Tuesday, January 31, 2006

High blocks: Cross and Umbrella

In Serrada we do our high blocks differently than many other styles. Our weapon is generally 18-24 inches, shorter than the typical 28” escrima stick but similar to many bolos, machetes, krisses, etc. The length we choose should be proportionate to the reach from our armpit to our wrist, allowing the weapon to be concealed under an arm. This shorter length also brings the balance point closer to the hand so the weapon has a natural feeling of balance, not tip-heavy. This allows us to more easily control the angle of the weapon. With a long stick, for instance, rising blocks such as the umbrella or cross block are often done with the hand leading the motion and the tip of the weapon pointed downwards in a classic “wing” position. In Serrada, however, we keep the tip of the weapon up.

Sticks give us two things, extension and leverage. By raising the tip we project our weapon in front of the motion to get to our point of contact faster. For example, if we have to raise our hand all the way to the top of our head to protect it, that may mean moving it 2 feet or further. However, if our weapon is angled upwards, we might only have to move 18 inches. Reducing the distance we have to travel in effect makes us 25% faster!

The generic FMA logo of a triangle inside a circle is an actual physical map to help analyze structure of movement. In this case, visualize the upward angle of the triangle as the angle of the stick.

Another way to figure this out is to hold the stick so it touches your shoulder and your head. This is the critical line, because what is below the stick is protected by it, whereas anything above it is an open target.

A common mistake is to bring the hands up in front of the face then opening them up too early. I call this a “windshield wiper” because it sweeps the stick across the face, rather than framing the head. It won’t be effective against a powerful blow and even if it does deflect it could result in dragging the opponent’s weapon across your face.

In every technique I emphasize three aspects – weapon, check hand, body angle/positioning. One of our tricks is to let the opponent come in, thereby making him commit to his attack. We move our body so the intended target is not where he is aiming, but we bring our defense to that point to make our interception. The opponent feels contact where he expects it, but it isn’t what he had hoped to hit. Thus against a high strike we slightly lower our center. By moving out of the target zone we decrease the odds of getting hit, at the same time allowing us to move our hands an even shorter distance to cover up against the attack. This increases our apparent speed yet again, though in fact we are not moving any faster. It just seems that way because the distances and angles are tighter.

One tip, particularly on an umbrella, is to listen to the impact. If the sticks chatter, the tip was down, resulting in multiple taps. If the sound is clear and crisp, the tip was up, driving through the opponent’s strike. A cross block is quieter, since it’s a “trap door,” allowing the opponent to fall through his intended point of contact. Advanced players may not seem to raise their hands as much in the cross block, but that’s because, as Angel Cabales used to say, they know how to make shortcuts work. First, however, it’s important to learn the safest and most secure way to use these techniques; getting hit is a mistake!

For the umbrella, it is imperative to drive upward into the attack, clearing the head. Our footwork generates force through the papeet, a quick drop with the lead foot to ground us and create an upward shock wave at the moment of impact.

Notice in the following photos how I play "peek-a-boo" under my hands. Note the triangular structure of the arms and stick, and that I'm not leaving my head exposed to the incoming angle (slight variation between the two below on that basis). Also notice that my knees are bent, lowering my center for stability and moving the target zone. Though my weight is shifted forward, my hips are balanced.

Finally, check how my front foot is aligned on my opponent's centerline, utilizing the male triangle. The rear foot is aligned with the line of force of the incoming blow, a difference you can see between angle #1 and angle #2. The last two photos show how similarly I set up for both the cross and umbrella on angle #2, though I do tend to squeeze my thighs a bit tighter together on the latter to make the counter more explosive.

- Jeff

Against angle #1

Against angle #2

Another view of the cross block vs. angle #2

This was from an umbrella against angle #2

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ong Bak movie clip

If you haven't seen Tony Jaa in action, here is a clip of his break-out movie "Ong Bak" which features traditional Muay Thai (not the ring version). Warning - even with high-speed internet, this is a long download.

This scene shows him fighting two opponents (sequentially) after returning to the bar where he first briefly displayed his talents. It's too bad the third fight is cut off in the middle because things get REALLY crazy, but maybe that'll be incentive to rent the film. This is the English language dub, which has a different soundtrack. I think I liked it in Thai better because I got to make up my own dialog!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

FMA Digest - Serrada Special Edition

The January 2006 edition of the online publication FMA Digest is a special on Serrada, including an interview with GM Vincent Cabales and others, plus a couple of good articles by Guro Dennis Servaes. In the legacy of earlier specialty publications like "The Eskrima Review," the FMA Digest is a great community resource, providing great in-depth coverage to these arts. Each issue tends to focus on a particular style or aspect of the art. If you are not a subscriber, I suggest you go to the link above to see what this is about.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Stick Control / Modulating Power

One of the things I consider to be an important step in the progress of learning a weapon is development of control. By this I mean not only hitting an intended target or generating power, but also the subtle control that allows one to flow responsively and modulate power according to the requirements of the moment.

The great Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was also a renowned painter and calligrapher, his work hanging in national museums in Japan. He once said (paraphrasing) that the sword gave a bold stroke to his pen, but the pen gave him control of the tip of his sword. I read this nearly 30 years ago, and the comment has resonated with me to this day.

One place I insist on control is in class. My first rule, and a primary rule of my teacher Angel Cabales, was safety in training. If you hurt people unnecessarily, they won’t continue training with you. They lose time to injury, and you lose the benefit of a training partner.

Lack of control is not necessarily a hard hit. People often have no perception of the result of a stick’s impact anyway. Repetitive hits to the same target “hamburgerize” that point, each strike compounding the effect of previous ones. Even light taps can have this effect. Years ago I realized that if I were to teach on a daily basis, I had to take care to preserve myself. Small injuries don’t heal if you continue doing the same things without a break.

In Serrada, we have a standard follow-up pattern to our basic techniques, most commonly used on the inside (between the opponent’s hands) against a right-handed attack. Using a weapon in our own right, we strike under the wrist, then spin and hit to the top of the wrist. Even if this is done without much power, the effect of getting hit to the same spot over and over by students, day after day, gets old.

Back when I taught Kenpo, we would tell the class to spar “half speed, half power.” We could leave to go to the front of the dojo to take care of business and still monitor the class by ear. If we started to hear louder footfalls, we could yell back “HALF speed, HALF power!” It was a simple formula; the harder one goes, the stronger the step, the louder the sound.

The same thing applies with the stick. I learned to gauge the power of movement and of hits by various sounds. Let’s start with the hit. If I can hear the hit, my partner can feel it. If my stick makes a tap sound on his arm, it’s an impact. It might be light, but if in the course of a class the same spot on the bone gets hit a few hundred times, it can be annoying. Pretty soon you can get annoyed guys taking more serious whacks at each other.

There’s a demo I do to get my point across. I will do the under-over hit combination with power, which can be registered by the “whoosh” that the stick makes in motion. Sticks only make this sound when moving fast. I can do this and yet at the point of contact, my stick will only kiss the person’s arm with the lightest touch, barely making a sound. I then ask the person to hold out their stick and I do the same thing. There is a whoosh followed by a light tap. I then (usually) warn them to get a good grip then repeat this, only this time I don’t modulate my power; I let it go. Most often their stick will fly out of their hand, or they will hold on but feel the shock all the way up their arm. I’ll look at them and ask if that would hurt if it were their wrist. The point is made.

When I practice, I want to develop consistent movement. A light strike is not done differently from a powerful one except for my intention at the point of impact. Otherwise the mechanics are the same. This gives me the ability to dial my power up or down the scale as desired in a split second decision. It’s a simple trick which everyone can and should know how to do.

When a light touch is appropriate, I simply relax my grip a few inches before impact. I let my hand soften. I’m not so much putting on the brakes (mechanically holding back the movement) as I am letting the energy bleed off before impact. If I want to hit with power, on the other hand, I just tighten my grip (particularly the ring and little fingers) to focus through the point of impact. In either case, my stick will follow the same arc of motion and will “whoosh” with the same intensity of power. The only difference is how I execute choice.

Back to Musashi: During my first year of serious Escrima training I recalled his comment about the sword and brush, so I began doing a simple exercise. This was to walk around my house with a stick and simply touch things: doorknobs, dishes, light switches, windows (save that for last!) My idea was to develop control, building spatial awareness of my stick and sensitivity to the sense of touch coming through it.

Another exercise I did was florettas (little flowers), circling a doorknob as closely as possible with the tip of my stick, without touching it.

There is great benefit to learning this kind of control. Effective martial arts require many skills, and some of those found in stick fighting include quickness, responsiveness, sticking ability (including sticky stick), accuracy and power, to name a few. If one only has off and on, the range of control is very limited.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine if you have a powerful car that can do 175 miles per hour. You still have to park it in the garage or drive through traffic without hitting anything. Using your weapon is the same. You have to guide it with accuracy, adjusting speed, power and direction with as much experience as you can command, so don’t overlook subtlety in your repertoire of training skills.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Linear vs. intuitive teaching progressions

It must be a product of New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately from both students and prospective students about the teaching progression in the art of Serrada. What I have to say is just from my own experience and preferences based on 20 years teaching this art. What other instructors do may or may not be similar.

It’s a valid question for people to ask, wanting to see where they are heading, but it has more than one possible valid answer. Like any road it can forge straight ahead, or it can twist and turn through scenic detours. Indeed, one should expect changes along the way, and as in any journey, the destination (should it truly even exist) is but one point along the path.

My short answer is “of course there is a steady progression.” We have the 12 angles of attack and the defenses for each angle. As one progresses, however, the trunk of the tree begins to have branches. Within the 12 angles we have the basic angles, which I consider 1-5, that form the core of the system. From those angles we can subdivide even further: outside or inside, left or right, high or low, cut or thrust. Single stick, empty handed, espada y daga, knife, double sticks, disarms, takedowns etc., all stem from the same core probabilities.

Every nuance can be studied in depth, whole subsystems to understand and master within the greater whole. This is why even an apparently simple art like Escrima can be so rich and complex. The art is in making simple what seems complex, by revealing the consistent underlying structure.

I can list the basics I teach, in sequence for each angle. It’s essentially the order in which I learned them, and I keep that progression mostly so I know what I’ve covered with whom, and to recall what I myself have practiced lately (or not). It makes it easier also for my students to know the knowledge base (regardless of skill) of those with whom they’re practicing.

Students who attend a large commercial school may find themselves restricted to very specific formats, aimed at keeping classes of students on track for belt promotions. Everyone works only on what they need for that goal; orange belts don’t get to learn purple belt material. A lot of people have been in those schools, and if they come to something like the Filipino arts later, they might have certain expectations of how things are done.

Private teachers or schools may have more flexible lesson plans, allowing what arises in class to be the basis of instruction for that session. For instance, I may walk into class thinking I want to work on outside blocks, but once we’re into the material, I can’t say in advance if we’re going to go into disarms, passes, a combination of the two, or something completely different which might arise.

Sometimes mistakes are the most interesting avenues to explore. I often call Escrima “the art of making adjustments.” One must acknowledge everything that happens, adapting to the changing environment. If mistakes occur, it’s better to know how to recover and respond than to train oneself to always stop and try again. The real world doesn’t allow such luxury, whether fighting, driving a car or riding a bike.

There is a stage of wanting to learn everything, followed by a stage of learning to feel everything you've learned. You know it is there, but it has to be realized in the body, not just recognized in one’s head. Then after you feel with your body, you learn to feel with your feelings, knowing what is happening before there is physical confirmation.

By teaching intuitively to follow the energy of each encounter, I try to get students past the cognitive stage and into these body-centered states of being. By learning to pay attention to the body, we come closer to perfecting our movement by sharpening our self-awareness. Mind/body growth is symbiotic.

For those who really want to know, my basic progression emphasizes the first 5 angles. Make them strong and the advanced angles will be learned quickly. If you know “this” then you will understand how “that” is different. Without retention, growth isn’t progressive.

Angle one is the foundation of the whole system and rightfully so, as it is the angle of attack most commonly encountered. It should constantly be improving, not just stagnating as “old stuff” in order to learn newer material. Angle 2 already starts lock-and-block with my “matrix of 16” progression. Angles 3 and 4 teach low passing attacks and are the foundation for angle #5. Joint locks and disarms may come up anywhere, but are certainly a formal part of the curriculum by the end of angle #4.

Angles 6 and 7 are thrusts to similar target areas as angles 1 and 2, but thrusts require modifications of timing. Angle 8 is like a high 4, and 9 is like an upwardly diagonal 4 from a very low position. 10 is a jab/cross combination, essentially angles 7 and 6. 11 is an upward angle 3 from a very low position, forming an upward slashing figure-8 with angle 9. 12 is a simultaneous 6/7 thrust combination, or perhaps a front two-handed choke.

All of these higher angles are based on materials learned in the first four, so one can see why the basics are so important. They provide the general roadmap to get from one point to another. Eventually you start to see between the angles, or how angles are themselves deceptions. It’s possible to throw a strike from what looks to be the setup position for something completely different. As Angel often said, “When it comes to for-real, forget about the name of a technique or number of the angle; just react.” At that point it’s like a game of high-speed chess, thinking strategically while countering intuitively; things happen spontaneously and you can only watch in amazement at what has just happened by your hand.

PS: If you read this far and haven't yet signed the guestbook or left a comment here, please do so! I like to know who's reading this stuff. - JF

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Commitment to Training

When someone starts training in an art, they are often not sure of what it is they seek. The overt reasons, such as desire for physical safety or to get in shape, are often expressions of deeper underlying issues. Too often students quit when their superficial needs are met, allowing them to return to the previous patterns of their lives, or the challenge to go through real inner development proves too daunting.

Like all instructors in martial arts, I have experienced the coming and goings of students. I have experienced the pain of watching someone begin to grow into their potential, only to lose them at just the point where their training should really start to get interesting, to themselves, other students, and to myself as a growing martial artist. As teachers we pour ourselves into our students, often struggling to find ways to help them see what is transparent to us.

Martial arts training is a commitment to oneself, a process that is ever unfolding.
I just read the 2005 year-end greeting of Patrick Augé sensei of Yoseikan Budo Aikido, which addresses these issues better and more completely than what I can add. The following two paragraphs are an exerpt from the whole article, which I strongly urge everyone to read.

"when a student reaches the next level, he not only encourages those under him who see the possibility for them to improve, but he also contributes to the development of those above him who helped him get there. When a student abandons the school, he hurts everyone. He hurts those who helped him; they ask themselves, "What did I do wrong?"And he hurts those who are delayed in their progress because of a partner who is missing and won't share what he learned. The higher the rank and/or the more attention one has received, the greater the damage he causes by abandoning his practice."

"The same thing applies to absenteeism. When we miss classes or drop out, we often think only of our own conditions and convenience. But do we think that other students' practice might get affected due to our stalling the group upon our return to the dojo? When a student needs assistance, other students will help as part of their training if they know that that student is responsible and doesn't take that help for granted. That is why we ask students to notify their teachers of their absences and make up missed classes. Notifying one's teacher should never be regarded as a ritual or an obligation: it must be done with the mind of training oneself in acknowledging one's intentions; it's the first step toward assuming responsibility for oneself. However, dealing with all kinds of people is part of the study for teachers and students alike. It teaches us that motivation results from sustained concentration. Concentration is the ability to maintain one's attention on one object only, to the exclusion of anything that is irrelevant. Concentration is not inborn. It has to be cultivated."