Connecting -- The Number One Skill in Tai Chi, Hsing-I or Bagua

Ken Gullette sparring 1980
I am on the right against a fast, skilled opponent.

I was sparring a guy in 1980 and he was taking it to me. He was fast, with a great reverse punch that had nailed me a couple of times as I moved in on him. I was tensing up, trying to figure out how to beat him.

Then I connected. I relaxed and got my head out of the match. I waited with a relaxed state of readiness for him to move.

When he attacked, I was already moving. When he arrived, I was already there and planted a hook kick on the side of his face.

Ken Gullette Hook Kick 1980
After connecting, I was ready for his attack and nailed him with a hook kick.

When I took my black sash test in 1997, among the many tasks I had to perform was a sparring match with wooden broadswords to show strategy, technique, and skill. My "opponent" was another black sash with a wooden broadsword. He was cocky and considered himself a lot better.

I relaxed and calmed my mind. I centered, and connected with him. We assumed the on guard stance. 

The instant he moved toward me with his sword, the tip of my broadsword was already touching his shirt at the heart. It would have been a clean kill. One cut, fight over.

Have you ever sparred with a martial artist whose reactions to your techniques were sluggish and seemed to lag behind yours? 

You throw a technique and it gets through, or he deflects it, but his counter comes after a beat, giving you plenty of time to throw another attack or prepare for the counter. It's as if he has no idea you are going to attack until the attack has landed.

He is not connected.

When you are not connected, you will always work a step or two behind your opponent or your partner. Being connected allows you to respond like an echo, or as the Tai Chi classic says, "When my opponent moves, I move faster. When my opponent arrives, I am already there."

The same is true in Hsing-I and Bagua. 

Look at this video. It shows a Hsing-I fighter who thinks that if he just has a good San Ti stance, he is doing Hsing-I. He is not connected to his partner and the result -- he gets knocked out.

Maybe this isn't fair. This is a poorly trained fighter. He has no business being in a full contact match. I hate seeing someone suffer a concussion for such a stupid reason as this. A concussion can change your life. But this post isn't about that sort of stupidity -- it's about the lack of a connection with your opponent, which he displays.


The art of connecting to your opponent is the number one skill in the internal arts and there are plenty of ways to practice. Here is one.

Connecting Drill #1


Connecting Drill Ken Gullette - Justin Snow
A connecting drill -- my partner prepares to try and slap my hands.

Your partner should stand with his hands at his sides. You will stand in front of him with your hands in a "prayer" posture (palms together) held out at a range where he can reach them.

Your partner is not allowed to fake. His goal is to slap your hands before you can pull them away. 

This drill requires you to relax -- remain in a relaxed state of readiness -- and be hyper-sensitive to your partner's intent and his physical movement. You must pull your hands out of the way before your partner can slap them.

Connecting Drill 2 - Ken Gullette and Justin Snow
I connect with Justin Snow, my partner, and get out of the way before his hand can slap mine.

After a couple of minutes, switch sides. You will hold your hands at your sides and your partner will hold his hands out, giving you a chance to slap them. He will need to connect with you and pull his hands out of the way before you can slap them.

This is also a good reaction drill and a speed drill, too. If you are trying to slap your partner's hands and you telegraph your movement, he will easily be able to avoid being slapped.

This is just one of many connecting drills. The concept can be carried forward into sparring. Become your opponent. Relax and be ready. Anticipate his movement. When his attack begins, you should already be moving. When his technique arrives, you are already there.

Connecting is not just a concept for fighting. This is a skill that also carries into your daily life. Are you connected to the people at work? Can you anticipate when your boss or a co-worker has a need for your skills? 

At home, are you connected with your spouse and your children, or do you mentally detach yourself? Do you listen? Do you become "one" with your partner?

When you interact with the world, are you connected? Are you doing more damage than good to our planet and to the creatures that inhabit it? Can you do better?

Do you have empathy for other people who feel wronged, abused, or disrespected by society or by authority? Can you connect with them and see the world through their eyes?

A lot of good things happen when you learn to connect.

Chen Laojia Yilu Form - One Self-Defense Application for "Six Sealings Four Closings"

The Chen Tai Chi form "Laojia Yilu" is almost a complete fighting art in itself. In 2008, I recorded three DVDs that take each movement in the form and break them down, unlocking more than 400 self-defense applications from this one form.

Hand strikes, punches, kicks, knee strokes, elbows, shoulders, kicks, sweeps, takedowns, joint locks -- it's all there.

I am currently adapting the DVDs for a new Kindle ebook that should be out within two weeks. It's a big task to try and write a book with 400 fighting applications from one form.

But as I was working on the ebook today, I was focusing on the applications for the movement "Six Sealings Four Closings." Actually, just part of the movement, a part when the arm folds in. It's a "closing" movement that shows up in a lot of postures throughout all Tai Chi forms in every style.

The applications in these DVDs, by the way, work with any style of Tai Chi. After all, all styles evolved from the same source.

Take a look at this short clip and then go to the link and watch another clip from the DVDs.


 Watch another clip from the DVDs on Laojia Yilu fighting applications.

How to Use Intent in Your Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua Movements

I am currently updating my instructional videos for the Chen Tai Chi form Laojia Yilu, replacing video shot between 2008 and 2010. As I was shooting instruction on Sunday for the second movement of the form -- Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar -- the concept of "intent" came to mind as something a lot of people misunderstand.

A lot of Tai Chi instructors talk about "intent," but too many students are left with the impression that intent is somehow connected to "cultivating chi" or other mystical, healing energy nonsense.

Let's cut out the noise, eliminate the middleman, and cut to the chase.

"Intent" means exactly what it implies. What is the intent of the movement? What are you intending to do with this movement?

The answer is almost always a self-defense application.

Tai Chi was created as a martial art. Every movement in the form is a self-defense movement. 

Buddhas Warrior 1When you perform Tai Chi movements with the intent of self-defense, it informs how your "energy" should be used, how you focus your body mechanics, and where you put your arms and legs. You feel completely different when you move if you are thinking about self-defense rather than becoming One with the universe or trying to be healed by some mystical, cosmic force.

Let me show an example of how the intent of a movement impacts the move. There is one movement that almost always comes second in a Chen Tai Chi form. It is called "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar." 

Buddhas Warrior 2In the first part of the movement -- which contains several parts -- you raise the arms at an angle on the left side of your body. In the top photo, you have just finished the Opening movement. In the second photo, you have raised your arms to the left side. But your arms are angled to the left.

Many beginners go too far to the left, until their arms are pointing sideways.

If you go too far to the left, you violate the "intent" of the movement, which is primarily to grab an incoming punch, get your hands on your opponent's punching arm, and either break it or control it some other way, such as an armbar takedown.

Buddhas Warrior 3Let me show you. In the third photo, if a punch comes in and I move my hands up to the left side too far, I get a bloody nose. And believe me, my nose is hard to miss.

The last photo shows where my hands need to rise to intercept and grab the incoming arm. I deflect and grab the wrist with my left hand and bring my right hand to his elbow.

Buddhas Warrior 4This can be a strike, holding his wrist in place and striking his elbow with the right palm. Elbows break very easily. If the situation does not call for that level of violence, you can do an armbar instead. This is where your hands should be at this point in the movement -- at an angle, not too far to the side. Why? Because it doesn't make sense from a martial perspective to take them too far.

And so, your body, arms, hands, legs, etc. are more likely to be in the proper place if you are able to execute a self-defense application while using your energy in the most efficient internal way.

All of the other principles of Tai Chi are still in play here -- the internal and external harmonies, the body mechanics, the "energies," etc. But the intent of the movement drives it all, and the intent is the application.

If you are not practicing the fighting applications of Tai Chi, there is no way you are going to understand the true intent of the movements. No way. End of story. No matter what your teacher tells you while he is urging you to cultivate chi.

And here is another dirty little secret. As long as you are thinking about cultivating chi and you do not learn the fighting application, you will never have a clear idea on how to properly perform Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar or any other movement in the internal arts.

Here is another little secret. If chi actually does exist (and you know how I feel about that), it will be flowing and cultivating if you do the movement properly and if you are practicing the fighting application in a way that uses proper body mechanics. It is much easier to "feel" the "chi flow" when you perform an application and understand "Oh, THIS is the way I close into the kua and use whole body movement to knock this guy over my knee!" Those lightbulb moments will illuminate the "secrets" of Tai Chi for you a lot faster than pondering abstract, flowery descriptions in the Tai Chi Classics.

On my online videos and my DVDs, fighting applications are as essential as the body mechanics of the movements. In fact, the body mechanics of the movements are often understood much more clearly by showing how they work in a self-defense situation. The entire feeling of a movement changes when you work it in a self-defense scenario. That is why I teach applications as I teach the movement -- in person, on my website, and in most of my DVDs. In fact, if you want a really good understanding of Chen Tai Chi applications, many of them also adaptable to Hsing-I and Bagua, check out my 3-disc DVD series on Tai Chi Fighting Applications.

The concept of "intent" is a simple one. The real art, and the real complexity, comes when you try to apply internal body mechanics properly in both movement and self-defense.

Is Your Internal Arts Class Preparing You for Real World Self-Defense? Podcast Interview with Ari Kandel of Guided Chaos

Logo-IFA-2014-300I am turning 62 years old this week. I have managed to make it this far without ever being attacked by someone who wanted to kill me. I usually stay aware of my surroundings at all times and it has served me well over the years.

Remaining aware without anxiety is an important part of self-defense. A state of hyper-vigilance, like that of a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a police officer who is constantly put into potentially violent situations is not healthy and rewires your brain in destructive ways. This is why soldiers returning from war have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and why abused children have trouble in school and can act out in violent ways. Anyone who has to remain on alert, constantly in a "fight or flight" mode, is damaged. But awareness and mindfulness is a different and a more healthy state of mind.

So how much time do I need to spend training for a type of violent attack that I have never experienced? And what else do I need to do to prevent that type of attack from happening?

I was always a good fighter. I have beaten guys who were great punchers -- who jacked my jaw -- by being smarter. But I haven't been in a real fight since I was 18 (I have diffused or avoided fights as an adult). That's another reason I am about to turn 62.

As an internal artist, how much do I enjoy and appreciate the "art" and how much do I train for real world self-defense? I like a balance. But that is one of the reasons I wanted to do this week's podcast on Guided Chaos.  I appreciate what they do. Their material has made me take a fresh look at the Xingyi, Taiji and Bagua that I practice. 

It is important to understand that if you train in self-defense but don't prepare yourself for the killer -- not just the ego fighter in a bar -- you are missing a key element of a good self-defense mindset.

I think this is a good interview that all internal artists -- hell, all martial artists -- need to hear, even if, like me, you intend to live the rest of your life without being attacked by a someone who really wants to harm you. Because you just never know, do you? You can listen to or download the podcast, and I would appreciate it if you would share this blog post.

I became aware of Guided Chaos through my good friend, Evan Yeung. Although I had done push hands for some time, when he showed me the Contact Flow training exercise that they do, it changed the way I approach push hands and close-up self-defense.

Guided Chaos is a martial art created by John Perkins in 1978. It is heavily influenced by the internal arts, although calling it an internal art would get eyes to roll among some in the Chen Taiji community. But I would urge you to open your mind and absorb what is useful, and there is a lot here that is useful.

In the latest Internal Fighting Arts podcast, I talk with Ari Kandel, a 4th degree black belt with Guided Chaos who runs a school in Boca Raton, Florida. You can listen online or download the podcast by following this link. It is also available on iTunes.

There is a Guided Chaos workshop scheduled for April 18 and 19, 2015 in Kansas City and a workshop that I plan to attend in Cincinnati on September 19 and 20, 2015. You can find details for the workshops and much more information on the Guided Chaos website.

Tai Chi Self-Defense -- Connecting with and Controlling Your Opponent's Center

Tai Chi is a martial art that involves "internal" principles that are quite different than arts that use a lot of muscular blocks and strikes.

Among the highest skills in Tai Chi (also spelled Taiji) is the ability to recognize the force an opponent is directing at you, adapt to it, neutralize it, and counter by putting your opponent off-balance, or helping him take himself off-balance.

One of the important ways to unbalance your opponent is by connecting to his center and then controlling it. By doing this, you often can "take his energy where it wants to go." Sometimes, you can do this by an action that connects to his center and begins taking his "energy" in a specific direction.

This video is a short clip from a much longer lesson that is on my website.


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Taiji Grappling and Taking Advantage of Your Opponent's Energy

Energy-Work-1Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that it is a mistake to interpret the term "energy" in some mystical way. Energy can simply mean "force" when discussing the energy an opponent is directing at you.

Energy can also mean "method" to describe a way of dealing with the force your opponent is directing your way. In other words, Cai Jin (Pluck Energy) describes a method of plucking or jerking to put your opponent off-balance. There is no actual "energy" called Cai in your body.

Many Westerners are inclined to believe things literally -- Adam and Eve, ghosts and psychics, etc. -- and so mythology has developed around the energy of the internal arts. You don't gain skill by increasing chi, your "chi" increases as you work like hell, gain experience, insight, and develop skill as you do in any sport, any physical endeavor, any trade or profession.

I love the grappling skills associated with the body mechanics of Taiji -- how to feel my partner's energy and take advantage of it to put him on the ground. Push hands is one way to bridge the gap between form and self-defense, but as you work on your push hands, after you learn the patterns and applications, this is another step forward in the process.

A lot of fights end up in a clinch. The fighter who can read his opponent's energy (force) can often gain advantage, and Taiji is a close-up fighting art that requires you to sense an opponent's energy, neutralize it, redirect it and take advantage of the moment of vulnerability you have created.

These photos show one sequence as I practice with my friend and black sash student, Chris Miller. We clinch in Photo 1, then he steps in to try a one-leg trip/sweep in Photo 2. This is a common takedown in martial arts.

I maintain peng and the ground, and apply pressure to his left shoulder with my right hand in Photo 3. You can see his torso moving back. In the internal arts, you learn to take his energy where it wants to go. In Photo 3, I have caused his energy to begin moving back. Now, I want to help it go that way.

He has very poor support because he is standing on one leg during his sweep attempt, and as I maintain peng and the ground path into his right shoulder, he is in a vulnerable position and will have a hard time defending himself.

All I have to do is turn my waist (Photo 4), maintaining ground and moving the arms with the waist (Dan T'ien) and use my leg as leverage to keep his energy moving backward and take him down.

This is not something that requires a thousand hard takedowns in practice. In fact, the most important thing is recognizing and reading his intention to sweep you, maintaining good body mechanics, and being in position to take him down. We often practice it without mats, beginning the takedown but then helping to catch our partner before he hits the ground. With mats, you don't need to be so careful.

There are many techniques and energies to practice. This blog post only shows one. I recommend practicing each technique like this with a partner -- over and over -- to get the feel of it. That type of repeated practice allows you to internalize the feeling so that you know what to do when an opponent moves to take you down.

Try two weeks free on my website, Internal Fighting Arts, and get complete instant access to 700 video lessons, ebooks, and more that explore the internal arts, the movements, body mechanics, and fighting applications.

Real-Life Self-Defense On the Streets - A True Story

What is self-defense like "on the street?"

Some people want you to believe that you must be prepared to take on a champion MMA fighter. They want to make you think that traditional martial arts are ineffective. They want you to think that if you don't hurt people in practice, and if you don't get banged around yourself, you can't defend yourself.

That's ridiculous. In my classes, the risk of injury is always present but as a rule, I don't believe you need to hurt anyone or be hurt to be a good fighter. And some of my students have proven me right when they have had to use what they have learned in class.

In reality, the person who attacks you on the street is someone with an anger issue, sometimes they are drunk, and they will not be trained in martial arts. They are not in good shape. Their aerobic conditioning is bad. They are bullies, and they think you will not fight back.

Here is a video that shows a real-life self-defense situation. A black street musician is accosted by two racist thugs. Watch how the musician warns them and then dodges a couple of attacks. The attacker is so full of anger that he loses his balance and falls down. 

Also notice how the musician continues moving. That is a very good technique that keeps a potential attacker off his game. He is also smart to keep either of them from getting behind him.

This is very realistic because it is true. And these thugs are representative of the type of idiots you will come up against "on the street," and not someone who would win an MMA match.

Keep training, stay out of dangerous places, and be confident.

Caution -- Adult language is on this video! Do not play with children present (or at work).



Tai Chi for Basic Self-Defense -- A 4-Step System for Learning to Defend Yourself with Taijiquan

Ken Gullette and Tom Revie tai chi
A simple Taiji self-defense move against a punch.
by Ken Gullette
I was 13 and the bully was 16. He was the sheriff's son and he had terrorized younger kids in Wilmore, Kentucky for years. On this particular Saturday around 1966, I was his target. After some taunts and dares and a shove or two, we walked with our friends, including a couple of my cousins, behind the drugstore where no adults were looking. Our friends circled around and the bully swaggered up and stood in front of me. I was scared.
The bully was bigger and more confident than I was, and I was pretty sure he was going to beat me up. My God, he was 16!! When you are 13, a scrawny kid wearing glasses with tape holding them together, that's a big difference! Since he was the sheriff's son, he used that information to scare other kids, making them afraid to fight back. I took my glasses off and handed them to my cousin Mike.
The bully started punching me and I blocked what I could and moved around. We circed for what seemed to be hours, the bully laughing and taunting me, throwing occasional punches that stung my face. In my memory, he looks a lot like the bully in "A Christmas Story." His friends cursed and taunted me while my cousins, who were younger than I, circled with the group in quiet support, afraid to see me hurt but also afraid the bully would turn on them next.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of circling and getting hit, I could feel the scratches and bruises taking their toll on my face and I decided, "To hell with it. If I'm going to get beaten up by this bully, I'll go down swinging."
He came closer and WHAM! I punched him in the face as hard as I could.
The bully staggered back, shocked, his eyes watering from a good punch in the nose. This put things in a new perspective. The kid was fighting back!!!
The bully was suddenly scared and made up some excuses and scrambled out of there quickly, his little toad friends jumping after him in a panic. My cousins cheered. I had beaten up the town bully. The story would spread like wildfire through Wilmore for months, a reason for every scrawny nerd to celebrate. I was a hero.
This memory went through my mind when I received an email this morning from a member of my online kung-fu membership site telling me that he had been in a situation recently that could have turned violent, and he realized at the time that he did not know how to use Tai Chi for self-defense.
Like any martial art, it takes a systemized approach and a lot of practice, but using Tai Chi to defend yourself is no more difficult than any other martial art. The truth is, most Tai Chi instructors do not know how to teach you to defend yourself.
Here is one secret to preparing yourself mentally. You do not have to be Muhammad Ali to use boxing for self-defense, and you do not have to be Chen Xiaowang to use Taiji for self-defense. If you think your skills have to be at a master level, you are setting yourself up for defeat.
In my view, self-defense is something many of us do naturally. We all have it within us to defend ourselves -- we can punch, kick, claw, bite, throw if someone attacks us. Unless we freeze, and fear keeps us from moving, our instincts help us cover up or block punches. When the bully attacked me, I had no martial arts training, but I managed to deflect a few strikes.
19-2-12-CA self defense system simply focuses our power and technique. The best type of system helps you learn principles of movement and a flowing of technique so you can adapt to different attacks as they are changing. Where a system of self-defense helps is to focus your power and help you anticipate attacks so you can respond almost as soon as the attacker begins his attack.
At its higher levels, Taiji is more complex in the way it responds to force from an opponent, and the body mechanics it uses to "listen," adapt, neutralize, and counter incoming force. 
But we won't worry about the higher level skills right now. 
There is also no difference in the time it takes to learn how to defend yourself with karate, or boxing, or Taiji. Using the arts in an ideal way is not the same thing. Effective self-defense does not require you to be able to sense and neutralize every bit of power that comes at you. It does not require high-level push hands skill. And so I am taking an unorthodox approach here and taking push hands out of the mix.
Here are steps to take for learning to defend yourself with Taiji or any internal martial art:
1. Learn the fighting techniques. On my Tai Chi Fighting Applications DVD series there are 400 self-defense techniques from the Chen family Laojia Yilu form. There are defenses against shoves and pushes, grabs, punches and kicks. The defenses include punches, kicks, joint locks, evasions, sweeps, throws and takedowns. You do not need to learn 400 techniques. Only a few will serve you well in a variety of situations. It is better to be really good at 5 techniques than mediocre at 50 techniques. By studying 400 techniques, you can learn how the principles of movement are similar between techniques.
Study the techniques. Write your favorites down. Think about them. Practice them with an imaginary partner at first. Work on the body mechanics.
2. Practice techniques with a partner. Practice techniques against a partner using very light contact at first. The partner will throw attacks that you expect and the partner is not trying to make contact, either, except in grabs and chin-na. This is a learning situation for both of you, not a situation where you are trying to win. Take ego out of it. Do not injure your partner. It is not necessary, believe me.
Practice the techniques over and over and over. It will take hundreds of times over a period of weeks and months. You are looking to work on positioning, timing, and power. There are ways of using power without hurting your opponent. When you punch, miss your opponent, or learn to pull with power and barely touch your opponent (pads are good here). Don't practice in a wimpy way. Don't be stiff. Use relaxation, speed and strength together -- the body mechanics of Taiji, which you should also be developing through practicing the form.
A boxer does not become an expert with a jab overnight, and he can't put together effective combinations in a month. It takes time in any art to develop skill. Taiji is no different.
3. Put on protective pads and use techniques against a partner who is throwing random attacks. This step comes after you have learned how to move with the techniques against a partner. Start slowly. There are no specific rules to this. Your partner should use attacks creatively. It is your job to anticipate but not script a scenario in your head. 
If you find yourself unable to respond with the right technique against random attacks, don't worry about it and don't give up. Ask your partner to repeat the attack. Practice the proper technique. Ask him to do it again. Learn to anticipate. This is why we practice. It is the reason kung-fu is a "skill that comes from years of hard work." No martial art comes easily -- karate, jiu jitsu, boxing, Taekwondo -- anyone can do some moves, but applying those moves with body mechanics, speed, timing, strategy and power -- that is the real art.
When you get to the stage when you are using protective gear, you should still respect your partner and not injure him. Use caution especially when doing techniques to the head, throat, or a joint such as the elbow, wrist or knee. I have trained people who successfully used the internal arts in self-defense and they never hurt anyone in class. It is a myth that you need to inflict pain to learn how to fight well.
All you have to do in each system is learn the fighting techniques and practice with a partner, then put the techniques into action in a sparring situation using light contact and wearing protective padding. Learn to be creative and respond with the right technique against the right attack. 
4. At a certain point, your partner should stop cooperating. By the time you get into step 3 for a while, your partner should cooperate less and less. If you are attempting a joint lock against a punch, he should try to escape the joint lock. If you are deflecting a kick, he should follow up as quickly as he can with another technique, just as someone would do in a real fight. Or your partner should try to get you in a clinch, and you practice chin-na, short attacks such as elbow strikes, and takedowns.
Your job is to adapt quickly and flow with the principles of movement, capturing his center and taking care of the attacks as they come. Your goal is to put him down. In a real fight, your goal is to break him and put him on the ground.
Here is one additional tip after you learn some basic fighting techniques:
5. Work on your Push Hands skill, which teaches you to become sensitive to your opponent's "energy" when you are grappling. A lot of fights end up in a clinch, but true skill at push hands takes years. Usually, you do not practice push hands until you've become halfway proficient at a Taiji form. As you practice the forms, you should work push hands into your practice. After you learn the proper movement and mechanics, you should begin learning how to neutralize force and take advantage of your partner. Move from pushing hands to chin-na, for example. Learn how to flow against energy coming at you. Learn to counter against his counter. This takes years, too. And it is not something every instructor will tell you, but since I was the kid fighting the bully, I can tell you that push hands skill is not crucial for using a basic level of Taiji for self-defense, just as a powerful jab-cross-uppercut combination is not crucial for using boxing for self-defense.
Keep working on your Taiji forms. The forms teach body mechanics. As your movement gets better, your push hands and your self-defense will get better.
If you practice fighting techniques with a partner, and also in sparring situations, you can learn to take care of many situations, but it requires a lot of thought and a lot of practice. Joint locks, sweeps, throws and takedowns should be part of the possibilities you see when an opponent attacks.
No art is easy. It takes time to practice the techniques and then it takes time to learn how to adapt the techniques to a partner who is not cooperating with you. What is truly difficult is using Taiji in its ideal, advanced form, but if you expect that from the beginning, you are defeating yourself before you begin.
19-3-8-CLearning how to move like Chen Xiaowang or Muhammad Ali takes a long time and more work than most of us want to put in. But you don't have to be a master or a champion to defend yourself successfully, so don't worry about that. Study the techniques and body mechanics and practice each one against the appropriate attack with a partner. When you feel comfortable enough, put on pads and have your partner attack and not cooperate with you. Practice in sparring situations. Practice against a heavy bag to develop power.
When people ask me what would I use if I was attacked on the street -- Xingyi, Taiji or Bagua -- I tell them I don't know. It depends on what the attacker was doing, and the LAST thing on my mind would be to justify my practice of any art. I would simply defend myself. I would even bite if someone got me in a good choke hold. Why limit myself? There are no rules in a real fight, and biting is not a typical Taiji technique.
By the way, the bully's father, the sheriff, never came after me to throw me in the pokey. I think the bully was probably too afraid to say he had been whipped by a 13-year old. He never bothered me or my cousins again. Bullies don't like it when you hit back, whether you are using Taiji or not.

Be Water, My Friend - Bruce Lee, Push Hands and Close-Up Self-Defense

One of my favorite quotes from Bruce Lee was not completely original. The concept was already part of Taoism and Zen long before he said it, but Westerners had not heard it in the early Seventies.

"You must empty your mind," he said. "Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

Ken Gullette - Colin Frye 1
My partner Colin aims a punch at my chest.

I think of this often when I work with my students on push hands and other close-up self-defense skills. I try to be water, and flow around resistance to find my way to my target.

What happens when you punch water? Bruce Lee talked about an inspiration he had when he was frustrated and punched water one day on a lake. Whether this story is true or not doesn't matter. Bruce said that when he punched into a lake, he was inspired because the water gave in to his punch and yet flowed around his fist.

Taoism says "the softest thing cannot be snapped." It discusses a blade of grass or a reed, bending as a strong wind blows. The wind might knock down a large tree if it is old and stiff, but a blade of grass is soft and flexible, and lives through the storm.

Ken Gullette - Colin Frye 2
I flow around the punch, removing the target and setting up an elbow strike.

When you are practicing push hands or any close-up fighting drill with a partner, you should become that soft blade of grass, giving way to force but surviving.

Be water, my friend.

Flow around the force that your partner or opponent directs at you. Relax, intercept it and find your way around, just as water in a stream does when it encounters a large rock in the river bed.

When I do push hands with someone who is too stiff, they are very easy to defeat. It is easy to find their center and move it, because a stiff arm connects directly to their center. Push the arm and the center follows.

Ken Gullette - Colin Frye 3
He stiffens his right arm but loses focus on his left, so my right hand finds his face.

Likewise, someone who is focused on the force they are trying to give you has often lost their center. Their focus can have too much purpose and too much intent. If you are able to remain relaxed and flow around that force, you can find your target and strike effectively.

This type of training should be started very slowly. You and your partner should look for openings and move very slowly for a while as you learn how your body should best respond. You will find yourself tied up, twisted, and off-balance, but you must respond as slowly as your partner moves (if either partner moves too fast, they must be called on it). Both partners should attack and defend whenever they feel an opening.

It is okay to do poorly at first. If you find yourself in a double-weighted position -- in a position where you cannot defend -- ask your partner to do it again, slowly, so you can figure out how best to deal with an attack. This is "investing in loss." If all you are interested in is getting a shot in on your partner, your skill will not progress as it will if you understand that your goal is to find your own weaknesses and make improvement in your skill.

Over time, you speed it up, but for a while, it is best to go very slowly, learning to walk before you run.

It doesn't take water very much work to be relaxed -- only a temperature above 32 degrees. For you and me, being relaxed and learning to flow like water takes a lot of hard work.

So how do you apply this to your life outside of self-defense? I'll talk about that in my next post.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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