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Eskrima- A Misunderstood Art! *

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This article was published in Black Belt Magazine in October, 1997, and in the FMA Digest, Spring '07. The text here may be different than the published versions due to editing.

When eskrima (or arnis, kali, etc.) was first introduced to America, it was done mainly as a seminar art. Of course there were a few schools, mainly near large Filipino communities around the country, but the majority of martial artists were not exposed to the Filipino arts until Remy Presas, Leo Gaje, Dan Inosanto and others began doing seminars. Unfortunately, to make the Art more marketable, the way it was presented often caused people to get some wrong ideas about what the Art really is. In some cases, the Art was simplified to make it easier for seminar students to learn; in other cases, things were actually changed to fit the legal climate of the US. One of the biggest mistakes was in marketing the Art as an add-on to other arts. Many magazine articles were written stating how much stick training had added to someones Tae Kwon Do, or Jujitsu. This helped foster a climate where today, even some instructors believe some of these incorrect ideas heard over the years. This article will attempt to explode a few of the most common fallacies about the Filipino martial arts.
Some of the most common misperceptions/fallacies about the Filipino martial arts are:
1) that fighting ranges exist as specific and separate areas of instruction
2) that training beginners in double stick exercises can create ambidexterity, or develop fighting skills in the off-hand at the same time as in the strong hand
3) that knife training (learning disarms, offensive and defensive techniques) can make the practitioner able to fight with a knife without suffering injury in a real encounter
4) that stick techniques cannot be executed at extremely close range
5) that eskrima is only a weapons art, not a complete fighting system

1) that fighting ranges exist as specific and separate areas of instruction
The idea that there are specific and separate fighting ranges, and that practitioners only focus on and train in one range (i.e., long range, middle range, short range) is untrue. The fact is that any particular style developed due to the restrictions of the local terrain and the body type and physical ability of its creator, but nearly every real encounter involves all fighting ranges at some point.
Eskrimadors from heavy forest or jungle areas developed thrusting styles and used longer sticks, because slashing and striking were not practical in the heavy foliage. Movement would also be completely dependent on the vegetation.
The styles that developed in the rice farming areas used linear footwork patterns, where circular and sidestepping movements were impossible, because the small raised paths between each rice paddy limited the options. The eskrimador could not make very heavy strikes as well, because the ground would be slippery, so the style basically focused on blocking techniques and middle range, measured blows.
The styles that developed on open areas or plantations were able to take advantage of the terrain and use more aggressive slashing and striking attacks, along with more complicated footwork. These practitioners would have begun at long range, looked for openings and then closed to middle or short range to strike. If they were still able, they would have immediately moved back out to long range to prepare a new attack.
The systems that today claim to be close-range developed within the cities. Fighting in doorways, alleys and small open areas dictated the length of the weapon and the most effective techniques. The increased use of the stick instead of the blade also dictated a closer range, because now one can grab the stick, where a blade demands more room. If these eskrimadors were taken out of the city to one of the other types of terrain mentioned above, their fighting style would have quickly adapted, because a close-range, urban style in heavy jungle or in wide open fields would have been disadvantageous if the practitioner had no closing or other long range skills. The same is true in reverse- the jungle fighter would have quickly shifted to a more effective style after moving to the city.
The point to be made is that eskrima is a style of fighting that takes whatever the environment gives, and makes it work. To call oneself an eskrimador is not to limit oneself to a single fighting range or a particular weapon, and any system that makes that distinction is doing a disservice to its practitioners. Real fights constantly flow back and forth between all three ranges and one must be prepared to handle whatever happens, wherever it happens!
2) that training beginners in double stick exercises can create ambidexterity, or develop fighting skills in the off-hand at the same time as in the strong hand
The idea that beginners should begin practicing with their off-side hand to become ambidextrous, or the idea that the sinawali (as it is taught in the US) is going to make someone a good fighter with his off-hand is ridiculous. The fact is, to learn to fight effectively with even ones strong hand takes years of instruction and practice. To make the claim that one can be a better fighter by taking practice time away from the strong hand is silly. Some people ask, What happens if your strong hand is injured during the fight? Think about it- if your opponent was good enough to injure your strong hand, or disarm you, what makes you think that your weaker hand would have even a remote chance against his attack? A practitioners time would be better spent working on his empty-hand vs. weapon techniques, since that at least has applications of its own. Even the idea that the skill will transfer to empty hand fighting is flawed, because in any style of fighting, there are strong /weak sides, and a fighter will always adjust his style to take advantage of his strong side.
Even in the Philippines, double stick fighters are very rare, and among those who do use double sticks, the style often consists of using one stick strictly as a blocking tool while fighting with the other. There is nothing wrong in doing the sinawali drills (or the broken six, or the heaven and earth, or whatever a particular style calls it), but it should never be presented to students as training to fight with double sticks, because it definitely is not. They are helpful for beginners, however, in some ways; one use they do have is to make sure that muscular development in both arms remains relatively even.
If a practitioner wants to become a double stick fighter, or wants to be able to use either hand to fight, he should first master his strong hand, then let his strong hand teach his off-hand. You can, of course, train hard for many years and learn to use the off hand just as well as the strong hand. After both hands can execute techniques well, then try to integrate the two hands to work as a team. Unfortunately, apart from tournaments and forms competition, the eskrimador may find that the practical applications are few and far between, and that his training time might have been better utilized, but that is for the individual to decide for himself.

3) that knife training (learning disarms, offensive and defensive techniques) can make the practitioner able to fight with a knife without suffering injury in a real encounter
It is a fact that knife fighting results in getting cut, and anyone who claims that they can fight with knives and not get cut is not telling the truth, plain and simple. If you ever meet a teacher who claims to have had a lot of knife fights, ask to see his scars, because if he doesnt have any, then he also didnt have the fights. In fact, even a 10-year old is dangerous if he has a knife, because power is not needed to inflict damage. Even against a gun, if the gun is not drawn and ready, the knife is the more dangerous weapon at close range.
A few years ago, some police departments sponsored a test to see how armed officers would do against a surprise attack by a knife-wielding assailant, and the results were dramatic. It was found that the officers were unable to draw their weapons fast enough to save their lives from any distance inside about 20 feet. A well-known eskrimador participated in this exercise as the assailant, and in nearly any scenario, was able to kill the armed officers. Well, you ask, whats the point in training to defend against knives if you are going to get cut/killed anyway? The reason is simple. With training, you may be able to redirect the cuts to non-fatal areas, while at the same time, preventing your opponent from further attacks. Its a question of surviving, not avoiding, getting cut.
There is another misconception about knife training, and it is the most important for survival in a real encounter. In many schools today, the training often focuses on tapping drills, and passing the opponents blade back and forth from side to side, using the back of the hand and forearm to maintain contact with his arm. To put it bluntly, this is dangerous. While gaining a feel for where the opponent is at any one time is a plus, overall you are learning more bad habits than good ones.
First, because cuts cannot be avoided, it is wrong to practice giving your opponent additional chances to cut you. In a real encounter, you must judge the proper timing and distance and when the attack is made, deal with it. That means avoiding or redirecting the attack and making your own response immediately. Every time you successfully live through an attack but do nothing to your opponent is just giving him one more chance to kill you. Dealing successfully with a knife attack means either disabling your opponent, disarming him or getting away, and the first two require you to grab, strike and/or close with your opponent.
Second, because you do need to block, grab, strike or parry with your hands, using only the back of the hands is another error. While the reasons people give for using the back of the hand are valid to a point (fewer blood vessels, tendons and ligaments are better protected, etc.), they cant make up for the loss of sensitivity, and the resulting decrease in available responses to an attack. Using the back of the hands is effective for drills and training, but in a real life-threatening situation, you must be prepared to grab and parry with your hands, which means you must use your palms and fingers. Also, in a real fight, the resulting flood of adrenaline (the fight or flight response) gives the impression of slowing things down. Your focus becomes sharper and your increased concentration allows you to accomplish things you cant normally do in training. Unfortunately, as weve already said, you will probably still get cut, but better your palm than your throat!

4) that stick techniques cannot be executed at extremely close range
The main reason for this misconception is that many teachers still teach a blade-based Art, and the particular slashing and drawing strikes necessary when using a blade are best done at long and middle range. The modern stickfighter, however does not use the blade-based attacks. The older stick styles that imitated blade-type attacks with heavy sticks, often flattened to resemble blades, depended on powerful strikes, using the same striking motions as a blade. More recently, using a stick has meant that attacks have changed to emphasize speed and accuracy more than raw power, and the means to execute these types of attacks are available at very close range. Using the wrist to snap, and the waist to develop axial torque has replaced the arm and shoulder extension as the source of power.
At very close range, nose-to-nose, a modern fighter can hit any target from low on the right side, across the entire upper body, to low on the left side- a full 360 degrees. Being able to do this requires constant practice to develop the wrist flexibility necessary, and as the range of motion increases, so does the strength of the snap. The learning process also includes training to generate a great deal of power with little or no room. The same basic principles that apply to the 1 and 3 punches apply to these strikes.
Accuracy is also extremely important to being able to fight effectively at close range. When all the power is focused in the tip of a stick on the snap, it is imperative that the tip hits its target. A snap to the temple that instead hits high up on the side of the head will not accomplish its intended purpose.
Another important area of training for close range stickfighting is to learn how to create space when you need to. This does not involve stepping out, or moving away, but instead works on recognizing that between two bodies, there is a great deal of available space depending on the angle of upper body lean and the movement of the hips, in and out, for each fighter. Because of the design of our bodies, when we are standing toe-to-toe, we can each lean away and create as much as 3 or 4 feet to execute techniques. If we add to that slight shifts of the feet, we can see that space for the techniques is the least of our worries!

5) that eskrima is only a weapons art, not a complete fighting system
Unfortunately, this is one of the strongest fallacies about eskrima, due to the fact that it arises from more than one reason.
The first reason is the most obvious one. When the Art was first brought to the West, it was taught almost solely as a seminar subject, and was promoted as an add-on to whatever system the student was already studying. This was done in order to get the word out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, but in the rush, very few sophisticated empty hand techniques were put out because they didnt fit into the scenario that had been created. If you advertise that this is an add-on to the students art, then you cant make it too complete, otherwise it might be too difficult to justify the teaching methods.
The second reason has to do with the Art itself, and the wide range of variations in the details practiced by individuals. In actuality, there is no specific empty hand system that accompanies eskrima. Since styles of eskrima vary so widely among practitioners, why should we expect that all have the same empty hand system? In this respect, the Filipino arts are like the Chinese. If we look at the terms eskrima and gong fu, then we begin to see some similarities. There are hundreds of styles within the gong fu umbrella, with a wide variety of weapons, empty hands and kicking styles. Most of these styles have a more specific name to call themselves than just gong fu. In eskrima, however, where there are at least as many styles of fighting as there are in China (maybe more, due to the nature of the geography of the Philippines, over 7000 islands), we dont seem willing to recognize these differences.
Many eskrimadors practice a form of fighting called pangamut, which is basically Filipino boxing, with throwing and locking techniques added in. Others use fighting styles brought from other places and adapted to complement the eskrima stick techniques. These include judo and jujitsu, silat and Chinese-based kuntao. There is the local grappling style, dumog, and many styles of kicking, with names like sipa, sikaran, pananjakman, etc. Finally, there are eskrima practitioners who developed an empty hand system based almost completely on the motions of the stick and the knife, and these vary even more due to the differences among the practitioners in the way they use their sticks. The fact is, all are eskrima, but none are like any other.
If we add the first problem to the second, we can see things a little clearer, perhaps. The seminar styles of eskrima that were first taught in the West were actually aggregations of a variety of eskrima styles. Presas, Gaje, Inosanto and, more recently Sulite, all teach systems which are drawn from many teachers and many styles. Theres nothing wrong with this, but it does cause a problem for the Art. We need to stop thinking of eskrima as a single Art. It is not. Now that the Art is accepted as a legitimate system in the martial arts world, it is time to allow it to find its proper place. As happened to karate in the 50s and 60s, and gong fu in the 60s and 70s, eskrima needs to be recognized as a general term for a countrys fighting style, and the various systems within that style should now be exposed.

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