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Bad Ass of the week: Maija Soderholm

Maija standing (2)

(All photos taken by: Greg Manalo- Manalo Pictures)

Highly skilled in the blade work of the Visayan Style Eskrima of Sonny Umpad, Maija is sharing her hard won knowledge with the world. Later this year she will be releasing a self-published book titled: “The Liar, the Cheat, and the Thief – Deception and the Art of Sword Play”. This week we learn that combat requires equal parts intellect and physical ability.

So let’s make this really clear before going on: Maija is not L.A.R.P.ing with foam swords in parks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) 😉 Here’s a video showing her in action so you fully appreciate what it is that she does:


Yes…those were REAL swords and knives being used. *Practice blades are made of metal but they not sharp* I don’t know about you folks, but I’d still be scared shitless if someone holding a knife or sword was coming at me. I don’t think I’d be worried about how sharp it was, just the fact that it’s coming and fast!

What sparked your passion for swords and ultimately inspired you to pursue training? What kind of feeling did you get the first time you held one?

“No idea why. Wanted to be Errol Flynn, well, Captain Blood or Robin Hood, for as long as I can remember. LOVED all the swashbuckling movies from back in the day – 3 Musketeers, Sinbad, etc.

First time I held a real sword? I grinned like a mental patient…You can always tell those that have ‘that thing’ for swords, they all have the same reaction when you put a sword in their hands. Actually, even more so if you put a high quality, well designed, sword in their hand. If it has some history, you sure can feel it. It’s weird.”

Whoa, can you imagine the vibrations and energy that a sword must hold after combat? The idea of a sword truly being the extension of one’s arm and therefore a part of the person, leaving their energy with it as well? What a trippy thought.

How old were you when you started and how long have you been practicing and teaching?

On and off since I was 9 (started fencing as a kid but gave up in my teens). Seriously for about 20 years, teaching for 10”

Man, you must have been one rad little kid! I didn’t know any girls wanting to play with swords and learn the finer points of strategic thinking in hand to hand combat. Childhood aside, I highly doubt there are many accredited women “skilled in the blade work of the Visayan Style Eskrima of Sonny Umpad” currently practicing and teaching. If anything, I’d assume you’re the lone wolf.

How did you overcome the adrenaline of combat when seriously training as an adult? How are you able to control yourself and stay composed without shaking or flinching; does this come with experience?

There’s a brain model that says we all have 3 brains: The lizard, which is all, and only about survival – your fight, flight, freeze, adrenal response stuff, (freezing BTW is a throwback to predators in the wild tracking motion, and thus if you freeze, they may not see you). Then there’s the monkey brain that deals with status and social issues – ‘where do I belong in the pecking order?’ (ex: male  animals, including humans, going toe to toe to find out who’s the biggest and baddest) and then the human brain, which is basically all the cognitive stuff – abstract thought, planning, imagination, decisions based on rational observation.

Adrenaline is mostly linked to the survival brain, the lizard, and kicks into high gear when it perceives threat, especially when something unexpected happens, or something you can’t control. Therefore the more experience you have in chaotic environments where threat is present, the more you can access your human, cognitive brain – to scheme and use your tactical thinking to prevail.

Interestingly enough, fighter pilots only get ‘Ace’ status’ after 5 ‘kills’. The first 3 or 4 are deemed luck and reaction (linked to training, but not yet ‘on purpose’).

With that in mind, an Ace has connected Human to Lizard, and though Sonny didn’t put it this way, another teacher of mine (Rory Miller) does – If you can connect your lizard to your human – you have a super power.—It should be noted that the monkey brain plays no part. If you stick your ego and need for status into the equation the power evaporates…”

For lack of better words: Holy shit. I find it really interesting that there is such focus on the ego being taken from the equation as opposed to being focused on as a needed element to the thinking process in these situations.

How has your skill set and knowledge translated into your personal life and experiences? Do you perceive and react to people and situations differently than you did before earning and gaining these skills and knowledge?

YES!!! It’s actually amazing how significant the change has been.

Training swords with the Maestro (Sonny) has made me see all of human interaction in a different way. I call it the art of conversation. Good conversation skills means you can practice ‘active listening’ also known as gathering intel. It also means you can argue and debate better.

Really seeing the problem that actually needs solving, behind the noise, and understanding how to resolve it is huge. Basically how to take your ego out of the equation. Sonny Umpad talked about first learning to ‘read’ your opponent, then he talked about the higher skill of ‘writing’ them.”

I could not be more excited to read your book when it’s released later this year. Before meeting you I had knew nothing of the world in which you play and fight. I think anyone can appreciate the obvious physical aspect of combat; we know that you have to be fit. It also occurs to us that you have fine-tuned your muscle memory over countless hours and years of training. I wonder how many of us reading have given much thought to the fact that while practicing or sparring, you are also fine tuning your brain and it’s response to external forces? Not just your reflexes but the very way you think in any given situation.

For those of us out there who can’t wait for the book and are as fascinated as I am, check out Maija’s website: http://swordandcircle.blogspot.com/. Her blog entitled “What I do” provides an in depth description of what she practices and teaches her students. She also provides information for seminars and classes in the greater bay area.

Maija (2) Maija action

Maija is brilliant, strong and fucking incredible. Using the term “Bad Ass” to describe her is an understatement.