Scaling self defense

This post came about by accident, two different things coming together:

  • I was talking to one of my private students about the Tai Chi Chuan I’m teaching him and he mentioned how he likes the different options it gives him for self-defense: to control an attacker or to break him in half.
  • On the way home, I listened to the Martial Secrets podcast (Lawrence and Kris have some good stuff there, BTW) with Rory Miller. In it, he mentions something about how karate works great for breaking people from up close but sucks for sparring (which for many karate styles, I totally agree with) and controlling people.

To explain what I mean, you need to get your nerd on for a few minutes because we’re going to talk about computers first. You also need to be patient because this is another one of those posts where I have to put several elements on the table before it makes sense.

Also, this is me thinking out loud and I’ll be rambling a bit. Be warned… :-)

Get your nerd on!

Martial arts as a programming language

There are loads of computer programming languages but they all have certain elements in common. One of the elements you can find in such a language is a type system. The purpose of this system is type safety which has one purpose: Preventing the language (and therefor the system that uses it) from making specific errors called “type errors.”

Wikipedia describes type errors like this:

A type error is erroneous or undesirable program behavior caused by a discrepancy between differing data types.

And also:

The behaviors classified as type errors by a given programming language are usually those that result from attempts to perform operations on values that are not of the appropriate data type.

To simplify it to the point where computer programmers will want to hang me from the highest tree:

A type system is an error prevention measure built into the language to make sure things don’t break down when data is used that doesn’t fit. It makes sure the program keeps on functioning when this happens.

In other words, this system makes sure everything keeps on rolling just fine when the system itself messes up by using the wrong kind of data.

I believe martial arts in general and traditional martial arts in particular have a similar (though not identical) dynamic going on.

Martial arts as an organized system

Read that page about programming languages again (as punishment for not doing so the first time I linked to it, but also) to see how a language is comprised of many different building blocks. I think it’s the same with martial arts. Depending on how detailed you want to go, you can define several building blocks:

  • Physical: speed, strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.
  • Technical: striking, kicking, blocking, deflecting, pulling, twisting, etc.
  • Strategic and tactical: striking-based, grappling-based, joint lock-based, etc.
  • Psychological: aggressive, defensive, neutral, instinctive,”cold”, etc.

I’m just summing these up top of my head and they’re by no means all-inclusive. Also, each block can be divided into multiple sub-categories and sub-sub-categories again but I’m not going into that here; you get the general idea.

Here’s the thing:

Every martial art style (traditional or modern, sports fighting or self defense) interprets these building blocks differently.

Some have similar interpretations, others are the complete opposite. Case in point: A muay Thai roundhouse kick (yeah, yeah, I know that’s not the right term) is very different from a Shotokan one. Yet to the untrained eye they look very similar.

Most of you will think “No shit, Sherlock…” right about now and I thank you for holding on a little longer and not clicking away right now.

The reasons why the interpretations differ are legion but I’ll offer some I think are relevant:

  • Environment: Fighting on snow-covered mountains is different from fighting in a cramped alley.
  • Society: Hardened criminals fight differently than Ivy League frat boys.
  • Context: Formal dueling requires other techniques than defending against multiple attackers.
  • Purpose: Defending yourself or defending others? Fighting or killing? Killing or killing silently?
  • Body-type: Asian people have different knees than us, Western guys. They can get away with certain training we can’t handle.
  • Time period: Medieval battlefield fighting is extremely different from modern day warfare because of the available weapons.
  • Living tradition: Does the system get passed on correctly from one generation to the next or does it get watered down/loses components over the years?

And the list goes on and on.

When you combine all these for a specific time and place, the result is a specific style of martial arts. That style is an answer to the violence certain people face in their lives, then and there. The way they experience and therefor define that violence has an immediate and direct impact on what the style looks like. The result is that each style has its own logic, its own way of viewing things and is an entity in it’s own right.

Martial arts error prevention and its consequences

As the style matures, teachers define a curriculum, guidelines, texts and rules to clarify everything for the students. These are the type system. They prevent you from inserting the wrong data, from going against the style’s own logic.

You want to see this system in action? Go to a shotokan class and throw a muay thay-style roundhouse kick. It’ll take about half a second for somebody to say “you’re doing it wrong.” and then explain why.

In and of itself that isn’t wrong, on the contrary. Teaching is an ongoing process where you alternate giving information, ingraining it and then explaining how it interacts/affects the other information you already taught. This last part means expanding upon previous knowledge and to help the student understand it better; it sets him up to learn what’s coming next.

This also implies a timeline for certain information: you learn technique/concept/skill A before you learn technique/concept/skill G. Otherwise, G doesn’t make sense because you haven’t learned B,C,D,E,F which are all part of G.

The more you train, the more everything becomes ingrained and the better the system works for you (or is supposed to anyway). If you train long enough and the style is constructed correctly, you’ll have effective fighting skills. Depending on a bunch of factors, this also means it can be extremely hard for you to learn another style. Or to fight in a different way than you trained for so long, even if the situation demands it. In other words, you’ve made your style’s fighting logic your own. Your style’s type system is the main reason for that because it corrected you every time you strayed from that logic.

But when somebody from another style comes in, things often go wrong. Techniques don’t always work as they do on your fellow students because the new guy attacked you wrong. His techniques are different from yours, which means he’ll have other strengths and weaknesses. If you’re unlucky and his weaknesses are difficult to exploit with the strengths of your style, it’ll be a rough fight for you. That new guy is from a different “fighting reality” than you: his style was created to face a different interpretation of violence than yours. His fighting logic is different. Not right or wrong, just different.

Because you trained so long, you’ll find it exceptionally difficult to leave your own fighting logic and adapt to his. Unless your style teaches you to handle another fighting logic by default, making yours a metalogic one (for lack of a better word.)

In other words:

  • If all you do is punch and kick, you’ll have a hard time grappling or doing joint locks.
  • If you only grapple, defending against a stick will be difficult for you.
  • If you only train with knives, wielding a spear will not make much sense to you.

That’s it for the first part, on to the next where I’ll finally mention the scaling of self defense.

What you wanna do?

Because each martial arts style fills in the question of “How do you face violence?” in a specific way, it has certain topics it prefers and other things it either doesn’t cover or doesn’t delve into all that much. For example, like Rory said, Karate doesn’t really focus on controlling opponents but it does a lot of work in punching and kicking them. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, it’s a good thing to focus on a specific solution for facing a specific problem. You don’t ask for a plumber if you need open-heart surgery; you ask for a specialist in that area. Specific problem, specific solution.

The flip side of that coin is the general approach: styles that try to offer a solution to the most common problems regardless of the context, environment, etc. These are the one-stop shops of the self defense world. Again, nothing wrong with being a generalist. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing, it just is what it is: a system that tries to offer a solution for most (all?) problems regarding violence instead of focusing on a specific aspect of violence.

In the end, it all boils down to what you want to do: general stuff or specific stuff.

At a certain stage, these become mutually exclusive though. You can’t be the best marathon runner and at the same time be the best sprinter yet both activities involve running. The same goes for fighting: you can’t be the best grappler in the world and at the same time be the best swordsman.  The training doesn’t overlap enough for that to happen.

'Nuff said...

This has certain “when all you have is a hammer, all you see is nails” implications:

  • If your art focuses on striking, you’ll think with a logic of striking to solve the problem you face. Whether it’s a punch or a push, the solution you’ll most likely offer is punching and kicking.
  • If your art focuses on joint locks, you’ll go out of your way to slap them on your attacker because that’s what’ll make the most sense to you.

Two things about this:

  • I picked the videos at random to illustrate my point here. I’m not commenting on them being good or bad so don’t get your panties in a twist if this is the art you practice…
  • I could sum up a lot more examples but I think it’s clear enough what I’m talking about.

That’s the second part, time to put it all together.

Scaling martial arts

The points I tried to make are at heart very simple:

  • Each martial art style has a specific logic to it, a way of doing things.
  • Depending on that logic, you either go in depth for a limited amount of techniques/concepts/etc. or you go wide by training in many but your knowledge and skill isn’t as deep as a style specializing in that specific area.
  • Changing quickly from one fighting logic to another is difficult, if not impossible.

I’m making a pretty black and white statement with these three bullets and I know that. The topic is more complex than that but this post is already long enough so bear with me.

Here’s what I wanted to say (“Finally!” some of you will think…):

The tai chi chuan I learned has its own approach, just like any other system. In essence, it is a self-defense system with an emphasis on evasion and counter-attacking. It looks deceptively easy and soft but is one of the most complex arts I’ve ever studied. It’s also one of the few arts I’ve encountered in which scaling force is taught from the get go. This isn’t really surprising when you look closer at the art:

The term tai chi (or taiji) refers to the two opposing forces of Yin and Yang. “Chuan” means “fist” and is often used to denote a martial arts style. So you have a self-defense system that uses the concept of Yin and Yang as it’s very core. By default, that means you have a mix of soft and hard aspects.

You see this in a multitude of techniques meant to redirect/evade the opponent’s force without opposing it (soft) and then punching/kicking/pushing/pulling/throwing/sweeping/locking/breaking with explosive force (hard).

But you also find it in the way techniques, strategies and tactics have a sliding scale from one extreme to another:

  • On the one end there are low-level reactions where you redirect an attack as a means to run away. You make the guy miss in such a way he’s busy recovering his balance while you’re already sprinting away. He remains unharmed.
  • Sliding away from that soft response, you can make the guy miss and shove him into a wall as you get in position to run. He’s slightly injured or at least shaken up.
  • At the other end of the scale, you can have a hard response and evade the guy’s attack so his face accelerates into your elbow as you pass him by.  He’s counting stars, knocked out or hospitalized.

Or to put it in a graph:

Tai Chi Chuan's sliding scale of responses


Though I only gave examples for the extremes and the middle of the scale, there are obviously many more steps along the way from one end to the other. Tai chi chuan teaches all these different steps, it also teaches you to go from one extreme to the other. Which is easy to do going from soft to hard but not the other way around as that requires a collected and “cold” mind (for my PTCCI family members, I’m talking about “reeling silk” pushing hands.) which isn’t easy to maintain under adrenal stress.

For a visual, take a look at this video I made for my post on “How to learn techniques from video

Some comments:

  • From the initial entry, I can go into a wide variety of techniques: striking, throwing, locking or as is the case here, breaking his balance as a set up for a strike. It’s all there.
  • The soft/hard sliding scale is also present in the components of the technique:
    • I can use my right arm to check my opponent’s left as I do here or I can use it to strike him so he feels like he’s running into a wall.
    • The set up for the arm drag can be just a grab, a slap to bend his elbow or an arm break.
    • The arm drag can break his balance like I do here or I can use it to launch him to the floor. I could also use it to launch his face into my right hand for a neck control or break.

Nothing works if you don’t train for it so don’t go thinking this is easy to pull off. You’re supposed to train real hard before you get to the point where you see all these possibilities, let alone apply them. But you will actually do them all in your training and learn how to go from one to the other.

In other words, the logic of tai chi chuan as a self defense system is to give you options. The fight logic of the system is: understand yin and yang. Which says everything if you train in the art and nothing if you don’t. The type system (rules, texts, principles, etc.) is structured in such a way that each part of the art reinforces the lessons learned in the others.

There’s more to the tai chi chuan than that but I’ll leave that for another time

Here’s a parting shot or two:

  • Not every martial art offers this type of versatility though a lot of them claim they do. It’s the difference between a more general and a specific fight system I mentioned before. I’ve only found this kind of structure in certain traditional martial arts and in a handful of combat sports as taught by some very specific teachers. And they were the exception to the rule.
  • I believe the mere fact of knowing you can either hurt or control your opponent combined with knowing you can go from one to the other in an instant, is of crucial importance in today’s society. You can almost guarantee you’ll be caught on camera by CCTV or a cell phone when you fight or defend yourself in the street. Your actions will likely be scrutinized later so having more than one option is crucial, especially if your art teaches a killing blow as a primary response…
  • Please understand I’m only talking about the style of tai chi chuan I practice and not the others. They might see it differently and more power to them. To each his own and love and harmony for all mankind. :-)


That’s it for now. Thanks for sticking with me until the end and feel free to leave a comment here.

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  1. Excellent article Wim, great explanation of how PTCC comes together as a very rounded martial art, and the whole notion of how martial arts have specific strategies to accomplish their goals. I did a couple of years of Wado Ryu prior to tai chi, and while I enjoyed it immensely at the time, would consider it primarily an attacking style rather than defensive, i.e. the best strategy was hitting the other guy first rather than countering, and if things got to close quarters you had problems. That said, it had some techniques like the half stepping side kick off the front leg that always worked well for me, and I still like. The problem I found, mostly with san shou sparring, was that the two strategies came into conflict and didn’t always work that well together. Nice to train a bit with other guys from other styles occasionally, as you don’t know what they’re going to do, and this in itself is great to keep you focussed.

    Again, great article. Keep them coming.

    • Thanks Shane, glad you like it.
      Personally, I separate my Sanshou class totally from my tai chi class. I don’t think tai chi was created with sparring using gloves, shin guards and rules in mind. So you need to adapt it a lot before it becomes useful in that context. Aside form a couple concepts and principles, my Sanshou class doesn’t have a tai chi influence.

  2. Well said Wim – it does take some setting up to get to the point where that explanation makes any sense. And this is one of the many reasons our tai chi is so “practical.”

    Tai chi is also inherently scalable in another sense which is equally practical: rehab. If a person understands progressions in exercise, it’s clear that tai chi offers an infinite number of them in a wide variety of applications (e.g., static, slow, not-so-slow, dynamic, solo, partnered, repetitions, resistance, etc.).

    You don’t find that kind of flexibility in many forms of exercise – martial art or otherwise.

    There are just a couple of the ways in which tai chi is so “functional” as an exercise system and what ended up attracting me to it so strongly. The structure of the curriculum has a wide variety of elements, each is RELATED to all the others in many ways, they build on one another, you can progress up and down the scale of difficulty depending on how badly and what body part(s) are injured or weak, and every aspect of it has huge functional overlay – real self-dense skills being only one other them.

    When I look at any other systems of exercise or rehab or martial art, I notice whether or not there is anything offered that is not already present somewhere in our tai chi. Not only are the benefits offered in other systems almost always inherently present in our tai chi, but inevitably we find these benefits at the very lowest level of practice – in the most basic aspects of the art.

    Often, in reading the detailed neurological explanations and esoteric interpretations of other systems, I discover numerous mechanisms that explain the physiology of the tai chi training we do. Kettlebells are a case in point. Pavel is a fitness genius – the smartest guy I have come across in twenty years. He does a better job of explaining our tai chi and the effects of our training than anyone else I know of – and he barely mentions tai chi and doesn’t even do it!

    In terms of the scaling self defense, what I appreciate most about tai chi is that it is non-judgemental. The philosophy (not the strategy) does not impose an interpretation of good or bad on the opponent’s actions: they are what they are. We may even be sympathetic or empathetic toward them – it doesn’t change a thing. By extension we don’t necessarily get to think or ourselves as being so right in our actions either. There is a lot there. Thanks for the post and for taking something pretty complicated and making it more clear.

    • Thanks Dennis, glad to hear you enjoyed the post.
      Tai Chi is indeed pretty unique in its approach to training and the health benefits are outspoken. Like you say, this aspect of scaling to the needs of the practitioners is inherently present. IMO, mainly because of the emphasis on the slow forms, particularly the hand forms.
      As for Pavel, smart as he is, he should have guessed he was going to lose people when he said “Comrade” for the 100th time. He lost me long before that… ;-)

  3. Great post!

    I first fully realized what you were saying after leaving TKD and starting a formal Chin Na program. Sifu would say that the chin na curriculum is a great supplement to many martial styles (his bias Mantis). However, if you did not know how to punch and kick he did not recommend it as your sole martial art.

    If the locks failed to control or disable he preached fall back on strikes.

    I think many instructors (for whatever reasons) do not realize this or want to admit it about their styles. Going “Jason Bourne” on someone is a nice bedtime fantasy but if you get caught on an iPhone the guy you busted up will probably litigate and win.

  4. Each of the components seem to have a lot to teach. I find that understanding expands the more I study the Classics. Each classic seems to take me deeper into each of the different parts of the different components of tai chi (amazing since I don’t actually have that much).

    As for Pavel, I stumbled upon him: Gary (our Irish tai chi brother) gave me “Naked Warrior.” It was clear from that reading that Pavel was leaps and bounds ahead of the average fitness author. As I read another dozen of his books it became clear that he has made some course corrections since the late 90’s. (I imagine all the crippled up KB folks trying to follow his first RKC book… KBs have zero tolerance for stupid:-) Anyway, as you say between the “comrade” this and “warrior” that he would loose a few. Still, he hangs out with some sharp folks and although he has essentially a cult following now, he still offers a lot. And by dedicating entire books to a couple of exercises, he emphasizes the exact points he tried to get across in all his books – points missed by the 20-somethings who will hurt themselves because of impatience.

    It’s germane to this conversation that it has only been recently that he is talking about the importance of “restorative” practices (he would argue with me on that of course – he has mentioned stuff, in passing, but…) as he now promotes his buddy’s tai chi and chi kung. The obvious implication is the KB work (and ‘strong as you look” calesthenics) isn’t too restorative; once again, it’s tai chi that is referenced as the model for getting what is missing elsewhere. Sound familiar?

    This is the kind of “carryover” that makes tai chi the ideal exercise in my (unbiased) opinion…

    • The way I see it, tai chi is at it’s best when you focus on synthesis instead of analysis of the parts. The more I train, the more I see how they’re related and reinforce each other.

      I read one of Pavel’s flexibility books and didn’t really enjoy it all that much. It was mainly the writing style that turned me off, not the content. I understand the reasons why he did it like that, but it’s just one of my pet peeves and it really turns me off on an author. I’m sure some people feel the same about my writing. :-)

  5. I am Jason Bourne (in my mind). ;-)

  6. Wim – I agree re: tai chi synthesis, yet I have a linear, left brain, logical nature and always seem to analyze the hell out of things first before I eventually “experience” the synthesis part: it’s frustrating sometimes. (But it’s the reason I wanted to study with Dan rather than Ian, I can follow his writing and learn from him easier. Same thing happens in writing styles; they sometime click or… they don’t.)

    On Pavel’s writing style, it’s interesting. I actually like his humor – until he repeats himself for the hundredth time. But, at least from “Power to the People”, on I think that there is a pretty good chance he is using a software program developed by Joe Vitale (The Secret) as a writing aid. The program is called “Thoughline” I think and there is another one called “Hypnotic Writing Wizard.” In his newsletters and most all of his newer books he uses a lot of the techniques that Vitale talks about in his book, “Hypnotic Writing” (which is where I heard about the software – I am a Mac guy so I had to pass on the software for now.) That’s all just FYI in case you are interested.


  7. Interesting post Wim – I’ll just say I did a post before about Super Models and Elle Macpherson put her Tai Chi to good use against a purse snatcher! Here is the link if you want to see it:

  8. Really enjoyed the article.

    Und interesting stuff about the combat aspects of Tai Chi.
    I had read some stuff about the fighting aspect of Tai Chi in handboek Tai Chi Chuan from Wong Kiew Kit.

    If i remember correctley he said something about that Tai Chi,s purpose was to train the practitioners their fighting skills, health and achieve spiritual enlightment.

    He also said something that today it mostley had become for health on a physichal level.
    Und that the fighting aspect und the enlightment stuff had been kinda lost by most practitioners

    Here the most Tai Chi i have seen is forms practiced for hobby or competing in Taolu.
    Und the closest thing to combat i have seen is push hands seminars/competitions.

    So i guess Wong Kiew Kit was right that Tai Chi is losing aspects.

    Anyway awesome article, pretty cool to read the combat stuff explained.

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