Guest Post: Reflections on Sai

By Jesse | 9 Comments

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?

He agreed.

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.”

“Word.

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.

-Kurt Lewin

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.

Position 1 - P1

 

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…

Position 2 - P2

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.)

Traditional imagery often shows Shiva’s trishula, with full-on blades, mounted on a staff.

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.

Good footwork…

…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.

* The giant Goliath was a Philistine whom the shepherd David slew by a mighty stone – cast in the Terebinth valley, as is noted in the preface to that great book on the adventures of the most illustrious of warriors, Señor Don Quixote.
The “figure photos” were taken in the dark with an open shutter and an LED (and glow stick) taped to the sai.
About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

9 Comments

  1. Sander

    April 5, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    I have a question in my mind for some time now and reading this post just unleashed it. I practice karate and I have practiced nunchaku de combat. (This is the first kata in the system: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZsmQCAc9qA ) I’ve never practiced traditional kobudo but comparing the footwork from nunchaku de combat with traditional kata of nunchaku I spot a major difference. Stances like zanshin, neko-ashi and zenkutsu dachi, used in the nunchaku kata, are used in karate for different reasons but always to empower the technique preformed, to make it work better. A chudan zuki needs a firm stance to direct the energy from the back leg all the way through the body to the fist and into the target. Does it make sense to use these kind of stances in combination with a nunchaku, just like the traditional kata?
    One half of the nunchaku is usualy used as a handle and the other half is used to hit a target with. In between there is a piece of rope which doesn’t conduct the energy of an impact like the bones of an arm. The function of the stance in this case isn’t to brace oneself for the impact but to keep your balance and mobility. Wouldn’t a stance similar to moto dachi (as seen in the kata de base) be more practical in almost any case when a nunchaku is used, in comparionson to lets say zanshin dachi? And if you are practicing kobudo with karatestances isn’t that just what Lionel-san didn’t mean when he said:“For my part, kobudo is a long way from ‘karate with weapons.’”. So I guess my question in short is: What is the function of using ‘karate’stances in kobudo? (nunchaku in particularly because for, lets say, the bo it’s quite obvious in most cases. I just can’t place zanshin dach, neko achi dachi and such) Thanks for anyone who helps me understand this!

    • Viking

      April 8, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      When I am using my warhammer I do not place it on head sink in stance and pull down with kime. I build up kinetic energy and meet targrt at maximum velocity and keep flowing in arcs. If you spend time building up kinetic energy why keep stopping and losing it again. Stopping the hammer is pointless and counter productive this applies to other weapons as well as my warhammer.

      • Sander

        April 15, 2011 at 2:08 am

        Yes, I think I see your point, and I believe we agree on the fact that you need to get the weapon swinging, build up kinetic energy and strike your target. The faster the head of your hammer or the tip of my nunchaku goes the more energy is transferred into the target.
        When I’m splitting wood I always start with the axe head behind my back. Then I bring it up as high as possible (even standing on my toes sometimes for the tough blocks) and drop the axe as fast as I can. When the axe is in a near horizontal position I bend through my legs (giving my body and the axe more speed and power). Every movement done when splitting wood is to achieve maximum speed of the axe head.
        When practicing nunchaku I try to give the tip of the nunchaku as much speed as possible but I won’t bend my knees as if doing a stand up. That would compromise my mobility.(which isn’t that bad when fighting wood, they almost never hit back;))
        So the stance used when fighting nunchaku in nunchaku de combat is a very mobile stance. That’s what gives the nunchaku it’s speed and what’s keeping the practitioner out of harms way (or in it if you want to attack real quick).
        Standing in zanshin dachi you would certainly be able to generate enough speed for a mind-blowing strike but you don’t have lots of mobility.
        What would be the beneficial side of using traditional karate stances (and as I said before some karate stances would work like the way I explained it but some of them don’t) in a weapon system like the nunchaku?

  2. diego romero

    April 6, 2011 at 5:22 am

    so sai are like great numbers of ninja. they flip out… but don’t kill anybody?

  3. Fatihsan

    April 6, 2011 at 7:11 am

    Excellent post,keep up the good work.

    Kind Regards,

    Shihan Ince

  4. Szilard

    April 6, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Rotational energy. Nice, nice, except that there is a good reason why we use linear attacks in karate. It is far more difficult to see them coming.
    Also any fight has a context. It does not start with open sai. Open sai belongs to an escalated situation and aggressive stance. It does not have to deteriorate that far that quickly. It has a good reason why we teach to fight from a neutral posture.
    Also: the closed sai can generate a lot of power through a short circle when you flip it out: you don’t have to swing it.

    The open sai has disadvantages too. My son started to learn epee and saber training because he didn’t have a high enough dose of kumite on his goju ryu classes. After a half year I started to learn practical lessons from him: a pair of open sai is a really bad idea if your opponent has a yard long stick and knows how to wield a sword. One open one closed sai gives you a fighting chance, but not a big one if you refrain from throwing the open sai.

  5. Lecé

    April 8, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I haven´t been sure about P2 either…I prefer my sais to be held in P1. I´ve been doing Kobudo for many years and that grip it never convince me. It´s impossible to stop a full strength blow with that guard specialy from a staff, bo or any other long item. Even doing the blocking correctly and deflecting and avoiding the focus of the blow, it´s crazy. The “blade” of the sai is completely sticked to your forearm, covering very litle skin and transmiting the force through contact.ALso your skin can get easily pinched. My sensei knows I dont belive in that position. I always block and attack in P1. For me its the logic thing, and you can aply the basic weapon angles like in eskrima.

    • Szilard

      April 26, 2011 at 7:21 pm

      Well, if you love so much P1, go do some fencing. Take fencing classes for a few years, so you will actually know what you are doing.
      P2 is a respectful none-offensive way to hold the sai. You are ready to stop fighting as soon as your opponent stops being offensive. This is a main message of P2. On the other hand it is a very shrewd very offensive way to hold it. There is no way you can generate kinetic energy in P1 as you can snapping the sai out from P2 to P1. You know, in the impact of your hit the speed counts squared.
      P2 is also a very stable way to hold a sai. Hitting your fingers or wrist in P1 is just as easy as it is in P2. There is a false feeling of security in P1, except that it is far slower in defense than a rapier, a hazelnut branch or the lighter end of a cue is when snapping on your wrist.
      My kobudo trainer used to say: if you get in a real fight expect to get injured. If your opponent has a razor, expect to get a few cuts. So yeah, in P2 there will be shallow upper arm injuries.
      On the other hand a full hit from a staff is not to be blocked by brute force P2, since you are not new to kobudo, I think you know better than that. Just like you would not want to block a hit against your feet in P2. But it is difficult to get a real test of how good a technique really is.
      Well this is an other good thing you can get from fencing: it is a full contact sport, you don’t have to hold back any technique. The other thing you can learn in fencing is the importance of kihon. It is far more important there early on the learning curve than it is in kobudo or karate. After about a year of training you will learn how to exploit if your opponent’s elbow, knee, or feet is a quarter of an inch out of position. If his “kihon” is not perfect, you will know how to beat him. You will also learn how to bait your opponent with false “errors”. And all that is something you can beautifully use in kobudo training. You will see opportunities for attack where there were nothing to be seen before.
      My point is that learning sai and staff might not show you all that is to a given technique. If you do related sports too, a lot of the “stupid kihon sensei insists on” will make sense much faster than learning kobudo only.

  6. John

    September 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Practicing Tsukenshitahaku the other day, an error in execution reminded me of this post. At half speed, I bashed my knee (P2 grip) while dropping into the crouch in the last third of the kata. Linearity aside, you don’t even have to be going full speed for a sai-augmented punch to be effective against flesh. I agree with Slizard in this thread, but would add that you don’t even have to generate speed by flipping from P2 to P1 for the sai to be effective. This isn’t what’s unique about the sai as a weapon, but I got a painful reminder that even basic karate techniques have their effectiveness multiplied with the sai.

    Bruised but respectful:
    John

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