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With a blogpost title like, “Most Important Self-Defense Tip You’ll Ever Get,” you’re probably expecting some devastating martial art technique or powerful weapon—-especially from a blog devoted to the martial arts. Well, sorry to disappoint, but the most important self-defense tip you could ever have, in my opinion, is how to avoid potential dangers through learning to be more aware of your surroundings. Avoidance will always be more important than any martial technique you could ever learn.
I’m planning on some future e-books or articles on self-defense, so stay tuned for much more, but here I just want to cover some fundamentals, which unfortunately are missing from too many martial arts programs. Fleeing a potential self-defense scenario is far better than violent engagement, when flight is possible.
So how can you avoid such confrontations? Well, there are no guarantees. This is one of the many reasons I think everyone should learn martial arts. So many times, however, such situations can be avoided. I just give one example, one danger I see almost every day: walking while texting. Granted that this is not nearly as stupid or dangerous as texting while driving. But, it remains incredibly dangerous, just for other reasons. When you are texting, you are not aware of your surroundings. Chances are, if you are texting, or looking at your phone for any reason while walking about, you are less likely to notice the presence of attackers until it’s too late. I was recently driving through a very rough inner city neighborhood at night and I noticed a young woman walking alone (already a less-than-ideal situation, but often there are no other options) and she was texting or something similar on her phone, head down the whole time. Very dangerous. You have to be aware of your surroundings, and often this is even more important in the areas you are familiar with, and when you feel comfortable, as she obviously did, than in the areas you feel less comfortable. This goes for so-called “safe” areas (there’s really no such thing anymore) as well as cities.
So, the first thing to do is minimize your distractions when you are out and about. Don’t use your phone unless you need to for an emergency. And, for crying out loud, don’t stick things in your ears, listening to music or the news or such nonsense.
Next, when possible, travel with others, not alone. This doesn’t guarantee you won’t be harmed, mugged, kidnapped, killed, etc., but it can reduce the likelihood. The fact of the matter is that potential threats don’t want to get resistance. They have a mission—-to rob, to kill, to bully, to rape, to join a gang, to exact revenge, to whatever— but they want to accomplish whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish, with as much ease as possible. Thus they don’t want the alarm sounded before they’re ready. They don’t want to be harmed or killed themselves (at least not until they’ve accomplished they’re mission). More people equals less easy target…usually.
Walking with a sense of confidence also helps. If you’re afraid, seasoned street fighters, armed robbers, etc, will be able to sense it. Nowadays, so many armed robbers, attackers, etc, are high on drugs that this isn’t the case, but walking with your head up—not staring at anyone, but not avoiding them either, back erect, confident gait—-all of these combined make one appear less a target. This is especially important for men (who, believe it or not, are more often the victim of violent attack than women), but it applies to everyone.
But most importantly, and more to the point of this post, is awareness of one’s surroundings. You have to start being aware of your surroundings. Be aware where people are positioned, where their hands are. When you begin to think like this for the first time, it takes lots of effort and practice. Eventually it becomes second nature. You want to evaluate others: could he or she be a threat? This has NOTHING to do with skin color. You’ll start to be able to recognize potential threats more as you practice, but would be threats can often be seen in the eyes and in how they hold themselves. Are they on drugs? You can often tell the high from the eyes. How are they holding themselves? Are they scanning the crowd. Can you see where their hands are? Is one hand behind their back, or deep in a pocket?
You also need to start being aware of safe distances. If someone you already perceive to be a threat is walking straight towards you, at what point would you feel unsafe? If they get to within range of a kick, you’re already too late.
You need to start becoming aware of where a potential attacker could be hiding:around the corner, behind the door, in the doorway or alleyway, behind a parked car, etc. You also need to be aware of potential lines of escape.
These comments are not intended to make you paranoid, but rather to get you to start asking questions, wherever you find yourself. Until it becomes second nature, you should practice always asking yourself where a potential attacker could be, who might be a potential threat, where could I escape if need be.
In later posts, and in future e-resources from Kindle, I’ll write more about this topic, including potential everyday items that could easily and quickly be turned into weapons of defense. For example, at a restaurant: a drink, a ceramic mug, your plate. In your normal everyday work: a pen, a pencil, a book, a tool. At home: an umbrella, a baseball cap, utensils, pots, pans, children’s hard toys, a hand towel. The possibilities really are endless.
For now, start becoming increasingly aware of your day-to-day surroundings. Avoid places in the shadows. Park your car close to lighted areas. Carry a cellphone in case of emergencies, but don’t use your cellphone while you’re moving about unless it is an emergency. Try to avoid what places and people who make you feel threatened. If someone is at your door and you don’t feel comfortable answering it…don’t. Trust your gut. Better safe than sorry.
If you liked this post, check out my book of self-defense tips.
The sequel to my popular Essential Tips for Beginning Martial Artists, is being given away for FREE on Amazon.com for Kindle users! But this special deal is for a limited time only. The freebie giveaway doesn’t begin until this Saturday, October 17, 2015, and it only lasts through next Weds., October 21, 2015. So be sure to mark your calendar and get your free copy of Essential Tips for Beginning Martial Artists 2. In this sequel, you’ll learn all sorts of essential tips, including how to use (and how not to use) martial arts books and videos, as well as safety tips for weapons training, and much more.
Kung Fu styles often include a variety of weapons within their martial repertoire. Northern styles, especially, often include an immense panoply of weapons to choose from. This was true of the Shaolin Temple as well. Monks at the Shaolin Temple trained in an incredible number of distinct weapons.
Chinese weapons can often be distinguished by their length (long versus short), by being single or double (like the double broadsword, double straight sword, or double ring daggers), as staff or sword, but also by the category “flexible,” which can include such obscure (to the uninitiated) weapons as metal section whips (like the 9 section steel whip), and the meteor hammer (a rope with a metal ball attached at the end). Some weapons fit in multiple categories, e.g., the 3 section staff, one of my favorites, is a staff and can reach a great length, and yet, it is also considered a flexible weapon. I wouldn’t recommend novices try the 3 section staff. You should probably have gained proficiency in at least long staff (if not also spear), and also at least one flexible weapon (beyond nunchaku) before attempting the 3 section staff.
Some Kung Fu styles, like Wing Chun, only include a very few weapons. Traditionally, Wing Chun only includes their long staff, which is very long (usually over 8 inches), and the butterfly swords. When I studied Wing Chun, we also included some more practical weapons like the knife and the stick or short staff, but the only forms are for the long staff and butterfly swords. My Sifu was including fighting techniques he had learned from Filipino styles (e.g., Kali, Arnis, Escrima) to augment our training.
For most Kung Fu styles, and especially the northern styles, there remain four foundational weapons in which students are expected to gain proficiency–the long staff, spear, broadsword, and straight sword. Often times, but not always, basic proficiency in all four is required prior to the black sash. The weapons add a more complicated element, and more dangerous, to regular empty hand forms training. Each weapon becomes an extension of the body. Weapons training, because of the weight of the weapons, can be a great form of strength training.
The long staff is perhaps the most difficult of the four to learn, although straight sword forms are often more complicated. Traditionally for northern styles, the ones with which I’m most familiar (despite having studied Wing Chun which is southern, and rather an exception in many ways), the staff should not be too long–eyebrow height, or an inch or less (or a little more) over the head, but not much. Top of the head level is fine. Long staff techniques in general involve complicated twirls, spins, strikes from both ends, that involve the hands changing position frequently throughout the forms. Each style has slightly different traditions of using the staff, and so some involve more hand changing than others. But in comparison with Japanese and Okinawan uses of the staff, in my experience, the Chinese styles are far more complicated, and again, this seems to be the case especially with the northern styles like Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu styles (and there are many different Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu styles), with which I’m more familiar.
The spear, although perhaps fancier, is relatively less complicated than the long staff, so if you have your style’s long staff form down, the spear should not be too difficult to learn. Chinese spear forms sometimes use the butt end for strikes, and there are still spins, but in general, far less than with long staff forms, since the main striking portion of the spear is the sharp spear head. This was a very traditional Kung Fu weapon, but, unlike what we might picture as its use in warfare, traditional Kung Fu forms do not focus on the spear as a javelin to be thrown, but rather as a long weapon (like a long staff) to be retained and used to keep an opponent at a distance (and thus create an opportunity for escape), or to finish them off, and then flee with spear in tow.
The broad sword is arguably the easiest and least complicated of these four weapons to learn. It is often taught as the first weapon in Chinese martial arts styles, although this is not always the case. Its use is very different from say the uses of the Japanese sword…although obviously both are used to cut an opponent, and can of course be used to behead, remove limbs, etc. Sorry for the graphic description, but that’s how swords functioned in combat. Japanese swords, which have their own elegance and martial use, are far more subtle than the Chinese broadsword (although less subtle than the Chinese straight sword). The Kung Fu broadsword is more like a battle ax, for hacking away at an opponent. There are exceptions, but in general, if you watch a broadsword form, you should notice that the arms are moving primarily at the shoulder, not at the wrist, nor at the elbow. This is pretty universal across Kung Fu styles, and it has to do with the way the blade is wielded. Broadswords come in a variety of blade flexibilities (from quite flimsy to stiff) and weights (some of which can be quite heavy, and give an incredible workout). I won’t discuss the merits of different types of broadsword specs here, since it all depends upon your purpose and goals. Broadsword forms can be quite eloquent, especially the combination of blocks and strikes. After you master the broadsword, you can even learn the double broadsword, which is a rather difficult weapon to learn (coordinating both arms), but beautiful to watch when performed well.
The final weapon of the four foundational Kung Fu weapons is the straight sword, which is famous in Chinese styles like Tai Chi (although Tai Chi and other internal styles also use a broadsword, long staff, and other weapons). This is an elegant weapon, even more so than the Japanese Ken (sword). It was the weapon of the scholar warrior, and was famous in the martial arts styles that originated in the Wudang Mountains. Unlike the broadsword, there’s no hacking here. This sword is used for slicing and thrusting. Even its blocking techniques are elegant. One of my favorite blocks is a slight parry, that’s almost like an upward slice, followed immediately by an offensive thrust.
There are many more weapons in the Kung Fu arsenal, but these are the basic four, the foundation upon which Kung Fu weapon training is based. If you liked this post, check out my book on Kung Fu.
My first martial arts booklet, Essential Tips for Beginning Martial Artists has proven so popular, that I have published a sequel, Essential Tips for Beginning Martial Artists 2. This volume contains an additional 14 tips to help you as you begin training. It includes matters such as how to use and not use martial arts books, articles, videos, and online resources. Essential reading for the new martial artist. More experienced martial artists will also benefit from this booklet.
Falling, or, more technically speaking, “taking ukemi,” is one of the most practical skills you will learn in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. It’s also one of the most important skills you’ll learn for actual Aikido training and practice. Taking ukemi well, learning to fall safely, is essential if you want to prevent injury during Aikido practice and training. The reason I mention falling as one of the most practical skills Aikido teaches, is because at some point in everyone’s life, you take a fall. We all slip, especially as very young children, but then also at the other end of the spectrum in life, as we get up in age. Falling may not be the most useful skill in self-defense–although, it’s not uncommon in attacks to be taken to the ground, and actual street fights very often end up on the ground–but it will serve you well in the practice of a number of martial arts–e.g., Aikido, Dumog, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Chinese Shuai Jiao, Japanese Jujutsu, Judo, wrestling.
If you are new to the practice of Aikido, I would recommend spending as much time possible learning how to fall well. One of the ways to do this is practicing the back rolls (beginning from a seated position, then kneeling, then standing), front rolls, and eventually break falls. Aikido has its own way of taking ukemi, or falling. So, the ukemi of Aikido will look slightly different than, say, the ukemi of Ninjutsu. There are many good videos available on Youtube, but I would stress that you must not learn how to fall from a video. You need to find a good instructor…this will be a recurring theme of this blog. There are no safe or effective substitutes to live instructors, face-to-face, where they can watch you practice, and especially make corrections. Learning to fall from a video will likely end up getting you injured. The videos can be useful to see what it looks like, and to remind you of what you were taught, and sometimes they can include useful tips that can help supplement regular instruction.
Many martial artists look at Aikido as a “soft” art–less martial, more art. And it can appear this way, especially when you watch two fairly evenly paired practitioners. The falling can look staged. Sometimes there is a problem with the “attacker,” the uke, not really committing to the attack, and just going with it. But that’s not good Aikido practice, and, in fact, more injuries happen that way than when the techniques (including the attacks) are preformed properly. Falling is meant to be defensive, going with the throwing technique as opposed to getting clobbered with strikes, and also hitting the floor in such a way that you roll over large portions of your body (specific portions to avoid damage–thus not on the spine) to spread out the impact. It takes a while to get used to the falling, but once you do, it will really help you take throws without getting injured. Moreover, a side benefit will be the way that falling on the mat in Aikido will loosen up your whole body, especially your back and neck. I’ll be honest, if I wake up stiff from sleeping the night before, the absolute best way I’ve found to loosen up is to take some falls from someone performing Aikido (or another style with throws) techniques on me. It will probably take several months of regular practice to get to that point, but eventually, as the years go by, you’ll notice how loosened up your body becomes just from falling well on the mat. I’m tempted even to call ukemi in Aikido, “therapeutic falling.” Of course you should check with a physician first before beginning any martial art, or exercise program for that matter. If you have back, knee, shoulder, neck, etc., injuries, this is especially important. Aikido might not be for you. Although, when I have trained in Aikido dojos, I have noticed that the fellow students who had the most injuries from old age, or from sitting too much at work, especially back problems from slouching etc., were the ones who benefited most from falling over the years.
So, if you’re an Aikido practitioner, or interested in learning that art, don’t neglect your falling/ukemi training and practice! The best way to get good is to take as much ukemi as possible. Go slow at first, speed/efficiency will come with time. Don’t rush your Aikido practice. Don’t rush any practice in the martial arts. Take your time, be patient, and as the years go by, you’ll be amazed by the progress you make.
Many who begin the martial arts do so because they’re interested in self-defense. This is a worthy goal, but training for effective self-defense skills takes lots of effort. At the same time, many novices come to the martial arts expecting, and hoping, to become expert kickers. In fact, often when people think about the martial arts, kicking is the first type of technique that comes to mind, especially for the uninitiated. Kicking has its place in self-defense training, but it has a far more limited place than most people think.
Now, a number of martial arts styles excel in kicking techniques. This is true of many Korean styles, like Tae Kwon Do and Tang Soo Do, but also of Japanese Karate styles like Shotokan. Northern Kung Fu styles also typically have reputations for many kicking techniques, and their forms often display quite a variety of long and high kicks. Other styles of martial arts–like Judo, Aikido, and Shuai Jiao–don’t have any kicking techniques to speak of (with the exception sometimes of using the feet for sweeping techniques that may resemble very low kicks).
So what place do kicking techniques have in self-defense? A very limited one. Before continuing, I want to clarify that my comments here are limited to actual self-defense, NOT competition or sports fighting, nor to the martial arts in general. The many flashy kicks (spinning, jump kicks, etc.) found in many popular styles like Tae Kwon Do, have their place, and an important one, in the practice of the martial arts for which kicking plays a prominent role. But self-defense on the street is a particular occasion for martial arts. Kicks can play an essential role in practicing and demonstrating kata or forms, but this is not directly related to self-defense (even if, I would argue, forms/kata training can indirectly help in self-defense…more on this to come on this blog).
What benefit, what strength, can kicks bring to a self-defense situation? That depends on the situation. Each self-defense situation is unique. In general, kicks are one of the most powerful striking weapons a martial artist has in their unarmed arsenal. This should come as a no-brainer, since legs are the longest extension of the body (without weapons), and the muscles of the legs and rear (glutes), are the strongest of the body. Of course, kicking effectively and powerfully takes lots of training–and this is especially the case for kicking with precision. So, if you need to knock down a door without any tools, you don’t punch in the door, you try to kick it in.
In the pictures I’ve included thus far (the jump kick at the top of this blog entry, and the face kick to the right), I feature the kind of flashy high kicks that look great in forms/kata demos, and are sometimes seen (and sometimes used effectively) in Karate and Tae Kwon Do tournaments.
For self-defense, however, I would recommend NEVER using high kicks. High kicks have their place in the martial arts, but in my opinion, kicking for self-defense situations, should be Limited to low kicks. Effective target areas, under very rare and special circumstances, might be as high as the bladder, floating ribs, or solar plexus, but only if your kicking is especially fast, the opening avails itself, and the scenario might be well-suited. The groin, the knee, the shin, and the top of the foot are much better targets, depending on the situation. How many self-defense seminars teach striking the testicles of a male attacker as a defensive maneuver? If a self-defense instructor teaches a groin strike–even hand techniques that involve ripping out the gonads–as a finishing technique, as a fail-proof way of defending oneself, then that tells me the instructor knows very little about actual self-defense. Such groin strikes are most effective as means of getting the opponent to move in a certain direction (e.g., bend down or perhaps loosen their grip). If the attacker is on drugs, or can’t feel pain, the groin strike will likely do very little to deter them—in fact, it probably won’t work at all. If they are determined to hurt you, it may only bend them over and make them tackle you to the ground. Groin strikes should never be used as the only technique in a self-defense situation, but should be used strategically, to get someone to loosen a grip (to enable you to run away, etc.), or bend them in a direction that will enable you to perform some other technique. We’ll talk more about practical self-defense in another post.
Knee strikes can be highly effective, but they are very dangerous, because legs break at the knee without much pressure at all. Knees are very sensitive joints, and can be injured without much effort. It takes a lot of practice to kick a knee without missing, but it doesn’t take much effort at all, to do very serious and even permanent damage by attacking the knee. Such a technique should only be used if the situation is a serious one where your potential bodily harm warrants such force. A strike to the knee is not a very good defense against the average school bully who is intent on pushing you around. It’s overkill. On the other hand, a kick to the knee can be an effective technique against a more dangerous assailant.
Shin kicks are much like the groin kick, in that they won’t likely stop a serious threat, but they can help cause your attacker to loosen a grip, or move in a certain direction, or set you up for a further technique. The top of the foot (heel stomp to the shoe laces) is very sensitive and the bones there break fairly easily. This can be a helpful technique under the right circumstances. In general, though, you want your actual kicks in a self-defense scenario to be low and quick, thus avoiding as best as possible, the attacker blocking your strike (or worse, catching your leg or doing damage to your leg). In general, you probably don’t want to kick much higher than the kick depicted in the image to the left, which, I’d argue, is the image of the most effective kick for self-defense depicted by images in this blog post. The other images are an example of what not to do in self-defense. They may work in the movies…and they may work in the street, but I wouldn’t risk it if you’re in serious danger.
So should you practice high kicks if your style includes them and if you’re interested in self-defense but will only be using low kicks? YES, definitely, without a doubt!!! Why?!?! Because the more flexible your legs are, the higher you’re actually able to kick (and with power), the stronger, quicker, and more effectively you’ll be able to use those same kicks to lower targets. So if you develop a wicked fast and powerful side kick to someone’s temple (which could kill them if they didn’t move or block and let you perform that strike with serious power), how much more powerful would that same kick be to an opponent’s leg? In contrast, if you can only barely raise your leg to strike a kick at your opponent’s thigh, it will be less powerful when applied to the thigh than a fellow practitioner who applies the same kick to the thigh, but can kick over their head. So practice high kicks, if they’re in your martial art, and gain as much flexibility in your legs as possible, even if you’re interested primarily in self-defense. Just don’t train to use those high kicks in a self-defense situation, rather make sure you train regularly to attack more realistic targets.