Self defence (3)
Tai chi syllabus

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What would you do if...?

A common question asked by beginners is "What would you do if..."  They suggest a variety of scenarios in which you are attacked and expected to counter. How do you counter a kick?
What about this hold? Can you deal with a headbutt? Will it work if the attacker has a knife?
 They are wanting a fixed answer. Herein lies the problem. Self defence is anything but fixed.
There are no guarantees. No security. Also, what the student is missing is the fact that what the master can do is unimportant. What matters more is what they (the student) would do.

Technique-based mentality

Preset, rehearsed self defence techniques don't work in real life. They're too clunky. Preset techniques lack spontaneity. They cannot cope with unpredictability and variables.
Another problem lies with thinking, gauging, trying to remember the right thing to do... This will not work in combat. You need to learn how to just flow with what it taking place.

Don't think. Just move...

Whether an application works or not depends entirely upon whether it is the right thing to do at the time. If you think about what to do, it is already too late.
After practising form applications, partner work and drills, the student must forget everything in the face of an attack and just move. The body will know what to do.

Tips & pointers

The problem with learning self defence tips & pointers is the question of what you can actually pull off when faced with a genuine threat.
In all fairness most people will go to pieces (panic) and have no real skill whatsoever.
A self defence course that teaches tips & pointers usually gives the individual a bloated sense of confidence but no functional skills.


Combat never goes as planned. Real skill takes time to acquire and there are no shortcuts. Martial artists train for years to handle a knife attack and still cannot guarantee a favourable outcome.

When asked how he overcame his opponents, Hadrat Ali explained,
"I never met any man who did not help me against himself."

(Hadrat Ali)

Tai chi habit patterns

If you are taught to move a certain way and respond a certain way, there is a higher likelihood of your body doing something useful.
Under pressure you cannot rely upon your memory to save you; there simply will not be time to think. You must respond. In reality, what comes out comes out.

Nervous system needs time

Self defence is all about appropriate response, and your body cannot respond well if it is unaccustomed to being attacked.
Your training must encourage you to move freely and naturally, following the needs of the situation and your natural inclinations.
If your inclinations are to panic and tense-up, then you are still a novice and need to be seasoned and calm. This takes time. You must be conditioned to respond differently.


When an untutored body responds to real danger, it adopts an instinctive posture of defence.
Our school practices tai chi in a manner that encourages the body to stop being afraid, re-shape habit and respond more constructively.
We pay particular attention to the biomechanics required to produce each desired movement.
You are attacked and you respond. Your habitual response has been re-shaped by the tai chi.

Make contact

All strikes in our classes are required to make contact and have body weight behind them. Otherwise, bad habits develop. Touch contact is not permitted. Every strike must land and have substance.
Students learn to control the degree of power exerted. Restraint is vital.


You cannot hide behind your image when training self defence. What you think does not matter. All that matters is what you can do. How you can cope.
If you are afraid of being hit, of being hurt, then this will hamper you. You will be placed in a compromising situation and required to free yourself effectively.
This kind of challenge will cause you to re-evaluate your training and your attitude.


Fear is the biggest demon to face during self defence work. People are reluctant to face up to their own fear, their own vulnerability, their anxiety. We are all human. We all feel pain.
We all can be injured. We will all die some day. Despite freeform self defence being relatively safe, students panic, struggle and fail repeatedly.
Our syllabus is designed to help you work through your difficulties, and your fears and doubts. We train you to cope.

Real life

What will happen in real life? Who can say? Probably nothing, maybe something.
Our aim is to increase the intensity of unrehearsed combat throughout the syllabus until you reach a stage where the attacker(s) are coming in at full speed with full power and the defender is nonplussed.
This is the best preparation for real life combat we can offer.


Appropriateness is a major concern in self defence. You must take into account:

The situation
Your surroundings
The degree of threat
Multiple opponents
Your own capabilities
The potential legal ramifications

The rabbit and the fox

This excellent self defence story comes from Zen in the Martial Arts:

A zen master out for a walk with one of his students pointed out a fox chasing a rabbit.

"According to an ancient fable, the rabbit will get away from the fox," the master said.

  "Not so," replied the student. "The fox is faster."

"But the rabbit will elude him," insisted the master.

"Why are you so certain?" asked the student.

"Because the fox is running for his dinner and the rabbit is running for his life," answered the master.

(Joe Hyams)

Experienced martial artists

The idea of 'self defence' for an expert martial artist is not appealing. It sounds like fighting with a hand tied behind your back. Virtually everything you know is way too serious for self defence.
The traditional aim was typically to maim the opponent. This is not appropriate for self defence.

Inexperienced martial artists

An inexperienced martial artist is in the opposite situation to an expert.
With a very limited repertoire of skill, their main concern is how to pull off any of their skills well enough to protect themselves in real life.
Most of their training has been in a safe, controlled training environment. When faced with real danger, what can they do? Mistakes in the street might cost you your life.


Most people are not capable of defending themselves, their loved ones or their belongings. This is a disturbing fact.
Although society still offers the same dangers it always has, the general public's attitude towards personal protection has changed.
People are unable to protect themselves yet imagine that a cocky 'attitude' and a big mouth will work against a real life assailant.

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Page created 25 August 1994
Last updated 16 June 2023