Effects Of Adrenalin & Self Protection

This is a subject that to be honest I’ve avoided writing about up to now because it’s already been written about in so many other places. However, as I aim to make this website one of the internet’s most useful one-stop resources for martial artists, I decided to cover it for completeness.

Any martial artist who is interested in real world self protection (rather than just sport or the artistic side of martial arts) should know about the effects of adrenalin and how it might affect them in a real life confrontation as adrenalin (sometime spelt adrenaline) has both negative and positive effects.

First of all, what is adrenalin?

It is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands on the kidneys in response to stress. The stress can be something as simple as being stuck in a traffic queue whilst late for an appointment. In this case adrenalin is really a completely inappropriate response from our bodies, but society has evolved much faster than we have as a species. Our bodies still respond as per our cave man ancestor’s “wiring”, to modern problems that did not exist when evolution first put that adrenal response in place. In fact much of our adrenal response is the same as many animals so it pre-dates even our caveman ancestors!

What is an adrenalin dump?

When something very dangerous and/or scary happens to us, we tend to produce large amounts of adrenalin very quickly. Another stress hormone called Cortisol is also released as is a whole cocktail of hormones and chemicals into the bloodstream. This chemical cocktail has both positive & negative effects which we often refer to as preparation for “flight or flight”!

Below we look at some of the effects of an adrenalin dump. Although many things can cause adrenalin to be released, being a martial arts website we’ll be looking primarily from a self protection point of view. It should be noted that these will vary from person to person and not everybody will react the same. Some people will have several or even most of these effects whilst other (normally experienced people) may have very few of them.

 

Blood Goes To The Major Muscle Groups Of The Body

If you need to either defend yourself (fight) or run away (flight), your muscles need a lot of oxygen, which is of course transported there by the blood. This often causes the limbs to shake as they receive more oxygen than usual. Shaking is often seen as a sign of fear or sometimes even cowardice, but it is more accurately a sign of the body preparing itself for action. The extra oxygen will increase the levels of strength and speed.

 

Blood Goes Out Of The Brain

The blood rushing to the major muscle groups does so at the expense of the blood supply to other parts of the body including the brain. This means that the rational thinking part of the brain tends to shut down. When this happens, we tend to go by experience, “what did I do last time I was in a similar situation”. If the last time you were in a similar situation you cowered and begged for mercy, then that is what you a likely to do again. If last time you fought back, you are fairly likely to fight again this time! This is not a hard and fast rule, just the most likely outcome.

In more extreme cases (panic) we may resort to what is often referred to as the “Lizard Brain” which in evolutionary terms is the oldest part of our brain. This deals with survival and rhythm and has no logical capability. This is like the drowning person pushing even loved ones down so that they can get just one more breath of air.

 

Loss Of Fine Motor Control

With the major muscle groups pumped full of blood and the brain functions depleted, we tend to lose some of our co-ordination and fine motor control. Big easy techniques such as punches and kicks that do not require much accuracy tend to work better than say locks or pressure point grabs that do require accuracy. If the limbs may be shaking they may be strong and fast, but the shaking will affect accuracy.

 

Tunnel Vision/Hearing

Another possible effect is that you fixate on the threat immediately in front of you. You get tunnel vision and you tend to block out sounds coming from the sides or behind you. Your most trusted friend could be shouting to you with a solution to the problem and you may well not hear them. You may lose your peripheral vision, which leaves you open to an attack by an accomplice of whoever is the immediate threat in front of you.

The antagonist may also appear bigger than they actually are.

Emptying The Bowels

Sometimes your bowels and bladder want to empty; hence that expression that somebody “was shitting themselves”. Now going back to our caveman ancestors, this could be useful as it gets rid of any excess weight which we don’t need if we’re running away from a sabre tooth tiger. However, it’s not so useful if we’re fully dressed and then have to carry it around with us inside our clothing. Potentially very uncomfortable and distracting!

It’s another example of our society evolving much faster than we have as a species.

 

Throwing Up

Digestion takes up a lot of energy, that’s why we usually feel sleepy after a big meal. When we are about to run or fight for our lives, we can’t afford to waste that energy, so that body gets rid of it fast, allowing us to divert all our energy into the more pressing needs (running/fighting).

 

Freeze

Most people normally quote “fight or flight” as the main response to adrenalin. However, it is more accurate to say “fight, flight or freeze”. Freezing again goes back to the dear old caveman and beyond. The eyes pick up movement quicker than they pick up shapes. So if our good old caveman ancestor stepped out of his cave one morning and spots something huge, furry, with enormous sharp teeth (before it spots him), then freezing could be useful (no movement, big tooth might not recognise the shape). Many species still do this today, and we have the phrase that somebody was like a “rabbit caught in the headlights”. Of course the rabbit doesn’t realise it’s a cars headlights; all he knows is that he’s tasty to other animals and this could be one of them.

However, today (with very few exceptions) we don’t really have any predators that actually want to eat us. So the freeze response which is still hard-wired into us is totally and completely useless when somebody makes that impolite inquiry that we all hate to hear, “who the f**k you looking at”?

 

Pain Resistance

Somebody who is heavily adrenalised does not feel pain in the normal way (similar to somebody who is high on drugs or very drunk). This is obviously an advantage to you as you can endure more than you usually would and keep going. However, your attacker will likely be adrenalised as well (even if they started it), so they may not feel as much pain as usual either. This is why it’s important to make the first strike count.

 

Immune System

This doesn’t really relate directly to self protection, but I’ll add it for general interest. In simple layman terms, there are 2 main parts to your immune system. They are the antibody’s which fight invading germs and viruses; and the white cells which clear away damaged unhealthy cells within the body.

Now if you are unfortunate enough to have to fight/defend yourself, you risk injuries. Injuries such as cuts or any wound that opens the skin are vulnerable to infection. For this reason, when adrenalised, the body boosts antibody production, but slows down white cell production. So somebody who is under long term stress, even if it’s nothing to do with self protection, will have the white cell production depleted for a long period of time. This is why stress contributes to many illnesses where the body goes wrong from inside (including cancer), rather than from infections.

 

Aftermath

When we have been in altercation, or even threatened with one, the adrenalin can stay in our bloodstream for many hours afterwards. So your brain remains partly shut down, yet you suddenly have an urge to talk about it like you just entered the World Talking Olympics! This can get you into a lot of trouble if you have to make a statement. The police are used to the bad guy getting the best of an altercation as the bad guy normally selects people he/she knows they can beat. So if you’ve been in a fight and won you may be viewed with suspicion however justified you were in defending yourself. Check the law in your country, but in most country’s you can get a lawyer before making a statement. In the UK, you don’t even have to make a statement straight away and can defer till the next morning when you’ve had a chance to calm down.
Well I hope you’ve found this useful. If you can think of anything that I’ve missed out, please leave a comment below and let me know.

 

Emotional Content In Martial Arts And An Interesting Experiment

This clip above is now an iconic scene from the Bruce Lee movie, Enter The Dragon, where Bruce Lee is teaching a student.

Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.
Student looks surprised.
Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.

The student kicks

Bruce Lee:  “What was that?  An exhibition?  We need (pointing to his temple) emotional content.  Try again”.

The student kicks again.

Bruce Lee:  “I said emotional content, not anger.  Now try again, with me”.

The student kicks again, but more sharply.

Bruce Lee (with a smile):  “That’s it”.

There is more to the scene, but this is the part that I want to cover in this post.

What emotion do we need to feel when training or even defending ourselves and/or loved ones for real?  As Bruce says above, not anger.  But what?  I’ll come back to that later.

Emotions do effect our whole body.  Those who are into spiritualism will often say that we vibrate at a higher frequency when we are in more positive emotional states (love, happy, excited) then when we are in more negative states (fear, anger, frustration).

For those that are more science based in their thinking, we have a small part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which creates chemicals known as peptides.  Every emotional state that we experience has a separate peptide to go with it.  When we go into any given emotional state the hypothalamus will produce the corresponding peptides which circulate the body via the blood stream.  Each cell of our body has many tiny receptors on them which are designed to receive these peptides.  When these peptides enter a receptor, they actually send a signal into the cell.

I personally believe in both, but the bottom line is we are affected on an cellular level when we change our emotional state.  So which is the best emotional state to be in when we need to defend ourselves and/or our loved ones?

I decided to conduct an experiment with some of my adult students.  But first the disclaimers:

  • This experiment was only conducted with 4 students (not exactly large scale).
  • This has not been pressure tested (see, I said it first).

So I am not suggesting that the results are hard evidence, just an indicator.

I asked my students (2 men and 2 ladies) to select the kata (pattern/form) which they felt that they could perform most competently.  I told them that we were going to conduct an experiment, that some of what I was about to ask them to do might seem strange and contrary to my normal teachings, but to just go with the flow and give it a go.  And they would have to use their imaginations.

The experiment was in 2 parts.  Firstly I told them to close their eyes.  Then to imagine that somebody had hurt somebody that they loved or had wronged them in some way.  That they hated and loathed this person who was truly a nasty bit of work and who deserved no sympathy.  As they performed their kata, they were going to visualise destroying this person who completely deserved it and with no mercy at all.  There was a bit more embellishment, but you get the drift.

One of the ladies was struggling to contain a small smile.  Was she not taking the experiment seriously I wondered?

I told them to open their eyes, and “go”.

Their kata’s did not really look much different to any other time to be honest.  Towards the end, one of the men turned and bumped into the other one, and the 2 ladies had giggles.  I must admit I was a bit disappointed, as they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.

But never mind, on with the second half.  I told them to close their eyes again.  This time, I told them to think of somebody that they loved.  It could be a boyfriend/girlfriend (non of them married), a family member, a child, maybe niece or nephew (none have their own children), or it could be a close friend that they cared about very much.  Somebody was going to hurt their loved one and they were the only one who stood between their loved one and the aggressor.  They were going to have to fight to protect their loved one from harm.  They were to focus their mind on how much they loved the person they were going to protect, how they would do anything, risk anything for their loved one.  Rather than thinking of anger and hate, they were to focus on love.

There were no smiles this time.  I had them open their eyes, and “go”.

One of the men was of like a battle tank on steroids, I’d never seen him move quite like it before.  The others did not look greatly different from before, but completed their katas with more focus, without bumping into each other and without any giggles.

I asked them afterwards, with which emotional state did they feel that their techniques were better?

Well Mr Battle-Tank-On-Steroids definitely felt better when in the love/protecting emotions than in the hate/anger emotions.  The others were a bit more hesitant and unsure at first, then one of the ladies offered that when doing the hate/anger emotion, she felt a strange tingling which didn’t feel right.  The other lady agreed that she felt the same.

Basically, they rejected these feelings because being full of hate and anger was an alien feeling for them.  We all get angry at times, but most well balanced people find it difficult to sustain a state where we have absolutely no compunction about hurting and destroying another human being.  Yes I know there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the majority of well adjusted civilised people.  I guess this explains the giggling and smiles as they could not relate to this state!

I then asked them about mental clarity.  Did it feel any different between the 2 emotional states.  They all agreed that focus and sense of purpose was much better during the love/protection emotional state.

I had to comment afterwards that isn’t it ironic that they performed better at a fighting art when in a state of “love” rather than “hate”!

OK, I know there are many limitations in this experiment and it hasn’t been pressure tested.  Arguably, none of them even really achieved the state of anger/hate, so it could be argued that the experiment was void!  It would be much easier to hate when hurt for real.

But how does this relate to defending yourself rather than others?

Well to my mind (and this could lead to an interesting debate) is that you should love yourself.  Not in an arrogant and conceited way, but by being at peace with who you are and what you stand for and live by.  Martial arts literature is full of talk about self development and being a better person.  Being able to defend yourself obviously gives you more confidence so you can stand up for what is right and for what you believe in.

But does standing up for what is right and what you believe in make you more able to actually defend yourself?

One of my former Sensei’s has admitted that he used to get into a number of fights when he was younger.  He says that when he felt he was in the right, he always won.  When he got into fights that he didn’t necessarily believe in, or perhaps others around him persuaded him to fight, he didn’t do so well.

Obviously somebody who is much bigger, stronger and better trained will nearly always beat somebody who is small, weak and untrained.  I’m not suggesting that if you just lead a good honourable life, you’ll be able to defeat anybody, you do the physical training too.  What I am suggesting however, is that with 2 people who are closely matched, the one who feels that he is fighting a just cause and who is in alignment with his/her own personal integrity will fight harder than somebody who is just out to bully!  The old masters always taught that we should live with integrity and humility.  If we live that way, then should we be forced to fight we shall do so with a clear conscience.  We can “love” (or at least feel good about) ourselves.

As I’ve said above, this little experiment is far from conclusive.  However, I’d like to invite you (especially instructors) to carry out similar experiments yourself and report the results in the comments below.  It would be nice to get a little data base of similar experiments here for others to share.

Developing And Using Intuition For Self Protection

“The brain processes 400 billion bits of information a second but we’re only aware of 2,000 of those.  That means that reality is happening in the brain all the time”.
Joseph Dispenza from the DVD: What The Bleep Do We Know?!

If you were to look at a tree, you could probably see every leaf on that tree (depending on angle etc).  But would you know how many leaves were on that tree?

No!

If you tried to recall in great detail let’s say your 5th birthday, could you do it?

No!

Yet under hypnosis people have been taken back to events in their early life (such as early birthdays) and they can recall the events of the day in great detail.  The brain is a phenomenal computer with massive retention of detail, be it the number of leaves on a tree or what present your Aunt Gertrude gave you on your 5th birthday, how it was wrapped and that fact that you already had one of them from the previous Christmas!  But do you need that much recall?  If you went through your whole life with all these facts, figures and memories bouncing around, it would be hard to function due to the overload of information.  That is why our brains have filters, which cuts out some of the information that we perceive we simply don’t need.  They serve to keep our conscious mind only fed with the amount of information it can cope with and primarily focused on the most important things.  For example, you become aware of the car coming down the road as you cross over, rather than how many petals there are on the tulips in the garden on the other side.  One piece of information could save your life, so it prioritised over the other which will generally be filtered out.

Sometimes these filters malfunction a bit.  Have you ever had the experience where you’ve lost something, looked all over for it and been unable to find it, then some clever bugger comes in as says “here it is”, in a place that you looked closely at several times.  You wonder how on Earth you could possibly have missed it!

Basically, your own brain sometimes gets a block and filters out information that you need, but fortunately this is not that common.

These filters are of course largely based on our upbringing and life experiences telling us what is and isn’t important.  However, we can often get things wrong and we can easily be filtering out important pieces of information!

Our social conditioning too can affect us.  Is that guy offering to help carry a ladies groceries just being an old fashioned gentleman or is he trying to find an excuse to get closer to her and perhaps attack her later?  Sometimes social conditioning and education causes our logic to over-ride a gut feeling.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that any guy who offers to help is a potential rapist, but you can see how if somebody is raised to expect good manners, they may overlook some other warning sign!

“Your mind has a spam filter on it, just like your email.  There are literally billions of calculations going on every second just in your body alone”.
“Your spam filter is blocking out everything that is not important to you.  Until you tell your brain that something is important, then it will keep it filtered out”.
Andy Shaw, author of Creating A Bug Free Mind.

Bearing in mind that we are capable of taking in vastly more information than we are consciously aware of; sometimes our unconscious mind will notice something that our conscious mind has missed.

Maybe that friendly looking guy who is being so helpful was in the newspaper last year as a rape suspect or mugger.  Your conscious mind doesn’t have a chance of remembering, but your unconscious mind does.  The unconscious mind cannot communicate this directly to the conscious mind, but it can communicate by emotions.  It can give you that gut-feeling we call intuition!

I know this is a simplistic example, but it can take many forms.  Let’s say for example that you’re walking home late at night and you have 2 options of which route to take.  For no apparent reason, one of them just doesn’t feel comfortable.  Your logical mind tells that this route is shorter, reasonably well lit and you can’t find a good reason why you don’t feel safe.  Perhaps your conscious mind has forgotten that you saw some shady looking character walking down that way earlier and your unconscious is concerned that they might still be lurking around.  It sends you an uncomfortable “feeling” to warn you.

I’ve always believed that women tend to be more intuitive than men, as men rely on logic more.  Sometimes logic is good, but sometimes it can be our undoing as there is a time and place for both.  Women for example, often know when they are being lied to, yet if you ask them how they know; very often they don’t have a clue.  They just know, their intuition tells them.  The giveaway signs of a tiny shift in a person’s body language, maybe lack of eye contact, some almost undetectable change in tonality; the unconscious mind receives it all and process it even if the conscious mind can’t.

So intuition can be a useful life skill in relationships, work, whilst driving, just about any facet of life including of course your self-protection.  As with the examples above, it can save us getting into a dangerous situation in the first place by listening to the gut feeling which defies our logic and social conditioning.

Assuming that you gone somewhere and everything is fine, no warning signals and everybody is happy; then suddenly out of the blue without any warning, somebody starts to pick a fight.  When somebody is picking a fight there are certain clues as to when they are actually going to stop talking and threatening and actually physically attack.  That is not the subject of this post as to cover it properly would take too long.  However, if you want to pursue this subject in depth then I recommend Geoff Thompson’s book, Dead Or Alive.

If you asked most people to list the signs that a physical attack is imminent, most people wouldn’t really be able to give an in depth answer.  However, your unconscious mind will pick up every sign and feed it back to you, if only you are able to be aware able to notice these signals.

Even in a more friendly setting like a competition or just club sparring, some people seem to have the uncanny ability to automatically know just when their opponent is about to move no matter how much the opponent tries not to telegraph their technique.  It is almost as if some people can “read” their opponents.  This is basically intuition.  Their years of training have taught them to read every sign, even the slightest of change of breath, the slightest change in facial expression or bodily tension before an before the opponent attacks, which gives away their intention.  Again, the defender may not actually consciously realise that they know these signs or what these signs actually are, but their unconscious has long since learnt to recognise them.  And if their conscious mind is calm and quiet, it is able to receive this warning information from the unconscious mind.

Developing your intuition is almost a side effect of Mushin (calming the mind and silencing the inner voice).  The silenced conscious mind can receive ideas from the unconscious mind.  It can receive, acknowledge and respond to the emotions sent by the unconscious mind in the form of a gut feeling or intuition.  You could call it an instinctive knowing.  I say “almost” a side effect of Mushin, because when we start to feel these intuitions, even if we have become good at Mushin, we still have to take the leap of faith and actually trust these messages that we have started to receive.  Even if we can think very clearly in a crisis, we still have to learn to trust that sometimes we don’t need to think, we just need to allow ourselves to respond automatically without any thought at all.

Being “Present” (In The Now) And Martial Arts Training

Many self development/spiritual teachers’ today talk about “being present” or “living in the now” (which is the same thing really).  It’s also part of Zen, which is often goes hand in hand with martial arts.  But what does this actually mean, how can martial arts training help you achieve it and what benefits are there for you from both a self protection and everyday life point of view?

Let’s start with what is meant by “being present” or “living in the now”?  This is a big subject which many books have been written about, so this is just a short overview.  Many people spend most of their time living in regret over things they’ve done wrong, things they should have done but didn’t, things that other people have done to them, missed opportunities; whatever!  They are spending a lot time focusing on their past and generally feeling bad and unhappy with it.

Others spend their time daydreaming about the future (long or short term).  They feel that they’ll be happy when they get home from work, finish that course they’re doing, get a better job, leave a job, when they’re married, when their divorce comes through, when they go on holiday, when they get back home and can relax; whatever.  These people are postponing being happy until sometime in the future so again they are feeling bad or unhappy in the present moment.  This is not to say that we don’t make plans for the future or set goals; it is to say that stay present while do actually plan and goal-set and that we don’t postpone being happy until our plans and goals are achieved!

In both cases, those concerned are focusing their attention on being somewhere other than where they are now.  Either they feel that they can’t be happy because of their past or they feel they can’t be happy until some future events happen.  In the meantime they are physically in the present moment though mentally they are not.  As many Eastern and holistic philosophies tell us, we cannot really be content until mind and body are one (in this case, mind focusing on the present where the body is).  The more you put of being happy where you are now, the more you will never be properly happy and at peace with yourself at all.  This is one of the key components to the Eastern ideal of reaching enlightenment.  There is of course much to it than that and this is a very simplified overview.

Being able to actually focus our attention in the present moment most of the time is actually not very easy for most people.  Usually most people only manage it for short periods of time.

Martial arts are great for bringing you into the present moment!  If for example you are doing pre-arranged sparring and you facing somebody of a high standard, you know that if you don’t block/parry/evade, they’ll probably take your head off.  That tends to focus the mind and shut out any thoughts of that row you had with your spouse, that stressful drive home after work or how you’d like to practice you most dangerous techniques on that illegitimate son of a . . . . . . female dog . . . . . . boss of yours at work.  You are purely focused on this guy in front of you with a sinister expression on face, his eyes locked into your eyes and he moves like a bull on steroids (or at least it seems that way).

Sensei John Johnson focuses his students attention on the present moment! 🙂

Everything else in the world, the past and future is shut out whilst you face this imminent threat, which you have to block and counter.  The little bit of adrenalin generated helps you to move faster and the exertion helps you to produce endorphins (the brains “happy” chemicals).  You are very present in the NOW and you feel good about it!

Any other form of exercise also generates endorphins which will help the feel-good factor.  However, losing a goal/point/match etc simply does not have the same urgency as facing Mr Bull-On-Steroids trying to take your head off.  By contrast, many people say that they enjoy jogging long distance as it allows them to get lost in their thoughts.  Whilst this can have benefits too, it is not the same being forced into now (or lose your head).

Even with the basics and kata, you are required to maintain considerable concentration on both the accuracy of the movement and the intent of the technique being performed.  There can be no getting lost in your thoughts here.  You can get a bit distracted worrying about whether you are keeping up with your classmates or not, though you really shouldn’t bother about this.  It is often said in martial arts that your main opponent is yourself, meaning you challenge yourself every time you train to continually improve.  If you do this then you should be very focused in the present, examining your own techniques as you perform them and putting your full intention into every movement.  Comparing yourself to others occasionally is alright as a way to measure your progress, but is not an end in itself.

All aspects of martial arts training, (whether focussing on perfecting technique or being partnered with somebody about to try to take your head off) will help you to focus in the moment.  There will be times when you think, “oh no, he’s going to take my head off”, which is again looking into the future (albeit a few seconds into the future) rather than being in the precise moment.  Some people will be consumed by such negative thoughts on a very regular basis.  As discussed in a previous post, practicing Moksu and Mushin will help to silence these thoughts.  However, training in an environment where we are constantly forced to focus on the present moment will also help us to silence those self doubting thoughts as well.

When you need to be very intensely in the present moment then it is very important to be able to silence any thoughts which by their very nature take you out of that moment.  When faced by somebody about to take your head off, the precise present moment is where your attention needs to be.  This is true both in training and when defending yourself from a real life assault.  When you partner up with somebody who is experienced, they just seem to have an air of certainty about them.  A black belt will usually only be very fractionally faster than say a brown belt.  However, the black belt will usually have a far greater air of confidence and self assuredness when compared to lower grades.  This is often referred to as fighting spirit, the focus of ones will and clarity of purpose with no (or at least, very few) mental distractions or doubts.

People who have achieved this level of spirit in training and/or in real life altercations will very often be a force to be reckoned with in other areas of their lives too.  If they can be very present under the intensity of combat (even simulated) then they will be able to some extent to transfer this presence and focus to other areas of their lives.

I read years ago that soldiers who have been in actual combat reported afterwards that they have never felt “so alive”.  That is not because they actually enjoyed the combat, but the fact they could die any second is a great incentive to intensely focus themselves in the present moment.  I’m not suggesting that we all rush of and join the force and seek real combat, but our martial arts training does have some overlap with this phenomenon!

Moksu: Does It Actually Have A Martial Application?

For those not familiar with the term, Moksu it is Japanese for the kneeling meditation at the beginning and end of a martial arts class.  It is often seen as just clearing the mind from the day’s ups and downs to prepare you for training.  It does of course do that, but it can actually represent a lot more in the long term.  Apart from just clearing the mind, when practiced regularly it can over time help to completely silence the mind.  Silencing the minds usual internal chatter has a feeling of peace and tranquillity (a bit like the sudden quietness of turning off a factory air conditioning system).

This can sometimes be achieved quite quickly, but sometimes it can take years.  How often have you knelt there thinking “my knees hurt”, “how long is this going on for”, “I hope we do sparring tonight” or “I hope we don’t do sparring tonight”, whatever!

Moksu is as much an exercise for the mind as a reverse punch is for the body, but it is often underrated and its potential overlooked.  We are not simply looking for peace and tranquillity (though this is a worthy achievement in itself), we are also looking to directly take back control of our own minds so that it does not undermine us at crucial times.  It is about being able to silence at will that voice in our head which undermines us.  The voice that says “I can’t do this”, “he’s bigger than me”, “I’m going to get killed here”, “he’s always picking on me”, whatever.  Gradually, bit by bit, we take this quietening of the mind more and more into the rest of our training.  It is often said that combat is more mental than physical, well Moksu is actually a practice for the mental side.

When we can free the mind of it’s internal clutter, then we can use our mind more efficiently.  We become more conscious and more aware of whatever our present situation is.

It is almost like we have 2 minds; one which is a powerful tool that we deliberately think with and one which almost acts independently of us and usually undermines us.  This undermining part of our mind is often referred to in many self development/spiritual texts as the “ego”.   It relies on past experience rather than original thought, therefore it keeps us where we are rather than allowing us to move forward.  It acts to cover up weaknesses with a false show, rather than face and conquer the weaknesses.

Unfortunately both “minds” do not work well at the same time.  When the ego is in full flow giving us negative thoughts, we find it very difficult to access the power of the deliberately thinking part of our brain or our intuition.

When facing an opponent (whether sparring or for real) we need to be able to think tactically, yet at the moment of action we need to let our intuition take over and react according to how our opponents moves (or doesn’t move).

This can of course apply to almost any part of our lives, whether it is our job, driving, relationships, school or whatever.  We always function better when we can silence the ego, think more logically and engage our intuition.  The ego left unchecked can rob us of access to these facilities, which is why people with low self esteem or those who worry a lot seem to be unable to find a way out of their situations; whether in training, street attacks, or in any other aspect of life.  You are more capable of finding solutions to problems within any area of your life when you can think clearly.  You always think more clearly when you can silence the ego.

Just to clarify, I refer to people of low self esteem above, which might on the surface at least appear to be the opposite of what we normally consider to be a person with a “big ego”.  We tend to see what we consider an egotistical person to be somebody who brags, boasts and puts on a show.  However, this kind of egotist putting on a show is in actuality usually a person of low esteem, but is putting more effort into hiding their own perceived weakness rather than facing and conquering them.  A person of low self esteem (whether they are depressive or showy) is usually focusing a large part of their conscious thought on their past experiences which they cannot escape.  They are in many respects living in the past as they measure all new experiences/challenges in terms of their previous experiences.

Now this is a very human thing to do and is very common.  But silencing that inner voice, accessing your intuition and higher intellect are the best ways to escape that cycle of living in the past and to become more conscious of your present situation (living in “the now” as some people say).  Solutions to problems (both in self protection and everyday life) appear much more readily when you are focused in the present then when you’re being held captive to your past experiences by the ego.  Moksu (or any form of meditation) is a great tool to help with that and ideally should really be practiced more often than just at the beginning and of the Karate class.

Do you practice your kicks and punches at home?  Then why not practice Moksu at home.  It may take time to produce noticeable results, but it will in time allow you to access higher martial skills by engaging intuitive responses as you stop your own ego getting in the way!

Martial Arts: A Mental Rehearsal For Success

In neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), they have a technique called Mental Rehearsal.  This is where we know that we have a particular situation coming up and we rehearse/visualise how we want it to go in our minds a number of times before the actual event.  It could be a grading or a competition.  Or it could be an everyday life event like a works meeting where we have to make a presentation or a job interview.

It is often said that we only use about 10% of our brains.  I think it would be more correct to say that we only consciously use 10%.  Our unconscious minds control many of our behaviours and automatic responses, but can be accessed with various techniques.  The strange thing about our unconscious minds is that it does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.  For example, have you ever been watching a scary film and found your heartbeat increasing or your breathing getting shallow and quick (effects of adrenalin).  Then the villain jumps out unexpectedly with a burst of dramatic music and nearly jump out of your seat.

Why did you react like that?  You know that you are safe in your home, watching the TV, on your sofa right?.  You know that it is just a film with actors so it’s not real, you know that the villain cannot hurt you in any way whatsoever.   Yet you still had a physical and emotional response!

Or should I say your conscious mind knows those things.  Your unconscious mind thinks it real, so your body reacts accordingly.  Then your conscious mind reminds you where you are and you calm down again.

This is just one example of how much the unconscious mind controls us without us even realising.  So if you can deliberately access the unconscious mind and use it in a positive way which helps you, then you have a very powerful tool.

Mental Rehearsal is using visualisation.  Of course as it is our visualisation we control the outcome, which (if we’re doing it right) will always be successful.  Having succeeded many times in our minds, when we go into the real event we have added confidence because we’ve already done it a number of times (and remember that our unconscious mind thinks that we’ve done it for real).

In our basics and even more so in our kata/forms/patterns, as well as practicing the physical techniques, we should be visualising taking on multiple assailants and winning.  Yes, there are many arguments about the realism and effectiveness of the applications (bunkai) to the movements.  That’s a topic I’ve discussed many times elsewhere.  But as we perform those movements with our bodies, we should be training our minds to expect many victories in many situations.

Now I’m not suggesting that if we perform a lot of kata that we can become cocky and happily take on a whole gang of would attackers because we’ve defeated multiple assailants in our minds many times before.  But kata with correct visualisation is a tool for focusing the mind and will so that they work in conjunction with your physical movements rather than undermining you with doubt and fear.  It will help you to develop an indomitable spirit.

It is similar in pre-arranged sparring routines.  Again there is a lot of argument over how practical these are and again that is not subject of this post.  But as with kata, alongside the physical techniques they provide a good mental training aspect too.  We don’t need to visualise as we do in kata as we actually have a real person facing us.  But we still get the chance to work the mind and put in full mental ferocity into our block/parry and counter.  When we get adept at it and can block/parry and counter accurately, it is also worth noting that the defender “wins” each encounter.  So our unconscious mind gets used to the idea that we always win when attacked and expects to keep getting this outcome, even if it is a bit messier in a real life situation.

It could be argued that if the defender is training to “win”, then is the attacker training to “lose”?  I would say not really as the attacker’s only real objective is to complete the technique to make the defender work.  This again the attacker usually succeeds at!  Pre-arranged sparring is primarily an exercise for the defender.

It has been said many times by many masters both from the past and modern day that fighting is more mental than physical; yet this is seldom explained in any depth.  The physical aspects are obvious.  Although many traditional martial arts methods are quite indirect and even impractical sometimes from a real combat point of view, they do contain many elements of mental preparation and expectation of success (mental rehearsal for success).

“In combat it is absolutely vital that the correct mental attitudes are adopted.  It will not be the most technically competent person that wins the fight but, more often than not, it will be the one with the strongest mind”.
From Ian Abernethy’s book :  Bunkai Jutsu The Practical Application Of Karate Kata (Chapter 2: Performing The Katas)

Conflict De-escalation: The Broken Record

One method of de-escalating a conflict is an old technique called “the broken record”.  It can be used when somebody is being confrontational and is intent on picking an argument with you, which you don’t want to get sucked into.

Just to be clear, this is primarily for use for verbal altercations, which have the potential to escalate, rather than when somebody is trying to actively pick a physical fight (though it does have some applications there too).  The idea is basically to repeat a simple phrase over and over, rather than responding to the other persons verbal attacks.  You answer like a broken record stuck in the groove (might be before some people’s time for those born in the digital era  🙂 )

In most cases if you try to answer the verbal attacks the aggressor will simply try to shoot down your answers and come back with more and more verbal attacks.  Often he/she will have no interest in discussing the matter and finding any resolution, they simply want to belittle and/or intimidate you.  So why waste your time and energy explaining your point to somebody who has no interest in reasoning and no interest in listening other than to find a new line of attack?  They are only interested in looking for more ammunition from whatever you say to use against you.  So why give it to them?

A recent incident reminded me of this.  Whilst driving through a roundabout, myself and a car behind me were both taking the opposite exit and going straight ahead.  He tried to pass me on the roundabout and when I continued straight ahead he felt that I’d cut him up.  He tooted at me and not wanting any trouble I ignored him.  Then he continued to drive too close to my car  in an unsafe manner, trying to intimidate me.

I saw in my mirror a very young lad who looked like a strong gust of wind would blow him over.  He gesticulated several times angrily with his hands and I ignored him.  There was also a young lady beside him.

When we came to the next roundabout, I just figured that this was not worth it so I made a complete circle on the roundabout so that he could get ahead of me and be on his way.  This seemed to work and away he he went.

However, when he realised that I was now behind him, he pulled into a lay-by to wait for me, then pulled in behind me when I passed.  I kept an eye on him as he followed me for several miles down the road.  When we reached the city I pulled of into a side road where I was working and stopped to check the map.  He followed me into the side road, passed me, turned round then drew up next to me with his window down.  I wound my window down.

The conversation went something like this:

Young driver:  “What’s your problem then”?

Me:  “What do you mean”?

Young driver:  “Cutting me up on that roundabout”.

After a brief explanation/discussion, it quickly became clear that he was a boy trying to act how he erroneously thought men behaved.  I’d guess that he was trying to impress the young girl who sat silently looking very uncomfortable throughout the whole incident.

Me:  “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point.  Now move along”.

Young driver:  “It’s not about that.   You ought to learn how to f***ing drive”!

I could have pointed out that I’d been driving since before he was born, that I’d driven all over this country and on the continent (where they drive on the other side of the road), that I’d driven big vans/small lorries and hardly ever had any accidents at all.  But in his youthful wisdom he’d have just rubbished all that and probably told me that I whatever I’d done before, I was a bad driver now or that I should know better!  So why waste my breath and give him more ammunition.

Me:  “Just move along”.

Young driver:  “You just can’t admit that you’re wrong”!

I could of explained/argued that I was not in the wrong and corrected him, but he wouldn’t have accepted any of it and just argued that I was in the wrong.  So why waste my breath?

Me:  “Just move along”.

Young driver:  “You’re just a knob” (British slang for part of the male anatomy).

I could have returned the insult, because if he got physical he was clearly no match for me.  But he would have continued to give even more abuse; then what do I do, continue hurling yet more and more abuse back at him?

Me:  “Just move along”.

At this point, the young driver did move along.  He probably felt satisfied that he’d given some older guy a piece of his mind (not that he had much to spare) and impressed the young lady with how tough he was.

OK, with hindsight there was a couple of things that perhaps that I could of done better.  I could have simply apologised right at the very start, even though I didn’t think that I was in the wrong.  It’s only a matter of pride, but it saves time and energy.  I could have probably left out the comment about “OK, you’re a big man, you’ve made your point”, as that was unnecessarily provocative.  But then it’s always easy with hindsight.  And yes, I admit that I did let my pride get in the way a bit!

But the most important thing is, I just kept repeating a simple phrase in a nonchalant manner so that no matter how hard he tried, he was not able to escalate the confrontation or use anything else against me.  He very quickly ran out of things to say.   Wanting to beat the other person in an argument is only a matter of ego and as martial artists we should be above that.  I could probably have argued with him for a good half hour.  I might even of won the argument, but so what if I did!  How would it improve my life by spending a lot of time and energy getting one up on a cocky young lad with no real life experience?  The best result for me was simply to get rid of him quickly and efficiently without taking up too much time or energy and the broken record was the best way.

Whatever phrase you use will depend on the situation.  It just has to be something that they can’t take anything from and use against you to escalate things.

Anticipating How Your Opponent Will Attack!

I was recently asked about how to anticipate what move somebody is about to attack you with.  The guy was very much looking for a way to be able to stay ahead of the game.

I think that he was a bit disappointed in my initial answer, until I explained in more depth.  The initial answer is that you DON’T try to anticipate the opponents actual attack.

Just to clarify, anticipate whether or not they are actually going to attack you by all means, but don’t try to anticipate that they will kick or they punch, or they will . . . . . whatever!

If you are trying to think too hard about what he/she/they are going to do next, the thought process will actually slow you down.  Assuming that you are in a pre-fight situation where somebody is threatening you, shouting and swearing, psyching themself up for an attack; then you should really be looking to engage their mind by talking in order to distract them whilst lining them up for a pre-emptive strike.

However, for the sake of argument lets assume that for whatever reason you do not get the chance to perform a pre-emptive strike.  Maybe the attacker did not get close enough, maybe he knew that you are a capable adversary so kept his distance . . . . . whatever.  But you are now in the position where he is about to attack from a fraction out of your pre-emptive striking range.  You know it’s coming, but you don’t know what form the attack will take.

Should you try to anticipate what the actual attack will be?

If you anticipate a punch and prepare for it, then he kicks instead you could be in trouble.  If you anticipate a kick and prepare for it, then he just rushes in and grabs you, again you could be in trouble.

It is always best to be taking the lead rather than responding (action rather than reaction), but this may not always possible.  So how do you react when you haven’t got a clue what the actual form the attack about to launched at you will actually take?

Well there are several things that you need.

Firstly, you need an automatic deeply drilled response that comes out automatically without you having to think about it.  That is why we practice basics over and over and over and over again.  So when you need them, you can respond automatically without having to be slowed down by “thinking” about what you should be doing or how you should be doing it.

Some form of reality based training or pressure training is good too, so that you don’t “freeze” under the effects of adrenalin.  However, if you have experience in real altercations this may not always be necessary.

However, the calmer you can keep your mind, the more likely you are to find an instinctive response to whatever comes at you. If your mind is running away with “oh my god, he’s bigger than me”, (or similar thoughts); you are likely to hesitate.  This is something I’ve discussed before in more depth before.

Moksu (meditation)

There are a number of elements to our training which assist in calming the mind in these situations.  Most obviously, a number of martial arts include some form of meditation (moksu) during the class, where you breathe deeply and clear the mind.

Physical technique done properly should be performed with a relaxed body.  The more you relax your body in training, the more your mind will follow and relax too (as body and mind are linked).  This is probably more important in many ways than the meditation (just my humble opinion).

Many martial arts also put an emphasis on diaphragmatic breathing (especially if they meditate).  This type of breathing is central to Yoga, Tai Chi and any discipline that is about relaxation, so there’s another clue.  Diaphragmatic breathing can be used to calm the mind and body in any situation from meditation, traffic jams, problems with work/relationships, through to a physical confrontation.  As it relaxes both the mind and body, you can see why it is an integral part in the execution of technique within many traditional martial arts.

So if you can keep your mind calm, relaxed and free from the distraction of having to actually think, then instincts and intuition take over.  Your ability to deal with any random attack and counter with a well-drilled response will be greatly increased.  An instinctive response will always be faster than a calculated thought out response.

That is why we do not try try to anticipate what the actual attack will be, as by doing so we limit our response options to what we expect will come at us; and by-pass our intuitive nature.

 

Diaphragmatic Breathing In Martial Arts

Diaphragmatic breathing is used in many traditional martial arts, but I don’t think that all martial artists completely realise the full extent of how important this really is.  It actually helps us on a number of different levels.

But first though for anybody new to martial arts (or this concept) lets have a look at what diaphragmatic breathing actually is.  Most adults breathe into the top of their lungs and as they do so their shoulders and collar bones rise slightly.  But with diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm (which is a large internal muscle at the base of the lungs) is used.  This pulls down on the lower part of the lungs, opening up the whole of the lungs and thus pulling in more air (hence more Oxygen).  When breath is pulled in this way, the shoulders and collar bones do not rise.  However, as the diaphragm pulls down it displaces the lower torso organs and the stomach area in particular is pushed outwards.

Young children and animals naturally breathe this way.

Many people say that you “breathe into your stomach”.  This is of course not physically possible, but that is how it feels.  And sometimes looking for a feeling will help you to get the correct technique, even if it is not actually possible.

So lets look at some of the many ways in which diaphragmatic breathing helps us:

Technique

As above, when you pull the breath in with your diaphragm and it feels as if it is going down to your stomach (otherwise known as hara or dan tien).  This is where your centre of gravity is, so by having your focus on that part of your body, you can start to move more fluidly.  When you movement is generated by your centre of gravity the rest of your body follows naturally, whereas if you lead with shoulders or upper torso (which is common with beginners), you drag your centre of gravity which will slow you down and compromise fluidity.

When you inhale with your diaphragm it has a relaxing effect on the rest of the body.  Again this helps with the fluidity of movement as it helps to remove tensions from the rest of the body.

When you exhale rapidly from the  diaphragm, it allows you to generate rapid muscular movement to drive your strike/punch/kick into your opponent.  As the diaphragm is connected to the core muscles, it also assists with the over stability of your body and your ability to absorb any reaction force to the impact of your blow.

Masking Intent

In a conflict situation the last thing you want is for your opponent to know what you are planning to do and when you plan to move.  It is instinctive to inhale before launching an attack.  As mentioned above, most untrained people breath into the top of their lungs and their shoulders and collar bones rise up.  When you see this, you get a warning that you are about to be attacked.

Even if you did not know this fact and your conscious mind does not notice, your unconscious mind will notice and give you that intuitive feeling that something is coming, giving you that tiny fractional bit more time to prepare or react.

When you inhale with your diaphragm your shoulders and collar bones do not rise so you don’t give away this little warning signal, so your opponent has less chance to react or prepare for it.

Calming the mind

Much is written these days about the effects of adrenaline, especially by those who are into reality based martial arts, and that is a good thing.  One of the effects of adrenalin is that breathing becomes short and shallow.  Oxygen tends to be pumped into the limbs ready for fight or flight, but the brain receives less oxygen which blunts the ability to think a way out of the situation.  This can even lead to panic or freezing up.

Diaphragmatic breathing should be practiced during pressure training.  That way when you are in a real street conflict situation you are more likely to be able to maintain diaphragmatic breathing rather than resorting to the short shallow breathing.  This in turn allows you to draw in more oxygen which will allow you to function better both physically and mentally.  It will keep you calmer.

If can use this to keep your calm when you are facing a violent assault, you can also use it in other areas of your life (problems at work, exam nerves, relationship tensions, even just stressed when stuck in traffic).

intuition

This is tied in with the section on calmness above.  As mentioned earlier, the unconscious mind can pick up a lot of signals that the conscious mind misses.  This is when we have a feeling of intuition, when we just sense or feel something but don’t really know how or where this knowing comes from.

However, a mind that is in a state of panic will not access this intuition as well as a calm mind.  This is why you can sometimes fight/spar with a very experienced person and they just seem to read you like a book and know what your moves are almost before you do.  They respond with what seems almost supernatural reactions.  But what you notice from anybody with this ability is that they stay completely calm throughout, allowing themselves to access this intuition.

Health

Firstly, we need oxygen to live.  Oxygen has great healing properties and can even kill cancer cells.  Diaphragmatic breathing pulls more oxygen into the body then just breathing into the top of the lungs.

Also, toxins always gather in the body, including in the lungs.  Those who only breathe into the top of their lungs do not clear the toxins from the bottom of the lungs.  People who are used to diaphragmatic breathing will pull the breath right down to bottom of the lungs and clear these deep rooted toxins.

Engage Your Opponents Brain To Increase Their Vulnerability

Since the last of the Neanderthals died out about 20,000 years ago the human brain has continued to evolve from what was primarily an animal brain governed by instinct, to a much larger and more complicated brain capable of logical thought.  A very large part of our brain today deals with communication, reason, social behaviour/interaction and a whole lot of other things that other animals are not capable of.  The ideas of guilt and remorse, right and wrong, good and evil, are all absent in the animal kingdom.

However, we still have the primitive parts of our brain which controls many of our more basic instincts, including amongst other things: violence.

When we find ourselves in a confrontational situation, decades of social conditioning and logic will often restrain us.  Even most thugs will stop at beating somebody up rather than actually killing them, whereas most animals would not really give killing a second thought.  In a confrontational situation adrenalin is released into the body and extra blood goes into the limbs to prepare for the fight or flight.  A side effect of this is that blood is drained from the brain, so the higher functions of logic, social conditioning and reasoning become much less efficient.  However, the more primitive part of the brain (sometimes called “the reptilian brain”) still functions normally and this is the part that deals with violence.

This is the same for both the aggressor and the victim.  Although not everybody fully understands this process, it is used intuitively to gain advantage.  A bully may shout, swear and threaten to intimidate his/her target; but as they do so they psyche themself up by adrenalising themselves.  This reduces their own higher brain functions and taking themselves to their own lower “reptilian” brain.  By doing this they can to a certain extent anesthetize themselves to their own barbaric behaviour which their higher brain functions might question and reject.  It makes sense then to shut down those higher brain function which might restrict and limit their plan to harm somebody.  It’s a bit like a warrior giving out a battle cry before the battle begins, it serves the same purpose.

Of course there are some exceptions to this.  Sociopaths believe that the rules do not apply themselves, so violence comes easy to them without having to psyche themselves up.  Most “professional” street predators (rapists, muggers, etc) are sociopaths.  But I would guess (and it is a guess) that most average street thugs do have some small level of conscience which they prefer to silence, so that they do not have to face it.

So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage when confronted with a thug who is psyching themself up?

Well the first thing to do is to try to get them back to their higher brain functions if you can, where they are less likely to attack.  You can do this by asking questions that make them think.  In FAST (Fear Adrenalin Stress Training) Defence, they recommend asking in an assertive manner “what do you want”?

But it could really be anything.  You could say something completely random like “isn’t it a shame about the polar bears at the North Pole”?  The normal response will be something like, “What the f***”?  Either way, it gets them thinking and going back to the higher brain function and away from the reptilian brain.  At best this may be enough to avert an imminent attack.  Hopefully it will make them pause as their higher brain functions (including conscience, reasoning, social conditioning, etc) kick back in, even if only for a moment.  This momentary hesitation should be enough time for a trained martial artist to successfully launch a pre-emptive strike and hopefully finish the situation then and there (before they realise and start psyching themself back up again).

I’m not saying that this will work every time against every aggressor, but it could give you an edge when you need it most.  This type of tactic is often practiced in reality based martial art training, but is usually absent where people don’t not look beyond the boundaries of their own traditional martial art.