Handling Sai is very similar in many respects to handling Tonfa. Many of its uses are similar to those of the Tonfa, but there are substantial differences as well. We will cover gripping, blocking, striking, and entrapment when utilizing the Sai.
Gripping the Sai
The Sai is normally gripped by holding the weapon differently than you might initially imagine. The standard grip is to place one of the Yoko into the web of your thumb. Your index finger is then placed along the length of the Tsuka with the tip of your index finger facing the Tsuka Gashira. Your three remaining fingers then wrap over and around the Yoko on the side opposite your thumb. The standard grip then causes the Monouchi to lay back and along the entire length of your forearm. This places the weapon in position to support common blocking and some striking activities.
With the inverted or reverse grip the weapon is held such that the Tsuka is again placed in the palm of the hand but this time the Saki faces away from the hand and toward a potential opponent. The middle, ring, and small fingers wrap around the Tsuka with the little finger nearest the Tsuka Gashira. The thumb is placed directly over the Moto and below the top of the Yoko. The index finger then rests on the side of the weapon opposite the thumb. The index finger is positioned just below the Moto on the opposite side of the weapon. The index finger is extended so the proximal end of the finger rests along one Yoko. The finger then extends across the Moto until the distal part of the index finger rests along the second Yoko.
When holding the weapon in the reverse grip there are two things you must observe. Firstly, in no case should you ever place your fingers or thumbs in the space between the Monouchi and the Yoko. Your fingers would be cut or severely impacted if the Sai were to be used to intercept or entrap another person’s weapon. Never place your fingers above the Moto when using this grip. Secondly, no part of your index finger or thumb should extend higher than the top of the Yoko. This is to again prevent an impact that settles between the Monouchi and the Yoko from striking any part of your hand.
The index finger is used with the reverse grip to resist any twisting of the weapon that may occur if it makes contact with another object. Without the index finger in its designated position the wrist or weapon can readily be rotated. This would be detrimental in some activities. Rotation of the weapon can also be negated to a lesser degree by pressing tightly around the Tsuka with the middle, ring, and little fingers. Most of the pressure is applied with the little finger. A bit less pressure is applied with the ring finger, and still less is applied by the middle finger. You will see that these grip levels are a natural outcome of the way the weapon is held in this grip.
An additional grip you will use often is the salutation grip. This grip is used both during the salutation and while simply transporting the weapon across the Dojo. In this grip the two Sai are placed adjacent to one another in the same orientation, with the Yoko, Monouchi, and Tsuka of each weapon parallel to the other. The weapons are oriented such that the thumb is nearest the Tsuka and the little finger is nearest the Saki. The thumb is then inserted between the Yoko and Monouchi of both weapons and wraps round the Monouchi of both weapons. The remaining fingers encircle the other pair of Yoko and are spread out more or less evenly over the length of the Yoko. You are essentially wrapping your hand around the Monouchi and one pair of Yoko and then squeezing with enough pressure to maintain a solid grip on both weapons. This grip allows you to control both weapons and enables you to hold them so neither weapon slips in your grip.
Two additional grips are used with the Sai. These grips are not favored by people familiar with the Sai but they are very often used during some specific movements or actions. The first of these grips is the standard knife grip (depicted in two different applications above). Here the Tsuka is held in the palm of the hand with the thumb nearest the Moto. This has a great many limitations, but it has some advantages, particularly when it comes to turning the wrist.
The reverse knife grip is basically the same grip, except the thumb faces the Tsuka Gashira rather than the Moto. This again has significant limitations but also affords you with some advantages, particularly when striking directly downward.
In many videos you will see a grip in which the practitioner places his or her index and middle finger (or all four fingers) through opposite Yoko and adjacent to the Monouchi. We will refer to this as the alternate reverse grip. There is very little legitimate reason for doing this and getting in the habit of using this grip will increase the odds of you breaking or losing a finger if you perform any type of contact work. People use the alternate reverse grip because it frees the wrist, allows the weapon to rotate about the Yoko, and enables the weapon to spin more readily. There are other ways to accomplish spins that do not put body parts at risk. In my view this is perhaps the single worst habit a person can fall into when using a Sai. But some may legitimately argue that this degree of freedom is necessary to perform well in tournaments.
While I agree this provides you with added weapon mobility it absolutely detracts from the ability to use the Sai as a combat weapon. We all understand that it is illegal to walk around with Sai tucked into your belt and that you are very unlikely to defend yourself against a Jo or Katana on the street. So in some ways this argument is mute; you are more likely to use the weapon in a tournament than in combat. Some people prefer the added flexibility that comes with using this grip in tournaments. But be careful. Some tournament operators understand this is not a viable combat grip and may reduce your score for using it. Others will not care in the least. What is clear is that the reverse standard grip is not a viable grip for use during a conflict. You are free to use the grip if you feel it aids you somehow in tournament work. You may practice the grip in support of any tournament training you undergo. You do not need to keep your experimentation and practice of this grip a secret. We would like you to be able to do well in any tournaments you enter. However, using the alternate reverse grip during any part of a ranking examination will result in a decreased score and/or examination failure.
The single most frequently used skill involving the Sai is changing grip positions. It is essential that grip transitions can be performed in a rapid, seamless, and precise manner. To be proficient at utilizing the Sai requires practicing grip transitions until they do not involve any thought.
We will cover the most common transitions that you will encounter. This is by no means the total sum of all potential transitions. We encourage you to explore other transitions that you might encounter, observe, or even invent. Just keep in mind that you will want to maintain effective control of the weapon at all times, so a mid-air triple flip and catch may not be an ideal form of transition (though it might look pretty good in a demonstration).
Changing grip between the standard and reverse grips is done by relaxing the grip on the Yoko, allowing the Yoko to spin freely around the web portion of the thumb joint. When going from a standard to a reverse grip the Yoko already rests again the thumb so no thumb movement is necessary. Simply relax your grip and allow the weapon to move freely about the thumb. Then invert your hand and grasp the Tsuka to establish the reverse grip.
When transitioning from a reverse to a standard grip you must first place your thumb into the space between the Yoko and the Monouchi. The weapon can now spin about the thumb and you will be able to readily grasp the Sai to establish the standard grip. Some minor rotational energy may need to be applied to the weapon to ensure it sets readily into the hand. Changing grips is explored more fully in the Grip Change Drill discussed in the article on Sai Tanren.
From the salutation grip it is quite easy to use your free hand to grasp one of the weapons. You will readily be able to transition to a standard grip with a weapon in each hand.
It is very simple to move from a reverse grip to a standard knife grip and back again to a reverse grip. This is simply a matter of relocating the positions of the thumb and index finger.
Likewise it is quite simple to transition from a standard grip to a reverse knife grip. It is not unlike transitioning between a reverse and standard grip. The differences are that the Saki is moving in the opposite direction and you must remove your thumb from between the Yoko and Monouchi. This is not difficult to do with some limited practice.
Moving back from a reverse knife grip to a standard knife grip (or reverse grip) is a bit more complicated. You essentially squeeze the thumb and index fingers together around the Tsuka, release the grip with the other fingers, and then place these three fingers on the opposite side of the Tsuka. The Tsuka will rest between the index and middle fingers. The weapon can then be inverted in your grip. This is a bit riskier than other transitions, but it can be done fairly easily with practice. Practice in a location where a dropped weapon will not cause a problem.
You will utilize these transitions extensively in Kata so you will benefit greatly from being able to perform these transitions quickly and with great control. Practice these and other transitions you may encounter often to develop and further hone your fundamental Sai handling skills.
The Sai opening salutation is relatively straight forward. While holding the weapons in your right hand using the salutation grip extend both arms down and at your side as you adopt Heisoku Dachi F1. Bow slightly toward angle one and then step L3 to establish Heiko Dachi F1. Raise both hands to the apex of your center triangle and align both weapons so that they are parallel to the floor and aligned along the three-four axis of the Octagon. Place your left open hand over top of your right hand. Pause for several seconds and then lower your arms to your side again, bring the left leg in to establish Heisoku Dachi F1 and bow a second time. This completes the opening salutation.
The closing salutation is similar but assumes that you may not be in Heisoku Dachi prior to initiation the salutation. Move your back leg (if not in a stance such as Kiba Dachi) or left leg to establish Heiko Dachi F1. As in the opening salutation, raise both hands and hold the weapon parallel to the floor then cover the weapon hand with your left open hand. Pause in this position for several seconds then lower the both hands to your side as you bring the left leg in to establish Heisoku Dachi F1. Bow slightly to complete the closing salutation.
Setting Your Hands
We do not encourage using the hands-set position during any form of combat. If you are in a fighting posture then you must concentrate on maintaining an effective guard position. You put yourself at great risk if you fail to maintain a good guard.
But in many martial arts scenarios the hands are pulled into a set position. This is often seen in weapons practice and the Sai is a weapon where this is done often. We do not encourage this usage of the weapon, but you will see it done often and some Kata depend on this type of movement.
If you are establishing the set position when using the Sai in a standard grip you must be aware that your hand position will be different from a normal set position. If you pull your hands back into a normal set position then the Yoko will be positioned horizontally and can impale your torso if your hands are brought back aggressively. Instead you must place your hands such that the Yoko are oriented vertically as the weapon is retracted to set position. This means your fist will be oriented not with the palm facing upward as normal, but with the palm facing inward and toward your torso.
Similarly, the Monouchi has a tendency to move away from your forearm during some Tsuki strikes when the weapon is held in a standard grip. This happens when you thrust forward with the Tsuka Gashira and the Monouchi travels inward and away from your forearm. This will cause the Monouchi to be aligned with your front chest wall when you begin the return of your strike. I probably don’t need to tell you why this is not good. You should practice these strikes while paying very close attention to how the Monouchi moves. Any errant movement of the Monouchi should be noticed and appropriate corrections applied to ensure the Monouchi does not move away from your forearm during a Tsuki strike. This problem can be rectified by rotating the wrist as you deliver the strike as this will cause the Monouchi to stay close to your forearm.
With the Sai held in the standard grip the weapon can be used to block using Gedan Barai, Ura Gedan Barai, Age Uke, Chudan Uke or an Outward Extended Block. These are the standard blocks used with this weapon.
When blocking it is important to ensure that the Monouchi rests firmly against your forearm before any blocking contact is made. If the Monouchi is not in this position then contact forces may cause the Monouchi to slam into your forearm causing potential pain and injury.
When holding the weapon in the reverse grip the Yoko and Monouchi can be used together to block incoming strikes from a club, Jo, or similar weapon. These blocks are usually delivered more in a thrusting manner. The general idea is to catch the opponent’s weapon in the basket created by the Yoko and Monouchi. Once the weapon has been caught then a subsequent movement may force the opponent’s weapon (and possible the opponent) into a weakened position. In some cases it may be possible to remove the weapon from the opponent’s grip.
When attempting to perform a block such as Chudan Uke or Gedan Barai using the Monouchi the forces delivered into your wrist and hand can be amplified significantly due to the long moment arm of the Monouchi. A strike that lands close to the Saki can deliver substantially more force into your wrist than will a strike that lands closer to the Yoko. It is therefore less common to use the Monouchi (or Yoko) for a block to intercept a strike coming toward the weapon from the side. Nonetheless, this block is used when timing and circumstance dictate few other choices.
A Morote Age Uke or Morote Gedan Uke can be utilized by crossing the Monouchi of the two weapons and allowing the Yoko of the two weapons to interlock. This forms a mechanically strong block than can function well to thwart a Shomen Uchi or similar strike. With some weapons it is difficult to get the Yoko to interlock. In that case the Monouchi are simply crossed near the Moto to form the block. The two weapons are generally oriented each at an angle of approximately 45° to the floor and 90° to one another.
The equivalent of a Wheel Kick Block can be created by holding one weapon in standard grip and the other in reverse grip. The standard grip weapon is held down while the reverse grip weapon is held pointing upward on one side of our body. Both weapons should be pressed into the arm on your blocking side. This blocking combination doesn’t usually provide full coverage, but it may be effective in some circumstances.
When blocking with the Sai it is important to consider the effects of both moving and rotating your center. Both can amplify the effectiveness of your block and reduce your risk of being struck. Like anything in Tensoku Ryu, move and use center rotations whenever possible.
The Sai can be used to strike with the Tsuka Gashira when the weapon is held in a standard grip. A simple Tsuki toward angle one will deliver substantial force into your target. When striking in this manner one must be cognizant of and control the position of the Yoko and the Monouchi. Targets for such a strike include the face, temple (from the side), throat, sternum, solar plexus, abdomen, intercostal muscles, kidney (from the back or above), and groin. This is pretty much the same set of locations that most hand strikes would target.
When the Sai is held in the reverse grip the side of the Monouchi is frequently used for slashing or club-like strikes. The hard metal surface makes it very effective for this purpose. Striking an opponent’s forearm, elbow, shin, neck, collar bone, knee, shin, groin, or head (Shomen or Yokomen) can cause substantial pain and debilitating injury. In some cases a combination strike can be utilized. For example, striking the neck with the Monouchi in an Uchi type strike would then allow you to immediately thrust the weapon forward, driving one of the Yoko into the opponent’s throat. This same scenario might be used to inflict injury to an arm, leg, the groin, or the torso area. Naturally such actions are reserved for the most perilous circumstances.
With a reverse grip the Saki can be used as the point of contact during a Tsuki strike. This is a very powerful strike because all of the energy from the strike is delivered in a very small surface area. A puncture wound is a possibility, particularly if the Saki comes to any sort of point. Even a weapon that has a flat Saki could puncture an opponent if sufficient force is applied. Naturally a puncture wound could lead to a serious injury or fatality.
Which leads us to what should be an obvious warning. Using this weapon in a combative situation can readily result in significant injury or death. If someone kicks in your front door and barges into your house then you may need to do whatever is necessary to protect yourself and others inside. But if the weapon is used indiscriminately or without reasonable provocation then you will have violated a basic tenet of Tensoku Ryu and will certainly be the subject of serious legal proceedings from the criminal justice system and those with cause for a civil action.
When the Sai is held in a reverse grip and used to block a strike from a weapon such as a Jo then the Yoko and Monouchi can be used to entrap the weapon. Once the weapon is situated in the Monouchi-Yoko basket then twisting the weapon will apply pressure at two points along the shaft of the attacking weapon (Jo). This will cause a momentary hesitation and structural shift on the part of your assailant. It also provides you with an opportunity to grasp the opponent’s weapon with your opposite hand (don’t try this when the other weapon is bladed) or use your second Sai to further entrap the weapon or strike at the opponent.
It is also possible to entrap the weapon when performing a Morote Uke. After catching the weapon with one Sai the second Sai can be woven into the first Sai so that it too entraps the weapon. In the process the two Sai can become locked so that the Monouchi of each weapon rests between the Yoko and Moto of the opposite weapon. This makes a very firm interlocking pattern that firmly locks the opponent’s weapon in place. Naturally you should recognize that this also freezes you for some period of time as well, which is certainly not ideal. It also leaves you with a somewhat awkward hand position. But if you want to securely entrap a weapon this may be a method by which that can be accomplished. This form of entrapment is quite difficult if not impossible when a weapon has a pronounced Moto. It is best done when the Moto of both weapons are flat.
Throwing the Sai
The Sai can be used as a throwing weapon. When practicing throwing techniques it is important to never do them in the Dojo unless specific arrangements have been made to protect vulnerable flooring, furnishings, infrastructure, and of course, people. In general you will want to practice any throwing exercises outside. One word of caution here however. If you practice in a grassy area you could raise the ire of the groundskeeper if your Sai punctures underground irrigation lines. Therefore the best place to practice throwing is in an undeveloped area. A sandy beach or open lot somewhere are good locations. You would be wise to check with any local authorities before practice however, and you will want to ensure that throwing a Sai around is not going to be cause for concern by local law enforcement. Remember, they may consider you to be someone brandishing a deadly weapon. Be cautious and very compliant if confronted by law enforcement.
Since throwing a Sai can be dangerous to its health it is best to practice these throws with a weapon other than your most prized Sai. While Sai are generally robust weapons they can be damaged. And throwing is just the sort of activity that can hasten the demise of a Sai. Weapons are less likely to be damaged if they are landing on a soft surface such as sand.
The first thing that enters someone’s mind when they think of throwing the weapon is impalement. The mental picture one derives is of a weapon sailing through the air and embedding itself, Saki first, into the torso of an assailant. The weapon can be used for this purpose, but the more common use for throwing is to attack the feet and legs of an opponent. The Sai was often used to keep a suspect from fleeing. As the person began to flee a Sai might be used to target the legs or feet to either trip the person or injure a foot or leg making it difficult for the person to run.
This is why most Sai throwing exercises involve throwing the weapon in a generally downward directed fashion. The Monouchi, Yoko, and Tsuka all make complex surfaces over which an opponent may trip or which may impact or impale some portion of the person’s lower extremities. This increases the chances the person will not escape.
We do not require students to demonstrate any throwing skills on any examinations. These are purely optional exercises that students can explore if they wish. We provide them only to ensure a more complete exploration of these uses for this weapon.
Throwing the Sai works best if you think of throwing it from the elbow. If you think of throwing it from the wrist or hand then your wrist will bend causing the weapon to move in an unexpected manner. The timing of the wrist movement and the release of your grip can make it very difficult to direct the path of the weapon properly. Instead, think of keeping the wrist straight and using the forearm to dictate when to time the release of the weapon. This means that your elbow is the primary targeting joint. It is much easier to align your forearm with a specific target than it is to align both your forearm and your wrist.
Another important consideration when throwing the weapon is the alignment and orientation of the Yoko. If targeting the legs it is best if the Yoko are aligned horizontally with the ground. This maximizes the spread of the weapon, increasing its chances for contact with the leg or foot. This alignment also works best when targeting the torso area as it increases the possibility of striking an arm and the torso concurrently. It is seldom a consideration when targeting only the torso as the Monouchi is not likely to penetrate far enough to allow contact from the Yoko. So a general rule of thumb is always throw with the Yoko positioned parallel to the ground.
It is difficult to throw a Sai well if it does not exhibit excellent balance. The center of gravity for the Sai should be on the Monouchi near the mid-point of the extension of Yoko. In other words, move along the Monouchi until you reach a point that is half the length of the Yoko. If you place a finger under this location on the Monouchi the Sai should balance evenly near this spot. If the weapon is relatively heavy near the Tsuka Gashira or the Saki then it will be less useful as a throwing weapon.
Spinning the Sai
One of the skills everyone wants to explore is spinning the weapon in one hand. This can be done in several different way. Some are straight forward while others take a bit of practice, conditioning, and thought.
The first spin method simply involves moving between a standard grip and a reverse grip, and back again. Repeating this sequence in rapid succession can look like a spin, though technically it is not. This sequence can be performed either horizontally or vertically, or in some combination of these movements. This is a simple exercise that everyone should master.
A related spin is to move the Monouchi under the forearm in the opposite direction to the movement used in the previous example. The Monouchi moves under the forearm and then forward toward the back of the hand. The thumb and index finger wrap around one Yoko to facilitate the spin and maintain control of the weapon. This spin takes some practice and can be difficult to do if you have a weapon with small Yoko. This is a true spin since you can sustain the motion indefinitely. This is also an alternate way of transitioning from a standard to a reverse grip.
The next spin violates a basic rule of holding the Sai. In general we do not want to place our fingers such that they wrap around the Yoko when holding the weapon in a reverse grip. This puts the fingers in danger of an injury from a strike that is directed toward the Yoko. This spin violates that basic tenet and so it is never used when in a combat situation. But it is a useful spin when doing demonstrations and participating in some tournaments.
This spin is really a simply wrist outturn spin. Begin with a reverse grip then place two fingers on either side of the Monouchi so they rest between the Monouchi and the Yoko (the same spin can be done with a single finger on either side of the Monouchi). All four fingers are therefore wrapped over the Yoko. The thumb wraps behind one Yoko. Now rotate your wrist outward, back, and then forward again to initiate the spin. The spin can be continued indefinitely. You will find it easier to perform the spin if you maintain a fairly relaxed grip on the weapon so the Tsuka can move more freely. When spinning you would ideally like to see the weapon moving in a vertical circle just outside your forearm. This is a very fast and easy spin that can be sustained indefinitely. You will want to adopt a standard or reverse grip before you perform any blocking or striking with the weapon to avoid severe injury to your hands.
It should be noted that a nearly identical spin can be accomplished by holding the Tsuka such that the thumb and index finger encircle the Tsuka. All other fingers then release the weapon. A similar wrist outturn is used to spin the weapon. This spin has the advantage that your fingers are not exposed over the top of the Yoko. Again you will want to have a somewhat relaxed grip so the weapon can spin more freely. Another advantage is that when you finish the spin you will be holding the weapon in a standard knife grip, which is very easily converted to a reverse grip.
A spin can also be accomplished by rotating the Yoko about the thumb. The easiest way to accomplish this is to rotate the wrist so that the thumb is pointed upward, then spin the Sai horizontally so that the Yoko remains in constant contact with the thumb. This spin is related to earlier spins but is a bit different in that the index finger is not used to restrain the Yoko during a critical portion of the spin. It is therefore possible, and quite likely when you first practice this spin that the weapon will escape your control and plummet to the ground. You are cautioned to practice this skill away from matting, decorative flooring, concrete patios, or other surfaces that can be damaged when the Saki or Tsume make direct contact.
A reverse finger spin can be accomplished by holding the weapon in a reverse grip. Place the index finger below the Monouchi and wrap it over the Yoko from the front. Move your thumb so it is on the Tsuka and not wrapped over a Yoko. Spin the Monouchi up and back until it moves inside your arm on its way down. The Saki will point briefly toward your chest. As the Monouchi moves forward again grasp the weapon in a reverse grip.
When practicing spins experiment with ways to transition in a seamless manner from one type of spin to another. This will provide you with more flexibility when employing the weapon.