Most Oriental martial arts are presented as a double-edged sword, one side represents aggression and destruction, while the other side represents healing and compassion.
Based on this premise a true martial artist can kill or heal. In an interview with FIGHT Times, Virgil Mayor Apostol, a veteran teacher of the Filipino martial arts (FMA), a practicing healer and author of the groundbreaking book Way of the Ancient Healer reveals the connection between the healing and fighting arts of the Philippines.
FIGHT Times: Please tell us something about yourself, your personal background and how did you arrive in the place where you are at right now?
Virgil Mayor Apostol: Being born in the Year of the Dragon, to a bloodline of maternal and paternal healers, I have coined and adopted the name “Nagabuaya” as my moniker. I can cast that ferocity at will—I was born with what Ilocanos call rapas— but I am better known as a peaceful, down-to-earth individual with a great sense of humor.
Attending school in the Philippines allowed me to become fluent in Iluko and Tagalog, thus leading people to assume that I was born there. I was actually born in the States where I also experienced, as a youth, an identity crisis like many Filipino-Americans.
Having my feet in two places, however, has allowed me to view things from what anthropologists call “emic” and “etic” perspectives. In other words, I see things from the outside, yet also see things from within.
FT: While you are better known as a healer, you are also skilled in the fighting arts of the Philippines; can you elaborate more on this?
VMA: Back in 1980, I obtained a copy of Dan Inosanto’s Filipino Martial Arts, and was asking my father to strike me so that I could follow the moves. It was then that he shared with me an incident that he witnessed around 1940 in Hawaii when a Filipino elder, armed with a hefty walking stick, took down a Japanese kendo master. He explained that the elder was from the Ilocos, and that he and the other Ilocanos would practice their skills in arnis. After sharing that, my father proceeded to strike me, landing blow after blow, but would never abide by what the book presented.
I eventually inherited his brother’s flat billang garrote (anahaw club shaped like a blunt sword), as well as those from my mother’s side. I noticed that their use were not generally suitable for styles that implemented lighter rattan. I eventually delved into research of how the garrote influenced many Northern Luzon arnis styles, especially after noticing the lack of written information, and how they are misunderstood.
The most common method of execution is the Cinco Tero that consists of five strikes, namely: tagbat, arabis, saboy, aplit, and duyok that are executed towards four quadrants, as opposed to lines of attack. This sequential flow is usually delivered by the Cabaroan styles that tend to utilize the longer and heavier garrote or pang-or (long truncheon).
The term, Cabaroan derives from the Ilocano root-word baro (modern or of the new), as opposed to its counterpart, the Cadaanan styles, a term which derives from the root-word daan (old or ancient). One of the common characteristics of Cabaroan is that it follows a linear footwork pattern with strikes that follow through, hence the term larga mano, indicating the duration or extension of a strike. Movements are generated through synchronized body mechanics, with the empty hand acting as a counterbalance. This, in addition to the longer, thus heavier garrote, adds to the idea that Cabaroan styles are executed at long range, although not always the case.
The Cadaanan, which is more similar in appearance with other mainstream arnis styles, is said to be the older style. Footwork follows basic triangular patterns, and the weapons are usually shorter and lighter, thus giving the ability to apply sudden micro movements through the wrist and elbow joints. The use of the empty hand also comes more into play. The Cinco Tero sequential pattern may be as follows: tagbat, aplit, saboy, arabis, and duyok.
I don’t claim to be a fighter, but rather one who preserves life, thus my path as a healer. For general health and well-being, I teach an exercise class in wooden club swinging, which is based on club swinging practices from India and on Cabaroan Arnis, especially for those who require physical rehabilitation. I guess one can call me “Nagabuaya —the Spiritual Warrior.”
FT: Can you explain the uniqueness of Philippine healing tradition as well as its similarities to other healing modalities like those practiced in China, Japan and India?
VMA: As with the healing arts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar, principles and theories are more in line with those from India. It is even said that Filipino pulse diagnosis is more akin to that of Indian Ayurveda, rather than from traditional Chinese medicine.
My grandmother used to treat eye problems through distal areas on the feet. If the problem existed in the right eye, the base of the left tangan (big toe) would be manipulated. A black string was also tied at its base. I have witnessed Itneg and Bontoc healers who also manipulated certain areas to treat a distal site. I discovered from different folks from India that the contralateral big toe manipulation, along with black string tying, were the exact methods that they use. As understood in Ayurveda, Kundalini Yoga, and Kalaripayattu, the gandhari and hastajihva nadis (channels of prana or life-force energy) stretch from the corners of the eyes down to the big toes.
Like the Filipino martial arts, there are several methods of Filipino healing. What you refer to as hilot, we refer to as ablon in the Ilocos regions. I cringe, however, when people call hilot or ablon a form of massage, which in Ilocano is referred to as pekkel. From a cultural and scientific perspective, they should be referred to as manual medicine.
In my practice of ablon, some have likened some aspects of my work to osteopathy, although I do not make any claims or perform any manipulations on spinal subluxations. My emphasis is on balancing the quality and interaction between the urat (neurovascular bundles and vessels), pennet (chord-like structures including tendons and ligaments, or any structure that feels sinewy), lasag (flesh or muscle), and the tulang (bones). As a simple yet effective approach, what really makes ablon effective is when there is a heightened sense of intuition and sensitivity that allows the practitioner to apply what is needed.
FT: Can hilot be taught, say, in a seminar or a school? Or the skills can only be inherited?
VMA: Whenever I used to ask an elder to teach me, the common response was, “How can I teach this? It is a gift from God!” Their “gift” is inherent in them—something that truly cannot be taught. The mechanics, however, can be taught, and if those learning also have the gift, then they will operate on a higher level.
FT: In your opinion, should modern FMA practitioners pursue the study of hilot and other Philippine healing traditions and why?
VMA: Learning our traditional ways of healing can help round out the FMA practitioner. Whether basic or advanced, it would be like learning first aid and CPR, which can be applied when needed, and serve as preventive measures against injuries or ailments. Many arnis teachers whom I have encountered were also adept at healing. It is like two sides of a coin where you learn how to destroy and to heal what you destroy. In addition, with unhealthy egos prevalent among many FMA practitioners, learning the ways of healing can help them evolve on a spiritual level.