Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Maestro

There are so many self proclaimed 'Masters' out there, every man and his dog has a title to give them status and authenticity.
Sonny told me that the title 'Maestro' was only to be given by others, not only others but people outside his system. In the old days, a man was expected to show his prowess, fight in public if challenged and carry himself in a way deserving of the title, and only after years of study, practice and teaching did this title become true. Others would notice it as obvious and thus it became bestowed upon the person deserving it.
Sonny insisted that his students called him Sonny, he even grimaced at 'sir', and would not tolerate bowing or any sycophantic behavior. He was a man of the old school and a true role model of a man who needed no external reinforcement to know who he was or what he had.

Here is a piece written by Edgar Sulite, a highly respected Eskrimador, that says it very well.

Thursday, September 29th, 1994
What Makes A Grandmaster?
By Punong Guro Edgar G. Sulite (edited by Master Reynaldo S. Galang)

"To be recognized as a Grandmaster or Master of combat arts in the Philippines, you must have made your reputation and show mental maturity and physical age. Grandmasters question the rankings of other grandmasters.

Masters and grandmasters are criticized and questioned regarding their skills and abilities. Who bestowed their title? Do they have enough skills for the titles they carry? How many years have they been practicing the art? How old is he? How many followers and students does this man have?

In other martial arts, the attainment of a certain level automatically designates the title Master or Grandmaster. In the Philippines, there are certain norms to be satisfied before one can be called and accepted as a Master or Grandmaster.

A master of the art must be a master of himself. He must be in control. His daily life epitomizes a man in control of his life, his destiny. A master of the art must know his art, its origins, its history, its philosophy. He must know the techniques, the interplay of techniques, and the reversals of techniques.

A master must know the basics, the intermediate forms and techniques, and the advance levels of the art. Mastery of the art does not only mean so many years in the art, but the amount of experience using the art, one's personal evolution within the art and personal dedication and contribution to the art.

A master of the art must know how to teach and impart knowledge from the art. He must be able to communicate, elaborate and present the art in such a way that each student learns on a personal basis. Each instruction is adapted to the learning process and ability of the student. A master must be a real maestro, a real teacher.

A master of the art must be of good character. He should epitomize the qualities of a leader, the majesty of a noble, and the courage and strength of a warrior.

A master of the art is called and acknowledged a Master by other masters, never by himself."

Do I think Sonny was a Master of his art? Of course I do, but don't believe me, decide for yourself.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Earlier Than You Think

Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped - African proverb

If you are always getting stuck in the same corner, or getting hit in the same way, freezing, 'running out of angle' or losing your balance.
The problem is not at the moment of failure, it's in the moments leading up to it.
You are probably repeating a mistake, not noticing something important, playing your own game without watching your opponent, failing in your set up or lacking in guile.
Failure is the end result, not the problem, and the point of no return often comes much earlier than you think ..... Though having said that, the more creative you are, the later it tends to be.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Here is a fabulous video of Michael Jordan playing basketball. I really enjoy watching his timing as he evades his opponents' defense, passes and/or shoots.
Musical analogies work well - He breaks beats, stutters, holds notes, stops suddenly or flows seamlessly whilst passing in an unexpected direction.
Watch how he does not commit the shot until he has an opening, the use of curves instead of straight lines, the turns, pivots, jukes and of course the timing.
And then imagine doing this with swords.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Buying and Selling

You have to sell a fake, and it has to be bought.

It has to be something your opponent wants, or wants to avoid.

You can't just put something out there and hope it looks like the genuine article and assume someone will take it.

A successful fake must look real, read - attractive or dangerous, if it looks like a fake and it is not particularly attractive or dangerous it does not work.

You have to understand what real things look like, and what looks real to people. And also how different things look real to different people.

You can't sell fakes until you first learn how to sell reality.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A TMA* Interlude ....

My teacher is coming next month from Taiwan.
Luo De Xiu is one of the world's best exponents and teachers of the so called Chinese Internal Arts .... in my humble opinion of course .... and every year he does a 'world tour' of schools and groups that practice his lineage of Bagua, Xing Yi and Tai Ji (The Yizong system).
This year he is focusing a great deal more on Xing Yi than in previous years perhaps because he harbors a slight worry that the more popular Tai Ji and Bagua will mean less people are going to be able to pass on the deceptively straightforward, and as such perhaps somewhat 'boring' Xing Yi.

And I admit it - I thought it was somewhat boring too. Bagua is much more fluid and beautiful and you get to work your body in all sorts of unusual planes and angles that don't appear elsewhere, and Tai Ji has at it's core a long, elegant form that can keep you entertained for decades ... but Xing Yi? Well it comes from military training from way back when they fought with spears and halberds, it is always moving forwards (almost always) in a straight (almost) line, repeating a simple series of movements left and right, and there are only 5 ways of doing that (... OK the 12 animal forms etc ... but they came later).
Of course now, years later, my appreciation for the simplicity of it's forms and concepts has grown. The forms are restful, meditative, and the power development and body integration that comes from practicing them is noticeable .... and you get to play with long weapons ... and swords ... and that's cool all by itself.
It keeps you healthy, flexible and strong too.

* TMA = Traditional Martial Arts

Here's my teacher demonstrating the 5 elements that make up the basic practice.
I find it incredibly restful to watch

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Stimulus Response

'Catching a ball is a stimulus-oriented response and not a motor one . In other words one that has been thought out . The conscious mind is simply incapable of organizing such a complex motor event. You can provide the stimuli to catch a ball but you cant consciously organize those motor events by which to catch it. That's why it is far more important to know what you have to do than how to do it .' - Steve Morris
The body possesses an intelligence that is innate. At the bottom of this post is a link to a pdf about 'Biological Motion' for those that are interested, it's a fascinating paper about the skills we are all born with.
So how this relates to training is this - Giving the body a problem, and some physical cues to copy if it can't work out a solution - the 'Mirroring' concept - and working from there is a faster and more efficient way of ingraining suitable responses that rote learning without the stimulus.  Kinda 'Don't get hit' as opposed to 'Step left as I cut down, bring the sword hilt to you hip and make a small arc as you catch the weapon'.
Now maybe the most efficient way to deal with this particular cut is as described above ... but what if it's now slightly different in angle or timing? Perhaps with your feet in a different orientation and the start point of your weapon elsewhere ..? Do you teach more individual solutions ... or just stay with 'Don't get hit'?
Now you may be thinking that there are many different ways to 'not get hit' - absolutely true. And that some are more appropriate at certain times than others depending on what might happen next .... true again. So as you flow add the next thing as a stimulus/problem to solve - "Well that would work, except now you are really open over here, so how do you fix that"? (This sentence is a physical question not a verbal one). The problems keep coming as one thing always leads to the next ......
In case you were wondering, the conscious mind does have a part, but gets added later as an observer almost, until it can keep up with what's going on and choose different courses of action i.e. tactical decision making. Like driving where you are not paying attention to the physical movements of your arms and legs, but deciding which route to take to your destination.
Sonny never explained his concept in this way, but essentially that is what he was doing when he started teaching random flow. He created a format in which to present 'problems' and have the student 'solve' them. The key of course was to calibrate the problems to the student, always seeking to work at the edge of their potential, and at a pace where the conscious mind couldn't .... 'interfere'.
That's a real skill, and one of the ways that Sonny connected his fighting ability to his teaching ability - He spent every day he worked out testing people, watching them, leading them, setting them up and seeing what came out. After workouts he would watch tapes of what happened - he could rarely consciously repeat sequences of movements in class, which was frustrating to those of us who asked 'What did you just do"?? 
But in the end it was better because he would always answer, "Let's go again and see if it happens" .... which then meant you were now paying attention to the lead up to what might happen next, and if you were lucky could find what you were looking for directly from a problem solving context. The body would be engaged in the doing, the mind in the watching.
The fact that Sonny could calibrate his movement to each student was a huge gift to us of course, but ultimately meant he was also constantly in problem solving mode - solving how to get the student to 'see', and at the same time handicapping himself in speed and opportunity to match the student, improving his fighting skills and ability to get out of tight corners later, slower, and with the least movement possible.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Are you a good student?

Sonny asked me that once - it was a trick question of course.
On the one hand, you need to be respectful and polite, follow instructions and take the teacher's lead, take on board criticism and suggestion, listen carefully and modify your actions at their behest ...... On the other hand, everything you hear or learn should be taken with a pinch of salt, tried, tested, examined, thought about critically, investigated and played with. It's worth remembering that everything that is not personally experienced is hearsay.
For it to be your personal 'truth' you need to own it. You need to understand the context, the reasoning, be able to see it's worth and it's limitations .... and physically be able to manifest what you are talking about to complete strangers.
You have to be an active participant in your growth, willing to try things, but not get attached to their validity. You have to be open minded, attentive, work hard and think critically .. and laterally too.
You should also be able to adapt and change the information to mesh with who YOU are, and be able to expand who you are to test the edges of your possibility.
And perhaps most importantly, you have to be willing to fail and put yourself in positions where that is a distinct possibility, it is where some of the best learning comes from. I guess this is where it becomes important to have good 'others', in that I mean teachers, opponents, training partners etc to be authentic bad guys ... or honorable enemies. Your skill set will only improve in any meaningful way if the stimuli that you get to play against is authentic, challenging and as varied as possible.
We all seek guides in the subjects that we choose to study, but they are there to open our eyes, perhaps point the way, but not to carry us up the mountain. - Perhaps it would be best for us always to think of our teachers as honorable enemies? Someone for whom we have great respect as to their skills, but who we eventually need to learn how to beat. I know for sure that Sonny kept his personal 'secret weapons' in his back pocket, he refused to show his draw for instance, saying "I'm not going to show you my underwear", so on some level he was teaching us to not trust anyone completely. A worthy lesson in itself.
In the end, as Sonny said: "I am not teaching you, I am showing you what I do. It is then up to you to take it and make it yours". He could have added ... 'So that you can get good enough to defeat me'

Sunday, July 10, 2011


 It is hugely fun to play with people outside your style, some of my best insights have come from seeing things I'd not even thought of before from playing with 'outsiders'.
When a new student started at Sonny's, their first lesson was usually to get straight in to the flow with him, Sonny would give openings that invited attacks and observe what came out. His only 'instruction' was to grin and say 'Don't kill me, right away OK'? By which he meant keep it light - both physically and emotionally.
He'd go easy at first, then start to 'close the doors', pushing buttons until a general picture of the students personality and tendencies came out.
He was not only learning ABOUT them, he was learning FROM them also.
Often during class he'd just ask - 'Show me some of what you do', and would love it if you explained how something similar was done in another style, either application or body training - By the next week he'd have incorporated the information into his material.
Filipino martial arts have been continually evolving over the generations, and without getting in to the political minefield of 'origins', it is certain that their various enemies were a factor in this. Such it is with all martial arts - you have your style because of who you are, and then there's all the stuff you learn to be able to beat your enemies because of who they are. Others were, and are a catalyst for creativity and evolution.
In fact anyone that is not you is ..... if you learn to understand them.
And a good way to understand them ...? Play with them or fight them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Guy throws a #1 ........

So, the guy throws a #1 ....
... Why did he throw it?
Because he thought he had a shot.
...Which means my left upper quadrant was open somewhere and in range I guess
... Where was my defense? I mean the guy is only going to throw if the target is open, so it means my defense line is open.
Maybe you missed a shot and over committed?
.... So ... I take a shot at him because there is a target I think I can reach that is in range but I miss. I guess he evades?
Yeah, he evades.
.... That means he either must have the angle on me or he fades out of range?
I suppose.
... And my weapon must be off the center line and probably tip low as well then to leave my upper left undefended enough to make him try for it?
... And he must be to the left of my center, because the only target for a #1 on the other side would be my weapon arm which is not in range.
So he comes in and you block.
... How did that happen ...? If he already had the angle on me and my weapon was so far off the center line, there's no way I'd make it.
Your weapon was not that far off the center.
... Well that means that I was not really open, so why did he throw the strike?
He's not that smart
... So this is a defense against a stupid person ...?
OK, He faded back so had to step in which gave you time to cover
... So he's stepping in throwing a #1 and I have enough time to recover and block the strike. Why didn't I just step in and hit him, or evade, instead of wasting my weapon on a block?
You block. That's what happens next.
So if I can block a strike that was aimed at my head, it means we are both well in range .... Is he following up? I mean he's close, and he still has his left hand free.
No, you check his weapon hand with your live hand, pass it and cut behind it.
.... Well if I was him, I'd drop to jam the strike, pivot and spiral in, either way we both have hold of each other and we're both carrying swords, what happens now .....?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Planes and Space

I mentioned in a comment on the previous post about playing with a Capoeira Angola player, and how his entries and attack angles were incredibly hard to read because he could do with his legs what he could do with his arms and vice versa. Ultimately though, the angles themselves really were not that unusual, just the transitions (and hence the timing), and the fact I was not used to the head moving so much in relation to the rest of the body.

To quote Sonny - "If they are coming for you, let them come, they are coming anyway, do not keep them out".
What he meant by this was not about waiting, but about recognizing that if your opponent is aiming for you as a target, there are only so many attack angles they can throw and hit you ... so knowing this you can make sure you are not on that angle when they throw it.
This is obviously simplifying things somewhat, but the point is that for any strike angle, which really is a single plane for a cut or a slice, and a single line for a poke or a stab, ALL THE REST of the 3 dimensional space around that plane or line is safe for that time.
There is only one place that is unsafe - on that plane or line.
If you can learn to see the space around the cut, and see your opponent's attack as an indicator of where this space is, and how it moves .... where you have to go and what you have to do becomes more obvious.
Gifts and emptiness .....

Friday, July 1, 2011

Face Off

New guy (Hi D!), just started training with us, and told me that one of the reasons he wanted to look more in to our Eskrima was that our training looks very similar whether we are drilling or free fighting.
He said he would watch clips on youtube of different martial arts, and see drills and exercises, techniques and partner practices, and then compare them to how the practitioners of the systems actually free fight/spar/duel. More often than not, the fighting does not resemble the training at all.
One of the most common things that gets thrown out of the window is the body angling and the footwork which seem to disappear when the fight is on.

We started talking about why that is, and amongst other things we started discussing 'exits'. All systems teach entries or techniques, but I'm not sure how many, if any, consider the exit as a very important piece of the puzzle.
Exit, meaning getting out of range, and your opponent no longer able/wishing to continue, or getting into such a position that your opponent cannot do harm to you and gives up.

I learned a while back that it is a huge, perhaps KEY piece of the puzzle in dueling, as I do not consider a glorious double death as a desirable goal .....

So, what are the pieces you need when you take the exit into account?
In dueling with swords - Footwork, body angle, timing, defensive structure, a good offense, and the ability to tell lies.
How do you train it?
Avoid training facing square to your opponent.
Do nothing tactical standing still, do very little on a straight line, and do as much as possible moving around.
Fights/dueling are dynamic, they can move in any direction, and staying in front is rarely a good idea. Training for the exit, or to be in safety, has to be worked from the get go or there is little chance of it manifesting when things get a bit exciting .... or if you've never thought of it as something to do .....

Rory Miller had an interesting observation that might play in here about why people have this tendency to stay in front of each other - He noticed that when teaching his one step drill at seminars, which is basically a one for one partner practice, most people end up standing in front of each other. The one step is not sparring, but the tendency to turn it into something similar seems to be common. There's apparently something innate about standing in front of the opponent, especially if you are winning, probably because it gives a very strong dominance message - It is not good enough to just win ... your opponent must see that it is YOU that beat them - classic 'monkey brain' behavior, but tactically not a good idea if the stakes are high, especially with edged weapons.

A constant lesson Sonny instilled in us that might be worth adding is that you don't wait standing still - you, as the target must be moving BEFORE things kick off, or at least already spring loaded to move, instantly. (If you doubt why this is a good idea please read Mac's latest post about exploiting hesitation in his opponents on Quantum Donuts.)
I suspect that if you are already moving it's easier to keep moving (as long as you don't freeze), whereas if you start standing, you are already on the center line and perhaps also behind the timing. Bear in mind that it is extremely difficult to gain a beat when you are already a beat behind, especially if you get hypnotized by the monkey dance, and it starts playing you. Dueling may be a classic Monkey Dance in style ... but with swords it is 'lethal', which puts it far from any empty handed dominance games. And this is a tactical problem that many may not consider when learning only their entries and techniques.