Transcribed by Luke Crocker, minor edits for understanding.
Flexibility, stretching, extending yourself… well first, when you talk about stretching, you need to understand the idea of “warming up”, and those kinds of exercises you do before starting the class.
First of all, you need to understand that in classical martial arts, whatever the ryūha, whatever the style, doesn’t exist. Warming up doesn’t exist, and nowadays every ryūha does warming up, even in kendō and things like that, they are things taken from sports in order to fit or to help to practice. In classical martial arts there is no warming up, etcetera, exercises. There is this aspect of Tanren (tempering ; 鍛錬) conditioning and reinforcement. So every movement that you do in daily life needs to support, it needs to apply the technique. So you need to work your body in order to be flexible, to be precise, to be shaped, but at the same time to not show that you practice martial arts, or that you practice those kinds of techniques.
In the world of warriors, in the world of the 14th century, 15th century, 16th century, showing that you are strong can be good, but can also be a problem, and you can be a very easy target. You cannot show that you have a certain kind of ability. A ninja cannot say, “I’m a ninja!” and jumping like, etcetera, and doing things like… so they might recognize you, you need to always hide the aspect of knowledge you have of the art of fighting. You are a master, you are known as a master, but we don’t know how deep you can fight, unless we don’t see it completely, unless we don’t show it, the master doesn’t show it. That’s a very important thing.
You cannot also, have two different kinds of exercise like something to warm up the body, and something for practicing martial arts; you can’t divide a practice. You need to have everything as one thing that supports what you want to build. So some people might practice yōga, some people might practice stretching, that’s good! But as long as it doesn’t make your practice worse. For example, there are some people that are very good at yoga, that are very good in flexibility, but when you ask the to kick and keep the foot out at a certain level, and do the same movement, they cannot because this requires a certain kind of flexibility, and a certain kind of work on the ligaments, and the muscle as well. And at the same time some people can rise very well, and lift the legs, but not do flexibility. Here again it is a certain kind of muscle working.
That is why you can say that there are two kinds of flexibility: there is dynamic flexibility and static flexibility. Then after there is the flexibility that you need for the martial art, that you need for the art you practice, whatever the ryūha.
So about this flexibility and things, the word itself in Japanese, you have many words. For example, Jūnan (flexibility; 柔軟) like the Jūnan Taisō (calisthenics; 柔軟体操), the word on itself you don’t find before the Meiji period (1868-1912.), it’s something created with the foreign influence. The kanji you use mainly in Japanese mainly are for example for flexibility are like yawarakai (softness; 柔らかい), yawaragu (to soften; 和らぐ), the kanji of wa (harmony, peace; 和), which expresses not only flexibility, but at the same time the image of the branch, of something that takes the weight but doesn’t break, something that bends, also something that fits, something that adapts. And this image of the nature, this image of the bamboo… that’s the idea of the things we have of yawarakai, of Jūjutsu, Jūdō, and also the other kanji of ‘wa’ as in yawaragu, a very interesting kanji. For example, the ‘wa’ of Wadō-ryū (和同流), which is used also for jūjutsu. Why? Because in this way it also means peace.
We think that everything that bends, everything that fits, everything that accepts the situation means that it can be in balance. By being balanced, you are in harmony, you synchronize. So your body needs to be synchronized, your body needs to follow the flow, needs to be part of the flow, needs to become the flow. And for that, of course, because the body is consisting of 70% of water, and because everything inside is not made to be like a rock; you just need to see the internal organs, just need to see the muscle. You can get harder, you can get stiff, but the bodies nature still, look, flesh, blood, certain kinds of liquid; so we are not made of rock, not like a tree… we are very weak, the body is weak, but I think there is great strength in understanding the weakness. You have to understand your weakness which is also another aspect of the flexibility, because flexibility is weak. But strong…. Strong, deep, because of all this different weakness adds to a deep weakness makes something stronger.
So flexibility is very important, but being flexible and being stiff in the mind, it’s illogical; you have all the flexibility, and also to support a certain vision, a certain way of looking at things. By stretching means to stretch your mind, to stretch yourself. Then after there is different kinds of exercise; you need to understand that flexibility can be not good for the body if you don’t do it in the right way. You have to listen to your body, that’s what I mean by weakness; know your weakness, study your weakness, understand your weakness, understand the nature of the weakness of your body. Like this you understand the weakness of your psychology, and from that you can understand what is strong, what can be strengthened, reinforced, etcetera. So in that case, practicing flexibility is very important.
Now when we look at certain pictures of Ueshiba Sensei, the way you see hi at a certain age, you can see a certain kind of flexibility. We have also accounts from different people who have met Takeda Sōkaku, they used to say that the man was very flexible. True or not we don’t know, it’s always dependant of the men, how flexible he was and what is the nature, or the definition he had of the word flexibility and stretching.
In the case of Hatsumi sensei, like Takamatsu sensei, even now at eighty years old, a lot of people have noticed, have witnessed the kind of flexibility. The fact of going lower like that when splitting the legs (splits stretch) at eighty years old.
Flexibility is a proof of a certain kind of health of the body, how the body can be healthy, how the tendon can work. At the same time, the muscle needs to be strong, you need muscle and flexibility that fit together. So it’s a kind of… not perfect balance, but a certain kind of balance that allows you to always support the movement you are looking for. You need a certain kind of flexibility for a certain kind of kick, a certain kind of flexibility to sit like that, to kick like this, to move. You need a certain kind of flexibility to add to it a certain beauty, because flexibility includes a beauty, includes also synchronization of the movement. Flexibility without synchronization? No.
I mean, everyone on earth doesn’t [necessarily] like ballet or the classical dance, but when you look at the way they do it and the grace in the movement, slowly, surely, and even when they go fast they are sloe, there is a certain kind of beauty. Which of course this is related to that kind of fraise, “the slow is smooth, the smooth is invisible” in the case of the practice. Everyone thinks that the martial arts should be done- or the technique should be done fast. Actually the more you do it fast, the damage you receive are faster, in both cases. I think, the word “flow”, which is really similar to the word “slow”, I think the flow is slow. You don’t really see it because it’s a flow. And flexibility is based on that.
“I wanted to explain to you about flexibility, because if you want to be accurate, you need to be flexible. If there’s one thing that you will notice about Hatsumi sensei, and even Takamatsu sensei, is their flexibility. Those that get to the age of 70 and keep on practicing, they are deeply flexible. Even for example, those that practice Taichi Chuan, Chigong, they have a certain kind of flexibility. So flexibility is the key, and also a certain type of muscle, a very long muscle. Actually what you practice is the inner muscle. I’ve explained this to many people: you have superficial muscle and inner muscle. It is the inner muscle that allows you to move from sitting to standing without showing anything. Because if you lean or anything while in armor, you can lose your balance and create openings. But by moving the inner muscles, you don’t need to lean. That’s why the way of standing up is to do so without showing many things. And this sort of moving, if you can do it in a very small area, imagine doing it in a wide area.
It has to be healthy, if you practice wrong, you hurt yourself. That’s a matter of fact. Look at the practitioners of karate, kendō, and aikidō, at the age of thirty, they start breaking down. This is because the classical martial arts and especially the nin schools [of the Bujinkan] are created for longevity, not for the physical education of children. That’s why with kid’s classes in the nine traditions all you can teach is jumping, dodging a sword, and throwing shuriken. Karate, teaches you exercises on how to move, it’s very easy because it was created for that.” (Kacem Zoughari, Margate 2009)