I've always been obsessed with becoming a ninja. After failing to find my inner ninja at a Naruto Run event, I decided to focus on something more personal: self-control and inner energy. If Naruto has chakra, then maybe I too have an inner beast ready to be unleashed.
Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer once said that there was a great power in both volcanoes and humans who know their purpose in life. Like him, I believe humans have a hidden strength that manifests itself during crucial times, like running after a pickpocket or getting chased by a wild, ferocious dog.
It's this hidden strength that some say we can learn to unleash at will. So where does one go to hone their inner energy? My friends were full of suggestions. Some said I should take a breathing exercise. Others suggested dark magic. But I don't think I'm ready to lock myself up in a cave to meditate or present offerings to the black crows during the first month of the Islamic calendar.
I decided instead that breathing exercises are what might lead me in the right direction. A good friend introduced me to Halilintar Surya, an instructor at Reti Ati—the oldest pencak silat school in Jakarta. The school was founded in 1977, but its teachings had been circulating around the archipelago for at least 50 years before then. What better place to start?
I arrived at 3:30 pm at Lapangan Tenis Tosiga, in Kebon Jeruk, West Jakarta. Around 20 people were there, all of them in black uniforms and white belts. Most of them were really young, like elementary school aged.
"We're about to start today," Halilintar said as the class began. "Later, there will be a 'breaking session' for you at the end."
This "breaking session"—basically a change for me to bust my fist through some boards and bricks—will show how the breathing exercises practiced by the Reti Ali school of pencak silat can help you focus your inner power, Halilintar said. I think I came to the right place.
"If you can break it, that means you have exercised your breathing techniques properly," Halilintar said. "If it hurts you, that means you haven't. The thing is, if the material doesn't break, your body will ache. So you have to break it, using the proper techniques."
I was pretty terrified. The items I was supposed to break were made of hard, solid material like wood, rock, and metal. Batu candi was a flat, thin rock shaped like a rectangle. Then there was a thick white brick called hebel block, usually used to build the walls of buildings. Last but not least, there was the dragon steel, shaped like a kris used back in the days as manual water pump in wells.
"Hold these and see if you can break them with your foot, you may also knock or punch them," Halilintar said.
They were all pretty hard. I was feeling anything but confident. A cold sweat ran down the back of my neck. I wanted to just sit on a bench and watch the others. But I had to snap out of it. A true ninja is never a coward.
"Men are made out of dust and soil, blown into life by God," said Romo Guntur, the school's founder. "That's why we communicate with God through breathing. We're supposed to remember God through every exhale. From there, we'll be more sensitive to what God's will is, since Reti Ati means 'to know the heart's content.' Before we can tell other people's hearts, we need to understand our own."
Compared to other breathing-based martial arts, pencak silat teaches its disciples to be able to channel their inner energy to a few different targets in one deep breath. "Even overseas martial arts exhaust their breath in one execution and they tend to yell during a breaking session. In silat, one breath can result in nine or even fifteen targets," Guntur said.
I took Guntur's advice to heart. I need to be a humble ninja. He also reminded me to always think positive, to believe in everything I do. Then it was time for the basic breathing exercise session. I was exercising alongside kids whose age was half or a third of mine. That made me sad—I could've started ages ago and been a real ninja by now.
We all sat cross-legged, right leg over the left. Arms relaxed, body stiff. Guntur said that we were supposed to sit straight so our tailbone can touch the earth. This was how our body and breathing could connect to the earth. This session was called "cleaner breathing," where we were asked to focus on our inhaling and exhaling, a task that proved to be difficult for me. My mind was wandering between delicious sate Padang Ajo Ramon, my credit card debt, and whether I can actually break those items later.
The last session was triangle breathing which was done while standing. I was accompanied by Sarah, another Reti Ati disciple who had to make sure I was breathing properly. We were supposed to stretch our arms upwards, as if we were about to receive energy from the nature. Holding the air in our diaphragm, we were told to stiffen our abdomen and arms. Then slowly, we released the air. Don't try this at home without a proper supervision, please.
"Excuse me, Mbak, but I'm going to hit your stomach and arms," Sarah said before striking me in the belly. Her punches weren't bad and by the end she told the instructor that my breathing technique was already pretty good. I was ready for the breaking session.
The other disciples exercise their punches according to their level. There's Reza, who in one breath was able to channel his inner strength to four different targets in one go. First, he broke three Hebel blocks using his bare hand. In less than a second later, he kick another Hebel held vertically about waist high. Then he stomped on a rock using his heel, splitting it into two.
After all the rocks, he also broke the dragon steel in one blow.
Then, Guntur's daughter, Mentari took the spotlight. She broke batu candi using a roll of newspaper. It was pretty amazing. Then, not long after, it was my turn.
My mind felt blank. My focus was solely on breaking the batu candi. I was asked to focus on the center of the rock, the target of my chop, as if I was cutting it with my hand. On the third try, I inhaled as deep as I could, held it in my diaphragm, and convinced myself that I could do it. I replayed Guntur's message in my mind: don't hold back. CRACK! The rock split in two. I was exhilarated. And it didn't hurt at all.
On the second session, I was supposed to break a white Hebel block with my forearm. Its big size intimidated me. Since I never studied pencak silat, I was a bit wobbly on this one and I didn't feel too confident. After two tries, I failed to break through the Hebel block. And just as Halilintar said, it hurt pretty bad.
The dragon steel was waiting for me in the last session. I was controlling my breathing and Halilintar was about to slam a piece of dragon steel into my arm. I took a deep breath and signaled to Halilintar that I was ready by stomping my foot. In one swift move, Halilintar slammed the dragon steel into my bicep. It broke into two. After it was all done, Halilintar reviewed my performance. He said I still had some hesitation. He could see it in my arm position when trying to break the batu candi. Halilintar said when we are full of conviction, the energy we channel will cut through the target without causing us any pain.
"It's not a big deal to fail, that only serves to prove that the rock is indeed hard," said Halilintar. "It doesn't matter how strong you are, if you are not confident and doesn't apply the proper breathing technique, then it's not going to break. This also serves as a good learning lesson, because then we know how painful it is when we fail, so we will learn form the pain."
I walked away that day with the lesson that only two things beat everything in the world: our conviction and the fear itself. We only need to choose one. Wanting to be a true ninja, obviously fear is not an option.
"People often say the breaking session requires isian (black magic), but that's not true," Halilintar said. "Humans have their own inner strength. What we need is a mental strength, because a strong physique with a weak mental ability will not accomplish much."
"That Was Easy," is an ongoing series where we send VICE's writers get the pros to teach them new, difficult, or strange skills. Have an idea of something you want to see us try? Send us a tweet with the hashtag "#thatwaseasy."