19 October 2003

On guard in learning a local martial art

Your vision is blurry with sweat and physical exhaustion as you throw yourself for the hundredth time into sikap pendeta, the priest stance.

A demonic face appears in front of you whispering almost inaudibly, "kencaaaang, kencaaaang" (harder, harder), and you squeeze you knuckles and forearms and shoulders until you feel like you're going to burst a blood vessel (because you're forgetting to breathe) and involuntary, you let out a little yelp like a small woodland creature in distress.

A guy in front of you suddenly bolts for the bathroom from where a few seconds later sinister retching noises emerge. At such times you wonder what induced you to take up a martial art in the first place and not, say, gardening.

Well, for a start, the kudos. Martial arts gurus say things like, "Stand like a mountain. Move like water". Gardening sages give you tips on aerating your compost.

So back in the UK, where I took up Silat Perisai Diri (PD) about five years ago, it was, well, cool.

For a start, no one had heard of it -- a martial art from Indonesia with magical associations. You could expound on its origins down the pub to a captive audience -- Perisai Diri means "the shielded self" and combines a range of traditional Pencak Silat techniques with kung fu styles.

It didn't matter that I was worse than useless at it. After two years in Bali, a fractured arm, cracked ribs and countless lumps and bruises, I'm still not very good, but much of the vanity has been erased.

Arriving on the island with the worthy notion of "finding the essence of PD", I encountered thousands of fellow practitioners almost all of whom were better than me.

PD is what martial arts aficionados dream of -- a complete system, combining the physical, mental and spiritual. Unlike traditional Pencak Silat, where the focus on artistry and precision of movement has made it similar to dance, with performances often accompanied by a gamelan traditional orchestra, PD is devastatingly practical.

The martial art eschews the flourishes and "extra bits" visible in traditional Pencak Silat forms in favor of economy of movement. In combat, the accomplished PD exponent is simultaneously elusive and direct -- either avoiding the enemy by moving out of the range of their attack (but staying close, and rarely moving backwards) or, once they've reached the highest levels, smothering an attack before it has even emerged using papasan.

To achieve this, students need to develop speed and power in terms of kicks and hand strikes, together with quick, light footwork. At the same time, they need to have an unerring yet abstract focus on the enemy, concentrating on their center (like torso) with only peripheral awareness of the extremities that are trying to hit them. This may sound kind of obvious, but then it's not just the brain that has to grasp it, but the body with its own innate intelligence (or lack thereof).

Putting yourself in a stressful situation like this has the effect of catapulting you into the present -- which can mean a state of almost heightened awareness, if you are able to tap into the ilmu or essence of the technique.

You don't consciously "choose" a particular movement, it emerges as a reflex; it could be harimau (the tiger), satria (the knight) or putri (the princess) -- each has its own characteristics. The aim is to assimilate these sikap, or archetypes, and use them not only for physical combat but as an approach to life itself. kerohanian (spiritual training/meditation), the PD exponent seeks to become a fully fledged human being, no longer at the mercy of the mosquito mind with its endless habits and attachments. Yes folks, we're talking enlightenment.

Through good fortune and no doubt the sheer novelty value of being a bule with a Silat obsession, I have found myself training under a Pendekar Mudah (literally "young master") who is the head of physical technique here in Bali. But it is his protege who oversees our day to day progress.

Not much more than five feet tall, he can place his foot an inch from my face (a good foot higher than his own) and put it back on the floor before my brain has properly registered its recent proximity.

Most mornings, my Australian friend and I go to his house, sweep out the yard, warm up and then spar under his watchful eye. Three times a week we have formal training with a bunch of banjar (village) Bruce Lees. There's no vomiting these days and we can do things we couldn't dream off a year ago, though no doubt we still appear laughable to our instructors.

Maybe one day I will take up gardening. But if things go according to plan, well, just wait and see what I can do with a common garden trowel...

Pencak Silat is the generic term for an ancient set of martial arts known in Indonesia and in the Southeast Asia region. There are over 400 different styles that have traditionally been passed from master to student for hundreds of years.

Perisai Diri, roughly translated as "The Shielded Self", is a relatively recent system founded in 1955 by RMS Dirdjoatmodjo. Pak Dirdjo, as the founder is familiarly known, started studying Pencak Silat at the age of nine.

At 16, he left the court of Yogyakarta where he had grown up as a member of the royal family, spending the next 17 years traveling Indonesia and mastering no less than 15 different styles, including kung fu from a Chinese master named Yap Kie San. These he combined and condensed to create a practical and devastating system of self-defense.

Exponents move upward through a hierarchy of techniques, starting with Minang (Buffalo) and culminating in putri (Princess). The progression is from the animal realm into that of human archetypes, with each technique an advance on its predecessor.

The martial aspect of PD is not its ultimate goal. Pak Dirdjo was a remarkable man, a precocious student of theology and psychology, the mastery of which led him to develop Ilmu Jati or Kerohanian, the spiritual aspect of the PD system.

The relationship between the physical movements and the Ilmu Jati is a complimentary one: if the PD practitioner is at the mercy of emotions, his/her movements will not be intuitive and will be slow -- as if the emotional content thickens the air you move through.

Students begin to learn the Ilmu Jati from a relatively early stage to prevent them becoming proud or arrogant. The ultimate aim for the PD exponent is unity with the Divine, a state of constant "connectedness" regardless of his or her situation.

Sourced from http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-24736677_ITM

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