Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Top methods of self defence

I sometimes stumble upon lists of martial arts that are supposedly the best for self defence.  Now, in theory, they are lists of martial arts, so I have no problem with them.  In a wider sense, however, they are misleading.

If you want an art that is effective for fighting when there is no other choice, then the lists are useless.  Check what is available in your area.  Go along and ask the instructors if what they teach can be used for self defence.  Their answers should tell you whether you should join their class.  If taught correctly, almost any martial art is good for fighting, and the deciding factor will be how hard you train.  If the class is too far away, if you don't like the instructor, or what you see and hear seems fake, your motivation for training will be low.

Is it available in your area?  No?  It's useless to consider it then.  Does the instructor answer a straight question with mystical nonsense?  Don't waste your time with that kind of class.  Have you found a method of combat you enjoy learning?  Stick with it, because your motivation to keep training and improve is arguably the most important thing.

With all of that in mind, I'm going to tell you what should always be in a list of effective methods of self defence, ahead of any martial art, and what any responsible instructor will also recommend before coming to blows.

Run away

Am I suggesting that, regardless of how many years you have trained, you should always take the opportunity to escape a violent encounter?  I am indeed, and the law is with me on this one.  If you have the opportunity to run, and don't take it, everything that follows your decision is something that could have been avoided.

I'm not going to soften this one for you.  The possible outcomes of a violent encounter include, but are not limited to, temporary or permanent injury or disfigurement, violent death, theft, abduction and lasting psychological trauma.  You think you can win?  Ha!  No one EVER wins!  You want to injure someone else, when it could have been avoided, and you call that winning?  You think you can explain yourself in a court of law?  You think you're ready to cope with revenge attacks?

No, forget all misguided notions of honour and check your pride.  They could have a concealed weapon.  Their friends could be around, somewhere.  If you want to talk about honour and pride, talk first about what is the right thing to do.  There are times when running away is impossible, and that is when you need the ability to fight.  Otherwise, just don't be there.

Be nice

What is self defence?  If you're thinking of launching a counter attack or throwing an attacker to the ground, you've got the basic principle wrong.  Those things serve a purpose, and that purpose, rather than a specific way of achieving the aim, is the essence of self defence.  So what is the aim?  Well, self defence is not about harming an attacker, but about avoiding harm ourselves.  If we can avoid being harmed without causing harm, that is the preferred way.  If a self defence instructor doesn't instil this wisdom in his students, then he is at best irresponsible, and at worst a charlatan.

Given that our aim is to avoid harm, it makes sense that we should be the kind of people that no one wants to harm.  This doesn't involve being a doormat, but simply being a nice person.  In reality, it's impossible to be someone who is liked by everyone, but that probably says more about the nature of others than it does about you.  We can make an attack less likely, though.

To paraphrase Wong Shun Leung, the art of invisibility would be more useful for self defence than a martial art, because a martial art is a weapon.  A weapon is designed to cause injury, not prevent it.

In aikido, Morihei Ueshiba enshrined the basic principle of self defence: subdue your attacker using the method likely to cause the least harm.  Even closer was Sun Tzu's statement that the greatest victory is one earned without bloodshed.

What?  Only two methods?

Yes, only two methods, and that is the essence of self defence.  Think defensive, not offensive.  In a martial arts class, you are learning to fight, but hopefully your instructor is also telling you that it is a last resort.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What's important to me

I bought a new laptop this week.  My old laptop is five years old, and probably has a few years of life left in it yet, but a number of factors played a part in my decision to upgrade.  Obviously, the newer laptop is more powerful, and has fewer little problems than the old one.  Now that I have the thing I wanted, though, it's just another thing in the collection of things I have around me.

It's a reminder of the Christmas days of my childhood.  I would get presents from my parents, and other relatives, and it wasn't long before the thing I had been anticipating for months became just another thing.  It's not that I'm ungrateful.  Far from it, actually.  The thing was still valued, but the joy of owning it was short lived.  What remained was a feeling.  Someone else had bought something for me.

My fiancée recently bought a book for me, as a birthday present.  What was thoughtful about it was that she took notice of something I said in passing, knew exactly what to get and bought it for me.  Long after I've read the book, probably many times, the thought behind the giving of the book will remain.  The laptop, I bought for myself, and I'm pleased that I have a new computer, but it simply serves a purpose.  Other than the photos, music and copies of personal communications it holds, and the ability to communicate with loved ones who are far away, there is no inherent emotional value to the laptop.

In Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, the Dalai Lama states that the unhappiest people he has met are those who have the most worldly riches.  His argument is the more we have, the more anxiety we feel over the possibility of losing it.  So the question has to be whether we own our possessions or whether they own us.

An attachment to things

I have quite a large collection of films and music.  There was a time when watching the films, or listening to music, was a social activity.  Now, the friends who watched films or listened to music with me have families, other responsibilities, and little time.

Similarly, I like driving at night, especially in the rain.  It took me a long time to figure out why I would like such a thing, and then I remembered being the designated driver for friends who wanted to drink on a night out.  Other times, I would be one of the passengers in a friend's car, at an age where being able to drive was a novelty, so we would spend a night being driven around, because it was now possible.  Music would be playing, and we often drove down unlit, largely deserted country roads.

Sometimes a song will play on the radio, and a memory associated with the song will come to mind for the first time in years.  I'll remember a place, an event, but mostly the people who were there.

An attachment to people

It's difficult to say how we feel about others.  I've had a few people walk out of my life or pass away, never being sure whether they ever meant anything to me, and I suppose that most of us could say something similar.  In fact, everyone with whom I have spent a great deal of time means something to me.

There's nothing I would like more than to have my friends at my home, having a chat in person, rather than through a phone or over an internet connection.  Life just isn't like that, though.  I'm as guilty as anyone of having little time to spare, and it seems that we have so many things in our lives which steal the time we would use to connect with each other in a meaningful way.

Maybe it is an effort to make time for friends, but maybe it's important that we do it.  We have so much technology devoted to communication now, and yet people arguably feel more lonely than ever.  Communication through an earpiece or screen seems to have replaced communicating in person, and it is a poor substitute.

Technology has shortened our attention span and, far from making our lives easier, as promised, we live in a world where more is expected from us, where our time has become a commodity to be bought and sold.

If someone takes the time to sit with me, tell me how their day has been and what is happening in their life right now, I'm happy.

Our lives are busy but, if we don't have time to spend with friends and loved ones, what exactly are we working for?  More things?  Will that make us happy?

Improvisation in a martial arts class

It was, on the face of it, a simple sequence.  A straight punch was to be met by a bil sau (knife hand block in some other arts) to the outer gate, which would flow into a double lap sau (arm drag).  To keep us on our toes, our training partner would occasionally throw a hook, which would be met with the standard bil sau and punch on the inner gate.  All very simple.

I stopped the straight punches with a bil sau and performed a double lap sau, repeatedly.  My training partner then threw his hook punch, and I checked this with a pak sau (slapping/pinning block) and punch.  I realised that I had strayed from the drill and we started again.  I played the role of attacker, and my punches were met with a bil sau and double lap sau.  My hook punch was checked with a bil sau and punch, as planned.  Again, it was my turn to defend and counter, and again I checked the hook with a pak sau.  I happened again, and again, and again.

I managed to do the drill correctly, intermittently, but it took a lot of conscious effort.  I questioned why I was straying from the sequence, especially as it seems to be happening on a regular basis.

Reasonable adjustments

It's a great source of pride that the other students forget I am ill, or disabled, or whatever the politically correct term is right now.  I would say a large part of that, and a reason why I sometimes struggle to pick things up, is that I have been adapting what I learn to my specific needs.  The time I spend in solo practice, and the effect that training so much with weapons has had on my spacial awareness and coordination, have helped enormously with this.

Earlier in the class, we had a sequence where punches aimed at the head were punctuated with random blows to the abdomen.  I was happy about this, because my defence against low blows is not my strongest point.  The low gaan sau which was meant to stop the low blows was soon replaced with a jum sau.  This goes a long way towards confirming my suspicions, because a gaan sau performed with my left arm is structurally much weaker than one performed with my right.  The jum sau often requires a step back, though.

Abnormal reactions

It has been said that my reactions to an attack are not what would usually be expected.  When pulled by the double lap sau, I noticed that I was going into a semi squat, as used in some more traditional styles of kung fu.  I have no idea why I was doing this, because it meant that I was essentially in a bowed position when I had to follow up.  There must be some way I can use this to my advantage.  I don't know where it came from, but that's true of the other strange things I do sometimes.

Losing momentum

In the class, there is one other student with the same grade as I am.  There were three of us, but the third seems to have developed a preference for private tuition.  Between the two of us that remain, there is a consensus that this is the time when it is difficult to remain motivated.

I understand this.  Wing chun is not a competition sport, it is a method of unarmed combat.  The first issue is that you are developing skills which you hope will never be needed.  Furthermore, something which becomes clear, especially when training the third empty hand form, is that some of what you learn could not be regarded as reasonable force under any circumstances.

Given the restrictions of the law, at least in the UK, maybe boxing is the most realistic form of self protection for a civilian.  Away from the CCTV cameras, and potential witnesses, maybe it's a different story.  In the end, it is unlikely that the modern world is going to adapt to traditional martial arts, so the traditional martial arts must adapt to the modern world.  If you add in the fact that most of these arts come from cultures which are very different to the western world, you start to see that there are added difficulties.  The basic philosophy of Filipino martial arts, for example, is that weapons should be used, if available.  Any objects within the immediate environment, and the environment itself, is to be seen as a weapon.  From a legal standpoint, this is shaky ground, to say the least.

I don't want to fight

If I'm accused of spilling someone's pint, or looking at their date or significant other, my standard response is that I don't want to fight.  It's true.  Even as I am expecting that my words will not be taken on board by the knuckle dragger who feels he has something to prove, I'm hoping that the anger will dissipate and the situation will be resolved without bloodshed.  On one occasion, I explained my stance very clearly.  Pointing out that everyone's night would be ruined by one of us leaving in a police car, and the other in an ambulance, without saying which was more likely for either of us, it appeared that the potential consequences of his actions became apparent to him, and my would be adversary shook my hand and said that I was a good man.  Yes, I found it weird too.

On another occasion, a friend and I were joined by someone we both know vaguely.  He went into great detail about all the fights, real or imagined, in which he had been involved.  If his stories were true, then many people have been injured by a fist, a boot or a head butt from him.  I listened to his stories until he asked what I thought of him, whether I considered him to be a tough guy or a hooligan.  I replied that I prefer not to make such judgements about people, but that fighting should be avoided if there is any other way of avoiding a situation.

After a few more pints of fermented hops and barley, my friend had to drain some of the fluid from his system, so he staggered off to the toilets.  Hmm.  It's funny how you don't realise that you've had a little too much to drink until you stand.  Sorry, I went off on a tangent there.  Left alone with me, the young man who had been so eager to tell tales of his fighting ability said that he'd been thinking about what I had said, and he didn't like to fight but, for him, it seemed to be unavoidable.  He said that he supposed he just had one of those faces people like to punch.

I said nothing for a moment, aware that the situation could still turn.  I said to him that, if people have learned to expect you to throw rocks at them, they too will pick up rocks whenever they catch sight of you.  He nodded.  He understood.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Mindfulness, explained as simply as possible

If you spend vast amounts of time, each day, worrying about the future or the past, you are not fully aware of the present, and it is gone before you know it.  Focus all of your attention on what you are doing right now, and there is no room for anxiety about the future of concerns about the past.  That's mindfulness.

Strange, isn't it?  You didn't read a book which ran to hundreds of pages, or pay large amounts of money for a personal course, and yet you now understand mindfulness.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Dealing with multiple attackers

Sometimes, I see a self defence video which is so misguided that it is actually dangerous.  Usually, I stumble across these, and that was the case with a video where the viewer is advised on how to deal with an attack from three men.

I didn't feel compelled to watch any more videos from the same channel.  Maybe the guy featured knows what he is talking about under other circumstances but, if he uses the displayed method against three guys like this, he's probably finished.  Making people believe that this will work is downright irresponsible.

In this situation, you are outnumbered.  The punches, and probably kicks, will come at you without warning, from multiple angles.  You are going to get hit.  In the video, there are no obvious weapons to be had in the immediate environment.  If there was a fire extinguisher, broom or any other object that could conceivably be used as a weapon, it should be used.  I'm assuming that he is wearing a belt, so that might be used as a weapon under these circumstances.

Empty handed?  All is not lost.  At this range, your ability to use your elbows will come into play.  With the adrenaline flowing, the wall of bone that is your elbow will hit like a sledgehammer.  Use it.  Hit anything that is in front of you.  If you catch a fist with your elbow, they're not punching with that hand for a while.  Also, think about immobilising at least one of your attackers by taking out their knee or kicking their leg so hard that it no longer works.  However you break through the wall of attackers, break through it and run.  That's the one thing he got right.  Run.  Run as fast as you possibly can.

Edit: I forgot to mention the most important point.  No one can guarantee that you will escape a confrontation with one opponent.  No one.  With multiple opponents, a guarantee that you will escape is even more useless.  Avoid getting into such a situation, if it is at all possible.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Stress, how to deal with it, and what I learned about it through martial arts

Divorce, moving house and the death of a loved one, not necessarily in that order, are thought to be the most stressful things that can happen to us.  What about smaller stresses, though?  The confrontation with the driver of the other car, the argument with your loved one and problems at work, make up just a part of your day.  Surely their effect on our stress levels will be minimal?

The small stresses can be much worse, in a way.  We may be unaware of the cumulative effect of the many minor issues which face us each day, and yet we find ourselves irritable or easily upset by things which, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn't matter.  These are the emotional indicators of accumulated stress.

Anyone who has a career or hobby that requires an awareness of their body - a dancer, for example - will develop that awareness.  I have no doubt that those who attend yoga or pilates classes will be similarly attuned to external and internal physiological cues.  I hesitate to mention martial arts, but let's accept that martial artists are similarly concerned with movement, and will necessarily be in tune with their physiology to some extent.

Every Thursday, I would attend the jujitsu class.  The twenty five mile journey to the leisure centre, mostly on unlit country roads, had a meditative quality.  Nevertheless, the stresses of the day, or indeed the week, were still there when I arrived at the class.  I was dimly aware of the effects of the stress, though I didn't pay it much attention.  The nature of the jujitsu class made it possible for me, if I was wound tightly enough, to become an immovable object or simply overpower a training partner.  I was using stress to my advantage.  At the end of the class, I was wound considerably less tight, but the process of accumulating emotional tension, until I could get back to the class the following week, would start all over again.

Eventually, the strain told.  I started to realise that the way I felt after each jujitsu class should be my default mode, rather than feeling constantly uptight.  I started to learn methods of stress relief, and came to the conclusion that slowing down, meditating and practising mindfulness were particularly effective.

Through jujitsu, I learned that physical exertion is also key to reducing stress.  The fight or flight response, often mentioned in connection with heightened anxiety, is not always appropriate.  Trouble at work, for example, must not be resolved by attacking a colleague or running from the building.  The stress hormones - adrenaline, cortisol, homocysteine and others - prepare us for those reactions, and regular exercise is a more acceptable way to reduce their effects.

I sometimes don't spend as much time managing my stress levels as I should, or I've had a particularly difficult day or week.  Wing chun is somewhat different from jujitsu, and is made much more difficult by the presence of tension.  By the time I recognise the signs, however, I am already taking part in the class.  The first sign is that even novices are able to take pot shots at me.  As the class draws on, I realise that my thinking has become clouded, and I'm not really able to take in much of anything that is said.  In the worst cases, as happened this week, my difficulty with being in a room with more than about three other people makes an unwelcome return.

Apologies if I sound too much like a psychology student, but I have, unfortunately, attained a programmed conditioned response to martial arts classes, especially when being tested in that environment, and that response is muscular tension.

Given that I usually arrive early at the class, it is possible for me to do some chi kung, yoga or even meditation before the class begins.  I remember that one of the older students in the class used to do tai chi before the class began, and I understand that now.  Hopefully, I can be more effective, and more consistent, in the future.

Thought(s) of the day

It's approaching midnight, and will be a new day when I've finished writing this.  The day which has just ended has left me with some thoughts, which I must process before I sleep, or sleep will be painfully slow in coming.

Listening to jazz

As I write, I'm listening to BBC Radio 2.  Apparently this is the most popular radio station in the UK.  At this time of night, on a Sunday, it is jazz music that is playing.  Through my old (but good) hi fi system, I'm actually enjoying listening to jazz.  I identify myself as a fan of indie music, so this development is a surprise, but hopefully not a sign that my musical taste is softening as I age.

I expect it's a continuation of what happened when I was a child, listening to my personal radio through headphones, under the covers before I slept.  The local radio station played a mixture of the electro music that was around at the time and the synthesizer-based soul music that was also around at the time.  As time wore on, the music became increasingly avant garde.  I now know that the things to which we listen, or which we read, before going to sleep have quite an effect on our brains.  To this day, I seek out late night radio shows that play music they wouldn't play during the day.

Maybe I have a romantic notion of late night jazz clubs, coming from the days (or rather, nights) when I suffered terribly with insomnia.


I've been having a rethink about karate recently.  My earliest experience of practising martial arts was, of course, judo, but my earliest experience of a martial art which involved hitting people was karate.  I've noticed a tendency to want to move in and out of range when doing wing chun, and I can trace it back to how I practised (and made personal adaptations to) karate.

I've been reading a lot about the basic philosophy behind wing chun, and it's clear that the Ch'an Buddhism of China is different from the Zen Buddhism of Japan, though one developed from the other.  I think that systems of thought, and certainly systems of combat, are affected by the culture in which they are practised.  Karate has been in Britain for quite some time now, so I would argue that is has become, in this country, the British version of a Japanese martial art.  The Karate Union of Great Britain's split from the Japan Karate Association makes this possibility even more likely.  Jujitsu, having had over a century of development within Britain, has become even more separated from its Japanese origins.

It's well known that modern arnis borrows a lot of its empty hand syllabus from Japanese martial arts.  Filipinos are known for taking what they like most about other cultures, adapting and making it uniquely Filipino in the process, and this extends to their combat arts.  I would say they had good reasons for integrating Japanese martial arts into their own, and this, combined with what I have said already, is making me look at karate with more interest.

Buying technology for your mother 

I honestly thought I was doing the right thing.  My mother has told me, on many occasions, that her mobile phone is not easy for her to use.  Recently, she has somehow turned off the phone's call logging features, so she has no idea whose calls she might have missed.  I listened to what she wanted: a basic phone, easy to make calls and send text messages from, with a touch screen.  I reasoned that the Motorola Moto E would be perfect, because it has a mostly standard version of Android installed.

The first issue was that her old phone uses a standard SIM, and the new one a micro SIM.  When that problem was dealt with, it became apparent that adjusting to the user interface of a new phone is not easy for her, that her old phone was capable of displaying text messages in a larger font, and that, ultimately, buying a phone for my mother may have been a mistake.

Still, my fiancée has noted that her iPhone may soon need replacing, so maybe the Moto E will find a new owner, should my mother decide that it isn't for her.