Reflections of a New Student

A long-time student wrote the following essay a few years ago after completing his first year of training with us. Thank you, sir…sorry it took me so long to put it up!

Reflecting on my First Year of Training in Kali-Silat

The following is not intended to be a philosophical dissertation or an intellectual exercise. Rather, it is a portrayal of my serendipitous discovery of Kali-Silat and my thoughts, feelings, and experiences during my first year of training. I felt the need to share this with our Kali-Silat family with the hope of relating to those who started before me, to remind them of the challenges of a new student, and those who started after me, just incase they are having similar experiences and feel uneasy about it!

It was January 2001, I was continuing my training in taekwondo, TKD, and Aikido, holding a 1st degree black belt in TKD, getting ready to test for my 2nd in a few months, and a 1st degree in Aikido. I was feeling pretty good about it, having put in many years of training and having the black belts to show for it! At the same time, however, I was searching for other arts to help round out what I had learned through Karate (many years earlier), Aikido, and TKD. I felt a strong need to learn “something else”. I thought about and tried a number of options:

 

  • Karate (Japanese): been there, done that; when I was an undergrad student, too much like TKD, minus the kicks!
  • Wing Chun: had one class with a Chinese practitioner, and thought it could be a good option, provided I could find a good school/instructor.
  • Krav Maga: a few sessions were more than enough! I thought it was good aerobics, but I found it to be dangerous in a number of ways; but that could be subject of a paper by itself!!
  • Tai Chi: Took several classes, I did like the flow and the meditative aspect, but learning the long form after a couple of classes seemed a bit too much. I realized it did have martial priciples behind it, but thought that transition from the stylistic to a combative approach would not be easy, necessary from a self-defense prespective.

Whatever I felt to be missing certainly was not getting discovered through my ever increasing portfolio of TKD Poomses (Korean for kata or form), which I never liked anyway, or the never ending turns, falls, and dives of Aikido, not to mention tripping over my hakama all the time (the traditional baggy Aikido/Samurai skirt-like pants)!

And then I discovered Kali-Silat, not through extensive research or expert recommendations, but pure chance! It was not that long ago, January 2001, when I noticed a Martial Arts school while driving home from work. I did not manage to catch the full signage as I drove by, but did notice the words “South East Asia”. That was enough to raise my curiosity. Through my training and studies I was aware of many of the major countries relative to martial arts, such as China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, India, and others; but South East Asia? I had heard of Modern Arnis and Escrima, but did not know much about them, however, I had a feeling there was more!

The following week, after I had finished teaching my TKD class on a Saturday afternoon, I stopped by the school to check it out. Unfortunately it was closed, the sign on the window read, “Warrior Arts of South East Asia, -Kali-Silat”. I looked through the glass window to see what the school was like. Well, it was unlike any school that I had ever visited or trained at, looking very bare and lacking the usual trappings found in martial arts schools, such as training dummies, BOB, Bully, punching bags, thick cushy floor mats or any other training tools or toys. What I did see was a bare, well-worn thin red carpet, some blades on the wall, as well as blades and sticks resting on the floor. There were also many pictures, flags, masks, other artifacts, and letters/diplomas, which I could not read from behind closed doors, hanging on the walls. I really was at a loss trying to imagine what this school was about, it did not fit the usual mold, but it certainly peeked my curiosity even further. I wrote down the phone number and decided to call the school to find out more.

After a few phone tags, I connected with a Jeff Davidson who offered to give me a free training session. A week later, on a Friday evening, I arrived at the school for my free training. I was greeted by an unassuming individual, introducing himself as Guro Jeff Davidson. As he led me to a backroom for my private lesson, I walked past four students performing some knife drills, moving in unusual ways, and performing stabbing and slashing moves on their partners. The thought going through my mind was “this really looks strange”, but reminded myself to keep an open mind and avoid passing judgment too quickly; knowing other arts can make one judgmental, especially when people possess “black belts”!

OK, I am finally there, one-on-one with Guro. He starts off by asking me what other arts I have studied. He then gives me an opportunity to defend myself against punches and knife attacks using any of the techniques I knew from previous training. Piece of cake, I thought! So he starts coming at me, not necessarily fast, while I attempted to block and counter as they came. There was one minor issue, the attacks were not coming at me in the structured, rehearsed patterns that I was used to while working with my cooperative training partners. After a while I was totally frustrated, and Guro sensing my frustration switched roles. Now I am attacking him; he instructs me to come at him as fast as I like, punch, kick (remember I am a TKD guy) and knife attacks; now I am thinking “time to make my point, let me get a shot on this guy”. Here we go again, I am coming as fast as I can, but not getting to the targets, getting counter-attacked on every attempt, and losing my weapon every time, when I used one!! OK, I get it, he made his point, much of what I have spent years training does not seem to be working very well! Now what? Next, Guro starts to discuss a few of the Kali-Silat principles, what he explained seemed to contradict most, if not all, the principles I had been taught over the years! Now I am really confused. Somewhere between the confusion and the frustration experienced during a 45-minute session I decided to sign up.

The first few classes felt extremely awkward for many reasons. Over the course of a few classes, I started to see the regulars at the school. Many of them appeared stand-offish towards the new students. Some students would try to instruct during the practice drills, fully recognizing that some of them did not know what they were talking about (I was used to that, having been a TKD instructor myself), but I went with the flow anyway. I felt a number of challenges relative to the different aspects of Kali-Silat:

Principles – The biggest challenge I was facing was not the techniques, the new ways of fluid movement, the dances (bungas), steps, or the body turns and shifts, rather, it was the constant contradictions against all the principles I was taught over the years, such as blocking and countering, solid/rooted stances, focusing and putting everything into a single powerful technique, fully extended techniques, muscular tension to create power, chambering of techniques, training for fighting through constant practice of poomses, and many more!! Kali-Silat seemed fluid, I liked it, but I knew it would take a while for me to re-program (de-program) after all those years of poomses and one-steps. It seemed hard, and took some time for Guro to stop me from breaking some old habits, such as chambering my techniques, and starting my punches at the hip!

Sense of Belonging – Another challenge for me was lacking a feeling of belonging and being accepted by the group. I was showing up for classes fairly regularly in the first several months, as my schedule allowed it; but I never felt a true sense of belonging or being part of the group. This was just how it felt. Gradually, it started to feel different, I felt better about being there, felt a better connection with the various instructors and most of the students, and started to have a better sense for what was being taught and what was going on.

Finite vs. Infinite – Another aspect of having trained in other arts is realizing that most arts have fairly limited facets and capabilities, although often being presented as having unlimited potential! I would like to see, e.g., a true Aikidoka show how they would kick (although I hear Ueshiba did practice kicks) or see a traditional TKD practitioner do a knife disarm, although some TKD schools do attempt to incorporate weapon techniques. On the other hand, having been exposed to only what I have seen in my first year of Kali-Silat training, I fully recognize I have not even scratched the surface. I do understand some of the principles and recognize that they provide infinite possibilities, without necessarily having to document and practice every single one of those possibilities.

Attitude– It took a while for me to realize that Kali-Silat was not just about knowing the moves and techniques, rather a big part of Kali-Silat was understanding and developing the necessary attitude, ranging from meditative to pure animal instincts! Not exactly a requirement for doing katas!

There are many other aspects relative to the myths and traditions promoted through most other martial arts, but the points raised here do provide a general outline of the issues and challenges I experienced. But please keep in mind that these were mostly due to my training in other arts, and some of the baggage I brought in with me.

Here I am, a year after I started Kali-Silat, have learned more concepts, techniques, and principles than I ever did over all the years of training in all other arts combined. I started my Kali-Silat training because of my frustration with the other arts, which were not providing the necessary challenges and learning opportunities that I was looking for. The variety and range of concepts, principles, and techniques covered in the systems we practice is providing me with everything I was looking for, and more. I have stopped looking for that elusive “next art” needed to help further round out my skills!

Due to my schedule, job and family commitments, I am unable to attend classes as often as I used to, and I miss that. I do, however, look forward to every class that I can attend, and leave every session satisfied that I learn something new, or learn more about something I thought I knew already. What I have learned over the course of my first year of Kali-Silat training has given me a solid foundation to better understand and deal with new concepts and situations, in very practical ways. By the way, after all those years of training I never did master those jump/flying/spin kicks to the head!!!

MABUHAY DETROIT KALI-SILAT!
F.K.