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Real Martial Arts and Violence on "The Street" -- What Are We Training For?

In 1973, I enrolled in my first martial arts class because I wanted to learn to defend myself even better than I already could. Growing up, I was frequently picked on by older, bigger bullies. Although I never lost a fight, by age 20 I felt that if I could defend myself even better, it would be a good thing.

I did not realize that I had already been in my last fight two years before this. I have not been in a fight now since 1971, and that was a very short fight against a bully who backed down after he was hit in the nose a couple of times.

During the past 40 years, I have practiced, trained, and repeated techniques thousands of times. I have won dozens of tournament matches against black belts. I have learned to watch quickly for weaknesses and counter effectively.

Young men talk about how unrealistic the traditional martial arts are compared with MMA or grappling. If you are going to study a real martial art, they seem to believe, you have to "get real."

It just is not true. It is not really possible to get as ugly and unpredictable in a training situation as a violent encounter on the street, in a jail, or in the workplace. Remember, even tough MMA guys are often put down with one good punch or kick.

I have put a video on this post to illustrate how real violence works. It is brutal, a little shocking, but it is a video that all martial artists need to see. Some of these people had plenty of warning that violence might occur. Some of them had no warning.

When practicing martial arts, regardless of style, there is much more involved than simply the practice of form and technique. You must also train the mind to be aware of your surroundings, and you must train yourself to remain calm under stress. One way to do that is to spar. Another way to do that is to practice stressful scenarios when you are attacked without warning.

Another important method of training is to practice awareness when you are out in public. Who is around you? How are they behaving? Is there the potential for danger? If so, leave the area. Or better yet, don't put yourself in the area to begin with.

This is not training you can master in a dojo or kwoon. You must practice mental awareness and preparedness on your own. Practicing and training with partners is one important step, but being mentally alert and prepared at all times is the real training, and only you can do that -- no teacher can do it for you. 


A Conversation with a Prospective Martial Arts Student

Logo-IFA-2014-275“How long does it take to get a black belt?” asked the prospective student.

“Five seconds,” said the teacher.


“Yes. All I have to do is hand it to you. But it takes much longer to earn one.”

"Maybe I can earn it faster than most people."

"Well, we don't do black belts. We do sashes, and a black sash doesn't mean very much, really. We only have those because in America, people seem to need it. A black sash doesn't really mean anything."

"It means you are deadly," the student said.

The teacher laughed. "No. It means you have just begun to learn. There are a lot of black belts who know very little and can do even less."

“Oh. Well, I want to be able to use Taiji to fight.”


The student asked, “If I am in a bar and get attacked, will I be able to use Taiji to fight?”

“You can use Taiji to stay away from a bar where fighting may occur,” said the teacher.

“Have you ever had to use Taiji in a fight?”


“How about Bagua or Xingyi?”

“No. I have not been in a real fight since I was 18.”

“Why not?”

“I grew up,” said the teacher.

“So what would you do if someone attacked you on the street?” asked the student.

“I would get off the street.”

“If a big guy sucker punched you without a warning, what would you do?”

“I would probably get hit.”

“Would you be able to take him out with one punch?”

“Probably. And he could do the same to me. When grownups fight, it is very dangerous. You have heard of hospitals and lawsuits, haven't you?”

“Seriously. What would you do? Would you use Taiji or Bagua or Xingyi to take him out? Which one would you use?”

“If I am ever unfortunate enough to be in that situation, my response would depend upon the attack. The last thing on my mind would be to justify an art.”

"Would you break his arm?"

"Not if I could avoid it."

The young man was confused. "But how can I be the best fighter I can be?"

"By mastering yourself," said the teacher. "You believe that studying a martial art is about learning to fight."

"Isn't it?"

"We use martial arts to become better people," explained the teacher. "We use the techniques and hard work to build our discipline and learn how to connect with the world around us. Self-defense techniques are important. Learning to see deeply into movements, learning to unlock the technique within a form, learning to respond with speed, body mechanics, power and skill -- it is fascinating, but after a while you learn it is not the main goal."

“But what good is a martial art if you aren’t going to use it on the street?” asked the student.

“Young man, if you have to ask that question, then these arts are not for you. I think I can suggest another place to train.” 

Listening Energy - Ting Jin - A Crucial Tai Chi Concept for Self-Defense

There are many "energies" (Jin) in Taijiquan. The term "energy" has been misinterpreted by some people who take the translation too literally. The word "energy" when applied to Taiji simply means a physical method of sensing and dealing with your opponent's force in a way that follows core internal strength principles.

The most important energy in Taiji is Peng Jin. That is the expansive feeling that fills the body and pushes outward. When you touch an opponent, Peng Jin is necessary to test your opponent, "feel" and respond to your opponent's force and the direction that force is going. But the ability to be sensitive to your opponent's force and direction is Listening Energy, or "Ting Jin."

I once belonged to a school where we were taught that if we stood in front of our opponent, if we just worked hard and gained a high level of skill, we could actually "read" his chi -- we could read his mind and know that he was going to attack us even before he made a physical move.

Well, bull crap. Try using that as a defense when you are sued for striking someone before they attack you. Try bringing in a credible scientist who can testify and explain how you hit your opponent because you could read his chi.

Instead of trying to develop a mystical connection with your opponent, it is more effective to calm your mind, detach, and put your body in a relaxed state of readiness. Observe your opponent as if you ARE him. Connect with him. Then respond like the image in a mirror when he moves. There is an old saying in Taiji -- "When my opponent moves, I move faster. When my opponent arrives, I am already there." 

You cannot use Listening Energy until you make contact with your opponent. Until then, you are dependent on your sense of sight and perhaps hearing to know when your opponent is attacking.

Once you make contact, Listening Energy is what you use to determine how much strength your opponent is using and which direction that strength is moving.

In Taiji, after we learn the form, we use push hands to begin developing "sensitivity." We start with single push hands and put in a lot of hours to develop the ability to feel what our partner is doing. Is he tense or relaxed? Is he weak in his movement? Is he collapsing in any particular place? Does he overextend or show other vulnerabilities?

As we practice, and "invest in loss" -- in other words, we get pushed around a lot -- we hope to develop the ability to read tiny changes in force. We hope to be given just a glimpse of our opponent's "intent" with enough time to adjust, adapt, and neutralize an attack.

That's what Listening is. It is not mystical and it does not rely on psychic abilities. It also does not depend upon an invisible "chi" energy. It is a physical skill of sensitivity that you earn through a lot of hard work.

Listening-1Taijiquan is a close-up fighting art. It is most effective when you are touching your opponent. That is quite handy since most fights end up in clinches, with both people trying to gain the advantage. Listening Energy is made for moments like that.

The two photos on this page illustrate one example of Listening Energy. In the top photo, my opponent and I grab each other and I feel that he is pushing on my right arm.

In the second photo, I "empty" my right arm -- making it seem that what he is grasping is no longer there -- causing him to go in that direction because he had been pushing, and that is where his energy was wanting to go at that moment. At the same time, my left hand is pushing him to the right. He goes off-balance, opening him for me to counter effectively.

Listening-2Although Peng Jin is the most important of the energies in Taiji, Listening Energy is used in many others. For example, if my opponent is exerting force forward into me, I will move backward to neutralize that energy and take him off-balance. If I feel his Peng collapsing, I will move forward, taking him in the direction his energy is going and forcing him off-balance. Both of these require Listening to his movement and force.

The photos on this post were taken from a video lesson on Listening Energy that you can watch on my website, which is a membership site that contains more than 600 videos on the internal skills and techniques of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua. If the information in this post is not familiar to you, I encourage you to try two weeks free on the site by following this link and signing up. You can cancel at any time, and you can sample all the videos for two weeks before owing a penny. It is well worth your time to check it out.

Listening Energy can help you feel an opponent's center of gravity, tension, strength, weakness, direction, speed, and ultimately, his intent. 

Tai Chi Pluck Energy for Real Self-Defense

There are many different "energies" in Tai Chi and the internal arts. Cai energy is also called "Pluck." It is a sudden pulling action that can take your opponent off-balance.

Pluck can be done in a subtle way in push hands but in real self-defense, when your life can be in danger, it is not subtle and not especially pretty -- but it is definitely effective and it can be used against all kinds of attacks. 

Ken Gullette covers protectively against a sudden attack by Colin Frye.

Here is how to begin practicing this particular method of Tai Chi Pluck energy. Have a partner attack you without warning. Your first goal is to cover and block the attack. Instinctively, you should drop your weight and avoid the lifting of the body. This takes a lot of practice and presence of mind. In fact, it is a very good idea simply to react to an initial attack by practicing -- over and over -- the dropping and covering technique to protect yourself in the event of a surprise attack. 

Despite what some people claim, not all attacks are surprise attacks. Very often, guys will go into their "monkey dance," and give you some warning they are about to strike. Sometimes, the initial action will be to shove you back. Either way, once your attacker invades your space, covering and blocking is an appropriate response.

Pluck 2
As quickly as possible, grab and jerk downward, using internal body mechanics.

Next, as quickly as possible, grab the attacking hand (or foot if it is a kick) and give it a sudden, hard jerk downward. This will take your opponent off-balance, usually in a big way.

Internal body mechanics are required. To pull with sufficient force, you must be connected from the ground of the front foot through the hands. As you pluck, the whole-body connection allows the ground to work with the arms and the Dan T'ien rotation and you close powerfully into the kua (my right kua in the photos) as you jerk the opponent down.

Be careful when doing pluck in this way with a partner. You can literally give a partner whiplash by jerking quickly and powerfully. So make sure your partner is ready and take precautions that you don't cause injury.

Pluck 3
Pluck puts you in position to counter effectively.

This is an extremely effective technique for real self-defense. Remember, in the internal arts, your goals are to uproot and unbalance your opponent. You do that by neutralizing the incoming force and countering with good internal body mechanics. Tai Chi is not always gentle. It is a brutal fighting art. Pluck Energy is an excellent self-defense technique. Try it against all types of attacks. Pad up and use it in sparring. Try it against combination attacks. Any time you can grab your opponent, pluck is an effective way of disorienting him to set up your counter-attack.

The video for this lesson is in the Internal Strength section of my website at