Learning iKali

It is now half past one in the afternoon on Sunday, June 14 as I began to write this.

I had spent 6 hours each day over the last Friday and Saturday from 10 pm to 4 am attending Zoom training in a combative art.

Now after so many years of training if there is one thing I should be skeptical of that would be the effectiveness of virtual training.

I’ve been looking into this way of delivering training in Tai Chi long before COVID-19 hit countries all over the world. Back in 2016 a student already brought this subject up.

My logic is straightforward – if I have a problem trying to teach a student in front of me what are the chances of me being able to teach live over the air to a student, much less a few students.

Well, I am glad that I am proven wrong in this respect. In this post I would like to share my learning experience in this brave new world of martial arts training.

The process of signing up for online training is quite straightforward. More of them would comprise the following steps :-

a) Sign up for the course

b) Work through the videos

c) Attend the Zoom training

Before you sign up, you would want to identify what you want to learn. This is the easy part. For some reasons I decided I wanted to learn about the use of blades. In Tai Chi I practice a straight sword and broadsword. Can their principles be applied to the use of knife fighting since it is easier to carry a knife around than a sword (not that I do so as it is illegal to do so in Singapore)? I think so but I am no expert in this topic. I wonder what it is that I do not know.

A second reason is that I like to investigate the application of weapons. I practice long pole applications with students when I teach them this weapon as I didn’t want them to just commit to memory another “useless” form. Since the pole is blunt you can say that it is safer (as long as we remember not to hit too hard cause a hard wood pole can shatter bones). But bladed weapons are another thing. I have taught how to use the straight sword to some students and I always have to be super careful when it comes to using the straight sword to stab. Is there a better way to learn how to use a bladed weapon?

So I did the next best thing. I looked for information, for learning. One thing I learned – there are a lot of information on the internet. If you are doing casual learning, picking up bits and pieces here and there, and trying to put them together yourself then this is fine. Anyway, its free and who doesn’t like free (that’s the economist in me talking). But if you are serious about learning then structured learning is so much better.

I googled for topics related to knife fighting. Since I knew that FMA (Filipino martial arts) is well known for this. I had known this from as far back as 1984 as that was the year I saw the series The Way of the Warrior on Australian television, particularly the episode that featured the Doce Pares club. I also had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Master Ernesto Presas in 1986.

Nowadays FMA has a much bigger presence in Singapore. There are groups that practice together, instructors teaching it and even Filipino masters have come over from the Philippines to do seminars. The problem with too much information is that it can be confusing when it comes to picking a school to learn from. I tried googling. Again, tons of choices. I had sporadically looked for this information over the years and though there are many possible teachers and sources to learn from I didn’t sign up. Somewhere there was a nagging doubt that stopped me.

Then in June 2019 I tried searching again. This time I found a website. I read the credentials of the master instructor. As with many biographies that I have read it is impressive. What I liked about it is that it did not try to do a hard sell. In fact, a marketer looking at the website would say that there are rooms for improvement. As for me, I am wary of websites that try to sell to me.

So here’s a potential source of learning that I could learn from. I did more research. I found some videos on Youtube. Watching them I am reminded of what one Italian Wing Chun practitioner once said about wanting to learn from a teacher rather than a fighter. He made this comment as he was learning from a Wing Chun teacher who is good at fighting and would think nothing of hitting the students hard. Being knocked about may make it seem that you are learning something but good teachers don’t teach this way. They really teach and this Italian practitioner found out when he visited the Hong Kong HQ of his teacher where he met his teacher’s junior who is an amicable person but a great teacher and had good fighting skills too.

I have had the pleasure of learning from good teachers. A good teacher tends to have the following traits :-

a) They are open minded not only about their own art but to other arts

b) They are willing to share what they know even to the lowest ranking practitioners

c) They know how to teach effectively

To a mature learner (mature as in old) like me I don’t want to spend time jumping through hoops or trying to climb ranks to learn. I want to learn and I want to learn now. Now, a student does not always know what he wants. This is where an experienced teacher comes in to tell you what you want and how you can get it.

I tried out the free course. Its short, not so much of a course, but more like an introduction to the learning possibilities. So I signed up for this short 3 months course on the use of the knife. I expected the course to be like a pop song but it turned out to be a full symphonic rock song with strings and all. The lessons were dripped, meaning you get enough to work on for a period of time before you get the next lot. I may wish to see everything at once but this is actually the better approach because it made me work on what I had rather than try to learn everything and end up learning nothing.

The blade course was like the appetizer in a full course dinner. It made me wanting more. And there was more, an extension to the course except this time it was on the sticks. So another 3 months of training.

As I approached the end of the 2nd training I wondered if there was more as the website back then did not offer anything after this. So I asked and I received information that there was more. In fact, a lot more, a 12-months virtual course for instructors. The list of topics is extensive. But I didn’t sign up right away. First, there was the cost. Second, there was the matter of commitment. This is not a course where you just go through the videos and that’s it. No, no, you are expected to fulfill certain requirements, all of them to make you a better practitioner and teacher. Finally, after a few months of thinking I took the plunge. By then, COVID-19 had hit and I couldn’t teach Tai Chi so why not take the time to learn something.

Even with the two shorter 3-month course I found that I could learn a lot and actually pick up something, not just superficially but attain a good level of competency (at least I like to think so). So in June 2020 I signed up for the instructor course. I was asked if I would be joining in the Zoom training which ran in the morning in the United States (but over here it starts two hours before midnight and ends at 4 am). I thought about it and thought if I did not try I would not know what I would miss out. So I did and this is what I have learned and continue to learn from a combination of videos and live Zoom training :-

a) Defined, deep knowledge laid out in a bit-size, modular, systematic manner

b) Accelerated learning; seriously!

c) You can actually learn something even if you don’t have a training partner, but better if you do

Let me give you an example of the learning. I have bought a series of video lessons on another FMA. This master is super powerful in his strikes. There is one movement he did, an upward diagonal cutting movement, which I couldn’t get. On Friday night I learned the same movement in the Zoom class.

Not only did I learned how to do it properly and with key details, I could actually get the hang of it within that time frame that I spent learning it. On Saturday we did a review and I still kept the learning. For those who are curious I am referring to the movement REVERSE which is part of the Broken Strike, Fluid, Reverse sequence.

I also learned one long empty hand sequence that combines striking with locking last night. I didn’t have a training partner. It was no problem as I was taught to use a stick to learn. Surprisingly, I managed to learn and do it fluidly on both sides. Even as I am writing about it now I can still remember it.

I like the philosophy of “Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn”. I like how the information is broken down and taught in a way that it can be picked up right away. This is a good approach which I shall adopt too for the teaching of Tai Chi.

There is one other thing that is good about the program. You get a mentor assigned to you to help you with your training. This is good for those who are serious about learning. And there is an active Facebook community for those who want to just learn and for those who want to learn to teach. You learn by sharing and by getting advice by other fellow practitioners.

I also learned one long empty hand sequence that combines striking with locking last night. I didn’t have a training partner. It was no problem as I was taught to use a stick to learn. Surprisingly, I managed to learn and do it fluidly on both sides. Even as I am writing about it now I can still remember it.

I like the philosophy of “Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn”. I like how the information is broken down and taught in a way that it can be picked up right away. This is a good approach which I shall adopt too for the teaching of Tai Chi.

There is one other thing that is good about the program. You get a mentor assigned to you to help you with your training. This is good for those who are serious about learning. And there is an active Facebook community for those who want to just learn and for those who want to learn to teach. You learn by sharing and by getting advice by other fellow practitioners.

So even as I continue with my Tai Chi journey I am also embarking on another journey for which I have my teacher, Tuhon Apolo Ladra (https://fkanewjersey.com/Instructors/Tuhon-Apolo-Ladra), and fellows brothers and sisters from the iKali community to guide me along. Some of the sisters are more frightening than the brothers. Each time they move, their hands automatically go for the knives, exactly the way they have been trained. The teaching is clear and the process and targets are there to help me and anyone who is interested to really learn.

Actually I have more to write about but I think it is better for those who want to know more to actually try it out. More information at the Art of Blade website here (https://www.artofblade.com/). I would recommend starting with the iKali Blade Course Part 1 – Thrust + Slash. Once you go through it you will be hooked!

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