Interview with Lua Instructor Michelle Manu: The Hidden History of Lua

By her own admission, Michelle Manu found Lua and ‘Ōlohe Solomon Kaihewalu under the Martial Arts section of the phone book. When she arrived, Manu spent the better part of two and a half years of intensive training under ‘Ōlohe Kaihewalu before she was able to join his Black Belt class. Since then, Manu has been knighted in the Royal Order of Kamehameha, inducted in the Martial Arts History Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2016, and established the Super Hero Experience to help empower women. Today, Manu took some time to talk about her experience in Lua, its history, and its future. All images provided by Michelle Manu.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Kumu Manu! Thank you for joining us to talk about Lua!

Michelle Manu: Thank you for inviting me!

MAYTT: You are the only woman constantly promoting Lua. How did you first come to find this secretive Hawaiian art? At what point did you realize that Lua was going to be a constant part of your life?

Michelle Manu.

MM: I may be the only woman that is promoting Lua in the public, but there are now many who are in training. It is a very exciting time! Another Golden Era for Lua is on the horizon.

I found my teacher, ‘Ōlohe Solomon Kaihewalu, in the most unreal place… under martial arts in the phone book. This was obviously before the internet. There was not one specific point during my sequestered training when I came to the full realization and acknowledgement that Lua would become a consistent part of my life, not to mention only one of the real constants in my life. The training was difficult and under a difficult no-nonsense master. My goal was to survive and advance in my proficiency in skill.

MAYTT: Before moving on, could you give us a short of Lua and what it covers in its system?

MM: Its original name, Kapu Ku’ialua, modernly known by some as Lua today. Lua is the only native warrior art of Ka Po’e Hawai’i (The People of Hawai’i). ‘Ōlohe Lua or Kumu Lua (expert teachers) had students who were both men and women. As part of this cultural profession and kuleana (responsibility), warriors studied and were proficient in Hula dance, as well as, studies of war, politics, agriculture, architecture, medicine, navigation, the metaphysical (ontological philosophy), Lomilomi Koa or Lualomi (warrior massage), weapons making, anatomy, and more.

Some Lua master practitioners became bodyguards to chiefs and kings. When the Ali’i (royal class) began to adopt the Calvinist form of Christianity in the 1820s, Lua was first banned and shortly after the Hula banned from public display. In the pitch dark and to avoid allegations of breaking the new restriction in town, the Lua was concealed within the Hula. Outside of town, Lua was still practiced in secret and out of watchful eyes. King Kalākaua tried to revive Lua during his reign, but Lua would remain underground after the overthrow of his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani, in 1893 before another attempted revival in the 1960s.

To my knowledge, one Lua lineage is accredited with the 1960s revival. But simultaneously, two other Lua masters left Hawai’i for the continent. One of those two men was my teacher.

The original Ku’ialua was empty-handed and focused on joint dislocation. It was intended to injure and not kill. Obviously, there are exceptions to this intent, as there should be. Some Lua lineages contain movements of different nature elements and animals. As our warrior culture evolved, mea kaua (weapons) were incorporated. Weapons were made of lā’au (wood), pohaku (rocks), niho manō (shark teeth), kumu lā’au (jagged tree roots), and iwi – fish (i’a) and human. As our culture further changed, the metaphysical warrior way of life evolved into the goal of maximum battle kills and eventually incorporated mea kaua made of metal. Our Kūpuna (Ancestors) were innovative, ingenious, and ever evolving.

“The martial arts of Hawai’i were as lethal as they are enchanting. Their weapons were deceptively effective, and the warriors who wielded them were brutal beyond description.” – Sid Campbell

MAYTT: Has the modern incarnation of Lua training changed or evolved since the veil of secrecy has been lifted?

MM: There are Lua practitioners of different lineages, including family lineages. Lua is different from island to island, district to district, family to family, and school to school. Some practitioners and lineages are known while some remain unknown to this day. Some lineages have specialties, some do not (i.e., seafaring versus land, specific weapon(s), or empty hands). Some have and continue to evolve, and some have not as to not alter the knowledge originally passed onto him or her. Today some mix the Lua that they have learned with other non-Lua martial arts they teach, sometimes diluting the original teachings. In my opinion, this is different than just evolving.

The community of Lua teachers is very small, and we all know or know of each other. Some of us are in communication with one another when the protection and integrity of Lua needs to be discussed and possibly addressed. The Lua that I promote in the public is much different than what my dedicated students are exposed to and have an opportunity to learn. As a teacher, and the only first-generation female teacher from ‘Ōlohe Kaihewalu in the world at this time, I have decided to not share the deeper Lua knowledge with undeserving individuals (no offense intended).

I was once told that Lua was “Third-grade Kenpo,” directing this at my teacher. I have always remembered this and set out to publicly disprove this statement. Since 2014, I have used this as a marker when I am in public and teaching around the world. I, like most Kumu Lua who are brave enough to share parts of this cultural practice with the public, demonstrate that Lua is anything but third-grade Kenpo. Today, I aptly hear that Lua is “Jujitsu Made by Sharks.” This is a far more accurate statement, but then again, I am highly biased.

I apologize; I jumped off the cliff and into the ocean on that. There is much to discuss. The short answer is that the veil of secrecy is still very real when it comes to our beloved Lua. I believe it will always be sacred to some of us that have dedicated our lives to teaching and training this generation and the next. More, as teachers, it is our life’s responsibility to protect the integrity of this generational knowledge and ensure that we perpetuate it to only those who have a deep value for it.

MAYTT: You hold the honor of being the only woman to be accepted as a disciple and earn the title Kumu under Solomon Kaihewalu. Could you tell us more about him and where he fits into the modern history of Lua?

MM: It is always an honor to speak of my beloved late teacher, ‘Ōlohe Solomon Kaihewalu. Thank you for asking. ‘Ōlohe Kaihewalu was a remarkable man and teacher. He is third generation ‘Ōlohe in his family lineage. His mother, of the royal Kaleikini family from Kaua’i, was highly trained in Lua. Her favorite weapon was the Hoe (paddle). His grandfather and father, of the Kaeha and Kaihewalu families, were also proficient in Lua. His father’s favorite weapon was the Ko’oko’o (long bo), so much so that his nickname was “Bo.” ‘Ōlohe’s mother and father trained him in Lua, his mother starting him with Hula at the age of three years old.

‘Ōlohe served in the U.S. Air Force and used his Lua in competitive American boxing bouts while he served. While stationed in Germany, where he met his beautiful wife, he taught pilots how to use their shoelaces as the Ka’ane (strangulation cord). This was in case they had to land or crash and were captured.

‘Olohe Solomon Kaihewalu posing for the Martial Arts History Museum.

He ultimately landed in Southern California where he taught his family lineage to dedicated students for over fifty years. I am truly grateful to have been one of the few to be with him for twenty-four years. ‘Ōlohe seemed to retain students who displayed above-average character – disciplined, resilient, and respectful – which included non-Hawaiians. He was constantly evolving his family lineage to make Lua viable for today’s world – for athletes and for real life self-protection. Some of his disciples are evolving his family’s art, while some teach only what they were taught. Neither path is “right” or “wrong.” As I mentioned, Lua varies from school to school, which is dictated by the expert teacher.

‘Ōlohe transitioned in 2019. He is missed terribly by his family, his disciples, and his students.

MAYTT: Given being the only woman disciple of Kaihewalu, what was your experience when you began training with the other male students?

MM: I was very blessed to have spent two and a half years alone with ‘Ōlohe, or with ‘Ōlohe and one other person to work on, before he invited me to join the Black Belt Class. He took those two plus years to intensely reprogram my body to move only Kaihewalu Lua. He erased any other martial art I have ever studied since I was nine years old. Lua, then, became my first nature – my only way of biomechanics etched in my muscle memory. I then joined the Black Belt Class in honorary standing. I didn’t know if at the time, but he already made me a Black Belt. He didn’t give me my rank until two years later.

It was interesting and challenging to join the men. They moved, breathed, and responded to ‘Ōlohe’s commands like a military unit. Only now, there was a young female who was joining them. They were unforgiving, attempted to get me to quit almost every class, took advantage of available cheap shots, and physically hurt me badly. My initiation period was about eight to nine years. They did me a huge favor and am forever grateful for what they threw at me. Eventually, they came around and realized that I was not going anywhere. I earned the place where ‘Ōlohe told me to stand. I literally fought for it, and this is where I will continue to stand without hesitation even in the most adverse times. ‘Ōlohe would have it no other way.

Today, I deeply thank my Lua brothers. Without them, without the long initiation with some serious injuries, I wouldn’t be at my present skill level, nor would I be able to withstand the external threats I continue to receive by other men for teaching the Lua. They may not like me, but they will respect me and this place I have been given to stand. Like with my sequestered training, these men will just have to learn that I am not going anywhere.

Manu with oar.

MAYTT: Though this is an ancient Hawaiian combat art, you have made inroads of using a modern approach to adapt Lua to the modern world. What influenced you to pursue such an endeavor and how have others responded to your efforts?

MM: This is a very touchy topic! Of course, we want to show reverence for what our foremothers and forefathers practiced, and how they lived as warriors. I am adamant on this. If we want to keep the Lua alive and thriving, we must evolve. Our ancestors were ingenious, highly efficient, highly proficient, and ever evolving. We must be the same today. We are the Kūpuna, here and now, in physical form. In the Hula community, there are new chants being composed and dances being choreographed to document our history today. This same latitude should be, but is not always, provided to ‘Ōlohe and Kumu Lua, too, in evolving movements, techniques, hula (forms), and the biomechanics of Lua.

Outside of the Lua community, others who have little to zero knowledge of Lua, will quickly say that this is now all based on Asian martial arts and that Lua is a dead art. I have a lot to say about these uneducated comments, but I am resolved to be elegant and respectful during this interview. Either way, I do not and cannot care what others have to say. I know my responsibility and I will always focus only on that, and sometimes directly in spite of others.

MAYTT: Speaking of modern efforts, you lead the Super Hero Experience (SHE) program, “empowering women and helping them let go of all that they carry that isn’t theirs to carry.” How did you come to create this program and how have you seen attendees benefit from the program?

MM: It was in Atlanta, Georgia, and I had no idea what was waiting for me. Master Michael Reid hosted me for a weekend to teach Lua and women’s self-defense. I entered the large dojo space where seventy-plus women, of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities waited for me. I had no catching sayings and no women-focused empowering phases prepared. As we started to move, it became glaringly obvious that I could not teach Lua in the way I was trained up in Lua. These were everyday women, not martial artists. I immediately began to receive messages from the Unseen, who I believed then and to this day, to be my Ancestors and the guardians of this generational knowledge. This was the very moment that the SHE Program birthed itself, by fire. I never intended to work with women, but the Ancestors had other plans for me.

Manu performing a self-defense maneuver.

Almost ten years later, I have had the honor of teaching versions of SHE domestically and abroad to little ones, Girl Scouts, school districts, and to high-risk professionals in real estate, air travel, healthcare, and adult entertainment. I have stepped into my purpose as a relentless teacher and speaker on all things having to do with self-protection. I am so blessed to have authored articles and publicly speak on awareness and physical safety. Some topics include how to locate hidden cameras in your lodging; predators-stalkers-admirers; social media safety; bullying – cyber, social, emotional, and physical; car and elevator safety, and of course, physical conditioning and training. I have developed a more intensive program for the everyday woman entitled the Weaponized Woman Program.

It is an honor to be used so powerfully in this way.

MAYTT: Teaching martial arts and teaching self-defense are two different animals, however, they are related. How do you feel your background in Lua assisted you in pivoting your mindset to self-defense?

MM: Lua may be “traditional” but it’s traditional is a little different from some other martial arts, or what we commonly think of when we think of martial arts today. The ancient Hawaiian warriors were equivalent to what the Spartans were to Greece and what the Samurai were to Japan. I say this because it makes it easier to envision, learn, and teach Lua from the mindset of self-defense (combat) thereby concurrently honoring the traditional because in a sense, they are one in the same. Our Ancestors were not static; they moved down the battlefield with great focus, agility, and mana/power. This is self-defense.

MAYTT: When Lua was banned in the early 1800s, the techniques were then hidden in the traditional dance of Hula. With your experience in Hula, you convert Hula movements into Lua techniques. What led you to begin reverse engineering the dance into martial application? What kinds of successes and roadblocks have you experienced?

MM: Lua was banned by our Queen Ka’ahumanu around 1823 and Hula banned a couple years thereafter. It all began when I was asked to contribute to a graduate level research paper for two students at the University of Hawai’i, Hilo (UH). At the time, I didn’t know the magnitude of this assignment brought by the Ancestors. It was preparing me for what I do today. Everything, every moment, is preparing me for what they have waiting for me.

The UH students asked me to detail what Hula movements were identical to Lua movements, and the names of these movements. As I sat there in quiet, it all came together effortlessly, as if it was a massive download of ancestral knowledge. It was soul silencing to see these side-by-side. The love for my Hula grew. The love for my Lua grew. From this point forward, there was no longer a separation between these two cultural practices. All merged and became one.

Manu (second from right) on an A+E panel for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 2021.

Today, I know these movements to be the same, but it is the intent of the practitioner in how she or he expresses it. Hula is expressed to perpetuate stories of history, which is non-contact. Lua is expressed to defend, which is full contact.

While it has been casually mentioned from time-to-time about the Lua being concealed within the Hula, no one really shows it. Today, I use the Hula specifically for my students to learn superior footwork, timing, balance, transition, micromovements of the feet, and how to efficiently manage and use the upper body with the lower body at the same time. Other than myself, I am unaware of any other Kumu Lua or Lua practitioner that is fluent in and teaching Hula and Lua at this time. This raises eyebrows, sometimes with disdain and other times with curiosity. To me, it is open and obvious.

MAYTT: Some of your honors also include being the only woman to be knighted as part of the Royal Order of Kamehameha and inducted in the Martial Arts History Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2016. What were your reactions and feelings when you received these awards? What does this mean for other female martial artists looking to make their mark on the martial arts community?

MM: These have been two of three of the most significant honors I have received, all three of which were a surprise.

When I received the call about the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, I thought it was a prank call. Women are not allowed (one of my most hated phases ever, “Women are not allowed to…”) to be a member of the Royal Order, not to mention be designated as a Knight Commander. I was presented with the honor by the Chancellor of the O’ahu Chapter in October of 2016. I am floored by this honor every day and take my kuleana (responsibility) of protecting, promoting, and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture, by and through the Lua, very seriously.

I received a call from Michael Matsuda, the founder of the Martial Arts History Museum, a couple years after I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was my master peers who voted for my induction who believed I have changed the course of the history of martial arts. It is a true honor to be alongside many greats and pioneers, my teacher being one of them.

MAYTT: In your opinion, why do you think Lua is not as popular as other martial arts in the United States? What do you think could be holding such a surge in public knowledge?

MM: It is not as popular because those with Lua knowledge do not want it to be. It is a cherished cultural practice, not just a martial art. The martial of Lua is just one aspect of Lua as a Hawaiian warrior. The deeper Lua is cherished generational knowledge and not something that should be marketed as other martial arts are. While each school is different for admission, for those who wish to study under me, there is an application process. There is also a strict code of conduct for those who are accepted. There is much mystery surrounding Lua. Public knowledge and acceptance of the devastating efficiency of Lua is okay. However, the intimate study of, the becoming of and living one’s life as a warrior, is reserved for disciples who wish to respectfully protect its integrity and perpetuate the learnings as keepers of this ancestral knowledge. Martial taste testers, consumers, and collectors are not usually accepted to study.

MAYTT: You mentioned earlier in the interview that “another Golden Era for Lua is on the horizon.” How do you think this will express itself, given what you have said about its mystery?

MM: I believe that there will be more interest in and that more will be welcomed to train and ultimately teach the Lua. Perpetuating the ways of the warrior by dedicating oneself to biomechanics, physics, mana (power), and ultimately balance and mastery of one’s own proficiency in all ways our foremothers and forefathers existed. This means not just martial but also metaphysically, learning the warrior massage, and hula dance. These are very exciting times!

MAYTT: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about Lua! It has been a great conversation!

MM: Thank you for having me; it was my pleasure!

Michelle Manu can be found at her personal website and her school’s website.


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