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Sticking to it: Kali Club offers enjoyable route to self-defense skills

A Kali Club practice session at Upstate's Institute for Human Performance. From left, Alan Blayney, MD/PhD student, John Sprey, master of nursing student, Karen Cyndari, MD/PhD student and the club's founder, and Breanna Felidin, medical student. (PHOTO BY SUSAN KAHN)

A Kali Club practice session at Upstate's Institute for Human Performance. From left, Alan Blayney, MD/PhD student; John Sprey, master of nursing student; Karen Cyndari, MD/PhD student and the club's founder; and Breanna Felidin, medical student. (PHOTO BY SUSAN KAHN)


About two dozen people battle each other with wooden sticks every week on the Upstate campus, displaying skills that look like a mix of a fencing class, a pirate raid and a street brawl.

But no one gets hurt.

These Upstate employees and students are only tapping their sticks lightly, not hitting each other, as they go through their moves.

They are learning a martial art called kali, which is increasingly popular in the United States. Also called arnis or eskrima, the fighting style developed in the Philippines as natives learned to take whatever weapons were available – sticks, knives or bare hands – to defend themselves from foreign invaders or each other.

Karen Cyndari, who is in the sixth year of her MD/PhD program, studied kali for eight years before starting the SUNY Upstate Kali Club this year. Club practice sessions are free and usually held twice a week. She loans wooden or rattan sticks to members who don‘t have their own.

Cyndari, 30, who met her future husband a few years ago in a kali class, teaches at a beginner level and emphasizes kali‘s skills and strategies, such as how to move when attacking or being attacked, and its camaraderie and fun. She does not want a hard-core fight atmosphere where people just “bang sticks,” get hurt or feel intimidated, she said.

The club is open to any adult at Upstate.

“I like kali because it is surprisingly difficult. For me, the challenge is in learning the moves. Moving around while swinging sticks with precision and coordination is not something I'm used to doing,” says Marten Peterson, 27, a second-year medical student.

Another second-year med student, John Frandina, 26, said, “I like how much strategy is involved in kali. There are moves and countermoves, kind of like playing chess, only you‘re attacking each other with wooden sticks.”

“I always thought a fighting style that involved weapons would be very primal; however, kali is strategic and methodical,” he noted.

Marleny Acosta, 29, also in her second year of medical school, says the idea of learning self-defense appealed to her. “I thought this would be a great way to learn how to best defend myself from an attacker. What I like most is knowing that I am learning something that is not only ‘cool‘ but also beneficial.”

Club members learn the basic moves – the types of strikes, plus footwork – fairly quickly, and then they practice, practice, practice while adding new moves. Although kali club sessions involve a lot of movement, they‘re not designed to help people get fit. “There‘s boot camp or Zumba for that,” Cyndari said. “My classes are calm and focused.”

This article appears in the summer 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine.