I am an accomplished traditional martial artist with over 30 years of experience who has also taught the occasional self-defense course on the side. While there are one or two obvious crossovers between the two disciplines, the fact is that a responsibly-designed self defense course looks nothing like a martial arts class.
Too often you get hot shot martial arts masters eager to show off big, flashy moves for the women taking the classes. The common type are young, tough but emotionally immature men who may be talented and who may be karate champions, but these guys don’t necessarily make good self defense instructors.
Your much better off with mature, adult professionals in the fields of law enforcement and/or rape crisis. If you are a woman looking to protect yourself, the best case scenario would be to find a female instructor who understands what kinds of situations can arise, and what is reasonable to expect of those who are selected as victims.
Anyone seriously interested in learning how to effectively resolve violent situations while minimizing injury should look for the following qualities:
First of all, the course should be taught in a workshop style over a period of at 2 to 4 hours, or even longer. Why is so much time necessary? Because, simply put, there’s a lot of ground to cover.
In order to be fully prepared for an unfortunate situation and ward of a predator or assailant, you need an instructor prepared to give you clear and comprehensive material and research statistics explaining what potential confrontations look like, and how well various responses succeed. Violence can occur anywhere–in the home, on the street, in the car, etc. It can also occur with anyone–you could be attacked by a stranger, by an acquaintance, a trusted friend, or a loved one. You need to be given a sense of the psychology and logistics of self defense which accounts for all these variables. In other words, you need to be intellectually prepared first and foremost, and this preparation takes time.
Additionally, you need to be truly physically prepared. It’s not enough to hear self defense tactics described to you, or to practice them once or twice. You need repeated rehearsal of simple, effective movements until these tactics become second nature, until you don’t have to think about it.
When it comes to self protection, there are three lines of defense. The first is learning how to minimize the risk of being put in a compromising situation in the first place. A good self-defense course should raise your consciousness of different situations that can potentially occur, and give you a methodology for avoiding these situations.
The second line of defense occurs when you’ve been put in a risk. You’ve already been chosen as a victim and now it’s time to deescalate the situation with correct awareness and practiced, psychology. A good self defense instructor can teach you how to humanize yourself, how to call for help, how to get free without panicking, and how and where to run to get assistance.
The vast majority of conflicts can be avoided without any physical confrontation, provided you have the right mindfulness. But in cases where the first two lines of defense don’t work, you have the last line of defense–physical tactics designed to injure your attacker enough to incapacitate them.
Many instructors teach extreme methods for neutralizing an aggressor, such as gauging out eyeballs or ripping off ears. While these methods may be effective if done properly, the fact is that when these situations arise, victims often don’t have the stomach to carry out such extreme measures. We all have a very strong survival instinct, but not many of us have the killer instinct required to do this much bodily damage to another human being, even when our own safety is at risk.
A good instructor knows what students will actually be capable of in the real world, and teaches a variety of other techniques that incapacitate attackers just as effectively without all the blood, such as strikes to weak points on the face, in the neck, or around the ears. And that instructor will give the students plenty of time to practice these quick, simple strikes until they can do them unconsciously so that when the time comes, the students won’t experience tunnel vision and freeze in fear.
This reminds me of an anecdote. A few years ago, I went sky diving for the first time without an instructor. Before I jumped out of the plane, it was explained to me that because your speed of descent is so quick during free fall, three fourths of first-time divers black out temporarily, just for a few moments, right after they jump (in fact, this did happen to me the second I left the safety and stability of the plane).
What’s more, if your main parachute doesn’t deploy correctly, you have to cut it loose and free fall again before releasing your emergency parachute, and during this second free fall, you’re at risk of blacking out all over again.
Luckily, instructors know this and they take the time to teach beginners the sky diver’s mantra–”Look, Grab, Look, Pull, Pull.” In other words, you check to see if the your parachute has deployed correctly. If not, grab the rip cord, make sure you’re ready, and then in one fluid, release the main chute and deploy the emergency one before your brain has time to black out.
It took a lot of repetition, but eventually it became an automatic part of my muscle memory, and I’m confident that if a sky diving emergency situation arose, I would not only know what I’m supposed to do, but I’d be able to execute. That’s the goal of any self-defense class. If you’re going to spend the money, make sure you’re getting the knowledge and training you need.
What do you think of when you hear the term “kung fu?”
If you’re like most people in the West, especially the United States, you think martial arts. You might picture the signs outside of martial arts studios, or maybe Neo waking up from his virtual training session in The Matrix saying, “I know kung fu.”
But what is kung fu really? Well, kung fu is actually a compound of two Chinese words
“gōng,” meaning work, merit, or achievement
and “fū,” meaning man.
Translated literally, the phrase means “achievement of man,” and indeed in ancient Chinese culture, it was used to refer to the general ability to cultivate energy and patience in order to accomplish some sort of task or acquire some knowledge or skill. While it could apply to martial arts, it could just as easily refer to any other type of study that takes time and discipline, such as cooking or calligraphy or playing music.
In its original connotation, the word beautifully articulates the long and arduous process of strengthening one’s body and mind and honing one’s ability. Someone with good kung fu is able to apply his or herself in order to become better and more adept, while someone with bad kung fu is not as focused or as motivated.
Unfortunately, this original meaning got warped in the West by poorly translated movie subtitles or dubbing. And it didn’t stop there–the Oxford English Dictionary even defines kung fu as “a primarily unarmed Chinese martial art resembling karate.”
This brings me to a larger point about the misconceptions we Westerners have about Asian culture and martial arts in general. We tend to think of martial arts as an exotic form of fighting existing primarily in China (Kung Fu), Japan (Karate), and Korea (Tae Kwan Do). The truth, however, is that people having been fighting with fists since we crawled out of caves thousands of years ago. All sorts of ancient cultures on continents all over the planet have developed unique fighting styles. What’s more, what we think of as Chinese kung fu was actually heavily influenced by fighting systems in India, which in turn was inspired by Roman gladiators.
The moral of the story is that the history of martial arts and the cultural history of China is much more complex than we often realize, and those of us interested in devoting time and energy towards the practice of martial arts (those of us with good kung fu, you could say) would do well to appreciate the nuances of that which we are engaging with.
If you spend any time working out at the gym or at home, you know there are three basic elements of fitness: stretching, cardiovascular exercise, and resistance training.
Stretching is designed to develop and maintain mobility and flexibility so that we can mode fluidly. Stretching the upper body helps with posture, which in turn helps with breathing, which in turn helps with energy. Cardiovascular exercise improves the circulatory and respiratory systems by making them more efficient. Aerobic exercises like running, biking, and swimming increase blood flow and oxygenation. Resistance training involves pulling and pushing weight in a biomechanically sound fashion which builds strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of muscles.
The first point to make is that these elements are not mutually exclusive. They are by their very nature interrelated, and you can’t do one without the other.
The second point to make is that we only have so much time in a day to exercise, so we’re often eager to get the most out of our workouts, especially if we’re looking to see a change in our body composition and appearance. The problem is it’s not just about working hard–it’s also about working smart.
Overtraining is an enormous problem in the fitness world. Related to other addiction behaviors, overtraining occurs when we fail to approach exercise with a holistic, playful, exploratory mindset attuned to what our body needs, and instead approach physical activity with obsessiveness and insecurity.
On the flip side, the same kind of obsessiveness and insecurity can actually keep people from working out at all. They don’t want to be seen at the gym and compared to other, fitter individuals. Or their obsessions and addictions to other behaviors prevent them from putting aside time.
For individuals on both ends of the spectrum, the greatest challenge and the greatest necessity is to find an engaging, substantive, meaningful, enjoyable way to train. Meeting this challenge means developing a deeper understanding of the anatomy and physiology at plan in breathing, in heart rate, and in muscle movement.
Most importantly, it means developing a crucial respect for the body’s need to rest and recover. When we work out, we’re essentially tearing our bodies down. They need time to rejuvenate and build back up before our next session. And recovery isn’t just about skipping the gym for day. It means eating nutritious and staying hydrated during the day, and getting quality sleep at night.
The three elements of resistance training are frequency (how many times you do an exercise), duration (the amount of time you draw that exercise out), and intensity (how hard you work during that exercise). Until you understand your own body’s relationship with these elements, until you have a higher consciousness and awareness of the systems at work inside yourself, you’ll always be slave to numbers like weight and reps, numbers that are a poor replacement for true understanding, for the ability to design and redesign your own program each and every time, utilizing cross training to kill two birds with one stone and avoid injury, keeping things fresh, fun, and effective.
There’s an image I haven’t been able to get out of my head recently. Imagine if you will a gym offering a fitness challenge. You decide the specifics of your challenge–it could be to lose weight or to gain muscle or to change your body composition in some other way–and for a few hundred dollars, coaches from that gym will weigh you regularly, take periodic photographs, and keep you on track towards accomplishing your goal. Imagine a whole line of people standing around waiting to fork over their money and sign up, but imagine none of them are speaking to each other. Instead, they’re all staring at their phones.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why it is that the culture surrounding these fitness challenges bother me so much. On the one hand, it feels like gyms are taking advantage of people’s insecurities and inabilities to stay motivated and accomplish their goals on their own. But on the other hand, getting fit and staying healthy is certainly important, and if these gyms are offering a way to get there for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, who am I to judge?
I guess my problem is that people are spending money for a quick fix that doesn’t address the root of the problem. In essence, they’re slapping a band aid over an open wound.
We are a severely out-of-shape society, and all the reasons for this boil down to one main fact: we don’t like being uncomfortable. We prefer to be lazy. We’d rather not walk when we can take a car and we’d rather not examine the ingredients in our processed food when it’s easier just to eat it.
And it’s important to know that this isn’t a new characteristic of us as humans. It comes from our days on the frontier. When food was scarce, we developed a predilection for consuming sweets, fats, and salt, and for conserving energy whenever possible. But while modernity didn’t cause the problem, it has undoubtably made things worse. The modern food industry constantly stokes are addiction to these same sweets, fats, and salt, and then the fitness industry swoops in like a knight in shining armor ready to save the day.
The problem is neither of these industries are actually interested in our well-being. Like all other industries, they’re only interesting in one thing and one thing alone, and that’s money. These challenges aren’t geared to help the individual develop healthier long-lasting habits. They’re designed to provide quick results that fade just as fast so the individual has to come back and spend even more money. It’s just like the way tech companies like Apple intentionally create products that will break down or become obsolete in a few years so that you’ll come back for the upgrade.
So what’s the solution? In my opinion, the only way we can really address the root of our unhealthiness is to look inside ourselves with much more depth and honesty than these fitness challenges allow for. We have to realize that we’re wired by our genes to be lazy and we’re conditioned by our society to be spiritually bankrupt. And the only real way to get beyond that is through self-analysis and fellowship. We need to think long and hard about what we want and why, and we need to surround ourselves with people who will hold us accountable to our goals because they genuinely care about us as people and actually have a stake in our success.
If you’re only looking for a quick fix, by all means stand in that line. Look down and stare into your little screen and wait your chance to sign your name and hand over your wallet. But if you’re looking to affect long-lasting change, be prepared to alter your lifestyle completely. Be prepared to watch what you put in your body and how you use the resulting energy without the threat of a weekly photo or weighing session. And be prepared to be there for other people who are just as interested in transforming themselves from the inside out.