by Ken Gullette
A simple Taiji self-defense move against a punch.
I was 13 and the bully was 16. He was the sheriff's son and he had terrorized younger kids in Wilmore, Kentucky for years. On this particular Saturday around 1966, I was his target. After some taunts and dares and a shove or two, we walked with our friends, including a couple of my cousins, behind the drugstore where no adults were looking. Our friends circled around and the bully swaggered up and stood in front of me. I was scared.
The bully was bigger and more confident than I was, and I was pretty sure he was going to beat me up. My God, he was 16!! When you are 13, a scrawny kid wearing glasses with tape holding them together, that's a big difference! Since he was the sheriff's son, he used that information to scare other kids, making them afraid to fight back. I took my glasses off and handed them to my cousin Mike.
The bully started punching me and I blocked what I could and moved around. We circed for what seemed to be hours, the bully laughing and taunting me, throwing occasional punches that stung my face. In my memory, he looks a lot like the bully in "A Christmas Story." His friends cursed and taunted me while my cousins, who were younger than I, circled with the group in quiet support, afraid to see me hurt but also afraid the bully would turn on them next.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of circling and getting hit, I could feel the scratches and bruises taking their toll on my face and I decided, "To hell with it. If I'm going to get beaten up by this bully, I'll go down swinging."
He came closer and WHAM! I punched him in the face as hard as I could.
The bully staggered back, shocked, his eyes watering from a good punch in the nose. This put things in a new perspective. The kid was fighting back!!!
The bully was suddenly scared and made up some excuses and scrambled out of there quickly, his little toad friends jumping after him in a panic. My cousins cheered. I had beaten up the town bully. The story would spread like wildfire through Wilmore for months, a reason for every scrawny nerd to celebrate. I was a hero.
This memory went through my mind when I received an email this morning from a member of my online kung-fu membership site telling me that he had been in a situation recently that could have turned violent, and he realized at the time that he did not know how to use Tai Chi for self-defense.
Like any martial art, it takes a systemized approach and a lot of practice, but using Tai Chi to defend yourself is no more difficult than any other martial art. The truth is, most Tai Chi instructors do not know how to teach you to defend yourself.
Here is one secret to preparing yourself mentally. You do not have to be Muhammad Ali to use boxing for self-defense, and you do not have to be Chen Xiaowang to use Taiji for self-defense. If you think your skills have to be at a master level, you are setting yourself up for defeat.
In my view, self-defense is something many of us do naturally. We all have it within us to defend ourselves -- we can punch, kick, claw, bite, throw if someone attacks us. Unless we freeze, and fear keeps us from moving, our instincts help us cover up or block punches. When the bully attacked me, I had no martial arts training, but I managed to deflect a few strikes.
A self defense system simply focuses our power and technique. The best type of system helps you learn principles of movement and a flowing of technique so you can adapt to different attacks as they are changing. Where a system of self-defense helps is to focus your power and help you anticipate attacks so you can respond almost as soon as the attacker begins his attack.
At its higher levels, Taiji is more complex in the way it responds to force from an opponent, and the body mechanics it uses to "listen," adapt, neutralize, and counter incoming force.
But we won't worry about the higher level skills right now.
There is also no difference in the time it takes to learn how to defend yourself with karate, or boxing, or Taiji. Using the arts in an ideal way is not the same thing. Effective self-defense does not require you to be able to sense and neutralize every bit of power that comes at you. It does not require high-level push hands skill. And so I am taking an unorthodox approach here and taking push hands out of the mix.
Here are steps to take for learning to defend yourself with Taiji or any internal martial art:
1. Learn the fighting techniques. On my Tai Chi Fighting Applications DVD series there are 400 self-defense techniques from the Chen family Laojia Yilu form. There are defenses against shoves and pushes, grabs, punches and kicks. The defenses include punches, kicks, joint locks, evasions, sweeps, throws and takedowns. You do not need to learn 400 techniques. Only a few will serve you well in a variety of situations. It is better to be really good at 5 techniques than mediocre at 50 techniques. By studying 400 techniques, you can learn how the principles of movement are similar between techniques.
Study the techniques. Write your favorites down. Think about them. Practice them with an imaginary partner at first. Work on the body mechanics.
2. Practice techniques with a partner. Practice techniques against a partner using very light contact at first. The partner will throw attacks that you expect and the partner is not trying to make contact, either, except in grabs and chin-na. This is a learning situation for both of you, not a situation where you are trying to win. Take ego out of it. Do not injure your partner. It is not necessary, believe me.
Practice the techniques over and over and over. It will take hundreds of times over a period of weeks and months. You are looking to work on positioning, timing, and power. There are ways of using power without hurting your opponent. When you punch, miss your opponent, or learn to pull with power and barely touch your opponent (pads are good here). Don't practice in a wimpy way. Don't be stiff. Use relaxation, speed and strength together -- the body mechanics of Taiji, which you should also be developing through practicing the form.
A boxer does not become an expert with a jab overnight, and he can't put together effective combinations in a month. It takes time in any art to develop skill. Taiji is no different.
3. Put on protective pads and use techniques against a partner who is throwing random attacks. This step comes after you have learned how to move with the techniques against a partner. Start slowly. There are no specific rules to this. Your partner should use attacks creatively. It is your job to anticipate but not script a scenario in your head.
If you find yourself unable to respond with the right technique against random attacks, don't worry about it and don't give up. Ask your partner to repeat the attack. Practice the proper technique. Ask him to do it again. Learn to anticipate. This is why we practice. It is the reason kung-fu is a "skill that comes from years of hard work." No martial art comes easily -- karate, jiu jitsu, boxing, Taekwondo -- anyone can do some moves, but applying those moves with body mechanics, speed, timing, strategy and power -- that is the real art.
When you get to the stage when you are using protective gear, you should still respect your partner and not injure him. Use caution especially when doing techniques to the head, throat, or a joint such as the elbow, wrist or knee. I have trained people who successfully used the internal arts in self-defense and they never hurt anyone in class. It is a myth that you need to inflict pain to learn how to fight well.
All you have to do in each system is learn the fighting techniques and practice with a partner, then put the techniques into action in a sparring situation using light contact and wearing protective padding. Learn to be creative and respond with the right technique against the right attack.
4. At a certain point, your partner should stop cooperating. By the time you get into step 3 for a while, your partner should cooperate less and less. If you are attempting a joint lock against a punch, he should try to escape the joint lock. If you are deflecting a kick, he should follow up as quickly as he can with another technique, just as someone would do in a real fight. Or your partner should try to get you in a clinch, and you practice chin-na, short attacks such as elbow strikes, and takedowns.
Your job is to adapt quickly and flow with the principles of movement, capturing his center and taking care of the attacks as they come. Your goal is to put him down. In a real fight, your goal is to break him and put him on the ground.
Here is one additional tip after you learn some basic fighting techniques:
5. Work on your Push Hands skill, which teaches you to become sensitive to your opponent's "energy" when you are grappling. A lot of fights end up in a clinch, but true skill at push hands takes years. Usually, you do not practice push hands until you've become halfway proficient at a Taiji form. As you practice the forms, you should work push hands into your practice. After you learn the proper movement and mechanics, you should begin learning how to neutralize force and take advantage of your partner. Move from pushing hands to chin-na, for example. Learn how to flow against energy coming at you. Learn to counter against his counter. This takes years, too. And it is not something every instructor will tell you, but since I was the kid fighting the bully, I can tell you that push hands skill is not crucial for using a basic level of Taiji for self-defense, just as a powerful jab-cross-uppercut combination is not crucial for using boxing for self-defense.
Keep working on your Taiji forms. The forms teach body mechanics. As your movement gets better, your push hands and your self-defense will get better.
If you practice fighting techniques with a partner, and also in sparring situations, you can learn to take care of many situations, but it requires a lot of thought and a lot of practice. Joint locks, sweeps, throws and takedowns should be part of the possibilities you see when an opponent attacks.
No art is easy. It takes time to practice the techniques and then it takes time to learn how to adapt the techniques to a partner who is not cooperating with you. What is truly difficult is using Taiji in its ideal, advanced form, but if you expect that from the beginning, you are defeating yourself before you begin.
Learning how to move like Chen Xiaowang or Muhammad Ali takes a long time and more work than most of us want to put in. But you don't have to be a master or a champion to defend yourself successfully, so don't worry about that. Study the techniques and body mechanics and practice each one against the appropriate attack with a partner. When you feel comfortable enough, put on pads and have your partner attack and not cooperate with you. Practice in sparring situations. Practice against a heavy bag to develop power.
When people ask me what would I use if I was attacked on the street -- Xingyi, Taiji or Bagua -- I tell them I don't know. It depends on what the attacker was doing, and the LAST thing on my mind would be to justify my practice of any art. I would simply defend myself. I would even bite if someone got me in a good choke hold. Why limit myself? There are no rules in a real fight, and biting is not a typical Taiji technique.
By the way, the bully's father, the sheriff, never came after me to throw me in the pokey. I think the bully was probably too afraid to say he had been whipped by a 13-year old. He never bothered me or my cousins again. Bullies don't like it when you hit back, whether you are using Taiji or not.