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August 18, 2007


OK, I'll bite again. Maybe Tai Chi is a solid martial art for some people, people willing to dedicate themselves completely to its study and who are fortunate enough to have an excellent teacher who knows the martial applications. This is not 99% of the Tai Chi students out there. Many of these folks may think they're learning a martial art, but in reality it's no more effective on the street than yoga.

One anecdote: I dated a woman who had been studying Tai Chi. I was practicing judo and kickboxing at the time, and lifting weights religiously, so I was in really good shape and in practice (not so much any more). She was convinced she could defend herself using Tai Chi. We sparred a bit, and believe me, there's no way in hell she'd be able to defend herself using the Tai Chi she learned. No way. She was deluded about her own abilities, and that's far more dangerous than knowing nothing (and knowing you know nothing).

I've studied Tai Chi, but if I had to defend myself (again), I'd be using Muay Thai and/or Filipino knife-fighting (or better yet, my Smith & Wesson). I've had to defend myself more than once, and I can't imagine using anything I learned in Tai Chi class. It's all about short bursts of ultra-violence, and the aggressor usually wins. That's not even close to what I practiced in Tai Chi class. But I have practiced that in kickboxing, judo, and arnis class, and at the range.

Techniques are really secondary in my opinion. It's how you train, specifically whether you train against a person who is trying to resist you 100% and the mindset you cultivate. I recently came across a video on Youtube that shows taijutsu knife defenses (since you don't seem to support HTML, search for "Stephen K. Hayes Dayton OH dojo"). It's WEAK. The guy feeding the thrusts is not even trying. People who practice this way are setting themselves up for defeat. My arnis teacher would eat these ninjas alive.

You fight as you train and the mindset you cultivate. If you train v...e...r...y....s...l...o...w...l...y..., with no warrior spirit, following a rote routine, that's how'll you fight. Not good. You have to be willing to cut someone's throat without hesitation, to destroy your enemy without remorse in a furious burst of spontaneous violence. That's the un-PC gist of it, based on personal experience. It's kill or die on the street, and if you don't practice that way, you won't fight that way under pressure. You will hesitate, and the predator will take advantage of your hesitation. It only takes one punch/stab to end the fight/your life.

The more I studied martial arts, the more I realized that there will ALWAYS be someone bigger, stronger, and meaner than me. Someone with nothing left to lose, someone with friends and/or weapons. The best defense against these predators is not hand-to-hand martial arts. It's a firearm and the training and determination to use it. A knife is second best. If it comes down to mano-mano, you've probably already lost.

Just my 2 cents. I've been a martial arts drifter, never stayed long enough in any one style to go beyond brown belt, so I'm not an expert. I could very well be wrong about the soft arts.

Coyote, great comment. Hard to disagree with anything you said. I've never been in a real life kick-ass fight, so your experience trumps mine.

A few thoughts though: You present an extreme where someone is hell bent on doing you serious damage, or even killing you. That's a reality.

But more common are less intense confrontations. Someone getting in your face, threatening you, throwing a punch out of anger, drunkenness, or meth-fueled pissed offness.

Here you don't need to respond with the traditional karate "killing blow" mentality, all or nothing. And here, I'd say, combat Tai Chi is well suited to the situation. It gives you options for handling (and hopefully defusing) the situation.

That said, I agree that a gun is the best ultimate self-defense weapon, not bare hands. However, it makes sense to have a range of "weapons" available. No reason to use a bazooka on an attacking kitty-cat.

And yes, there always will be someone stronger, faster, meaner. This argues for a martial arts style that doesn't rely on strength, speed, or meanness. Don't play the other guy's game if you can't win it. Play your own game. That's the essence of Tai Chi.

I like both Brian's and Coyote's comments.

I have been around a number of 'real' fights, where the combatants were trying to kill the other guy. Martial arts training in such a situation obviously could help, but the level of crazed aggression and adrenaline is so intense, that anything short of a full crotch/throat shot, eye gouge or joint/limb break is not going to stop the guy, and sometimes even that isn't enough. PCP does wonders for pain resistance.

These types of fights usually end up on the ground, the guys grappling around like alleycats feeling no pain, just chemical fury. Eventually, the winner manages to smash his opponents head against something, strangles him, or crushes his head with a rock, etc., or stomps him into oblivion. Perhaps a wrestler or jiu-jitsu specialist in such a situation would have an advantage as submissions would be applicable in a ground fight.

I have learned, if threatened, to run, or hit first as hard as you can in the most vital/vulnerable area available and then run like hell unless there is somebody else involved you are protecting. In that case, you may have to fight. These days, I'm not so athletic anymore, so I carry a plastic impact tool and a knife. Knives can obviously do incredible damage, but can get you into really big trouble. My plastic tool looks fairly innocuous, but a hard hit with one to the sternum, temple, eye socket or other nerve ganglia is nothing I want to experience. Guns are a pain to carry and too noisy, but if you don't mind that, they are the way to go if you walk the mean streets.

I'm not saying martial arts skill is ineffective, far from it. It can't hurt to have training and the reflexive response that comes from it. Plus, it's good exercise and self-discpline. In a stand off between ego-posturing males, or in an opportunistic mugging, martial arts training may save the day, but in a killing death fight, it boils down to the type of power, strength and agression you see in the wild, say, between two lions battling for pride dominance. This type of raw tooth and nail power often overcomes subtle technique.

Once, in a martial arts studio a tough guy off the street wanted to spar with the black belt instructor. Admittedly, the black belt was in tae kwon do, a sport karate with limited street application in my opinion, but the street guy went straight through the instructors side kick, tackled him, and drove him into a wall and left him there stunned and bleeding from a bad cut over the eye where the street guy's elbow hit him. Poor, humiliated black belt instructor!

I don't know much about Tai Chi, although I seem to remember taking a few classes in the early 70's either at the Taoist Sanctuary in San Diego or at UCSD. I remember it was surprisingly difficult and tiring to perform the movements correctly. I am impressed with the fluidity of movement, body awareness, and calm centeredness experts have in this art. This would have good practical application in nutralizing/avoiding many aggressive attacks both physical and mental. If the Tae kwon do instructor had performed a neutralizing tai chi movement in response to the street fighters rush, it may have been him crashing into the wall instead.

Anyway, tai chi seems like an excellent philosophical exercise with health benefits and self defense applications once you get good enough at it. Although more physically challenging than apparent to the casual onlooker, those whose bodies aren't quite what they used to be may find they can practice tai chi without injury.

I found a beginners class in my area with an experienced, versatile instructor. As soon as this pulled hamstring heals, I think I'll give it a try.

I have no experience in any of these martial arts but it seems to me the most risk to most people today is not someone attacking them but their own health failing, their emotions ruining the enjoyment of their life, and hence the program that most helps with spinal flexibility and heart health would be best.

As was mentioned above, and I did find this article and all comments interesting, someone who really wants to kill you is likely to be more ruthless than you will be no matter what your training. It's all in blood lust and which of us, who live normal lives, wants to have that anyway?

Rain said:

"It's all in blood lust and which of us, who live normal lives, wants to have that anyway?"

I agree, but remember, as the saying goes (sort of)...we live normal lives because there are those who are willing to engage in blood lust on our behalf.

Actually, I think it goes more like...Gentlemen sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men are willing to fight on their behalf.

Anyway, you get the drift.

but the average person taking a martial arts class doesn't qualify for that position of civilization saver, Tucson Bob. That's a police officer or a soldier, trained to fight and yes kill when need be, and doing it with the authority of the people behind them-- although even they get criticized when they do what must be done to fight against those who do have the blood lust. I don't have the martial art skills but I do have a concealed weapon permit and a gun which if I didn't know I could use if it was required, I wouldn't own. I guess that's the nature of the martial art skills. You can't use them for prevention of bad stuff. You have to be willing to use them brutally or you are kidding yourself that they are protection-- and then without training, who knows when it's okay to actually act to kill? That's why police are so uncertain about the benefit of the average people having concealed weapon permits-- the concern that those who have one will misjudge a situation which even a trained officer might find it difficult to assess sometimes.

Rain wrote:

"but the average person taking a martial arts class doesn't qualify for that position of civilization saver, Tucson Bob...."

I'm not sure what you are saying the above in relation to. In other words, your response doesn't make sense to me, but it could be my fault.

I'm not advocating violence or a killer instinct in the general population, just offering my observations on the reality of life and death 'alley' fighting as it relates to martial arts training. Most of us don't need to worry about that and can sip our latte's in peace.

However, there ultimately are no rules out there, anything can happen, and it is possible some maniac could show up at the coffee shop, so everyone has to decide for themselves what level of preparedness they are comfortable with regardless of what the police or society thinks. There are reasonable arguments for not being prepared at all for personal violence, and the opposite.

You say: "who knows when it's okay to actually act to kill?"

Well, suppose there is a terrorist about to detonate a bomb that will blow up a busload of school children? He is about to touch the trip wires together. Should we take him out, or have a little chat first?

Very few times when someone is behaving in a violent manner would the average person know when it'd be good to kill. If an intruder is in my home, it's clear and then a gun is my weapon of choice. Out on the street, it would depend on what they had already done. If they have already shot someone as did the guy last winter in Salem, I think it's clear that shooting to kill would be good. Once, when renting an apartment in town, I had a woman literally challenge me to come out and fight her on the balcony of my apartment. If I had taken her up on that before the police got there to arrest her, they'd have arrested me too.

When the shootings happened in Virginia, no martial arts person could have saved the day. A gun might have in the right hands. Those who had the physical strength to block doors with their feet or bodies also saved lives.

It is not that I am opposed to martial art training but see that the front line against violent people is generally filled with trained people who are willing to kill when they must and we have to be grateful for them. For the average person, even in a street fight situation, if you killed, you'd end up the one possibly facing jail if you had enough martial art training to be considered a dangerous weapon or used a gun.

The best way to avoid bad things is be very alert when out, watch people who act strangely, call the police if you see something you see as dangerous. Even with a concealed weapon permit, the best method is usually not to start shooting. Very few ordinary citizens are trained to know when and being willing to kill has to be something you know before you start in or you will be the dead one.

And this is all purely my own opinion based on 63 years of observing, not having to fight for my life. I avoid the places I expect I might have those experiences and if they come anyway someday, I will hope I have the wisdom to deal with it wisely. When I am concerned and out at night, know a gun would be inappropriate, I carry pepper spray. That is good because it allows you to say later you were sorry if it turns out you were wrong. For most women, getting into a grappling situation is usually not going to lead to winning-- trained in martial arts or not-- unless the guy is a total wimp.


Sounds reasonable to me.

You wrote: "...if you killed, you'd end up the one possibly facing jail if you had enough martial art training to be considered a dangerous weapon or used a gun.

Yes, this is a situation you hope to never find yourself. Martial arts or not, self defense or not, you're in a heap of legal hassles if you have a killing on your hands. Arizona and Florida have laws which state that you do not have to try to retreat first if you feel threatened by deadly force. You can confront it directly and not run out the back door, but you'd better be right.

Brian wrote: "A few thoughts though: You present an extreme where someone is hell bent on doing you serious damage, or even killing you. That's a reality. But more common are less intense confrontations. Someone getting in your face, threatening you, throwing a punch out of anger, drunkenness, or meth-fueled pissed offness."

Yes, you're absolutely right. Most of these situations will not require the cold-blooded killer instinct that I described in my first post. Most of these less dangerous situations can be avoided by staying out of bars, avoiding bad parts of town, etc. But sometimes bad people come to you.

It's best to have as many tools in the toolbox as possible, ranging from mano-mano to handheld weapons to firearms. Best to be prepared for as many situations as possible, and unfortunately, some of those situations require a killer instinct. This is not something I learned in my first few years of martial arts (Tang Soo Do). It took being sucker punched in a confrontation outside my apartment and some training in the rougher martial arts like kickboxing and judo to get that through my head. Raw aggression and physicality, as well as a warrior's mindset, will defeat pristine technique 9 times out of 10. That was really the point I wanted to make in my rather long-winded post.

Anyhow, Tai Chi is a great martial art, no doubt. I really enjoyed studying it, and I definitely plan on studying it in the future, especially now that my shoulder and knee joints can't take judo anymore. Do you think any particular family style is more effective than another? Yang vs. Chen? Probably depends on the teacher I guess.

I have personally taken a few martial arts myself. I first started out taking tang soo do for many years. Yes it was useful for strength training and full force agression. I will have to say that as you get older and wiser there are many ways to defeat your opponent. I have worked in various security enforcement environments and almost always use about 50% force with any situation.

I have studied both Aikido and Taijutsu for years and it takes alot of self-control to go from a hard style art to a soft style. I have had many hand to hand attacks and knife attack. And was still able to control half force.

Tai Chi takes a lot of self-control and understanding to use it effectivly. Yes it is true that most of these soft style arts do train on an non-violent side. For me I found a teacher that was very skillful but was extremely deadly in a less than a second.

Having an adult mind set is key to these arts.

Tai Chi is a great martial art.The myths and reality in martial arts showcasing various forms, secret skills, ancient knowledge, and hidden techniques from all over the East.That's the essence of Tai Chi.

To be honest most people today take martial arts class to be bad or to participate in MMA tournaments, I dont know how many people consider martial arts as an art of the mind and body for health benefits and ones peace.

I study Chen style Tai Chi and am lucky in so much as my teachers have been trained at Chen family village and also because the school where I learn is connected to Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei, one of China's top ten martial artists.
People don't seem to realize that in Tai Chi most of the application side is geared up to street fighting and survival tactics.
It's soft and gentle image is simply wrong. Maybe it should be renamed into "Dirty Kung Fu street fighting methods."
But then maybe that would give the game away somewhat, but does this sound like a gentle art?;-

Crushing someones knee as they try to punch you, seperating their guard, open palm strike to the testicles and then finally an uppercut through their guard at the exact same moment you knee the already comprimesed groin, finished by stamping hard on their instep.
This is just one use of the application
" Budha warrior attendant pounds mortar." You learn to move slowly so that your body learns to move as one whole without comprimising balance, speed or power.
Tai Chi is also a close combat art, which helps you to nullify a lot of blind aggression because they simply can't swing at you when your so close. The really effective thing about Tai Chi is that your not simply learning certain strikes for certain situations, it's more like teaching your body a new set of fundamentals to move by, so that you can respond effectively without having to think about what you are going to do. Behind all the fanciful names and forms is a combat system that is fast, hard and brutally direct. This is the reason you will not see it in MMA or UFC, not because it is too soft but because it is too lethal to use for sport!
I suppose any style is as strong or as weak as the person who uses it, the trick to guarantee never loosing a fight is simple and effective and easy to learn...
Don't fight! Anyway that's my two cents worth. Nice posting.

Jojo, thanks for the right-on comment. My Tai Chi instructor often speaks of the Chen style as being the most combat oriented. He went to the international symposium at Vanderbilt University last summer and was exposed to more of the Chen style, and got to meet some advanced students -- some of whom you've likely heard of (and whose names I can't remember).

Tai chi is an extremely effective martial art (both the Yang and Chen style), with very practical self-defence applications and even deadly moves. People look at the form, which looks like a ballet and get fooled thinking that that's Tai chi. But the form represents only 20% of the whole of Tai Chi. The applications are hidden in the form (I had no idea until they were shown to me by my teacher), in the true Chinese tradition. A few points to make here:
1) In Tai chi you fight with your whole body, so it always works no matter how big is your opponent (e.g. your opponent might have big biceps, but won't be able to resist you if you use the muscles your whole body at once).
2) Tai chi does not rely on a fixed set of movements, but in your ability to sense the opponent movements and act accordingly (in Tai chi there's no stance as such) - in a real fight situation you might not have the time to get into a stance and definitely don't have the time to think: that's why you often hear of people with black belt in karate being knocked out in a street fight!
3) Tai chi has both long and short distance applications: punching/kicking as well as grappling and that's exactly what happens in a real fight situation.

A note of caution here: most people practise Tai chi only for health reason, without studying the martial aspects. And it probably takes about 10-15 years of training to be able to use it effectively as a martial art. But try to test a Tai chi master to see its effectiveness! I personally enjoy both the health and martial aspects of Tai chi; I have been practising for a few years and will take me years before being able to use it as a self-defence martial art. Having said that, I just enjoy the art, and have little interest in fighting: the best way to deal with a fight is to avoid it in the first place…

Alex71, great comment. You nicely summarized what Tai Chi as a martial art is all about. And you were realistic about how long it takes to really absorb the self-defense applications of Tai Chi moves.

My teacher is fond of quoting a Tai Chi master expert in this area who, when asked what an application of a particular move (like White Crane Spreads Its Wings) is, answered "It depends."

Meaning, on the situation. On what the other guy is doing, how large he is, how energetic he is, what came before and what will come after, what your own intentions are.

So this aspect of Tai Chi takes quite a while to learn. Yet it is what makes Tai Chi practical and real, as contrasted with simply being an exercise/health/"dance" style.

I think Tai Chi is an excellent exercise that has many benefits including the possibility of self defense applications.

This is good.

However, I would advise a person who is serious about unarmed self defense to learn wrestling, grappling, submissions and ground fighting techniques combined with kickboxing. Go to a place where they spar, hit hard and hurt you if you make a mistake. This is the way to learn to fight if that is your interest. You learn to fight by fighting.

In the early days of Mixed Martial Arts, practitioners of single disciplines like karate, boxing, judo basically had no chance against the jiujitsu grapplers and wrestlers. As soon as they got taken to the ground they were finished.

Now all this has been formalized into a sport that combines many martial arts. Of course there are rules like no fish-hooking, eye gouging, groin strikes, strikes to the base of the skull or kicks or knees to the head when the man is down. Still, this sport more realistically depicts what actually happens in an alley fight than in your typical boxing, tai chi, aikido or karate dojo (with some exceptions).

Not knocking anyone's favorite martial art. That's just the way it is from my perspective.

Tai Chi was formulated as a martial arts, no doubt. It is also no doubt that it has lost heaps through to the modern era.

I have heard it said that chaps like Yang Cheng Fu switched the emphasis to the health side with the upsurge of the communism and the prejudice against the elite of which he was a part.

End result is that 95% of all marital Tai Chi is just crap and is not relevant to todays reality of MMA and street-fighting. As a Tai Chi teacher I look to arts like Systema to bring back some of the in your face reality that all fighting arts need.

I have been attacked a couple of times in my life. Once at 14 (when I was barely 110 lbs. and didn't know how to make a fist) by two men who sucker punched me and knocked me out cold. I came to and managed to escape.....I thrusted myself with a kick, off the first guys groin and slid across the floor on my back. No idea how I came up with that or what made me do it!! The second guy moved from the door he was holding closed and said "don't hit me".I couldn't believe what happened and how cowardly these men actually were. I then started taking Karate classes (realizing that I just got lucky), and trained to the level of brown belt. Then many years later at the age 0f 46 I was attacked again by a hotel manager while sleeping in my bed. I escaped from this potential rape as well....did I use Karate? I am not sure.....I wrestled around, scraped his face in the dark (maybe an eye gouge?) and somehow escaped this attack, but barely. This went on for about 10 minutes and I was so exhausted afterwards. I had to wring the sweat out of my shirt in a sink. I felt like I am just too old and out of shape for this and in one more year I wouldn't have been able to do it. If someone had video taped it maybe I would find that I had good posture, knees bent, a proper strike....I don't know. It happened so fast and everything seemed to go into slow motion (during both attacks) and then the memory of it was kind of a blur. Sort of like when you drive the same route every day and cannot remember driving home....but you know you did. Would Tai Chi have helped? Well, I think what would have helped is to have been in better shape, more flexible and to have timing and reflex training. I think you can get this from many martial arts and other sports. I am now 50 and have been injured in car accidents, sports, falls, life etc.....so this time I will take up Tai Chi or a Karate class where they will not insist that I workout like a 20 year old. I don't think any martial art can guarantee that you can defend against a crazy person who may not feel pain like we do....but it cannot hurt to be in shape and so just do something you enjoy. Oh, i did use Karate once in a mild situation....drunk guy in bar grabbed my arm to take me home with him. I simply turned towards his thumb(karate technique) and walked away. Karate is effective for these sort of attacks for sure.

Very interesting comments . I do MMA , wing chun , and chen tai chi chaun . I've also done ninjutsu , krav maga amongst others . All have their merits . But in a real fight things are certainly different . 80% of most street fights end up on the ground , and don't last all that long in this current western way . Lets face it , you cant sneak a blade into his midriff as a ninja might do , or strip his arm of flesh as a eskrima practitioner can do . We are all restricted by this cultural code of ethics on how we are to altercate . The most lethal aspect of martial arts lies in the deceit , the element of surprise , and the willingness to use it . I have personally demonstrated against a 3rd dan MMA black belt (I'm 1st dan ) and he didn't stand a chance . Here's why . Some ones going to get hit , and it will hurt and disorientate you , more so than you think . If you don't go to ground , you go into damage control , and here in lies the fact of street fighting ; your going to try and shut the opponent down , stop them from continuing to cause you damage , and to buy time to recover , if your the one that has been hit . This is where Tai chi excels . It's a shut down close quarter art that robs the opposition of any chance to exploit his art . Then with in this sphere of influence the real tai chi practitioner begins to play . Arm breaks , take downs , snapping necks , shoulder strikes , wrist locks , and more . If you look at the chen style 'cannon fist ' form , you will see the power a tai chi practitioner can deliver . Let's face it , in a real fight , I'm not going to let you bounce around kicking and punching the shit out of me , I'm not going to let you take me down (bitumen hurts hehe!) , I'm going to shut you down , I'm going to connect with your force , and then I'm going to use that force to finish you off , Whether it be a leg sweep , or a shoulder strike to your face , and it's all pending on how you move . Relax don't collapse is the thing I remind myself constantly in Tai chi . The forms are not methods , but more so principals of movement . I have personally experienced from the worlds chen style tai chi grandmasters son what he could do to me if he chose to . Once he took my balance , I was defenceless , I was at his mercy . Yes , there are those who do not how to use Tai chi in a martial application , just as a Tae Bo work out instructor couldn't step into the ring , Jo jo has got it right . Of all the arts I have learn't , in a real fight , Taichi Chen would be the probable choice

I live in Quanzhou, China. One of the original homes of Kung Fu as practiced by Shaolin monks. But tai chi is serious business here and it's highly respected as a self-defense art. Even amidst the Kung Fu environment. The latter art is not quite as popular here as it was in the decades preceding and the many years following the Bruce Lee obsession. But the police and military still employ Kung Fu aspects in training. Yet tai chi (the pinyin spelling and pronounciation differs) remains a foundation of Chinese martial arts culture. I'm endeavoring to learn it and with my very American background in sports such as football and wrestling, it's no easy deal to re-train the body and, more so, the mind. Thanks for giving such great info and background and history that endorses this not-so-respected self-defense art in the West...

I came here to read about Tai Chi, and was met with a weird masculine perspective. Can you just write about Tai Chi without feeling the need to defend your masculinity?

Phoebe, I wasn't defending my masculinity. I was writing about "Tai Chi as a kick-ass martial art." There are quite a few women who learn Tai Chi. Many of them enjoy the self-defense applications. Here's a link to the other blog posts I've written about Tai Chi, ten in total:


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