The Tabimina System: 6 Years On And Counting

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.”  

Thomas Szasz

Hungarian psychiatrist and academic


In my earlier essays I examined the unique and contextual nature of each encounter as well as the universal attributes of martial arts that enable them to work. In this essay, I will be reflecting on my own learning and share some of my experience of the Tabimina System over the past few years. I understand that “a few years” is nothing compared to the decades that many people have dedicated to their respective arts. Please note that the following is only a sharing of my experiences and what I have learned so far. I will be expressing what I believe to be true but I do not claim to be right on all counts. I do not expect everyone to agree with me but I would like to invite readers to suspend judgment first and give this essay a fair reading. From there you are more than welcome to come to your own conclusions.

To begin, I would like to draw a distinction between the notion of time spent in an art as opposed to the learning accumulated from an art because the two are not always related. I believe that one can spend many years in an art and yet learn very little. Conversely, I also think it is possible to spend a short amount of time within an art and improve by leaps and bounds. It is this second context which I am referring to and I shall be tracing my learning of the Tabimina System within these past 5 years. What I have found is that the learning in the Tabimina System is incredibly accelerated. I believe that what I have learned through the Tabimina System would have taken me many more years to learn elsewhere. A very large reason for this is that everything is done on the right spot. Attacks are directly to targets that we would actually hit and we thus learn to defend and execute counters appropriately. There are no wasted movements and, in the words of Sir Bob, everything is “simple, direct and efficient”. It this through this method of training that I have come to identify what works and what does not. This training methodology is what I believe has enabled me to learn so much in such a short span of time and will form the basis of my reflection.

I started off in one style of Filipino Martial Art around 2005. Things went well for about 2 years or so but then I started feeling as if I had plateaued. I felt I had hit a wall not just with the physical aspects of the training but with the learning and depth of understanding as well. In other words, I felt my understanding of FMA and martial arts in general was not growing any deeper.

It was at this time that I had the good fortune of being introduced to Sir Bob and the Tabimina System. At the time I had never even heard of the system or its founder and I had considered myself (somewhat arrogantly, I am ashamed to admit) proficient in FMA and I was keen to see what this art could offer. The first demonstration I saw Sir Bob give in person completely blew my mind. I remember meeting a gentleman who first spoke softly but passionately about what the Tabimina System was – a reaction-based training that involved real-time movements. the Tabimina System was not based on techniques but focused on installing skills under stress. I did not quite understand what this meant at the time. After all, weren’t all martial arts just sets of different techniques that could be used by the artist as he saw fit?

After the introduction, Sir Bob fed a senior student as part of the demonstration and then ended it by executing a disarm. It took a while for me to realise I was staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed in astonishment. To this day I still have no clue exactly how he did it. As cliched as it may sound, everything really was a blur at the time. All I saw were sticks and hands flying and then one stick was literally launched to the side several feet away. As I picked my jaw off the floor, I knew – not just realised but knew – that this was everything that I had been looking for. There was intensity, speed, fluidity, randomness, reaction and a disarm that worked in real time. Thus began my journey towards self-discovery and self-mastery through the Tabimina System.

The first few lessons with Sir Bob after that workshop were slow going for me. I was learning new moves and realised very quickly that there were very significant differences between what I thought I knew and what Sir Bob was teaching. More than that, I knew I had to un-learn and let go of many of my past experiences if I wanted to grasp what Sir Bob was teaching. So as difficult as it was, I began going against my previous training. I initially had many doubts about the efficacy of some of the moves I was learning and I shared my concerns with Sir Bob. I partly expected to be chided for questioning him, the Grandmaster of all people, and his methods but Sir Bob patiently explained to me that the learning here was primarily to move the body and that the defensive counters could be executed with or without the stick. The role of the stick was that of a training tool and not a weapon. This was quite a revelation to me at the time as I had not considered exactly how I could use my stick skills barehanded for defense. Also, I have never heard of the stick being anything other than a weapon. I cannot stress enough how important this point is in our training – the stick is primarily a training tool. It can be used as a weapon but that’s not the most important point here.

I have since observed that many seem to focus on applying the offensive applications barehanded but few seem to focus on the defensive applications barehanded. Eventually I realized that the point here was that we should be training our own attributes and not just weapon skills. That is what Sir Bob meant – the stick is used primarily to train our bodies. The stick can be used as a weapon but it is used primarily as a tool to guide us in our training within the Tabimina System.

It has taken me quite a while to understand but I think what Sir Bob meant to say during that introductory workshop was that the Tabimina System focuses on developing reactions that are built into our behaviour. Reaction – or more accurately, appropriate reaction – is an attribute that is exceedingly difficult to develop; far more than strength or flexibility. It is something that is very deep-seated in us and is linked to the very way we think, move and act. It is as subtle as the way we unknowingly cross our legs when we sit, which hand we use to reach for the salt at the dinner table or which leg we move off with when we walk. We just do them without giving them any conscious thought. Techniques are things that we are aware of but have to consciously apply and are not an inherent part of us i.e. they require cognitive effort on our part to use them. Simply put, we have to think through our actions.

Earlier I had asked if all martial arts are just sets of different techniques that can be used by us as we see fit. I firmly believe that the answer should be a “no”. Techniques are difficult to internalise and are quite often forgotten without regular usage and practice. Under stress, fine motor skills are compromised and we use what our body knows best. If something is not deeply internalised within us, under stress it will not be available to us. In other words, all techniques go out the window the moment the first blow is struck.

Skills, on the other hand, are the things that we can successfully internalise and keep with us. It is like learning how to drive, ride a bicycle or play a musical instrument. The beginning is always awkward and there are so many things to consider and get right at the same time. After a while, things get smoother and smoother and before you know it, you just do it without thinking. You have successfully internalised the ability to use these tools as extensions of yourself and your will. What we had to consciously apply before is now moved to the realm of the subconscious. That is one of the key features of the Tabimina System – the system becomes part of us. Once we have internalised these techniques, they cease to be techniques and become skills. And here is the most profound thing I have come to realise – once the skills are properly installed, they can never be removed! Yes, we may get a little rusty without practice but they will always come back to us. Under stress, when the s**t hits the fan, our bodies will move instinctively because that is where our skills are hardwired now – in our instincts.

As part of my training, Sir Bob sometimes executes attacks that I have never seen before at the most unexpected times. The moment I see it, one of 2 things will happen: either I freeze in surprise (damn…) or I react and counter his attack. On the occasions I do react, I actually surprise myself because I never saw the attack coming and I had not learned the counter to it beforehand but I defended myself anyway. Which means my body knew what to do before my brain did. Either way I learned something. Over time my body has learned to react appropriately and that is part of my continual learning towards self-mastery. Ultimately, our bodies are the weapons; not the knives or sticks that we may have with us.

I can imagine right now that many practitioners would not be entirely swayed by my argument. Many would probably say that everything that I have put forth so far is already part of what they are doing i.e. practice until you react in a certain way to a certain move without thinking. There is something more to my argument but in truth I am having trouble articulating what it is. I have come to believe that the truth about what works and what does not cannot just be learned – it has to be earned as well. It is one thing to understand on an intellectual level the mechanics and dynamics of fighting and the martial arts but there is something deeper that is far more elusive. It is actually feeling for oneself and experiencing the moment. It is like throwing a punch – you know it is right when it feels spot on and you hear that sweet smack of the glove on a leather bag. Your body generates the power, you hit the target right on and everything feels smooth and in place. This experience is something that can only come with time and training and not from books and videos. It is this understanding that will allow us to see past the mechanics of every move and decide for ourselves what works and what does not.

Consider the 4 key characteristics of a good system as I have put forth in my earlier blog. Now, add the ability to react and adapt under stress to new attacks that you have not seen before. Mix in the self-awareness that will allow us to analyze, examine and learn new applications even without our instructors’ explicit teaching. Throw in the fact that once installed, the skills cannot be removed unless an even stronger stimulus is applied. THAT is the Tabimina System. It is feeling everything in the right place, at the right time and feeling the entire flow of a completely random exchange. In order to get the range, timing and execution right for all your moves, everything must be properly done in the moment. This means performing, not just knowing. That is why I say the truth must be earned. It is one thing to know how to perform a disarm; it is quite another to actually be able to do it when the sticks are flying for real.

Here I must pause and admit that words fail me at this point. In spite of having written all this. I still find myself having trouble elucidating my thoughts. I feel I have not done the argument for the Tabimina System justice but I am afraid that is the best I can do for now. For those who have also been training in the system, they will understand exactly what the problem is. All of us go through that stage where we feel there is something more, like a fleeting thought or a word on the tips of our tongues that is just beyond the reach of our mind. I am not referring to any mystical or supernatural beliefs or anything like that. Rather, I am saying that there is a deeper truth that my mind has not been able to fully understand yet. It is like looking at an extremely complex mathematical equation – I know it is supposed to mean something but I do not quite understand all the parts yet. Sir Bob did tell me before that the more I learn, the more I will believe and that the more I believe, the more I will learn. Hopefully some of my other Tabimina brothers can jump in and add on to what I am trying to say. Perhaps in a few more years I will be in a better position to explain everything that I am attempting to express now.

It has been 6 years since that demonstration and I have never looked back. I would not dare say I am good right now or even proficient, especially in comparison to the progress that many of my fellow Tabimina brothers are making. However, I have reached the point where I am able to analyze not just my own attributes but my opponents’ as well. Everything from their footwork, balance, body movement and overall demeanour tells me volumes about their body mechanics and state of mind. I may not always be able to exploit their weaknesses but I can at least see them. More than anything else, the Tabimina System has given me the tools to analyze things and make decisions for myself on what works best for me in a given context. In short, I am educated enough to learn for myself.

To wrap this up, I am reminded of a scene from “The Matrix” that serves as a perfect analogy for my journey so far. Keanu Reeves’ character Neo feels that there is something very wrong with the world around him and seeks the answer to the question – what is the Matrix? Laurence Fishburne’s character Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a red pill and a blue pill.

“Take the blue pill and you will wake up in your bed, believing whatever it is you want to believe. Take the red pill and we will show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember – all we are offering is the truth and nothing more.”

No one has a monopoly on the truth but I firmly believe we have seen a little bit further ahead. At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own education. I say take the red pill and question everything. Again, I do not profess to have all the answers but if I have made you start asking questions and reflecting a bit more then I think I have achieved something already.

Stay safe and keep playing!

About the author:

Marcus Poon is a middle school teacher in Singapore teaching Social Studies. He is married to his job (the beautiful woman who sleeps next to his snoring form every night might have something to add but this is his blog, not hers) and is an avid student of the martial arts. He also likes pizza and for people to send him money. Mortgage.

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