Self-Defence before the fight....

Blog Installment #9: Self-Defence.

I first took up the study of Tai Chi in the mid-80’s as a therapy to help me recover from a serious leg injury I had suffered in Jujitsu. The organization I learned it from actively discouraged experimentation with the art’s combative side. What finally triggered my departure was when a woman who was support- staff in the agency where I was working was the victim of an assault. What she went through was bizarrely horrific. It prompted me to start my own club in which I would be able to teach the self-defence aspect of the art without hindrance.

That was thirty years ago. I’ve learned a lot since then. Three facts that I have learned are:

1. Martial Arts and Self-Defence are two different things. I have gone into some detail about the related subject of martial arts philosophy in my last newsletter. What I am saying here is that it is a mistake to think that training in physical martial techniques prepares one for self-defence. It may help, but the essence of effective self-defence has more to do with our day-to-day behaviour and our mental stance. These are the essentials without which self-defence becomes tricky.

2. Most Tai Chiists are not interested in self-defence. Most practitioners are after the benefits explored in my last newsletter: stress-relief, better health, a sense of spiritual centeredness, etc. In fact many Tai Chi enthusiasts regard the self-defence component with active distaste. This is because consideration of self-defence requires consideration of the subject of violence and our personal vulnerabily to it. It also means that we have to look at our own capacity to inflict injury upon another human being. This is not nice stuff.

3. Effective self-defence has nothing to do with what you see in the movies.

“Violence” can be defined in terms of race, sociology, sexual relations and political or economic oppression. What we are looking at in this article is defence against physical violence directed either at you or another you seek to protect.

Studies generally show that in almost 50% of cases of physical assault the assailant is already known to the victim. In cases of sexual assault the figure is 80%. The assailant may be a spouse, friend, relation or family member, colleague at work, friend of a friend, casual acquaintance, an intimate…or a stranger. It can happen at work, at a family gathering, a social event, in a pub, at a meeting, on the street, in your home…. You may be targeted because of your gender, stature, age, perceived economic status, perceived vulnerability, as well as many other factors.

Two types of violence are 1. Status violence and 2. Predatory violence.

Status violence involves someone attempting to assert and exert illegal and harmful control, authority or superiority over you in a physically injurious way. (Note that in civil society there are agents such as the police who have been given the legal authority in some situations to exert control over your actions, and that non-compliance with the force these agents may see fit to constitutionally apply is a legal offence.)

Predatory violence occurs in situations where you are being assessed and stalked as potential prey by a predator. This person may be a stranger or someone well-known to you. The stalker or predator often “interviews” his/her potential victim. The objective is to assess potential vulnerability. The “ interview” is a preliminary interaction designed to assess whether you are likely to offer effective resistance. Often the stalker seeks to inspire a degree of compliance on your part. If you, when touched or treated improperly, fail to confront or effectively deal with the situation, you may have identified yourself as a target. If you seek to disarm an uncomfortable situation or if you try to avoid unpleasantness by accepting blame for a “misunderstanding” - this is what the predator is looking for.


1. Avoid situations which may lead to problems. There may be some people you do not wish to be alone in a room with; beware of them. There may be certain settings, pubs etc., which are risky; do not go into them. There may be friends or acquaintances who draw you into risky settings or activities; identify them and mindfully withdraw from their company as needed.

2. Moderate your habits and behaviour as necessary. Avoid public intoxication in settings where you may be taken advantage of. Do not frequent dark places or places where others may behave poorly. Avoid sketchy social situations. When an instinctive alarm bell goes off inside you, listen to it!

3. Be aware of your surroundings and of things / persons who are potential risks. Listen to your surroundings. When on the street look in windows to check out who is behind you. Be aware of who is standing in doorways in front of you. Avoid people who are behaving oddly; they may be suffering from impaired judgement.

All of this is not paranoia but simply enhanced awareness. In the words of Confucius, “Do not anticipate evil from others, but be prepared for it.”

Evasion and escape are always better than physical violence. If someone seeks to get you alone, seek out the company of others and, if need be, let them know the situation. Don’t be afraid to cross the street to avoid something. If you are uncomfortable in one setting, go into another and seek out the company of others.

Mental preparation and attitude is necessary, otherwise no physical self-defence will be effective. If you are unwilling to assert yourself or incapable of self-assertion you may be victimized. You must cultivate a strong sense of centre in both physical and psychic terms and be prepared to defend that centre.

One method you can use is to have verbal formulas that trigger your awareness and self-defence instincts. These are self-triggers. One might be, “Are you checking me out?” Another might be simply, “I don’t appreciate that!” The predator’s preliminary act might be touching you inappropriately or trying to isolate you from a group or making a suggestive or off-colour remark; these are methods of judging your vulnerability. When in doubt, say your formula and from that point on be aware that the situation is possibly nasty and you need to be on your guard.

Another on the street might be “What’s up, Buddy?, accompanied by activation of your physical readiness responses. This can throw someone off when they are trying to momentarily disarm you prior to an assault by doing something superficially innocuous but situationally inappropriate - like approaching you and asking for the time when you are at the gas pump or the ATM. When you respond in this way you are also acknowledging to yourself that you are ready to fight. Be aware that a moment of inattention, such as a glance at your watch, may present the predator with an opening for an attack.

You must be tough, you must be prepared to inflict hurt and accept it. Our approach is conditioned by Tai Chi Chuan training. Tai Chi is an aggressive martial art. Escape and evasion are not fundamental Tai Chi values. If you have actually gotten to the point where physical violence is imminent, even thinking of escape or evasion is a hindrance. To go from an evasion mind-set to inflicting harm upon another human being requires a changing of gears that few are capable of. So once the first move is made you must be strong and be prepared to go right through that other person. Whatever damage they take from smashing themselves against a mountain is their own responsibility. You are the mountain. You are the Tiger. In that moment you are not prey, but predator.

The actual encounter should not be a fight or an exchange of blows. It should last no more than ten seconds. Simply seeking to discourage an assailant won’t do and may be very dangerous to your continued well-being. An attacker in the act is under the influence of chemicals such as adrenalin. He / she will probably be excited and will not necessarily be susceptible to either reason or pain. Your objective is to immediately render the attacker physically incapable of causing you harm.

This will probably not be achieved by applying a single technique; you should count on applying three and they must be forceful and effective. In this context, what constitutes excessive violence is something which may have to be sorted out later in court. In the instant, do what is needful with complete commitment, focus and power. Once the objective has been achieved, go no further.


One of the most effective ways to avoid being victimized by an assailant is simply to practice martial arts. Practice of the martial arts imparts a presence and poise which is quietly strong and off-putting to those who seek to prey upon vulnerability. Training will positively affect your balance, poise, coordination and sense of self. It will quietly strengthen your character and self-assurance.

It will also enhance the quality of your life by improving your health, and by enhancing your awareness and appreciation of the environment you inhabit, the beautiful world around you.

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