Guest Post: Reflections on Sai
Okay, okay, okay okay…. Okay.
Calm down guys.
I know I usually don’t have “Guest Posts” on this site but, but… this time I had to.
I simply had to.
Because this stuff is too important to let slide.
Introducing Lionel-san, who is a Kobudo geek like me (from a secret country) this post is about his reflections and thoughs on the fundamentals of sai-jutsu (sai practise), acquired through his secret amount of years in the field of Kobudo. Me and Lionel-san have been talking for a long time online, and one day decided that since we share the same passion for realness – and the general pursuit of awesomeness – he could perhaps write something for this site?
But… I promised to not tell you anything more than his first name. As Lionel-san wrote himself “[my] ideas float on their own, and anyone requiring the stamp of authenticity from any of those [sensei, grade, style etc.] is overly attached to dogma.”
Calling himself a “ronin” of sorts (that makes us two!), let’s just say that Lionel-san practises a different style of Kobudo than I (though I would like to think they ultimately merge at the highest level), which gives him ideas that I would, perhaps, not focus on if I were to write an article on the use of the sai weapon. And that’s the key to having a Guest Post in the first place.
Widening the scope.
Opening the box.
Therefore, celebrating the beauty of diversity (it unites us, as well as separates us…) in both Kobudo and Karate, here’s the first real Guest Post ever on KbJ.
Yup, that’s right.
And I hope there’s more to come.
Let’s jump straight in:
Reflections on Sai
“What if sai were sharp… how does the practice change?”
It was a question that popped up in my head and wouldn’t go away. Like a golden retriever that I’d thrown the ball for, it kept coming back to annoy me.
The cat’s tragedy notwithstanding, curiosity is a fine thing: I took up the weapons more often, tried new things, and after some weeks I’d earned a new understanding of sai – both blunt and sharp.
If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.
Sometimes, change isn’t easy. To pick up the new, it helps to let go of the old. In my new approach to the sai, I tried to let go of everything….
Why pick up a weapon in the first place?
My answers include ideas like “extending reach,” “exploiting physics,” and “impacting with a better surface.” These I could argue for a rifle as well as a rock.
As a weapon, the sai starts like this…
Okay, that’s just rusty re-bar, but the craftsman starts with similar stock.
If that’s what I had for a weapon, I’d grab it near an end (as shown) and swing to strike. This usage is so basic and strong that I’m still doing it after this rusty rod becomes a sai. For me, techniques like this are the primary essence of wielding sai.
The basic grip on an elegant cudgel. For simplicity, I call this Position One (P1).
Advancing through the weapon’s development, I made a few notes:
- Adding “stoppers,” bottom and top, improves the handle. On a sword, these are called the pommel and cross-guard. The pommel helps keep the hand from slipping off the end (on a swing). The cross-guard protects the hand from an opposing weapon sliding down the prime tine. It also prevents the hand from slipping forward on a thrust.
- Tapering the steel (from the handle) shifts the center of gravity closer to the grip. This balance adjustment improves control for flipping and swinging. Tapering also leads to… the point, which increases interest in thrusting.
- Finally, extending the cross-guard and curving it forward into “wings” brings some other uses, including a second grip…
Sai held in the grip I’ll call Position Two (P2).
In contrast to the first grip, P2 minimizes the weapon’s length. Where P1 is an aggressive, wielding grip, P2 is a grip of concealment.
As a weapon of defense, it seems natural to keep the sai concealed (in P2), then strike out with a P1 technique. This rapid deployment (and recovery), called “flipping,” is a big part of sai practice.
I like flipping – out and back, through various angles – plenty fine, but once I’ve got the sai deployed, I’m likely to keep it out there for one or two more strikes.
The P1 grip is when you’re actually wielding the weapon; P2 is like having the safety ON.
A well balanced sai is easier to flip and swing. A weapon of poor fit or design can be a hazard.
I picked up the weapon to extend my range, and throwing it is the maximum extension. Right?
I Googled a bit and found that in baseball a really fast pitch is 100 mph (the fastest recorded is 105 mph). While in the game of Jai Alai, the ball speed is often over 150 mph (the record is 188 mph). That was the record for all of sports until somebody hit a golf ball at 204 mph.
Rotating a longer arm increases the velocity at the end, and a faster strike delivers more force (it’s the law).
Rotational energy is of great martial value. David’s sling was just slim leather strings, but with that radius, he sent the stone that felled Goliath.*
You don’t have to throw to take advantage of rotational energy – any swing will do. Where you don’t get rotational energy is in linear techniques, like punching. If you throw the weapon… then you don’t have it any more, and that might be a problem. So, for the most part, I think I’m going to hold on and strike.
If someone really wants to throw, he might be inclined to sharpen the tines – all three of them – and release the weapon so that it flies “tines first.” [Jesse's note: There's a couple of kata in the Taira-lineage of Okinawan Kobudo where you throw the sai]
If you sharpen the tip, but are not inclined to throw, you can slash. You don’t need a blade; any mean edge will tear vicious cuts at high speed.
With any sharpening – whether you flip, slash, thrust or throw – the weapon becomes more dangerous. This raises concerns that are personal, moral, and legal – any of which might be reason enough to keep sai blunt. [Jesse's second note: The Okinawan keisatsu - police men - who employed sai in the old Ryukyu Kingdom didn't want to kill criminals and suspects. Only wup their ass a little. That's why sai were not only blunt, but also had a metal "ball" at the tip to avoid accidentally wounding suspects.]
A Different Three-Pronged Weapon
Sharpening the tines “all the way” leads to a weapon called the trishula (Sanskrit). The trishula is ancient, a symbol of the Hindu deity Shiva, the Destroyer. (Respect.)
At first glance, the trishula and sai have a striking similarity, but two design choices separate the one from the other:
- Sharpening the tines makes them a lot more dangerous… for yourself as well. The P2 grip and its techniques are not reasonable.
- Extending the handle — with a section of wood to keep it light — increases the weapon’s range and provides more radius for swinging. It also helps keep those blades out and away.
These features mark a major mode change – this trishula is a two-handed weapon.
With such a beast, you can swing and thrust with techniques like you’d find in sojutsu or bojutsu. You can still throw – perhaps, javelin style.
And like that, the trishula has grown away from the sai and closer to other weapons.
Swinging Sai for Speed
When I swing a sai, I try to maximize its velocity into the target. Here are some suggestions.
Weapons are dangerous; they’re meant to be. When you pick them up, the first person you’re liable to hurt is yourself. Never attempt anything that puts yourself or anyone else at risk.
Swing the sai like you would a nunchaku or… maybe a sling. Try to keep your shoulder, elbow and wrist co-planar and coordinate the rotation(s) out through them.
You’ll know you’re getting it right when, for the first time, you generate so much momentum that you [almost] lose the weapon, and that adrenaline surge leaves a thrill of respect swirling around in its wake.
When you really get a sai moving, it can be difficult to stop — so don’t, at least not abruptly. Instead, cut through the target and curve the stroke around to where you can recover gently, pulling the energy inward. (This is distinct from the karate style kime, which I tend to avoid.)
Actually, you don’t have to stop a swing at all — just slow it down, curve it around, and strike again. Rapid-fire striking is one of the advantages the sai has over longer, two-hand weapons.
With these ideas in mind – if you cut an “X” in the air, connecting the strokes with smooth curves, you’ll draw a figure like this….
Some great sai moves are cut from this figure. You can find them in a kata near you.
Starting with a flip-stroke, I make two more strokes to complete the figure, but you can keep it up… indefinitely. (Work up to it from a small, wrist-only figure.) Then, carefully, try in reverse.
The Figure-8 is more difficult to complete. But with an over-the-head sling and some footwork, it yields moves that are both curvalicious and martial. (Sometimes, the curve is the technique.)
If you want to check how well (and where) you are striking, engage your ears. Almost any swing that sings is a good technique, but keep in mind where your aiming.
Beyond your opponent’s weapon, the hand, wrist, and forearm are clear targets.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ve learned that I like to flip into P1 and strike in a way that maximizes rotational energy. And once I get the weapon moving, I want to keep it moving, in curves, to strike again and again.
I think P2 grip techniques are secondary. Some punches, blocks, hooks and traps are useful, but they’re part of in-fighting. Gastronomically speaking, they’re a side dish.
Punching with sai seems to give up the range and power advantages that I was after when I picked up the weapon. Secondly, I have punched solids with the pommel — there’s a fulcrum challenge, and then, the energy translates to the base of the thumb. Ouch.
It’s not that I’ll never punch. In the old John Wayne westerns, there comes a point where he clubs a guy with the butt of his gun. There, it works.
Blocking with the P2 grip (prime tine down the forearm) is something else I’d like to avoid. There’s hardly a weapon this works well against, and the move seems to admit you’re in deep trouble. But… maybe for entering or as a life-saving last resort. Besides, you’ve got the handle, protected by the wings… why abandon it to expose your fingers?
No. If my weapon is going to contact anything — offensively or defensively, I want my hand on the handle… the one I had the craftsman improve.
Punching with sai is fine training, but at some point, I think to deploy the weapon and snap it into the target. (This, from low, is the stroke that tore open the question. It’s also an early expression of the “deploy from hidden” idea.)
I’d say the same for the P2 rising block – through which I’d open the sai, whip it around and strike… a move not unlike the top-half of a figure-8.
I’ve seen sai kata that are filled with P2 blocks and punches. The appearance is Pinan-esque and, generally, closer to karate cross-training. And that’s fine.
For my part, kobudo is a long way from “karate with weapons.” The difference – the particular character of a weapon and how to express it – is what makes kobudo so interesting.
Like any tool, a weapon has some proper usage – techniques that work better than others. Striving after these, with body and mind, bridges the distance from exercise to martial art.
Okay, my saijutsu bridge lands in an art that might seem… untraditional. After all, I’m just an inspired amateur, and from some viewpoints, my bridge might look… tilted. (And who would deign tread there?)
But the goal has been martial, and from the practice alone, I’ve gotten closer.
The more I’ve… sharpened my idea of sai, the better I like them as a weapon. And the more I want to see them freed… to turn their slender wings in the air and sing.
So, there – I’ve thrown open my cloak and raveled out some speculation. You can call it wild. It’s arbitrary and jumps around like a deer in traffic, missing topics that shouldn’t be – like picking up a second sai and using footwork, which I’ll need to reach the door.
…respects the opponent,
begins what the weapon finishes,
sometimes… follows the weapon‘s momentum,
keeps the sai alive through multi-swing figures (try the half-step).
And when they all come together… I am reminded that Shiva, with the blue throat and third eye, is also Nataraja, Lord of the Dance.
And there, with respect, I bow out.