Sunday, November 19, 2006

Missing The Boat

Are you serious about your training in the Filipino martial arts? If you are reading this blog, then I’m presupposing you have more than a passing interest in the subject, in which case, here’s my challenge:

Are you really doing everything you can to expand your knowledge and skills? If you are like the majority of folks out there, I would have to say “probably not,” and the reason, as I see it, is insularity. Most of us become comfortable training in our own little bubble, content what is easy, unwilling to look beyond what is convenient.

In the old days the FMA were highly secretive, passed down within families or secret societies. The reason for this was survival. Partly this was due to the oppression of the Spanish colonial era, but at a more fundamental level it can also be attributed to the complexities of Filipino culture, which is one of the world’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse. Rivalry and competition for survival was (and still is) fierce down to the basic structure of society, and so fighting skills were closely guarded secrets in order to preserve the split second advantages that could mean the difference between life and death.

Nowadays, however, we live in a golden age for FMA training. Migration and travel have spread practitioners around the globe while modern media has spread the word. The advent of the internet created a broader forum and recognition for the FMA, stimulating growth by providing contact and access to any seeking these skills.

While the FMA expanded worldwide, however, it also exported some of the baggage associated with old cultural values. I’m specifically referring to the rivalries, often fueled by machismo that helped push the arts underground in the first place. Even while Filipinos banded together for survival in new and unfamiliar places, it still was not uncommon to hear various manongs (old masters) talk derisively about their compatriots. They may have presented a common front to outsiders, but within their own communities old divisions continued, delineated by lineage, language and regional origin.

Early FMA in the U.S. followed tradition, staying within closed doors. This began to change when Angel Cabales opened the first public FMA academy in Stockton in 1966, but as others followed this example, stylistic rivalries were perpetuated. Sad to say, people who had grown up together became separated simply because they went to train in different schools, and much of the responsibility for this lies with their teachers.

While the attribute of fierce dedication to one’s training developed fierce warriors, it also limited the ability of the FMA to propagate in a more open society. Most people come to martial arts seeking a path to personal freedom, the ability to defend themselves and feel safe. The “us versus them” mindset didn’t translate well into a more egalitarian society and so the FMA remained largely the purview of those personally loyal to a single teacher or style.

It is perhaps in the last fifteen years or so that these self-imposed limitations have begun to fade. Just as Moses could lead the Israelites out of Egypt, it has taken a new generation of leadership to move forward into a new land, unshackled by the prejudices of a different time and place. Organizations like WEKAF and the new USFMAF have created forums that cross stylistic boundaries, opening heightened visibility for the Filipino arts, yet there is still much further to go.

When I first encountered the FMA in 1979, there were only a handful of teachers on either coast. If you wanted to train, it took dedication and commitment. Showing up was often a pilgrimage; one frequently had to travel far or relocate to attend classes, and so loyalty to a school was built in, since there were few options and only the most dedicated persevered.

Nearly a decade later, some small progress had been made. There were a few more established schools, but the FMA community was still small enough that in most areas, local practitioners knew who else was involved, even if in different programs. The seminar circuit was just starting up, mostly through Remy Presas and Dan Inosanto.

I was na├»ve enough back then to assume others were as hungry to expand their knowledge as was I, so I was astounded in 1987 when I approached one practitioner, a junior instructor in another martial art who also dabbled in FMA, with an invitation to a rare Bay Area seminar by grandmaster Angel Cabales. Though the opportunity was presented to experience a legendary teacher right in this person’s own neighborhood, the offer was declined with the comment that “I only train with so-and-so, who comes by once or twice a year, and he’ll be back in about six months.”

Now back then I trained daily on my own and with partners, and took weekly lessons with each of my teachers in FMA, Kenpo and Tai Chi Chuan, so I was astonished that someone who perhaps got a seminar twice a year would not even consider getting in some extra training, especially of such caliber. Experience is cumulative and is the basis for skill and, perhaps, wisdom. It’s one thing to be loyal to a teacher or school, but it’s another to ignore what others are doing in the same field of endeavor, whatever that might be.

Since one is more likely, as a martial artist, to encounter those who have NOT trained in your school or style, it would seem common sense that learning what others might do would be an advantage. As the saying goes, “Know your enemy.” Remember the earlier points about preserving secrecy to prevent rivals from figuring out how to beat you; now that the knowledge was practically being given away, such a gift was ignored! I can imagine reaction of many an old warrior to that one.

Fast-forward twenty years to the present. There are many more FMA schools across the land and as the marketplace has grown, prospective students have more choices where to go. Teachers have trained teachers who are now themselves trainers of teachers, perpetuating both old styles and spinning off new variants, so the arts are not so rare or hard to find. Though classes are still generally fairly small, the overall number of practitioners has grown in proportion. For the most part teachers and students in local communities know of each other, and most contact is respectful or even cordial, yet that same sense of insularity remains. Too often there is still that attitude that everything we need to know is contained in one place alone.

I’d like to challenge that belief, and I’ll use a simple example. Virtually every martial art teaches the armbar. It is arguably the most basic joint lock because it is simple and effective. Between styles one might find variations on applying this technique based on entries and leverage, and within any given style there will be subtle nuances based on size, strength, sensitivity, skill, experience and understanding. The more one learns about applying this one lock, the deeper one’s own practice becomes. Each new bit of information that is assimilated expands our own ability, not only to apply this technique but also to see and avoid the setups that might be applied against us.

There’s a joke that the most common phrase in the FMA is “Oh, we have that too,” but if this were true, there would only be one style encompassing the whole art. We clearly see that there are differences, based on pragmatic things such as weaponry and footwork, yet all too often fleeting chances to explore new possibilities are allowed to pass, and who knows when such might come again? Many are those who have “intended” for year after year to train with a master, only to see that teacher, and the opportunity, pass away.

A couple of recent “we have that too” examples come to mind. In the first one, I spoke with a teacher whom I respect about sending a couple of his top students to check out the Visayan doblecada seminar that was recently held in Oakland (there’s another coming Dec. 3rd). I got the “we have that too” response. I don’t know what double stick training takes place at this particular academy, but as his art is predominantly based on single stick, I doubt the time and energy has been spent developing the sophistication behind Sonny Umpad’s methods. To whatever degree double sticks are emphasized, I think it’s a fair assumption that the details will be different. Each art has an area of focus and specialization, and by cross-training, we can go straight to the heart of the matter without having to reinvent the wheel for every aspect we encounter.

Despite lack of interest from this one source, at least the doblecada seminar was reasonably well attended. A more poignant example of lack of support took place this past weekend, however, when grandmaster Crispulo Atillo’s Balintawok seminar here in the Bay Area was cancelled due to lack of interest. Many of us here have not seen Balintawok, a Cebuano art related to Doce Pares, Serrada and Visayan Corto Kadena, among others, and so this was a chance to fill in some blanks. From my own point of view, I’ve found each variant of the similar themes among these arts adds to my understanding of the overall qualities characteristic to the central Philippines. Is this so uncommon a view?

How long can we expect old grandmasters to be available to help us develop our skills? At what point will promoters stop trying to give us opportunities to meet these men? It costs money bring people from far away. Arrangements have to be made. In a situation like this, where there is no apparent interest in the seminar, the choice is between cutting one’s losses or incurring greater ones. Worse, it forces the promoter to reconsider similar offerings in the future. After all, why should he throw money away? It isn’t a question of making money from the event, but at least feeling the community is willing to share the burden in order to gain the benefit of shared experience. The money lost in this particular venture could have been spent more productively if the promoter had simply traveled on his own to attend a seminar elsewhere. While this would have been personally rewarding, he took the chance instead to offer something special for the rest of us, and for this he got burned.

The Bay Area is considered a hotbed of Filipino martial arts. It’s a seminal location for numerous styles in the U.S. Perhaps we are spoiled by the plethora of choices available nowadays, but this is an illusion if we don’t avail ourselves of the opportunities that arise. After all, the choices we ignore become meaningless. One direction adds to our level of experience, the other means we stand pat. As I’ve heard many times, we either move forward or we are moving backwards; to remain in place is to let the world pass us by.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Finally a new post!

My apologies for not posting any writings for the past six weeks, with the exception of the doblecada seminar written by Josh Newman. I think it’s fair to say I was experiencing a bit of burnout after all the activity surrounding the passing of the late great Sonny Umpad.

With articles promised for the FMA Digest and the US FMA Federation (still pending) I had a lot on my plate just with writing. I actually wrote three entries during this time but the words weren’t flowing. It felt like I had to drag each one out, and I wasn’t satisfied with the results. I felt the need to lay low to refresh the batteries.

It didn’t help that I started getting repetitive stress syndrome in my hands from so much typing. What was particularly painful was clicking the mouse. It got to where I just didn’t want to touch it. On the other hand, this motivated me to fix a broken laptop, which uses a touchpad. Sometimes changing patterns is a necessity, a metaphor if I’ve ever penned one.

It’s not as though nothing interesting was happening these past couple of months. In fact, the problem was the exact opposite. There was an explosion of energy that was hard to put down in words. On a social level a lot of people were coming together, amplifying the resonance of remembering, sharing and practicing, and this was reflected personally as well. It’s been a period of intense growth for everyone involved at any level. Such times of accelerated consciousness are rare but leave a mark long after the buzz fades to memory. Through time those results will speak for themselves.

For the first month or so I was going to as many workouts as would fit my schedule. Maija started her sword class, which was an amazing opportunity to flow and to remember the gist of Sonny’s footwork. George Yore, Chris Suboreau and Mike Braten were preparing for the doblecada seminar and I was able to visit some of their sessions, revisiting that material as well.

For what it’s worth, the swordwork integrated easily with Serrada. Angel taught the stick as basic for blade, and Sonny understood the principles of Serrada. This isn’t to say I don’t have a lot to learn through the nuances of actually practicing with edged weapons; it’s experience that builds awareness and skill. I may understand the overall movement, but there are many subtleties to the art, which Maija Soderholm has demonstrated to me quite effectively in her classes.

The doblecada, on the other hand, presented me with an even more formidable challenge. I realized I’d never really worked on double sticks for any intensive or extended interval. I check well with my live hand, and that is a key to espada y daga. Using two long sticks, however, changes the dynamic of leverage and timing with that left hand. It now mirrors the movement of the right rather than complementing it by filling gaps.

I’d long heard that the main benefit of practicing double sticks was to develop power on the opposite side, as much to have it available if the right side is injured as for actual practical use of double weapons. Most of the manongs I’ve met have described single weapon training as the heart of the art, for the fact that one is most likely to have one available at any given time rather than a matched pair, and the timing of the live hand goes with it.

Generally what I’ve seen of double sticks is based on generic six-counts, with variations on the positions found within that pattern. Many schools teach this more as exercise rather than applied tactics. It’s been something to know, but never felt interesting enough for me to pursue in depth. It’s important to understand such basics since they are common, but memorizing preset steps for longer sequences felt arbitrary to me. This is what my late Tai Chi instructor John Wong called “dead art,” referring to the level of practitioner, not the material itself. It reminded me of the katas I practiced many years ago, which at the time I could not translate into fighting skill.

The difference I’m experiencing with Sonny’s material comes from the inside roll and leverage, which are unfamiliar to most folks, and how shifting body angles exploits the power and accuracy in those moves. At first some of the angling felt awkward. New information often feels that way until it’s properly filed. After awhile the movement started to mesh with what I already know, settling into niches that expand on what is familiar, a bit like a glove covering a hand. For instance, there is a high guard position across the chest that is similar to the Serrada “lock” position, a realization that has enhanced my understanding of both the “lock” and the inside roll. I’m also finding the levers are better as extensions rather than primary sources of power, and that the core source still comes from movement of one’s center.

For the past two months now I’ve been focused almost exclusively on this material. I’ve mostly worked the doblecada, until my left hand is starting to feel what the right already knows. In the process I’m learning that each side has its strengths and weaknesses, which I’m striving to balance out. I’ve also been playing with Serrada techniques, breaking them down into basic combinations that make sense with two longer weapons.

My training change-up has been to the blade, mostly with 18-24” but sometimes longer or shorter. Focusing with the tip enhances the stick as well, but blades add aspects that sticks do somewhat differently. Examples might be certain slices or rakes, using different parts of the blade according to range and whether defensive or offensive in nature.

None of this is too different from what I already do, but the specific practices add new wrinkles to my art. I always imagine what the tip of my weapon sees, since it has a perspective different than my eyes (and the same applies to empty hands, kicks etc). This new work is expanding that field of vision, which is basically what Sonny taught, to see rather than just to do techniques. I’ve long preached being “target oriented” – see the target, hit it – which comes a bit from what I read of Zen archery as a kid. How you accomplish your task is subordinate to the will to act itself; the purpose of training is to be ready for the opportunity in the best way possible.

In the previous paragraph I used the term “my art” which I realize might not agree with everyone. For instance, many people say they do their teacher’s art. On some level, yes, we do what we are taught, as did our teachers, and so we give credit where it is due. On the other hand, who ultimately created or owned that knowledge? Do we not each embark on our own voyage of discovery?

For the moment I’ll say it like this: When the art owns us, it is political. When we own the art, it is personal. In other words, we go from an external frame of reference to an internal one.

Serrada is still my base. Nothing I’ve seen has yet made it obsolete, as it lays out a highly efficient roadmap of options. It is a great technical foundation by itself, but all systems are training aids to induce understanding and which indoctrinate certain principles.

Form follows function, meaning that your concept will create the means of achieving the goal. True artists know the rules of their craft, but will break those rules when applicable, whether consciously or not. When one flows freely, that is the “live art” John Wong described. Our only boundaries are the limits and implementation of our vision.