“A good martial artist never compares or takes down [another’s] art,” our coach says sagely. It’s Saturday morning, and our coach, master Dennis Santos, has some time to spare before our weekly arnis lesson, so we end up talking and reflecting about arnis, its rich history, and what it personally means to him, to me, and to all of us Filipinos.
From the very first day I started learning arnis, it was hard work. First lesson, the stances. How we carry our weight — on which knee, on which foot forwards or backwards — determines the outcome of a fight. Next lesson, basic strikes with our arnis sticks. 12 strikes, all targeted towards a specific body part on our opponent’s body, from strike 1, aimed at the side of our opponent’s head, to strike 10, aimed at our opponent’s left eye. Brutal. Next, disarming. By manipulating our opponent’s body angles and placing weight on a specific spot on their arms or sticks, we can grab their weapons out of their hands and into ours.
As I slowly progressed through the different stances and positions and strikes, there came a point when I realized that I was doing this, and I was doing it well. I could twirl my sticks without hitting my face, spar with Coach for a minute or two straight, and remember the steps to the classical abaniko style without tripping over the complicated foot placements. I felt great! I felt powerful!
Learning how to defend and stand up for myself felt so empowering. I not only learned how to disarm my opponents and defend myself against physical attacks, but I also trained myself to anticipate and respond to different threats and situations. A lot of techniques in arnis teach you how to use your opponents’ momentum against them, or be flexible enough to slip your way out of a direct strike. So for a regularly sized girl who might not be able to overcome a much stronger predator physically, I can at least put up a fight long enough to call for help or escape a dangerous situation. I can learn how to sense whether or not a particular situation is safe or not, and avoid all confrontation or danger entirely. In everyday life, as I go about my business on my own, it feels strangely comforting to know that I have the power to defend myself if anything happens. As I grow up in this dangerous and messed up world, I know that I can fight back.
But the longer I trained, the more I appreciated arnis as more than just a martial art. When Coach decided one day it was time to teach us how to write our names in baybayin or alibata, the ancient Filipino method of writing, I realized that arnis has a much older history than I had known. It has such deep ties to Filipino culture that reach all the way to the indigenous tribes who developed the art, to when they successfully used it against the Spaniards when they first came to colonize the Philippines (in the case of chief Lapu-lapu and his people), to the illegal underground practice of arnis during the Spanish occupation, to modern day Philippines when it became our national sport in 2009. Time and time again, the study of Filipino martial arts has been threatened and illegalized, and yet, somehow, the Filipino people managed to preserve it however they could.
When I was discussing its history with Coach, I realize that maybe it had to do with the importance of knowing your roots and where you came from. Coach told me that your masters are your roots, and remembering who helped you get to where you are now is very crucial in advancing in the professional world of arnis. By acknowledging and crediting the masters that have trained you throughout the years, you in turn become part of a community that respects you and the training you received. Coach can name all the masters that he trained under, and in some cases, even THEIR masters. He explained that it is almost like a family tree. “I’m just a branch of my master, who is a branch of HIS master.” By practicing arnis, we have become part of a cultural family tree spanning generations, the art slowly evolving over time. It’s very poetic, and the main reason why preserving this martial art is so important not only to the martial arts community, but to Filipino culture in general.
Every time I practice arnis, I am doing the same stances, strikes, and steps that my Filipino ancestors did hundreds of years ago. I am now somehow connected to arnisadors of the past, to national heroes like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Gregorio del Pilar, to the royal blood of the Filipino tribes, to Coach Dennis, and to hundreds and hundreds of other students and masters throughout the world in a cross-continental multi-generational family, all responding to the opening salutation of, “Handa sa pagpugay!”