Self-defence Reviewed: Applications vs. Techniques

Street Fight

In previous entries to this blog we have looked at the non-technical components for effective Tai Chi self defence.

In Self Defence before the fight we discussed several types of violence, ways of avoidance, and what you have to do when violence becomes inevitable.

We then went on to....

The Four Intangibles which are the psychic elements:

  1. Character and Poise: Cultivate within yourself an inner quietness that is balanced and controlled.

  2. Awareness: Develop an enhanced awareness of your environment and those around you. Do not anticipate hostile action, but also do not be surprised by it.

  3. Will: Cultivate within yourself a quality of resolution and a sense of your own power. Be willing to exert it to the utmost in defense of yourself or those you wish to protect.

  4. Mobility: Be able to move! In a conflict situation move your feet! It may seem physical and simple, but what's really involved is a degree of mental freedom and non-fixity.

Next came....

The Four Tangibles which consist of physical principles:

  1. Central Ground: You must be grounded and centered.

  2. Proximity: Nearness. One advances. One never avoids an energetic connection.

  3. Connection: Based upon Proximity, one establishes contact with the opponent and retains it until the interaction is brought to a successful conclusion.

  4. Circling: Cultivate the ability to turn while maintaining the connection and exerting a degree of control. In addition to the above, this is the essential ingredient of silk reeling.

A Review now follows to expand on the martial arts context for our system.

Randall Templeton, one of our Associate Instructors, writes:

1. In fights we typically see in sport and movies are choreographed games of tag. It is true that practiced fighters can jump in and strike, then jump back out of danger, but this is not generally practical.

2. Avoid complex movement; it is too difficult under high adrenaline conditions.

3. It is more important to avoid being hurt by big blows or falls than it is to avoid minor strikes or to score minor strikes against your opponent.

Saloon Fight

In other words, this ain’t the movies! We must avoid complexity and focus on essentials. The primary essential is coping with change. Peter Reist, another of our Associate Instructor points out that self defence is essentially a matter of responding to change in such a way as to avoid injury, and that this idea extends beyond the purely physical.

Any martial arts training-sequence can be regarded as a pantomime of combat and a library of technique. But one eminent master has said that Tai Chi has no techniques, just applications. This remark has caused much confusion. Wu Kung Cho’s reason for saying this was that a technique is basically a method of manipulating the opponent; it has a finite beginning and a finite end. Techniques are discrete elements like wrist-locking, joint manipulation, counter-punching combinations, etc. All of these things have a self-contained quality and are usually rehearsed over-and-over in two person technical drills which are very stylized. They have a self-contained quality of complexity and they are sometimes used in training in an extremely artificial way that superficially has little to do with free combat. This is often a point made by those who criticize classical training methods for being overly compliant and excessively choreographed. This said, at more senior levels the student is instructed to ‘put water’ into the technique, to let it flow more.

This sort of training constitutes the classical technical foundation of many martial arts. Additional methods are added with each new level of skill so that with seniority the practitioner has a greater and greater number of techniques to choose from in any martial situation. In essence, his or her decision-tree becomes elaborated by the library of techniques subject to their recall.

Very few Tai Chi practitioners train this way. Most simply practise the Tai Chi form, understanding it as a pantomime of combat -- but often with no clear understanding of how their form technically relates to actual self-defence. This is why, as a teacher, I attempt to teach every movement by showing a variety of its combative applications. Techniques tend to be specific to the achievement of certain ends. But Tai Chi teaches movement principles according to which what looks like a technique may have as many as ten applications or ends. Which method arises depends, not upon any decision tree of the practitioner, but upon what precisely the opponent does. The opponent’s actions give rise to certain stimuli to which the Tai Chi practitioner responds spontaneously. There are no decisions involved.

Ideally, what arises from this process is movement that is balanced, grounded, powerful and very, very fast. This is the kind of response that Bruce Lee, who had studied Wu-style Taijiquan but rejected most classical methods, described when interviewed in Hollywood by Pierre Berton.

Pierre Berton interviewing Bruce Lee

Berton asked Lee how he would defend himself against an accusation of excessive violence were he to seriously injure an attacker. Bruce Lee responded that he would simply have to tell the judge that, when attacked, “It happened”. In essence, what happened was a manifestation of The Dao.

This is the path of high-level Kung Fu. It is common to many martial arts. It is also why real Tai Chi is probably not suitable for free-sparring since so many of its applications are injurious. This sentiment is shared by some senior masters of other martial arts such as classical Okinawan Karate-do.

In essence, the Tai Chi form trains one in how to occupy space, move efficiently, and to demonstrate qualities of balance, poise and flow. This is because, while classical techniques such as those described above are contained as stylized movements within the form, the form’s essence is directed to short-circuiting the entire decision-tree process. Instead of focusing on martial techniques, one is training in how to move, turn, maintain balance, etc., so as to respond to the stimuli presented by the aggressor. Once again, while I am focusing on Taijiquan, this approach is shared by other martial traditions.

The problem is that, devoid of a technical foundation or the framework that has been provided in the Four Intangibles and Four Tangibles approach, there is little reason to assume that repeated practice of the Tai Chi form will magically result in practical defensive skills. This has been the “why?” for this series of articles.

Applications are the outcomes of a continuum of flowing movements. They involve balance, weight-shifting, nearness, connection, turning, and so forth. In a sense, they involve the control of one’s own body in order to influence another’s. They also rely upon sensitivity of touch, the ability to perceive and instantly respond to nuances of the opponent’s movement and intentions.

This said - there are certain little methods which, while not involving the self-contained manipulative complexity of classical techniques, are key to being able to apply applications effectively. These methods apply the principles reviewed to this point. They are geared toward either disposing of the opponent or to placing him at a great disadvantage.

Four Key methods of this kind will be the subject of our next article.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts