‘Mesmerizing’ Filipino martial art

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Text, photos and videos by MARITES N. SISON

When someone asks Guro (Teacher) JB Ramos to explain the Filipino martial art, arnis, she begins with the question, “Have you seen The Bourne Identity?”

The simple yet intricate and agile hand-to-hand combat by Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon) is considered to be one of the top fight scenes in movie history and it displays the techniques of arnis (a.k.a kali/eskrima). It also shows why arnis is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary martial art forms, says Ramos.

And yet, in Toronto’s martial arts scene, arnis –  the national sport of the Philippines – has yet to achieve the same “brand name recall”  as karate, taekwondo, aikido, jujitsu and capoeira. Even many young Filipino-Canadians are nonplussed when asked about arnis.

Ramos isn’t happy with this, to say the least, and she is making it her mission to popularize the 28-inch rattan (palm) sticks – the weapon commonly associated with arnis – and their meaning among Canadians.

An instructor for Combat Science, a Filipino martial arts and self-defense school, Ramos is petite and youthful. But with her erect, upright posture and firm voice she radiates presence and commands respect.

“I need you guys to step up a little harder. Do I make myself clear?,” she barks at a mixed-age group of men and women she is  training at the basement of Trinity-St. Paul’s United church on Bloor Street West. “Every day that you train, put intensity and effort…We need to work as one… You have to have each other’s backs.”

Ramos is hoping that this group – which has been spending their evenings and Saturday mornings butting and thrusting sticks, practicing empty hand movements and knife fighting combinations –  can qualify for the prelims and represent Team Canada in the 2014 World Eskrima Kali Arnis Championships in Debrecen, Hungary.

She is putting out all the stops,  teaching them all she knows about arnis: stick-fighting, empty hand combat, full contact, single stick, double stick full contact single stick, padded knife, joint locks, disarms… you name it.

Arnis is a weapons-based martial art where you learn the stick, then the knife, then the empty hand,” she explains. “In karate and tae kwon do, you learn the empty hand first and advanced students learn weaponry. It’s reversed.”

‘It’s like a dance’

Ramos learned martial arts over 20 years ago; at age 12, she enrolled in Okinawan Shorin Ryu karate before moving on to tae kwon do, which she doggedly studied for eight years.

Her dad and her grandmother had always talked about how her great-grandfather practiced arnis back home, in Tarlac, a province north of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. But no one really taught arnis when she was growing up in Scarborough. Karate and tae kwon were accessible– there were programs at a local community centre and it was easy for her parents to drop her off there.

One day, her tae kwon do instructor invited a martial arts expert, Punong Guro (Head Instructor) Laura Holmes to conduct a seminar on sinawali, a category of arnis that involves double cane fighting with a weaving pattern.

When she saw Holmes demonstrate her moves, Ramos was hooked. “The movements with the stick are pretty mesmerizing,” she says. “Arnis is very graceful and fluid. It’s like a dance.”

When Holmes opened Combat Science in 2003, Ramos was among the first to join her school. Holmes, who is not of Filipino descent, holds world titles in full contact stick fighting and has been teaching arnis for over 20 years. She has been certified by various grandmasters in the Philippines who specialize in impact and edged weapons and hand-to-hand combat, but she continues to update her knowledge of arnis by training in the Philippines regularly.

Having a non-Filipino as her instructor meant a great deal to Ramos. “Knowing that arnis was being taught by someone who’s not Filipino made me appreciate the art even more,” says Ramos.  “If even a non-Filipino can appreciate and respect arnis and be willing to teach it, that’s something.”

She joined her first world arnis championship competition in 2006 and has done four competitions since then. Holmes wanted to instil in her students not just an appreciation for the art form of arnis, but its sport aspect as well, Ramos explains.

What saddens Ramos is the apparent lack of appreciation for arnis among Filipinos. Over 30 countries were represented in the competitions she has joined, but most had only one Filipino in their teams.

In Canada, a lot of Filipino youth are more interested in basketball and other sports, she notes. “It’s lack of education and exposure…Growing up, I didn’t know there was a Filipino martial arts world out there and that there are people who teach it in Canada,” she says. “I thought it was just on the farm where my grandma grew up.”

A complete martial art

There is not one style of arnis/kali/eskrima; some arnis historians say there are over 200 forms.  Often referred to as a “complete martial art,” arnis was developed hundreds of years ago by native inhabitants of the Philippines, who used simple weapons such as rattan, swords, daggers, spears and other weaponry. “These weapons were also sometimes used as farm implements,” according to the Combat Science website.

It is believed that one of the earliest heroes of the Philippines, Lapu Lapu, was an arnis expert.

“(Antonio) Pigafetta, (Ferdinand) Magellan’s chronicler and historian, recorded that on April 27, 1521, Lapu Lapu killed the great Spanish warrior with a bladed weapon, thus marking a Filipino’s first victorious stand against a foreign invader,” according to the website of the International Philippine Eskrima-Arnis De Mano Confederation (IPEAC). “Pigafetta also recorded that many of the natives carried a pointed short hardwood stick which had been further hardened by fire treatment and used in fighting.”

Arnis was prohibited under Spanish occupation and it is said to have been preserved through dance and mock battle performances passed on from generation to generation. Since carrying of bladed weapons was banned during 400 years of Spanish rule, Filipinos substituted the use of sword with rattan sticks, which are being used in today’s arnis. The martial art later absorbed Spanish influences, in particular, fencing and its “angles of attack” and use of espada y daga (sword and dagger), says the IPEAC website.

Why is arnis also called kali and eskrima? “It is believed that arnis, kali and eskrima are all part of the same art and depending on the location, dialect and type of training taught,” says the Combat Science website. “Also, any of the three names may apply to a certain part of training. One interpretation is that kali is the mother art of arnis and [eskrima]. Arnis focuses on the knife, including dagger, sword and any other form of bladed weapon. [Eskrima] is based on the baston or stick.”

‘A beginner’s mind’

Students learn the basics of arnis by using the rattan sticks first, says Ramos. “And then you incorporate it in bladed weaponry such as the daga, bolo (a long knife) and balisong (fan knife), and then the empty hand.”

But the most important lesson that Ramos says she teaches students is “to have respect for the art itself and for the culture and history of the Philippines.”

She constantly reminds them to have “a beginner’s mind.” She herself is still learning arnis, she says. “There are many aspects to this art. It’s always developing and constantly changing.”

Ramos has trained with such heavyweights as Grand Master (GM) Vic Sanchez, Master Bambit Dulay, GM Freddie Fernandez, Master Jun Jun Presas and GM Rodel Dagoocs.  But she tries to go back to the Philippines every four years to learn more from them and other grandmasters. It’s a discipline that Holmes has instilled in her, which she passes on to students. “We want students to experience the different kinds of forms. It’s good for them to keep an open mind.”

The allure of arnis goes beyond its beauty as a martial art form, says Ramos. Arnis has made her more grounded and well rounded; it has given her self-discipline and control. Arnis is very physical and Ramos’ students swear by its benefits to their health.

Ramos is proud of the fact that the classes at Combat Science have a mix of male and female students and that students don’t have an issue with female instructors like her.

Some schools tend to be very rigid and very traditional, preferring instructors who are both male and Filipino, she says.

Ramos and Holmes have proven that you don’t have to be a man and a Filipino to excel in and love arnis.

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  • December 14, 2013


    I agree with having a beginner’s mind. Arnis / Kali is definitely a dynamic and ever-changing martial art/sports. And yes, you don’t have to be a man and Filipino to be great at Arnis. Actually, you don’t have to be anything. You just need to have willingness to learn and passion for Arnis.

  • December 22, 2013


    Thanks for this feature on a FILIPINA martial artist! Glad to see more women doing Kali / Arnis / Escrima. I train in Kali under a non-filipino Guro and it’s given me a much better appreciation for our own martial arts as well. I hope to see it become as popular in the Philippines as Capoeira, Taekwondo, and Boxing currently are.

    • December 23, 2013


      You’re welcome! Thanks for reading and commenting on our piece. Much appreciated.