Wednesday, May 03, 2023


The Immersion Lab Difference

Seminars have become an established feature in the modern martial arts landscape, particularly in the West, and come in a variety of flavors ranging from one-day single instructor courses to all weekend multi-instructor sessions. The purpose of these is generally to expose students to new ideas and techniques without the commitment of time and expense of weeklong camps. Some events are dedicated to one particular style or system and generally cater to those already studying that art and might connect material presented to rank requirements and promotions.

Events presenting multiple styles are more likely to have to limit time available for each presenter. A criticism often raised is that instructors, given the time constraints, cannot focus in depth and so will often focus on flashy techniques or drills which may be short on practicality and are all too often forgotten by participants soon after the event has passed. Two day events alleviate this somewhat by stretching an event over the weekend, but if there are multiple sessions occurring simultaneously, students might have to choose what catches their interest, and this can lead to cliques sticking together with what's familiar rather than experiencing new and different perspectives.

The Immersion Labs, seminar extensions of The Immersion Foundation, take a somewhat different approach. First a word about the Foundation itself. The Immersion Foundation is dedicated to hoplology, the study of weapons and related fighting arts, both historic and current.

The term hoplology was created by Sir Richard Burton in the 19th century, popularized in the 20th century by the late great Donn Draeger, and now reinvigorated in the 21st century by the Immersion Labs.

Donn Draeger was a prolific author and promoter of the martial arts, a WWII U.S. serviceman who lived for many years in post-war Japan and became one of the highest ranking Westerners to train in several of their arts. His goal was to propagate martial arts not only through actual training but to establish an intellectual framework for studying and contrasting arts from different cultures around the world. To this end he organized expeditions every few years to visit various countries, to discover and research martial systems often hidden in obscure byways. In doing so he was a pioneer in establishing connections between living systems of the Far East with audiences in the West.

The Immersion Foundation is the brainchild of Mahipal Lunia, who himself has lived in several countries and holds serious rank in a number of martial arts. Following the example of Draeger, he has organized trips to various countries to find and record indigenous martial arts. To this end he has enlisted traveling companions ranging from martial art masters to university professors and videographers, to record and study the styles encountered on these expeditions. This process of documentation goes on long after the expeditions end, with further collaboration and research geared towards publication. One such research associate is Michael Belzer, who as a junior associate of Donn Draeger in Japan was invited along on a month-long expedition through the jungles of Malaysia and who now, as curator of many of Draeger's original notes and writings, is sharing those archives with the Foundation.

The Labs are the flagship public face of the foundation; starting in 2018, there have been four Labs so far, with a covid-related break in 2021-22. These are three day events, each designed to showcase the chosen arts around a central theme. Stretching 10-12 hours over each day, the 10-12 instructors each get several hours of undivided attention from the limited enrollment of just 25 participants. In keeping with the thematic relationships between these arts, the instructors are also participants in each other's presentations, embracing the sense of cohesion and camaraderie through the weekend.

As perhaps the only person, besides staff, who has been at each of the four Labs (I've been invited as the sole vendor as well as participant) I've witnessed some of the finest presentations by top martial artists from around the world: from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, South Africa, northern Africa, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, Spain, Portugal, Italy, as well as representation from legendary academies from Hawaii, Stockton, Los Angeles and more.

Lab 1, Legacy of the Blade, was organized around knife and sword from various countries, with a strong though not exclusive nod to FMA (Filipino martial arts). Lab 2, Stickmata, focused specifically on stick fighting arts. Lab 3, Born of Blood, featured arts from the S.E. Asia archipelago and Pacific islands while Lab 4, Holy Blood, Holy Blade, explored the influence of Spanish sword within many arts from around the world.

With generous time allotments, each teacher is able to begin with an historic overview of their art and its underlying principles, including demonstrating basic concepts, before taking students into hands-on practice. Given the high experience level of most participants, each session tends to move smoothly, and the generous time allotments mean material can be covered with a degree of detail not often found outside of academies.

As mentioned, Lab 4 was designed around the influence of Spanish sword on various arts from around the globe, some of which were quite new to most participants. Here are several brief examples from this most recent event, highlighting both the diversity and relationship between arts presented over the weekend:

Adam Myrie opened with an intriguing taste of North African Barbary sword-and-shield, a sophisticated style of combat that helped establish the reputation of Islamic warriors;

Mushtaq Ali book-ended the weekend with an equally esoteric presentation of Moro spear and shield as well as kampilan from Mindanao, which far exceeded anything I'd ever seen regarding use of that latter weapon;

Joaquin Marcelo ran a brilliant session on the influence of Spanish fencing in modern JKD;

Hollywood actor, trainer and stuntman Anthony DeLongis brought a room full of absolute novices to a level of safe competency with bullwhips that few in the room would have imagined.

Mahipal Lunia and Dexter Miksch, for the first time by any of James Keating's students, unveiled techniques for the American bowie knife in a distinctly unique approach that differs from almost anything else presented about that blade.

The entire list of teachers was equally impressive (and I've posted a link below to a more specific review). As different as each was from another, all were able to capture the essence of their respective arts within the common theme.

To summarize the key points:

1) 30-40 hours of training over 3 days, allowing for a deeper dive;

2) Renowned teachers from across the globe coming together to share rare and unusual arts;

3) Limited enrollment for a high teacher-student ratio;

4) Historic and cultural overviews of the arts presented;

50 Hoplology, as to how various weapons evolved within different cultures and environments

Immersion Lab #4: Holy Blood, Holy Blade review on Martial Myths' page

Michael Belzer's review on Facebook