If you study a traditional art you’ve inevitably heard a speech regarding control. Control (as most responsible Sensei will tell you) is absolutely vital to safe and effective practice. But that begs the question, what exactly is control?
Let’s lay down a baseline definition of what control is in the context of martial training:
Control Rule #1: Execute techniques accurately to the intended target with proper form.
Control Rule #2: Execute techniques while preserving the safety of your partner via force temperance.
Rule #1 explains that your technique must express the intended concept as being taught. As such you must be able to strike to the correct anatomical parts of the opponent or execute joint locks and throws while using proper fundamentals (like kuzushi).
Rule #2 suggests that in order to preserve the safety of your partner you must be able to strike, joint lock, or throw with appropriate distance and power. That means if you can do nothing but full power or wild techniques you lack the needed control to train at a high level. You can’t be trusted with effective techniques.
That’s it! Well…that’s it if you want to understand the basic, foundational aspects of control. Of course, as training and experience piles up practitioners can begin to explore deeper implications of how to use their body to maximum effect. To demonstrate these more advanced ideas, I think showing as well as telling would be appropriate.
Watch the following video for a higher level discussion of control in martial arts training:
(If desired, click the small gear in the lower right corner to select 720p, high quality video. If choppy, let it load all the way)
As the video explains, sharp techniques that are fast and well placed do not automatically qualify as “well controlled”. Once a practitioner gets passed the basics they need to learn how to execute techniques that are completely capable of doing damage, but by the choice of the practitioner, are withheld.
“The choice of the practitioner” – that’s a key thought. As you might imagine, certain training wheels and precautions have been put on classical styles of martial arts over the years so as to avoid placing extremely effective techniques in the wrong hands. When a practitioner learns to be more deadly it is only their character and mental control that stays their hand and guides them.
To understand control fully, the methods of the body cannot be separated from that of the mind and heart. Mental control allows a person to maintain perspective even in times of high stress, choosing the right level of force for the occasion. Emotional control prevents anger, resentment, and fear from overtaking better judgment.
A good classical art will build all of these things over time.
I recently attended a training seminar with two very well respected, highly skilled kenjutsu practitioners. Despite a taxing travel schedule they were both very giving with their instruction and I certainly took away a few things to think about.
The primary instructor of the seminar was Kishimoto Chihiro, Iaido Hachidan (8th degree black belt) and former Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iaido Committee Chairman. He was joined and assisted by Kato Shozo, AUSKF Vice President of Education and Kendo Hachidan as well as Iaido Nanadan (7th degree black belt).
For a quick introduction to each instructor, view the short videos below:
|Kishimoto Chihiro Sensei||Kato Shozo Sensei|
The seminar itself was broken up into two major parts. The first consisted of Kishimoto Sensei sharing some of his philosophy on training as well as exploring connections between iaido and kendo. The second part involved Seitei Waza demonstration, instruction, and correction.
Kishimoto Sensei imparted many ideas of interest, one of which caught my attention in particular which I would like to share today. He described the three levels of visualization one can achieve during iaido training.
Exploring the Three Levels of Visualization
Visualization is extremely important in iaido. After all, the art consists of drawing and cutting in thin air (or at worst against rolled up tatami). Unlike kendo there is no fierce opponent screaming and leaping at you. It is up to the practitioner’s imagination to create an opponent upon which to execute technique. This may sound easy, but while striving for technical competence in iaido even getting started with visualization can be a daunting task. Kishimoto Sensei expressed visualization progression in the following manner*:
- Visualization Level 1 – A Weak Opponent Easily Defeated
- Visualization Level 2 – A Well Matched Opponent of Equal Skill
- Visualization Level 3 – A Stronger Opponent with Superior Technique
All practitioners start at level 1 when beginning training. I should say, once the iaidoka learns how not to fall down and hurt themselves, they then begin at level 1. A level 1 ‘opponent’ barely exists in the mind of the practitioner and only performs simple maneuvers. The imaginary antagonist will fail to preempt even the most sloppy and slow of draws. He/she will succumb to any wobbly strike and will be thoroughly blocked during any and all counter attack attempts. A level 1 opponent only attacks when our block is ready and moves conveniently into range for all strikes to land flush.
Once the basics of iaido waza are executed competently (which can take a long time) the practitioner is free to think more clearly about their opponent and their own body movement. It is at this time that ‘reality’ starts to kick in. The practitioner can begin to understand why their instructor has been making so many subtle corrections. Excessive movement can give away intention (just like in the video above with Kishimoto Sensei). Poor body posture can lead to weak cuts that wouldn’t slice through clothing let alone bone. Improper foot movement can leave the opponent out of optimal range. At level 2, the practitioner can instill concepts that they now understand into the opponent, and thus can make personal adjustments with educated intent. At this level an iaidoka will know when mistakes and flaws would have resulted in dueling failure.
Many years are spent exploring level 2, trying to execute waza with exacting precision and understanding. The ultimate goal is to arrive at level 3 wherein the iaidoka can create an imaginary opponent of superior strength. At level 3 the practitioner needs ultimate composure and zanshin. Full fighting spirit is required to even sit in the presence of such a powerful opponent. The enemy is faster, more skillful, and more patient. Only a perfect performance will result in victory, and the death of the enemy will be palpable.
Visualization Levels Applied Elsewhere
Kishimoto Sensei’s explanation of visualization levels stuck with me because I had heard similar ideas before. One question Bill Hayes of Shobayashi Ryu Karate likes to ask is: “what is the worst part about kata?” The answer he provides is simple: “we always win”.
Even the most raw beginner will survive their kata practice, landing every punch and blocking every counter attack. Of course, Hayes Sensei goes on to explain that the real value of kata training is when you can feel the intent from your imaginary opponent and can execute technique with the same intensity and focus as if you were in a life and death struggle.
I am always excited and intrigued when high level concepts appear in multiple places. I find it encouraging that no matter what particular martial route you or I find ourselves on, there are masterful teachers discovering and sharing as much as they can.
As a final note, from personal experience and teaching, try not to obsess or rank your visualization abilities. The mere act of patting yourself on the back, or judging yourself harshly, will only distract from the task at hand and slow down your progress. Besides, if you declare yourself a level 3 practitioner, what motivation will you have to continue refining and challenging yourself?
This is one of those little martial paradoxes – learn it, then forget, then contemplate it, then forget it, repeat…
The bo is one of the most popular and widely utilized kobudo implements. It's length and dynamics have made it a mainstay on the tournament circuit. However, using the bo for combative purposes is a unique challenge and much of the flair used in forms gets abandoned in a hurry.
Odo Seikichi Sensei with Dennis Branchaud
There's a reason almost every ancient culture developed a polearm style weapon: it's simple and effective. The long range allows the user to stay at a relatively safe distance while impacting the opponent. The dual wooden ends allow for devastating combinations of blows, blocks, and sweeps.
Of course, as with any weapon, the inherent strengths of the bo provide gaps for weakness. At close range the bo becomes unwieldy and loses it's primary arc of power. The lack of a cutting edge, while allowing for lighter weight, also reduces the ability to cut through clothing, armor, and flesh.
One of the real "secrets" to learning how to use the bo effectively (ie maximizing strength while minimizing weakness) is to find balance in mobility.
Depending on who you watch the bo can be a very linear and poky weapon or a sweeping, twirling, arcing weapon. Too much of either is a bad thing and provides the opponent with obvious "suki", or gaps in mindset and posture.
Let's look closer at the two imbalanced extremes of bo usage.
The bo can be a dazzling, elegant instrument of artistic expression. It can spin so fast that the eye can no longer trace the ends. Some mythology states that the bo could be spun so fast that it could block arrows. In a static environment with careful planning….that might be true. But in a combative environment such excess motion and dependence on fine motor skills would tire the user and put them at risk.
Wasted motion is an indulgance that bo combatants can't afford. Extreme spinning of the bo or transitioning from end to end may feel productive, but in actuality it provides a large series of gaps for skilled opponents to capitalize on.
Think about it this way: when sparring, bouncing lightly on your toes makes you feel lighter and more mobile. However, it also allows a skilled opponent to gauge your timing and maneuverability. You might not automatically lose because of it, but you certainly don't give yourself an advantage.
Excessive bo spinning and manipulating is the same way. When spinning, the hands are committed to a certain pattern. The pace and pattern of that movement can act as a predictable cue. While it's true that some spinning can leave the opponent guessing as to where an attack might come from, there are far more drawbacks than gains when relying too much upon it.
In my experience, bo "spinners" tend to spin just until the action gap gets close. They then regrasp the bo and assume a more predictable posture. The moment in between spinning and regaining posture is a highly exploitable gap. Even if they don't conclude the spinning, the rhythm of the spin is easily disturbed, and thus once again provides an opening.
The opposite of wasted motion is just as dangerous. Static immobility manifests in styles that are overly dependent on linear movement. In these situations bo thrusting and strikes are often accompanied by long stances with emphasis on power in each strike. The problem with this method is that the inherent liveliness of the bo, that unpredictable nature, is lost.
Taking advantage of the bo's full length and dual edges requires smooth, consistent action without a lot of starting and stopping. Striking with the front end, stepping, and then striking with the back end is far too lengthy a process when it comes to weapons combat. Furthermore, keeping the bo in an immovable posture is a great way to get a piece of it cut off against an edged weapon or struck out of your grasping front hand.
Static users often need to shorten their stance and lighten their grip. Too frequently these individuals clamp onto the weapon the way they might grasp the safety bar on a roller coaster, holding on for dear life. The bo should be held firmly but gently. Sword practitioners will be familiar with this advice.
Striking a Balance
The methods described above probably seem diametrically opposite, leaving little room for actual success with the weapon. In truth, a little bit of both when used in the right context can maximize effectiveness.
A few fundamental factors need to be in place at all times:
- The feet should be available, light, and naturally spaced to enhance mobility. This means avoiding deep, static stances except during moments of hard impact when the whole body is transmitting force, but then quickly returning to natural stance.
- Awareness of centerline control should be maintained no matter which posture the bo is in.
- Distance should be maintained as much as possible to stay within the ideal striking range of the bo while minimizing the opponent's effective striking range.
By using proper fundamentals the bo can strike, retract, swing, retract, extend, pull back, all in a continuous arc while the feet make slight distance adjustments. In a moment's notice the bo can snap into a centerline posture and create linear techniques to overwhelm an unsuspecting opponent, and at will revert back into fluid strikes from unpredictable angles.
The great thing about working with the bo in a combative manner is that frivolous and unwieldy techniques will be quickly revealed as dangerously ineffective.
I recommend finding someone who is skilled with a shinai and allowing him/her to strike at you with speed and freedom. You'll quickly learn the sensation of failure as fancy tactics turn into desperate backpeddling while bamboo whips passed your head.
Should you waste too much motion you'll rarely find yourself in prime position to capitalize on openings. Should you be too static you'll find your bo quickly knocked off centerline and your distance encroached upon.
Aim for smooth, consistent balance and your opponents will start to wonder if perhaps they should study the bo as well!