By Naomi Sodetani
As dusk falls over Honolulu, a dozen Hawaiian men and women clad in black T-shirts and shorts gather on wooden benches outside a gym on a hilltop overlooking downtown. As they step through the doors and line up on the padded mats, their jocular conversation segues into hushed concentration.
"Ha, he, hu! Ha, he, hu! Ha, he, hu!" The room echoes with the guttural chorus of their breathing, each breath inhaled and expelled in an explosive mantra. Their powerful, fluid movements evoke a curious mix of disciplines: martial drills, hula, Asian combat moves. They lunge forward and back, dodge from side to side, then whirl and pivot in unison, as arm strikes aim for an invisible opponent’s eyes, then throat. Their deep breathing and the vigorous stamping of their feet on the floor produce a hypnotic rhythm, punctuated by shouted chants.
A muscular man hovers nearby, eyeing their every gesture, firmly exhorting: "Don’t look down; that weakens you." On his command, they assume the boxer-like posture of the tiki: legs and elbows deeply bent, fists clenched, eyes blazing. They are ready to rumble, glistening with sweat and purpose. With each ai, or move, this handful of modern warriors are reclaiming a cultural legacy: the ancient Hawaiian fighting art of lua.
In olden times, lua warriors were the chief’s elite commandos. Secretly, in the dark of night, they practiced rigorous hand-to-hand combat in sacred compounds dedicated to the war god Ku. On the battlefield, they killed efficiently, with calculated blows. Precise nerve strikes paralyzed the enemy, followed by a methodical process of "bundling up" the opponent by dislocating his joints, breaking every major bone in his body, and, finally, snapping his back. According to legend, a select few could kill with a mere word or touch, driving the life from their opponents before they hit the ground.
photo: Dana Edmunds
Warriors underwent tests of skill and concentration, such as holding their arms out 90 degrees, as a person walked upon each arm. They learned balance by kneeling on gourds without breaking them. To cultivate agility, they practiced weaving their bodies swiftly through a ladder of tautly strung cords.
But in their daily regimen, warriors trained not just to develop their prowess in battle, but also their mental and spiritual sides, through practices associated with the moon goddess Hina, the yielding, feminine counterpart to Ku’s aggressive male principle. "Warriors were not brutes," says modern-day lua teacher Jerry Walker. "They also composed poetry, danced, surfed and excelled in sports and games."
Pragmatically, lua warriors were also master healers adept in practices developed to restore the wounded. Lua master Mitch Eli says that warriors practiced lomilomi massage to aid good circulation and alleviate muscle spasms and sprains, the art of laau lapaau (herbal healing) to make poultices and potions, and even a technique of mending bones, called haihai iwi—an ancient Hawaiian cousin to modern chiropractic care.
"The key lesson is to become balanced and flexible," says teacher Richard Paglinawan, a serious, soft-spoken man in his sixties. "There is a time to be hard like Ku, and a time to be Hina, soft. Lua teaches us to hoomau (persevere)—to flow with life, not fight it."
In the years following Hawaii’s contact with the West and the catastrophic decline of Hawaiian population and culture that followed, lua was banned along with hula and other native practices. Already a secretive tradition, it went even further underground. By 1974, the Bishop Museum had classified lua as a "lost art."
photo: Dana Edmunds
But one olohe lua (lua master) survived: Charles W. Kenn. A Hawaiian-Japanese-German kahuna (expert or priest) born in 1907, Kenn was also a social historian, professor and author who was highly accomplished in a variety of martial arts, including lua. Although he shied away from public recognition, Kenn was honored in 1976 as a state "living treasure" for his pioneering work documenting Hawaiian language, culture and spiritual traditions long before the present-day Hawaiian renaissance took hold.
Kenn learned lua from several teachers—including two who had trained at a royal lua school established by King Kalakaua in the late 1800s. He also studied with renowned sensei Seishiro "Henry" Okazaki, who had learned lua ai from a Hawaiian practitioner after World War I and incorporated them into his Danzan-Ryu style of jujitsu.
Thirty years ago, Kenn agreed to teach the esoteric art to five dedicated students: Richard Paglinawan, Jerry Walker, Mitchell and Dennis Eli, and Moses Kalauokalani. Today, the five head two lua pa (a figurative term for school)—Pa Kui-a-Lua and Pa Kui-a-Holo—that are carrying on and spreading the ancient tradition.
Growing up, Jerry Walker and his college chum Mitch Eli had heard stories about lua. Avid martial artists who were well-versed between them in jujitsu, tai chi, aikido, kung fu and karate, both were eager to learn lua, but they could never find anyone who practiced or taught it. The secrecy that fueled lua’s mystique as a potent "dark art" had also erased the path to learn it.
Then one day Walker read an article in Black Belt magazine that mentioned lua and Kenn. "We had been looking for years for someone like this, and not a peep," Eli says. "But like they say, when the student is ready, the master appears."
photo: Dana Edmunds
In 1974, Walker tracked Kenn down. At first, the scholar agreed only to teach general Hawaiiana, and only to those who could prove they were descended from alii, or royalty. (Because in ancient times royal blood was believed to contain more mana, or spiritual energy, Walker explains, only the alii underwent intensive training as lua warriors. But during war, makaainana, or commoners, were often drafted into service and taught the basics of lua.)
A dozen students, including Mitch’s brother Dennis and acquaintances Paglinawan and Kalauokalani, began meeting regularly with Kenn. He eventually taught them a few lua ai, but imposed a strict kapu on the students talking about their lua practice outside the lessons. When their ranks finally thinned with the rigor and tedium of practice until only five were left, Kenn said, "OK, now we can begin."
For five years, the group met once a week at a house in the Hawaiian neighborhood of Papakolea. "We’d work out from 6 to 10 p.m., then go in and have coffee and pastry," Walker recalls. Then Kenn would lecture on lua, often past midnight, but "time would fly."
In 1978, Kenn anointed his five students as olohe(literally "hairless," because the bodies of master warriors used to be plucked bare and oiled to prevent an enemy from obtaining a sure grip). In exchange, he required of them a promise that they would teach lua only to Hawaiians, to help restore their connection with their culture.
In 1988, Kenn passed away. At the master’s funeral, Walker recalls, "We sat there in the pews and wondered, where does lua go from here?" "We worried about how to bring lua out," Paglinawan reflects. "With its reputation as a 'dark art' whose purpose was to kill, we thought people would be afraid that practicing it meant bringing back the pagan ways—which is not what we’re trying to do." Instead, he says, the teachers are trying to regenerate cultural values, self-esteem and leadership skills in their community through lua and its emphasis on spiritual balance. Fearing that lua knowledge would pass with Kenn, the five founded Pa Kui-a-Lua and undertook to resuscitate the dying art through teaching and documenting the discipline and its underlying philosophy.
Members of the warrior group
Na Koa parade with pololu
(long spears) as part of a grand
unification ceremony at Puukohola
Heiau on the Big Island.
Photo: Franco Salmoiraghi
In 1991, Pa Kui-a-Lua member Lynette Paglinawan, Richard’s wife, who was then executive director of the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Project, organized a program to research and perpetuate the dying tradition. The fruits of that effort, funded by the Bishop Museum and the National Park Service, will be published this year in the first comprehensive sourcebook on the subject: Lua: The Hawaiian Martial Art.