Martial Melding: Finding the Similarities

To meld is to blend or combine two or more things. In martial arts, it is now referred to as Mixed Martial Arts. In days past, cross training was regarded as a way to train and gain knowledge from various styles at one time, though the idea of blending multiple styles together was often frowned upon by one’s instructors and among diehard purists. Much has changed in the way of how things are both taught and trained today as the once strict code of secrecy is more relaxed.

Longtime martial arts practitioners Irvin Gill and Michael Aloia have taken the ideas of cross training and mixed martial arts into a slightly different direction, combining not only applications but core concepts and methods to create a martial melding between two unlikely styles: American Kenpo Karate and traditional Japanese jujutsu.

Avoiding just stringing together a series of random movements and techniques from this or that, as many hybrid systems often seem to do, Gill and Aloia maintain the base principals and modify the applications based on each respective art’s style, method, and approach towards a specific attack and desired outcome. Their martial melding lesson is not a new style, system, or art form, but rather a cognitive mental construct that links similar mental and muscular patterns together found in most styles and forms. It is philosophical in nature but maintains a high level of hands on and interactive application.

Rather than looking for, or even dwelling on, differences between the approaches, Gill and Aloia find the similarities and exploit the commonality, given equal ground to each particular area of expertise. Their workshops regularly center around techniques most familiar to those in attendance. Whereas techniques are determined or chosen by the group, finding Gill and Aloia obliging by demonstrating various interpretations and adaptations using their area of study.

Gill and Aloia never look to take away from any art form or from what a practitioner has been able to gain from their training. The goal is to always “add to” what they are already doing and to bridge possible gaps and connect dots while offering new perspectives and additional insight building new thought patterns and ultimately, new physical responses.

Martial arts have always been about perspectives and the challenges we face as practitioners when confronted with, or the lack thereof, perspective.

The following is a short interview with the two lead instructors, Irvin Gill and Michael Aloia. Join them on their next Martial Melding here.

MAYTT: How did you first conceive of the idea of your Martial Melding seminars? Was this something you were pondering for a number of years or was this a more recent thought?

IG: Some years ago, Michael Aloia Sensei and I teamed up with Dr. Mark V. Wiley for a seminar. The initial concept was to take a technique, a sequence of movements, and interpret that move through the perspective of the Filipino Martial Arts, Aikido, and American Kenpo. The technique then morphed naturally. The participants seemed pleased and engaged.

After that, Michael Sensei would ask me to come by his dojo where the same type of class would occur. We would examine an Aikido move and offer an American Kenpo translation of it. Or vice versa. It was challenging and enlightening, but not really surprising, to see the similarities between systems. It is like the theory of parallel evolution. Stated simply, the reptile that occupies the wolf’s niche on an ecosystem will look and operate similarly to a marsupial version or a mammalian.

There are those who stress the differences of various styles and systems. It’s the old – “Mine is better than yours!” attitude. To paraphrase my old sifu, Don Burrier, it’s not the system in the person, it’s the person in the system.

Irvin Gill (right) demonstrating some similarities in American Kenpo Karate.

MA: It happened over breakfast. Over the last ten years or so, Gill Sensei and I would meet now and again for breakfast to catch up and reminisce. Our conversations usually go towards the martial arts ten out of ten times. We always discussed concepts and principles addressed by our particular art forms and how those ideas and philosophies are often executed in physical form. The more we talked, the more we found that similar ideologies were held between our styles even though we came at them from different points – finding that certain things were emphasized more than others depending upon intents and outcomes. But nonetheless, the core was the same and everything else seemed to be just decoration. We found that we both approached things in a similar way even though studying different styles. These talks eventually lead to us physically working through many of the conversations as a means to create examples and further our discussions – over breakfast of course. Before we knew it, we were creating an outline that would become this martial melding workshop that we now do. After a few test runs, we were a go.

Integrating different ideas and philosophies is something I have done personally for a long time. It always just seemed normal to me. It’s part of the quest to find answers to an endless cycle of questions.

MAYTT: Many practitioners view their respective arts within a certain box or specific parameters and any such deviation, modification, or tampering with those parameters results in a bastardization of that art. How would you respond to someone stating that this seminar and others like it are degrading the overall quality and is not a true representation of your respective arts? How much crossover should there be with the different martial arts or does the quantity does not matter anymore?

IG: Let me begin with a quote from American Kenpo founder, Grandmaster Ed Parker: “There are no pure styles of karate. Purity comes only when pure knuckles meet pure flesh, no matter who delivers or receives.”

This question has been around for a while. Way before Semisonic penned their lyrics, Seneca the Elder (54 BC – 39 AD) said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”        

What must be examined in your questions above is the phrase “specific parameters and any such deviation, modification, or tampering with those parameters results in a bastardization of that art.” 

Let’s start with a definition: Definition of parameter (From Merriam-Webster): 2: any of a set of physical properties whose values determine the characteristics or behavior of something

It seems to be a human trait to define a thing through examples. Principles and concepts can be a difficult thing to grasp. So martial systems tend to be defined by their techniques.

Let me paraphrase what my mentor, Dr. Maung Gyi once told me. Go outside. Look at a tree. (For the sake of this discussion, look at a deciduous tree below) He said that techniques are like the leaves. Every year, they drop from the tree and fall to the ground. Next year, new ones sprout forth. More of them. Just as good. Accomplishing the same end.

Do the leaves define the tree? The branches? The trunk or the roots? To maintain the metaphor, certainly maple leaves do not sprout from an oak branch. Perhaps the skilled orchardist can graft together compatible species on one tree. My grandfather had a tree with five different kinds of apples growing on it. He was extremely skilled. But you cannot join a pine tree with an oak. There must be some compatibility between species. Indeed, each grafted limb was still unique upon the tree. It did not alter its appearance to match the host.

Again, to quote Dr. Gyi, “A system should not be a prison for control and punishment. A system offers a home for growth and development.”

We must closely examine what truly defines our systems. For a Kenpo practitioner to learn from an Aikido Sensei how to fall better, how to perform a certain joint lock more effectively does not diminish his art. If an Aikidoka learns a different evasive or invasive stepping pattern, does it really alter her art? 

All trees draw nourishment from the same sun, the same rains, and the same earth.

The more we share our knowledge openly, the more we discuss the similarities and differences of our systems, the more we take these bits of knowledge back to our training halls, dojos, and kwoons and adapt them to our preferred system, the more we offer ourselves the opportunity for true growth.

MA: I definitely feel this is an individual thing or even a case-by-case situation. You have your die-hard purists and I get that – respect it wholeheartedly. Then you have the other side of the spectrum with those who want modernization, practicality, and usefulness, and I totally get that as well. I feel the cross-pollination of forms and styles is designed more for the individual’s personal training regime. It’s a way to increase one’s knowledge and know-how base. Martial arts for me have always been a journey of exploration and discovery – a lot of self-discovery. Nothing has it all, but everything has something to offer.

I don’t feel it’s a matter of quantity, but it always is about quality, and I don’t believe it’s a bastardization of any kind. I think it’s a matter of intent, purpose, and perspective. Not everything is going to work for everyone. Exploration gives us the chance to see what fits – what works best for us. We also discover that this may require, and often does, some modification and tweaking to get it just right for our needs.

I do believe formal style classes are important and should remain intact. They are the lifeline of any traditional art’s longevity. Cross training perspectives and ideas should always be a separate context and approached with an open mind and willingness to explore.

MAYTT: Crossing over into other martial arts is just a longer phrase for cross training. How important is it for the average martial artist to train in other arts or be exposed to other methods of body mechanics and manipulation today? Was this type of cross training or martial melding available or promoted when you were first introduced to the martial arts?

IG: Second question first. Not so much. If other arts were introduced at the early phase of learning, it was done to reinforce things that the student already knew. In the intermediate stages, these other martial influences were compatible, were similar enough so as not to confuse the student.

As for your first question, as wise teacher once said, “Everything furthers.”

Choose wisely.

MA: To me, very important, if only to be familiar with other arts and have a broader scope of possibilities, then cross training is essential. Again, not everything is for everyone and what works for one group might not work for another or for an individual. And really, this is what cross training, and what we are doing with the martial melding workshops, is all about. It’s for the individual who wants a little more or something just marginally different. That could be enough to open up a whole new set of possibilities. Our martial melding is not a new style or art form by any means, and we are not intending it to be. It’s a sharing of ideas, connective concepts and different perspectives, much of which is based on our experiences.  It really is about creating open means of martial communication and creation options.

Cross training and exploration has always existed in my opinion, otherwise there would be no growth. A mixing of styles is what humans seem to do, whether they seem to know it or not. We are all influenced by what we see, hear and experience. It just wasn’t as popular or widely accepted as it is now. That in itself is the modernization of the martial arts at its fullest potential – an openness to explore without mass judgment or ridicule. Needless to say, there will always be the naysayers and those who oppose such lines of communication, and that’s okay – to each his own.

MAYTT: You have been heading a good number of Martial Melding seminars over the last couple of years, how have you seen the similarities of aikido and American Kenpo Karate demonstrate themselves throughout your events? Barring the obvious differences between the two arts, would you say that the dissimilarities have hindered some of the understanding of what you having been trying to teach or have those dissimilarities essentially fade away in the course of the seminar?

IG: This is why I believe that the reason that I have been invited to so many of these events by Michael Sensei. Not only do we share a martial past through Sifu Don Burrier many years ago, but we also share a similar viewpoint on life and our art. For him, it is not about ego, but upon the improvement and growth of his students and himself. I can only try my best to match this view.

Don Burrier

As to the similarities, another wise practitioner, speaking to the differences and similarities of the Kenpo vs Aikido techniques, said, “The only difference is the ending.” For those of you reading this, that quote was by the questioner. Not too shabby! I have appropriated it. Thanks.

Barring the obvious differences…” This statement places the objective of these seminars firmly in our sights. If we point out and then isolate some of these obvious, stylistic differences, how easily can we grasp some bit of knowledge, some new experience and add it to our data base? It would be interesting to get feedback from those participating. What did the ten-year-old white belt absorb? The thirty-five-year-old second dan? I will say that I learn something each time.

There is no difference. No easier or no more difficult demonstrating and discussing a concept than at any other class.

MA: Overall, the reception has been positive. People are definitely interested in seeing and experiencing what possibilities are available to them. Sure, there is always some level of hesitation and even adhesion to what they already know. That’s normal and it’s okay. We are not trying to change anyone’s style or to say one is better than another. We are only offering something they can choose to add to what they are already doing. The choice is theirs. We are only sharing.

During the course of the workshop, people begin to come around and open up more, which is great because that’s when the questions begin to pour out. That’s when things really get interesting, and it helps us grow in the process. It’s a great circle of learning for everyone, in my opinion.

MAYTT: With the future of the world being in a constant state of flux in regard to the current pandemic, what do you think the future holds for you Martial Melding seminars? Will there be additions to the teaching staff, and will there be different schools and students you hope share the melding perspective with?

IG: Pandemic aside, with its physical restrictions on physical contact, the real restriction on these seminars is the receptiveness in other schools.

Here is an example. Many years ago, I was asked to teach an introductory Filipino Martial Arts class at an American Kenpo school. The students were all adults, ranging in rank from Yellow Belt (the first earned belt rank) to second dan. My unstated goal, as a Kenpo guy myself, was to reinforce Kenpo concepts via other outside examples.

Near the end of the class, the second dan dropped this question. “How does this get me to my next rank?”

Sound familiar? Do your kids say that about school lessons? Have you ever heard, or said, “I’m never going to use Algebra!” Or History or whatever else? How does anyone know what will be needed in the future?

Gill (right) demonstrating another variation.

As far as adding others, anything is possible. The only limit is time and attention span. I have reached out to other schools and students, but with little success. Yes, the pandemic has been a major impediment, but we do offer online attendance. The factors of distance of travel and the potential for infection are absent.

This is what I hope Michael Sensei and I can affect. Can we change how other martial artists view their own art? Can they expand their training and still stay true to their art? Can we promote brotherhood and sisterhood instead of contention and strife? Can we demonstrate openness and understanding instead of smugness and conceit?

Grandmaster Ed Parker said above, “The true Martial Artist is not the one who fears change, but the one who makes it to happen.” And as Tom Petty said, “The future is wide open.”

Join us.

MA: We plan to keep going. The core idea is the same and will remain constant to what are goal is, but the material is always changing. As we grow, so does the workshop. Most often, we go into the workshop not really knowing what we are going to share. We have the participants determine the attack or techniques based on what they are doing. Then, applying our respective styles, we offer several concepts and go from there. You never really know where the workshop will take us. It’s pretty cool.

For now, it’s just Gill Sensei and I along with a couple of regular dedicated demonstration partners. The support has been positive. We are open to come and share what we do with anyone, group or school that wishes to invite us.

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