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!
Few things are as critical yet as glossed over as footwork. With proper footwork the body can be moved in an efficient way while maintaining balance, creating driving power for strikes, providing hip availability for throws, and more.
Kata attempts to teach us about footwork, but it's easy to get caught up with what the hands are doing and simply bring the feet along for the ride. In fact, the effectiveness of bunkai can be made or broken depending on how the body orients to the opponent. Discovering some of the more effective applications in kata requires careful attention to body movement.
Ultimately there are only a few ways for the body to get from A to B, but an infinite amount of subtle ways to improve that process. One important concept in karate is known as "diamond stepping", which allows for removal of target, aggression, defense, momentum swing, and balance. In total it allows a practitioner to use virtually all the tools available to a karateka during a combative engagement. Interestingly, this very same concept shows up in other styles as well, going as far back as the Bubishi itself.
Diamond Stepping in Action
The following video shows how you can integrate the diamond step concept into your training. It will also demonstrate a series of techniques from different styles, including Okinawa Kenpo, Aikijujutsu, Motobu Udundi, Kobudo, and more. The goal is to demonstrate how a fundamentally sound concept can be pervasive throughout many different styles. As a bonus, at the end of the video I practice some freestyle randori type of techniques, allowing students to attack me in an unscripted way and seeing what kind of defenses come out of it.
Recently a reader inquired about the matter of kiai. For those who may not be familiar with the term, kiai is most frequently described as a "spirit shout" used in hard martial arts during moments of impact. Kiai is frequently used in kata as well as sparring, basics, ippon kumite, etc.
The crux of the question was as follows (paraphrasing):
"Can you comment on why some kata performances have kiai at the end of every movement? Is it appropriate to kiai that much, and if not how do you know how much to do it? Are there any tricks to sustaining your throat through that much yelling?"
The easy, judgmental answer would be to say "no,no, noooo. don't use kiai on every move. Only a few per kata! Too much kiai-ing is wrong!". But that hardly answers the question. After all, why NOT go nuts with it? If kiai juices you up, wouldn't you want to use it as much as possible?
Let's dig a little deeper!
What is Kiai?
To discuss this matter we have to fix the common interpretation of the word "kiai". Kiai is not necessarily a spirit shout. When broken down, the term "ki" refers to the internal spirit or inherent energy of a person. The term "ai" can indicate harmonizing or focusing, depending on the context.
As Forrest Morgan pointed out in his book "Living the Martial Way", kiai and aiki are two concepts closely related and frequently blended, not unlike a balanced yin and yang. Aiki (as in Aikido) is the practice of harmonizing with an opponent's force and redirecting it. Kiai is an expression of personal force directed into an opponent, disrupting their rhythm. You can see how the two concepts are symbiotically useful (but let's focus on kiai for awhile).
one of the most explicit ways to disrupt your opponent is by overloading their senses via a surprise burst of stimuli. In order to generate that kind of overload, the body's destructive energies can be brought together in an instantaneous moment of exertion. The eyes, ears, emotions, and pain receptors of the opponent can be aggressively overwhelmed. An intense shout, the most noticeable aspect of kiai, is an integral part of that process.
How To Execute a Kiai Shout
Bill Hayes Sensei tells a story of training on the beach with his instructor Shimabukuro Eizo. During that training a storm approached, and instead of packing up and heading home Shimabukuro Sensei had them continue their kata. Just as the students were getting ready to bail out they heard a sonic boom rip through the howling wind, jarring everyone around. When they looked back to see it's origin they found Shimabukuro Sensei laughing. Try as they might, they couldn't replicate their instructor's power in cutting through the maelstrom of the storm.
When listening to kiai, it's important to note that not all are created equal. Any human can scream in anger, not everyone can use kiai. A good kiai is like an auditory gun shot, fueled by intent. The length is brief but delivered quickly and intensely. The emotional fuel is not anger, fury, frustration, or rage (at least not primarily); instead, it is a focused intent to maim or kill. The other emotions may swirl momentarily as byproducts of the intensity.
As with most things in the martial arts, there is no shortcut to a great kiai. Here are some basics to get you started if you still aren't sure about the process:
- Create a solid posture. Tilt your pelvis slightly forward while keeping the spine aligned. Allow your body to relax and sink into the hara (the lower abdomen).
- Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Imagine yourself breathing from the bottom of your lungs. You should feel the belly moving in and out instead of the upper chest.
- When ready, push the air out of the bottom of the lungs vigorously. To do this, rely on the abdominal contraction that slightly tilts your pelvis forward.
- Create a vocalization using mostly the back of the throat. A proper kiai will inevitably come out as some sort of vowel sound, but you can guide how it sounds according to what feels natural. It's important to note that you needn't hit a hard "k" at the beginning of a kiai, as you are not actually saying "kiai" during the shout.
- Give yourself permission to be loud. You needn't scream your face off, but there is a barrier of timidity that needs to be broken through. A polite and mannerly kiai doesn't get the job done, so if you've been raised to keep quiet and not make a fuss you'll need to work through that mental block.
- Sculpt your vocalization into a pulse. The kiai is not a sustained scream, but more of an impact tool in it's own right. The hara fires the kiai up and out while the mouth directs it at the target.
More Than Just Screaming
The spirit shout itself is only one aspect of kiai. In order to use it to the fullest extent you have to involve your entire being, including the eyes, posture, and spirit.
There's a story surrounding Matsumura Bushi during one of his famous exploits. It's stated that Matsumura's reputation often preceeded him, even amongst the lower classes on Okinawa. As such, a local craftsman was quite surprised and pleased when Matsumura entered his shop to have some minor work done. Unable to contain his enthusiasm, the craftsman revealed himself as a karateka and promptly asked Matsumura for a lesson. After refusing, Matsumura was challenged to a match by the bold and impatient karateka. Eventually Matsumura acquiesed and agreed to meet the man the next morning.
Just as the sun was rising both men faced each other. At first the craftsman was confident due to his strength, size, and skill. However, as he approached Matsumura to begin the match he noticed something unusual. Matsumura stood naturally with an unflinching gaze. His posture was statuesque, his mouth pursed as if saying something while saying nothing, and his eyes fierce as an eagle. The craftsman felt ill to his stomach and had to sit down. When ready, the karateka tried again to begin an assault but was once again accosted by Matsumura's presence. Just as the craftsman steadied himself for a final attempt, Matsumura let loose a spirit shout akin to a lightning bolt strike and the man was brought to an utter standstill, forfeiting the match and asking for forgiveness.
The exact details of this story are unprovable, but the concepts are quite interesting. What happened here was nothing particularly mystical – Matsumura utilized applied psychology to overwhelm his opponent. Humans have an innate ability to detect threats and impending doom. Matsumura's skill level and confidence were refined to such a fine degree that he was able to instill in his opponent extreme sensations of dread. His kiai disrupted the opponent before a punch was thrown***.
How Much Shouting is Too Much?
As we've established, kiai manifests in subtly different ways, especially during kata performance. The focus and disruptive capabilities of kiai may be present throughout an entire kata, or it may fade in and out depending on what the performer is visualizing.
In order to explore the question of kiai frequency from all angles, here are some reasons why extended kiai might be useful:
- Repeated screaming could put a person into "hulk mode", overwhelming all comers.
- Making noise during a self defense altercation could draw attention and elicit assistance.
- Excessive kiai could make opponents fearful that the victim is crazy, abandoning their attack and running away.
- If every strike in karate is meant to be done as a "killing blow" then every strike would deserve a kiai.
The matter of drawing attention to oneself is certainly true. Screaming and struggling is a very legitimate self defense tactic especially in crowded areas. On the other hand, I wouldn't rely on an attacker concerning themselves about a victim being crazy. It may actually inspire them to do damage more quickly in order to quiet the scene.
The idea of "hulking out" is a perpetuated misunderstanding of how adrenaline works. It's true that ramping up an adrenal dump can increase strength and pain tolerance, but it also drastically reduces cognition and small motor skills. Furthermore, during a conflict, the opponent experiences a similar adrenal dump. Too much "hulk" without any sort of control will not only eliminate fine motor techniques but can also overwhelm gross motor techniques ingrained in muscle memory. The other problem with a scream induced frenzy is the amount of time available before exhaustion. Sometimes individuals get a false sense of security from the dojo. Being able to spar for 45 minutes does not mean a person can last 45 minutes in a street encounter. Even Police Officers experience extreme fatigue in a matter of seconds or minutes when faced with the real struggle of violence. Imagine now if that precious energy was wasted on excessive kiai shouting.
The concept of "killing blows" in karate is a popular one. The phrase "Ikken Hisatsu", "One Punch, One Kill" is frequently used and suggests that full force should be put behind every technique with total committment. This concept is a carryover from Japanese Kenjutsu and the idea of "Ichigo Ichie", "One time, One Meeting". The Samurai were extremely refined swordsmen and the katana was a weapon of immediate effectiveness. The slightest hesitation or uncertainty in a duel spelled certain destruction. The fist of the hard style karateka is designed to be deadly in the same manner. However, when matching the Ikken Hisatsu mindset with the realities of physical combat it's important to rely on the subtleties of kiai usage instead of raw vocalization. Intensity of purpose can be transmitted via facial expression, hard breath, a glare of the eyes, and spirit pressure. Matsumura demonstrated it best. Had he been screaming and having fits as his opponent approached the depth of his kiai might not have been as effective and he would have been exhausted quickly in the fight.
Ultimately, too much shouting goes against practicality for real combat. Consider the element of surprise. The kiai should form a sharp blast against the opponent's senses especially when combined with dehabilitating tuite or striking, never giving the opponent a chance to recover. In the matter of multiple opponents, a blasting kiai used sparcely is just as valuable. A sudden auditory impulse might stop all surrounding aggressors, much like Shimabukuro Eizo's kiai froze his students in place. Kiai may work multiple times in a conflict but if overused it will simply become white noise.
How Many Kiai Per Kata?
Most instructors will indicate a few pre-designed spots where they believe kiai belong. These spots are most often strikes that feel conclusive. As such, many kata feature 1-5 kiai.
Here's a great example from one of my favorite kata practitioners, Shimabukuro Zenpo:
I never doubted his intensity, did you? Not to mention, his throat should be in fine shape even after a full day of training kata.
A Part of the Bigger Puzzle
Throughout this article we've focused on kiai to the exclusion of other concepts. It almost feels as if kiai is the only tool available for spirit transmission, but the truth is quite to the contrary. Kiai is half of a whole with aiki. Furthermore, other concepts such as kime, zanshin, mushin, kokoro, and more add to the collective expression of the classical artist during life protection. Many deeper concepts overlap at times, but are also distinct avenues worthy of study.
Just in case you're still not clear on the matter of kiai among the pantheon of martial skills, I'd like to let Bruce Lee sum it up for me:
***This story should not be confused with other claims of using kiai to knock people out without touching them. The idea of using vocal sounds or visual colors to create knockouts is unproven at best.