Sunday, July 26, 2009

How to Look Good in Black

Today I had a rare opportunity - the chance to see my friend and mentor Morgane test for her Kadua Guro, or black shirt, the equivalent of 1st degree black belt instructor in Kali Majapahit.

It was a long test, two hours, and filled to the brim with everything we do - single stick, double stick, knife, empty hand, boxing, and more. She did a fantastic job.

I am no stranger to seeing various gradings, going back to my first black belt test in 1987. This one was not easy. There is a lot to remember, and it is two hours non-stop. A test like this must be appreciated on a lot of levels.

Technique - the KM curriculum is vast and deep. There is far too much material to cover in even a two hour test. Still, just trying to remember everything must be a real challenge. There is solo baston/doble baston, espada y daga, sikaran, dumog, kadena de mano, panantukan. There is no pre-arranged pattern, so no way to know what Guro Fred is going to ask. You have no choice but to remember it all.

Endurance - two hours feels like forever. Certain aspects of the test are particularly exhausting such as Dumog and sparring. Just being in good enough cardio condition to make it through such a long test requires months of hard work. The final was 10 one-minute sparring rounds with 10 different partners. This is at the end, after nearly 2 hours of hard work already. You have to be in peak physical condition. Anything less and you'd better not even think about it.

Focus - This is the part that impressed me the most. These tests require incredible focus, especially the weapons work and the technical drills. Maintaining your energy, concentration, and focus over a two hour test is an incredible challenge. Most "normal" people have no hope to do this. Most martial artists do not either. You must have muscle memory for the key moves on both right and left, but you need something more. You need instinct.

Stress Management - This is the other part that really impressed me. During a test of such length and depth it is natural to make mistakes. That causes stress and you must be able to let it go and continue. Otherwise, one mistake invariably sets of a chain of mistakes that destroy your concentration completely. You have to be in the moment completely, and able to let everything else go. This is the hallmark of any good professional athlete, and even more so for any good professional martial artist. The test is often designed specifically to push you to your breaking point and beyond. How will you handle it? This mental toughness is at the heart of every true warrior.

Desire - At the end of it all, how bad do you want it? After two hours of punishment, what takes you over the line is raw desire. You have to give yourself completely to the task at hand, and think of nothing else. Only then can you break through to the other side, past your own limitations and into a new dimesion of your own awareness of being. That magic is what it is all about. Teaching you what is really inside yourself.

Another element I really like is the fact that so many people showed up to give support and be training partners. Everyone can now bear witness to how hard this test is, and the level of preparation needed to get through it. We become more able to respect her knowledge, her skills, her energy and commitment, her self-control. She must convince not only Guro Fred and Guro Lila, but all of the rest of us as well. All of us are in our own way part of that success, and it binds us together even closer than before.

I was so impressed. She did a magnificent job; truly worthy of her hard work and commitment.
This is an important milestone on the path. There are very few of those black shirts out there, and they don't come easy. The shirt looks great on her.


*** amended *** the test is actually said to be 4 hours total, including a written exam, and an additional 1 hour boxing test (separate from the 2 hour test above). WOW!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Angry One

Yes, you know who I mean: Steven Seagal. The Angry One.

Yesterday someone asked me what I thought about him, being that I am an aikido guy myself. That was a tougher question than I thought it would be.

On one hand, he is simply amazing. He is legitimately one of the first non-Japanese to go and live and train in Japan. His trained there until he started his own school in Osaka. A true pioneer.

He was the first person to really show dynamic, practical aikido on film, and was called "The Bruce Lee of Aikido" by many. His early films showcase the effectiveness of what he studied and developed in aikido. People were amazed. I watched "Above The Law" again and again and again. Very entertaining stuff.

At the same time, something just didn't make sense.

It's easy to pick people apart if you try; especially public figures whose lives are under constant scrutiny. Seagal sensei has been married and divorced 3 times and has 6 children along the way.
His movie career got relegated to the straight to video market and never quite made it to the level of other contemporaries such as Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. Outside of action/martial arts genre, he was not able to make a mark in films.

At some point, his Buddhist views and Eastern philosophy turned from Japan to more esoteric Tibetan philosophy. He met the Dalai Lama, was proclaimed a Tulku, and used his celebrity to further awareness of theirs and other social causes.

I guess what I end up noticing most is that he rarely, if ever, smiles.

After nearly all of my life in martial arts training, I do not want that to be me.
I want to smile, laugh, play, enjoy. I want my life to be full and vibrant, and to be a rich part of the many relationships I have with my friends and family. I want to make a difference in their lives and inspire them. I want to do everything I can to give my family (I have only 1 marriage and 2 children so far) a happy and supportive environment. In my 50s, if I were still trying to be "the tough guy", I would feel I had gone wrong somewhere.

It is the goal of every teacher to give students a moral framework, and help them to explore their spirituality just as they become ready for each new step. This means gently nudging them (or slapping their face if the situation calls for it) to awaken them to their potential as human beings to be happy and healthy - and ultimately to achieve their own unique definition of success. Being "the tough guy" is simply not enough for any of us for very long - surely this is not enough for us as we become teachers and role models ourselves.

What do I think about Seagal-sensei? I admire him for his skill and courage to give himself so completely at such a young age to chase his dreams. I wish his teachers had offered him a deeper and richer platform to find happiness. I wish he could smile more.

I'd love to train with him someday. Maybe afterward we can have a cup of tea and talk about things. It is never to late to learn to smile.


(Thanks for the inspiration Shai)

How Do You Feel?

How do you feel when you walk into the school?
How do you get ready for class? What is going through your mind?

For me, every time I suit up into my uniform I feel FIRED UP. I MEAN REALLY FIRED UP.
I am focused on the lesson, and my energy level is at maximum. I feel like a race car on the starting line when we line up.

I work hard. Probably just as hard as you do.
I have a wife and kids that drive me crazy sometimes. Probably almost as crazy as yours do.
At the end of a typical day I am exhausted. The economy sucks; North Korea is scary; oil is too expensive; blah blah probably feel the same.

Still, my time at Kali Majapahit is for me. My time. I don't owe it to anyone else except me. I only share it with my training partners.
I don't go to make anyone else happy, or to fulfill an obligation to somebody who would be disappointed if I didn't go (except maybe Neal).
I earned it, and I want to make the most of it. Bringing my energy and focus to the lesson helps everyone get motivated to train hard, which again helps me get even more motivated - it is a positive spiral. Energy is an amazing thing. The more you give, the more you get back. Money, sadly, is not like that.

Years ago, one of my teachers told me about the importance of taking off your shoes in the genkan (entry hall) of the school.
He told me that when you take of your shoes, you should imagine taking off your life, the life you have outside, and placing it in the rack outside until the lesson is over.
We are all tired and stressed from our workday when we come to class (except maybe for Guro Fred!). It is fundamentally important that we leave that world outside.
Escape into the oasis of your life in the school, which is different from that. Be free. It is important training in achieving work/life balance that we force ourselves not to think of work when we train. Ours is a moving meditation. A study of zen will teach you that the smallest of actions have consequence and are part of our constant and endless journey toward perfection.

The lesson begins when you take off your shoes and put them in the rack. Do it well.

Friday, July 17, 2009


We had a lot of fun playing with sticks and knives tonight at class.
That's right. PLAYING.

Guro went away from the usual cycle structured curriculum and has been giving us playtime lately. Most of us, especially those of us without children, forget how important playtime is.

Playtime is a chance to have unstructured exploration, to imagine and be creative, to express ourselves freely. Our kids learn so much about the world from playing. Some experts say that children actually learn more from playing than they do at school. I would tend to agree, at least through primary school anyway.

Playtime is an important part of mastery. We have to become familiar with the basic concepts and techniques we use in Kali Majapahit if we expect to ever master them and use them to express ourselves in a martial arts way. It is not enough to simply memorize the movements and commit them to muscle memory. That is the limit of most martial arts, especially the Japanese and Korean styles. FMA is so wonderful in that it demands we keep our childlike mentality and truly create and flow with our own flavor and style.

It goes without saying that this can only be done well after the basics are correct and the foundation is strong. However, unlike other systems, Kali Majapahit makes intermediate and above include this flowing and exploring. It is one of the best things about Kali Majapahit, and one of the most important parts of the training in my view. We must actively cultivate what Zen Buddhism refers to as "the child's mind" which is a mind of wonder, innocence, and curiosity. This is especially true for Kali and FMA, since playfulness is an integral part of the Filipino culture - FILIPINOS ARE ALL ABOUT LAUGHING AND HAVING FUN!

As I have said before, the dojo is our laboratory for the real world, and if you want the real world to be fun and enjoyable - YOU'VE GOT TO PLAY! Our dojo is a laboratory, a playground, an amusement park - make the most of it!!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Lotta Hilot

Yesterday we had a lot of people turn up for Hilot.

Hilot, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is the Filipino natural healing system as taught in Kali Majapahit. It includes alignments, osteopathy, dietetic, breathing and other Asian natural healing sciences.

I think it is very important for students to attend classes in Hilot.


It is unique among Chinese and Southeast Asian martial arts to focus on longevity and health.
Perhaps this is due to their cultural closeness to the roots of Indian Ayurvedic, which spread throughout Asia and ended up becoming well-known globally as yoga, tai chi, shaolin, kenpo, and other martial and healing arts.

Much of this knowledge was lost to the Japanese and Koreans who, by contrast, focused their attention almost exclusively on combat practicality, often at the expense of their health and longevity. Japanese martial art lifestyle is particularly characterized by repeatedly punching makiwara pads (which can do permanent damage to the hands), training in extreme heat and cold, heavy drinking and smoking, and other unhealthy practices. Even Ip Man, key exponenent of Wing Chun, was a heavy smoker, and one would have expected him to know better.

I have written in other posts that achieving fighting prowess should not be the principal goal of our training. Rather, we should actively use the martial arts as a way of exploring who we are, and who the people around us are - ultimately yielding more rewarding personal relationships.
The natural progression of this growth is the goal of longevity. Having found rich and fulfilling emotional relationships, it is natural to want to enjoy them in this world as long as possible, and to learn how to keep our bodies maintained in an optimal state for the maximum time we have to live.

Hilot is a great gateway to understanding our bodies and developing habits of good health that promote longevity. Hilot offers some very practical techniques for spinal adjustment, acupressure, and massage that can increase your everyday quality of life significantly.

I hope that such a high turnout is evidence that students are starting to understand this and welcome it. It is rare to have such a complete system as Kali Majapahit, which offers the most practical blend of combat effectiveness, together with lifestyle counseling for better overall health and happiness. Take full advantage of it!! Learn as much as you can!!

See you at the Hilot seminar!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sticking It

Just when I thought I had seen it all...

Yesterday we had a mixed class of guests, beginners, intermediates, advanced, and guros. Guro Fred dropped the bomb.

Maybe he felt sorry for our miserable flow.
Maybe he wanted to snap us out of our dream.
Maybe he wanted to show us we could make a quantum leap forward. We did. I think I got years of improvement last night.

He worked us through a drill that can be combined and assembled in so many ways.
It offers countless expression, and even more importantly, shows the framework for us to develop any number of similar drills on our own. My jaw dropped.

Every time I think I have him figured out, and that I get what Kali Majapahit is all about, he comes at me from left field with something like we did last night....the light bulb goes on...and I realize I have a lot deeper to dig. I love it when that happens.

I am not going to explain the specifics here - you should get in there and start your training as soon as you can. There is a lot to learn, and it will take you the rest of your life.

How cool is that? go and get stuck into your Kali...NOW

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Let's Fight

"Let's Fight" said my seven year old son to me.
He was not kidding. He was mad. I did not oblige.

It raises an interesting topic, though.
We train in martial arts, which is fighting.
We are surrounded by violence which is all around us on TV, in movies, in books, in music, in sports (but hopefully not in our everyday lives otherwise). Violence is glorified. It's cool.

We have busier and more stressful lives than our parents and grandparents did (except those who went to war). This leads to road rage, air rage, murder/suicides, stabbings, domestic violence and other "anger management" issues.

Is fighting really so glamorous? Is it cool?

The last time I got in a fight, a real fight, was more than twenty years ago. People got hurt. Permanently hurt. Luckily not me. Luckily no one died. Luckily I did not end up in prison. I still think about what happened and will regret it for the rest of my life. If I could take it all back I would without a moment's hesitation. It was not cool.

Fighting is a lot like hunting. It sounded really great until I stood over a dead animal and had to dress it. The blood, the sounds, the smell was so revolting I found out quickly why my friends suggested bringing a bottle of bourbon. Fighting, when your life depends on it (and you should never fight otherwise), is a messy business. It is all over too fast. For those of us with training, the likelihood for someone to be seriously, permanently damaged is very high, and usually "sorry" is not good enough afterward. Once weapons get involved it goes very fast from bad to worse, and people can get very dead very quick. As my original teacher told me "it's actually really hard to keep them alive". Suffice to say, some things when done cannot be undone.
As an example, check this tragic story:

Proper training with a proper teacher should help every student realize that the training is like an insurance policy; not to be taken out until you need it, and when you do you are likely to need it pretty badly.

I have said in other posts, the goal of the training is to learn the truth about yourself.
Fighting has no real place in that. We have to learn to do the harder thing and not give in to the temptation to solve our problems and frustrations with violence. As martial artists we have to be bigger than that.

This is the real lesson I want my son to learn.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Get your Kicks with Sikaran

Sikaran is Filipino kickboxing. In our new cycle, we have some Sikaran drills as part of the boxing and Panatukan. For many of the intermediate class, this is their first taste of it.

It differs from Western boxing and kickboxing in some fundamental ways.
Sikaran is designed to use mostly low line kicks (roundhouse, front, side), but can from time to time include high line kicks as well (esp hook kicks). Sikaran uses kicks to establish distance and add attacking power regardless of where the opponent is. The arsenal ranges from kness with/without step for close in attacks, to crippling leg kicks, and fight ending side kicks and hook kicks.

As with many of the FMA, Sikaran takes the best of the familiar and creates a mix. Some of the elements that influence Sikaran include Muay Thai, Savate, Wing Chun/JKD and Kenpo. Karate does not seem to have given much to Sikaran, and the kicks neither resemble those in Karate, nor get used strategically in a Karate way.

Many of the drills involve changing distance to get into and out of kicking range, especially as a response to opponents' kicks and punches. Sikaran strategy uses intercepting kicks and counter-kicks/cut kicks a lot to either disrupt the opponent's kicks, or to score with the legs when the opponent tries to punch. The concept of guntings ("scissors") is used in Sikaran as well.

Sikaran is a great way to add to the Panantukan cardio workout, and an important part of the total fighting arsenal. It comes as a stark contrast to dumog and silat, which are closer systems.
To be good at Sikaran it is important to develop your flexibility and balance, and learn to shift your weight to open up kicking angles as you move. Sikaran should become a natural, integrated part of your Panantukan.

I am still amazed at the depth of Kali Majapahit and what it has to offer as a complete martial arts system and platform for exploration. There is so much to learn, and so many creative directions to take it.

Enjoy the journey!

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Fourth of July - 4OJ.

It's a time to celebrate being an American. I have been away from home on the 4OJ for nearly twenty years...what does it mean to me?

It's tough, since often I don't agree with the things my country does. It was especially hard since Reagan, and somehow feels like it's getting harder.

Despite that, I believe desperately in what America stands for.For example the inscription on the Statue of Liberty:

"give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me..."

America has been a place where you could start over; where you could be reborn in freedom, with a new life, a new name, and a new home - free to be whoever your hard work and determination allow you to become. This is just as my grandfather did from Russia in the early 1900s, and countless others like him. It is comforting to know that such a place exists. It is the hope of many people to start over by coming to America.

Fourth of July is a time to signify other new beginnings. We celebrate our independence from England, won with the blood of our forefathers. This was a country newly formed, different from any nation the world had ever known. A nation destined to leave its mark on history. And it has.

We celebrate heroes today. My brother Tim Akins being one. My brother grew up in Chicago, as I did, and went to serve our country in Vietnam in the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions. He returned to us and rarely spoke of what happened there or the price he paid for our leaders' decisions. He went on to became and accountant and served the community as an executive member of an elementary school district. He raised 3 daughters, who are all married or soon to be, and with new families of their own who would have been his grandchildren.

He was more than a brother to me; he was like the father I wish I had. He was a man who was humble, and yet never backed away from what was just or right. He kept mostly to himself, but was a gentle and devoted husband and father. He was a man of so many skills and interests that over the years I learned to never be surprised by the "hobby of the week" which he would inevitably master and show me as if to say "have you tried this yet?". He was just as quick with a laugh as he was with a bit of good advice, and he shouldered his responsibilities like a Marine, never failing his duty to anyone and always ready when you needed him.

My brother died getting up and getting ready for work...just had a heart attack and that was that. He was buried with military honors as was fitting for the hero he was. More than 300 people came to his wake, most of whom approached me and told me what a difference Tim had made in their lives. So many peoples' lives changed by this one great man.

My brother was a hero because he stood tall when the time required it, but never made more of that than what it was. His courage was an everyday courage, the kind that makes you do the right thing, even when it isn't always the most convenient. He loved his wife and his family with his whole heart, but never failed to find time to pursue his many interests; never losing his fascination with being alive. His greatest lesson, in dying, reminded me to make every single day count and "get busy living, or get busy dying."

How many peoples' lives are changed by us, every day, often without our knowing it?
What will people say at our funerals when the time comes?
Can all of us really be heroes every day, in what we say and do?

The Fourth of July is one of the many special times I choose to celebrate heroes, and he is my favorite. I miss you, Tim.