Some martial arts emphasize using kicks and punches to thwart an attacker. Others focus on activating pressure points, executing takedowns, grappling on the ground or employing a mixture of moves. The ancient Hawaiian art of lua is different in that it revolves around breaking bones and dislocating joints. While not usually lethal, such techniques will stop an assailant in his tracks and make him think twice about continuing his attack — if he can still move, that is.
Southern California’s Solomon Kaihewalu has practiced lua since he was 3. Born in the Palama Settlement (now called Honolulu) on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, he traces most of his schooling in the art to his parents. His mother, a descendant of a Hawaiian king, learned lua techniques in sequences that were similar to kata, and his father had a heritage that linked him to ancient warriors and weapons.
Learning Lua as a Boy
Solomon Kaihewalu’s initial exposure to lua came when he and his 13 siblings were treated to tales about their family’s fighting history. “[There were] stories about going to the forest to learn the type of wood to use for tools, and also for weapons,” he says.
Kaihewalu also gained plenty of hands-on lua experience in the form of daily chores. “As we grew, we learned the art by doing work in the house, and part of the work involved rhythm and timing,” he recalls. “Our way of living was the way of the martial arts: timing, balance, listening, hearing, deciding, focusing. All of those movements were based on lua training, but they was also part of our family training.”
Teaching Lua in the Military
Solomon Kaihewalu started teaching lua while stationed at a U.S. Air Force base in West Germany, but he didn’t introduce it to the American public until 1963, when he was stationed at an Air Force base in Colorado. The first people to get access to the art’s basic techniques were commissioned and non-commissioned officers. However, he had to be careful with respect to what he revealed because ancient customs technically forbade him from spreading the fighting methods off the island.
“I brought them out real slow to make sure the elders understood what I was trying to do,” he says. For years, he substituted the name “lua” with the generic term “Hawaiian martial arts” in an effort to avoid ruffling feathers.
The goal of the style, Kaihewalu says, is to incapacitate your opponent, thereby halting his attack before he can use any weapon he may be carrying. Because lua isn’t an art crafted for competition, the opponent gets no opportunity to tap out before the pain becomes excruciating. The speed with which lua acts precludes that possibility. Fortunately, he says, it’s fairly easy to employ the art in a non-lethal manner.
Lua’s repertoire spans the spectrum of combat techniques, from boxing and wrestling to kicking and throwing. “The art of lua is to ‘bite’ with the fingers, to tear the skin,” Solomon Kaihewalu says. “Once the body tightens up from the pain, you look for the bone that’s locked in position and try to dislocate it.”
Lua also teaches weapons. Lots of ’em. “According to my mom and dad, most of them were made from ordinary tools,” he says. “Normally, when you were working in the field and there was an attack coming from other Hawaiians [who] wanted to take over, they would have the tools on hand, so they used them.”
The hoe (oar), ihe (short spear), newa (club) and ka’ane (strangling cord) were all frequently seen tools-cum-weapons, and all were constructed from natural materials such as wood and stones. While Kaihewalu served in the Air Force, he drew on this philosophy of making do with what you have to teach pilots how to use their boots as though they were boxing gloves and as shields against bayonet attacks. He also showed them how to use their shoelaces as a ka’ane, sort of a last-resort garrote for when no other weapon is available.
Now 70, the 12th-degree lua master travels the world spreading the traditional Hawaiian art. An instructor since 1948, he says his seminar schedule has picked up during the past 15 years because of growing interest in the system.
“I think we fit in good with [other styles] because we don’t claim to be better than anybody else out there,” Solomon Kaihewalu says.
Text by Sara Fogan • Photos by Rick Hustead
This article first appeared in the February 2006 issue of Black Belt.
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