Friday, December 31, 2004


Nowadays everybody is a specialist, and that is as true in martial arts as anywhere. In the FMA we now have knife specialists, sword specialists, stick specialists, etc. In the old days (like when I started in this art 25 years ago) the claim to fame was the versatility of technique, that concepts could be applied to any and every weapon effectively, from empty hands to staff, spear and even projectile. As GM Angel Cabales used to explain, "when it comes to 'for real' you don't have time to think about what you use." In other words, if attacked, you might have a kitchen knife or a tire jack or your jacket or your girlfriend's purse. In the end, it shouldn't really matter, because you will know what to do with it. You cannot be thinking "Oh, this is a knife so I have to do like this" or "It's a shorter stick than I'm used to having, what do I do with it?" The important things are balance, timing, coordination.

When we train with a stick or blade, what we are really learning is sinawalli, which just means "weaving." Kenpo grandmaster Ed Parker used to say the main benefit of learning an art was to keep you hands from running into each other. At high speed, that's as bad as getting hit by someone else. The better we get at weaving, the more we control our airspace, the personal zone around us. One has to have the proprioceptive sense of where the hands are in space, relative to each other and to an opponent. By training with weapons, we increase both the area we cover and the density of movement within that area, but the coordination comes from the hands.

When I practice solo at home, I often lay out a variety of "toys" to play with. I may start with a 21" stick, then go to double 30" sticks, then to a knife, do some empty hands, then a 6' bo staff, a bullwhip and finally a sword. I may flow through these one after another while continuously shadow sparring in a small room. It isn't a matter of thinking what to do; my basic patterns of movement are ingrained but I can improvise using imagination and visualization. I simply change weapons as the feeling calls for; there is no necessity to use them all. To a certain extent, the weapons teach us what we need to use them. Something long and heavy in the end, like a shovel, will feel very different from a balisong. The former may require using more body dynamics to offset the weight and balance, whereas the latter is close to empty hands, very fast and flashy.

There are three bridges to master in martial arts: legs, torso, arms. These are sometimes referred to as roots, trunk, stems and flowers. We ground our root through the feet, support ourselves upright with the spine, extend through the arms (stems) and manifest the "flowery" movement with the hands. Like a tree swaying in the wind, all parts must be connected and coordinated. The flowers need the support of the roots and trunk to flow smoothly, and the roots must feel the energy of the flowers, connecting them to earth. We coordinate the movement externally through the muscles, internally through the breath.

Three things I always emphasize; in Tai Chi Chuan these are the "3 external correspondences."

Hands and feet move and stop together.
Elbows and knees move and stop together.
Shoulders and hips move and stop together.

The other thing is to understand how to coil and uncoil, which allows us to store and release energy. All movement is based on extension and leverage; all a weapon does is extend the range and efficiency of these things.

Life Transitions

My stepfather died last week. It was his time to go, not unexpected. Still, it's hard to see such a rough ending to a good life. He wasn't perfect, but he was one of the most compassionate and humble men I've ever met. He had an aura around him that attracted people. He was never too busy to stop and listen, and give advice if asked. I heard of him in 6th grade, because he was one of the 7th grad teachers, the one everybody wanted to get. I was one of the lucky ones. If we'd never become family, I still would have remembered him. He had a way of bringing history to life, always engaging those around him. He became a community leader, not through big acts or ostentatious display, but by quiet example. He taught Sunday school, donated time and energy to helping the poor, headed non-profit organizations and raised his family. People came from as far away as Arizona and Washington for his funeral. There were several generations there, from his peers to students to grandchildren and their children. It feels strange that he's gone, because I'll always miss the warm welcome he gave when we saw each other. Irv Levine, RIP.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Conserving energy

There's an old saying, that "most times a good big man will beat a good smaller man." Today there was a great quote from Stan Van Gundy, coach of the Miami Heat basketball team. Referring to the strategy to run end-of-game plays through center Shaquille O'Neil, he said "As the game goes on, the quick guys get tired and a little slower, but the big guys don't shrink."

Of course, these things can always be reversed. Like Kato's quote from Ueshiba earlier on using hard against soft, soft against hard, etc., one could also use a strategy to wear out the big guys because it takes a lot of energy to keep them moving. Still, there is truth to the statements above.

Here's another thought, from my old Kenpo teacher. In a fight, hard stylists have an advantage at the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more the balance shifts to favor a softer stylist. Why is this? The hard fighter will be fast and furious with a lot of initial power, but will tire out. The softer fighter will maintain a more even pace and become relatively stronger as time goes on. Ground fighting is like this too; the longer it goes, tne more important it is to conserve energy.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Basics or Advanced; What's in a word?

A student wrote to me asking about a photo from a recent Dog Brothers' Gathering. It's the center photo, second row on page
Since we've spent some time lately on the centerline thrust, he was wondering about doing it from the inside position, as in this picture, compared to how we've practiced it from an outside position ("inside" refers to being in between your opponent's hands, in front of him; outside is off the shoulder so you've zoned away from the hand on the opposite side of his body. Outside is a bit safer for that reason, and inside is a bit trickier to learn to control).

There are several ways I can respond to a question like the one asked.

First, "you could do that." Angel used this phrase a lot, but depending on how nuanced it, he could mean "YOU could do that, (but I wouldn't!)" or it would be "you could do that" implying some doubt as to whether it was worth it. If he had a pretty flat inflection, it generally meant the idea passed muster and was worth thinking about as an alternative to whatever he usually had us practice. When Angel used this phrase, he was pretty much expressing an opinion but leaving it up to us whether to proceed further with it. Free will, if you want. Sometimes people would take it as approval, since he didn't say "no," but it was often short of a "yes."

Next, "we have that too". My friend Tom Meadows, a teammate of mine in Cebu at the 1st WEKAF World Championships (and Dan Inosanto's first World Champion student) laughs that this is the most common phrase in the Filipino martial arts. Anytime someone shows a technique, another practitioner will say "We have that too." Of course, there is so much generic similarity in the arts, it's probably true to some extent. In the end, however, it is the details that separate one style from another - little things like timing, ranging, angling. An average player will see the similarities; a good one will grasp the core connections and note the differentials, adding more flavor to his repertoire.

In Serrada, we learn the centerline thrust in a few different places. We have it in the cross block from our earliest set of techniques. There we have a right lead, opposite of the photo. However, in the basic flow pattern (what the IMB people call "the box pattern") that we learn when we begin sparring (it teaches directness) we pass a #4 strike and thrust using left foot lead, like the picture. One key difference is that our pass is low; in the photo the opponent's hand is high, a good position for him to counterstrike. Notice in the photo the opponent is pushing the head down, and can punyo (butt-end strike) to the back of the head or neck with his stick. A good option in Serrada would be to use the left check hand to do a high inward pass on the opponent's right arm, thus moving us to an outside position. Hey, this is where our basic variation would have been in the beginning!

This leads us to the next idea, that "when it comes to for real" (another Angel Cabales phrase), anything can happen. Serrada is the art of making adjustments, dealing with whatever happens (bahalana) using our ability to flow with it. I compare it to a freeway sometimes; we can get to wherever we need or want to go from wherever we are now. In a real situation, things won't be neat like in training, but by recognizing the key principles and practicing variety, we are able to think and react quickly and appropriately.

Finally, we come full circle. There are no advanced techniques in martial arts. There are only basics performed better, and in longer continuous sequences. A good martial artist can flow rapidly through a complicated sequence, but the individual moves are those basics he's been doing forever; block, punch, kick, etc. Sure, one can say there is what we know and what we don't know, and maybe toss in the idea that an advanced technique is in the latter category, but really, it's more a matter of understanding the details better and being more precise in using them. This is why I emphasize doing basics in classes. It isn't to bore students, though they may get restless. It's like Bruce Lee's commentary about eliminating the unessential (daily decrease). It takes time to polish a technique until it is smooth. Rough edges waste time and energy, affecting balance, speed, etc. We don't get faster with age, but we can be quicker by eliminating those elements that rob us of optimum performance.

So, yes, we can do anything we want in our martial art, as long as it is necessary, but it is from doing the basics that we know what works. We go through levels of understanding. We begin knowing nothing ("a punch is just a punch") and struggle to learn basics ("then a punch became more than just a punch"). This is a mechanical phase, where we are learning to implement what we are learning. Over time, we integrate this, until finally we can act without thought ("a punch once again is just a punch"). At this level, we are not thinking about how to do something, we are thinking about what we want to accomplish. I use the phrase "target oriented" to mean we think of hitting the target, rather than thinking about our own mechanics. It is important to get past being self-conscious!

To be target oriented, I tell people to "see target, hit target." It's like what I learned of Zen archery as a kid, that the archer, the bow and arrow, the target, all are one. Do not separate them; they are all part of the same experience. When I throw a punch, I don't think of how I do it, I simply connect the feeling in my body to the thought in my head. In my mind, the punch is already accomplished as soon as I perceive the opening to use it, and all I do is connect inner and outer experience.

Like I said, it takes time and experience to change one's feeling about these things. Years ago I met Jim Mather, who was famous for catching arrows, a stunt he performed several times on TV (David Letterman Show, That's Incredible). He had been a USA National Karate Team coach (recognized by the Olympic committee) and he stresses repetition. He said it takes roughly 100 reps to learn something, 1,000 reps to do it decently, 100,000 reps to do it at a black belt level, and 400,000+ reps to become world class. Now these numbers sound daunting, but if you were to do 1,000 repetitions of a move a day (not a lot when you break it down in smaller bites, say 10 sets of 100) you could have a world-class move in a year or so! Of course, that takes real commitment, but consider the old Chinese saying "Three years for a small success, ten years for a great success." Kung-fu means success through work over time; no overnight wonders here. This is why I'm encouraged when students say they are slow learners, or how hard they have to work at something. That usually tells me they'll get it. Those who blow in with a world of talent usually get bored because it's too easy and they leave too soon. Easy come, easy go. The ones who struggle to learn will value what they get, and those are the ones who become the next generation of masters.

Taiji chuan link

This is a link to the redesigned website by Marc Sabin, over in NY. Marc and I go way back, to the earliest days of serious training in the martial arts. He and I were in Kenpo together from white to black belt, and when I started Serrada he was the person I grabbed when I realized I needed a training partner. Thus it was logical to bring him to meet John K. Wong, who was our first Tai Chi teacher. While my passion kept my attention on the Filipino arts, Marc followed his into Tai Chi. He is not only an accomplished practitioner and gifted teacher, but also a writer able to express himself with great clarity. Thus I present his link .....

Taiji in depth: for those more discriminating readers

The first taiji page on his site

Marc Sabin's home page, which includes links to his ministry, other writings, etc.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Khalid Khan's famous "Inside Kung-Fu" photo of grandmaster Angel Cabales, late 1980's Posted by Hello

KISS – Keep It Simple Serrada

Well, I have to admit it’s fun keeping this journal going. Last night I decided to make a list of topics to write about, and in minutes I had a long list of ideas. Some overlap, providing different perspectives on things (like footwork, movement, grounding) while others are perhaps more distinct and maybe esoteric. There’s tons of “X and O” material I could get into, just pure technical analysis, so the question is picking and choosing what to write about next. Sometimes the broader context is important because it provides an analytic framework with which to understand the art.

What I write about is the Serrada system, because it’s what I know best, having taught it since 1986. I was trained not only in doing the art, but also in how to teach it. When I began studying with Angel Cabales, I was already teaching Kenpo in Oakland, Ca. Living in a different city than most of his other students, I needed to bring others into the art so I could have training partners to work with. I was also a bit older than most of his other students at the time, and as I was recovering from a motorcycle accident, dealing with certain physical disabilities (a dislocated shoulder). Thus the focus of my training incorporated the teaching component right from the start, and my students visited, trained with and were even certified by Angel, so I had lots of feedback on what I was doing and how to progress as an instructor.

Learning through my injury taught me patience, and it forced me to pay attention to minute details out of necessity. Angel knew how to use his entire body to work techniques, using core strength, compactness and efficiency. I couldn’t extend my right arm, which was a blessing in disguise. Watching Angel do Serrada, I saw movement I could emulate, and he worked with me to develop the resources I had available. As a result, my focus in this art has been on transmitting key principles, working more on unlocking the secrets of basic movement rather than creating an extensive library of techniques. As a teacher, I consider it my highest duty to give my students a good start. If they can understand WHY something is done a certain way, they will be analytical and self-correcting in HOW they do it. It’s a thoughtful approach, as opposed to just demonstrate-and-emulate. What I do isn’t unique, I just bring in those understandings early, so students don’t have to unlearn a lot of bad habits later.

Probably the biggest meta-message I give is “KISS,” which I explain as “Keep It Simple Serrada.” On a generic level, the majority of movement within Serrada can be found elsewhere, but on a specific level, Serrada has a wealth of detail and an incredible depth of development through attention to these. One has to believe in the efficacy of the approach and work at developing the attributes behind it to really do Serrada right. Some of these are awareness of centerline, using compact, efficient movement, having patience in timing. Serrada reminds me of old shoot-em-up movies, where defenders are told “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes!” People have a natural inclination to react early with big movements. Serrada teaches holding ones’ ground, letting an opponent come in. This borrows timing, ranging and power, but it takes discipline to make this work. I’m not talking the kind where you do lots of hard training to condition the body, but the mental kind. I’ve seen people who knew other Filipino arts come in and learn some Serrada techniques, or those who went on to learn other arts, but to me what they call Serrada often looks more like the other stuff than what I learned. Their stepping is wider, the centerline not as well defined or utilized, and this affects everything in the system, from check hands to choice of length of stick.

I have nothing against learning other arts; I’ve done plenty of that myself. On the other hand, I’ve heard from several sources (Angel, Cacoy Canete, etc) that each art has its own internal sense of timing its patterns, and what works internally does not always translate effectively into the movement of another system. Mixing and matching moves mindlessly creates what Angel called “spaghetti Escrima,” which is different than consciously changing tactics according to informed decision. I always say people should “know the difference between this and that” because otherwise they don’t know what is what and can’t use either as effectively.

The goal in my classes is to learn the basics, refine them, make them work. Be able to do the moves alone or flowing in “lock-and-block” (numerado) or sparring. Master the timing of the techniques and the angles from the ground up. Learn to make necessary adjustments and come back into basics seamlessly. This allows continuous movement in relationship to whatever needs to be countered. Once these principles have been learned, one can improvise, knowing how to recover from mistakes. People with solid Serrada basics can go into other arts or make their own moves, but when the pressure is on, they will instinctively revert to Serrada. Since this is very defense-dense movement, it’s a solid fall-back position one can rely upon and a good habit to have.

Sunday, December 12, 2004


GM Angel Cabales taught three basic variations for the outside block (there are more, such as grapples). There is the “punch block” to the arm, the center thrust (estocada in Spanish knife work – ref. “Sevillian Steel”, James Loriega, pg. 79), and the knee strike (which I call “the Kerrigan” for, ahem, historic reasons). I group these together in a training block to remind my students to practice them. I call this "the baseball variations" because the order we practice them is like a baseball inning, from top to bottom. No other reason, but then Filipino arts are very descriptive. Angle #1 is often called San Miguel because St. Michael is always depicted with an upraised sword. Many styles have "caballero" references, even though I know of no Filipino techniques actually designed for use on horseback (maybe against horsemen, though?) Anyway, "baseball variations" is just another shorthand to tell my guys "practice these."

Now, to get technical here. There are several ways this technique gets done. The wrist is a good target, but it isn't the one Angel emphasized. What I was taught (and what I make sure my students see watching him on video) is that his strike went to the inside of the arm, tip of his weapon angled up, always in an edged cutting position even with the stick. The target was usually the inside of the elbow or the inner nerves of the bicep, and as he pointed out, “in for real" you could be hitting to the face. (However, practice is always done with safety first.) Angel seemed to disfavor the wrist strike. I can think of a couple of reasons.

· First, it often crosses the hands.
· Hitting high inside the arm does not, and your hand is deep enough to avoid the opponent's weapon.
· He also didn't care much for the stick hitting under the wrist held at a horizontal 90ยบ angle. He didn't think it that strong a hit.

Like I said, there is some interpretation here, this is just how I learned it.

From the strike the hand comes up, looking like a shoulder (wing) block, but Angel was adamant about NOT rolling like a shoulder block, though it certainly looks like one. However, the weapon is not parrying here, it is simply being held out of the way and makes no contact with the opponent's arm. Granted, one could simply check and roll into a spin hit using speed, but Angel didn't teach that method. He detailed this hand-raising move as a way to protect the neck against a counter, especially against a blade. After the hit to the arm (or in any of the "baseball variations") where your weapon hand is coming up from underneath, he performed a "quick-check" (he used this term, so I’ve named this move accordingly) which I will try to explain.

In the "quick-check," the right hand comes up to the outside of the opponent’s right arm, holding the weapon loosely and letting it hang vertically (why it gets confused with a shoulder block). In a shoulder block, we want the weapon facing the opponent’s weapon or arm, and as with a blade, the edge is oriented towards him. Here, though, we hold the weapon out of the way, so it is very different.

The technique actually is to cup your right hand so you can check the opponent's arm with the knuckles, using exactly the same surface area as for a karate punch. This provides a powerfully leveraged position to keep the opponent from countering with a horizontal slash to the head or neck. When you lift the right hand for the quick-check, keep your left parry in position; don't take it off and then try to place the quick-check, because that creates a gap or opening for his counter. If you do it fast, you may miss. The idea is to maintain pressure and control, so you want to get securely in position first, always protecting yourself. Practice against a knife and you'll immediately see why (better to lose the "sacrifice hand" than your life!) Once your quick-check is in position, press the opponent's arm straight away from you (horizontally), which will take it off your left parry. Don’t use body rotation yet, but keep your feet grounded; you are still in a passing position, so you are pressing to your outside right. If your opponent resists, his body may actually rotate from the leverage; watch to see if his front foot turns. Your push creates distance between his weapon and your head so as you step back to complete what is basically now an outside block, you have time and space to re-check with the left.

Hope this makes sense. It's a very cool detail, one I haven't seen anywhere but in Serrada.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


There are many facets in martial arts to which one can pay attention: physical technique, including speed and accuracy, and attributes such as intensity, confidence, etc. I have a word of the day today, which captures a lot of the essence that I think distinguishes a successful practitioner from the novice, and that is "Certainty."

Certainty encompasses a number of aspects for success. One is clarity, which is being able to clearly envision what one intends to do. It also includes confidence, that one is capable of implementing that vision. Certainty is not bravado, because one is not selling oneself the idea of winning, nor is it the need to try to intimidate an opponent, though that may be a consequence. A big component of certainty is focus, but it goes deeper than intensity, and is not necessarily connected to visual attention. Certainty is not just of the intellect; one can be sure of that!

Certainty integrates past, present, future. It draws on past experience, training and knowledge to have confidence in one's accurate assessment; it is paying attention to the unfolding of events in the present moment; it is an expectation of successful results that does not waver with doubt. When one has certainty, one proceeds with confidence, knowing that the path chosen is one with which you are attuned. What happens, happens - as they say in the Philippines, "bahalana" - and you are ok with that. The key to certainty is knowing how to find one's center, and that puts it in the realm of spiritual development.

The spirit leads us, the mind interprets, the body acts. This is always the order of awareness. We know before we realize, we realize before we act or react. Thus certainty comes from letting the spirit lead our actions from a place of deep knowingness. If one is certain, then one's actions will have integrity, meaning an integration or unity throughout. One's mind will be calm, focused unhurried; one's body will be balanced and coordinated. Movement will be clean, simple, smooth and purposeful. These are attributes we develop through practice. They can lead us to know our certainty, but in truth that is the place from which they ultimately flow.

This is not to say certainty is blind to unforeseen results. Martial arts is the art of making adjustments, being able to adapt to circumstances as necessary. In fact, there can be a great sense of joy in being one with change; this is at the heart of skiing, surfing, etc. We call this being in the flow. Many philosophies conceptualize this, but in martial arts we actualize it in practice. Remember, "the difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference."

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Stickman's Escrima blog

I've been meaning for some time to post my ideas for training and practicing escrima so my students could gain more insight into my own process and evolution. While I could simply put another page on my website, I'm intrigued by the idea of getting feedback where it can be shared by others, so I'm starting this blog. If I don't like the results, I can always change formats later. Anyway ... sometimes I have ideas that I write down, often at odd hours - either things I would like to work on in class, or thoughts inspired during class. While I have definite protocols I follow in teaching basics, this is a living art, and that means experimentation and growth. There may be principles to which we adhere as guideposts to our training, but the actual practice is an interactive one, requiring thoughtfulness to extract the best we can achieve. Thus I may run you guys through the same ol' same old stuff, but it really never is the same. There are good days and bad days, but overall there is progress, an increase in skills, and each time we go through the material, I keep finding new ways to bring it out in people. Like I said, it's interactive, so you guys keep pushing me to find new ways to understand what we do, which helps me, and helps me to help you too.