I had the good fortune to attend a 2-day seminar this weekend with guru Maul Mornie of Silat Suffian Bela Diri. It's a Bruneian martial art and mostly weapons-based.
This weekend, we did knife-knife, knife-hand and machete work. It was my first time working with machete (apart from my teen years hacking acres of blackberry) and although we didn't progress much beyond the fundamentals with it, I still found it fascinating.
We started Saturday with an hour and a half of basic drills - the basic cuts with a knife (over/fore, back, thrust), and the basic defenses against those attacks. These formed the basis of the rest of the seminar.
It was interesting to me that all basics began as knife v. knife. Everything we did for the seminar (even the empty hand v. knife) went back to this basic premise. It was also interesting to my uneducated viewpoint (I have done bugger-all knife work before) that the knife was never used to block/check/intercept the incoming knife (no metal on metal). As almost all my previous weapons work has been sticks of varying lengths or with bokken, I am used to using a weapon to deal with a weapon as a normal response. Although I did not ask about this, two potential reasons were highlighted. The first was to do with initiative and simultaneous attacks - using the knife (or machete) to defend the incoming attack puts you back to square #1 - neither has the initiative, and it is slower/harder to counter-attack. Using the empty hand to deal with their incoming attack means that your knife can immediately attack them, thus gaining the initiative. The second was to do with the risk of damaging or breaking the weapon with a metal-metal clash.
The initial drilling was broken down, first as single attack-response flow drills for the 3 attacks, then combined, then footwork added, then the same drill with knife v. open hand. As far as I can make out, the reason for this is several fold: to give a sense of how to read the body-language of an attack from a particular angle (and it worked pretty well - we were giving full-motion attacks in this drill, and by Sunday afternoon when people were tired and not thinking, and giving short attacks that were not what the technique practised was, I was finding I could read and intercept them fairly well); to familiarise ourselves with a blade coming towards us so that we desensitise and lose our fear (while still maintaining a healthy respect for the weapon); to develop a natural, unthinking response to any particular attack; and to provide a foundational platform for the rest of the seminar. On the Sunday, we also started morphing these into 'freeform' drills, where any attack, in any order could be thrown. The drills were designed to deflect/control initially, and worked well against multiple attempts (eg. 'pistoning' stabs)
One thing that attracts me to Silat Suffian Bela Diri is the foundational 'simplicity' of it. Everything we did or saw this weekend was based around these basics. The footwork, stance, everything sprang from these basics. And there was a lot of apparently complex stuff, but throughout, there werethe foundations at its core. On the topic of 'fear' in the paragraph above, the body structure and maintenance of an appropriate body structure seem essential to make this martial art 'work' as efficiently and effectively as Maul was showing; a 'fearful' reaction (flinching the body away, for instance) would break that and concede initiative to the attacker.
As we were doing these basics, there were a number of different training approaches taking place. We were made to change partners regularly, to talk to our partners while we performed the drill, and to make sure we were jumbled close in with other training pairs so that we became used to acting in a busy, imperfect environment. Other variants included trying to do the drill while keeping an eye out for Maul as he wandered around with a pool noodle, whacking those whose back was to him; it was a good way to train out of weapons-focus, and simultaneously practise moving your opponent while still performing the drills.
Sunday to start was similar, except we did machete fundamentals. Again, very similar to knife, but with its own unique aspects due to the length and nature of the weapons.
Maul Mornie is as good a martial artist as I have ever seen. He has that quality of making absolutely anything he does look effortless, regardless of his partner. He also (and this is from the viewpoint of a teacher) has a very sound ability to explain how and why he is able to do things to his audience. This was reflected, not only in his immediate teaching of techniques, but also in the structure of the seminar, where what we did in the first hour of the first day, was built on and still used in the last hour of the last day. We not only did lots of "what" (10 hours of partner-training) but we also had a highly structure "why" and "how" built in. It was as good an instructional session in a physical pursuit as I have ever attended (and I've done a lot over the years, not just martial arts). The focus of the seminar as far as I could make out was to introduce the foundations of the art - it was not a specific self-defense focus, and not a senior-students-only focus.
As we moved into techniques, what struck me was how from the instant of contact, the opponent's body-structure was broken/controlled, and this was not lost for a moment until after completion of the technique. Maul seems to have an inexhaustable supply of techniques, but what was revealing was how he would demonstrate the technique we were to perform (often explaining the salient principles to get out of it), then would say 'but in reality', and show how with a knife in hand, that technique is unnecessary as they have been cut/stabbed in an instant. The techniques were not the point: the principles that underlay them are.
As far as the techniques themselves went, many were superficially familiar to me from my other arts. But, I found doing them as Maul showed to be, well, better. There are at least three techniques (2 armbars, one takedown) that I am never doing the old way again (unless I need to for a grading, but since my sensei feels the same way, I doubt I will). I fell in love with the efficiency and control that was inherent in them, and sprang from the fundamentals we had been practising all morning. And yet as I said before, the techniques were not there to be "this is what you do", they were to instill the core principles of the style.
A number of the techniques were presented to us as "empty drills"; that is, they were to practise something in a perfect environment so that it became a commonplace response for us that could later be used as a need arose in a chaotic environment. The nature of the seminar was not to do that, but we were encouraged in our own training to view them as such and to work with them in chaotic/resistive/novel situations.
It may be that I was in a receptive frame of mind, as I have been practising recently in throwing and offbalancing people more regularly, but as the seminar progressed, some of the principles of how to break a person's body structure and offbalance them really started to click with me. It was that classic moment of something that had seemed so complex suddenly becoming so simple that I almost felt stupid I hadn't got it before.
Basically, I had a ball. I ended up sore (but in a good way), tired, and a better martial artist than I was at the start of the weekend. It was a privilege to see an expert in their art at work, and a pleasure training with so many different people from many different arts. Maul Mornie is returning in July, and I'm definitely going again.