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.

 

Martial Arts, Veganism and Performance

Article by Christophe Verdot

Well respected in the martial arts community, our brother, Christophe, has chosen to speak about his personal journey with healing and veganism.  These opinions are particularly his own and based on his path and experiences.  Hopefully it gives us all some inspiration to ask questions, do research and work toward a practice of self-care.  Thanks for letting us host you here on OnBlast!

Martial artist and vegan still sounds counter-intuitive for many people in 2016, seeing martial artists as strong men who practice  violent fighting arts and vegans as weak, skinny, long hairs who worship flowers and birds. But this is far from a full reality.  My reality is quite the opposite. I’m just a simple person like anyone else but I make sure to understand what I do and why.

I started martial arts around 8 years ago, as I arrived in the Philippines where I still live today, at that time I wasn’t vegan, in fact, I was a junk food lover and a meal without meat wasn’t a meal to me. Like many, I was like that because society formatted me that way.

After several years my body started to fall apart… I was focusing on working out and martial art training (on Pekiti-Tirsia only at that time) but wasn’t giving any particular attention to my body and how I was fueling hit. I ended up with 4 bulging disks, a misaligned cervical column, narrow vertebra disk space etc.  At that point I started to think differently.  After seeing many different specialist (Osteopath, Chiropractor, Physiotherapist, Surgeon etc.), after countless cracked bones and PT sessions with no, or only short terms results, I decided to take a different path. If no one was really going to be able to help me and most of them giving me the same advice (from “do more work out” to “stop everything”, “put ice!”, “no! ice is for the dead, put warm!” etc.) then I would study my case myself!

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A few of my references…

I started with lot of books and research on anatomy and back problems. This lead me to see the body as a whole and treat it as an entire chain as opposed to what most were doing, trying to simply remove the pain on the specific tender area. I understood that flexibility, mobility and motor skills were the key point and all work together!

After meeting my friend Nico, a strength and conditioning coach in Philippines, I started to follow the work of Tim Anderson called “Original Strength.” It was very interesting in that it focused on basic motor skills.  As he explains, babies start crawling then move to quadrupedal to end up standing.  All of these steps are very important as they build the necessary strength from one to another! Going back to these kind of exercises was definitely helping me along with following Pete Egoscue’s work “Pain Free Living.”

I worked for almost a year on motor skills with my fricv animal flowend, Yut, who was an Olympic athlete in Japan.  II started from zero, relearning the proper mechanics of walking, skipping, running etc. It wasn’t easy at first and I felt really stupid not even walking correctly!  But finally I found what was, for me, the perfect way to combine all that in a very fun way, Animal Flow.  It mixes mobility, motor skills, flexibility with quadrupedal exercises as a main base! I went deep into it, traveling to Switzerland to practice and learn it.  Recently I became the first Animal Flow instructor in Philippines. Animal Flow is also perfect to develop strong stabilizer and postural muscle; a must do in your weekly routine.

All this is to say that learning to understand, why and how, is the best way to progress, either in martial arts or other parts of our lives.  Some doctor had gotten to the point of saying I should stop everything, never carry more than 10% of my body weight, no more contact sports, etc. I’m glad I listened to myself and did my own research. This all, additionally, improved my martial arts practice like nothing else had.  Good body mechanics are always the best whether you swing a stick or throw a punch / kick.  It all depends on good mechanics.

What about veganism? Well… that was part of my healing and progression… I’ve now been vegan for 2 years.  After my dad passed away from heart attack at age of 65, knowing that his dad also passed away from heart attack at age 55, and that this can be hereditary, I naturally started research how to lower the risk and I was very surprised to find that meat consumption was one of the main causes, especially red or process meats! I realized how other associated products were bad for human too, such as milk, which is definitely not suitable for human consumption… and from all the research I came across (ie animal cruelty, meat industry conditions and exploitation) I didn’t want be part of all that anymore.  We now know and have scientific proof, along with tons of examples (athletes etc.) that we don’t needs meat to live and perform at the highest level, so why should we continue?

When you you first become a vegan, you might be extremely affected by your new awareness of the violence and suffering caused by animal exploitation.  You tend to think the entire world should be vegan tomorrow.  I’ve been there too, then, with some distancing my mind changed a bit.  I still believe the world, one day, will be mostly vegan as it is the only way to preserve our planet and unsustainable to feed everyone on meat.  But now I fight a different fight to stop the stop spread of false information.  No, we don’t need meat to live well.  No, vegans don’t lack vital nutrients and aren’t weak, etc. because of this nutritional choice.  I also advocate for the availability of more vegan options in restaurants, groceries and so on.  We should at least have the possibility to choose! When you truly go vegan and start reading the ingredients of everything you buy you realize that many industries are putting animal products everywhere, from bread to the french fries in MacDo for example. This is absolutely unnecessary.

The vegan diet made me feel a lot better inside, mentally and physically.  I eat mostly raw and it is incredible the amount of energy I get from it and how my performance has increased. I’m now 37 years old and have never been this physically active and this fit in my entire life.  I now teach Pekiti Tirsia Kali 3 to 4 times a week but also go to boxing and BJJ classes along with learning Filipino Silat and even beginning to work on Zhan Zhuang postures.  Not a single day without practicing and all this is powered only by plants !  It has now been almost a year since my back was last messed up.  Previously it was a regular occurrence about every 2 months.

My take away advice is to research and try to understand if you want really move forward or fix a problem, applying martial arts philosophy to diet (protect the weak, don’t harm or kill if not necessary) and to my health (do your own research, study and take care of yourself at all time) .  With all this,  a martial artist’s journey is very personal and each one should do what is right for her or himself.

_________________________________________________________________

Guro Christophe Verdot is originally from Bordeaux, France and has made a home in the Philippines since 2009 to train in and teach the Filipino Martial Art of Pekiti Tirsia Kali. He established Pekiti Tirsia Kali Global City after receiving his Guro rank from Tuhon Rommel Tortal on May 06 2012. He is now Guro Dalawa under Tuhon Bill McGrath and Pekiti-Tirsia Global City is an official Pekiti-Tirsia International School.11337053_10152944970283553_2473717587599288883_o

Contact and infos : http://pekiti-global-city.com/

 

Building Community in the Martial Design

By Njoli Brown

It’d be simple enough if it was just about stepping in, training and stepping out. But recently had a conversation with students about the importance of fraternizing. Spoke about how some of the most valuable things I’ve learned in my time both in capoeira and kali were learned outside of class on my mestre’s stoop or over breakfast or building instruments, at my mandala’s favorite hangout or on the beach. Taking the time to connect with your teachers and your comrades reminds them of your investment and of the value you place in their investment in you. It’s where life talk happens and context for all the training gets explored. http://ow.ly/xz2J300ome9 http://ow.ly/i/jwNgS

A Teacher’s Gratitude

So I just returned from another trip out to the Philippines.  This trip was, for the most part, a training endeavor for my practice in the Filipino martial arts but on every count it was spectacular.  Not only did I feel my learning expand day by day but, as well, in the company of some pretty fantastic people, I had the opportunity to explore the region in a way that was completely new to me.

So much knowledge was being shared student to student, teacher to teacher and teacher to student.  I felt I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge an aspect of teaching that can sometimes be overlooked.

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Tuhon Nonoy & Guro Njoli

Common knowledge, teaching can be extremely difficult.  Not only that, it is often one of the most culturally, and definitely financially, undervalued professions in our society at large.  But I wanted to speak not only to the amount of respect and gratitude that our educators deserve, but also of the special role that gratitude plays in effective teaching.

Although the training was often hard driven under intense heat and uncertain sand, the words I consistently heard from instructors were “thank you.”  Seems like such a small thing.  But being acknowledged for our presence, our time, our acceptance of our faults and shortcomings, created a recognition that the teacher acknowledged as well their own humanity and reliance on us, as participants in their process.

Over the past year or so, in every class I do, no matter how difficult, I’ve been trying to be more and more diligent about beginning with thanks and ending with the same amount of gratitude.  Teaching is only itself with the presence and attendance of students.  Optimal learning happens when teachers allow themselves to learn and to access their own human connectivity and when students find themselves connected to the process.

Additionally, not only can we create available spaces in which students can learn, but educators must also, provide tools so that learning peers and community members can demonstrate gratitude by supporting a matter of growth which will ripple effect throughout the environment.

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Sign language insert in the menu of a local Palawan restaurant

One evening we went to a local restaurant to commune and to bond.  As we entered I noticed that on almost every wall there were posters of American Sign Language.  It was curious but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this was relevant in the context of all the random kitsch wall adornments.  When we sat and I found another copy of the sign alphabet inserted in the menu I was so impressed, in reading closer, to find that it was meant as a tool for clients to use in support of the staff members who were deaf and hard of hearing.  Such a profound demonstration of gratitude!  We do not just hire deaf staff members, we don’t just hold the expectation that they will completely accommodate a hearing culture, but we also give our community tools and insight into the importance of broadening our vision of who makes up our society .

All of this said, it can be an important thing when we recognize that positive actions can influence and inspire in ways that read as actual visible productivity.

 

PTK Language Lab

I just recently spent another couple of weeks in the Philippines and was re-inspired.  I’m sure that most of my friends and family had their excitement for me based on some imaginings of days in the sun while the rest of the east coast remained buried in springtime snow.  Truth be told, there was a minimal amount of beach lounging and, instead, it was a brain-sizzling crash course on structure and repetition and diligence.  It was my PTK language lab.  I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of exploring structure and examination in the context of creative arts.

“Arts.”  The fact is, there must be something scientific in the application of any martial art.  It requires a distinctive understanding of body mechanics, anatomy, psychology and simultaneously there is the creative ingenuity to realize all of these concepts in a 3 dimensional and changing laboratory.  The ground is uneven, stamina is wavering, it is early in the morning or late in the evening, there is an opponent which is exploring a completely different array of questions, etc. etc. It’s been of interest to me to look at some of the foundational elements of the styles I’ve been practicing and to examine them using a more scientific methodology.

Scientific_Method_3Particularly in the context of kali, which is predominately weapons based, there is not a lot of space for a reliance on techniques that have only been through the anecdotal fire. Sure, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel but we’d better make sure the wheel is well suited to the terrain we’re driving on.  So we need to “road test.”  That means taking each technique into a sparring scenario and hashing through its application.  It also means developing the vocabulary and grammar to see the opportunity for the technique’s execution by developing, through practice, the capacity to discharge the element with proper form, angle, energy and intent.

not really scientific method

 

Anyway, I’ll be following up on this as the weeks and months go by and hopefully I’ll be able to provide some worthwhile questions to add into the pool.

5 Questions: Art and Learning with Damon Abraham – Kali, Silat and Martial Mindfulness

It is truly a pleasure to be able to include Damon in this edition of NoPaper.  He has a been a mentor to me in many ways without even realizing it and has wonderful insights to share which can be applied to all of our artistic and cultural practices.

Damon Abraham of Kapatiran Mandirigma  talks back to 5 Questions from Njoli Brown at NoPaper

I first encountered the Southeast Asian martial arts between my Freshman and Sophomore years of college.  I was home for the summer when a friend of mine was telling me all about this “Kali” art that he was studying.  At the time, I had never even heard the term Kali or Arnis / Escrima for that matter.  In any case, I had been interested in martial arts for as long as I could remember and had practiced a couple of different arts by this time.  Like most American kids in my generation, inspired by Ralph Macchio I studied at a “Karate” school which was really Tae Kwon Do.  Later I ended up taking some Hapkido.  But I was certainly interested in something more.  Anyway, through this friend I was introduced to an Indonesian martial artist named Paul Prijatna.  His primary art was Kali, but growing up he had learned Pencak Silat from his uncle.  I was impressed by Paul.  He was very unlike the Westernized artists I had met so far and he embodied more of the internal and spiritual aspects of the art that I was looking for.  We had many conversations about energy (i.e. chi), meditation, and the proper conduct for a martial artist.  There was no ego or machismo that I’ve later come to associate with sport fighting etc.  Paul only charged me $50 for several weeks of training and at our last meeting before I returned to school he pulled out my check and ripped it up.  “I just wanted to make sure you were serious”, he said as he handed me the pieces of ripped paper.  While my training with Paul was very short, he put me on the path towards FMA and Silat that I still follow today.

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 …

One thing that I believe to be a personal weakness is not knowing enough about the customs and cultural heritage of the styles that I study.  I am not particularly well-versed in the language and histories of the Philippines and Indonesia, for example.  However, I have visited both countries to study and learn.  And although I have perhaps fallen short in some areas, I have tried to make a sincere effort to know about my teachers, their philosophies, why they move the way that they move, and especially their perspectives on the spiritual aspects of the arts.558465_10201776423876516_283526343_n

For me personally, I feel the best way that I can reflect the art is through embodying it as a personal expression.  Many people try to preserve an art by memorizing techniques and drills and chiseling them into stone, so to speak, as if they were some sort of dogma to follow. To me this makes the art seem dead.  Kind of like Latin, an arguably complete language and yet it is immutable.  It does not live because it is not spoken.  The living art is in constant flux and each practitioner contributes their unique perspective and individualized expression.  Hence, it is through the internalization
of the art that it really remains alive.  And of course, the manner in which the art is transmitted is crucial here as well.  It is my ambition, therefore, to be both a reflection of my teachers and an individualized expression.  At the end of the day, none of us are a source of anything… we are merely channels of that thing.  Training builds that channel within the student, and each student is different.

 …

Lately, with respect to Pencak Silat and FMA, I’ve been contemplating a metaphor of a squirrel trying to climb two trees.  It is, of course, impossible to climb both at the same time.  In the beginning of our practice we tend to see each trunk independently as well as its differences from the other. And yet at the level of the branches, the trees come together and the practitioner can seamlessly traverse between them.  So it becomes a question of how far apart are the trees and how great is their breadth in the understanding of the practitioner. My personal experience in the way that I’ve learned them, Pencak Silat and Arnis/Kali/Escrima are kind of like complimentary opposites.  The movements and the core physical training, to me, do not seem to conflict.  Likewise, many of the principles are common between them. Hence, I would say that these two trees are close together. However, there can be considerable variation in how the information is conceptualized by the teacher and imparted to the student. This can be true even amongst teachers within a single system.  And I have found that when observing the gross movements between different styles, for example, while they may appear to be very similar, when actualizing the movement with the intent and mindset of the respective style they are very different. Hence, for me it has become less of a matter of “how does art A perform movement XYZ?” and more about “how do I move with this art?” I will say that each art has given me an augmented view of the other as I can take a somewhat out-of-the-box perspective by analyzing a technique etc from the vantage point of another style.  I am sure this must be true of anyone who has learned more than one art.  However, we must be cautious.  It is one thing to be able to shift perspectives and it is another to try and interpret one art through the lens of another.  I’ve seen many students who have slowed their progress through this fallacy. You’ll often hear people say things like “Oh yes, we have that in JKD too.” or “In my art we would do it like this.” As an example, 4 years ago I began learning Kalis Ilustrisimo under Kuya Raul Marquez. At that time, I was already a Lakan and senior student in two other styles of FMA (Kombatan Arnis and Kuntaw Kali Kruzada).  And yet, in my first lesson I had to come to terms with the fact that I really didn’t know anything. Raul’s teaching method was completely unlike anything I had experienced.
Nothing was broken down into simple steps.  There was no rote memorization but rather it was fistfuls of 155271_586912464671838_1492586766_ninformation that I had no hope to process… I just had to swallow as much as I could and try to keep up. The movements appeared familiar, and yet I couldn’t apply them in context. My timing was off, my footwork was backwards, and all of my instincts seemed wrong.  After each lesson, I’d ride the subway for an hour from Queens back to Brooklyn and my head would literally ache.  If you were to ask me, “what did you learn today?” I wouldn’t even be able to tell you and yet I could see myself improving. Hence, I was faced with a choice… I could accept returning to the status of a “beginner” or I could let my ego get the better of me.  Fortunately I chose the former. By putting aside my pride and approaching the lessons with the beginner’s mentality, I feel I was not only able to learn the movements much faster, but to understand the underlying principles and philosophy at a deeper level. Ultimately, this experience proved beneficial to my progress in every style that I practice. I think that most arts run much deeper than we tend to recognize.  Although it is not always overtly expressed, my teachers all seem to embody this appreciation.  Despite their accomplishments and recognition, they are still students of their art.  To me, that is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from them.  If we view ourselves as a rank (black belt, lakan etc), we find ourselves repeatedly disappointed.  We can never really live up to our own expectations of what that rank entails.  However, when we recognize ourselves as beginners, we can only improve. This disposition has not only helped me progress as an artist, but ultimately has allowed me to reap more enjoyment from the arts.

Regarding their differences, perhaps the greatest contrast that I’ve noticed between the style of Silat that I study (Inti Ombak Pencak Silat – IOPS) and the styles of FMA that I practice (Kombatan, Kuntaw Kali Kruzada, and Kalis Ilustrisimo) is that the FMA is very martial focused whereas I would say that IOPS is more holistic.  I mean this in the sense that IOPS is not only external (i.e. martial) but also emphasizes internal aspects (breathing / meditation) as well as spiritual.  Case in point, the Lakutama organization, of which IOPS is a part, has branches dedicated entirely to spiritual and healing practices. I believe that these aspects are still embedded within the FMA, but perhaps due to colonialism are more buried under the surface.  282730_10150246807707161_980330_nYou don’t regularly come across FMA practitioners with a heavy emphasis on internal training, for example, unless they have learned other arts.  Of course, that is a generalization.  For instance, I know practitioners from Mindanao who are very spiritual and have a very holistic approach to their art.  But generally speaking, as it is practiced I feel that IOPS has a more overt emphasis on the entirety of the person going beyond physical and martial applications. I’ve seen IOPS have a profound and lasting positive impact on more people (not only students) than any other art that I’ve encountered. Ironically, while I regret to have had less opportunity to study directly under Guru Daniel Prasetya as I have with my other teachers, I would say that he has had a greater influence over me at a personal level (beyond martial) than almost anyone I’ve ever known. I think that it is unfortunate that more arts don’t incorporate these aspects.

 

A personal challenge for me has been in the realization that life’s time constraints do not allow me to practice nearly as much as I feel like I should.  This is exasperated when learning more than one style.  And the ego can become particularly threatened when seeing oneself surpassed by your peers.  Time spent “advancing” in one art is time sacrificed in another. But as I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve come to worry less and less about the recognition of certificates, rank, title, or the successes of my peers.  I only strive to be a better artist today than I was yesterday.  And when we are at the level of the tree’s branches, it is not about how many drills we know etc… simply, how well can we connect to the roots of the tree?  Is the root of the style inside of you?

In the years that I’ve been studying Arnis, there has definitely been an upsurge in the popularity of the Filipino Arts.  Several action movies have begun using FMA inspired choreography, new schools and styles are popping up everywhere, and there is a ton of videos, Facebook groups, websites, and equipment suppliers that have popped up.  In general, I see this as a positive change but it certainly has its drawbacks as well.  For instance, I’m happy to see people from all over the world making pilgrimages to the Philippines to pay homage and learn from the originators of the arts. Likewise, with how much Western culture tends to be idolized and idealized in parts of Asia, I think that for Filipinos to see Westerners visiting their homeland to learn their native arts hopefully gives a sense of cultural pride.  It is a shame to think about how many Filipinos (and Indonesians) forego their native arts to pursue TKD or Karate etc due to either a lack of awareness or lack of respect for their indigenous art.  On the other hand, the manner in which FMA tends to be embodied in the US is often less than optimal.  There is a lot of ego and insecurity wrapped up in the arts and veiled behind catch phrases like “combat effective” or “battle tested”.  Not to say that the arts are not incredibly effective, because they are.  However, many practitioners seem to study the arts more for the protection of the ego than protection of the person.  As to the competition between groups and styles, in terms of self-defense, our mindset should not be how does one style defeat another.  I’m not training to fight another style. I’m training to defend my person and to defend others.  Therefore, to me all of the saber rattling that goes with “style-pride” is wasted breath.  It is also easy for us to get caught up in pitfalls involving recognition.  This comes in the form of belts, certificates, logos on T-shirts, and even our posed pictures with the masters.  The only proof of your practice comes in the expression of your art.  Is it part of you?  Any other artifice that represents that, to me, is BS. And it upsets me when I see people visit the masters, paying them a trifle then demanding a lesson and a photo opportunity.  How many masters die poor while the styles of their own creation thrive abroad?  Essentially, the real art is an intangible thing.  It lives in us and is ever changing.  But that is hard for us to accept and we cling to the token instead.  That is also why we are more concerned with the number of techniques we carry in our suitcases rather than how well we understand the principles.  I count myself extremely fortunate for the teachers I have had who have instilled this sense into me.

 …

I think that the most exciting project for me has been my ongoing involvement with the Kapatiran Mandirigma organization which was set up to be a celebration of Indonesian and Filipino martial arts.  We’ve sought to foster a community of sharing amongst styles and artists and have done our best to put a sense of family over politics. This group was created by my teacher, Grandmaster Shelley Millspaugh (Kombatan Arnis), who most certainly has been one of my greatest martial influences.  Shelley believes that as artists we have so much to share and learn from one another, and so this organization serves as a vehicle for us to meet other groups, cross-train between styles, and congregate as a family at our annual camp in Estes Park. I have been extremely fortunate to have fallen under so many teachers with this mentality. Prior to the formation of Kapatiran Mandirigma, I moved to NYC and began learning from Datu Richie Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada).  To this day I have yet to meet a practitioner with as much uncanny speed, power, and precision as him.  But more importantly, I have yet to meet a more humble person.  Soon after beginning my study of Kuntaw Kali, Shelley to visit NYC and teach a seminar.  Datu also assisted me in hosting Guru Daniel on more than one occasion.  Consequently, Datu became one of the first members we invited to the Kapatiran Mandirigma organization.  I mention this merely because it gives me both a sense of pride about FMA and Silat in the US as well as hope for the future when I see so many artists with various backgrounds come together to foster an environment of mutual respect.  This posture of openness not only serves to minimize conflict, but gives the students an invaluable opportunity to see their own art from many perspectives and to broaden their horizons.  The best teachers are the ones who are forever students.  They are the ones who do not view themselves as “the source” of the teaching, but merely a guidepost for the student. And since the inception of Kapatiran Mandirigma, I’ve seen my teachers grow as much as we have as students. And now the responsibility for hosting the 2015 Kapatiran Mandirigma camp has fallen to me and the other senior members of our organization.  For me, this is an exciting opportunity to bring all of my teachers together in one place.  We hold our camp annually in Estes Park around late June.  The camp is essentially open to anyone, provided they have the right disposition and a willingness to learn.

 


Damon Abraham 988527_570493692973410_1047714983_n

Damon has studied martial arts since childhood but has been learning various styles of Silat and Arnis since 2000.  His formal study began in 2002 when he met Grandmaster Shelley Millspaugh in Kansas City, MO.  GM Shelley is a direct student of Great Grandmaster Ernesto Presas, the founder of Kombatan Arnis, as well as a student of Kuntaw Silat under Bapak Willem deThouars.  Through GM Shelley’s encouragement, Damon has branched out and learned from several other instructors. In 2004 at a seminar in Arkansas, Damon met Guru Daniel Prasetya and shortly after began his study of Inti Ombak Pencak Silat.  While he had some previous experience with Kuntaw Silat through GM Shelley, this was his first introduction into a formalized internal practice inclusive of breathing and meditation disciplines.  In late 2005, Damon and his family moved to New York City where they lived for 8 years.  Soon after he began learning Kuntaw Kali Kruzada from Datu Richie Acosta.  At GM Shelley’s request, Damon also sought out Kuya Raul Marquez of Kalis Ilustrisimo and has been a student of KI since 2010.  Other notable teachers and influences include Paul Prijatna who first introduced him to Southeast Asian martial arts, Guru Michael Leininger (Init Ombak Pencak Silat) who first introduced him to the internal side of the arts, Mas Sigit (Inti Ombak Pencak Silat) the spiritual leader of IOPS, Master Kurt Graham (Kombatan Arnis), Grandmaster Steve Todd (founder of 5 Way Method), Grandmaster Jeff Sprawls (founder of Maju Bela Diri Pentjak Silat), and Master Style Allah (Combate Eskrima Orehenal) who first introduced Damon to the art of the blade.  In 2009, Damon joined the Kapatiran Mandirigma (KM) organization and is currently a senior member & master instructor of KM.  He is proud to represent the KM organization which serves to support many artists and teachers from various backgrounds and styles.   Damon currently resides in Denver, Colorado.

 

Titles and Ranks:

Kapatiran Mandirigma – Master Instructor

Kombatan Arnis – Lakan Tatlo (3rd Degree)

Modern Arnis / Kombat-an (MAK) – Full Instructor

Kadena Kruzada Eskrima – Instructor

Kuntaw Kali Kruzada – Associate Instructor

5 Way Method – (1st Degree)

Inti Ombak Pencak Silat – Guru Muda (4th Degree)

 

The Mentor & The Grandmaster

This video is such a joy to watch.  Yes, of course, the eskrima is at such a level that it couldn’t be anything but beautiful. Just as much, I was taken in by this interaction between teacher and student.  There is palpable connectedness, love and respect.  From both, the side of the teacher and that of the student, one of the lessons that takes longest to learn is the ability to truly “see” the other, but developing that capacity seems like one of the most worthwhile things we can gain out of our martial practice.

 

At the crossroad: Kruzada Kali’s Guro Wilton

By Njoli Brown

An interview with Guro Wilton Valerio of Kuntaw Kali Kruzada

Njoli:  Yeah man, I just wanted to check in. See what’s going on at the getdown, going on at the Kuntaw.

Guro Wilton:  Yeah, it’s been good.  You know, we’ve got some new black belts in there.

Nj:  So they’re going to start rotating in teaching and that kind of thing?

GW:  Yeah, they’re almost there.  Still in that process of doing that teacher level certification.

Nj:  Oh, okay.  So they’re not really attached to each other?

GW:  No, not really.  I mean, you can get your black belt and not necessarily have worked as much on your teaching tools. There are different certifications for a variety of things.  I think the one who’s making his way through it all is Hubert (Saladino).

It’s one thing to make your way through the the learning process but then going through it all again, thinking about teaching it…

Nj:  So, maybe it recognizes that other feature beyond application that’s more intensely developing your analytical mind.

GW:  Yeah, that’s pretty much what it is in many ways.

Nj:  Yes, I can definitely see that Hubert has an enthusiasm for teaching and that is very apparent in his way.

What about you though?  How long have you been in this?

GW:  15… 14 years? Yeah, I think 14.

Nj:  Wow, so 14 years with Kuntaw… and were you doing something else before that?

GW:  I mean, I did some Tae Kwon Do before, you know, like most New Yorkers did in the 80s and 90s, hahaha.

Nj:  Bro, I’m tellin’ you.  They got it locked down.  Locked down tight.

GW:  Yeah, 80s, 90s, 70s too.

Nj:  So was your first coming into kali with Kuntaw or with some other group?

GW:  No, it was with Datu Rich.

Nj:  So how did you first get in touch with him?

GW:  He used to teach at Fight House.  I don’t know if you know that place.  It used to be called something else. It used to be called Chow’s back then.   Named after Peggy Chow who ran the school.

They had it sectioned off and so you know it provided a lot of individual training spaces, and everybody was there.  I mean, Renzo Gracie was there before he was a huge name.  Man, and you know, we were right after him, right after all those smelly-ass gis and everything, hahaha.

But you know, there was also a Thai Boxing class there as well.  So, I had gone there to check that out but the teacher, he just showed no interest at all.  Kinda blew me off, like “oh, what you see is what you get.  Look around and whatever, whatever, whatever…”  Meanwhile Datu Rich was teaching at the same time and I was like “that looks amazing!”

Right from there I started talking to him. “Hey, is this JKD? Is this this? Is this that?” When he told me it was kali, I mean, I had never really heard of any Filipino martial arts.  I mean, some of my best friends were Filipino. You might have met Guro Alex.

At first I would just come by every week or so and just watch class. They probably thought I was some kind of spy or something, hahaha, trying to steal some secret moves.

Nj:  Were there a lot of other groups operating during that time?

GW:  No, not really. As far as large organizations, you always had Doce Pares,  maybe Doug Pierre.  But I hadn’t really heard of them until later.

Nj:  Crazy thing, on the side a bit, but recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and researching and realizing there were a lot of old school kats out there in Philadelphia.  I’ve been reading a lot about some huge contingents of classical and modern kali/arnis/escrima practitioners who immigrated and, not only moved out to California but, also took up residence in Philly.

GW:  Hmmm, that’s interesting.  I didn’t really know about that but I do think that you find a lot more long time committed students outside of New York City.  Maybe just because New Yorkers just don’t have a lot of time.  Ya know and because of this along with the high rent, it’s a hard thing to run a school here in New York without selling yourself out.  It’s a balance thing.  Either people go that TS (franchise) route or a much more low key thing.  It’s difficult…

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At my old Tae Kwon Do school the teacher did a few stick things and that sparked my interest.  He would do some stick drills and what not and if we ever asked him he would be like “Oh, this is Filipino martial arts.”  That really sparked it for me.  I think he had trained some with Remy Presas.  Just seminars and things like that.

Remy was really big with doing seminars, especially in the 70s.  So my teacher Spider, you might know Spider Rodriguez, you’re from New York, anyway, he’d go to these workshops and then come back and teach us some stick stuff.  When I finally ended up find a stick fighting school, I don’t know, I was just like “this is it.”  At that point I kind of segued away from Tae Kwon Do into kali.

Nj:  All of this stands out to me also because of the really interesting role that blacks and Latinos have played in the development of martial arts in New York.  There’s been a really big presence for decades now.

GW:  Yes, really big.  We kind of needed it, on many levels… and the truth is, they were taking it very seriously.  The 70s and 80s were kind of a “golden era” for a generation of martial artists.

Nj:  So what about you and opportunities to head over to the Philippines?

GW:  I’ve been there twice so far, in 2006 for about 2 weeks and again in 2010, and it was really great and I loved it.  The training there was just, just different.  I mean, you’ve trained with us so you know that we’re pretty serious about training the self-defense aspects of the art and I felt like that just wasn’t the focus out there. They’re more about learning the drills and learning the art and there wasn’t any… paranoia about the way they were training. They’re also very into tournaments and demos.  I went out to one with GM (Vic) Sanchez.  Then there’s that really deep level of dedication, like a whole other level.

I mean, you know, at Kuntaw we get maybe 3 hours a week here. That’s what you’re warming up on out there and that’s almost every day.  That felt like one of the biggest jumps.  I felt like my skill level really rocketed, being able to spend up to 30 hours in a week training.

NJ:  So, I’m curious do you see similarities ad contrasts?  One thing that stands out to me is the fact that the knife is by no means an abstract thing to Filipino practitioners and so it’s practiced in that way.  Do you find that cultural perspective plays a role in practice both here and there?

GW:  I don’t know, but it was a big change and definitely an eye opener.

Nj:  Interestingly though, you train with Datu Rich Acosta and he seems to be tremendously open minded stylistically speaking.  He’ll pull things from Aikido, Wing Chun and Jiu Jitsu if he feels like they’re relevant. Even the style uses this cross of Cinco Tieros, Lightening Scientific, Modern Arnis, etc.

So what’s been your experience in terms of diversifying your practice?

GW:  Well, I know that we really like the way the Wing Chun fits in with what we’re doing, especially thinking in terms of the hand trapping.  Practicing that element of Wing Chun really helps out  a lot.  It enhances the knife fighting and the close in stick fighting stuff.

So, yeah, I think I’m definitely interested in using what works, not getting so wrapped in metaphysical restrictions but focusing on what’s practical.  A lot of that also comes from Datu’s brother, Maestro Rico, because he trained at a lot of different schools, the ones you mentioned and so many others.  That’s where the idea of kruzada comes from in the name.

And you start to realize that the body only moves in certain ways and you start seeing the in-common techniques.  You’re cross-referencing between a variety of answers and creating one big hybrid.  We may not like to call to a hybrid art but that’s essentially what it is.

It was a process of  getting rid of the the useless drills and coming at it from a more simplified directions.  It’s not like aikido or karate or some other art where there are thousands of techniques.  We have a few angles and a few techniques and we have to work hard to master them.  A lot of arts have a lot of fluff, a lot of drills that don’t really lead anywhere and maybe they see that as a way to train beginners.

Nj:  It could be.  I mean, a lot of the people might say that the purpose behind certain drills is to teach body mechanics and movement theory so that it can ingrained into the student before they start to move on to more advanced applications.

GW:  It’s harder to teach some aspects of kali to someone who doesn’t have any martial arts experience, especially when you’re talking about things like Lightning or Cinco Tieros.

Nj:  Maybe that’s why you see a lot of the people who take kali have tried or trained something else before and have at least a general sense of their body.

GW:  Sure, I’d say that’s true, particularly if I’m thinking of the ones who really stick with it.  ‘Cause it can take a lot of time to learn those body mechanics, the timing, to train the basics, and you have to come in with the patience to do that kind of work.

I mean, it took me forever just to get my head wrapped around the idea of blocking & checking or sinawali.  All of it was good, but it was a lot of work, learning to use my left hand as well as my right.

I found a lot of the good fighters that I met in the Philippines were left handed and maybe that gave them a leg up because so many of us are used to fighting another right hander.

Nj:  Since you started training kali have you taken any other martial arts and how was that experience?

GW:  Yeah, yeah.  I’ve done a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Nj:  Was there something specific you were looking for in that practice?

GW:  Yeah, definitely.  Although I might not think it’s the most practical of martial arts, it does teach you a lot about body mechanics. It gets you away from trying to muscle through things.  BJJ is all about leverage and that was a real eye opener.  Similar to Wing Chun, there’s this element of energy flow.  You don’t have to be big and strong to take someone twice your weight down to the floor.  And then there’s the conditioning aspect.  We don’t get too much conditioning in the Filipino martial arts.  If anything, it’s very specific to the arms and shoulders and areas needed for manipulating the sticks and knives but in terms of the lower body… I felt like that was something I really got out of doing the BJJ.

Nj:  I wonder if this plays into this aspect that I noticed from your classes.  I’ve seen that it’s not common for every FMA (Filipino Martial Arts) school to spend as much time as you all do with dumog or ground fighting.  I always thought it was a very intelligent thing, you guys recognizing not just these 3 ranges, but this additional fourth that is on the ground.

GW:  Sure, sure and the truth is, when you see it many of these places… how good is it?  If you were to take what you’d learned and throw it into a real BJJ school, would it hold up? That’s a big test.

Going up a really good purple belt or whatever in BJJ, I mean, they’re really good, really fast and it’s hard to lock ’em in or submit them.  So I felt like that was a good reason for me to train with them and to learn their techniques.  I wanted to understand how they move and why they move in the ways they do.

And then we incorporate some of that stuff back into our teaching.  I mean, we’re not big into doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ’cause it’s not the most practical thing but there are some aspects that are really fundamental like:  how to move your hips, how to relax, that kind of thing.

Nj:  Yeah, proximity is such a psychological thing and people can really freak out once someone moves into their space or is in contact with them for too long.

GW:  That’s a big problem for a lot of students. We do chi sao, for example, and you’re supposed to be totally relaxed, it’s energy flow, but people freak out. That same thing comes up when we get into all the hand-to-hand stuff, where you have to grab someone or grab their stick or whatever.  

So stuff like Jiu Jitsu and dumog help with stuff like that, especially when you get into a grappling situation.  Knowing if you should be grappling, particularly when someone’s holding a knife or some other weapon.  Jiu Jitsu spends a lot of time getting its students really comfortable with a variety of different guard positions.

These things can be really good for FMA but, of course, we remember that we’re so practicality minded and know that we don’t want to wrestle on the floor for too long.  But you never know.  I mean, most people in this country have done some kind of wrestling, done some kind of mixed martial arts, it’s gotten so big.  So you never know if you’re going to get taken down by surprise and if that happens you don’t want to freak out, you want to be ready to react accordingly.

The truth in all of this though, is that we have to practice to also learn other people’s weaknesses.  We also have to train to be strong enough and have enough stamina for all kinds of situations.

That’s something I think students need to learn more of,how to train themselves.  It’s like a weight lifter who wants to build a certain muscle. He has to work it every day.  We do some angle 1s and 2s in class, you have to work them and perfect them.

When I first started I was really into exercise science and wanted to be a personal trainer.  So I looked at martial arts as another type of body development.  When I set up class I think about how many angle 1s are we gonna do, how many redondas, can we put in a high intensity sparring session? All of this is so people can build a strong core, foundation.

Nj:  Since you’re bringing up teaching I’d love to ask you a bit more about that.  I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about managing a space, dealing with the in and outflow of students, keeping up your enthusiasm when you find yourself constantly returning to the fundamentals, the excitement or feelings you have for the students who’ve been with you for a longer time.  Take it where you will…

GW: Yeah, it’s been six, seven, maybe even 8 years I’ve been teaching now.  The last four or so have been at Shin Budo Kai.  Just before that though, we were almost closed.  Maestro couldn’t teach anymore and Datu Rich was out in Jersey with family, kids.  So basically I was the only one.  I was either, close the school down or I keep teaching.  At that point I really put it on myself to keep the school open.  I didn’t want to see us lose everything we’d worked for over the years prior to that.

But, yeah, now six or seven years later, I’ve seen a lot of beginners come and go.  You start to feel like you can tell who’s going to stay, who’s not going to stay.  And, yes, it’s great seeing people progress, especially when you see them pass that two year mark.  The time flies but you can really see the difference.  That’s really exciting.

For me, a lot of this has been about learning from my own mistakes.  At first I would teach too advanced.  You know Maestro and Datu, they will throw technique after technique at you.  So I decided when I was teaching I really wanted to reinforce the basics so that everyone could keep up with it.  You can tell when certain students just aren’t really grasping something or they’re kind of shaky on this thing or that so… You just have to focus on the basics.

I mean,  a good “1,” I think it’s the best angle ever and if you train it hardcore for a year, it’s the only angle you’ll ever need.  If you have the timing and the strength behind it and the endurance to hold onto the stick, all you need is angle 1.  Angle 1 and angle 2, you could keep it to that.  So, there’s a lot to basics that could seem kind of boring but is so important.

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One thing I learned from GM Sanchez was that there should be at least one thing in your class that you do every time.  You’ve been to my class and have seen that I have some pretty standard warm-ups that I do all the time.  Because all of those body mechanic warm-ups translate into sinawali, into stick and dagger movements, and so on.  We’re trying to develop muscle memory not just work on the moves that make us look cool (’cause there are definitely students who are into that, hahaha).

Nj:  True, true.  Speaking truthfully, I always think of it in terms of a hope that my students will have the opportunity to train with someone far better than me.  I figure, I’m trying to help put together tools so they can reap the most benefit from the chances they encounter.

GW:  Sure, and this is exactly what I meant by saying when they train with Datu and Maestro the pace is fast and I want them to pick up as much as possible.  Because they will be throwing them technique after technique and sometimes it’s just a matter of you learn it or you don’t and we’re moving on. Besides, there’s always something to improve on in the basics.  Change up your training.  Use a tire, get a partner, but stick to working on those basics.

Nj:  Damon (Abraham of Kapatiran Madirigma NYC) is from the same era as you right?  Are there other guys who started out with you who are still in the game?

GW:  From my generation there are not many of them left.  Guro Joe, Alex… Damon came around a little later.  He had been training with Kombatan which comes from Ernesto Presas.  It’s basically almost the same thing that we do.  I mean it’s their own thing and they developed it and I like Komabatan a lot.  But, yeah, Damon was already a black belt by the time he came to us so we were already on the same level, but he stuck around.  He wanted to learn Lightning. 

So, he’s definitely from another generation at Kuntaw, him, (Lakan) Jay (Shin) and then right after Jay, (Guro Lakan) Hubert (Saladino) came.

Nj:  So what about your opportunities to train?  Who did you come up with and how do you get your training in now?

GW:  Well, back then it was pretty decent size, maybe as many as 15 people.  Kind of like when class fills up nowadays.  I’d know Guro Alex since I was a kid.  We grew up together.  Me, him and Randy, we came from the same Tae Kwon Do school.  I went to that school because they went there.  Those guys were friends of my brother and I was always the younger one tagging along with them.

But when they stopped doing TKD I was still wanting to do something.  Finaly , when I found Datu Rich I got Randy and Alex to come train with us.  So we all went over to kali together.  Alex and his brother Randy, me and my brother, Marcus.

That really helped to keep me training ’cause we would finish up with class and then we’d hang around in the gym and practice, or we would meet up in the park to work on things.  That kind of thing helped so much, even though we didn’t know what we were doing, we still got together and played with the angles, worked on bigay tama, free flow, disarms and that kind of thing.

At the time class was only 3 times a week, about an hour and a half per so, what’s that, around 4 hours a week.  That goes by so quick and you could really use an hour each session just for warming up.  If there ended up being a lot of explanation or stuff to talk about you could end up with lke 15 minutes of class.

Me? I don’t like to talk much during class.  I’m like “let’s get to work! We’ve got an hour,” hahaha.  After we left Fight House we cut it down to that hour.  I guess it was easier to schedule and to manage.  You can definitely get stuff done in that time, you just really have to be on track.

Nj:  What that’s really saying is that people have to b motivated to train outside of class.

GW:  We tell ’em that.  They can also take privates or semi-privates. That’s pretty much how my generation of students did it.  We’d go out to Long Island where Maestro was and we’d do black belt class, sometimes we’d call it Fight Camp, hahaha.  We’d go over the stuff but in different ways.  It felt like he was really grooming us for teaching.

Nj:  And what about now? Who do you get to train with now?

GW:  My shadow, haha.  I do a lot of conditioning on my own and sometimes I get together with Guro Alex and we’l go over bigay tama.  We’ll do a lot of grapling because he’s a really good grappler.  But teaching is what’s really helped me clean everything up.

hqdefaultThrough the years I’ve taught so many beginners and having to teach things all those times has really given me the opportunity to work out the details.  You’re able to see your own errors and tweak the formula.  You see the mistakes you make in the students that you teach and then you ask them “Who taught you that? Oh, I taught you that? Hahaha.”  That’s part of why I think teaching is so much a part of your development.  It’s so hard to really look at your own technique otherwise.

Nj: On a separate but related note, I wanted to talk about something that I’ve noticed from your classes that stands out as a thing that many groups struggle with.

You guys seem to have a good number of women in your group. Not only that but,some of them are really solid students who’ve stuck around for quite a while.

GW:  This is actually the most women we’ve had in a long time. It’s always been at least one but usually they don’t go longer then one year or so.  Some stay as long as two years which is a fairly typical.

It helps having one or two committed women in the group ’cause I think it shows something to others when they come to check us out or to try out class.  You also have to understand how to teach some things differently for them.  With some of the guys you can use a more aggressive approach.  In fact, some of them prefer that.  With women, their strengths are different so you have to teach things in…

Nj:  Variations…?

GW:  Yeah, variations.  Lots of that.  You also have to teach that mentality, a mindset that’s focused on self defense.  We usually teach them a lot of knife ’cause it’s most useful for them, that and thinking about applying improvised weapons.  Besides, in kali, knife translates to stick, translates to open hand and on like that.  If you learn the right mechanics, that #1 strike, that hammer fist, that chop, they all come from the same basic idea.

Nj:  I also wanted to ask about your work as an acupuncturist and how that supports or influences your martial practice.

GW:  Well, I was always really interested in healing but I was pretty disillusioned with the conventional medical practice, the doctors would just hand you an antibiotic for anything, like they didn’t really care about you.  So while I was doing Tae Kwon Do I started getting exposed to the idea of oriental medicine and that kind of thing.  The more I kept training martial arts, the more I realized how important it was to learn how to heal myself, especially if I wanted to keep training until I got old.  If my body’s already racked by arthritis when I’m 70 then where do I go from there?

Along with that it’s important to learn the balance between over training and keeping yourself healthy.  I’ve also got to know about how to take care of my students if they get hurt.  So, I feel like these two practices work hand in hand.  So much of both of them is about moving energy, understanding how it flows.

Nj:  Where did you study acupuncture?

GW:  Pacific College f Oriental Medicine, which is here in New York.  There are three branches, here, in Chicago and San Diego.

Nj:  Do you every find opportunities in your kali classes to talk about some of your healing work?  I know, in my capoeira group we have an acupuncturist who has come in a couple of times to hold discussions about general wellness, healing and eating well for active and athletic living, things like that.  It gives people the chance to ask those questions.  How do I take care of my joints? How do I strengthen my bones?  How do I keep my energy up after long work days? How does diet affect my moods and my ability to focus?  People have always been super receptive.

GW:  I try to talk to some of them about that.  Some of them even stop by my office for treatment, but I don’t really get into that stuff so much in class.  I talk to them on more of an individual basis.  I’ll hear “oh, I’ve got this and that problem.” A lot of times it’s diet related or how people are treating their bodies.  On the most base level, keeping chi flowing in the most healthy way possible.

All the same, I don’t want to lecture anybody.  You know, everybody thinks that they’re doing it right and it’s not my place to intervene.  I figure people will come to me if they need help.  Sometimes it can be as simple as modifications to their workout routine.  You see a lot of people who want to hit the weights but they’re not necessarily doing the most functional exercises for the martial art that they’re training.  You don’t need bodybuilding per se for what we do.  It’s okay to be big but, done in the wrong way, it can slow you down or decrease your range of motion.  Truth is, swinging the sticks is the most functional thing.

One day… the dream is to make a way to incorporate everything. Me and Guro Alex want to open up something in the future where we can have a martial arts, health and acupuncture center, all of it under one roof.  We both know a lot of teachers.  We have doctors in the family, psychiatrists and lots of other talented people, even just within the Kuntaw family.  If we all just team up together we could do something really good.

Nj:  Do you feel wed to New York?  ‘Cause, man, you’re talkin’ about some square footage.

GW: I know.  That gets us thinking about all kinds of things.  I’m like “I don’t know if we can do that here.  Maybe we have to move up to Connecticut or something.” Hahaha.  It’s probably going to come down to something like that.  But anything is possible.  Look at gyms like Five Points. They’ve got it all pulled together in one place.

Nowadays, no one owns their own spot and if they do, they’ve probably been in there since like the 70s.  Maybe that’s part of why I like doing stuff in all the outer boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens.

Nj:  Sounds like a lot of stuff is happening

GW:  For sure.

Nj:  Thanks for letting me get at you.  It’s good to get you sitting down for a minute, hahaha.


 

 Wilton Valerio’s Bio

As a kali practitioner:
Wilton Valerio is a 3rd degree black belt and full instructor under Kuntaw Kali kruzada. For the past 15 years Wilton has trained under Maestro Rico Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada, Acosta Fighting system) and Datu Richie Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada). Wilton has also trained in the Philippines with Senior Master Samuel Dulay (Modern Arnis International) and Grandmaster Vicente Sanchez. (Kali Arnis international)

Wilton has over 6 years experience teaching group classes and private lesson in Manhattan and Brooklyn and specializes in coordination drills, timing, reflex, physical fitness and self defense utilizing empty hands or weapons such as single or double stick, knife and improvised weapons.
http://www.kuntawkali.com/

As an acupuncturist:
Wilton Valerio is a licensed acupuncturist in New York State 2014-04-21
and graduated from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine with a
Master of Science Degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine in 2008 and has  completed over 500 hours of clinical internship at the Pacific College Acupuncture Clinic and Grand Meridian Clinic in New York City.

Trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), he specializes in sports recovery, pain management, digestive support, weight loss, physical fitness/personal training and stress management using acupuncture, tui na (massage), herbal medicine and nutritional counseling. Wilton has been in practice for six years and has helped many patients recover from motor-vehicle accidents, sports related injuries, seasonal allergies/immune support and support clients suffering from anxiety and depression.

Wilton’s practice is located inside the Rutherford Medical Complex on 2nd avenue and 17th street near Gramercy park, Union Square and Peter Cooper Village. Wilton is incredibly friendly, experienced, flexible with appointment scheduling and takes his time with all patents. His rates are very reasonable and believes that healthcare should be safe, affordable and accessible to everyone regardless of their financial situation.
http://www.acu-healthny.com/default.html

Elite Kali in New York: An Interview with Guro Francis Estrada

By Njoli Brown

Francis Estrada is a visual artist who works as a Museum Educator at MoMA, a freelance educator of Filipino art and culture, and a Filipino martial arts (Pekiti Tirsia Kali) instructor. He is ranked as a Guro at the Pekiti Tirsia Kalie Elite group based out of Brooklyn, NY and studies directly under Tuhon Rommel Tortal. 

http://ptkbrooklyn.com/Pekiti_Tirsia_Kali_Elite-_Brooklyn/Home.html

Nj: So I’d really like to start this off by just asking how you came to the martial arts? How did it become part of your life, or was it always?

GF: It’s really interesting because I’ve always been interested in any form, any system. I’ve always loved watching it. In the Philippines arnis was actually part of our physical education curriculum.

Nj: Wait, so did you grow up in the Philippines?

GF: Yes

Nj: Whereabouts?

GF: I grew up in Marikina, in Manila.

Nj: Ah, yeah, I know Marikina! Well, especially the athletic complex, because that’s where GM Vic Sanchez teaches Lightening Scientific.

GF: Yeah, exactly. So, I was living over there and I went to school in that same area. A private Catholic school, and part of the PE there was to do calisthenics. So the arnis we did, we didn’t really look at it as a martial art, more as a practice in body mechanics and as a form of exercise.

Nj: …and this was all through elementary school?

GF: Yeah, through elementary school and on, even though we never thought about how to implement it. We never talked about the philosophy. It was just taught as a way of keeping us “fit.” But from there, I mean, after I moved to the U.S., it was much like a lot of people. You see all these different movies and just fall in love with the movement.

I remember working in this little independent movie theater in California, that’s where my family moved to when we came to the states, and every Monday and Tuesday they had “Hong Kong Cinema.” So, I’d volunteer to work those nights and, of course, sneak in to watch some films.

But specifically with kali, I started with a group called the Wing Chun Kali System. At that time I’d been doing a lot of art projects based on Philippine history.

Nj: So, wait, let me get the time line straight. Were you in university by this point?

GF: Oh, no, I was already out of university by this time. But, true enough, let’s go back to university first. I studied Fine Arts at San Jose State University and my focus was on painting and drawing. In my art I did and still do often draw from themes of Filipino or Filipino-American history and a lot of this was leading to that question of “what does it mean to be Filipino?” and “what is that Filipino identity?” So much of the culture has been touched and tinted by Spanish influence among others (colonizing powers). But I came to realize that some of the martial arts were among the few instances of intact Filipino culture still existing. In fact some of the old systems had even been hidden in dance during the time when these fighting styles were prohibited.

So, I got really interested in how I could draw or paint or create a piece of fine art that would represent these ideas on how the martial arts were hidden and would express the true nature of the movements. Eventually, I finished college but still found myself working with a lot of the same subject matter. I looked around for a (kali/escrima/arnis) group to get involved with, some in California, some in New York, but I didn’t feel like I really clicked with them. Maybe I was young, maybe the other practitioners were young but I remember feeling like there was a lot of testosterone and a lot of ego.

Luckily, after some time I found this Wing Chun Kali System school where (Guro, PTK) Nate was a part of along with (Lakan Guro, PTK) Mike and (Lakan Guro, PTK) Pat Gagnon. and that was out here in New York. With that things started to come back, the idea of angles and so on. Even in the artwork I was doing I was being influenced. I started making videos about the movement and that kind of thing.

Over time I started to understand that what we were doing a system which was a compilation of different systems, this application from one and this other application from another. The things that really interested me most, I realized, were the concepts that came from Pekiti Tirsia Kali.

So, I guess around 2009 or 2010, I decided to take a half year off of work, a sabbatical. I told them I’d take some unpaid vacation time and made the decision to spend some dedicated time studying PTK.

Nj: So what was it specifically about PTK that interested you so much and caused you to choose it as something you wanted to pursue?

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GF: Well, at WCK our kali was based on PTK. We practiced the 64 attacks and concepts that came from that system. So, I figured, if our basis is this system, along with wing chun, silat, and I knew that my interest was particularly in Filipino martial arts, I should try to focus specifically on the kali elements.

Nj: Ah, okay. So this 6 month practice sabbatical, did you do this in the Philippines?

GF: Actually I started out in India. Because, worked into this trip, was my wife having received a fellowship to work on some archives for her PhD work. I knew I could find (Mandala) Kanishka Sharma who had worked directly under Grandtuhon (Leo T. Gaje) and Tuhon Rommel. So while in India I trained with him every day. I’d travel the four hours in New Delhi on the trains and rickshaws to practice with him and he was the one who really prepped me for my time in the Philippines with GT and Tuhon Rommel. It definitely felt like I had this big chunk of private training with all of them. I guess a lot of this was in 2010 and it was all really big for me. Kanishka and I were in the Philippines together right before that year’s convention as well. So we’d train together with Grandtuhon in the early morning and then he’d send me on to go train with Tuhon Rommel who, at that time, was training the guys from the Russian PTK crew. I’d jump in for that training and ended up being invited along to participate in some of their jungle/survival training.

Nj: So you were getting the whole deal and from a whole bunch of different perspectives.

GF: Exactly. And then, after the Russians had left, he made a lot of time to work with me individually.

Nj: Wow, that just sounds really fantastic. Now, on another point, do you feel like you have a distinct connectivity to PTK or to kali in general, because of your Filipino heritage?

GF: Yeah, I guess so. It’s strange because, in some ways, it becomes a sort of ambassadorship. You know, one of the things I do outside of the martial arts is teaching about Filipino art and culture, working with different non-profit and community organizations. But, in truth, part of this arts education includes the martial arts.

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Nj: Now my other question, and this is a question that is often posed to me, has to do with the idea of practicing very reality based martial arts and living in a society, speaking particularly of the U.S., wherein there is such a dichotomy between the the proliferation of knives and guns out in the world, especially recognizing that we live here in NYC, and a social ideology and legal system that disallows the law abiding citizen from the possession and/or use of these items. So, how do you reconcile those things, realizing that you’re training an art does not in any way shy away from the possibility of violence?

GF: I mean, that’s the beauty of it and the art of it and the understanding of it. For example, when we start training with knives one of the first things we do is review the laws and rules are in New York City, in New York State, in the U.S., knowing what are some of the repercussions if you do end up using some of the applications that we teach. So we have to develop an understanding of the consciousness and consequences of using what we’ve learned. Part of the idea behind teaching the ways in which a weapon works, particularly edged weapons, is because we have to understand this before we can think about how to counter it, how to engage or disengage with it. But yes, it is really interesting to think about how many things we do that in the regular scope of things we wouldn’t be “allowed” to do. That’s when the philosophy comes into play. You have to know that there is a philosophy behind the system. What are you doing? At which level of engagement are you? Is the attack a matter of bodily harm? Of grave bodily harm? Or is it a threat that you can walk away from? A lot of what we’re about is building that confidence that, when we reach the various levels of engagement, we know what to do.

Nj: Can you talk a little more about this philosophical side? What do you think are some of the core tenets?

GF: My feeling about the philosophy is that it’s more about the awareness. We used to talk a lot to people before they’d start training with us, trying to make sure they understood this wasn’t a system for them to go out and start attacking people, but to get some body awareness, to understand how your mind and body work. What are your tendencies? Are you an aggressor? Are you someone who finds ways to avoid trouble? Whatever the case, you have to develop the confidence to interact on any of these levels otherwise, as I’ve seen, people often find themselves getting into situations they can’t handle.

Nj: One of the things that really stands out to me is the fact that I’ve heard GT, Tuhon Mel and even Tuhon Nonoy make a clear distinction about about this being a fighting art as opposed to a martial art. This was really interesting because it felt like it was affirming the idea that practicality had not been sacrificed for the sake of ideology as has been the case with countless other art forms.

GF: That’s really interesting to me because it brings me back to my time growing up in the Philippines and training arnis in school in a format that was more like sport.

In the early 70s was that era when they were trying to define the culture of Filipino martial arts on the popular scene. More groups started opening and for safety’s sake, you did see some adjustments happening. For example, stick to stick contact was a compromise from a lot of the standard hand targeting which had been more common before. But this technique started being used as a way to practice angles and was found to be a little more safe and practical, especially when teaching. Still, this was an incorporation that was meant to be understood as a training device to allow people to see the different forms and methods.

Nj: Can you talk a little about the use of the term kali as opposed to escrima or arnis in the Pekiti Tirsia system?

GF: From my understanding, when Grandtuhon first came here to New York he actually had an arnis federation because that was the word that was the most familiar to Americans from the period when the U.S. was a colonizing power in the Philippines. After the Spanish colonial era, arnis de mano and escrima were still the words being used to describe all the Philippine martial systems.

Anyway, I think once people saw that the world was becoming more familiar with the art, they figured they could stop referring to it by the Spanish names. So, in this time you started to hear the reference to kalis, which is an indigenous word which refers to the weapon itself.

Nj: Kalis with an “s?”

GF: Yes, and this is where it’s said the word kali comes from. And, I think, the general feeling came up that if you were teaching an indigenous art than you should use a name associated with its place of birth.

Nj: Is part of the reason why some of these other names come into play related to the fat that some of these older practitioners did, in fact, recall a relationship between their martial art and the influences of outside cultures. For example, espada e daga and its reference to the Spanish style of fencing with both the sword and dagger.

GF: It’s true and interesting how language gets used throughout the Philippines, particularly the integration of the Spanish words. But you can see that more and more the use of Tagalog is becoming common ( ie Hubad Lubad, Sinawali, etc.).

Nj: And this kind of signals more of an association with Filipino culture and heritage. Kind of on this heritage and lineage track, I know that GT is also pretty particular about the movement and technique of his students/disciples being specifically from the line of Pekiti Tirsia and not referencing other lines of kali/arnis/escrima. But he does give a nod to and utilize the concepts of silat. Is there a reason why you can imagine he has this kind of special regard for silat?

GF: I don’t want to speak for him but I might imagine that, well, before the Spanish had taken over the Philippines and pulled all of these individual islands into one amalgamous country, you had the Sri Vijaya Empire which extended all the way through SE Asia and included the Philippine islands. So, I could imagine with the placement of Bacolod (Leo T Gaje, Jr.’s place of birth), it’s in the midst of what would have been that empire, and is a place where the datus (chiefs) from Indonesia would have been a part of the cultural evolution in the region, as opposed to farther north where you had a more of that Spanish and even Chinese contact and influence. So you can imagine that over the centuries, as the influence of many outside colonizers started to wane, that Indonesian influence might still be an integral part of the way things were done.

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Nj: Now, bringing us back to New York, after you left Wing Chun Kali you decided to train PTK. So when you came back, after your trip, it made since that you would start a PTK group here in New York. But what about (Guro) Nate and (Lakan Guro) Mike? How did you guys get inspired to put this thing together?

GF: Actually, when I returned I went back to training at WCK because that was the only group I’d been connected to.

Nj: But (Tuhon) Eddie Hunt was out here.

GF: Yeah, Eddie Hunt was out here but I didn’t know him.

Nj: And they hadn’t mentioned him while you were in the Philippines?

GF: They mentioned him. I was definitely told to go and train with him but, at the time, his classes didn’t work with my schedule, my art studio schedule.

Nj: So, purely on a logistical…

GF: Yes, on a logistical thing. But, you know, even though I was back training at WCK I was still in touch with Tuhon Rommel. Meanwhile, Nate had an opportunity to go to a seminar with him out in Northern California. So, in 2010 or 2011, when he (Rommel) came to New York he trained with both of us and, seeing that we had good mechanics and had been training for a while, he suggested that we start a training group, not necessarily a school but just a group of enthusiasts. We talked to our WCK teacher and, initially, got the okay to start this thing up and continue to train with him. But, after some time, that was rescinded and I was really into training the PTK. So we all had the talk and decided to do our own thing under the guidance of Tuhon Rommel and to see where it would go.

Nj: At that point did you ever have the feeling you’d want to put things together with Eddie Hunt. Or did you have a conversation to say, “hey, we’re doing this other PTK thing here in the city but seperately. Is there something we can do together that accommodates everyone’s schedules and lets us work on this as a collaboration?”

GF: Oh, for sure! As soon as we decided to go this route, we reached out to him, because at that point he was the highest ranking member in New York City. We hadn’t met Tuhon AK yet, but we knew that in the vicinity it would be Eddie Hunt. We let him know that we were starting this thing on behalf of Tuhon Rommel and wanted to work out with him when we could, and we actually had a cross training session. But it was hard because we didn’t have set days yet and they were training out of NY Ju Jutsu, which has it’s own schedule and policies on visitors, etc. We stayed in contact though and, for a while, Mike was still going by when he could to take classes.

Nj: I guess I asked because I’ve noticed the kind of connection we have with Tuhon AK’s group from White Plains and Jeanette’s group in New Jersey, and have wondered about the distance it seems from the group that’s most geographically close.

GF: Yeah, I mean it is really nice to have more people to train with and, once (Mandala) Arvee moved out here it even gave us this nice connection to his old group in Texas. Whenever we have guest instructors out here we invite everyone and host workshops as “open” sessions.

Nj: So what are your visions or goals for what you would like to see come out of all this? I mean, fairly quickly, in just 3 years or so, you’ve got sometimes 15 or so people at class. You’ve had some really nice growth.

francis gt and t rommelGF: Yeah, you know, like I said, I really see myself as an ambassador of Filipino culture and if this is something I can offer that teaches, not only the fighting system, but also the culture, then great. Not to sound like a hippie but really, my goal is to get people training and learning from each other. We just happen to be fortunate in having great groups around so people can train in other places as well and we have GT and Tuhon Rommel who we can check in with if we have any questions.

Nj: Yeah, it’s definitely great having that kind of contact.

GF: Technology is a great thing. I can only imagine how much more difficult it was to be in touch when GT first left the U.S. And went back to the Philippines. But I can just shoot an email to him if I have a question about the philosophy or history or whatever.

Nj: Do you have feeling like there’s some reconciling or some meditation that you have to do on – and this is just based on my impression of you based on our conversations and interactions – balancing a nature that is oriented toward peace and peaceful resolution with your training an art that is oriented toward resolving conflict with such immediate violent efficacy.

GF: It’s important to learn the “go-buttons.” The pacifist in me might just walk away and the system teaches me how I can inflict harm if I have to or how I can position myself so that I can keep someone from inflicting harm on me. It’s a psychological practice, figuring out the things that set you off, and I find that I have a lot less aggression when I practice this. I know it seems counterintuitive that we would be working with blades and edges and that this would make us feel more at peace. But I think it’s about understanding what will happen multiple steps forward, where this will lead to.

Nj: Alright, for my last question, and it’s multiple parts, seeing kali show up in so many films nowadays, do you have one that you’d say is your favorite or that you think is most true to the art?

GF: That’s tough ’cause you know, when you see it in moviess, even a lot of the good ones like “Book of Eli” or the “Bourne” series, you had a practitioner who was very good, Jeff Imada, acting as fight coordinator, but who would also have to exaggerate movement for the sake of film. A lot of things done in their true style wouldn’t make sense on the big screen. At the same time, presenting this showey style of fighting has been one way of propagating interest in the Filipino martial arts. Something flamboyant and exciting. An interesting thing though is that, these days, they’ve been finding a compromise and remedy for this by using camera angles and more advanced technology. They can shoot things in a way that transmit the speed of the actions.

As far as something that can reach the general public, you have things like this recent tv show “Arrow” where they show training sequences and that kind of thing, sinawali, etc., and you recognize actual techniques as demonstrated through a training montage.

In fighting sequences I’d have to say “The Hunted” with Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro. The Sayoc Kali System is the one they used and I think they did a good job of showing how we work with the knife. It really demonstrates what happens when you go against a knife fighter, not just a knifer, but someone who knows about knives. The “Book of Eli” has a few great sequences where they show the blade being used against multiple opponents. The “Bourne” series does a nice job of showing the use of improvised weapons and this is such a big part of kali fighting.

But really, what I think the Philippines needs is something more like what Tony Jaa did for Thai martial arts, for Muay Thai, even though his background wasn’t really Muay Thai hahaha.

Nj: Hahaha. Right, but it created that interest.

GF: But now they need someone from the Philippines, but not like those old movies from the 70s. I remember those films from when I was a kid. They were bad, hahaha.

Nj: Yeah, like “Sticks of Death!” They brought all those masters together for that movie! But the thing was, they weren’t film fighters. They were real fighters, hahaha.

GF: I remember seeing this documentary about the Shaolin Temple and they talked about the Wushu schools down at the foot of the steps who’d do demonstrations every day. People would come from all over just to see this jumping movements, these acrobatic movements, but this was all so different from what was actually going on inside the temple.

I don’t know if it needs to be an epic or what, but the Filipino martial arts needs that thing that is beautiful and exciting and expresses the culture and the art, maybe even along the lines of Jet Li’s “Fearless.”

Nj: Maybe… maybe it’s nice for us to just have it for a while before it gets completely popularized.