Friday, August 17, 2012

"Chi/ki tests"


Initially I had included the subject of "tests" of "chi" (meaning "spirit" or "breath" - spelled "qi" in Pinyin, "ki" in Japanese and written 氣 in hanzi/kanji) in my previous article; it arose out of the same "stream of consciousness" and should accordingly be read subject to that discussion. However I chose to put this subject into a separate essay because I think it deserves its own focus.

"Chi/ki tests" are perennial favourites in martial arts circles. They range from cheap parlour tricks to drills that actually require some real martial skill (a skill that is however explained in vague, mystical or supernatural terms).

In this article I propose to deal with the latter: In other words, I want to focus on two fairly common "chi/ki tests" that actually do require some skill.

In so doing, I hope to:
  1. explain what these tests are actually "measuring" (ie. what sort of skill is required to make them "work"); and
  2. provide some clear examples of how mentalism can feed false assumptions about these tests – and how a mentalist will use those false assumptions for his/her own aggrandisement.
The "unbendable arm"

One of my favourite "chi/ki tests" is the infamous "unbendable arm". It provides the ideal platform for analysis of mentalism (whether deliberate or "inherited").

How does it work? I performed it just the other night – I'm sorry I didn't film it now! Basically it involves putting your outstretched arm, palm up, onto your partner's shoulder. Then you get your partner to bend your arm while you forcefully resist the bend. But, try as you might, you cannot. Despite your very strongest, vein-popping resistance, your most vehement tension running from your fist to your shoulder, you cannot stop your partner bending your arm.

Now for the chi/ki part: you get your partner to try again. Only this time, you relax your arm "completely", imagining "chi/ki flowing through your arm like water through a hosepipe". Voila – your partner cannot bend your arm, despite his/her own vein popping effort. All your partner succeeds in doing is bending your arm by less than half an inch. Beyond that, he/she cannot make any headway. As I like to demonstrate it, I can twiddle the fingers of the arm being held, and I can do so loosely with apparent relaxation. I can even use my captured hand to hold a saucer while I sip nonchalantly from a teacup with the other. Impressive huh?

Now had I been an unscrupulous mentalist, or chosen to remain wilfully blind to experience and logic gained over 31 years of training, I might have left it there the other night. My students would have been impressed with my chi/ki and I might have procured another generation of "inherited mentalism".

But, you see, knowing what I know (and should know) I could never do something so patently unethical and irresponsible. So I immediately explained how it actually works, namely:
  1. Your attention is being directed away from some fairly obvious facts so as to enable you to make a number of false assumptions.

    First, it is practically impossible to bend someone's arm at that sort of angle – unless he/she allows you to do it! Don't believe me? Try it out with a friend. Just make up your mind not to let your arm be bent. Don't worry about chi/ki and hosepipes. Just refuse to allow it. Your "attacker" will have as much luck trying to close a heavy door by pushing near the hinges with a feather duster. Unless there is a substantial disparity in size/strength, it simply can't be done; the angles, muscle groups engaged, posture etc. are all calculated to defeat any "bending"!

    Second, you are being led to assume that the first "test of resistance" was accurate. It wasn't. It is neither necessary nor desirable to tense up your whole arm in order to resist the bend. Instead, only the muscles that extend your arm need to be activated. Tensing other muscles doesn't just tire you out – it can actively assist the bending action! However if you only tense the necessary muscles, this will maximise your resistance. And this still leaves your partner pushing at an angle that gives almost no leverage.
  2. Don't forget, on top of the preceding "false assumptions" that you've been (whether deliberately or unconsciously) guided into, you've also been fed "facts" that you've accepted uncritically ("These aren't the droids I was looking for and I'll have fries with that!").

    You've accepted that it was possible for your partner to bend your arm in the first test and you've allowed it to happen. You've unconsciously accepted the suggestion to tense inappropriate muscles.

    Then when the second test was performed, you've accepted the exact reverse. (And you've accepted the suggestion that your arm is "completely relaxed" (when in fact you are actually tensing muscles – just not all of them!) or that you're using your "mind" rather than your muscles (in fact, you are using your mind and your muscles – as you generally will!).

    Your partner has also been subject to suggestion: he or she has accepted the same "facts" uncritically.
In other words, you've both been "had" – even if your instructor has taught you this in all sincerity (out of a culture of "inherited mentalism" or simply lack of critical thinking). You've accepted an illusion as fact. Which brings me to my next point:

It's not all bad – if what is happening is properly explained!

If the foregoing concerns you because you have practised the "unbendable arm" – don't let it. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing wrong with the unbendable arm as an exercise – provided you know exactly what it is you're trying to do!

A version of unbendable arm from taijiquan. Note that the emphasis here is on attaining the right alignment rather than on some supernatural power. You can find many examples of the "chi/ki" variety on Youtube; I'll leave it to you to look them up.

What are you trying to do? You're learning the value of relaxation; you're learning that by tensing only the muscles necessary for a technique, you can be both more efficient and more effective. [In this regard, see for example my article about the uraken or "backfist", in particular where I dispel the false assumption that you can't tense your fist and have a flexible wrist at the same time.] You're learning not to waste your resources and you're learning your partner's lines of least resistance. These are important lessons.

But goes without saying that it is inaccurate and unnecessary to add any supernatural "explanation" on top of what can, manifestly, be explained in straightforward mechanistic terms.

If you were unknowingly perpetuating false assumptions about this drill, you now have a reason to stop and consider the whole issue critically. I am confident that if you do so, you'll find that I am correct. If you still doubt me, try it out with some sceptical friends and let them be the arbiters.

The "heavy body"

Another similar, but arguably more useful, exercise in learning to tense only the necessary muscles, while optimising things like posture, is the "heavy body" exercise. It basically involves having someone lift you from a bearhug – once when you are thinking "light" and once when you are thinking "heavy". In some respects it is a bit like the "light as a feather game" to which I referred in my previous article, except in reverse and, more importantly, it actually requires a particular physical skill.

You'll notice from the above video that the first lift is easy. However on the second lift, the situation is very different.

Now I could tell you, as others have done, that this is a product of "chi/ki". And indeed, it might easily be assumed to be something supernatural because the mechanics of the whole exercise are much harder to understand than the simple "unbendable arm". The exercise also requires a great deal more practice.

Ultimately however this exercise has nothing to do with "chi/ki" or any other kind of "supernatural" force (by "supernatural" I mean "unknown to science", as I discussed in my previous article). How does it work? When you think "heavy" you're subtly affecting your partner's purchase on you while simultaneously lowering your centre of gravity. This is done through a complex tensing of some muscles and relaxing of others.

Put in a simpler way, in the first lift you're allowing yourself to be lifted as a stiff, single unit. In the second, you have relaxed enough so that you present a "dead weight" but not enough so that you lose all form and structure (ie. flop about or even visibly loosen). If you've ever had to lift a 50 kg cement bag vs. a 50 kg barbell you'll know just how much easier it is to lift the latter than the former.

Grounding: the real skill underlying such exercises

What does this exercise teach you? It teaches you some very important principles, including grounding and the ability to yield (ie. be relaxed and "soft") when necessary. These are skills that are incredibly useful in civilian defence .

I have embedded another exercise in grounding below:

Another exercise in "heaviness" that I call "sanchin pushing". It requires a lot of skill, can appear quite "supernatural" but is ultimately a simple matter of efficient body mechanics.

You can and should practise these grounding exercises. And they aren't easy; a moment's lapse in concentration and you will notice the difference immediately.

How I might have filmed my lifting video

Now please take my word for it that I could have filmed the "lifting" video very differently. I could have made it look as if it were absolutely impossible for anyone to lift me. But this would have been pure mentalism: a manipulation of you and my students.

I could have done this by "suggestion". For example, I could have said something like: "Watch out for your back when you lift - don't strain it by bending backwards." Which is good advice - to some extent. But it also makes their lift far more hesitant. I have suggested an action (less powerful lift) without them realizing it.

But more importantly, I could have manipulated the result just by choosing the right students as "lifters" – ie. students who are more suggestible or otherwise more accommodating (particularly when they know I'm going to be on video).

Instead, I deliberately chose two students who were going to make this exercise tough.

First I chose Ivan – an honest, sceptical and experienced student who always does his best to make such a demonstration "true". This can be a pain in the proverbial, but I can hardly complain: this is precisely what I ask him to do!

Second I chose a beginning student, James – an unknown quantity who is a foot taller than me and considerably heavier.

Both of these students would have been "strictly off-limits choices" for a mentalist. As a rule of thumb, a mentalist never, ever demonstrates unless a successful outcome is certain. In martial arts, the mentalist must always seem "invincible". This means never being seen to fail in a "test" of this kind. Ever. Only when the result is predictably impressive will the mentalist demonstrate. With each successful demonstration the mentalist's acclaim (and ability to influence by suggestion) increases.

There's enough "wow" in good technique – you don't need "magick" as well

But that isn't why I would do this sort of exercise. The exercise is useful for teaching real skill, not creating illusions – however such illusions might feed the instructor's ego, and however much they are "good for business".

So you'll note that I do get lifted up when I'm being "heavy". Both men lift me off the ground. But that scarcely matters, as I'll shortly explain.

You see, I have done this exercise with many, many other students who could not lift me off the ground at all. But I didn't get one of these students to try to lift me on video because I wanted it as real as possible. I wanted this for one simple reason:
    The ability to "ground" yourself realistically is an important and impressive skill in itself: you don't need "magick" to make it any "more impressive".
So what do you see from the video? You can clearly see that I can (and do) make lifting "harder" simply through a (largely unobservable) change in the muscles I'm tensing. The fact that I don't make it "impossible" is both accurate and appropriate. More relevantly, students watching can see that even minute changes in my concentration affect my grounding. In earlier "heavy" attempts, James lifts me higher than in the final lift where he barely takes my feet off the floor. How you concentrate matters. You have to be "in the zone" for any technique or tactic to work This is especially important in the case of fighting skill. You cannot be distracted – even for a millisecond.


From the above discussion you will see that there is a common theme arising from both "chi/ki tests": the need for greater control of subtle body mechanics. These body mechanics might be fairly straightforward (as in the "unbendable arm") or they can be quite complex (as in the "heavy body"). The more complex the use of body mechanics, the more scope there is for exploitation by mentalists or just plain old self-deception.

If there is one central "skill" being tested by these two tests it is simply this: your ability to relax. And I don't mean "flop down"; I mean relax all but the necessary muscles. Bizarrely, being able to "resist" a lift has nothing whatsoever to do with "muscular resistance". It has a lot more to do with yielding and softness.

If this is starting to sound "supernatural" then you're missing my point. But perhaps I've also just made it: science is more awe-inspiring and infinitely richer, more complex and more profound than "magick" will ever will be. It is also "way cooler"!

The fact that I have to use words like "yielding" and "softness" does not indicate a recourse to "supernatural by another name". It indicates a desire to put into plain, accessible language a complex interplay of muscular tension and relaxation in response to a particular stimulus. It indicates a desire to enable you to have this skill. In my experience, telling you to use "chi/ki" does not help with this process.

[See also my articles "Zhan zhuang: grounding, structure, intention and qi" and "Teacher chi: path to the dark side".]

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mentalism and self-deception in the martial arts

Introduction: the old "light as a feather" game

I'm sure many of you have played the "light as a feather game": one person sits on a chair and four others gather round and try to lift him or her using only their extended index fingers. Typically this is achieved with a bit of hesitancy and difficulty.

But then the four "lifters" perform some sort of "ritual": some pre-set activity (eg. placing all their hands on the sitting person's head) or just the joint "focusing of thought waves". Then the four go back to the sitting person and – voila! – he or she is lifted clean off the seat and high into the air; as if by magic!

Back in the '80s my mentalist mate Dave (one of a dwindling number who actually earned a degree in parapsychology!) and four of his friends tried it out on a Daihatsu Charade (using a full grip, naturally). Again, they lifted the car clean off the ground. As if by magic.

False assumptions

Except it's not magic. How does it work? It relies on assumptions: false assumptions we make without even realising. The false assumption in relation to the car is this: that 5 people (two at the back and 3 at the front) couldn't possibly lift a 350 kg vehicle. This in turn relies on the false assumption that an individual can't possibly lift 70 kg. Most strong young men can bench press more than that, never mind lift it with their backs and thighs using a squat/deadlift.

We all make false assumptions every day. And mostly these assumptions are without consequence, amounting to no more than how much (or little) we can fit in the boot of a car or whether to put the extra two potatoes into the pot for the family meal. However there are some who specialise in understanding and feeding false assumptions in order to manipulate others: These people are called "mentalists".

Enter the mentalist

A mentalist anticipates and feeds false assumptions for any number of purposes: perhaps innocently, as a party trick or part of a stage show; perhaps not so innocently, as a purported psychic; or perhaps completely immorally (even illegally) as part of some sort of fraud (eg. in the case of a confidence trickster).

Mentalists don't just anticipate and feed false assumptions that you ordinarily make: they also know how to induce them. This is called "suggestion". It is the most dangerous part of mentalism because it often exploits trust in people who hold positions of authority.

James Randi discusses assumptions: the core way by which mentalists will fool you

Unfortunately the martial arts world has more than its fair share of mentalists. The purpose of this article is to discuss how you can spot their tricks and not be taken in by them.

The martial mentalist

There is no shortage of martial artists who engage in mentalism. Why would they do so? Because they want to sell something and need a "market edge". An illusory "market edge" is better than none at all. So they sell you an illusion. And many people buy into it hook, line and sinker.

Obvious cases of martial mentalism abound: there are many instances where it is clear that someone is the victim of martial fakery. I have discussed such instances of such fakery in my articles "How the internal arts work: Part 1" and "Understanding the internal arts".

For some reason, the internal arts of China attract more than their fair share of mentalists. Perhaps this is because of the fact that, in their proper manifestation, they employ quite advanced, though subtle, techniques and strategies that lend themselves to myth/legend creation. It doesn't help that their function was traditionally described entirely through the language of traditional Chinese medicine. That language, though not entirely without merit as a metaphorical paradigm for discussion and observation (as I will discuss), is however not a scientifically accurate means of explaining the function of the internal arts.

But the internal arts are by no means the only martial traditions that have been appropriated by mentalists. It seems martial arts are, in general, prone to attracting them. This is true whether we're talking internal arts, kung fu, karate, aikido, kenpo, silat... every art has them. Search under "chi" or "ki" on Youtube and you'll find more examples of mentalism than you can poke a stick at. And, chances are, it'll be bad mentalism at that. I don't mean "evil" mentalism – I just mean second-rate trickery that succeeds only because it is takes advantage of the teacher/student relationship (more on that later). That it can also be "bad" in a moral/ethical sense is, I think, obvious.

When you see these "masters" demonstrating manifestly absurd "powers" you might be tempted to laugh. But these are just the most extreme cases. There are many, many levels of mentalism - and, for that matter, self-deception. Most of us are susceptible to being fooled or fooling ourselves – at least some of the time and at some level. So how do we guard against this happening? The first step is to know how and why people get "taken in" – in other words, how mentalism (including the self-inflicted kind) actually works.

How and why people get taken in

I've already noted that mentalists will use the natural human propensity for assumption. But how do mentalists know what you're going to assume – never mind lead you to making certain assumptions?

I've mentioned "suggestion" but that itself seems a bit of a vague answer. In a way, it is no more satisfactory than the dialogue of Star Wars character Obi-wan Kenobi when he says: "These aren't the droids you're looking for" and "The Force can have a strong effect on the weak-minded".

But as ludicrous as that dialogue might seem it is surprisingly close to the truth, at least in one respect: people can and often do accept unproven statements as fact. We all do. That is because we really couldn't function if we had to triple check every detail before we did something. Rather, in order to get by in our daily lives, we have to be prepared to accept "givens":

We accept a "No through road" sign is correct. We usually trust a "Danger: Keep Out" notice. We take someone's word that a particular restaurant, book or movie is "no good". We assume that the elevator will take us to our desired floor. We accept that our university lecturer actually knows something about anthropology/psychology/philosophy/literature etc. The list is endless. In other words, we couldn't live without making assumptions – hundreds or even thousands of them – every single day of our lives.

Clearly, we assume that people we trust are telling us the truth (more on that in a moment). But the bigger question is why we would make assumptions based on things said by people we hardly know. I think the answer is largely attributable to one simple factor: our (necessary) reliance on certain subconscious processes, including kinaesthetic awareness and "routine" decision-making.

Lives lived largely on autopilot

For most of our lives, we live on autopilot. By way of example, when walking up a flight of stairs we don't first consider them carefully (counting their number, ascertaining the height of each step and ensuring consistency from one to another), then calculate the amount of movement required to place a foot onto the first step in the correct position (not too close to the edge, not jammed in too far), then repeat the process for each step , and so on. We do this sort of thing automatically/unconsciously. And thankfully so. If our lives were totally governed by logical decisions (in the way, say, the movements of a Mars rover are) I'm sure we'd (a) never get much done; and (b) go mad.

This subconscious process is the same reason that you probably don't remember every detail when leaving your house – that you turned the door handle, opened the door, closed it, pulled your keys out of your pocket, selected the correct key, inserted it into the lock, turned it, etc.). The fact that you do such things on "autopilot" is the main reason we often wonder (halfway to the airport, camping ground or cinema) whether we locked the front door or left the stove or iron on, etc. [It also helps explain some obsessive/compulsive disorders such as locking and relocking the door 3 times: for some reason there has been a breakdown in the sufferer's brain of "trust" in subconscious decision-making processes, requiring multiple validation for the completion of simple tasks.]

The proper word for most "autopilot" action is kinaesthesia or proprioception: ie. awareness of our position and motion in space through muscular and other sensory input.

But there is a reason I refer to subconscious decision-making and not just kinaesthetic awareness: the latter covers simple movement and navigation, while the former covers actual decisions that we make, eg. whether to lock the door, turn off the stove, etc. In other words, we don't just walk up a flight of steps "on autopilot" – we also make routine decisions as an extension of this process. And it is precisely here that the mentalist exploits your vulnerability.

The mentalist taking over from the autopilot

In my recent article "Necessary and reasonable force" I related an encounter I had with two young, strong men who had been taunting me with derogatory remarks about my wife:
    "I said to the alpha male (with a smile): "You know, you look just like my brother-in-law! It's amazing. You guys could be brothers!" From my reaction, I could tell he assumed that I hadn't heard the nature of their comments – or at least he wasn't sure (from my perspective this uncertainty was actually a better manipulating tool; I'll discuss this sort of thing in a future article). The alpha male abruptly changed his demeanour from a sneering, antagonistic one to one of puzzlement.

    "Really? What's your brother-in-law's name?"

    And so it went. Within 5 minutes we were swapping mobile numbers and having a laugh."
Why did I say that his uncertainty was a better manipulating tool? Because in cases of uncertainty, people often default to autopilot – the subconscious decision-making of which I have spoken; they don't have time for anything other than habitual action. If you are aware of this, you can anticipate certain behaviours and manipulate the outcome. This is the method of the mentalist.

If you doubt me, consider for a moment that had the alpha male known for certain that I was lying – that I had heard his taunts but was nervously pretending he didn't exist – what do you suppose would have happened? He would have seen my gesture as a rather pathetic backdown. Emboldened he might have "upped the ante" to increase my humiliation and his own fun.

But what if he was equally certain that I hadn't heard his taunts? Surprisingly this wouldn't have augured a much better outcome...

Another personal example

I was once in town, passing group of thugs. One shouted something out, but I was only vaguely aware of him, didn't hear what he said and assumed he was talking to someone else in my vicinity. I carried on walking and the thug ran directly in front of me, blocking my path, spraying spittle in my face.
"What's the matter mate? Too up yerself to answer me?"

Only then did I realise that he had been speaking to me. And that I had inadvertently embarrassed him in front of his friends. It is important to note that his embarrassment arose not from the fact that I had (apparently) heard, but ignored, him: that would have constituted a tacit submission on my part and he would have been able to laugh it off as a sure sign of my "fear" or "weakness".

Rather, the fact that he had been ineffective in even gaining my attention was embarrassing for him – forcing him to confront me and "up the ante" so as to regain some esteem in front of his peers.

I looked suprised (as I was), smiled and apologised for being distracted ("Oh – sorry mate. It's been a long day and I'm afraid I was a million miles away!"). I asked him how his day had been - and somehow the whole "situation" evaporated into a rather "pleasant" discussion about how his brother was coming out of prison and wanted to borrow money from him (again), how his "bitch of an ex-girlfriend" wouldn't let him see his kid, etc. I nodded, tut-tutted and said goodbye as his mobile rang (a call from his brother, no less).

Back to the alpha male "brother-in-law lookalike"

In the same vein it might not have been particularly helpful for the "alpha male" in my other altercation to have known (with certainty) that I had not heard him at all. For one thing, I can see how this would have embarrassed him in front of his friend ("Ha, ha, he can't even hear you mate!").

No, my best chance lay in momentary confusion. Not sure which way to jump, and faced with my unsettling, banal (rather odd) opening statement and confident smile, he defaulted to subconscious, pre-set behaviour – the kind he might employ when introduced to a person at a party, for example.

Once down that road, there was no going back: to convert a perfectly ordinary and friendly conversation back into a taunting/hostile situation would not only have been pointless – it would also have been embarrassing for him and required too much effort. In other words, his line of least resistance became a pleasant conversation – not an antagonistic one.

"You want fries with that"

From the above you can see that mentalism can be used for "good" as a well as "evil" – and that it isn't all that far removed from the Obi-wan cliché.

In this regard, you can indeed say or do something in a way that makes another person repeat it.

Just as one small example, the next time you speak to someone, especially someone who is younger than you are or in relation to whom you enjoy a higher "social status", watch their body language: When you cross your arms, run your hand through your hair or lean on something, do they follow suit a moment later? This mimicry is not very different from the stormtrooper's response to Obi-wan: "These aren't the droids we're looking for." Yes, the Star Wars scenario is far-fetched, but the principle is the same. Indeed, the main difference between these scenarios is that you probably aren't taking advantage of the subconscious mimicry the way Obi-wan was. But there are plenty of people who do, for any number of reasons (sometimes conscious and sometimes not).

In respect of the above, I think that episode of the television series "Doogie Howser MD" got it right when it noted that employees in fast-food chains like McDonalds are not taught to ask their customers: "Do you want fries with that?" Rather, they are told to make a statement:
    "Want fries with that."
Most people staring at the menu board, wondering exactly what to get, are likely to resort to autopilot and mumble: "Yes". They will default to subconscious decision-making, influenced by the "answer" already provided by the employee's statement.

Back to the dojo

It goes without saying that the capacity to manipulate others through mentalism increases in direct proportion to the level of trust and authority bestowed upon the mentalist. Few relationships bestow more trust and authority than a student/teacher one – particularly if the student has specifically chosen the teacher/guide (as occurs in martial arts study, a college course or religious instruction/guidance).

When we choose to study with these people we are accepting them as experts. And once we accept someone as an expert, we are a very likely to do two things:
  1. place trust and confidence in them (a necessary part of the student/teacher relationship); and
  2. suspend critical thinking - in other words, "go on autopilot" (what I have called "subconscious decision-making") where we accept statements uncritically ("These aren't the droids we're looking for").
No small wonder then that the teacher/student relationship imparts so much responsibility on the teacher – and why abuses of this responsibility are viewed as particularly reprehensible: students are naturally vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation. Note the TED talk below, particularly at around 3:37, which describes how critical thinking shuts off once an accepted expert begins to speak:

Back to trickery: common abuses of the martial teacher/student relationship

Not every martial teacher who employs mentalism does it in such an obvious and nefarious way as to produce the sort of nonsense shown in the "Wondrous world of chi power" or one of its many likenesses on the internet. Not every martial mentalist has either the inclination or ability to convince his or her students to jump about madly as if operated on invisible strings – all at the casual wave of a hand and without any sort of contact.

Rather, most martial mentalists rely on manipulations that are far, far more subtle, easier and quicker to employ and more effective on a larger target audience.

I think it is also worth noting that some of the offending instructors might not be consciously aware of what they are doing: they might be perpetuating what their instructors showed them, and so on.


However the fact that an individual instructor isn't consciously aware of his or her part in exercising mentalism doesn't lessen the fact that mentalism is taking place: people are being manipulated to believe in something illusory – whether the instructor knows it, should know it but chooses not to look too closely, or is him/herself a victim of mentalism/self-deception. Whichever way it goes, the manipulation of people is being perpetuated.

Who "set the ball rolling" in such cases? Was there an original mentalist who was knowingly fooling his/her students? Perhaps.

Or perhaps it was an instructor who fooled him/herself through uncritically accepting something because he/she wished it to be true: a kind of "self-hypnosis".

Imagine, for example, if that stormtrooper had said (without prompting from Obi-wan and despite the obvious match with a "Wanted" poster) "These aren't the droids we're looking for." Why might he have said this? Maybe because he wanted to knock off early and couldn't be stuffed filling out all the Imperial paperwork relating to the captured droids. It is fairly easy to convince yourself not to look too deeply into something – if that deeper looking might cause you a whole lot of bother.

"Inherited mentalism"

Whatever the origin, you can see "inherited mentalism" in many martial schools today. And I think it is most common in schools where highly ritualised, traditional drills are employed. It is the highly circumscribed "role playing" by both attacker and defender in these drills that allows the perpetuation of the illusion.

Nowhere is "inherited mentalism" more apparent than in dojos where those drills comprise tests of "chi/ki". I propose to deal with these in a separate article.

Other examples are not nearly so obviously "unscientific". Rather, ritual merely obscures limitations of drills (that might otherwise have valid uses) – and then false assumptions are made about the transferability of the skills taught in the drill to less compliant circumstances.

In particular, the rigid restraints on the so-called "attack" obscure those assumptions. For example the attack might be strictly limited to:
  1. wrist grabs (which have their uses) – where the grip is held long after the most dim-witted attacker would have let go; or
  2. punching from a single step (which has its uses) – followed by an interminable pause while the defender executes a innumerable, unanswered strikes in succession (what I have previously described as an "attack string" and which might, or might not, comprise the sort of "overkill" that would be illegal if you ever actually carried it out); or
  3. attacks that are launched very slowly and without any commitment (which have use when exploring a technique, especially for the first time) - but which are always answered by defences executed with blistering speed and ferocity (this is a syndrome I call "Attack of the Zombies"); or
  4. punches/strikes/kicks that are totally out of range (which have no use) - where the attacker (misses by up to half a metre in some cases).
"Inherited mentalism" ensures that these sorts of drills are practised, sometimes for generations, without critical evaluation of their obvious limitations.

"Inherited mentalism" is also evident in schools where the attacker is coached carefully and specifically to effect a completely disproportionate (or even inappropriate) response to the defence (ie. flipping him/herself head over heels when a simple fall is all that is warranted, jumping back and high into the air the moment a slight push is felt, falling to the floor from even the slightest tug, etc.).

Mentalism by artificial selection

A mentalist will, as I have foreshadowed, exploit these false assumptions, actively building a culture that perpetuates illusion. Moreover he/she will take active measures to ensure that any potential for critical analysis is side-stepped. The best way to do this is to avoid sceptical students and focus on only the most trusting, diligent and impressionable ones.

As I will discuss in my article on chi/ki tests, this happens whenever the mentalist chooses a student for a demonstration: only one who is susceptible to suggestion will be chosen. This maximises the impression that the mentalist is "invincible".

But student selection goes much further than such demonstrations: the mentalist will often take active measures to ensure that a "contrary" person doesn't even make it through the front door – or, at the very least, won't stay around for long. Sometimes this is done through a "interview" process for each student and a compulsory "background check". Ostensibly this is all in aid of ensuring that only people of the "right character" train at the school.

Funny: in all my 26 years of teaching, and of all the approximately 1 000 people I've taught, I've never once felt the need to have this sort of vetting process. And I can proudly say that almost without exception I have been honoured to have decent, considered, thinking people as students. The few "bad apples" either watched for a couple of minutes and left, or didn't hang around for longer than a few classes. A very small number of "bad apples" hung around for longer. But then again, it took me that long to work out what their true nature was; "interviews" and "background checks" would have been of no assistance in this regard at all.

It's not supernatural – it's just natural!

A student vetting process might well have the potential for selecting the most trusting, suggestible students; but it also has the potential to limit class sizes. Mentalists want the classes as big as possible. So in order to be able to "cast the net wider", they employ one major strategy, namely the refrain: "It's not supernatural: it's just natural!" This allows them to co-opt otherwise sceptical people into accepting an illusion. "Crazy talk" has the potential to turn away a large portion of the public. If you couch the "crazy talk" in terms that appear to be scientific (but are, in fact, not), you might just increase your pool of students.

Now it is true that some instructors are genuine when they utter the phrase "It's not supernatural, it's just natural!" They are trying to say: "I don't know how this works, but I think of it in terms of this metaphor..." In this vein, I know many instructors who use "chi/ki" as a kind of "umbrella term" for a number of different metaphors (intention, focus, breathing, etc.). This can offer an internally consistent paradigm for discussion and observation, if nothing else. While I have nothing against this sort of analysis, I personally don't find it useful. I'd rather try to understand and explain exactly what is happening – and if I cannot, say "I don't know."

I discuss a common "chi/ki" demonstration and do my best to explain it in mechanistic, rather than mystical/supernatural terms, eg. "centre of gravity" and "dead weight" etc.

Unfortunately, when other instructors utter that phrase they are really talking about "magick by another name". Their interpretation of "supernatural" is just "stuff I don't actually believe." The stuff they do believe (or say they believe) without reason is conveniently lumped with scientific fact.

But the problem then arises: how can one best disguise this "magick" as "science"?

"Arcane knowledge"

Mentalists have found that the best way to legitimise "magick" is by appealing to a "lost science or art" – knowledge that comes from ancient times and his handed down only to a select few.

Most commonly, this arcane knowledge takes the form of pressure point striking – what is known in Cantonese as "dim mak" or in Japanese as "kyusho".

Now I think it is self-evident that there is truth in pressure points. Quite obviously there are going to be some points on your body where you are more vulnerable than others. Sometimes these points are not immediately obvious. That someone in the Orient would have noted vulnerable points is hardly surprising. People needed to know this sort of thing far more "in the olden times" – ie. before the invention of firearms.

So, given a shred of truth, the mentalist can ride its coat-tails all the way towards legitimising his/her "magick". Good mentalists know that every effective lie has an element of truth. But the truth shouldn't get in the way either.

Just one example

Back in the late '80s people were becoming aware of Brazilian jiujitsu and its potency in unarmed combat. Almost as quickly as people were setting up BJJ schools, an industry of "antidotes to BJJ" was mushrooming. Understandably, traditional "stand up fighters" didn't want to think that all their skills were made "redundant" and that they had to "start again".

Back in those (pre-internet) days, magazines were the primary way in which people could become aware of prevailing trends and who was teaching what. One well-known taijiquan instructor (who is now deceased) was particularly vocal, and many of his articles and videos dealt with the subject of "dim mak" (often as an antidote to grapplers). A lot of what he said generally seemed to make sense. Other, more specific stuff (eg. the dim mak) didn't. But on the whole, he seemed like a fascinating, charismatic fellow. So when the opportunity arose to attend one of his seminars in Perth, my brother and I looked at each other and said: "Why not?"

During the seminar we did some fairly interesting stuff. I've previously written that some insights gained from him have stayed with me to the present day. But other stuff was clearly mentalism or self-deception. The most obvious example was his assertion that if you touched certain pressure points in a sequence, your opponent would be weakened. He wasn't talking about punching your opponent in the solar plexus, then punching him in the throat, then kicking him in the groin! He was talking about 3 light taps – one on the forehead, one on the shoulder and one on the hip.

He pulled out a student to demonstrate and I noted immediately that he had chosen an acolyte – one who was already under his "spell". First, the instructor demonstrated the strength of the person by pushing against him; the student resisted the push quite successfully. Then the instructor performed the 3 taps – and voila! – the student was pushed easily, all the way across the floor.

Needless to say, he declined my brother's and my offer to be demonstrated upon in this way.

What I can say, with reasonable certainty, is this: the "technique" doesn't work. It is just a variant on the "light as a feather game" I discussed at the start of this article, masquerading as "real world fighting". It neither requires nor employs any skill. It isn't (martial) science. It appears to "work" only because of:
  1. a false assumption that the first push was actually the same strength as the second); and
  2. a suggestion to both parties that the second push will be easier.
Some people have built their entire art on such "sequential point striking", asserting it as either arcane knowledge passed down from the ancients, or cutting edge modern science. However I am not aware that there is any science backing up any of these claims. And any demonstrations of these claims by their proponents are hopelessly contaminated by mentalism/self-deception.

Why they do it

So far my discussion of mentalism/self-deception in martial arts instruction has centred largely on peddling supernatural "powers" of the "chi/ki" kind. More often than not, it occurs in a far more subtle way, simply to disguise a shortfall or decline in, or otherwise exaggerate the level of, the mentalist instructor's skill.

In this context, a supernatural element might be implied but never stated, masquerading as incredible hand speed, uncanny timing (hinting at, but never going so far as to say, precognition), pinpoint accuracy and, most relevantly, secret, arcane knowledge of the kind I've just noted but perhaps with more credibility (eg. striking pressure points as opposed to merely tapping them).

These tricks allow a martial arts instructor who has aged and can no longer (or perhaps, could never) cut it on the floor/mat to maintain (or attain) some gravitas. All he or she has to do is imply that these "mere physical" skills pale in comparison with the sophisticated, secret knowledge of the master; that the latter is the highest level of skill, achievable only after years and years of study; a skill that makes all others redundant; that it is a vastly superior "technology".

"Show me" – keeping it real

Not long after I trained with the previously-mentioned taiji instructor, I had the good fortune to train with John Will, one of Australia's BJJ pioneers. During the seminar he told us how he'd gone out to dinner with some senior martial arts teachers, one of whom opined that "if you strike this point with considerable force what will normally happen is [...]." He said it as if he regularly struck people on that point and accordingly had a good database of information upon which to draw. Of course, that is nonsense – the polar opposite of BJJ where you do have an idea of what normally happens if you do x or y.

By way of further contrast with the above "dim mak" seminars, last year I had the pleasure of training with John's good friend Richard Norton who doesn't have to rely on trickery to impress anyone. Not only can he do so on the basis of his superb physical conditioning, but he can also do so with his practical and scientific knowledge. As his friend Benny "The Jet" Urquidez likes to say when talking to someone who is full of theory: "Show me. Don't tell me, show me!" Richard does show you. And it isn't illusory.

Nor should age or illness detract from a teacher's contribution. I don't expect my teacher to get into the ring to "show me" something. He shows me as best he can. It makes sense and doesn't require any suspension of disbelief. I am not being manipulated to assume false variables or otherwise accept his word uncritically; what he teaches is logical and verifiable. It doesn't depend on tricks that make him look impressive or "invincible".

Trust: an essential feature of the teacher/student relationship

It is on this basis that I hope I can be of use to my students. Even though my health does not always allow hard training, I hope I can still make sense and be of relevance as a teacher. I hope I can still "show them" things (within reason). And for those things that I can no longer show, I hope that they will trust me. Why should they? Because trust is an essential part of the teacher/student relationship.

If you went to a college/university course and doubted every single thing your lecturer said, you wouldn't get very far. Remember my discussion at the outset; we live in a world where we have to use subconscious decision-making processes. It doesn't mean that we always suspend our critical thinking – it just means that we can't always be critical of everything. That would be excessively time-consuming and exhausting.

So a student must trust his or her chosen teacher. Not completely and not in everything – but enough to call that person "teacher". If the student doesn't trust the teacher sufficiently, then it is time for the student to find another teacher. And it is time for the teacher to find another student.

What this underscores is that the pressure on a martial arts teacher to avoid mentalism is at a premium. The trust bestowed by a student is essential, and hence it is to be honoured and respected. It is to be treated with utmost care and protection. It is never to be abused.


Having started my own school in conjunction with a competitive sibling has, I think, been of invaluable assistance to us both. We've kept each other as "real" as possible. You can't pull a fast one on your brother. If you tried, he'd immediately pull you aside and say: "What the hell was that? Don't ever embarrass us with that crap again!"

Even now, I'll call my brother or he'll call me after every class and we'll do a "post-mortem": We will discuss whether enough time was spent on x or y technique, whether we did enough conditioning, whether a particular student had sufficient preparation for his/her grading and so forth. Invariably we'll discuss technical details. If a technique wasn't working in class we will discuss why. This sort of process has, over the years, been invaluable to our development – and I'm fairly sure, to that of our students. We've had to evolve many of our practices and techniques and that is only natural and correct.

It is important to note that I'm not suggesting that this makes us "good" teachers. It just makes us teachers. It's what a teacher should do. A teacher shouldn't accept anything uncritically - because your students, at least to some extent, must. They have to trust you. In that situation, you can't be providing information to your students that you know, or ought to know, is false or flawed.

If you are a martial arts teacher and you feel I have slighted some of your own practices/theories in this article, then I hope that, at the very least, what I have written has given you pause to reflect critically on those practices/theories.

If you refuse to engage in any critical analysis because "that's just the way we do it," then be aware that you run the risk of perpetuating falsehoods – or at the very least, inaccuracies.

And if you are knowingly abusing your position as a teacher to manipulate your students, then shame on you.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, August 13, 2012

The beginner

Many years ago I was seated with a group of people at a wedding. We were all mostly strangers to each other. By way of "breaking the ice", the young man next to me suggested that everyone should say what he or she did as a hobby (rather than the more boring occupational recital).

When it was my turn, I said: “I study martial arts.”
“Oh? I wouldn’t have guessed it. I have a friend who is a martial artist.”
“Yes, he’s a second dan. And you can see it too. You can see it in his eyes: the look of a killer.”
“Hmm. Your friend must be very advanced.”
“Yes, he is. I can’t see that same look in your eyes. You must be just a beginner?”
“Indeed I am,” I said.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, August 10, 2012

Single whip: Part 1 - defence against that first punch


When I first started practising taijiquan in late 1989 I was somewhat perplexed by the sequence known as "single whip": Here was this curious series of movements, it's final position so often captured in still photographs as the essence of taiji – one hand in front, the other out at the back and slightly to the side with the wrist bent as if "holding a dirty sock by the tips of the fingers"! It seemed totally unrealistic and irrelevant to fighting.

Try as I might, in the following years I could not think of how or why one would bother with this "posture" (it is more accurately described as a sequence of movements) as a "fighting technique".

The best I could do was "shelve" consideration of the sequence until I had further information. Since many of my most admired martial elders practised taijiquan I reasoned that there must be some good reason for it.

Then in 2005 I had the honour of becoming a student Chen Yun Ching and his adopted brother James Sumarac – and applications were shown to me that revealed single whip for all its true potential. I discovered that it is more than just a stylised exercise, more than just a small part of some elaborate, arcane "dance". It is, in fact, one of taijiquan's main tools for teaching essential principles of civilian defence. In this article I'd like to start sharing with you some of my reasons for coming to this conclusion.

A defence against the surprise punch

In my recent article "That first punch: can you really "block" it?" I covered what I often call the "surprise punch", although a better term might be the "sucker punch" – a blow that is thrown when you aren't expecting it (or rather, when your attacker assumes you're not expecting it).

In that article and my follow up article "Necessary and reasonable force" I described the necessity of reactive skills a – for logical, as well as ethical/moral and legal, reasons. I've previously described other pragmatic reasons for needing to know some reactive defence skills (see "Surviving the surprise attack").

As it turns out, the very first application of single whip, as shown to me by Master Chen, is precisely for this context. That shouldn't come as a surprise: taijiquan, like the jian (the double-edged "tai chi sword" that I've previously discussed), is and always has been for civilian defence. It was never intended for the battlefield or as a combat sport.

Anticipating the most common punch

So how does this particular single whip defence work? For a start you'll note that in every single style of taijiquan, single whip occurs to the left – to be applied on the inside against a right straight/cross. Why? Because it is, statistically, the most likely first punch you will ever encounter and moving on the inside is similarly likely to be your only available option. Note the following:

Most people (possibly 90% of the world's population) are right-handed. And people will tend to strike you with their preferred hand.

That this strike will have some form of curve is, I think, statistically so likely it is virtually inevitable: Only those trained in classical martial arts (from a boxing jab to a karate punch) default to a totally straight punch. By contrast, those who are most untrained will simply swing their arms in a wide arc (ie. a "haymaker" punch). Those with a little knowledge or experience can be expected to have some curve even if the punch is "straighter". Those who are reasonably experienced fighters will use at least some curve to add power to their strike. Last, only those who are reacting defensively in a civilian defence context are likely to use a conservative straight thrust.

Accordingly, the most likely first punch you're going to face from an unprovoked attack is a right handed one with an element of curve.

Moving on the inside

It is important to note that "moving to the outside" of such a punch is going to be quite difficult. I say this despite my previous arguments about dimensional analyses; it might be fine for an highly experienced martial artist to understand the mechanics of deflecting a curved punch on the outside, but this tactic requires significant and very specific training. For this reason I think it remains an incontrovertible fact that people find it very difficult to deflect or block a curved attack on the outside of that curve.

And the corollary to this is that moving to the inside of the curve is the quickest, shortest way to intercept it. This is because, by definition, you are already on the inside of a curved punch: you don't have to move anywhere.

Modified flinch reflex

So how does single whip work against such a punch? The first thing to notice is that single whip operates in two phases:

My video of single whip against that first punch

The first phase involves a retraction of your body, accompanied by an extension of both of your arms outwards. This is a modification of the flinch reflex. The movement of your body backwards is going to help take you out of prime hitting range, while your arms are going to try to intercept the blow. Working together, the punch can be deflected.

Single whip uses primarily your lead hand, which in this case is your right. Why lead with the right? Because, as with using a straight sword for civilian defence, you are primarily interested in keeping your opponent at a safe range – not saving your big punch for "later". So you will have your preferred arm leading, doing the (difficult and important) job of protecting you (although that arm will quickly convert into a counter attack, as we'll soon see).

Your lead arm will intercept your attacker's punching forearm at what I call the "Goldilocks zone" – roughly half way between the elbow and the wrist. The deflection intercepts the attack with your lead forearm anywhere right up to your wrist. Furthermore a scooping action with the wrist enables you to:

o maximise contact time with the attacking arm, intercepting the attack early and following it as it gets closer to you, redirecting it all the while; and

o use the action of the wrist as well as the forearm to create a circular "sweep", adding force to your deflection along the principles of staged activation while also depressing the attack slightly downwards at the end (ie. aiding the deflection and control along two separate planes).

Not wishing to leave anything to chance, your reverse (left) arm is also kept in play; it augments the right in intercepting the attack, so that if your primary arm misses or otherwise fails, you have a backup. The defence concludes as your body has reached maximum retreat (pulling the bodyweight onto your back leg).

Counter strike

The second phase of single whip involves a counter strike. This is executed with the back of your wrist which, having scooped sideways and down, continues its momentum in a continuous (though small) circle. The force of the scooping action is thus converted to a back-of-wrist strike under the chin, to the carotid sinus or otherwise to the face, in a quick snapping motion.

This counter attack is timed to coincide precisely with the "returning wave" of your bodyweight which shifts back onto your front leg, driving as much momentum into your blow as possible in the circumstances. Civilian defence arts are not geared at "powerful strikes" as I've previously discussed. Accordingly, if you're looking for some sort of "power strike", you've come to the wrong place.

What single whip does supremely well however is generate a surprising amount of "bang for your buck". It is impressive how much force can be generated from a back-of-wrist snap. And this can be more than sufficient for a sensitive target such as under the chin or the carotid sinus (or, for that matter, several other vital points in that vicinity).

Defence first, counter second

Taijiquan is full of such counters: strikes that don't require much force to achieve an effective result. In this case, the strike might (or might not) be enough. Regardless, it buys you time against that surprise punch; and it does so as conservatively as possible, with its first aim being your protection and only its second aim being a counter.

In relation to the latter point, it is important to note that at all times both arms stay above the centre sternum line. This accounts for the (somewhat odd) hand position mid-way through the movement.

People have often asked me why in single whip it is necessary for your back hand to touch your lead forearm. Well apart from being useful in terms of further counters, it is also useful in further defence (if necessary). In other words... it is there if it needs to be used!

However, as previously discussed, if it happened to fall below the centre sternum line, it would be functionally unavailable. In other words, having your back hand touch your forearm is first and foremost about a reminder: to keep your arms up through the entire defence; both in defence and in attack. Dropping your guard unnecessarily, even with one arm, can be catastrophic. And civilian defence arts are not about risk-taking.


In this article I've started with the most basic, yet possibly the most useful (for civilians anyway) defence single whip can offer. As you can see, this defence is "low on power striking" and big on conservative movement that ensures your protection first, before going on to counter strike.

Critics of this technique generally point to "simultaneous" techniques as being "vastly superior technology", however this critique ignores the reality that such "simultaneous" techniques aren't always possible – particularly when you are facing a surprise attack . Besides, taijiquan is full of "simultaneous" techniques. Single whip just isn't one of them.

But it would be an error to consider single whip as two separate movements anyway. I know that in this video I keep saying "one, two" but in reality the technique is called "single" whip for a reason. You are really generating one continuous circular movement; there is no reversal of momentum in your arms – instead they inscribe a small circle that deflects and feeds back onto your opponent a sharp, nasty, whipping counter to vital regions. The unexpected and (to most people) unorthodox nature of the counter adds to the "surprise factor".

The next criticism of single whip generally goes: "People don't tend to throw only one punch." However there are two answers to such a criticism. The first is that this statement is statistically untrue; most untrained attackers throw a single, nasty surprise punch (see the videos embedded in my recent article on this topic); if they follow up with other punches, these are launched well after that first punch has landed. But in any event, single whip contains defences against multiple punches, particularly the classic "one-two" of a jab and cross. This is precisely why single whip keeps both arms "in play" as I have discussed.

I will cover single whip's defences against multiple punches (and other fascinating applications of this technique) in Part 2 of this article. For the time being, take note of single whip: far from being a stylistic "dance" it is in fact a powerful antidote to what I've previously described as most people's main "civilian defence nightmare" – that nasty, unprovoked, surprise first punch.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, August 6, 2012

Machida vs. Bader: the naihanchi connection

Here's a technique I somehow hadn't considered for the cage (although on reflection it is one of the civilian defence methods that is reasonably suited to that enviroment): the "double punch" from naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki.

It was in December 1986 and my brother and I were visiting our sensei in Durban, South Africa. One hot and sweaty morning, during one of the many intensive private trainings at his dojo, sensei asked my brother and me to consider the application of the naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki double punch technique - and report back to him in an hour or so. It was a kind of test.

Now the "double punch" is exactly that: a full sideways facing punch with one hand, the other a shorter "hook" punch (also executed sideways). Try as we might, we couldn't think of a rational reason for having 2 punches to the opponent - at such vastly different reaches. We thought it might be in case you missed with the first one or the second one... or perhaps you were aiming at two targets... or two opponents... Our sensei shook his head wearily. We'd failed the test.

"I want you to leave this dojo able to think for yourselves," he admonished. "This is especially important when the answer is so obvious. And it is obvious: the first is not a punch. It is a deflection that lets you enter into your opponent. The hook punch is the real punch."
"But that doesn't seem a very strong sort of punch."
"Oh it's strong enough."
He then proceeded to demonstrate the power of this punch on the makiwara.

Higaonna sensei (not my sensei) demonstrates a makiwara punch very similar to that shown to us that day. (I hasten to add that Higaonna sensei is in a league of his own when it comes to powerful punches - but our Sensei Bob was no slouch either!)

"But why wouldn't you simply do a rising block with your lead hand? Why do a punch if you're going to block?"
"That you can work out for yourselves. I've spoonfed you enough today. Try it and see. I'll give you a little clue: you're entering into your opponent - driving in."

It took me a while before I realised what he was saying. The lead hand could be a punch too. But if your opponent had closed the gap you could "blend" it into a deflection with very little effort, using the force of the punch to drive deep into your opponent. Combined with your opponent's own forward momentum, he would be primed to fall right into your hook punch at full speed. The fact that the lead punch misses actually creates a split second feeling that the danger has passed - when in fact it hasn't (the dangers of the old "dog hanging around the kitchen" as Sensei Bob used to say).

"But why does the kata aim the punch at the chest?"
"Because it is a neutral spot meaning it has a variety of targets - the head being one, the solar plexus being another... There are many targets you know - even on the face."
"Yes but should you be sideways? And why is there no body movement in this stance? Isn't it risky moving on the inside?"
"Enough questions! Train. And think. Think for yourself."

Of course I worked out the answers to all my questions over time. And in recent years I have used the same lesson for my own students. In fact, I filmed this very video to describe the naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki double punch a couple of years ago.

A video where I discuss the naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki double punch

Then just today, Lyoto Machida surprises us all again by appropriating this quintessential move from a quintessential karate kata into his MMA repetoire - this time against Ryan Bader.

Not long into the second round, Machida waited for his opponent, Ryan Bader, to charge. Then Machida himself drove in. With the naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki double punch. On the inside. For an instant knockout.

That Machida should use this technique is hardly surprising. As a primarily goju man, this kata has always been on the sidelines of my practice; a remnant of the days when my own instructor was part of the JKA shotokan organisation (until they converted to goju in the late 60s). But for Machida, this kata (which is called "tekki" in shotokan) is a staple. It is to Shuri and Tomari te schools of karate what sanchin is to the Naha te schools of karate - the cornerstone.

I'm not suggesting by any means that Machida somehow thought: "I think I'll try that move from tekki shodan today". However if you've grooved the same movement hundreds of thousands of times, it can manifest reflexively.

Yes, Machida might not be doing "pure karate" in the MMA cage. But it is quite gratifying (even surprising) to see traditional techniques show their effectiveness in such a spectacular way.

For all those who argued with me till they were blue in the face about the dangers of "moving to the inside", "turning sideways" and "not hitting with the lead hand", here a clear example why, sometimes, none of those are "issues". As I've just discussed, there is a time and place for every technique. Even the crane kick of the karate kid (mae tobi geri - it is actually a karate technique found in many kata). And even the double punch of naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki.

And don't get too caught up on how it "doesn't look exactly like the kata". Kata techniques are very formal. When applied they get the square edges rounded off. In my opinion this is more or less how this move of the kata was always intended to be applied.

If you haven't worked out why "moving on the inside" and all the other things aren't necessarily "always bad", then watch the fight again. If you can't work out why naihanchi/naifunchin/tekki doesn't feature any obvious footwork, have another look at the kata. And think.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Necessary and reasonable force


It is quite common to hear the argument today that if traditional fighting arts were "effective", they would be used in the MMA cage. The fact that they generally aren't is taken as proof positive that aren't "effective" (whether for their intended purpose or any other).

However as I have often previously argued, this sort of argument is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because it makes some assumptions that are manifestly false.

And be aware that countering these assumptions in no way denigrates skills useful in MMA (eg. BJJ), nor even their potential applicability in some civilian defence scenarios. It's simply that such scenarios involve much, much more than the two similarly skilled fighters purposefully slugging it out one-on-one in a cage or similar environment.

More importantly, what you can and can't do in these scenarios is significantly different from what you can and can't do in the cage. Sometimes it's a whole lot more, often a whole lot less. This article is about understanding what is permissible, and what is desirable/necessary, in a civilian defence context: in other words, its legal, ethical/moral and physical landscape, and how this differs from sport contests.

The false assumptions

By now it should be apparent that the first, and most basic, of the false assumptions is that cage fighting is "basically the same" as "street fighting" (whatever that is). The second false assumption relates to objectives and how these objectives can (or should) be met. The third ignores both law and ethics/morality, and how these will sometimes dictate similar tactics - but more often than not vastly different ones - from a combat sport.

So let us examine the first false assumption: that cage fighting and "street fighting" are basically equivalent.

Well, we know what that cage fighting is.

By contrast what is "street fighting"? If this term is intended to cover civilian defence, then it is manifestly inaccurate. The latter covers such a wide variety of scenarios that it is impossible even to make a presumptive list of them.

To begin with, they are (by definition) not "fights" but defences against attacks. These attacks range from a relatively harmless scuffle/wrestle to the most extreme violent crime.

In terms of the latter, my professional experience is that some people mean to take you out in the cruellest, most efficient way - not engage you in a "contest" or something similar (ie. a "fair fight"). Others don't know what they want; they are acting out of rage (whether emotional or drug-induced), psychosis (however induced), sociopathy/psychopathy or just ego/pride. Either way, they generally don't plan to "fight". They mean to hurt; and to do so in a way that is "not very sportsmanlike" (to quote Fezzik in "The Princess Bride").

Once you realise that that "civilian defence" is a much wider umbrella term than "cage fighting" could ever encapsulate, you should start to realise that the goals/objectives are fundamentally different. As I've previously stated, in a cage fight you win by "beating" your opponent. In a civilian defence encounter, you win if you don't get "beaten".

This is not a small difference. Indeed, it is critical. Papering over this difference by imagining worst case, one-on-one, unarmed scenarios - where your opponent must be killed or otherwise "totally disabled" (through MMA skills) in order for you to protect yourself - is not just simplistic; it is statistically inaccurate. Furthermore, it is likely to be plainly wrong by reference to not only our laws but by our society's ethical/moral standards (which the law generally reflects) and by the standards of logic itself. I'll explain what I mean by the latter shortly.

The difference in fighting scenarios

In a cage there are two combatants and one referee. The combatants have the same goal: to defeat the other combatant. The contest ends when the referee interrupts the action (due to a knockout, technical knockout or tap out). The rules allow certain blows and prohibit others.

What is a typical civilian defence scenario? There is none.

If it takes the form of two combatants in a circle fighting without interruption, then it is really indistinguishable from an MMA bout. And in those circumstances it is manifestly true that MMA fighters are supremely suited for the task and that pretty muchy no one else is.

But "civilian defence" doesn't often take this form. A scenario where the law would actually see this kind of fight as a genuine case of "defence" would have to resemble the storyline from B grade chop socky. That's what I think it might take to explain how an otherwise law-abiding citizen was "forced" to fight one-on-one in some sort of "contest".

In my former life as a prosecutor I never once saw a case involving a one-on-one fight similar to a cage match. Yes, such situations are prosecuted but they aren't the norm. And if they are prosecuted, the combatants generally share in the blame for allowing the scenario to unfold. Put simply, a "challenge match" is entirely different from a scenario where one is attacked in a civilian defence context. And it would be viewed as such under the law as well as our society's ethical/moral standards. In other words, rather than be viewed as one offender versus one defender, the law will consider that there are two offenders: two people who are committing assault against each other.

Stacking the odds

What are some things you might expect in a civilian defence scenario?

Well, your attacker is almost certainly going to stack the odds in his or her favour. I add "her" not just to avoid sexist language (the overwhelming majority of violent assaults are perpetrated by men) but because, in our State at least, there has been a disturbing increase in muggings and other assaults by female gangs on sole females – usually at train stations.

How do attackers "stack the odds"?

First, they use surprise. Now this doesn't always mean something obvious like a strike from behind. Rather, "surprise" might take the form of a strike to which you are forced to respond, ie. a blow that has come "out of the blue" and in relation to which a "pre-emption" has been simply impossible (for legal and ethical/moral reasons, never mind logical ones – more on that in a minute). I discuss these sorts of attacks in my previous article.

Second they use numbers: During my prosecuting years I can't recall a case of an assault where the offender wasn't in company – company that was prepared (and usually did) step in – particularly if the "playing field needed further levelling". (In my brother's recent experience, the attacker had an accomplice who came at him with a wooden post while he was restraining the first attacker. In a recent case of my own, I was accosted by 2 large young men, as I describe a bit later.)

Third, they go armed. In our State this is unlikely to include a firearm but it will very likely be something else that is nasty. A student of mine confronted a car thief who was armed with a sharpened screwdriver; a former colleague confronted a man with a sharpened car aerial; a friend was attacked in his home by a man wielding a hammer; I was once accosted by a man armed with a heavy torch). People go armed with blades of all kinds. Some use pepper spray. In the US you're very likely to be facing a firearm.

Different techniques for different situations

For obvious reasons this "stacking of the odds" combined with the legal, ethical/moral and logical constraints jointly require very different tactics depending on the exact nature of the circumstances. In some respects, practically every traditional fighting method has its time and place – however "absurd" or "ineffective" those techniques might seem within the confines of a one-on-one cage fight.

Nowhere has the above been explained better than in Lloyd Irvin's the video below.

As he describes, civilian defence situations require a very wide variety of possible responses and accordingly a wide variety of techniques – most of which are utterly out of place in a cage. And virtually every traditional civilian defence art deals with a specific manifestation of civilian defence needs; from societies where grabbing hands was common (to prevent a sword being drawn – eg. traditional jujutsu/qin-na) to societies where fighting often involves knives and batons (Filipino arnis/escrima/kali) to societies where fights occur in close quarters in crowded streets (wing chun/Naha te karate) etc.

Lloyd relates a scenario of his own where he successfully diffused an armed home invasion using qin-na and aikido-like skills, among other non-cage related tactics. As he puts it, his cherished BJJ skill (which is considerable) never came into play. My brother fought and restrained an intruder in his home using a variety of techniques, ultimately choosing ones that had little to do with punching his opponent (which he found he could easily do). My own experiences in civilian defence have utilised techniques - or simply psychology - vastly different from the ring.

That first punch...

In my previous article I dealt with one common assault that occurs in civilian defence scenarios, namely the "sucker punch".

In that article I discuss ways in which you might "see it coming", how to avoid it and, if necessary, how to deal with it. You'll notice that I am hesitant to advocate a "pre-emptive strike" as a simple (yet effective) recipe for resolving any such situation "before it arises". This is very deliberate.

By contrast, many of the responses I've had to that article comprised a statement along these lines:
    "I'd never let him near me in the first place. I'd... [insert destructive technique here]."
But there is a big problem with this sort of response: try it and you'll very likely find yourself with a criminal record – if not behind bars.

"Ah," comes the inevitable response: "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six."

The "12 and 6" cliché

Well I'll refrain from noting how clichéd, simplistic and foolhardy this statement is. Rather, I'll let Marc Macyoung and Rory Miller flesh this out for you. No, I'll just note briefly that if you decide to "clock" every person who comes into your personal space in a suspicious or argumentative manner – or even just push them - you'll quickly gather a rap sheet longer than your arm. I've lost count of the number of times where I've had no choice but to let someone hostile into my personal space – and I'm not even including argumentative relatives and friends, etc.

Yes, it is a very good idea to keep your personal space (as I discuss in my previous essay) and there are instances in which you can and should strike someone before they enter that space (as shown in the "karate instructor vs. pimp" video embedded further on). But to think you'll be able to adopt a "one size fits all" solution to civilian defence – and a violent one at that – is blatant nonsense.

Some examples of "overkill" tactics often taught in some modern martial art schools. In the unlikely event that you actually executed such a sequence, and did so successfully, in most cases you would be facing a very lengthy jail term. The circumstances in which it would be both "necessary" and "reasonable" to be stomping and re-stomping the head, groin and other vital regions would be very rare, in my professional (legal) opinion.

So when I hear someone tell me all about some formulaic approach I can only shake my head wearily. A recent example is where someone told me:
    "Normally, I give the guy fair warning. Then I tell him to BACK OFF. And if he doesn't listen, I... [insert violent method here]."
To begin with I'm more than a little suspicious of anyone telling me what they "normally" do in such situations (when they probably haven't had anything more than a verbal stoush with their neighbour over the fence). But trying to fit such narrow and violent wish-fulfilment fantasy to real life is absurd and, frankly, farcical.

And it is also guaranteed to get you in serious trouble (assuming you ever do carry out this fantasy – which you probably, and thankfully, won't). If this leads you to back to the "12 and 6" cliché, do me a favour: don't. Because you'll not only be in trouble with the law:
    You'll also be wrong.
You'll be wrong both ethically/morally and you'll be wrong logically.

I'll try to explain what I mean below:

De-escalation, avoidance and the need for a calm mind

What most people are voicing when they utter the "12 and 6" cliché is anger: anger born out of fear, anger born out of impatience, anger born out of frustration and anger born out of righteous indignation. But it is anger just the same.

Most of the time, I've found anger to be utterly unproductive to resolving conflict. You have to act calmly and dispassionately – even if you are striking your opponent with full force. Because it is only when you are calm and focused that you can be in the best position to make split-second choices as wisely as you can. The available time might not be much – but you'd be surprised how a cool mind can avert disaster; for you, for your attacker, for your family, your attacker's family, for everybody.

By contrast, anger can and does cloud your judgment. And I'm not just talking about going too far in defending yourself and getting in trouble with the law. I'm talking about escalating situations unnecessarily – situations that needn't ever have developed into a physical altercation (like the fellow who joined the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums only to announce that he might get physical with a shop assistant if he/she were rude). And I'm talking about leaving openings and making disastrous errors during the course of combat.

These are all lessons I've learned the hard way. As a younger man I had a nasty temper. I know only too well the pitfalls of letting that temper lead me into a brawl, then being hit so that my temper flared even more, then throwing all my effort into a stupid attack (with absolutely no regard for defence) only to find myself walking into painful and humiliating blows. Thankfully I escaped my own youthful altercations largely intact. But then again, as my training progressed, I found I was less and less likely to get into any altercation. Studying violence has that potential.

A personal example

In an article a while back, I wrote about how my wife and I were once accosted by two young men after a particular St Patrick's Day concert in Northbridge (a nightclub district adjacent to the city centre). I had seen the men before, clowning around in front of the stage where the band was playing. They were big, well-muscled and had enough drink in them to make them volatile, but not enough to dull their reflexes to any significant extent. Despite disrupting the band severely with their antics, no one had been willing to do anything to stop them – due to their obvious physicality, no doubt. So, as we were exiting the venue, I made a mental note to steer clear of them. I noted that one in particular, the alpha male of the two, reminded me a bit of one of a brother-in-law who is about the same age and build.

We had been walking for some time when I became aware that the two trouble-makers were just behind us, making some derogatory remarks about my wife. You can imagine my inward reaction. But even as I turned to look at them, I knew that it would be folly to engage them in a brawl. Not only did they stand a foot taller than I – there were 2 of them.

So I did something more sensible. I said to the alpha male (with a smile): "You know, you look just like my brother-in-law! It's amazing. You guys could be brothers!" From my reaction, I could tell he assumed that I hadn't heard the nature of their comments – or at least he wasn't sure (from my perspective this uncertainty was actually a better manipulating tool; I'll discuss this sort of thing in a future article). The alpha male abruptly changed his demeanour from a sneering, antagonistic one to one of puzzlement.

"Really? What's your brother-in-law's name?"

And so it went. Within 5 minutes we were swapping mobile numbers and having a laugh.

There is no formula

I don't relay this story to say that this tactic will work every time. Of course it won't. There is no one recipe for every situation. Instead, I used the information available to me. The fact that I put anger out of my mind let me react with a great deal more calmness and composure than I might otherwise. And one thing is for certain. Giving him "fair warning", then telling him to BACK OFF, etc. (according to the modus operandi of the previously-mentioned correspondent) would have spelled absolute disaster. As my good mate Dave says, in the best case scenario I would have occasioned a "whole lot of bother" – and my wife "wouldn't have thanked me for it".

Rather, each case must be determined according to its own circumstances. Are there situations where I would pre-emptively strike with all my might and in such a manner as to permanently disable or kill? Yes – I can imagine quite a few. But this doesn't mean that the next time I'm accosted by some young men, this scenario is likely. In my experience with criminal law, it just isn't.

As a further example of "wu-wei in action" I must point you to the blog post of my good friend and colleague Jo Roman, relating his recent experience on a train. It was his post that prompted me to write this essay in the first place!

Talking about public transport incidents, note also this charming story.

The two-pronged test for your actions

So what would I have done had the 2 trouble-causers not been deterred from violence via "mentalism" (a concept which I'll be discussing soon in a martial context)? Well, depending on what they did, I might well have had to do something physical. What would that be? Put simply:
    I would try to do that which was reasonably necessary.
That, and no more. It is important to note the term "reasonably necessary". There are 2 components to this term: necessity and reasonableness.

What I did would have to be necessary in the sense that it was an act clearly taken in defence and for no other reason. Pre-emptively striking someone always faces this potential obstacle: how can you satisfy a jury that your pre-emptive strike was calculated to deter an inevitable attack and was accordingly necessary? Sometimes it is clear from the circumstances. But in most people's violent "wish-fulfilment fantasies" I suspect that it isn't.

A video in which I think pre-emption is clearly a case of self-defence. Note however that the karate instructor is quite obviously about to be physically attacked (there is no doubt at all from the precedeing events/words) and note also that he does no more than is necessary to the pimp (a simple, single, seiyruto uchi or "ox jaw strike" - a traditional eastern martial technique I plan to showcase in an article later on).

Secondly, what I did would have to be reasonable in the sense that it was proportionate to the threat. Gouging a young alpha male's eye out or biting off his nose just because he'd said some insulting remarks would not be in any sense excusable, never mind legally. (In terms of the latter, I remember one bar room brawl where one fellow did exactly that – and he was the one we were prosecuting.)
As you can probably tell, this test doesn't yield exact results. It is always highly dependent on the circumstances. What is reasonable or necessary in one instance might not be in another. In other words, you can't plug your scenario into the test and get a formula for action.

Civilian arts techniques contemplate everything from pain submissions, which work in fairly low-aggression/adrenaline environments, to the nastiest, most drastic tactics - simply because they cover the widest possible field. Yes, those drastic measures such as eye gouges are options, but the circumstances in which you can and should use those options are going to be very limited by reference to this test.

The "reactive" vs. "proactive" nature of civilian defence

It is because of this 2 pronged test for civilian defence that the tactics (as opposed to the techniques/skills and conditioning) of the cage, where attack is the very aim, are (generally speaking) unsuited to civilian defence. While this is especially true of the first punch (where pre-empting is very problematic) it also extends to the rest of the confrontation.

Violence enacted in a civilian defence context is, and always has been (at least in the modern era), seen as necessary and reasonable only if it is enacted as a response. In other words, civilian defence is required by law to be inherently reactive - not proactive - at least in the sense of "permissible attack".

Now there are cases where pre-emption or some other "proactivity" is going to be justified; as I said, I can imagine more than a few cases. Sadly, most of them are, once again, straight out of a B-grade movie. The scenarios you are likely to encounter in real life are far more subtle and complex than "I'm holding your wife and kids hostage and I'll kill them unless you get in that cage and fight to the death with Attila." They are far more subtle and complex than a deranged criminal who, despite having his firearm taken from him, doggedly insists on trying to kill you anyway (even as he is bleeding to death on the ground, his bloodied hands creeping for the poker while your back is turned as you tend to your shocked family).

Back to Lloyd Irvin

If we go back to Lloyd Irvin for a moment, I'm fairly certain that after he disarmed his attacker, he didn't break the guy's neck, then stalk the rest of the gang through the house, taking each one out systematically so that by the time the police arrived they said: "Did you leave anything for us?"

We can laugh at this fantasy and even indulge it in idle moments but we can't confuse it with reality. Because at the moment he did the disarm and during the succeeding events, Lloyd wasn't a BJJ practitioner, martial arts teacher, or practitioner of more than 3 decades. He was a husband. And a father. He was a civilian. He certainly wasn't Rambo/Chuck Norris/[insert lethal killer here].

I don't know exactly what happened to Lloyd after he disarmed his attacker, but I do know this: he's not in jail and they aren't making a Hollywood movie out of it. I suspect the attacker capitulated (or Lloyd made him capitulate). Or Lloyd let him and the other attackers escape. I don't know. All I know is that the latter (letting the attackers go) isn't quite so "daft" as it might seem. My brother ended up letting his intruders go after they emptied their pockets. Another friend of mine who fought savagely with a home invader ended up hitting (and being hit) with a hammer. Eventually when there was a pause, he pointed to the exit and the criminal ran. It seems the criminal had only stayed to fight because he'd become disoriented and thought my friend was blocking his only exit. The criminal was later identified from the blood splattered on my friend's lounge room wall, and then arrested, charged and convicted.

[By contrast, I recall a case where a man detained and tied up a burglar. When the police arrived it was clear that the home owner had given the burglar quite a sustained beating. While the home owner wasn't prosecuted, he did however have his house mysteriously burnt down though some months later...]

Letting a criminal go in such a case might not be consistent with Hollywood endings. But it is far more consistent with what people do and, more importantly, what they sometimes ought to do in the interests of safety, the law and basic common sense.

The "proactive" vs. "reactive" nature of cage fighting

Sport fighting is, by contrast, inherently proactive in the sense of "permissible attack" - not reactive. In the cage your whole purpose is to "beat" your opponent. You can't "let him go" and you can't "run away" either. That is totally contrary to the very concept.

Rather, your main purpose in the ring is to hurt your opponent – within the confines of the rules, of course. Whatever the rules are, they don't affect your proactivity. You must go out and try to punch/kick/submit your opponent. It is, by definition, your objective.

As I have discussed, some "proactivity" is going to be allowed in civilian defence, but when this involves "pre-empting" an attack with your own, you're always going to be treading a very fine and dangerous line. In the end, a "pre-emptive attack" of the kind justifiable in civilian defence is a world away from that seen in cage fighting.

The necessity of learning reactive skills

Learning how to be "reactive" - and how to do it successfully - is diametrically opposed to cage/ring craft. And yet it is exactly what the law (and our prevailing ethical/moral standards) require for civilian defence. This is not to say that cage fighters aren't effective against civilian attackers - to the contrary! It's just that if you want to stay out of jail, you have to have a very different mindset in a civilian defence context. And this mindset principally affects how and when you can attack (and how and when you can't).

In this article I have given the example of Lloyd Irvin's home invasion. In my previous article I discussed how Guy Mezger clearly shifted his own approach significantly from that used in the cage when defending a woman from her partner. His entire approach (reacting, only doing as much as he had to do, etc.) was not only legally but ethically/morally defensible (especially when you consider that he could have literally destroyed his attacker the first time). I salute him.

And in this article I wish to give a special salute to Lloyd Irvin, not only for his courageous and effective defence of his family, but also for his inspiring words of wisdom. If you watch one Youtube video this year, let it be this one.


I have previously argued strenuously against "attack-centric" methodologies and their inappropriateness for civilian defence. However my previous essays (eg. my most recent one and my articles on "Surviving the surprise attack" and "The flinch reflex") have been based on the limitations of such methodologies in developing the skills necessary for civilian defence.

In this essay I have tried to explain that ethical/moral, legal and logical factors play an equally important part in making "attack-centric" methodologies inappropriate in many civilian defence scenarios.

In future articles I hope to address specific reactive skills – skills that are spectacularly unsuited to cage tactics but which are intended for a civilian context. To those who still argue that reactive skills "don't work" remember Lloyd's and Guy's examples. And try to think outside the narrow confines of your own (flawed) assumptions about what happens in the "real world".

Whatever your martial art or system, I sincerely hope you never have to use these or any other defence methods. But if you do, I counsel you to remember the dual tenets: let your actions be limited to what is necessary and what is reasonable in the circumstances. Don't confuse Hollywood fantasy for real life. I certainly never saw cases that remotely resembled such fantasy. Lloyd Irvin's and Guy Mezger's are pretty much as close as it gets.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic