Martial artists across the world and across generations have looked for very different things from their training, but virtually all of them have a few things in common: First, martial artists want, in general, to become stronger, faster, and more disciplined in their everyday lives. Second, most martial artists want to train in something larger than themselves—something with a history and a spiritual lineage that connects them to feelings of peace, wisdom, and in some cases, divinity. But there is another thing that most all martial artists want, and in the contemporary world, particularly in the West, it has come to dominate the conversation. What people seem to want is efficiency and practicality. They want to be able to defend themselves. They want to be able to fight, not just on the mat, but in the street if they need to. The want the confidence and the inner power that comes from feeling as though you will be able to get yourself out of harm’s way, or even inflict great harm on another, if the situation calls for it (or sometimes, problematically, even when it does not).
Martial arts were always about battle, even the slowest and softest of them, at least on some level. But historically there was a great deal of emphasis placed on spirituality and personal growth. To live as a martial artist was both to be martial and to be an artist—and that meant being a spiritual devotee. But that is no longer, for many people, the focus, especially not in America.
What people want to know more than anything else is the answer to a simple question—does this martial art work? Will it help me defend myself?
Kali is a martial art developed in the Philippines that marries old-world traditions with a Western focus on practical defense. This martial art is particularly concerned with measured aggression, practical efficiency, and improvisation.
What Is Kali?
Kali, or Eskrima (sometimes also called Arnis), is a weapons-based martial art from the Philippines that originated as an outgrowth of Indian and Spanish fighting techniques. Kali is mostly associated with stick-fighting, but it emphasizes training in multiple weapons, including knives. It also trains its practitioners to improvise weapons around them, since in ordinary life one is usually not carrying a Kali stick.
Even though Kali is associated with weapons fighting, there are non-weapons-based techniques that are central to the discipline. Among these are included joint locks and weapon disarmament. There are even older, more traditional styles of Kali in which weapons are not used at all.
What makes Kali special?
Kali is special in part because of its (usual) focus on weapons. It trains its fighters to be extremely proficient with very close combat weapons such as knives and sticks, and it emphasizes the need to turn virtually anything into a weapon if the need arises. This improvisational nature is part of the spirit of Kali, which teaches its fighters to be open to any and all circumstances.
The weapons-based and improvisational approach of modern Kali makes it a useful tool for dealing with self-defense problems. In most cases, there is something that can be used as a weapon, and Kali fighters are trained to use those things effectively. Even when a weapon is not at hand, even an improvised one, the weapon disarmament techniques of Kali can prove life-saving in some situations (and can give the Kali fighter the opportunity to gain a weapon). Beyond that, when there are no weapons involved at all, Kali’s join locks are powerful and devastating.
The philosophy of Kali
Philosophically, Kali is based on improvisation and efficiency. The most direct route to disarming or harming an opponent who seeks to injure you is the best route from the perspective of Kali. But that means having a keenly trained mind, being aware of your surroundings at all times, and always able to react and respond quickly. The training of Kali—in particular with sticks—is designed not only to make one proficient with specific stick techniques, but also to encourage overall dexterity, speed, strength, and quick response time when needing to improvise a weapon and use it in the street.
The spirit of improvisation is here the same as it is everywhere—it is about responding to the world that comes at you (and does not take dictation from what you want it to be). Whether we are talking about a blues guitarist or a Kali fighter, the principles of improvisation are the same. It is both a matter of passive openness and keen awareness to what is going on around the improviser, and also a matter of being able to use whatever material is being given to you— whatever weapon is at hand—to respond to what is around you powerfully. The goal of improvisation is to respond in order to be powerful, be healthy, be joyful, and be worthy of the life that you are responding to. Kali, from a spiritual perspective, is about training in that kind of improvisation.
When a fighter fights, they are always improvising. There is never a map for them, never a plan, not really. The point of Kali is to prepare its practitioners emotionally and psychologically for the difficulty of this fact, which affects us all in every aspect of life. Being confronted with danger is no different than going to the grocery store and realizing you forgot your list. If you have the proper training, needing to defend yourself may not fill you with fear, but with power and energy, the confidence to respond as you need to.
Is Kali an effective self-defense art? In a strictly practical sense, it is useful as a way to train in very close combat with multiple weapons. But its real power lies in its philosophical commitment to improvisation, psychological dexterity, and spiritual openness. Those are the things that will, in the end, keep you safe.