Personal reflection on training with Guro Ramon Rubia: Note #1

Since the passing of Guro Bill Aranda, I have been searching for a new teacher, and I found one recently in Guro Ramon Rubia. Last night marked my second month training with him, and my experience so far has been eye-opening. It is with deep honor that, in able hands, I continue my development in escrima, or as an elder, Faustino Caigoy, told me “digma” presumably an older term that acknowledges FMA’s pre-Hispanic roots.

To those who know Guro Ramon Rubia, it goes without saying that his teaching style is unconventional; he doesn’t simply teach techniques and when he does he doesn’t just show you a few. Hindi siya maramut. He teaches you multiple related techniques that force you to see the possibilities, not the limits of techniques. He discusses principles of striking and the live-hand. I leave every training with a lot of “Aha!” moments as well as questions. I aim to someday remember all the old escrima terms he introduces in training.

Last night was the first night that I got completely lost and confused, so the experience weighs heavily on me and I am one who dwells on things that confuse me until I understand them. He warned me two months ago that his “teaching methodology is confusion.” Last night, no kidding.

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On the value of largo range, conditioning, and constant motion

I now better appreciate the value of constant motion and the largo range. In Guro Ramon’s words, “There is truth in motion.” He taught me that there are three levels of being in constant motion: ‘handwork’, footwork, and homework. I learned that the largo range is equally valuable as the corto range.

‘Handwork’. We are more effective in FMA when constantly in motion: when the weapon and live hands are constantly searching for opportunities to strike, control, and redirect an opponent. He taught me that there are multiple ways to weaponize the live-hand, to make it truly alive … and kicking. The live-hand is not only for passive parrying or blocking, or holding; it is also for active hooking, pulling/pushing/jamming, redirecting, setting up a counter, and deceiving the opponent. The live-hand is not the non-thinking Army grunt I used to think it was; it is a crafty Marine Division Recon doing sensitive reconnaissance.

Long distance striking — largo range striking — I now know to be a vital striking competence. Striking is not at all the exclusive purview of the medio and corto ranges. You should not only know how to strike well in close quarters. Whether with a blunt stick or a sharp bolo, long distance striking is the key at first contact, as it is more likely that the fight has already started well before the corto, or even medio range.

As for conditioning reflex and response, last night I saw some clear link with psychology and human behavior theory (i.e., saw things that reminded me of conditioning via stimulus-response and operant conditioning) that never occurred to me I would see in a martial art. The link I saw is that FMA conditions the mind and body to make best use of involuntary, automatic reflexes, as well as voluntary, learned patterned response.

Many if not most of the techniques condition the mind, eyes, hands, and body to react as they automatically would given their natural reflex to a stimulus, like an opponent’s blade flying straight toward your face. How would you naturally react to that? FMA hones the series of natural reflexes involved in that automatic reaction to a strike.

And then there are also some techniques that aren’t necessarily natural; these are the ones that confuse. The ‘trangkada’ striking technique, for example, is one whose motion is not so natural; learning it for the first time last night bewildered the sh@! out of me. It is difficult because it is simple but unnatural, not because it is complex. Techniques like this, it occurs to me, condition our voluntary responses to stimuli, like operant conditioning does, so that we learn to move even in unnatural ways because of the consequences of those voluntary responses. We don’t naturally move in staccato; we naturally move smoothly, with weaving and flowing motion. Last night’s ‘trangkada’ lesson is the opposite; it is a technique that makes you move like you have two uncoordinated left hands while being naturally right-handed.

Footwork. The feet don’t just serve to prop you up and move you; their skillful motion shapes the effectiveness of your engagement. Footwork, if sloppy, will either neutralize your power and speed, or worse, end up getting you easily off-balance. As such, FMA footwork is not just about walking; it requires practice and the development of skill. As such, FMA footwork at the largo range is among the most important skills to develop.

Whether zigzag footwork or the circling footwork made possible by the old wide stance, good footwork is key to constant motion. While you need to be proficient enough to stand toe-to-toe with an opponent, it is quite smarter to be encircling him and using a variety of footwork that enables you to do this. I have never really paid as much attention to footwork as I should even though I know it is important. I just always thought that you stand, advance, retreat and crouch the way you would naturally stand, advance, retreat, and crouch. In fact, I was previously taught by others that footwork is like walking. Obviously, not the complete truth; footwork is not just about walking.

The obvious ramifications of not having good footwork is that you leave yourself a stationary target, someone easy to find, hit and throw. More importantly, you communicate to your opponent via your footwork. What is not so obvious and what I now know is that good footwork is good psy-war, and in long distance, it reaches out and touches your opponent to disarm his spirit and intimidate him.

Homework. Practice at home; be in constant motion at home. Needless to say, repetition is the constant motion at home. Even visualization is useful as it imprints the techniques, and their motion, in the mind. Physical reproduction is key, and repetition the effective teacher. There is no equal substitute.

Reflecting more on homework, Guro Ramon’s point, I think, is really one about motivation and reproduction. Just like Bandura’s internal mental states required for self-efficacy, Guro Ramon’s emphasis on ‘homework’ reminds me that if I want to learn a skill and develop a high level competence in it, I have to have the motivation to learn it and be motivated enough to reproduce it on my own using my own understanding. We all choose to learn martial arts for various reasons. Mine are in constant flux. In many ways, Guron Ramon’s point is that your reasons are irrelevant. If you want to learn, you have to be motivated to learn how to learn even well after formal training hours are done.

Final note — I don’t think it is possible to be an expert in all the FMA lessons that one is formally taught. I believe it is only possible to be an expert in the FMA lessons that one actually learns, takes in, and can reproduce. As such, there is a function of customization and self-expression inherent in FMA, one that makes it fresh and refreshed throughout time, even when some day, we will grow a third leg and a third arm.

This is how FMA is boundless. FMA self-reproduces, self-replicates like a living being. In addition, it conditions both involuntary and voluntary responses to strikes. As a result, FMA’s boundaries are false boundaries. Its apparent structure — the techniques and styles that makes it a complete system — is built by established, clearly defined, routinized drills. But this apparent structure is a non-rigid one for it makes room for innovation, and the practitioner’s creativity and natural way of moving. The challenge is finding this natural way. The search for many is one that does not come easy; such appears to be the case for me.

My ancestors were either unaware of the ‘badass-ness’ of what they created or they were deep-thinking, madly observant men and women of combat. Possibly both. I find myself fortunate to have this link to the spirit of my ancestors.

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