Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Lefty vs Righty

Training left-handed fighters in a predominantly right-handed world is a topic of endless conversation, particularly when it comes to weaponry.  My teacher, grandmaster Angel Cabales, said to just teach lefties with the stick in the right hand to keep things simple.  I've had many left-handed students over the years, and what I tell them is the weaker right hand will gain strength and coordination while their strong left hand will become proficient in checking, joint locking, disarming, etc., and for the most part that works.  As Angel put it, each hand develops specialized skills, so neither is ignored.  On the other hand, his son Vincent (and some other instructors in Serrada) teach left-handed students to use the weapon in their stronger hand, which may be simpler for them at the beginning but creates complications down the line.  This debate is as old as military formations, where one person in line who is not in conformity with the rest not only stands out like a sore thumb, but in the old days of shield lines could create a dangerous gap for the enemy to break through. Even today in rifle drills and marching formations, everyone is expected to be on the same page. 

I've seen similar debates when it comes to things like teaching guitar.  There is no particular reason a left-handed guitarist needs to flip the instrument upside down, usually requiring modification of the instrument's bridge and restringing.  One hand simply learns the fingerboard, the other how to strum or pluck; simple.  It's exceptionally rare to find someone like Jimi Hendrix who could truly play ambidextrously regardless of how the guitar was strung.

Now in many FMA styles such as Serrada, there are drills such as lock-and-block or numerado where one training partner feeds strikes with either hand while the other practices counters, as well as double stick sinawallis which ostensibly train us to deal with an attack to either side of our body.  That's all fine and good, but when it comes to sparring with weapons, it gets more complicated.  Many are familiar with what the Inosanto/IMB folks call the "box drill" or sumbrada, a counter-for-counter exercise which, as far as I know, was introduced in western FMA practice by Angel Cabales.  It is a symmetrical flow drill where each partner essentially is doing the same pattern, albeit 180 degrees out of sync.  This teaches the shortest, most efficient counter to certain basic strikes, though at more advanced levels it becomes free flowing and any counter can be used.  However, if one partner is left-handed and the other right-handed, this symmetry no longer exists and the pattern is irrevocably broken.  As far as I can tell, there is no easy way to reconcile the two opposing sides, though it is possible to create and practice it as an asymmetrical exercise.

Recently two new students began training with me.  One of them was born without a right hand, while the other is decidedly right-handed.  This introduces the complexity of opposite handedness right at their fundamental level of training.  While I can certainly go lefty myself to teach that individual, it is certainly more difficult for them to learn to practice together, especially as the right-handed one will have to learn twice as much as usual in the earliest stages.  We're a long way from introducing them to counter-for-counter sparring, but I've already put some time into figuring out how that will work.  Frankly, it's harder than the basic symmetrical drill, and will certainly create extra challenges if and when they reach that point in training. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cross-stepping in Serrada Escrima?

Serrada Escrima, as taught by GM Angel Cabales, emphasizes simple, direct movement. This is especially seen in the footwork, which focuses on linear heel-toe alignment with an opponent’s centerline. Angel eschewed things like cross-steps or twisted body positions, though in fact examples of these can be found within the system. His “punch block” for angle #3 is an example of the latter. Cross-stepping, however, was not formally taught, at least in my experience. However, as with kicking, which Angel used sparingly and with just a couple of simple variants, he would tell students with experience in other systems to use what they knew from there too. While the basic concept taught is to learn to hold your ground with that linear alignment, in fact Angel understood movement, sometimes saying we weren’t born where we stood, so we knew how to move already. In practice, it isn’t always practical or possible to remain directly in front of someone, in their line of fire, and so lateral movement is necessary to find more advantageous positioning. Of course the first technique usually taught is the outside block for angle #1, which involves moving off-line without a cross-step, but are there times when the cross-step is a valid or even necessary option? I would argue yes. For instance, in backpedaling in a circular manner vs. a #2 (high strike to one’s right side), as opposed to the classic technique of facing the attack in place, one has the option to step ito the outside first with the lead right foot, which opens one’s centerline, or with the rear left foot, which will be a cross step. Of course either option is a brief transition, as we typically re-align into the linear centerline alignment. One clear example of cross-stepping from Angel himself, as captured on video, was a powerful #1 slash (high downward diagonal right forehand) while cross-stepping back to the left with the lead right foot. It’s a finishing type power blow, but as Serrada teaches constant vigilance against a persistent opponent, we don’t pose in that posture but continue to step through to re-establish our “spot”. Now on a personal level, given my background from Kenpo, Aikido, and especially Sonny Umpad’s “Visayan Style Corto Kadena”, I will sometimes in free flow carenza (form) utilize more cross-stepping and low stances compared to classic Serrada. Sometimes I’ll use these as well in sparring. After all, Serrada wasn’t designed to fight other Serrada fighters, but to deal with any style, and so I will simulate other methods as a way to give students or training partners a different look, as well as do practice deceptive ways to move in and out of range. Ultimately combat is free-flowing and unpredictable, as Bruce Lee famously preached, and so exploring various methods has value. In this I like to quote the famous artist Pablo Picasso, who said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Monday, September 11, 2017

Relationship of Serrada's lock position with Wing Chun's chi sao

Many martial artists have at least some glancing knowledge, if even only from YouTube, of Wing Chun’s chi sao exercise where partners face each other and interlock hands, each with one in a palm up position (tan sao) and the other in a downward hooking position (fook sao) … and hopefully I recalled those correctly. The hands are then rotated back and forth between these positions in the basic form of the exercise.

Less well known is the “lock-and-block” position used in Serrada Escrima, and perhaps some other FMA (Filipino Martial Art) systems as well – GM Hortensio Navales’ system from Panay comes to mind. In this position, the main weapon, be it a stick or blade, is in the primary hand, which generally and for this description we’ll assume to be the right. The hand is palm down (pronate), with the weapon basically parallel to the front of the body, pointed at a downward diagonal angle towards the left. In this manner it essentially can cover the torso defensively from about the right armpit to the left hip. The other (left) hand, holding a shorter weapon, generally a knife or dagger (daga), is basically on the same level as the right hand, so that it is above the longer primary weapon, but held back closer to the body, in reserve, and also so as not to impede any upward movement of the primary weapon. The shorter weapon generally points forward towards the opponent, so that the two weapons essentially form an x and y axis, or two sides of a box (your torso being a third side).

Now, take away the weapons, and what you see looks like one position from Wing Chun’s chi sao, with the left in tan sao and the right in fook sao. Conversely, put those weapons in the hands of a Wing Chun practitioner doing that and you pretty much can’t miss the similarity!

Whereas Wing Chun rolls the hands between these positions, Serrada does not …. but it can and sometimes should. Why? The lock-and-block position is designed for the primary weapon to jam and trap the opponent’s arm, allowing the opposite hand to strike targets. That sets up perfectly if you are outside of the right arm, or even inside of the left, but other positions can be trickier and possibly force you to have to cross yourself in less optimal manner. However, using that Wing Chun chi sao roll, we’ve now reversed the position of the weapons, where the short weapon takes on the role of checking while the primary weapon in the right hand does the dirty work.

So which position do we use? The right hand in the lock position, as first described above, is the main and most common position. One of our primary concepts, however, is directness, and so in checking, we try to utilize the hand closest to the limb being checked as it can orient more quickly and efficiently. This means there are times when we’ll need to check with the off-hand, which is where this rolling switch comes into play. GM Angel Cabales utilized this daga checking from time to time, though it wasn’t stressed in the curriculum and he always finished back in the primary position. That being said, we always want to have versatile options that meet the needs of a given situation.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

It is with great sadness I learned this morning of the passing of my friend, grandmaster Ron Harris, who died suddenly yesterday of heart failure. Ronald was an amazing person, a university professor who championed conservative values while promoting the economic success of black Americans. As a martial artist, he trained with the best, from Dan Inosanto to Leo Gaje, with whom he traveled to many seminars. Ron held a 7th Dan in Kajukenbo and was once tapped by Sijo Emperado to create an escrima system specific to that art, though it never caught on due to lack of qualified instructors at the time. He taught "Classic Eskrima", as well as Muay Thai, Boxe Francaise/Savate and Taekwondo. He contributed articles to Black Belt and Inside Kung Fu and other publications, and sponsored seminars around the country, first coming to my attention with tournaments he threw in San Diego in the 1990's. He was well-versed in BJJ, and his younger brother Russ trained the first American to beat the Brazilians in the Octagon. Ron trained Marines in hand-to-hand over the years (he currently has a son at Annapolis) and just this summer I designed a training dagger for his program, which I was showing to folks at the MACE seminar just two days ago. Through Ron I've met some amazing martial artists, like Jan Miernyk and Dan Medina. I'm still in shock over this news, and I'm sure he will be missed by many.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Today I received the second email I've had of someone saving their life with one of my lightweight plastic flutes. This is the kind of thing that really makes my day!

"I'm writing to let you know that the wonderful shakuhachi flute I purchased from you about one year ago finally failed, but despite being a beloved possession and a joy to train with and play it broke while saving me from hospital bills or my life. I was walking to my car after my HEMA class that I supplement with FMA when I observed a disheveled man swinging a bat at someone's car screaming obscenities. I called the police but he observed me doing so and started swinging his bat angrily on the ground screaming. All I had in my hand and not my bag was the flute. He swung at me as I rushed in with a guard and I heard a crack as his bat struck my flute. Had the flute not been there the bat would have hit the back of my ribs cleanly but the flute STILL HADN'T broken. THe break instead occurred when I redondoed the flute around and began beating him hard about the head. One of the strikes sent the top of the flute flying leaving me to punyo and knee until the cops arrived. Had your flute not been there, I could have been hurt severely or killed by a dangerous man. It may be a while before I can get another one of your beautiful pieces to play and train with. But I am grateful for your weapon and hope I never have to use one again in earnest. Between the flute, FMA, and HEMA, I'm in one piece today."

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Three T's

The "three t's" are a basic progression of learning, which can apply to a broad range of physical skills, which I'll reference here to the pursuit of skill in martial arts. They are tools, targets and timing.

The first T is tools, and these are primary. Can you imagine going to a carpentry class to learn to build things, and not be taught the safe and proper use of the various implements before starting to use them, or driving a car without first knowing basic controls? In karate, for example, among the first things taught will likely be a horse stance and how to throw a basic punch. From there one branches out into other stances, blocks, parries and strikes, and how to combine them. In styles that feature footwork, one may start with a on-guard position and a simple step or two, combined with related hand movements. Eventually both methods ought to achieve similar goals.

The second T is targets. Without these, we're simply dancing. Targeting brings specificity to our action. Tools teach "how"; targeting teaches where and why. For instance, the various applications of finger jabs, claws, chops and punches. This engages the imagination by creating external focus and takes us through the various stages of mechanical development of skill.

The third T is timing, which is knowing "when" to do what is needed. Initially it is a mechanical process as our conscious mind struggles to control all the details. When we learn techniques, it is an internal dialog about coordinating information. As we progress, it becomes relational to external circumstances. Just like learning to drive a car, what feels awkward at first eventually becomes unconscious and automatic. Without timing, we have a pile of pieces from which to assemble a puzzle. It is the difference between "dead" (self-involved, unresponsive) and "live" (fully responsive and aware) martial arts. No longer do we try to figure out which technique corresponds to whatever confronts us; our action is innate and appropriate. Bruce Lee described this using water as a metaphor; it has no shape but simply fills whatever vessel into which it is poured. Circumstances are our container through which our actions now flow accordingly.

In application, these three elements tend to come into play in reverse. For example, when someone throws a punch, we need to move inside or outside of the opponent's body structure to avoid the blow and set up counters. Our entry is timing. Once we have position, targets become accessible, to which we apply various tools (strikes, grapples, takedowns, etc). Our goal is to become un-self-consciously proficient in the mechanics involved, freeing our conscious awareness to monitor and evaluate what is appropriate and necessary.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fitness Quest

Well, today was mission accomplished. A wild idea that popped into my head about my 60th birthday was today brought to fruition. On October 12th I suddenly thought "my birthday is exactly in one month. What should I do to mark it?" and then the idea of doing 600 push-ups appeared. At first I tried to dismiss it as ridiculous. After all, I could be doing fun stuff, and this sounded like work. But the idea hung around persistently, waving at me from the edges of awareness, and soon I came to embrace the idea of this as a worthy challenge, a kind of quest. A friend from the aiki side of martial arts turned me on to a Japanese term, shugyo, for a similar type of disciplined spiritual endeavor.

I'd probably gone years without doing 600 push-ups, and with some shoulder injuries, I'd only begun doing them somewhat regularly about a year ago for rehabilitation. If I was going to make this happen, I'd have to train for it, and so I set a secondary goal of 3000 push-ups in the one month run-up to my birthday. That meant averaging 100 push-ups a day, which I broke up into numerous sets of 10 or 20, logging every set in my notebook. Exercise can be addictive, and I quickly realized that 3000 was too low a goal, so within the first few days I refocused on 4000 pushups for the month. Sundays were my big days, doing upwards of 300 push-ups during football game commercials, getting ahead on the count so I could rest on another day during the week.

I reached 4000 Monday evening, giving me Tuesday to rest up before the big day today. Ironically, I'd been pain free all month, but the last few days one of my shoulders was sore from working so hard. Now the underlying goal of this quest was to strengthen deep muscle and connective tissue. The push-ups were varied to hit muscles from different angles to support the shoulder joint, incorporating inclines, declines, close grip, wide grip and uneven grip push-ups as well as traditional flat ones. Some were done for explosiveness, others on slow count to feel the burn deeply. This was pure volume work, more like the 6x daily Bulgarian power lifter workouts than fatigue-and-rest body building. It was harder to start these last few workouts because of the soreness, but once I'd done a couple of sets to warm up, everything felt fine. I also supplemented the push-ups with yoga stretches, Indian clubs, kettlebells, squats, pull-ups and planks.

After the focus and consistency to get ready, today almost felt anti-climactic. Last night, waiting for midnight, I meditated and examined my mental state of readiness. In my mind, I felt I had already accomplished my goal. After the stroke of midnight I did 7 sets of 20 before going to bed, so that I wouldn't feel pressured for time when I awoke. By noon I'd finished half, 300, and then late in the afternoon I did the rest. Almost. I got to 580, only one more set of 20 to go, and couldn't just do it. I felt the distance I'd come, all the emotional and mental energy driving the physical work, and had to let the moment marinate awhile. Finally, as with every other set, I felt the time was right, and then it was done.

So how do I feel, now that it's done, besides sore, or tight from pumped muscles? My posture is better and I stand taller. I feel more fit and energized. There's currently a calm sense of euphoria, that I accepted and followed through on a crazy, spontaneous thought. There are lots of deadlines in life, but a challenge for its own sake is different. Unlike work or bills, there are no external consequences if we choose not to do something of our own volition. Everyone who competes in any sport, however, knows the feeling and sacrifice of preparing for an event, as do those who take on solitary pursuits for their own sake.

Having done this, I'm enjoying the feeling of accomplishment, and also the urge to build on it rather than see it as a single endeavor. I don't know what my next will be, but it won't focus on push-ups! Perhaps 100,000 punches on a heavy bag before the end of the year? Hmm .....