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!
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Most of the time I like to keep my posts practical and useful, but sometimes you have to swing for the fences and ask the big questions. There aren't too many bigger than this:
Who are the most substantial influencers in the martial arts universe; the movers and shakers that, without them, the martial landscape would be much different today?
The big disclaimer for this video is that it is a highly subjective topic. There is no possible way my list could be considered definitive. In fact, in a few years I might even disagree with myself! Nevertheless, it is a fun experiment trying to appreciate the real roots of our collective martial culture.
Is your brain churning already in regards to whom you might include on "The Top Ten Most Influential Martial Artists of ALL TIME"? Well, let's find out if you and I agree or disagree. To the list!
If the video doesn't pop up when you click it, just visit the youtube page here.
I really hope you enjoyed watching this little romp through history and present day development. If you feel that your style or system was excluded unfairly I do apologize – there were so many to consider and so few slots available. If it makes you feel any better, I didn't even include the founder of my own style. So I at least ATTEMPTED some objectivity.
When you stop for a moment and really consider the lasting impact of individuals like this it makes you appreciate the complexity of martial development. Without the efforts of just a handful of special people what we know and accept today as martial arts could be completely different.
Consider now the seriousness of your training and your value in preserving martial culture for generations to come. Who might bloggers include on a list like this 100 years from now when they sit down to write on their futuristic brain-implant-computers? Will you be on their list? .
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One day a student saw his Sensei punching a wooden post that had been thrust into the ground. The student inquired: "Sensei, what is it you're punching?"
The student walked over and began striking the board gingerly. He had noticed months earlier that his instructor's hands were rough around the knuckles and that his punching power was far greater than his slight frame belied. Could this simple board be the key to his power? The student had to wonder.
"Now I want you to practice on this slowly and lightly at first. In time we'll increase the impact, but I must be certain you're technique is correct."
For a month the student struck the board deligently, feeling it bend and snap back into place. He was growing more comfortable all the time. Sadly his trip to visit his Sensei was brief and soon he flew back to his home town. Motivated and confident, the student set out to construct his own makiwara. His Sensei had given him a few tips on construction, so he felt ready.
Wandering the aisles of the local hardware store, the student noticed a similar looking board in both length and width. However, next to it was a sturdy and thick piece of oak. Certainly, the student concluded, that if the thin board had succesfully developed his Sensei's striking power that a thicker and more durable board would elicit even better results!
He bought the thick oak and planted it firmly in his backyard. Later, finding the outdoor makiwara a bit inconvenient, he decided to secure a thin foam pad to his concrete basement walls and strike that instead.
Unfortunately the student's Sensei never visited his home dojo and failed to inquire about the specifics of his makiwara practice. Perhaps such an intervention could have helped avoid the severe damage and arthritis the student would experience in later years.
More is a Tempting Proposition
The previous story is entirely fictional, however it might as well be true considering the amount of martial artists who have suffered in a similar way. Makiwara training is not inherently dangerous and can be executed safely. However, it is easily abused for the sake of quicker or more significant short term results.
The fictional student saw what his instructor had done and came to a natural conclusion that if he were to do more/harder/longer he would experience better results. This is a tempting mindset but can be very dangerous.
The classical martial arts were developed over decades (sometimes centuries) of careful analysis and adjustment. As times changed so did the specific needs of practitioners, so the arts continued to grow and evolve. Good classical arts, ones that helped practitioners defend themselves without damaging them in the process, eventually developed. Unfortunately, no matter how far back in time you look, the struggle of patience vs results and ego has always existed and tugged on exponents.
More Examples of More
Excessive makiwara training isn't the only way we as practitioners can upset proper training balance. Consider the following hypothetical scenarios:
- A teacher decides to enlogate stances so as to develop the leg muscles of students. The next generation decides that if long stances are good, even longer stances must be better. So long in fact that perhaps each student's belt should touch the ground when settling into stance.
- A student notices a fine flow that his teacher executes during freestyle practice. The student decides that flowing technique is clearly the best and sets out to eliminate all hard, impactful and linear technique.
- A practitioner attends a seminar with a known vital point fighting expert. Amazed by the effectiveness of the vital point techniques, he shifts his entire study and marketing efforts to the propogation of vital points. He decides that there must be even more to it and creates a tangled web of fact and fiction surrounding the "energy" of the arts.
- A skilled kata exponent discovers the existence of tuite and the reailty that kata can contain more than just striking. She then decides that the true application of each kata is an elaborate series of joint locks and grappling maneuvers and focuses purely on these ideas.
- After a few years of study a student realizes that his teacher has studied both a hard Japanese art and a modern style of boxing. He decides that since cross training two styles is beneficial he would study five styles, combine them, and name his own art.
These are fictional situations like the story told above, but some of them may sound familiar and ring true to your experience.
Awareness as the Solution
The trick to managing "more" is realizing that it can exist in your school and in between your ears. It has the power to affect any of us (myself included). When coming up through the ranks of Okinawa Kenpo, I was inundated with a wide variety of empty hand and kobudo kata. At certain points I distinctly remember focusing on the next set of kata I needed for testing to the exclusion of all other matters. In order to progress through kyu ranks and acquire the more "advanced" kata I fell victim to "more".
Eventually I realized what I was doing and was able to pull myself out of that collector's cycle. Even now I frequently ask myself: Where is my focus? Have I become too obsessed with a single aspect of training?
More vs Specialization
An important distinction is that "more" is not the same thing as training deligently or finding a specialty. For example, if a teacher were to decide that body conditioning was important to her and thus her students, it's logical and understandable for her to incorporate frequent conditioning drills. But if she obsesses over drills and methods that sacrifice mobility, technique, and even personal health all for the sake of increasing body hardness then she would have committed an error of disharmony in training.
When observing your art and your methods of training it's important to consider both diminishing returns and off-balance practice methods. Sometimes in your established art you'll come to notice things that help you early on but eventually become a hinderance. At those times you can explore ways to improve your technique without forgetting the value those initial methods brought.
A teacher's job is even harder, as the temptation to change things can be strong. Well meaning instructors often wish to increase the speed of student development or cut to the "no nonsense, nitty gritty harcore stuff" that took them years to figure out. Of course, they are unwittingly discarding things of high value that can ultimately result in not just a well balanced martial artist, but a deligent and humble person as well.
Good classical training is diverse and not readily understood at a glance. It challenges each student to obey faithfully and keep the system true to its roots while at the same time thinking independently and finding balance. Such a mental and physical struggle as in one of the most subtle yet lasting benefits of the old ways.
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