Monday, February 28, 2005

More on footwork

Once again, I'm diving into the depths of basics. As my old Kenpo teacher used to say, there are no advanced techniques, just more advanced combinations of basics done better, so with that in mind, I keep going over the same fundamentals, mining them for that vein of gold yet untapped.

Serrada footwork is based on the male triangle, and our replacement step is called the papeet. It's simplicity itself - bring the rear foot up next to the front one, then back with the other foot. Usually. Sometimes we step up and then back again with the same foot. Why? Timing, deception, change of reaction to fit circumstances, etc. The focus of this post, though, is the nature of the male triangle, because as simple as it is, it seems hard for people to get. Some people are uncomfortable standing in against an attack, while others have habits from previous training that don't account for what we are trying to do.

Triangle stepping falls into two categories, male and female. If drawn on the floor, the point of the male triange points at the centerline of the opponent and the base is opposite and away. Conversely, the female triangle steps across the centerline, so the base is towards the opponent and the point faces away. As we have only these two variations, it shouldn't be too hard to differentiate, right? Not so fast!

It seems a lot of people have a really hard time doing the male triangle. They think they are being direct in their stepping but are automatically going wide. This is usually because of a perceived need to aviod a head-on clash. To be honest, even Angel sometimes took a slightly wide step, but that was not the philosophy of this system. As I've been saying a lot lately (in my best "arrrgh," a la Pirates of the Caribbean) "Them's more like guidelines than rules!" We want to control centerline, range, balance, and the male triangle establishes our position as the fulcrum. However, knowing rules means you understand when it is necessary to break them, and so Angel sometimes took that wider step. Occasionally it is "Do what I say, not what I do." If we don't pay attention to a detail - any detail - or try to master it, it just isn't going to happen of itself. Right?

So, why do we want to use the direct male triangle if it seems counter-intuitive? Foremost, leverage, both physically and psychologically. When we step in straight, we cut the line of our opponent's movement, forcing him wider either by taking his intended place or by getting deeper into him with our counter. For example, the check hand on an inside move has more deflection if we are direct. Step wider, we have less effect deflecting the strike or unbalancing his center. Sometimes I have students test to see who has the balance of the other. Either you have your opponent's or he has yours. Only one of you can own the center of the circle that is the dynamic of the fight between you. Stepping wider often concedes the center of this two-person dynamic.

The papeet allows us to control range without clashing. Serrada assumes our opponent has the intelligence to strike effectively, so we know where he is going to be. Our ideal range from which to counterstrike is right in front of his hand, because this keeps us defensively just out of range of a sudden and unexpected strike from the other hand. Against multiple attacks we "float" there. If our opponent just misses us, he's close enough to counter effectively. Wider steps may make him miss by more, but it also takes us out of range for that opportunity to hit quickly inside the timing of his movement. By staying "on point" and controlling the center, we are able to change the direction we face more quickly and with less effort. We change sides, making the opponent run around us in circles. All else being equal, he will get tired faster because he must move further. In military tactics, similarly, one has the advantage of direct lines of supply, support and communication inside the circle; to divide the enemy weakens his ability to concentrate his forces. We see this concept graphically mapped out in the widely seen escrima logo of a triangle inside a circle. In simple language, a straight line is the most direct way to get from point A to point B.

Are there dangers to being direct? Of course. There are no perfect or invulnerable techniques; martial arts is about maximizing our odds. We can get run over against a hard charge, or get our front leg swept. Knowing what can go wrong allows us to monitor against such possibilities. Conversely, going wide opens our centerline to the opponent. While that might not be an issue in largo mano range, in medio or corto the wider movement offers our centerline targets to an opponent, such as a kick to the groin. While one can be on guard against that, it takes only a split second of inattention for a quick or savvy opponent to exploit this vulnerability.

Our proper footwork is a heel-toe alignment; the front foot points towards the opponent, the heel of our rear foot is in a straight line with the front foot. This is the natural alignment for a lunge step, and using it closes the low line against the easy groin kick. Sometimes people keep the front foot on line but step wide with the rear foot. Again, in close range this opens that low target.

What are some circumstances that support the direct approach? Aside from the intrinsic value already mentioned, what if one is in a restrictive area? Think of fighting in a hallway or stairwell or on a narrow trail or defending a doorway. What about fighting on a balance beam or similar structure? If one habitually moves from side to side, this could be environmentally unsound. Angel put it this way - we all know how to move because we get around all the time. It is staying in one place that is difficult. If we can make smaller movements, we can always make a few of them to add up to a bigger one. If we always make a big movement, we can't always make it smaller. Think of it as units of measurement. If we map the California coastline in 100 mile units, it is pretty crudely drawn. If we use 10 mile increments, the detail is better. One mile units, even finer. Go down to 10 meters, even more so. The level of precision and detail increases by fine-tuning our scale, and so learning to hold our ground means we can either stay put or move just a tiny bit as our calculations deem necessary. This is perhaps the most cogent reason to discipline our stepping to that male triangle, because it is the smallest increment we can use in facing our opponent.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

A small milestone

Whooee! This blog reached 1000 hits! And only half of them were mine ... kidding ... Thanks to those who are reading here. I'll have more up soon. Off to teach a class now ....

Friday, February 25, 2005

FMA Digest

Today feels a bit like housecleaning, just putting up odds and ends like the last one on Sonny's balisong book. After all the long posts I've done recently, this should be easy reading. Today I got the advance copy of the new FMA Digest, published by Steven Dowd. This is a quarterly journal that comes in a downloadable .exe file that opens as a flip book with pages. It's a beautifully done format that I haven't seen previously. The new issue (which will be available to the general public in a couple of days) is devoted to profiling online FMA vendors like yours truly. There are some great products I hadn't seen before, from really nice small aluminum training knives to large kamagong swords. The FMA Digest website itself has a lot of great links to martial arts associations, online digests, vendors, etc. Anyone in these arts will undoubtedly find something of value there, so take a look and show some support for this cool site!

More on Sonny, briefly

For those interested in Sonny Umpad's work, he did a book many years ago called Balisong: The Lethal Art of Filipino Knife Fighting. This was co-written by Sid Campbell, a master of Shorin-ryu Karate and a prolific writer, and Gary Cagaanan, a long-time student of Sonny's. This is still in print, and you can see more about it on

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Follow-up on levers

I got an email in response to my post about Sonny’s centerline roll, asking, “Do you know if this fulcrum type of striking is implicit in CSE?” (Cabales Serrada Escrima). Good question, so I took a stab at it.

“To answer your question, there are little levers and big levers. We should know how to use each one as necessary. The cross block on angle 3 is no different than for other angles once you have countered the strike, so your roll could be against a 1, 2, 3, etc. You could use your wrist, as you said, or if you drop down a bit and turn your hand up (drop your elbow) maybe even use your forearm for the lever as you expand your check to move the person's arm away. Anthony Davis did the move more like this.

The basics are the basics. They are tools to competency on a fundamental level. Learn those rules innately, then you can go beyond them knowing how to navigate your way back when things get confusing. As an example, a senior Serrada practitioner recently described to me a technique that Angel showed him once. It didn't even sound like Serrada, except he could describe it in Serrada terms and I could follow the concept. It wasn't anything I'd ever heard before, not in our basics anywhere, but knowing angles 1 and 3, I got it."

My correspondent wrote back that I said, “Anthony Davis did the move more like this,” asking “Is this detail taught in the basics as you teach it?”

My reply:
“No. I appreciate what Anthony showed me, but it is different in details than what Angel did and I prefer to focus the basics on the latter. That doesn't invalidate other ideas.

In the cross block I do what I call tilt-and-turn. The basic hit from the block position is a tilt a of the body forward towards the lead shoulder, using the waist and legs to dip the shoulder but still oriented with centerline towards the opponent's weapon hand. The whole body is the lever. This helps bring your weapon hand back in even as you are striking outward like the (Snap! blog) From the strike to the arm, one then turns the body to face forward. That brings the left shoulder clockwise, thus projecting that hand outward and opening up the opponent's centerline by pushing their arm away. What Anthony does from the block is push out with his hand to open the opponent first, which then also uses the left arm as the fulcrum for a levered strike. See the difference? Both work, but it changes. Ultimately it's good to understand them both. Anthony's is maybe a bit quicker, Angel's more powerful."

Monday, February 21, 2005

Sonny Umpad's Centerline Roll

It's surprising to me how long stuff lives on the internet, and how it gets in places I would never have a clue to look. One of my students just sent me a link to a martial arts forum with which I'm unfamiliar, where someone put up several posts I did nine years ago (NINE YEARS?!) concerning Sonny Umpad's centerline roll technique. I'm not going to explain it here when you can go to this site to read what I already wrote (including some questions I answered after the original post). Suffice it to say Sonny is a very high quality FMA teacher and his training for double stick is one of the most 'live' versions of that part of the art I have seen. His method is simple to grasp but complex in its offerings, just the way I like it.

There is no such thing as a "simple" system. There are those that are quickly accessible to beginners, and those that have lots of complexity and variation.
Simple systems force you to look deeply. Complex ones have the same potential, but often students get caught up in the "more" syndrome and never take or find the time to re-examine what they've already got. In the end, a simple system will blossom and you will understand many ways to use it, and the information will be deeply implanted.

Saturday, February 19, 2005


Martial arts are often associated with yelling and screaming, from the kiai of karate to grunts to Bruce Lee's catlike yowls. In the FMA, however, we don't use the kiai much. I've heard masters flat out joke that "We're not karate!" What, if any, is the function and purpose of the kiai?

On a basic level, it is a timing device. It focuses our mind to what we are doing, unifying our movement to our intention. While there are various sounds preferred in different schools, a general idea is a tight or compressed sound that opens and releases energy at the moment of impact. While one might be told that it is just a word, and use another particular sound, kiai is actually onomatopoetic, meaning a word that actually suggests the sound to which it refers (like murmur or buzz). Thus one could say keeeee (smack!) ahhhhhh in delivering a hit.

Using the breath with a hit also releases energy. The unity of mind/body maximizes the impact to the target, but it also can create internal stress in the body, which over time can have negative effect on health. By releasing the breath, we provide a safety valve for the energy of that "equal and opposite reaction" to blow off harmlessly, as opposed to shocking our own internal organs.

Think what happens if you exhale too soon. You have no energy. Hold your breath too long, you restrain yourself.

The sound itself conveys power. There are stories of old masters who could drop birds from the air by stunning them with a powerful yell. I myself once stopped the charge of a huge bull mastiff with a spontaneous yell from the pit of my stomach. It came from nowhere, a combination of terror, inspiration and adrenaline. The power of that moment stays with me, and it's why I'm here to write this now.

Here is a link to an article I found on Stephen LaBounty's website which is more in-depth on developing and using this. There are other interesting looking links on there, such as "The Knife in Combat."

Mining Feedback

If you look at the bottom of each posting, there are some tiny links.

The time links you to a permanent record of that particular post on its own page, which might be useful if you want to save a particular blog for future reference without having to dig through the archives.

The comments link is there for people to respond to what was written, making this a more interactive forum. It hasn't gotten much use, but the comments that have shown up are very encouraging. I was actually inspired to post this entry after reading a comment on Serrada footwork from Alex Castro, an old student who has done some very interesting things in his martial arts career. I'll never forget performing for a packed house (about 2000 people) at the "Night of the Masters" in San Francisco back around 1992. Alex not only was uke for me, but also took some big falls for his Shuai Jiao grandmaster a few times during the evening. That was awesome!

Another example that lets me know I'm not just spinning my wheels was feedback from Mushtaq Ali regarding my thoughts on conscious training (or was that on training consciousness?)

Anyway, thanks to those who have contributed, and encouragement for anyone who wants to add in. I'm glad people read these entries, but it's even better knowing it's thought provoking.

On a final note, from time to time I send out an email letting people know there are new entries here (usually when I've been quiet awhile). If anyone wants to stay updated through my list (it's private) let me know, and by all means, let others know of this site.

Friday, February 18, 2005

My training knife is back!

About 15 years ago I designed a training knife for Serrada lock-and-block training, which lots of other folks know as numerado. One person feeds strikes using espada y daga and the defender flows through continuous defenses. Lots of people just put a short stick in their left hand and use that to represent a knife. That's ok, but using something with the real shape and weight adds realism and facilitates learning both how to use the weapon and how to face it. Perhaps I'll say more about that training another time, but right now this is about my knife.

I put a lot of thought into what I wanted. First, it is 12" long. I didn't want something as big as a barong, more like what might be carried as a military or hunting knife. Next, I wanted the versatility of a double edged weapon. This is to increase awareness. If you can handle going against a a double edged knife, a single edge won't be any more dangerous, but the reverse is not true. You could have a good stripping disarm against the blunt spine of a single edged knife, but with a double, this could be folly. Also, a lot of S.E. Asian weapons and military daggers are double edged, so this gives a nod to those traditions. Last, I wanted a strong functional cross guard. This is to train the attributes of that. The guard protects the hand and can also be used to aid in countering defensive strikes against the knife. The handle is shaped loosely after the German daggers of WWII, using one I had available as a template. The blade is different in that I copied the broader, more modern leaf-shape tip from a Collins boot knife

Finally, I had to choose a suitable material. Wood is inconsistent in quality, and with issues of deforestation and destruction of tropical habitats, I wasn't comfortable with it. Aluminum has that shiny metal look, but is too damaging for sticks. I finally chose to use solid billets of half-inch thick delrin, a very strong plastic that has similar weight to that of a real knife with similar length and profile. It is easily machined and is no harder on sticks than a hardwood knife. My first knives were made by hand. One of the original trio was bought by Mike Krivka and given as a gift to Dan Inosanto. I then got a program written so these could be machined on a CNC machine, which costs many tens of thousands of dollars, but allowed me to control quality and produce quantity.

I was excited about these because they have great balance and feel in the hand and did everything I wanted for training. I did try some other knives from a source I won't name; my students broke three in about a minute, so I wrote the guy back. He asked what we were doing and I told him, then suggested he try something other than cheap injection molding, to which he replied he could break my knives. For the record, I don't know of any that have ever broken and they've endured full-power abuse in training.

I originally had 20 made. These took about 3 years to sell. I then had a second run of 20, and these took maybe 7 years to sell. That averages four knives a year, mostly bought by students and local friends ... and they weren't cheap to do up front, with costs for programming, prototype, material, machining .... certainly it is much easier and cheaper to get real blades from China or Pakistan. People would say $50 was too much, then turn around and spend $100 or more on trainers that couldn't be used like mine, either because the wood was too nice to destroy with sticks, or the aluminum chewed their sticks to pieces.

When I finally sold the last one 5 years ago, I went back to the shop that had made them, but they were making parts for Silicon Valley at huge mark-ups and were too busy for my little project. About the time the dot com business went bust, they started making golf clubs and that took off too, so they gave me a copy of the program and sent me out the door.

Problem is, machine code is supposed to be universal but isn't, and my code didn't make sense on other machines. I ended up doing some smaller knives in aluminum from a completely different design, and then tried adapting this numerado knife to aluminum, but it wasn't the same. They didn't have the balance or angle cuts and were harder on sticks.

A year ago I found a small shop struggling to get work and took my project there. They seemed anxious to do it, but for one reason or another I kept getting put back on their schedule. Finally, after a full 12 months, they called and said they'd run a prototype. It needed tweaking, and is slightly different than my original ones, but close enough to put that big smile on my face!

So, now, for the first time in years, I have these great training knives again! I'm expecting the same snail's rush to get them, but that's ok, because those who have bought these have been happy campers. They are still sharp, so I have to buff down the blades to make them safer for practice, but other than that, they're done. Hallelujah!

I have a picture of the original production on this weblog here, and I'll try to post pictures of the newest ones on my escrima products site soon ....

Snap! (part 2)

Snap! (part 2)
I'm starting this blog with a quote that my friend Tom Meadows wrote in the guest book after the previous posting: "Jeff, I always thought your abanico's looked quite strange, and now I know why. Since I consider most people's abanicos utterly useless due to their using solely wrist movement, yours being quiet strange is a good thing, and now I know how you generate power with it. Similar to how I do it, but I think we may use our hip/shoulder linkage differently during the process. I copied mine from GM Cacoy. We'll have to compare when we get together next. Your Blog made me realize that what Cacoy does with the baton is use it just as if it were another jointed bone of the body, thus it never fights the natural linkage, always complements it, and it is so hard to fight because you are not used to dealing with someone with two forearms below his elbow."

I had to think about this, because for one, it's hard to see myself as others do, and not being a camera hound, I don't have a lot of self-referential film to study. Tom mostly saw my fighting in the Philippines in 1989, and back then I don't think I had nearly the insight into the mechanics of Serrada that I do now. I understood the techniques on the macro level, but now we're putting them under a microscope for higher magnification.

*Side note - this is, once again, why repetitive practice is necessary to achieve results. I learned from racecar builders that 95% of the effort is in the last 5% of the results. That's another way of saying the learning curve is steep at the beginning, but it's a lot harder finally refining a finished product.

Back to Tom's comment, there are different ways to throw abanicos; sometimes a fan is more than just a fan ... and for clarity, the movement to which I’ll be referring through this piece is horizontal abanico combination striking, such as to the head. If one uses a stick as a stick, simple wrist rotation works because you have a 360-degree surface with which to hit. On the other hand, if you use the stick as a metaphor for blade training (or use an actual blade) then you have to account for different surfaces and what your intention is in choosing with which one to strike (hint - it isn't always the cutting edge).

This is actually an important distinction between styles in FMA, and as it reflects the personal bias of a practitioner, can shape the evolution of a particular system. For instance, you could always see the blade orientation in Angel's strikes, from the tip of his toes to the end of his stick. Some (if not many) of his students, having trained almost exclusively with the stick, modified their movement either consciously or (more likely) unconsciously so it is tuned more precisely for that weapon but loses some of the inherent versatility of an edged perspective. Back when I was learning a little about Japanese edged weapons I was taught that the design of blades maximized the inherent flow of power through the hand. I've basically accepted this premise, but for argument's sake I'll say that power and speed are not synonymous or necessarily desirable, and so the "flat" wrist-turning abanico with a stick suits a certain purpose.

The most common abanico headshots are, of course, a simple wrist rotation, seen in FMA training around the world. It’s fast and flashy – POP! POP! POP! and you are done. How then did Angel, using more powerful edged-position strikes, move so quickly he could make his stick blur and disappear? Ah, Grasshopper, that is the question, and one I am unraveling to this day. I can reveal what I can see; what I can actually do is another matter.

Since this thread is about snapping strikes, we have an obvious clue, and a secret known to many advanced martial artists. In order to snap a strike, you have to get out faster than you go in! As James Mitose wrote in What Is Self Defense? : “If your punching speed is about 10, be sure your returning speed is 13.” His reasoning was to avoid a jiu-jitsu grab, but it makes as much sense in avoiding an escrima counterstrike. This speed factor also focuses the strike like a hypodermic injection of energy at the point of contact. It also keeps the arm loose and fluid so your energy projects out to the tip of the weapon like a whip (centrifugal force).

It’s common in many martial art schools to see students pose their punches, a habit learned by lining students up and having them lock out punches on command. This may be good for seeing the focus of the strike, but it also creates a habit to stop, which in a fighting situation is a really, really bad idea. Returning a punch keeps the flow going and resets for the next move. With a stick, it moves our target (the hand) away from a counter while maximizing power, and yes, keeps us from stopping to admire our work.

An important key in the snap is whole body movement. Everything moves as one in an integrated fashion. Even if we isolate a movement, we have to consider the dynamic tensions that hold the rest of the body in place to support the part that moves. Consider Newton’s third law, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If we throw our abanicos with just the wrist, we are reversing the momentum of the stick with the small leverage of our wrist, and all the shock and impact are felt in that relatively small area. If we utilize the whole body, we gain power through multiple levers, from the feet, legs, torso and arms. Some of Angel’s strikes looked delicately balanced, his whole body counterbalancing the point of impact. This spreads the stress of achieving our angle of impact over a wider area, allowing for more finite adjustments, and similarly absorbs the rebound. By angulating the body to position the arm, it relieves stress closest to the point of impact, minimizing potential for injury and allowing more fluidity in recovering the rebound of the strike. As I wrote previously, that rebound is with the tendons, minimizing the workload of the muscles.

Not every blow in a rapid sequence will achieve maximum potential, but then a lot of Asian martial arts are based on setting up the opponent for a final blow. If one throws two abanicos to the head, if the first is an inward rotation, in front of one’s body or overhead, pronating the hand (palm down) and then follows with an outward strike (supinated or palm up), the first might accentuate speed and the second power. This wouldn’t mean a weak first strike or a slow second one, but that the first strike would be setting up the second, and the latter would carry more focused intent. Make that a three-strike pattern and again the last would (or should) be the most emphatic. All might create speed through the snap, using the bicep for the return of the forearm rather than just wrist twists, but if you are doing combination strikes, they should be explosively pre-planned. Once you complete the sequence, it’s time to move on. Either get to a ready position for whatever comes next, or flow into another defense or counter.

As Tom wrote, having a stick gives us an extra joint. I tell students we have two elbows in our arm. Use this flexibility as an extension, starting from the ground up and coming from the waist. Tai Chi books talk about this kind of energy a lot. I never understood it from the books, but through practice it is becoming clearer all the time.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Snap It!

This is a continuation of what I was thinking when I wrote "Consciousness, movement, learning" yesterday morning, but here I am leaving behind more abstract learning theories and going straight to the heart of a physical attribute.

There are different types of strength, having varying degrees of applicability in martial arts. In weight training, these can be broken down generically as endurance, strength and power. Endurance and power are the bookends, the former about being able to repeat a movement for a very long time (like distance running) and the latter referring to the sheer brute ability to move something. Genuine power is very explosive, because the greater the momentum from the initial impulse, the further the load will travel. Strength is sort of in the middle, but more towards the power end, maybe 80% of maximum potential. It has much of the explosiveness of power but requires greater stamina, and will be more tolerant on the joints and flexibility. For the martial artist, it is probably the most applicable way to utilize weight training.

Martial arts has a somewhat unique range of demands, so unlike the marathoner or power lifter, we have to have some capacity in each area. Perhaps the professional sport closest in requirements is American football, and it is no coincidence that many players also do some martial arts for conditioning and reflexes. If football is a metaphor for war, what better than training in warrior skills?

One difference in training for martial arts versus pure weight training is the idea of tendon strength versus muscle strength. Real power lifters understand this and the smart ones are careful to monitor their limits. In the old days training took years of hard work, allowing tendons and ligaments time to build up. The use of steroids in modern training cuts down recovery time between workouts, allowing greater muscle growth in a shorter period. Muscles have adequate blood supply to allow rapid change. Connective tissue has less blood supplying nutrients and is tougher and slower to adapt. A consequence of rapid growth is that muscles can get so strong they overpower the tendons and ligaments, making ruptures more common.

Old texts on martial arts talk of tendon strength as the key to power in technique. Muscles initiate movement, but also can inhibit it. One has to balance agonistic with antagonistic muscles so that the latter don't inhibit the actions of the former, and the key to this is relaxation. Again, old writers talk about feeling as though your bones are longer than the muscles, so that one is not pushing or emphasizing muscle action alone. Bruce Lee described a punch as a rock on the end of a rope; speed is a force multiplier, converting mass into power. However, to be able to effectively move quickly without using a lot of braking strength from the antagonistic muscles, more stress is placed on those connective tissues, requiring conditioning of those.

This is why long-term training in martial arts is important to achieve certain results. One can learn certain skills quickly, but can the body perform consistently without self-destructing? More modern arts proclaim superiority in that they teach skills more quickly. In the old days, that was done only in times of dire emergency, when fighters were needed sooner rather than later. In more normal times, however, the slow approach allowed a fighter's body to adapt to the rigors of the art, and also allowed the person to mature mentally and emotionally to control the power they were developing.

[Note* - HATE THIS! I wrote a couple of long paragraphs explaining technique, thought I'd be smart and hit "save draft" ... and my modem had been disconnected from the server, losing about 20 minutes of work. I'll have to switch to writing in Word and pasting into here. That's twice in 24 hours I've lost work here ... grrrrr!] [Make that three times! I just rewrote a paragraph, hit draft, and it didn't save ...]

ANYWAY (again!) .... All this is applicable to Escrima. In the words of Small Circle Jujitsu creator Wally Jay, Escrima is perhaps the fastest art to be dangerous because our weapon can be used from Day One of training. I myself have taken pride in how quickly students can be brought to a decent level of skill. Still, to learn technique is one thing; to be able to execute with speed, power and accuracy is something else, and to do it consistently over time takes real skill. The centrifugal force of the stick is a force multiplier that works against the leverage of our joints. Incorrect movement can, either over time or in an instant, create pain in our wrist, elbow or shoulder. Similarly, incorrect stepping or distribution of weight can affect the joints of our legs or our lower back. Often we are unaware of our bad habits until we experience feedback through pain. This is why I try to utilize other body parts to support movement, either by using bigger gears, such as turning my hips instead of just arm punching, or using my free hand to help power a strike and relaxing my weapon hand into more of a simple directing role.

Beginning students usually use muscle to do everything, pushing their sticks, extending their hands. I was fortunate to be able to study video of Angel for many years, and I could always see that he seemed faster than most, if not all, of his students. Often at the end of a strike his stick would simply disappear in a blur, but through further observation I realized that his hand motions did not seem to mirror this movement. I've long said that a stick does two things: it gives leverage and extension. Clearly this is what Angel was utilizing.

A common example of this in the FMA is the witik, a snapping strike similar to how cats often hit with a front paw. To create the snap, the hand is actually retracting while the tip of the weapon is still traveling forward, creating a whip-like strike. Angel used this kind of technique in a variety of strikes, for example, his famous "triple strike" which combined a straight hit to the head combined with a double abanico. While many people throw their abanicos by turning their wrists, Angel used a forward motion with his hand, almost like a strike towards the face, and then retracted his hand allowing the weapon to accelerate into the whipping strike. This accomplished two things at once - it made his blow faster and more powerful, and it got his hand out of range of counterstrikes faster.

This technique relies almost completely on elasticity in the tendons of the wrist to accomplish, and is not something most people can do right away, either conceptually or having the strength. One has to trust the ability of the weapon to snap without rotating the wrist more than a minimal amount for targeting, because the leverage of that stick can quickly amplify that rotation into severe discomfort. It is deceptive, but that is an important part of the art.

Again, there is a lot of technique hidden within the techniques of the art, ways to maximize speed and power while minimizing effort, and saving our strength and our bodies by displacing stress from smaller, weaker areas into larger more durable ones.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Thai Films

Thai filmmaking is reaching a level of recognition and distribution that hasn't been seen since Bruce Lee did "The Big Boss" (aka Chinese Connection) there for his first feature film. Their martial arts movies have a level of gritty excitement reminiscent of Hong Kong movies from 25 years ago. Two recent offerings stand out; catch them if you can!

The first is "Ong Bak", which means Buddha Head. This was a love-it-or-hate-it smash success at the Cannes festival a couple of years ago. It may not be polished to Hollywood standards, but it has an honest sincerity that carries it through, and some pretty darn cool fights and stunts starting from the opening scene. You couldn't do this movie in the U.S.! It just came out in theaters here. I haven't seen it yet on the big screen or in English, as I was given a VCD from Thailand last year. I've been making up my own dialog, but the movie is pretty self-explanatory. Aside from the action, it has a strong spiritual theme of good overcoming evil through purity and piety. I haven't been this excited over a martial arts film in years.

Next is "Bang Rajan," an historical epic. I haven't seen this, only trailers a year ago, and I just heard from some students that it briefly passed through some local theaters a couple of months ago. Heads should roll! I even wrote to the distributor for info awhile back and got no response ... Presented by Oliver Stone, it's a bit of a jingoistic plug for Thai nationalism that also got critical acclaim in film festivals. From what I saw in the trailers, it's probably the closest thing to authentic native jungle warfare ever shown on film, pretty graphic stuff. Thai or not, this has to be THE movie for escrimadors interested in historic roots. Now I'll probably have to wait a couple of years for them to release a DVD, unless my Thai connection can come up with some domestic offerings over there ....

Guestbook fun!

I want to thank all who are signing the guestbook for their contributions. It's a kick to read the comments and inspiring to see the caliber of people logging in; some real heavyweights there. I miss all you guys, and hope someday my students get to experience what you have to offer.

On a lighter note, I had to laugh seeing two of the more recent entries, from the fearsome "Dr. Death" to "Immortal Mikey." I almost felt like I'd entered the realm of Mortal Kombat. Sorry Mikey, you may be a painless wonder to us mere mortals, but I think "DD" has the moves to get even your slumbering nerve endings to wake up and dance! The guy's a gentle giant with a PhD in Pain. No one had my back better at Mardi Gras than him!

Consciousness, movement, learning (take two! )

Well, a quick attempt to reconstruct the basics of what I lost, before it's gone ....

I have one small class each week that give me more inspiration for writing than any of my others. I found this interesting. It isn't that they are more advanced, because they are not, or that they ask more questions, which they don't either. What questions I get tend to be pretty focused on the movement, more like "how" than "what if" stuff. What they do, however, is go over techniques as much as I ask of them. Why is this important? Because it provides a feedback loop between teacher and student that enhances progressive development.

Too much time talking in class can diffuse energy from work that actually needs to be done. I appreciate questions, but it is important for students to put time into grasping the details. Some people don't think repetition is important. They can ask a question, or I can tell them to work on something, and a moment later they've gone on to something else. The feedback loop doesn't happen, because they haven't demonstrated anything new and I cannot see if they got it.

Repetition builds motor memory, burning more efficient neuromuscular pathways so thought is translated more effortlessly into movement. Ganglia switches are pre-primed to fire established patterns. This is why perfect practice makes perfect, whereas vague or unfocused practice does not yield the same results, and why bad habits are best corrected early, so as to have less to overcome, and more time to learn things right.

Here is where conscious awareness is important. There are three phases of a responsive movement. Perception, thought, action. The first is pretty much automatic, genetically set. The last is also somewhat restricted by natural ability, but can be fine-tuned by polishing away the rough spots. Wasn't this the premise of Bruce Lee and of Michelangelo, to eliminate the unnecessary to reveal the essential? Only through repetition can we accomplish this level of refinement.

The middle area, thought, is where we can do the most tweaking. It helps to be able to conceive of different levels of consciousness. The first is the subconscious, where we program our physical selves and recall memory. The second level is conscious, where we analyze our data. The third level is superconscious, also part of our unconscious mind, but different from our subconscious. This is where we can touch levels of awareness and ability that are not normally within our purview, whether through our mind or with our bodies.

Each of these parts operates in a different time continuum. Perception, whether through sight, touch or sound, is in the present moment. Thought tends to be in the past, focused on analysis of already old data. Mushtaq Ali talks of slicing time, where this becomes a heuristic process of interpretation based on past experience. Meanwhile, superconscious awareness tends to future pace by reading energy on a multiplicity of levels and strategizing before consciousness even becomes aware of what is unfolding.

The act of mindfulness brings together these three parts by focusing on the present moment. This allows one to act through the unconscious parts of oneself, coupling awareness with programming while bypassing the slower control of the conscious mind. Free of the struggle to maintain control, the conscious mind can analyze results and provide feedback to the faster real-time operational processes. For most of us it takes practice to learn to trust and let go so we can operate on automatic like this.

The majority of people get sucked into projecting what they want to happen, concentrating on their thoughts, which can be looking at the future or stuck in the past rather than being present in the moment. Martial arts is about doing, and being able to flow in the present moment without getting caught out of time. If you think about what you will do, you are not paying attention. If you are thinking about what you did, even worse, because you can repeat that loop endlessly while your opponent notices you aren't paying attention. There is a time for asking questions, but it is not in the middle of doing. One must always be doing the most appropriate thing RIGHT NOW, not "then" or anywhen else. (Hey, I just coined a new word for myself! :))

Furthermore, most people already know the answers to their questions somewhere inside but are looking to have it explained to them or validated externally. This will never be as deep a knowingness as finding it in themselves, and so doing a movement until it is self-acknowledged is the way to gain mastery over it. If one is mindfull, this is not boring. Each movement varies from its predecessors. Each moment is an exact opportunity to make it better, take it to another level. Each time one practices a move, neurons fire and reproduce a pattern that strengthens the most efficient pathways. By being mindful, one develops better proprioceptive or kinesthetic awareness about weight, balance, shifting, timing, power.

As a teacher, I can bring these things to a student's attention. I cannot, however, make them recognize the truth of any of it unless they actually look for themselves. The Serrada certificate has at the top an open lock with a key. Angel said he gave us the keys, it was up to us to unlock the knowledge. If I make a correction to a move and someone does it once or twice, or immediately goes on to something else without a thought for it at all, or just starts asking for more stuff without acknowledging what I've just given them to learn, then communication has been lost. Until a student tries the key offered to see what door opens, there is no organic progression of knowledge leading to the next inherent step. This is not one-size-fits-all teaching, either. It is interactive coaching.

An analogy for learning is like flying an aircraft. One makes a correction, then corrects the correction. Through a continuous process of adjusting previous maneuvers, one arrives at a destination. When students practice what I give them, it is like a template against which I can monitor the change and rate at which it occurs, then make further adjustments to dial in a particular attribute of performance.


I just learned a valuable lesson. I spent an hour writing a long post on here about consciousness and movement and was giving it a final re-read. I was really proud of it, a great piece of writing, I hoped. Then there was a split second power glitch and my computer reset, and I hadn't saved it as a draft. I'd hope this was on the server, still here when I got logged back on. Nope. One of my best pieces of work gone ...............

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Free search tool

This is a bit off-topic but interesting to me nonetheless. I get a few online geek digests to know what is current for my computer, and yesterday one mentioned a spyware-free piece of freeware from . It's called 1-Click, and with over 1 million topics it's apparently good enough for Google to use as its main reference, replacing The website describes it at a combination encyclopedia/search engine on steroids. While you can use the webpage for searches, the cool thing about the freeware plugin (available for both PC and Mac) is that you can hit ALT and click on any world. I tested it for both escrima and silat and got some pretty cool descriptions courtesy of I've tried other word-click definition searches before and quickly uninstalled them. This one looks like it might be around a bit longer ....

And now this just in ....

Well, it's a small world indeed! Today I got an email from Steve Van Harn, an FMA'er I met in 1996 at the WEKAF world championships in L.A. We knew of each other already from the wonderful world of online digests. I seem to recall refereeing a match or two of his, and later giving him some training tips. I won't take credit for his subsequent progress, but Steve seems to have done alright for himself, becoming a champion in full contact escrima. Way to go, Stevie! Anyway, he got my notice of yesterday's first blog and was going to email me about Mushtaq Ali al Ansari's "Traceless Warrior" blog, when lo and behold, there was my name on said blog! Steve then sent me a link to Part II of "Slicing Time" (good boy!) which just happens to be based on a correspondence between Steve and Mushtaq, completing the triad of this little blogfest. Steve gets a full point for ippon and match. Like I said, he's come a long way :)
So, without further ado, here's Slicing Time, and Slicing Ego .

Addendum! Mushtaq checked in with comments that link two more parts to the "Slicing Time" thread. (I keep wanting to call it a trilogy, but darned if it didn't go from two to four parts in a heartbeat!) Here are the other two parts ... so far ... and counting ....

More On Slicing Time
Slicing Time In Between

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

From Haloscan's FAQ:

Q: What is trackback?
A: Wikipedia defines trackback as follows: Trackback is a system [...] that alerts and allows a blogger to see who has blogged about posts on his or her blog. The system works by sending a 'ping' between the blogs, and therefore providing the alert.

In other words, it creates a web for comments, forming links between related posts on different blog sites ... kewl!

New links posted

An email today from someone whose blogs inspired me to start my own finally got me to figure out how to put links on here. If you scroll down the sidebar under my profile, you will find them. Aside from my gratuitous link to my own products page (since the google ads have my generic "competition" all over the place) you will find a link to the "Traceless Warrior," Mushtaq Ali al Ansari. He is a long-time practitioner of Silat and a person with very deep insights into the human condition. His blogs range from apolitical commentary that is so common-sense you could scream in relief, to valuable martial arts tips. It was a link from one of my students to his article on "Slicing Time" that put me in touch with him and we've had some interesting correspondences since.

Here are some of his posts that I think are particularly relevant to FMA'ers, and I'm sure there are more if you go through his archives; let me know if you find another one to link!

Slicing Time

Getting Behind the Knife - Hide behind your knife

And for you grapplers

I'd certainly like to hear from my students what they get from these. I'll put up more interesting martial arts links on here as I find ones that fit this blog.

Targeting Technique

A common problem for people learning martial arts is that they tend to rush techniques, as though the goal is to get finished as fast as possible. However, each move in the overall technique is as important a step as any other. Think of martial arts more like dancing than a race. Timing is important and one can be too fast as well as too slow. Arts like Kenpo are based on knowing how an opponent will react to a strike, using each blow to set up the next. If you execute your next move before your opponent gets there, you will won’t hit the target because it isn’t there, or at best, hit it at a sub-optimal angle or with less power than intended.

This kind of delayed setup is less common in arts like Escrima because we are using weapons and targeting limbs, both of which call for speed and precision. This does not negate the importance of timing, just speeds it up a bit, since arms in particular tend to be more mobile than body shots. What remains constant, however, is the importance of completing hits to intended targets.

There is a built-in dichotomy in the dynamic of hitting between the need for focus and the desire for smoothness and flow. In a sense this mirrors the two sides of the coin between stances and footwork. One is a snapshot in time, the other a diagram giving directions between those points. The points are important because they show us what happens at certain moments, highlighting key structures in a framework. Without knowing how to connect those points, though, we only have gibberish. It’s like those children’s puzzles with numbered dots on a page, where we learned to draw lines from one to the next to reveal the picture. Thus the flow is how the story is told, the dots the details that define its parameters.

Arts that are more linear, like many karate styles, tend to focus on those dots - this stance at the moment of impact with this strike – and so students tend to lock themselves into these structures. On the other hand, arts that emphasize flow tend to have nice movement but lack intensity at the point of impact, either whipping through the strike (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) or simply overlooking the value of a good hit because the mind doesn’t catch that precise moment. This is the issue at hand. What is needed is a balance between the two.

Bruce Lee described it well, calling a punch a “rock at the end of a rope.” The idea is to remain relaxed, loose and flowing until a split second before impact, and then focus all that power into a split second. It’s like injecting your energy into the opponent with hypodermic-like precision. Another analogy would be cracking a whip, which is why training with this weapon is useful. It is fluid all the time, but at the exact moment it cracks, there is an ear popping conversion of energy that cracks the sound barrier.

In Escrima we place a high premium on flow, because we have to contend with the speed with which weapons can move and change direction. We also emphasize looking ahead with our need to monitor for the next incoming attack. These same positive qualities, however, can create the negative downside of missing opportunities to deliver a strong attack of our own. We cannot be so forward-looking that we bypass the openings that appear for us; it is imperative to stay mindful in the present moment.

The other day in class I realized an analogy for what we are trying to do. Our skill is like shooting a gun. We cannot pass two bullets down the barrel at the same time. We shoot, then we shoot again. Each shot has recoil that we must absorb and control. Having recovered our equilibrium, we then re-target and squeeze the trigger, controlling the mechanical balance of the gun up to the point of the bullet firing, then once again recovering our control. If we don’t focus our moves, it is like waving a gun around aimlessly. If we don’t take our strikes to the target, it’s like aiming and not pulling the trigger. If we look ahead without finishing what we are doing in that exact moment, we fail to deliver payload to target.

Think of this like a laser-guided missile. Once we see our target, we need to lock on and focus to the point of impact. Then, while we are recovering from our recoil, we are identifying and targeting our next opportunity. In fact, think of each move as an opportunity to be exploited, not just some vague motion through which to pass. Boxers use the term “stick and move” to describe a hit-and-run strategy. Even if we are holding our ground, our hands have to do this. The fluidity is not stopping to admire what we’ve done, or having so much tunnel vision that we don’t see where we need to go next.

The final analogy is like driving a car. If the light is red, we stop; if it’s green, we go through. We don’t stop at each green light to look ahead for the next, so if we miss a target or don’t have one, we keep going. If we hit a red light, we don’t just roll, it is a specific point of attention on the roadway. In our case, think of red as “condition red,” that point of cumulative action where we pull the trigger before green-lighting to move on.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Learning how to learn

Many students dissemble their subconscious fears as a way to deflect attention from their perceived self-limitations. No matter what details differentiate them from any other student, it is a similar process. Consequently, I try to get people to focus on the specifics of what I am asking them to do RIGHT NOW as opposed to listening to them go into their past personal history to explain why they cannot listen or pay attention to what I am asking them to concentrate on in that moment.

Here's a rough analogy - If you were crossing the street and a car were coming and I said "Look out!" I would hope you would pay attention and not want to discuss the reasons you could not look. Sometimes you just have to let go and do what is required.

I am not arguing or being egotistical or harsh. I am simply being direct in communicating a set of instructions. What I am doing is asking the student to give up their personal ego so they can hear me. I am simply giving directions for putting together a puzzle, which in this case is the sequencing of a particular move they need to understand in order to comprehend the whole of the system.

Now if the student has questions on aspects of the movement, or has trouble grasping a nuance or needs more information to understand the underlying concept, that is different. I welcome such questions. When people begin talking about something that is tangential to this understanding, or irrelevant to what is being taught insofar as advancing their grasp of what I am trying to explain, that is a waste of time and energy. If someone says they have a bad back or their knee hurts, this is a specific issue that we can figure out how to adjust without aggravating the injury. Almost always the problem is how they are doing the move and not the proper movement as it should be. Everyone has to adjust their own body mechanics, but that takes making the effort. Telling me they can't do something because of an issue is only saying they are not willing to take the time to work it out. Excuses never promote learning, only postpone or prevent it, and it's the same for martial arts, music or math.

All movement in this art can be related to natural moves most people already do, but because the context is new and different, it feels strange. A step may seem awkward, but if I can get you to do it in another context (such as just walking) it enters the realm of possibility. I will bust my butt to help someone work through a problem, but I won't spend valuable class time rationalizing for them why they need to work through an obstacle. We all have things with which we struggle, and it is the nature of learning to have to work to overcome these. Our only choice is whether to make the attempt, and on that depends our success or failure.

Guest instructor

This weekend our class enjoyed guest instruction by Ms. Johnaleen Castro, an accomplished martial artist and a skilled fighter (not always a synonymous blend) who became a 2004/2005 WEKAF champion in the Philippines. She covered progressive sparring with emphasis on mobility and evasion from two perspectives, stick and knife.

Once again, feedback from students lets me see what they are getting and need in their training, and so I've thought a bit about the questions I've got so far. It was good to see how guys were showing their training, even in unfamiliar drills. This should raise lots of interesting questions, and maybe answer a few for them as well.

Most FMA systems integrate different types of weapons, but some really differentiate between them. Single stick, double stick, espada y daga, empty hands, knife, all are related but had their own nuances. Serrada's focus on the short stick distinguishes it from the majority of escrima styles, and because it emphasizes small-circle movement, the transition to a blade is very natural, working similar range and area. In many systems they have to tighten up movement patterns to work with the knife. In Serrada, Angel emphasized doing the same things and not opening up wider with the blade to slice and dice, saying we already had enough movement to cut. He taught us not to lose our compactness of motion. Our stick, knife and empty hand patterns are the same, keeping things in front of us, and all technique is based from those patterns. In a fight technique may get lost, but training takes over. The better disciplined you are in your fundamentals, the more likely you are to do something appropriate. Many old-timers taught integrated movement because consistency trains out miscellaneous errors. Serrada may have a strong core philosophy, but it works because this is grounded in natural spontaneous movement to which the body can readily accept refinement.

Footwork: FMA is focused on footwork, not stance, the idea being to emphasize the aliveness of movement. It's good to know stances so as to understand points of balance, but motion is a dynamic flow of unbalancing and rebalancing. Angel taught a basic, simple pattern (papeet) because it takes consistent repetition to ingrain neuromuscular memory, but he also said that we already know how to move because we are alive, and so we could just step as we need to because we already know how. Footwork is like our lock-and-block position, something to come back to as a reference to keep us focused and aligned, but don't get so caught up in theory as to misjudge the moment. Use it more a guideline than a rule. Rules are made to be broken, but having that place of knowledge gives us a base to explore the unknown. the leverage with which to pry loose greater understanding. If you don't know to begin with, how can you tell the difference?

I recently watched parts of the 1987 White Tiger seminar, and Angel uses footwork in places that varies from the lessons he emphasized. On a pass he steps back and then in again, reversing the papeet he taught me to use there. In feeding strikes he does a fade-away cross-step, something he only mentioned in passing because he wanted us to avoid cross-steps. What Angel emphasized was controlling the range, and whatever steps successfully accomplish that are valid. Obviously the preference is good simple basics, but then whatever comes along is an add-on, not your basic move. The basic range of Serrada is right in front of your opponent's weapon hand. Establish that, and you can move in or out smoothly and in control depending on choices you are making.

Footwork for papeet 1) front leg maintains in-place stepping; 2) half step forward, half-step back; 3) step forward; 4) step back. Each of these has nuances, which basically come from the waist, so one can twist, turn, lean, crouch; do whatever is natural and efficient to avoid or deliver a blow. Think of the legs as a large increment scale for range control, and your upper body as the fine-increment control. We have the "three bridges": the legs, body and the arms (which are important positional microtuners). Each of the three bridges is a reduction, like going from meters to centimeters to millimeters, with the arms the last part of the balancing equation. Use them as an extension of lower body energy for power. This allows us to use all three of Ed Parker's elements of power: linear, torsion, and gravity.

It seems I'm emphasizing footwork a lot, but you cannot separate it from the rest of the technique, and nothing else can be trained with precision if footwork is not properly integrated. It's one of the hardest things to change, because we take our feet for granted, but it is essential to good martial arts, as the basis for range, timing, speed and power. The basics obviously are not the whole package, but moving on without good basics will come back to haunt you later when you struggle to figure out why you are having a problem. It is probably a poor habit established early. It's a paradox that you have to take the time to try to understand things at the time (beginning) when you are most impatient to progress.