While drilling techniques in my class, a student asked me how we decide to perform one technique over another. I explained that "it depends" on context and is probably decided based on instinct and/or intuition born from training. This is a non-answer, an answer that amounts to "it's complicated." While we train in specific self-defense techniques, our forms (jurus-jurus) are encrypted libraries containing hundreds to thousands of potential techniques and applications. The complexity of a pencak silat system can be its weakness, as the learning curve becomes quite steep and the variety of material can be daunting. When you see a silat technique demonstrated at a seminar or in a class, it is an example to be taken within a specific context of timing, distance, and personal preference. Silat techniques can be quite ornate and sophisticated while preserving the atavistic brutality characteristic of an art based on survival. Even basic silat self-defense techniques may involve ornamentation and extra steps that appear to be superfluous. Among the myriad of silat types, Pencak Silat Inti Ombak (IOPS) is quite direct with efficiency of movement in its applications.
The motion of Inti Ombak Pencak Silat (IOPS) is influenced by two major traditions from the islands of Java and Madura. The central Javanese aspect of IOPS is represented in high, upright stances and precision striking. Many of the low stances and grappling movements are representative of the Madurese heritage. What makes IOPS unique, however, is its core philosophy (and possibly our assortment of knife grips). Rather than being defined by a set curriculum or a typecast style of motion, this system of martial arts embraces a core set of five rules of engagement and the philosophical outlook that human beings are individuals; with different weights, heights, and behavior. These differences make us who we are and should not be discarded when we become convinced that a certain style is ‘the best.’ It is my belief that styles of martial arts, from all over the world, have many motions in common. Every surviving culture has known combat and developed ways to deal with it. As the human body is capable of a large, yet finite range of motion, it is not surprising that martial arts from many cultures combine kicks, punches, footwork, and grappling maneuvers that are strikingly similar to an experienced practitioner. Martial arts (Pencak) from the royal courts of Central Java are highly influential in Pencak Silat and may be a distant cousin of Muay Thai with powerful kicks and finishing strikes with elbows and knees. This striking technology is mounted on a highly sophisticated footwork platform. The aristocratic silat from Central Java plays an evasive and subtle chess game using clever timing and positioning.
Silat from Madura tends to be more direct, with flowing and relentless movement aiming for the destruction of the opponent. IOPS tends towards a middle ground between the high (Central Java) and low (Madura) stances and strategies of its ancestors. All of the motion in IOPS follows a set of rules of engagement (Kaedah) that define its motion. Any technique is theoretically valid if it follows these guidelines, which are flexible and subject to interpretation. The first rule is to always move to an advantageous angle, whether that be to avoid conflict in the first place or to evade an opponent's strike. When applying a technique, you have to protect your vital areas and have sound motion whether an attacker is armed or unarmed. IOPS practitioners seek to end a conflict quickly and "compassionately." The final rule is to preserve your option to return to the first rule, which can mean to always have an escape strategy and/or maintain mobility.
Although IOPS instructors are expected to complete hundreds of techniques under pressure, we focus on developing intuition using paired drills and games. The inspiration for our drills and techniques comes from the collection of individual jurus-jurus within our system that comprise four levels of development (fundamental, animal, elemental, and human). Our martial decision tree is based first and foremost on our our rules of engagement, guidelines that are meant to be flexible, however, examples are necessary in training. Based on the rules of engagement and philosophy of IOPS motion, however, we can construct an anatomy of a silat technique.
Our techniques are composed of 4 stages consisting of opening, entry, application, and finishing motions.
The beginning stages of a technique, based on the opening presented by a situation or opponent. During a recent seminar Guru Daniel presented the concept of "allowances." Basically, this consists of the number of attacks you allow (or are able to survive) until reacting to defend yourself. During training, we believe in both participants being active so our techniques practice is usually based on one (or more) opponents throwing multiple attacks. The initial stages of training drawn from traditional pencak silat are games called serang-hindar (attack-avoid) and serang-tahan (attack-block) where one participant throws individual dedicated attacks while the other either focusing on evading using foot-work or defending using a combination of footwork and blocking techniques. These training games primarily help build confidence and fundamentals in both students. They also set up various openings and an observant student can learn to recognize those openings.
While reacting to a single attack can be useful for didactic purposes, it doesn't help either student who should be A) throwing effective striking combinations or B) getting acclimated to surviving a flurry of attacks. The students can increase the difficulty of the training exercise by adding additional attacks and/or opponents. To develop specific skills, you can focus on setting up openings at different ranges or using different stances or fighting elevations.
One of my favorite opening drills I learned from Chakra Lima Silat Combat Systems, where one person practicing deflecting knife attacks from an unrelenting line of attackers:
We separate distance into four different ranges for hand-to-hand encounters. At the longest range, the fighters can touch each other by extending their arms and touching fists. For weaponry, this is also the range for a typical staff (try it safely to see if I am right). We call this range "2.0" because the range unit is based on your extended arm (1 range unit) making contact with your partner's extended arm irregardless of individual arm length. The next range is from an extended fist to an elbow either because an opponent has thrown a punch and it was redirected into your elbow or because you have pushed on the opponent's elbow to move their arm out of the way. The distance from your shoulder to your elbow counts as one-half range. When added to the length of an extended arm (yours or your partner's) that equals "1.5." This extended range is optimal for a weapon such as a knife, stick or sword which makes it an extremely dangerous range. For openings against armed attackers, it is safer to be outside the range of the weapon with another option to close distance to get inside the optimal range. Conventional hand striking or boxing range will be "1.0" where you can strike your partner with your hands. This doesn't necessarily mean that an opponent can strike you back, there are angling and ranging methods in pencak silat to negate that possibility. At a range of "0.5" you are in extreme close quarters as this is the favored range for elbow and knee strikes. Finally at a range of "0" your body is in contact with the opponent's, which essentially comes down to grappling.
Pencak Silat is already known for fluid falls, rolls, and sudden transitions to low kicks and sweeps. This can be seen especially in sport silat which rewards dramatic take-downs using Mortal Kombat like leg sweeps (sapuan bawah) and scissor leg take downs (guntingan). Different aliran (silat styles) emphasize fighting at one or more of 4 generic elevations. For us, when your feet are approximately shoulder-width apart you are in the high (tinggi) elevation. At shoulder and a half width apart, your stance has put you in the middle (tengah) elevation and we define low as when your feet are approximately double shoulder width apart (rendah).
Importantly, pencak silat techniques are not limited to grappling when on the ground. The flexibility and leg strength imparted by training allow silat players to maintain mobility while in these positions. The ability to directly return to a standing position or deliver powerful kicks from the ground is characteristic of silat athleticism. In IOPS, we always have an escape plan and that is reflected in our ground game where we usually seek a quick exit.
All of your attack options apply in each elevation but based on your stamina, speed, and flexibility you may choose one option over another. As your stance widens and your elevation lowers, generally you are trading mobility for structure and stability with ground stances being the lowest. Pencak silat uses footwork, falls, and jumping from prone to standing to develop the strength and explosiveness to change from one elevation to another in a single fluid motion. You can see my teacher Guru Daniel Prasetya change elevations while kicking in this video:
Essentially, the concept of allowances comes down to timing and opportunity. There are only so many attacks you can deflect, evade, or withstand before you are defeated. Allowing no allowances is the direct application of violence on an opponent before they can attack you. Zero allowance situations include unexpectedly attacking preemptively or acting first in a duel or cage match. A single allowance would be (willingly or not) suffering a single attack from an opponent either from setting up a counter from a seemingly vulnerable position (pancer) or being attacked unexpectedly. Additional allowances can follow, but to stay within the IOPS kaedah a maximum of 3 are recommended. We have a few drills to practice this concept which include (at a basic level) holding your palms forward and having a partner punch into your palms with speed and force repeatedly. When you're ready (take your time) and practice running forward to either side. Next, during your typical sparring sessions focus on identifying and then acting on the openings you see. Over time, work on acting sooner on the openings you spot.
These are concepts that apply across martial arts disciplines, and represent my understanding and opinions from my training in pencak silat. Hopefully you find this blog beneficial, I intend to follow it up with sections describing our training practices regarding the other 3 parts of a technique: entry, application, and finish.