by Ethan Murchie
A couple of years ago I met Maija Soderholm for the first time. I had seen some clips online of her with her teacher Sonny Umpad and I had a great endorsement from my old teacher Mike Panian who told me he was impressed with her skills.
I was already pretty interested but after I read her book, The Liar the Cheat and the Thief I was sure I wanted to find out what this was all about.
The book is about her experiences training with Sonny, both talking story about the maestro and discussing the way he thought about training with blades, the beauty of escrima, the ugliness of violence, the trouble with trying to capture the teaching into a method and how all these things intersect. To me this is all fascinating stuff and resonates very strongly with the concerns and preoccupations I have inherited from my own teachers.
So it was exciting to be able to meet and train with Maija and on that first visit expectations were all met and exceeded.
Sonny’s method as Maija lays it out is a beautiful and intricate puzzle of blade shapes and sizes, movement patterns and dance steps. The way the pieces fit together, using different blades to study various movement skills and range issues or different parameters within the drills to focus attention on specific conditions is all pure genius and I can only stand in awe of Sonny’s artistry. I saw basic escrima patterns that I have known and practiced for 20 years deconstructed in such a way as to bring out really very fine insights, insights I doubt I would ever have found on my own.
But what is most cool and most mind blowing about Sonny’s method is that at the heart of all the intricate details lies a ridiculously simple and profound basic practice, this idea of flowing inside the pendulum.
Sonny’s premise is that in training, preset patterns are too restrictive to develop the skill sets to deal with unscripted sparring let alone the chaos of real world violence. Many people think that there fore more sparring or more violence is the way to develop these skills. Yet with blades involved there are all kinds of reasons straight up sparring and escalated violence presents problems.
In addition to the problem of preset patterns Sonny recognized an often over looked truth. He said, “Hitting someone is easy, especially if you don’t care about your own health and safety. Getting hit is even easier. Therefore the art lies in not getting hit.” Simple and profound.
So how to train with out preset patterns but build up the habits of how not to die? Sonny’s response to this challenge is the pendulum flow and again I am in awe of his genius.
The pendulum flow dose exactly what the name suggests, it sets you up to move back and forth like a pendulum. Once moving the variety of things that can happen is endless. Just like the pendulum on a clock cuts time into little chunks as it passes by so stepping in the pendulum cuts up the patterns of space-time motion the practitioners are moving through.
The beauty and the genius is that for the two people flowing together space and time suddenly become present and malleable in ways you never thought of before. Time palpably warps when a good play is made. This is a surprisingly cool thing to find and experience in such a simple drill.
The result is endless fun and insight. The fun is its own justification and the insights play out across training and movements of all sorts.
These days I continue to get together with Maija when I can, visit her in Oakland and bring her out to teach in Montreal. Sonny’s methods have become an essential ingredient in what we do at the Montreal Gongfu Research Center.