It makes sense to assume that the opponent is dangerous (stronger and technically sound), and having superior positional advantage may be the only way we can win the encounter. However, if you spend enough time studying internal arts and have the opportunities to study with a variety of experts, it will soon become obvious that most of those teaching are not teaching self-defence skills that would have any hope of working outside of the relative safety of their classes.
By contrast, my main teachers both told me the same thing over the years, "The methods should give you basic self-defence skills in a few months or years, but refining those skills will take a lifetime of ongoing effort." Over the decades, I have found this to be true, and so have many of my students. Short-term skills can be rough, involve the risk of bruises (to the ego and elsewhere!) and a substantial amount of sweat—the beginning of the forging process, so to speak.
Long-term training (assuming competent instruction) polishes the experienced practitioner, so that he or she moves with the ease, efficiency and authority a beginner can only marvel at. This doesn't mean the beginner can not learn to apply the same methods for combat purposes. This is one of the pleasures of bagua as a martial system which, as a by-product to self-defence skill, brings better health and even emotional/spiritual benefits. Most of us are fortunate enough (or mature enough) to never need to develop such skills. However, it is also a shame to learn skills you think might be useful, but would actually be counterproductive if you ever had to protect yourself or your loved ones from a serious attack.
What Do You Need to Bring to Such Training?
• Some physical strength and health are essential to safely train in any martial method that might work in a worst case scenario. Such training is not suitable for everyone, especially those with serious health problems, or unused to regular physical activity.
• Patience is a useful attribute, as internal style martial skills are not learned quickly, especially if you don't train in them every day for three to five years. I am reminded of the delightful story of the hsing-i master in China, who was supposedly lecturing his students on how important it was to study with a good heart, and that the training was ultimately to teach the students how to avoid fighting. One student, reportedly, impatiently asked, "If we are supposed to learn to avoid violence, why practise fighting at all?" The master's answer was, "If you don't want to learn properly, get out!" Most modern students don't want to learn so much as they want to feel they have all the answers.
• Willingness to invest in loss and learn from your mistakes, rather than get mad at yourself or your training partner.
What Should You Look for in Your Training?
• An understanding of balance and body mechanics that rely less on muscle mass and strength and more on leverage, timing, sensitivity and efficient body mechanics (i.e., whole body usage).
• For self-defence, it is essential to learn and practise a few methods that suit your body type and physical attributes so that they become reflexive, rather than practise many things in an indifferent manner.
• Experience at hitting actual targets with some power, as opposed to simply punching the air. It is easy to be smug with the speed of your strikes while doing a fast form or practising solo. It is a far different thing to learn how to hit without hurting your limbs, as well as how to absorb or transmit the impact without bouncing off what you hit!
• Some experience with close-quarters physical contact with your training partners. This is the hardest to cultivate in an internal manner (good teachers are few and far between), but even the crudest skill at taking a blow or being thrown will soon teach you many valuable lessons about what relaxation and balance are really all about in relation to self-defence. The lack of experience with any kind of body contact is the main reason why most modern martial artists would have a rough time trying to apply their skills against a real street fighter, or against someone really intent on hitting them, as opposed to playing. One instructor even assured me with a hint of a sneer that it was wrong to make any kind of contact with your partner while doing applications, as you would not be training your Qi properly! Sadly, his attitude is not unique, even though common sense should tell you that you have to have control in your martial contact, but you also have to have contact! Conversely, this also explains why most modern experts with any real self-defence skills usually have a background in wrestling or throwing arts or have boxed (whether Western or Thai). They are used to close-quarter combat and to having to react properly while under real pressure.
What Should You Avoid in Your Training?
• An emphasis on sticking and yielding, as to make these essential skills easier to understand and practise safely in a large group, they are often taught counterproductively in self-defence sense.
• Complex methods that rely on the compliance of an overly stiff partner to have any success of application. I have met many supposed experts over the years who are teach methods that have no hope of working in the real world, even though they may seem to work in a classroom setting.
• Any teacher who claims that you can learn to project Qi as your main technique for self-defence skills. Common sense seems to go out the window if you judge by the number of schools whose teachers make their students fall over, twitch and throw themselves by a flick of master's fingers.
• Anyone who tells you that you can learn an effective martial art without any initial physical effort, a few bruises, and a lot of sweat along the way! In the long run, a competent internal art relies less and less on crude strength and technique, and it is possible to continue to train with benefit when one is past his or her physical prime. However, an internal art that has some claim to being a true combative art will never be as effortless as it looks to the casual observer.
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