A Sister in Brotherhood Spaces

By JL Umipig

It’s been 2 years now since I arrived to Central Park on a spring evening and was welcomed by Guro Njoli and two of my brothers of Pekiti Tirsia Kali (PTK) Vin and Chris. And I recall so distinctly why I returned after that first moment- it was the feeling of being held in a process of betterment and strengthening through comraderie. From day one, my brothers of MSMB and PTK held me to a caliber of that encouragement to better and strengthen my being.

I a20161126_105810m one of the few Womxn who consistently trains with the brothers of PTK Elite and MSMBNYC. In two years I have watched sisters come through and I emphasize to them why I continue to train which consists of the reasons that most people do, to have consistent physical regiment for my fitness and health, to be able to defend myself when the time comes, and to strengthen my body and confidence. But also I continue and commit to PTK and MSMB because of what I felt in that initial moment that I began learning with this circle: the camaraderie and mutual betterment of self as a practitioner that I feel growing with my brothers. There is a real pride we have for the betterment of one another, the push to excel as a family unit, detached from competition amongst those in our crew. They push me to go hard, to be able to hold my own amongst anyone, no matter their size or their strength level.  There is a belief that I feel from the respect my brothers hold for me, that when we train, our genders have nothing to do with our ability to train hard, and be able to step up to the challenges of body, mind and spirit that our practice teaches us to stand up to.

Our guros hold us all to our strengths, and also hold us to strengthening our weaknesses. I see how each of them in their teachings see the value of each individual in the group, and I watch the camaraderie between them that is model to us all. It roots our circle, the way they are able to respect and hold one another in collaboration and in unique styles of giving knowledge to our training. And as the little sister in the crew they rarely mention my gender, only with the recognition of how to apply their teachings to the very real degradation and violence Womxn face on the daily and how to use the learnings for my protection and ability to be prepared should I be confronted with the realities of misogyny and gender violence in this world. They teach me to use my size to my advantage, and help me understand my power to survive.

When we talk about Kali, we orient the learnings around the ability of Pilipino ancestors to fight and survive in battle with their colonizers, who were often larger and more equipped than them. These teachings of Pilipino Ancestral practices and traditions is the other reason I stay. My guros value this and respect the roots of the a20160625_114602rt, they help us understand the context and it brings me closer to my ancestors in a new way of understanding. I feel them in my movements. I feel their spirit of survival and resistance. And they and my brothers make room for me to share my learnings and cultural practices and values as a healer, activist and artist in connection to our training- another way they welcome what I have to contribute to our circle of my strengths.

“Respect everyone, Fear no one” our MSMB mantra is core to the way we train, is core to the way we learn, is core to the way we build camaraderie. Every time I come to train, I feel valued, respected and cared for as a member to this circle of warriors. I believe that is how my ancestors intended this practice to be upheld. So I bring myself fully to every training and every gathering, ready to step into my power. Sure, every now and then the testosterone is real, the frustrations of having to deal with my femininity being sometimes a hindrance because I can’t hide I am a Womxn physically and there are instances of societal stereotypes that surface (that’s real), and the moments of having to step it up extra notches to have new members that are men see me the way my brothers who I’ve trained with from the beginning is real as well. But what outweighs all of that is that my brothers will always remind me I am valued, that I am seen and I am held and so the humanization is real, the honoring is real and the love that makes me feel Family in this circle of brothers is real.

 

Jana Lynne (JL) Umipig is the creator of “The Journey of a Brown Girl” www.thejourneyofabrowngirl.com  Director, Producer, Actress, Educator and Organizer she currently resides in NYC. JL image5has worked with different community organizations developing curriculum and programs that integrate theatre and visual arts with activism and leadership development, working with schools, community organizations, detention facilities, and rehabilitation and support group centers. She believes in the power of the arts to activate and move the human spirit for individual toward community empowerment and transformation.  She creates with the intention to connect human experience and spirit between all communities.

Mistakes in the Microcosm

By Njoli Brown

One of the most commonly expressed analogies in capoeira is that it exists as a microcosm of all our experiences and interactions in the larger world.  I’m sure this kind of language is present in other arts and communal environments and I’ve been thinking about this lots over the years, often times a little dubious about where the rhetoric and the actuality intersect.

I think that humans are, as a general rule, social creatures.  Often times they are willing to make huge compromises in order to maintain a sense of connectivity.  Even in those instances where they choose to isolate, I imagine that, many times there is some past or present trauma attached to that decision.   That isolation might be a process for healing or for hiding but it seems to have a very intentional value and purpose.

In order to maintain a  sense of place and value within a community  there  can feel a necessity to do or to be.  I use these terms to indicate the drive toward doing more in order to become more and thus, somehow, elevating the value of the community as a whole.  But with all of this action there have to come missteps, some large and some small, so I think it’s important to discuss the important place that mistakes hold in both the micro and macrocosm. As an experiment, instead of looking at the small and working outward though, as is often the methodology, I’m going to take some lessons from the broader world and apply them inward.

e438892cd491af9c823ec137e759ed16The broad range of research would say that mistakes have inherent value.  They provide new pathways for exploration, generate unexpected and sometimes useful results, act as reference points or catalysts for change and, generally, imply motion of some sort.  In my experiences as an educator in NYC public schools, one of the sentiments I recognize in many of the students I work with is a fear of educational or behavioral “failure.” This fear is often born out of the the resultant reprimands, harsh exclusion, disproportionate disciplinary reactions which occur after mistakes or missteps that are part of the evolutionary journey.  Simultaneously, I know it is a major part of the conversation among educators to determine new and effective ways to address positive discipline while creating a safe holding container for  personal growth.  Saying that a space is safe for mistakes does not make it so.  But if the true investment in that idea is there, then intentional discussions on how to create actionable plans can be had.

Capoeira Angola is particularly interesting to me because it seems to attract social activists, teachers, community organizers and people with an, at least spoken, desire to affect societal change in positive ways.  It truly is a microcosm of a very particular aspect of the world.  It rests itself fairly firmly in liberal thinking in regards to social, environmental and overall political issues.  Even with variations, this holds itself commonly true in most groups of this style throughout the world and, as such, should provide an in common language and platform for discussions on acceptance , forgiveness and change on a very personal level.

I remember a while back, being in a discussion about concepts on friendship.  For my part, I recall saying something to the point of friendship having a relationship to a person seeing you when you have not been your best self and being able to recognize the goodness in you nonetheless.   Now, I’m an optimist.  I do mostly believe that people have some innate childlike purity continually existing within them, no matter how obscured.  I am also a realist.  I understand that mistakes can be painful, to the perpetrator and to the peripheral participants.  An actual supportive and forward thinking community has the difficult dual purpose of safeguarding itself while nurturing its individuals.  But like riding a moving sidewalk in the wrong direction, if a community is not actively problem solving it may as well be actively working toward the perpetuity of broken systems.

Sometimes, language is a dangerous thing.  Perhaps, better said, a powerful thing both, Image result for martial arts philosophy
in its inability to encapsulate all the layers of individual and collective emotional complexity and in its capacity to direct the mind towards concretizing thoughts into actionable aspects. It requires a careful measure when determining the language which codifies a living philosophy and, as a living and organic thing, perhaps the language and the community must continually take opportunities to evaluate whether they are in alignment and, if not, whether compromise or divergence is the most relevant path for evolved being.

It must determine if it places equal value in its ideals as to its practice.  If so, it must work as diligently toward evolving its capacity to make living its philosophies as it does toward physicalizing its corporeal aspects.  It must pursue the resources to make these ideas intelligible and applicable when students misstep and choose alternatively.  They must host forums in which students can realize their connection to these values and in which actions which prove themselves destructive can be processed to restore balance in the community.  Otherwise, the practice should dissociate itself and allow the philosophy to exist parallel if not integrated.

 “Lots of soccer players are Catholic.  But if asked if soccer is a Catholic sport, well I’d say ‘hell no.'” – Anonymous –

Capoeira, in truth martial arts in general, can become so wrapped up in rhetoric that they search and find ways to justify the connection between things even as they actively operate in dichotomy.  In this way, perhaps they are truly microcosms of the world we live in. The art is truly itself, the idea is truly itself and, in fact, it is the instructor or some hierarchical construct which determines that a philosophical foundation, whether historical or contemporary, is a grounding factor for the students’ development and so imbues his/her teachings with said ideology.  Without the critical process of determining alignment, compromise or divergence a martial art school generates a chaotic environment for a finding equilibrium.

 

Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach

By Njoli Brown

Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to conduct a variety of workshops and community programs in the area.  The current social climate has given people a new perspective on the importance of developing a self defense practice.  This being the case, we’ve been provided a great opportunity for our academy students to step into their leadership.

DSCF3579Over the years, with each of my teachers, I very particularly recall the time when I began to be invited to “assist” during their workshops/events.  It wasn’t because I was the most advanced student but, I think, because my teachers recognized that these experiences would be lessons in accountability.  Acting as a representative of my group and my teacher, I had a responsibility to model our values, to act rightly, to be smart in appearance, to be practiced and adroit.   But equally important, it was an exercise in humility because these classes acted as a reminder of my own journey as a beginner and my ongoing attempts to process the concepts into a language that was discernible for myself and in transmission.

“Teach to learn, learn to teach.”  I’ve been hearing that a lot in recent years.  What I’ve come to realize is that, this doesn’t mean that every person in the room needs to become a focal point.  Not everyone has the desire, the wherewithal, or the temperament to teach, per se.  But everyone does need to become a facilitator. “Ut facile,” to make easy. This does not mean that we should generate passivity in the learning environment, heat (tension) can be a catalyst for energy. But, as a student we can endeavor to grow to a point of simultaneously developing our own practices while propagating a learning environment which is conducive to the growth of others.

Through this”learning to teach” becomes a state of being rather than an acquisition of status.

Tools for learners/teachers:20160625_115022

  • Comport yourself with grace.
  • Ask questions to learn, not for self-aggrandizement.
  • Model focused and diligent training.
  • Err on the side of politeness to your teachers and comrades.
  • Avoid boastfulness.
  • Find lessons everywhere.
  • Prioritize fundamentals.
  • Do your best work.
  • Treat yourself and your comrades with care.

 

Training: Why “Comprehensive” and Not “Mixed?”

 

By Njoli Brown

One of the stand out features of the MSMB practice is its dedication to teaching the advantages of a comprehensive training regiment. But what does that mean?

There are a huge number of mixed martial arts schools popping up around the country. Perhaps there are even more academies which house various arts without determining any points of connectivity between them. But for us, there is a distinct importance in being able to put together a practice that is enriching and profound, physically, intellectually and emotionally.

I think, at this point, the physical benefits of martial arts training have been fairly widely accepted. Increased muscle gain, developed reflexes and reaction time, flexibility, mobility, etc. All of these are resultant from intelligent training and continually evolving theories on how best to serve a student’s growth.

img_20161220_122654The importance of a martial practice as an intellectual study is often understated. Educating practitioners on the cultures from which their arts have been born is at times considered an arbitrary aside. But in truth, the cultural and intellectual development is what helps to provide some moral foundation for how we choose to use the often dangerous practice we engage in.  In the most pressured moments we don’t have time to debate with ourselves about our beliefs on violence or conflict resolution.  Instead, one would hope that we’ve spent peaceable moments discussing with our comrades so that in other times we are able to act efficaciously.  Culture and history provide context for these discussions so that we have the opportunity to take advantage of historical precedents.  The culture of an art reminds us that it is based in humanity.  Because of this it is evolving and affected by all the historical boons and faults of the people who carried its legacy along the way.  With a critical mind we can learn from this and apply those lessons when using our art as a foundation for our daily living.

Here we are empowering, but how do we make sure we’re not doing as much harm as help?  It’s easy enough to hand out the tools but making sure that they’re utilized conscientiously… that’s another story.  A lot of instructors talk about “emotional equilibrium,  controlling your anger” and so on and so on.  But aside from the rhetoric, how many are providing the training for that kind of capacity?  As an instructor, investing in your own development as an emotional being is as important (if not more) as any attempts to integrate these ideas into your classes.  Students need to see that dealing with relationships at home, at work, in the world, affect us all and our decisions on how to reconcile our emotions with the situations we encounter are as much a par20161126_105810t of our martial practice as the work we do in the academy.

Being mindful of the fact that all of these elements play an integral part in our MSMB training philosophy allows us to create an environment where people develop their complete selves and explore new pathways to growth and wellness.

Training, Well Rounded

By Njoli Brown

I was recently having a conversation with some other martial arts instructors of various styles.  One of the things that came up was the fact that, for the most part, along with the physical stimulus that training provides, one of the things that’d kept us involved for so long was feeling a sense of richness through involvement with the people and  ideas of another culture.  Now, I don’t want to say that this is or must be an interest for all students.  But for us, in common, it’s been an integral part of our practice and, as such a priority in our instruction.

So how do we convey that to our students?  As importantly, how do we convey that in a way that doesn’t diminish the reasons that each individual has for investing their time and energy into an activity that often has no reward other than that which the participant gleans?

Is it timely?  Sometimes a moment presents itself.  Perhaps a situation occurs, a movement or idea reveals itself and, in this time a historical or cultural reference is the perfect framing feature.  It might give context for a way of doing things or for the evolution of a concept.  It might, as well, give some insight into the mindset of those figures who had, at times, practical reasons for the design of their craft.

Is it enriching?  For many students, having a deeper knowledge of the practice to which they have dedicated themselves gives them a greater sense of purpose.  They come to see themselves as guardians of ideas and, in the most fortunate of instances, as researchers who dispel myths and contribute to  the archive of developmental resources.

Is it relevant?  Class isn’t the time to bloviate about all of your past accomplishments, about the awards you’ve won or the opponents you’ve beaten. Check yourself and, if it isn’t in service of the practice maybe keep it til you’re out having a drink with your buddies.  Remember that your stories and the ideas they convey become part of the culture of your school as well.

Integrating history and culture into the practice of your students takes a real sense of scope and a strong concept of what you hope for your community to embody.  You are shaping values in subtle ways.  It can be tremendously enriching or it can be the “turn-off” that pushes hard training students out the door. Done well, it turns your students into teachers and re-creates the story as a living thing.