Filipino Martial Arts
By Michael Janich
Sinawali is a template for learning proper movement. It’s like the paint-by-numbers approach to artwork.
Sinawali, or double-stick training, is a practice familiar to many Filipino martial arts. In its most common form, two eskrimadors, each armed with two sticks, face each other and simultaneously perform an identical series of prescribed strikes, hitting their sticks together in various rote patterns and rhythms. Meaning, “to weave,” sinawali gets its name from the intricate, intertwining patterns of the sticks as they are wielded in these drills.
Although sinawali is practiced in many Filipino martial arts forms, most of this practice usually consists of simple mechanical repetition. At a basic level, this type of training is an extremely efficient way of developing form and programming motor skills. However, to the advanced practitioner, these amazing drills offer a much higher level of skill development and a true understanding of physical movement.
Joseph Simonet has spent years analyzing and refining sinawali drills to extract their deeper meanings. The founder of KI Fighting Concepts, a concept-based martial training institute in Wenatchee, Wash., Simonet has instructor-level ranking in kenpo karate, Indonesian pentjak silat, wing chun gung-fu, Yang style taijiquan, doce pares eskrima and eskrido. With more than 30 years of martial arts training to draw from, Simonet still considers sinawali drills a critical step in his eclectic KI Fighting Concepts curriculum.
“Like any form,” Simonet explains, “sinawali drills are designed to be a dictionary of motion – a means of learning and refining specific movements through structured repetition. As a learning process, they are excellent. But like any form, we need to remember that the material learned is what’s important, not the process.”
Mechanical, But Effective
Even at the basic level of mechanical repetition, sinawali training offers a number of significant benefits. First, because the student must move weapons in addition to his limbs, the paths of the movements are more visible and therefore more easily learned and corrected. The weight of the sticks also provides a form of resistance that helps the practitioner develop strength in the appropriate muscle groups while at the same time programming motor memory.
Since most people have a dominant side, training with matched weapons allows the weak side to “copy” the movements of the strong side, balancing the body and promoting the rapid development of weak-side skills and strength.
By working with longer weapons and striking stick to stick, beginning eskrimadors can train safely and develop their reflexes progressively by maintaining a long-range distance relationship with their partner. Once the basic patterns have been learned and the students are hitting consistently, they can increase both the speed and power of their hits, ultimately achieving full-power, full-speed hits in rapid succession with their partner. In the process, the also learn the importance of weapon grip and impact-shock management – critical but often-overlooked aspects of real-world weapon use.
Although basic sinawali training offers a number of significant benefits to the novice, the real value of these drills lies in the root movements – and the practitioner’s ability to understand and creatively express these movements.
“The key to mastering any martial art form is the ability to appreciate and apply the physiological potential o fits movements,” Simonet explains. “This does not mean accepting and mimicking the one or two applications your instructor taught you. It means experimenting and looking deeper into the dynamics of the motion to extract its full potential.”
Simonet’s approach to sinawali training is a direct reflection of his Filipino martial arts lineage, which starts with his primary instructor, doce pares eighth-degree black belt Christopher Petrilli, and extends to Petrilli’s instructor, legendary doce pares grandmaster Cacoy Cañete. Both Petrilli and Cañete take a unique approach to sinawali, emphasizing the extreme close-range applications of this normally long-range style of training. The result is a higher evolution of the basic body mechanics of sinawaali that emphasizes unconventional strikes, particularly ones that take advantage of the punyo, or butt end of the stick.
For example, most Filipino martial arts practitioners of are familiar with Heaven Six, a basic six-count sinawali pattern that consists of a right angle 1, left angle 1, right angle 2, left angle 2, right angle 2, and left angle 1. In its standard form, all strikes are executed with a full stroke, hitting with the long end of the stick.
A more advanced version of this drill emphasizes close-range tactics and the use of the punyo as well as the main body of the stick. In this drill, the first and fourth strikes are executed almost like a hook punch – following the same downward diagonal angle, but with the stick tip down and across the body and striking with the face of the punyo just beyond the knuckles of the hand. The third and sixth strikes are also designed for close-quarter use and are delivered with the bottom end of the punyo. This is represented in partner training by striking wrist to wrist.
With one subtle addition, an even more advanced eight-count pattern can be created. After the first and fourth strikes of the above pattern, a close-range abaniko (fanning) strike is added, rotating immediately out of the punyo punch and striking with the long end of the stick.
The above variations of Heaven Six add two unorthodox but highly effective strikes to the practitioner’s arsenal: a downward smashing strike with the long end of the stick held horizontally and the obvious punyo-style punch. In application, these unusual strikes are devastating, hitting with amazing force from unexpected angles. These strikes also promote the concept of striking rapidly with alternate ends of the stick. This is a trademark of Simonet’s unique brand of stickfighting.
“To appreciate the full physiological potential of a motion, you need to look at the entire movement not just the strike,” Simonet notes. “In the case of sinawali patterns, the positioning of the hand as it chambers and prepares for a strike is often a structurally powerful and very useful movement. Rather than wasting it, we take advantage of it and make it into another hit.”
Long and Short of It
To further refine the ability to hit alternately with both the punyo and long end of the stick, Simonet uses yet another unique drill. In this drill, the practitioners begin with the sticks in their right hands crossed diagonally in front of them, chambered near their left shoulders. On the first count, they strike with an angle 2 backhand with the long end of the stick. Rebounding from this strike, they punch forward and upward with the punyo of the stick for count two. Chambering near their left shoulders again, on count three they strike wrist to wrist, simulating and angle 2 punyo strike. Chambering across the body yet again, they strike with a full angle 2 stroke for count four. The follow through of this strike leaves them chambered near their right shoulders for an angle 1 strike with the long end of the stick (count 5). On count six, they rebound and punch upward and to the right with the punyo of the stick, chambering near their right shoulders again. Count seven is an angle 1 strike with the bottom of the punyo, simulated by striking wrist to wrist. Chambering once again at the right shoulder, both partners strike with a full angle 1 stroke (count eight) that follows through to chamber at the left shoulder, where they are ready to start the drill again.
This drill may be performed with a single stick, as described here, or by alternating hands with two sticks. With practice, the eskrimador learns to rapidly alternate between punyo punches, strikes with the long end of the stick, and strikes or hooking actions with the bottom of the punyo.
In a close-range encounter, a simple backhand angle 2 strike to the head with the stick can now be instantly followed with a punyo punch to the throat, a backhand punyo strike to the side of the neck, and another full-stroke angle 2 strike to the head in just fractions of a second. Any blocks that an opponent may be able to insert to foil this flow are immediately “removed” by hooking the blocking hand with the punyo and pulling it our of the way. When fighting with single sticks, the non-weapon, or “live” hand continues the same patterns of movement as when armed with the stick, but now its function is that of tapping and clearing the opponent’s limbs. When combined with hooks with the punyo, the result is an extremely sophisticated and brutally effective system of close-quarter trapping, all based directly on sinawali movement patterns.
These are only a few examples of the advanced sinawali patterns that form the core of Simonet’s KI Fighting Concepts stickfighting curriculum. His entire program of instruction includes more than 100 sinawali patterns and variations, each of which this author designed to ingrain a specific set of body mechanics and motor memory. In addition to the drills themselves, Simonet’s teaching and practice of sinawali also requires that students be able to instantly flow from one drill to another. The motions required for these transitions offer yet another spectrum of movements and promote spontaneity and quick reflexes that go far beyond the rote memorization and mechanical execution of basic sinawali.
“Like any prescribed form,” Simonet says, “sinawali is a template for learning proper movement. It’s like the paint-by-numbers approach to artwork. By following someone else’s color pattern and brush strokes, you learn the mechanics of painting. Once you’re comfortable with them, you paint your own picture. Just as two people given the same paints and brushes will paint two different pictures, two martial artists will find different meanings in the movements of sinawali. Like any other true art form, in the martial arts, personal expression is the ultimate goal.”