PUSHING BOUNDARIES, QUIETLY: MAHIPAL LUNIA
“As in dojo, so in life.”
My martial arts journey began not unlike your own. As a skinny, asthmatic kid working his way through primary school in India, I was the victim of frequent beatdowns by the older, bigger kids. My father, a champion wrestler, offered two options: he would fight the battles for me or I could learn to fight for myself.
I chose the latter, to which he responded "wise choice."
As I was too small for the wrestling legacy of my father, I began with Shotokan Karate and my early years filled with traditional classes in sport karate and gungfu, competitions, demos and ego. By my late teens, I thought I had “mastered” what I had needed.
That is, until I met a master teacher from the United States who was visiting India to spend time with his family. Enter Sastri Sensei. On the eve of a cross-continental move to Australia, I stumbled upon his Aikijujitsu Dojo. Cocky (as always), I walked into his dojo and asked to "feel his art and what he can do."
He warned, "don't break any glass or bleed on my floor, otherwise you're going to clean it." After bowing, I launched a fast mawashigeri, only to find myself on my behind. Next, I played a high low combination and tried to get a solid side kick in only to become one with the wall. Clearly, I had failed miserably and soon I was petitioning admission into his dojo and forgoing my Australian plans. I stayed back in India, working out 3 hours a day, 6 days a week for 3 years. When Sensei moved back to America. I followed suit, after a lot of other travel.
Sastri Sensei remains my teacher/mentor/family to this day.
“The true goal of any art..any pursuit.. is becoming an ever so ordinary human being in the pursuit of extraordinary knowledge. Ultimately it is the true journey of becoming fully human.”
We finally reached the mutual destination of Phoenix, Arizona. I would (physically) stay but for a few years, but they served to reshape what the martial arts would forever mean to me: elongating and living a healthy wholesome life and constant never ending growth. It would never again be about the belt, rank, or system - it would be about becoming an individual, independent and pursuing principles beyond a set system. This served me well as I continued traveling and learning from amazing people the world over.
“The cornerstone of mastery: Integrity, Discipline and Contribution.”
After a lot of travel, I eventually, I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and after a few missteps (failed dojos in 2001 and 2003), founded my current dojo in 2006 in a public park in Mountain View.
It was (and is) nothing fancy: large patches of grass and a weather-worn wooden gazebo sheltering a cement foundation. Over the years it has been both a deterrent and an attraction: countless have dismissed it because of its lack of walls, heaters or a/c, or mats and my insistence that we train in the elements no matter the weather conditions. Others truly see its purpose: a neo-traditional training locale where environmental changes dictate technique. One of our favorite limericks that everyone at the dojo lives by is:
“Sun, moon or rain,
We train, train and train.”
In addition we also have a mandatory Saturday 7 am class regardless of the weather. As such the dojo has always had fewer than 10 students at a time, but every single one has been dedicated and committed to their path.
The dojo functions on a nine point philosophy:
- Bring together the ways of both ancient and modern warriors
- The dojo is the path to yourself
- Our life and work are in the service of something greater than oneself
- Follow your fascinations no matter where they lead you
- Self expression trumps systemized techniques
- Beauty and elegance as the GPS of the soul
- Embrace gifts and curses with grace
- Deep immersion is our chosen path towards mastery
- Knowing is not enough, living the philosophy is what matters
As a not- for-profit dojo, there are no fees but monthly dues (even the Senseis' pitch in) donated to various causes around the world. We have donated every penny earned to charity since the dojo's inception in 2006 through 2017, totaling well over $120,000.
“You have to make your art work everywhere, all terrains and all situations. Only then it is part of you, and it is truly functional.”
People often ask what sets our school apart. This is hard question to answer but when pressed, my response is always the Shugyos (click here for video overview.)
The Shugyos are my nod to old-school training methodology and my love for nature, hiking and photography. Every quarter, the students and I take our dojo into the wilderness for a transformational experience both in technique and in the Self. We have done this without fail for over 36 quarters. Locations vary depending on the elemental focus (earth, air, water, fire) and not only challenge students to their edges but help them experience my tenant that your art should work everywhere, in all terrains and all situations. Only then it is part of you, and only then are the skills truly functional.
We have taken out training to the top of the Sierras, Yosemite, Death Valley, Channel Islands, Txcala, Shasta, Mexico, Reflection Canyon, Zion NP, Marble Falls, Sequioa NP, the Pinnacles, to name a few. You get the idea. If it is beautiful and remote, we want to head there.
“Everyday cares don’t seem so important when you have faced exhausting hikes, dizzying cliffs, and trading throws with your dojo-mates in brain-freezing rivers.”
Nothing makes me prouder than having students carry the Shugyo philosophy into their life and their own adventures. My students have taken the approach to such places as remote as Mount Everest, Patagonia, Andalusia and Antarctica. It has fused with them, marked them. And I stand but in awe and gratitude.
“The Shugyos are adventures that serve as a check point for our development and a catalyst to strengthen our spirit. Training outdoors gets us in touch with Nature and our own inner nature.”
My OWN nature is to stretch and break borders, which is why in recent years my own training (for while I am a "Sensei," I remain a lifelong student) has extended to a serious study of South East Asian Arts, Chinese Internal Martial Arts and classic Americana (Bowie and Arkansas toothpick). I work long and hard, pursuing the best teachers and paths that will have me. For years, every Friday I have travelled 80 miles each way, in rush hour traffic to Stockton, CA (Ground Zero of FMA in the USA) to study with a reclusive Eskrima maestro. I frequently travel 800 miles (by car) each way to train with a one-of-a-kind maestro in the backwaters of Oregon. Yes, it is that important, and yes, they are that good and yes, it is that worth it.
This exposure to different maestros, the students and the philosophies has truly helped me understand a teaching I often pass down to my own students: “Would you rather spend a long time learning a thousand variations, or learn the principle, and be able to apply it in any situation?” In exploring various arts, and the common principle threads within them, I have become a stronger patron of my own arts as a whole.
STRETCHING BOUNDARIES: THE MARTIAL IMMERSION LABS
One principle, many art forms, infinite situations.
Over the years I started to experience the coming together of systems. Seeing them as variations (due to environment and genetics) of the same principle. This lead to imagining a freestyle lab where there variations could be celebrated, in the spirit of the relentless pursuit of self and martial mastery. This lab environment would be a place for advanced players to come together to:
- Explore Fearlessly
- Conceptualize Ruthlessly &
- Integrate Conscientiously
On one of my regular calls with a close friend and Martial Arts brother, Chris Nalley, I tossed the idea of brining together various teachers in service of one principle.
Now remember, Nalley is a high ranking Kajukenbo and Doce Pares professor. He got super excited and a collaboration on the first Lab began in 2017.
We called this experiment The Immersion Labs (TM), and we used a set of questions to guide its creation for the "masterful student:"
- What if we gathered seasoned ambassadors of various traditions, from all over the world, of all stylistic backgrounds, for one weekend of focus and collaboration?
- What if we could bring in a dream team of the instructors, regardless of system, to teach their version/vision of ONE core subject?
- What if we created a worldwide community of martial peers in service of whole-person growth?
- What if there are no distractions, no egos, no hard selling?
- What if a percentage proceeds are donated to our forgotten community of warriors: charities supporting US Veterans.
The questions led to the conceptualization of 14 never-to-be-repeated, once in a lifetime learning experiences. The goal here is innovative learning experiences that change what we can see and how we interact with our own arts. Idealistic -Yes. Transformative - Possibly. Easy- No. But this is the journey.
This April 27th-29th, we launch the premiere session, "The Legacy of the Blade," as taught by eight exemplary ambassadors covering Indo Malay blades, the South African Piper System, the Mexican Street knife, the Filipino Espada y Daga, the Visayan Sword and Sickle, the Japanese Tanto, the Polynesian Knife of skin system, and three traditions of Italian knife.
The Labs are limited to 40 experienced martial artists ready to work at the edges of their craft in 3 hour blocks per instructor. As with all journeys, we remain open to the final destination of this inaugural event, but we look forward to having your with us on the path. I firmly believe that my decades of love and respect of the martial arts, and the people who I have met along the way, have led to this culmination of what I feel will be one of the richest experiences in my evolution as a martial artist.
For more information www.TheImmersionLabs.com or join the Immersion Labs Facebook Group.
[The Immersion Labs is collaborating with Budo Brothers to choose 5 participants from its network. 10% of related proceeds will go directly to fund the Budo Brothers Youth Fund. This is your once in a lifetime chance to learn great skills from exemplary ambassadors, meet talented Budoka, and make a difference in the life of youth.]
For more information on Mahipal Lunia, check out: