Written By:
Mike Marziale- 1st Kyu

    In late May, the Gi Yu Dojo finished its review of bo staff techniques and the scrolls we study.  For me, this was the first time I had seen any of these techniques, or indeed even train with a pole arm. It was also the first opportunity I have had to study a weapon through all of our scrolls, from start to finish.  The process was highly enlightening, and provided me with many learning opportunities as we progressed. 

    Our study of the bo staff started as all of our studies do, by learning and practicing the basic movements and kamae.  From there we moved onto the first scroll of kata, progressed through more and more complex kata, and then onto the final scroll, the most challenging kata.  In the beginning, even the basic movements with the bo staff can be quite challenging.  The staff is a weapon that truly forces you to use your entire body to manipulate and control it.  Failing to do so will result in weak, uncontrolled strikes and an inability to capitalize on the weapon’s reach, which is its greatest strength.  When I first started attempting to understand this tool, I wanted to use my arms to manipulate it, and focused far too heavily on strength and my upper body.  While the arms and shoulders are undeniably important, the legs and hips are at least as important, if not more so.  You cannot move the staff until you have learned to move yourself.  Eventually, through many hours of practice, my basics improved, and I began to understand how to move with the staff.

    The early kata of the bo staff build on these basic techniques largely employing them in different combination with one another.  Therefore, it is very important to have a firm grasp on the basics.  If you can’t perform the individual strikes in a static environment, you won’t be able to put them together in the kata.  As we worked on these basic kata, they helped show me were my weaknesses were in my basic strikes.  As I improved those strikes, and worked to eliminate my weaknesses, my kata improved in turn.  These improvements weren’t limited to my staff techniques, either.  As I improved my movements with the staff, I noticed my unarmed movements improving as well. 

    As we progressed on to more difficult techniques, distancing and kaki-heki, the give and take, back and forth flow of movements between training partners, became more important focal elements of the training.  These are important ideas to understand in any martial training, but especially with a long weapon like the bo staff.  If you allow an opponent in too close, the weapon loses its power and advantage, leaving you vulnerable.  This is especially true against an opponent with a katana.  Proper understanding of these concepts will also help you understand and control your opponent.  Knowing when your opponent is most likely to advance or retreat, or move to his right or his left in response to your actions is a critical component to the engagement, and can easily decide the outcome.  Again I noticed that as my understanding of these concepts improved with the staff, they also improve in my unarmed movements.  My timing and distancing with my striking improved as well, and I began to better understand how to get an opponent to move in the manner I needed them to.

    The final scroll of techniques we studied were perhaps the most interesting.  On the surface, these techniques look to be the simplest of all the scrolls we studied.  Typically, they only consisted of a small number of strikes, with simpler transitions between movements.  That, however, is only a surface illusion.  Performing these techniques properly requires a deep understanding of all the techniques that came before them, and the lessons they teach.  If you didn’t understand your timing and distancing, the kaki heki of the techniques, or how to properly perform the basic strikes, it showed in every movement in this scroll.  Closing on this scroll truly illustrated the circular nature of our training.  We started with basic movements, moved on to more and more complicated techniques, then returned to more basic techniques.  As we grow and learn, we most always return to our most fundamental skills and lessons, to reinforce our skills, and to incorporate these new ideas and skills into them. 

This lesson is also not limited to the staff, but is true for everything that we study.  If we ignore our basic skills, thinking we have moved on to more advanced material, then our foundation will weaken and crack, and the rest of our abilities will follow suit.  We must always remember to go back and reinforce those basics upon which we have built our skills, and as we move through these cycles of learning, we will continue to incorporate the lessons we have learned.  As one cycle builds on another, with advanced techniques improving through studying basic movements, and basic movements improving by studying advanced techniques, we continue to grow in our art. 

As we walk out of the dojo, we should remember that this cycle is not limited to the study of martial arts.  While it may be most visible to us in our training, the same cycles of growth can be found in every aspect of our lives.  All of our skill sets require practice and use to maintain, whether they are social skills, business acumen, family skills, or athletic abilities, if we don’t maintain them, they will atrophy.  We must all strive to maintain these cycles of growth, to remember to lessons of the past, and be open to the experiences of the future.