be sufficient to get you prepared for class. It is important to realize that you will never have the opportunity to warm-up when faced with a crisis or violent encounter, and therefore should not come to rely on stretching before a period of training. As Keiser Sensei has experienced first hand, this point is emphasized by some Japanese Shihan by not setting aside a warm up period before any of their classes. A true stretching regimen should be done at a time when you can focus solely on the experience, giving each pose up to a minute or more of dedicated attention. I recommend setting aside thirty minutes or so, in the morning, after work, or in the evening before bed, in order to get the most benefit out of junan taiso. Morning is a good time to stretch as it helps you prepare for your day and get your circulation going. Evening is also very beneficial because you will not be putting any additional demands on your muscles, so you can stretch them to the fullest and then give them a chance to recover before the following day. Again, you can experiment with what works best for you, keeping in mind the goal is to condition the body so that it is naturally flexible and does not need warming up before activity.
“The study of budo begins with giving flexibility to the legs and hips, making them strong and supple.”
Before stretching you may want to engage in self-massage to loosen up the major muscle groups. You have probably seen many people in the Bujinkan do this already – gently using the hands to rub, slap or even lightly pound the muscle groups (especially in the legs) to warm them up and increase blood flow to the areas that will be stretched.
Soke has advised Bujinkan students to give certain areas of the body special attention. These include the hips and legs, the spine, and the wrist and ankle joints. The ankles and even the individual toes should be rotated regularly. This will increase energy flow to the body, decrease the likelihood of sprains, and facilitate good footwork. Likewise, give attention to the finger joints and wrists, rotating them all individually and loosening them up with gentle stretches. This helps condition us for locks, reversals, escapes and other such techniques. Keeping the spine healthy is essential to being in good physical condition as well. In addition to the junan taiso poses that stretch the spine, proper ukemi practice is like giving your spine a massage and is an excellent method of maintaining flexibility.
With regards to stretching the major muscle groups to increase elasticity, the essential point to making progress and avoiding injury is to use discomfort as your guide. My first Bujinkan teacher had a useful phrase about stretching that twists the cliché we hear at the gym - “no gain with pain.” In other words, if you experience pain while you are stretching, you are not doing it properly. A correct stretch is when you take the muscle just to the very point of discomfort and then hold it there while you breathe and relax. If you force the stretch until you are actually in pain (mild, or otherwise), you risk injury that could take a while to recover from. When a muscle is initially stretched it will contract, so in order to increase your flexibility the muscle needs to be given time to grow accustomed to the stress. One recommendation that I have found useful is to ease into your stretch, taking the muscle to maximum extension and relax for as much as 30 seconds. Then deepen the stretch very gradually. You should also never “bounce” or rhythmically tug at the muscle when you stretch, but instead increase your pull just a little at a time and in a state of relaxation.
Although there is a “form” or a series of specific poses that are considered part of the traditional junan taiso of the Bujinkan, we should not feel limited by it and be free to explore other ways of stretching and conditioning our body to meet the demands of training and healthy living. You may want to explore East Indian yoga practice or advanced stretching techniques from other arts and disciplines to broaden your experience and understanding. Increasing flexibility takes time, and becomes more difficult the older you get, so be patient with yourself and do not become frustrated if you fail to make progress immediately. It may be necessary to engage a partner or two to assist you with deepening some stretches, and there are methods your teacher can share with you to do this. The importance of flexibility to our art should not be underestimated, so good luck with your junan taiso.