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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Four Basic Principles Of Self-Defence

My karate class on Wednesday night was a little more subdued than usual, at least for me. Usually, I consider this almost 2-hour class the highlight of my week. I get a good workout first of all. My heart gets pumping, my lungs get a good workout. All my muscles get a good stretch. And if I am lucky, we spar, and I get to put my self-defence skills to the test against other martial artists of various skill levels.

But yesterday's class was a little different. One of our classmates could not make it. She is an older lady who has been in the class longer than I have been in the class. We have always taken our tests together and advanced up the ranks, through the various belt levels, together.

The reason she was not in the class was because she had an accident at home over the weekend. My sensei explained to the remaining students that during Saturday night, this student fell down a flight of stairs at home and shattered her right leg in 5 places. It was sometime in the middle of the night and the others at home were asleep. She had been found at the bottom of the stairs only about an hour later by her son who had gotten out of bed for something.

She was taken to the hospital and had to undergo surgery to set her leg. Her bones were pinned together with metal pins and the leg was put in a large cast. Unfortunately, because of the delay in treatment, some blood clots had formed at the fracture sites, and then migrated through the bloodstream to her lungs. So, she had to be admitted to the ICU and put on a course of blood-thinners. She is still in the ICU. Given the extensive damage to the leg, she will certainly not be in my karate class for the next few months at a minimum. Whether she will ever return to martial arts training is an open question at this point. I felt a little depressed throughout the class yesterday, and the highlight of my week became a bit of a lowlight (if such a word exists!).

Being an older lady (over 50), she had always been prone to bone-related problems. It could be due to osteoporosis or other factors. She had problems with hair-line fractures and cracks in her feet and shins, and some near fractures of her ribs many times during the time I have known her. She usually did not let any of these things stop her from training in the martial arts.

Now, she is a much more dedicated martial artist than I will ever be. She joined this dojo only about 3 to 6 months before I joined. But I have pretty much restricted myself just to this class whereas she has enrolled in progressively more and more martial arts classes over the years. She is a brown belt in another style of karate now, and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She trains 4 or 5 times a week and has participated in tournaments, both in sparring and in kata exhibitions.

When she started getting various problems with her bones, our sensei and I tried talking her out of taking so many different classes and just focus on one class. Our sensei even told her that he would understand if the one class she chose was not his. He thought she was injury-prone because of over-training. But, in spite of her injuries, she continued in all the classes. She has come to our classes many weeks in boots of various kinds because of the need to protect her feet or shins after a crack or hairline fracture.

Our sensei had visited her in the hospital on Monday and again spoken to her yesterday. After explaining to the class what the situation was, he digressed to a different topic that had come up during his conversation with this student: she had admitted to our sensei that when she fell down the stairs, she was wearing "stupid shoes" (her words, according to the sensei, not his or mine).

Shoes are a favorite topic of conversation with our sensei, who brings it up often in class during discussions of basic self-defence principles. Before I go too far into the details of what my sensei brings up when he discusses footwear, I should explain what his ideas about the four basic principles of self-defence are.

I have not read any books on self-defence. Pretty much everything I know about self-defence comes from my sensei and my own very limited experience. Maybe, what he has taught me about self-defence is what every book on self-defence teaches. Or maybe he has his own unique ideas on the subject. And maybe his ideas are vastly superior to what is in any books out there. Or maybe his ideas are dumb and will one day get me killed or maimed. I have no idea.

But his ideas seem to be based on common sense. I can not believe they would be that bad given that they are based on common sense. And, as he is fond of saying, common sense is so uncommon, it should not be called common sense in the first place!

So, anyways, his first principle of self-defence is AWARENESS. If you are not aware of any dangers, you can not defend yourself against them. Always be aware of your surroundings. Look around you at all times and notice if people are following you. Notice people or groups of people who look unsavory and keep your distance from them. Don't get too lost in conversation, sightseeing, fiddling with your cell phone or other distractions to lose sight of being aware of what is happening around you.

Keep your distance from situations that may reduce your awareness. Avoid dark streets. Avoid walking too close to cars in the dark. Move away from doorways and alleyway entrances. You don't want to be surprised by someone jumping out of one of those places with a weapon.

The other advantage of being aware is that it reduces your attractiveness as a target to would-be perpetrators of crimes. Criminals, just like everybody else, are lazy, and want to go for the easiest target in a given environment. They would much rather try to pick the pocket of some idiot who is busy engrossed in deep conversation with someone else, or trying to read and respond to his email on his blackberry than to pick the pocket of someone who is actively looking around all the time and clearly has a heightened sense of awareness. They don't want to make the effort to try and approach you when you are actively aware of their intentions and are making it difficult for them to do so.

In the years since I have enrolled in this class, I would like to think that my awareness of the environment I find myself in has increased exponentially. I used to be one of those typical people who are blissfully unaware of what was happening around me unless it affected me directly. I used to walk in strange cities with my face glued to a tourist map, with my only concern being how to get to where I wanted to go without getting run over at crosswalks.

Over the last 10 years, I have developed mannerisms and habits that have increased my awareness of my surroundings several-fold. I always check all around my car before I get into it (including peeking into the back-seat from outside). When I am out walking, even in my neighborhood which seems to be completely safe, I will walk well away from large shrubs and bushes through which I can not see clearly at ground-level. When I am in a strange place, I devote at least half my time to scanning my surroundings and only the other half of my time to navigating, reading a map, looking at the sights, etc. Maybe I am crazy for being paranoid, but it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Secondly, always have a way out. Sometimes all the awareness in the world is still not enough to keep you out of trouble. Sometimes, trouble seeks you out. That is when having options to get away from the trouble come in handy. It is simple things like knowing not to be squeezed between two cars where you can be cornered by just 2 people with no way out. If someone is going to try to hurt you, make them work for it. Keep an open space all around you if possible. If trouble-makers approach as a group, try to put some large object between them and yourself. Walk around a car to keep the car between the trouble-makers and yourself. Even a light pole or parking meter can be put to good use to avoid being cornered.

The same principle applies even when you are driving, for instance. Give yourself as much room all around as is practically feasible. Don't follow the car in front too closely. In addition to the danger of rear-ending that vehicle, following too closely forces you to spend more of your time focusing on the vehicle in front and possibly losing awareness of what is happening elsewhere around you. Always have a plan in mind about which way you are going to turn in an emergency to have the maximum probability of avoiding a collision. Even when stopped at a signal, for instance, leave yourself enough room in front so that you can maneuver around the vehicle in front of you if necessary.

Thirdly (and this is where the "stupid shoes" part is relevant), always be prepared to outrun the danger if possible. My sensei always comes to the dojo in his sneakers and removes them only when he is teaching the class. At the end of the class, he always wears his sneakers again before leaving the dojo. He is fanatical about always being in what he considers "sensible footwear".

So, today's class turned into a pretty long lecture about the importance of always wearing good footwear. He usually goes into such a long lecture on this topic at least in one class every 2 or 3 months. Most of the students come to the dojo in slip-ons and flip-flops, at least during the summer. He always starts by asking the students what they would do in these footwear if they had to run away from an attacker.

My sensei prides himself on never leaving the house except in sneakers or boots. He is not a big fan of boots because they are heavy and hinder his ability to use his legs in a fight if he got into one. But he is a big fan of sneakers because they are light and protective. And he does make some valid points about them.

They are obviously easier to run in than flip-flops and sandals. They don't fall off your feet quite as easily, so if you have to run over rocks, downtown streets filled with broken glass, etc., they are much better suited than your average flip-flops. They are obviously much better-suited for defending yourself from a knife or gun than flip-flops. Kicking the blade of a knife instead of your attacker's hand with a sneaker is a recoverable error. If you made the same error wearing a sandal, you might be hobbled for the rest of the confrontation.

Moreover, they come in handy even when your adversary is not another human. For instance, it is obviously easier to kick out the window of your car if you are trapped in it after an accident with a shoe than with sandals on your feet. Good footwear also protects you from falling objects better. And you have a better chance of not breaking your toe if you trip over something in shoes rather than in sandals.

I must admit, I always show up for class in a pair of sandals that strap around my feet when the weather is not cold. These sandals will not fall off my feet if I run, and I have run quite fast in them just to convince myself of that. But they don't protect my feet all that well. It is just that they are so convenient to slip on when I leave the house instead of having to sit down and wear shoes. They also keep my feet cooler when it is hot outside. So, I have listened to my sensei's lectures about footwear and chosen to keep doing what I felt was more comfortable for me.

My co-student's misfortune, though, gave new ammunition to my sensei in his quest to convince the rest of the class that good footwear is a very important part of "self-defence" in the larger sense. Not just defence against other humans who would harm us, but against nature and the dangers of ladders, staircases, uneven pavements and sidewalks, etc. Obviously, his lecture was sprinkled with liberal disclaimers that all he could do was appeal to our common sense, not force us as individual human beings, to wear shoes all the time or even agree with him in principle. And honestly, I don't think anyone in the class disagrees with him. It is just that everyone has different perceptions of the pros and cons of wearing shoes as opposed to sandals or more comfortable footwear.

Growing up in the suburbs, and being used to safer streets, cleaner roads and sidewalks, and less chances of encountering human adversaries also tends to play into the perception of the relative value of sneakers over sandals. If you have never run away from an adversary or had to walk through a field of broken glass, you are obviously less likely to think about the advantages a shoe would provide you when you encounter such a situation.

Even though it has nothing to do with karate or self-defence, my sensei did not pass up the opportunity to use the circumstances of my friend's unfortunate accident to try to convince the rest of the class to take their self-defence training more seriously when it comes to the "run away if possible" part. Taking that part more seriously might have other payoffs including better safety when navigating staircases.

By the way, the fourth basic principle of self-defence is the only principle many people usually associate with self-defence: be prepared to fight if you can't avoid the problem. Many martial arts classes emphasize this to the exclusion of the first three principles, and thereby do a grave disservice to their students. My sensei has always emphasized to us that fighting should always be our last resort. In a fight, there are no guarantees. You have no idea what the skill level and experience of your adversary is. You have no idea what kinds of weapons he/she has. You have no idea how far he is willing to go if you challenge his ego.

It is always better to get out of the situation unhurt even if it means losing money and/or other possessions. Those you can always get or earn back, but you can't earn back your life or good health if those are threatened. It is good to know that you have prepared yourself to defend yourself, but there is no point in putting yourself in danger over trivial material possessions. Obviously, if the intention of the attacker is to harm you personally, then you have no option but to defend yourself, but otherwise, it is better to just hand over your wallet or watch or whatever else the attacker wants and walk out of there safely.

There are other advantages to avoiding a fight too. Not fighting means not getting into any legal issues. The civil justice system being what it is, even if you ultimately are found not liable for damages, you may still end up spending a lot of time, energy and possibly money defending yourself against what you consider a meritless lawsuit that arises out of a fight you could have avoided entirely.

I don't know whether my ego will allow me to do that with a clear head if I ever need to make such a decision. But my sensei repeats this almost as often as he repeats his footwear lecture, so hopefully, I will remember if I ever need to. There is never any shame in running away or buying your way out of a situation without having to endanger yourself. Big egos are a way of life, with movies and television perpetuating the myth that if you are trained well enough, you can fight against 16 men with knives and guns without a single scratch on yourself, but reality is very different.

I know because we sometimes spar with an opponent armed with a knife, and in spite of all the techniques I have been taught for disarming a knife-wielding opponent, I have managed to do it very few times (obviously, it does not help that my opponent knows the techniques I will try to use, but then what is to say that a random opponent I encounter on the street will not be wise to those techniques either?), but those sessions have helped me appreciate the uncertainties associated with defending myself against any adversary with a weapon. Even if you come out on top, a single cut from an AIDS-infected knife can turn into a death sentence in the long run. Even unarmed combat is a crap-shoot as my sparring matches have made abundantly clear to me.

So, to recap, be aware of your surroundings at all times. Knowledge is power supreme. Always give yourself an out, whether you are walking, driving or doing something else. Be prepared to take yourself out of the situation by flight if possible. Remember that there is no shame in running away from an unnecessary confrontation. Never let your ego change what is at stake from a few dollars to your life or limb. Wear sensible shoes, not "stupid shoes"! Only as a last resort does your martial arts training need to kick in. Fight only if you absolutely need to. Fight only to save your own life or the lives of your loved ones. Train yourself to do so as best as you can and hope that you never ever have to use it outside the dojo!


Anonymous said...

Sneakers really don't protect your feet as much as people think, though they are better than open toe shoes, they probably don't offer enough protection to forgoe wearing what is comfortable in the off chance that you will need that little bit extra protection. My sensei practices foot imobilization, one of the principles Bruce Lee taught. He has the ability to cause a tremendous amount of pain with his foot traps even through shoes. I've also been in situations where bare feet gave much better traction for fighting than shoes (grass). It is also best to train in what you will fight in. If you train bare foot you will fight best while bare foot. So in reality your instructor should have the class wear mat shoes to simulate what he is teaching. In general I agree with your instructor, but I don't believe we need to live our life in fear of being attacked.

Blogannath said...

Thank you for your comment. In the summer, we do go outside in sneakers and train in them (including sparring and so on). I agree that nothing is ever likely to be perfect when you get into a fight, and as my sensei likes to say, everything that can go wrong probably will, so he tries to get us to practice in different situations we are likely to encounter so that we are better prepared if we need to use the training.

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