Articles

Some Collected Thoughts

Diamond in the Rough

Originally written in 2010

Speed and power. A lot of people talk about speed and power in the martial arts. But the people who have been around a while don't mention these things so often. Much more often, they talk about relaxation. I don't know how many times I've heard my instructor(s) say, "Relax! You've got to relax." When I was younger, this seemed antithetical to me. "I wanna hit hard! Grr! Gotta tense up and use my muscles. That's how I hit hard. What's he mean, 'relax'?" Over time, I began to realize that relaxation was important for proper generation of power. Then my response was, "What's he mean, 'relax'? I am relaxed!" Then I became aware of what I call proper relaxation. Proper relaxation is a key that unlocks many, many doors in the martial arts. Proper relaxation, though, like the true gem it is, is multifaceted.

Effective speed is a byproduct of timing and position. What do I mean by "effective speed?" Well, let's take a race between a Ferrari and a Jeep Wrangler. Obviously, the Ferrari is a faster vehicle and it has more potential speed. But what if the Jeep driver knows an off-road shortcut and is able to beat the Ferrari to the finish line? By making use of his knowledge of the terrain and the attributes of his vehicle, his Jeep had more effective speed than the Ferrari in that race. Potential speed isn't always the deciding factor. Effective speed is. Potential speed is just one of many tools. By understanding tools and using them to their fullest potential, we make those tools more effective. In martial arts, this is exemplified when a 25 year old black belt in peak physical condition spars an 80 year old master. The 25 year old probably has more potential speed. But he can't touch the old man. The old man has more effective speed. The reason for this is the old man's understanding and application of timing and position. Through proper use of timing and position, he can avoid getting hit and still land his own shots, while moving half as fast as the younger man. Since the younger man only felt the effects, he would likely finish the sparring match thinking, "Man, this old guy is fast!" Watching from the outside, though, it would be apparent that the old man isn't really moving fast at all. He's just making better use of his speed through timing and position. Economy and efficiency of motion, cutting lines of attack, and other such methods are some of the tools he uses to gain the advantage of timing and position.

Power is a byproduct of body mechanics and proper physical relaxation (note: proper physical relaxation is only one aspect of the larger concept of proper relaxation that is the overall topic of this article). Body mechanics enable us to put as much mass behind our strikes as possible. This also includes such principles as "marriage of gravity." Body mechanics means using the physical tools to their best advantage. Proper physical relaxation is part of body mechanics, too, but I separate it out because it is, in my opinion, the most difficult aspect to internalize. Proper physical relaxation doesn't mean being a limp noodle, though that can have applications as well. But, generally, it means, tensing only what is required to accomplish the task at hand. So, for instance, let's look at a basic straight punch. To extend your arm, your tricep has to contract and your bicep has to stretch. If you're keeping unnecessary tension in your bicep, then you're not allowing it to stretch naturally and, in turn, you're slowing the acceleration of your punch and adding unnecessary fatigue to that muscle group; slowing the acceleration of your punch directly impacts the power of the punch. On the return, your bicep must contract while your tricep stretches. If you have unnecessary tension in your tricep then you are slowing your retraction.

An article can't provide a complete picture of these concepts and principles, but the above description is a thumbnail sketch of the underlying structures that support the generation of speed and power. But this sketch only outlines a couple of facets of what I mean by proper relaxation.

The next facet is awareness. I'm referring to awareness of environmental hazards and useful tools, awareness of threats and potential threats, awareness of your balance and position, and that of your opponents and potential opponents. Once physical contact is established, it refers also to tactile awareness and sensitivity to your opponent. Once you are touching your opponent, you should be aware of where his body is and its position without looking at him. Once you're touching him, then you don't need to look at him anymore. You "feel" where he is and his general position. You can tell what his basic position and movements are through the physical connection you have with him. And you know his intent; he's trying to "take your head off". So he's a known factor. You can let your tactile awareness monitor him while you continue to attack him. Your eyes and other senses can then be used to monitor the unknown factors such as the guy off to your left who may move in to join the fight, or he may pick up or draw a weapon. It also allows you to check for exits and opportunities to escape.

All of these ideas are facets of proper relaxation. Proper relaxation is the tie that binds all these elements together into a cohesive whole. These separate aspects must work in unison for any of them to be effective. Proper relaxation means, at the physical level, tensing only what is necessary to accomplish the job at hand. Beyond that, though, it means having a properly relaxed mind and focusing your attention directly on what requires its attention without taking away from your overall awareness of everything else. Proper physical relaxation and proper mental relaxation, as a team, form proper relaxation.

Each martial art, in its own way, is designed to help its practitioners develop proper relaxation. A couple of good tools that I have found useful for developing this attribute are slow motion training and meditation. Slow motion training helps develop proper physical relaxation and meditation helps develop proper mental relaxation. I think these training tools are overlooked by a lot of people in today's "faster and harder" world of martial arts. Slow motion training and meditation are perceived by many people as "boring." They'd rather spend all their time "slamming and jamming." Now, please, don't misunderstand me. I think "slamming and jamming" is important and vital if you ever intend to really be able to functionalize your martial arts. My point is that a lot of people get lost in that aspect of training. What they fail to realize is that the "boring" training can and will do as much to develop their attributes as the "slamming and jamming." Each type of training is just a tool for developing attributes. It's possible to develop the attributes by using only one mode of training but, in my opinion, it's a slower process of training and, in the long run, the results won't likely be as good.

Proper relaxation is our goal. Train hard, but train smart. Diversify your training to get the most out of your training time in the long run.

Flowers and Fruits

(c) 2014 Mike Casto

I don't require a lot of Indonesian or Filipino terminology in the AGPS curriculum. I decided to keep the curriculum mostly in English because I wanted more focus to be put on the material, the development of an understanding of the underlying principles, and how to make the material work.

However, I do consider the terminology useful and, in some ways, important. The terminology can give some insight into the culture from which the methodology originated. AGPS is an American system, developed by an American, in America. It draws heavily from Indonesian and Filipino influences, and several other influences, for that matter. I chose to call the system a Pencak Silat system because the overall structure of the curriculum - using jurus and langkah as the foundation, and building from there - comes from my background in various systems of Pencak Silat.

In this article, I'm going to discuss some terminology and concepts from the Indonesian culture which I consider useful to the training. They point toward a deeper understanding. Some of the phrases I routinely use, such as "motion is motion" or "move and seek empties" come from my understanding of these words I learned in Pencak Silat.

Pencak and Silat

The term Silat is used throughout Southeast Asia to refer to martial arts. It's an umbrella term like Karate or Gung Fu and a lot of specific systems fall under that umbrella.

Pencak is, as far as I know, specific to Indonesian Silat.

So if someone says they train in "Silat," they could be referring to a system from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, or the southern Philippines. Possibly other places from the region as well. If someone says they are training in "Pencak Silat," they are almost certainly talking about Indonesian Silat.

It's also important to understand the size of this umbrella. Within Indonesia alone, there are hundreds of systems of Silat. In fact, according to Pak Herman Suwanda - a well known and highly respected Silat instructor from Java - in the late 90s, there were over three hundred officially recognized systems of Silat on Java alone. That number doesn't include any systems which chose not to register with the government to become "official." Nor does it include any systems from any of the other 900+ inhabited islands in Indonesia.

In a culture where each island often had its own system and, commonly, various villages on an island would have their own specific system and, sometimes, different families in the same village had their own system, there almost certainly over thousand individual systems of Silat practiced in Indonesia. And we still haven't mentioned any of the Silat practiced throughout the rest of the region.

I think it's safe to say there are at least a thousand, probably multiple thousands of Silat systems in that region. And some, like AGPS, were developed outside of that region.

Obviously, a lot of systems will be similar to each other. However, under the umbrella of the term Silat you can find literally any type of martial art specialty. Some systems specialize in blade, some in stick, some in striking, some in locking, etc.

As I understand it, the term Pencak refers to solo training. The term Silat refers to applied training with a partner. I've heard a quote from Indonesian Silat practitioners, "Without Pencak, there is now Silat. Without Silat, there is no Pencak." I interpret this to mean, without both aspects of training, you're missing out. Both aspects are important, vital, to strong development.

If I only have Pencak, then I'm a dancer. If I only have Silat, then I'm a fighter. Being a capable dancer is fine. Being a capable fighter is fine. But to be a martial artist, I have to have both sides of the coin.

Bunga and Buah

In the same vein, the words bunga and buah are similarly used. I think they're more widely used throughout the region and not specifically Indonesian.

Bunga translates from Indonesian as flower. Buah translates as fruit. So, your solo training is Bunga. Your applied training is Buah. When you work solo, you're motion is large, expressive, flowery. In application, it may also be large and expressive but, more commonly, it is tighter, more dynamic. Still the same motion, though.

The word kembangan uses a variation of the bunga root word. Kembangan has been translated for me as flower dance. However, if you look the word up in the Google translator, it translates to English as development and I think that's appropriate.

The fruit, buah, is what you use when you fight. The flower, though, comes from the same stem and is, in my estimation, vital to a deeper understanding of why the material works.

Not how, why

One of my common sayings is, "Not how, why." When you look at someone teaching, don't focus on how the instructor does the technique. He or she may be doing something you don't have the attributes to do. How they do it may or may not work for you at all. Focus on why it works. What underlying principles make it functional? Under what parameters is it functional? Does it work best at a particular range? Against a particular type of attack? Against a particular body type? These are all questions related to why and it should be your primary focus.

The value of bunga

The value of bunga, the flower, the solo training, lies in its open-endedness. Since it doesn't have a specific goal to achieve, you're just moving, then literally anything you can do, any technique you can perform, can be found within the motion. So, by exploring the motion, the flower, you can find your way to other fruits which stem from the same flower. Other applications rooted in the same motion, rooted in the same why.

Forms in martial arts are all bunga. Whether it's a Tai Chi Chuan form, a Goju Ryu kata, a Tae Kwon Do Poomse, it's bunga. So, all the other benefits from running forms are there, too. Solo training, a lot of reps on the motion, you can simulate maiming and lethal motions without risking injury to a training partner, it's a catalog of motions, etc.

But, "Without Pencak, there is no Silat. Without Silat, there is no Pencak." You've got to have both sides of the coin, both aspects of the training. You can become a proficient dancer or a proficient fighter but unless you have both aspects you won't even be in the running for becoming great.

The Importance of Proper Structure

Proper structure is everything. It's what makes things work. With proper structure comes balance, power, flow, movement -- everything that makes AGPS so effective.

A Brief Overview of Proper Structure

Proper structure is everything. It's what makes things work. With proper structure comes balance, power, flow, movement -- everything that makes AGPS so effective. Everything we do in AGPS has a proper structure. These structures are addressed regularly by the gurus but are often undervalued, misunderstood or completely overlooked by students. Of course, that's not surprising because the importance of proper structure is hard to really understand until it is attained.

Seeking Proper Structure in Training

The key, from a student's perspective, is to listen closely to the instructor and pay close attention when the proper structure is being discussed. Then try to mimic that proper structure and have faith that understanding of the structure's value will come with time. But faith is difficult to maintain when you can't see what's wrong in your work. So how can you, as a student, begin to evaluate your own structure— First you have to learn to recognize when your structure is flawed. This is relatively simple in most cases. The rule of thumb: if you have to use muscular exertion to make it work or you're off balance while doing it then your structure is flawed. When your structure is proper then the material should work almost effortlessly. It should feel like magic -- like you're not really doing anything to make it work; it just happens. If you are off balance or wobbly then there's probably something wrong with your structure. Good structure enables us to move when and how we want to move. So, for instance, when you do a sapu, you should be able to hold your sweeping foot off the ground for a while; setting it down when you decide to set it down. If you feel that you have to place it back on the ground immediately to catch your balance then your structure is likely incorrect in some way.

Relax -- But Not Too Much

You shouldn't be limp -- structure has to have tension to make it work -- but you shouldn't be rigid, either. You should have proper tension and proper relaxation within your structure. This is hard to find but will develop gradually over time if you trust the structure and let it work for you. Trusting the structure is where most people fail. They think they have to work hard to make the material work so they don't trust the structure. By not allowing yourself muscle through material, you start forcing yourself to trust the structure. When something breaks down, analyze your structure -- or ask your guru to analyze your structure. Working with the structure and not forcing things to work will allow you to progress at a quicker pace because you won't be fighting yourself. It will also be easier on your training partners and, if they do the same, easier on you.

A Pitfall to Avoid

A not uncommon problem arises when a student gets used to forcing techniques to work. At some point, they actually start getting the structure right and, if they're still forcing it, they end up using way too much power and slamming their training partner pretty hard. This is almost always painful for the training partner and sometimes injurious -- especially in the case of Silat takedowns.

Slow and Proper Beats Fast and Sloppy

A good way to prevent poor structure is to move through your material slowly as you develop it. Don't try to rush things. Speed is illusory. Positioning and timing are far more important. They allow you to reach your target with proper structure and proper structure allows you to effect your technique with precision and power. Speed hides mistakes in structure. You do something fast and it may feel right and it may look right from the outside but there may be flaws in your structure that could compromise you in a fight. Develop your material at slow speeds. As you become more and more proficient and your structure improves your speed will naturally increase -- but you will maintain good structure even as your speed increases. Martial arts training isn't a race. You want to develop proper structure so you can rely on your material when it's needed. The best way to do that is to work slowly and, most importantly, consistently toward your goal of proper structure.

Summary

In summary, try to work your material without resorting to muscular exertion to force things to work. When something doesn't work, analyze your structure or ask your guru to analyze it. Work slowly so you and your guru can more readily analyze your structure and find flaws. Fix your structure and the material will develop properly and be effective when you need it.

The Play is the Thing

Originally written in 2002

The terms "play" and "player" are used a lot in the Southeast Asian martial arts of Kali and Silat ... but what do they really mean?



If you walk up to an old-school Kali or Silat practitioner and ask to "play," you're likely to end up bruised and bloodied in short order. Most Americans don't think of this as "play." To the average American mindset, the term "play" is something that kids do and that adults don't have time for.



Many Americans think martial arts should be a "labor of love" ... with an emphasis on "labor." They believe it should be approached with the utmost seriousness. Is this wrong? Not as such. Many fine martial artists are very serious about their training. Many Kali and Silat practitioners (respectfully) view these folks as somewhat stuffy.



A "player," in the mindset of many Kali and Silat practitioners, is one who practices, trains, and fights for no other reason that the sheer joy of it. It's not about trophies, ranks, money, or recognition.



In the formal Kali salutation my instructor taught me (from John Lacoste originally), there is a line which says, "I cherish the knowledge my instructor has given me for it is my life in combat." I think this is the reason for the mindset in the old-school practitioners (or us new-school practitioners who try to carry on this spirit). They weren't training to win their next tournament. They were training to survive their next fight. They knew they could die any day or any moment ... so they enjoyed what they were doing to its fullest.


Many martial artists see training as a means to an end: a trophy, rank, money, whatever. They see the training as a sort of necessary evil. They may enjoy the training, but if they could achieve their goal without the training, they would.


A "player," finds relaxation in the training and fighting. A player is never happier than when he's trying not to get hit by a stick. For a player, the training is about camaraderie and respect, but it's also about having fun. Most players train in a lighthearted and laid back way. More concerned with having fun in their training than they are in being formal.



Many people get worry more about whether a technique is done "properly" than whether or not it's effective. Guro Dan Inosanto says one of the things he loved about training in the Filipino and Indonesian martial arts was that nothing was ever "wrong." The only criteria a player has to judge "right" and "wrong" techniques is whether or not they can be effectively applied. He often tells a story about one of his instructors, Angel Cabales, the founder of Cabales Serrada Eskrima. Guro Dan would show Grandmaster Cabales a technique and ask if it was right. Angel would say, "You can do it that way." What was implied in this statement was, "I wouldn't do it that way ... but if it works for you, use it ... if it doesn't, don't."


Being a player has nothing to do with aptitude ... it's all about attitude. Players do take the art seriously ... but they train in a lighthearted environment. I don't think this attitude is exclusive to the Southeast Asian martial arts, but that's where I first encountered it. I think there are players in every art.



To continue this, Willem "Uncle Bill" de Thouars is fond of saying, "Play with children and play like children. It keeps you young." On one hand, he means, literally, to play with children when you have the chance and to play like children when you play. But he's also talking about the martial arts. He stresses this when he teaches. It should be play ... not work. We should put effort into the training but it shouldn't be drudgery. It should be a form of stress relief, not a source of stress. And, in his mid-60s, Uncle Bill is one of the oldest "kids" I know. He has more energy on his slow days than I, at 31, have on my best days.

Thoughts on Cross Training

Revised from an article originally written in 2010

  1. Pure martial arts systems do not exist. Every system has drawn influence from other systems, either directly or indirectly. When fighters fight, they inevitably influence each other. Since martial arts wouldn't exist without confrontation, all the martial arts systems have been influenced by other systems. Where they didn't directly "steal" from each other, they developed things specifically to counter each other.

  2. Cross training isn't a new concept. The Shaolin and the Samurai both cross trained. And while those examples are the best known, others cross trained, too. Cross training has existed for a long time--probably as long as martial arts. In this day and age, though, we have a larger variety of options available for cross training.

  3. There are some universal pros and cons to cross training. But, on top of these, each person will have his/her own personal pros and cons when it comes to cross training. Some people are simply wired in such a way they would be spinning their wheels if they tried to cross train. Others are wired such that they'd get bored and quit if they couldn't change gears every so often.

Foundation

Cross training can be very valuable--if done properly. A foundation is vital. The foundation gives a student a certain baseline understanding and something with which to anchor future learning. The foundation can be developed alongside supplemental training, but the training must be perceived as such (e.g.: a foundation and supplements).

Once the student has a solid foundation and understands the basic principles, then s/he can spot those principles in other training. Principles are universal. Every martial art draws from the same large pool of concepts and principles. The emphasis a system places on various aspects, and the approach it takes in applying the various concepts and principles make the system unique.

Once the basic principles are understood, it's useful to see how other arts, systems, styles, or instructors approach those same principles. Where an art overlaps one's foundation, one gains depth. Where it doesn't overlap, one gains breadth.

Without the foundation, though, you're digging a bunch of shallow holes and will likely never hit water.

Dig until you hit water, then you can look for other flavors of water.

Technique Collection vs Understanding Principles (Why Not How)

Don't worry about how an instructor does something. Focus on why it works. An instructor may be able to do something a particular way because of specific attributes that you don't have. By focusing on why it works, though, you can figure out how to make it work for yourself.

I think it is possible for a person to develop a core while simultaneously training in supplemental material. But, for most, I don't think this is the most efficient approach to training. Until the student has a foundation, they're really just collecting techniques. The foundation, an understanding of the underlying concepts and principles, is what ties all the various techniques together. Technique collection is one of the universal pitfalls of cross training. Like any pitfall, though, if one is aware of it, it can be avoided.

It doesn't matter which system forms the foundation. What matters is that the student develops an understanding of the underlying principles, and an eye for spotting them. The student should reach a point where s/he understands the underlying principles and can answer the question, "Why does this technique work?" Once that understanding is developed, the student should have the mindset of seeking the principles and a foundation for recognizing/comprehending them.

Each student starts as a mimic. S/he mimics the instructor to learn the basic movements. Later, the student mimics the instructor's explanation of the movements. At some point, though, the student should start understanding the movements. The explanation may or may not change, but the understanding should change. The student should reach a point where s/he can explain the same movement in a variety of ways that branch from that understanding. Without the understanding, the student can never do more than parrot the instructor's words and actions.

If a student seeks only to learn how to fight, then cross training isn't necessary, though it may still be helpful. Look at MMA's usage of Muay Thai, BJJ, and other systems as an example. I think martial artists, though, should seek out other perspectives in order to deepen their own understanding. A martial artist should always be in pursuit of developing a better answer to the question, "Why does this work?"

Students must learn to seek the underlying principles instead of techniques. If you learn one technique, then all you have is one technique. If you learn the underlying principle behind that technique, then you have a thousand techniques. This is analogous to, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime." If a student never digs deeper than the techniques, then the s/he will become a technique collector. S/he will have a bunch of pretty techniques but no real understanding of why they work or how they might be tied together. To return to the fishing analogy, this would be like collecting a bunch of fish instead of learning to fish. That collection of fish, no matter how large, will only feed the person for a few days before the fish start to rot.

Here's a specific martial arts example (from my own experience) of this concept:

In AGPS, we had a specific joint lock called Outside Shoulder Lock. One variation of this lock is identical to Aikido's shiho nage. AGPS and Aikido get to the lock/throw in different ways. If I just learn these two techniques then all I'll have is a couple of ways of getting to the same lock/throw.

But, because of my solid foundation in Silat, I understand that the principle of that lock is used in several other locks. Since I understood this, when I learned shiho nage, I automatically had literally dozens of "techniques" based on that shared principle and I deepened my understanding of the foundational elements.

Since they are based on valid principles, each of these dozens of techniques is also valid. Though the practicality of each, for me, will depend on my testing of each. But I know that each one is valid because it is firmly rooted in a valid principle.

So, a technique collector would come away with two techniques. A martial artist comes away with dozens.

Refinement is the key

Cross training shouldn't be about learning how to fight. It should be about refining the understanding of the principles. Technique collectors aren't refining, they're loading up. Eventually, they'll overload. Proper cross training should be about refinement. It should be about finding options within what you already know, not about adding new techniques to the pile.

A potential problem with trying to cross train too early is that all of the student's classes will be beginner's classes. If one studies 5 arts for 1 year, s/hd will only have one year of training. The student will still only be a novice in each of those arts and in his/her overall development. If the student then starts switching and studying other arts, s/he will never be taught anything past the rudimentary basics. Some people can train in several things simultaneously and, intuitively, find the underlying connections between the arts. For most, though, this approach is the long way around.

Generally, the most efficient route to building a foundation is to train in one system until the foundation is built. Once the foundation is built, then cross training can be useful for shoring up weak areas in the foundation, and in building a house on that foundation.

Jack of many master of none

A common argument against cross training is the "jack of many, master of none" pitfall. It is a valid concern and an easy pit to fall into. It's also possible to avoid it.

During the bulk of my training, I trained in Sikal. I attended seminars and classes on a wide variety of other systems while training in Sikal. The key, though, I wasn't training in those other systems.

As an example, in 20007 and 2008, I was teaching Sikal. One of my private students was a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Pedro Sauer. So, after teaching him Sikal, we would go into his BJJ class and I would train there. I wasn't training in BJJ, though. I was still training in Sikal.

Sikal has some ground fighting from Harimau Silat but BJJ specializes in ground fighting. Training in BJJ strengthened my foundational understanding of ground fighting and, in turn, enhanced my understanding of the Harimau Silat aspects of Sikal.

These days, AGPS is my core. When I, for instance, attend a workshop on Tai Chi, I'm really still studying my Silat. Through my exposure to Tai Chi, I learn more about structure and balance. I learn more about the internal aspects of central equilibrium and energetic coherence. These principles, in turn, influence my Silat and the AGPS curriculum.

A fine line

It's a fine line to walk. Cross training is easy. Proper cross training is difficult. But if one can walk that line, they are likely, though not guaranteed, to be better martial artists because of it.

On the flip-side, cross training isn't necessary. It's possible to be a good martial artist and to develop a solid foundation and understanding of the underlying principles without cross training. For people who can't walk that fine line and find proper cross training, though, they're better off not cross training at all.

Summary

Cross training isn't the right option for everyone. However, it shouldn't be discarded out-of-hand simply because it's not right for someone else. Explore it, it might be right for you.

Remember, two of the most famous groups of martial artists in history, Samurai and Shaolin, both cross trained. They considered cross training important and vital. For example, it was common for a Samurai to train Kenjutsu, Tantojutsu, and Jujutsu--not to mention calligraphy and poetry.