I have been asked this question many times over the years, in different ways. This morning I received an email and it was worded this way (the email is italicized):
In a real fight, do the 3 internal arts cause you to freeze from too many options?
Firstly, I enjoy your site. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.
Each of 3 internal arts approaches the problem of self-defence in a different way. By learning all 3 arts does this promote a confusion in response to an attack- a mental freeze caused by having too many options.
I would imagine that the response would be determined by which response has been imprinted on "muscle memory" the most. If this is the case then does learning all 3 arts inhibit a quick response or at least not help.
On the other hand do all 3 arts feed off each other in some way which helps each one to improve? How do all 3 internal arts work together? Are they independent responses or interdependent?
Or do all 3 arts combine in a unique way in each individual so that in a self defence situation the response is tailor made by the individual for the individual as determined by the situation?
Here is my reply to this excellent question:
There are similar principles at work in each of the arts, even though the "image" of each art is a bit different. Hsing-I is direct, and blasts through an opponent. Chen Taiji is like a rubber ball that gives a little with incoming force and then counters. Bagua catches an attack like a wire ball and spins it out in unexpected directions.
In each art, there are unique ways of movement but there are also many similarities. Silk-reeling and spiraling in both Chen and Bagua (also in Hsing-I but not stressed as much). Most of the fighting applications in one art can be found in the other. The concept of "splitting palm" for example.
I am often asked, "If you were in a fight, would you respond to an attack with Tai Chi, Bagua, or Hsing-I?"
It's sort of funny, because I am 60 and haven't been in a real fight since I was 18 and punched out a bully who had been after me with a group of guys for 5 years. I never had a brain freeze, and I was actually in a lot of fights growing up. Bullies tended to target me.
I started martial arts at age 20, and in the 40 years since, I have avoided several fights by centering myself and diffusing some potentially violent situations, which is the "real" skill. I have confined my "fighting" to tournaments and in class instead of real life, where, as an adult, it can be physically, legally, and economically disastrous.
But fighting is a possibility if you run into the wrong person at the wrong time. I have trained people who have had to use it in real life, including a 15-year old whose drunk step-father grabbed him and was going to punch him, but the kid used the chinna I teach to break his step-father's elbow and sent him to the hospital. I don't believe the step-father ever attacked him again. Another student, a cop, used Hsing-I twice to take down different criminals. Neither of them were "frozen" in those situations. They did what came naturally after a lot of practice. They met the situation with what worked at the time.
And that's when practicing fighting principles and applications and developing the ability to see openings and opportunities really can help. You learn to adapt and flow from one situation to another. The person doing the attacking won't necessarily be my target. I would want him to punch at me, push or kick at me, or come in to grapple, because I want his elbow and knee, and I want to get him off-balance and control his center.
We practice close-up "fighting" and look for chinna opportunities, or deflecting and striking opportunities. We want to break our opponent and put them on the ground. It isn't scripted like a one-step exercise, and the unscripted nature of some of our practice helps you respond to the moment with the right principle. It isn't about memorizing techniques as much as it is the principle of movement, and the goal of uprooting, unbalancing, and controlling the center.
A real-life attack calls for overwhelming force. If you are threatened by an adult, it's a serious situation that could result in physical damage or worse. If there was no way out, my tendency would be to drive through him. But that would change depending on the situation. None of us are superhuman, and if someone suddenly launches an overwhelming attack, we depend on our ability to be cool under pressure to regroup mentally and respond because of our training. Duck and cover, then respond.
More than likely, an attack would come after a request for something (robbery) or "the Monkey Dance," with the attacker threatening and doing the rituals that human beings and other primates do before they attack. A lot of us have experienced someone who goes into The Monkey Dance. This, of course, gives the trained martial artist an advantage (and you can see many examples of this on YouTube where the martial artist decks the attacker when the Monkey Dance escalates to actual violence).
What we do in taking the forms and techniques into a sparring or fight scenario (or push hands) is to get accustomed to different attacks and the principles you use to respond -- not "if he does this you do that" type of thing. So you are responding more to the situation and your opponent's force ("energy") than you are whether he is punching or kicking.
Take a look at the videos on the website (in the Internal Strength section, the Bagua Fighting Skills section and throughout the Tai Chi section) about "controlling the center." That's a very important concept. Unbalancing the opponent, uprooting, and controlling the center are concepts that can come in handy in a lot of different ways.
Now, with all this being said, I have to tell you that I never "expect" to get into a fight again. So my training focus has changed. I love to explore the fighting applications of movements, and how "energy" is perceived and overcome. I know how to fight and don't worry so much about whether I can defend myself or not (part of the confidence that builds over time). But one thing I continue to carry on from the influence Bruce Lee had on me -- I throw out techniques that are more fantasy than reality. I toss them in the trash if there is no chance they will work against a motivated attacker. And that always has to be in your mind as you practice.
When I was growing up and being picked on by bullies, my mind never froze during a fight because I was trying to figure out the best way to respond. I simply responded. Perhaps I was a bit different than some guys. I always tried to avoid a fight, but once it started, even when the bully was larger and older, I loved it. To me, it was an adrenalin rush, walking the wire without a net, the ultimate sports competition, and sometimes the smarter guy won (me) instead of the tougher guy.
I don't think learning martial arts -- even three arts -- should cause you to freeze. The ability to defend yourself instead of freezing during an attack is sometimes a natural ability, but for others, such as my 15-year old student who used a chinna technique against his drunk attacker, it might require a deep understanding ("internalizing") of principles and body mechanics that evolves by practicing -- over and over again -- good techniques and concepts that adapt from one situation to another.