The Greatest Self Defense System Ever - Northern Shaolin

The first movements in the Northern Shaolin I teach are superbly designed for responding to the way actual bad guys attack, especially considering that Northern Shaolin is traditionally taught to children.  In fact I would say it is the greatest self-defense system ever invented.  I know that sounds pompous or something but I was surprised, I mean, I didn't show up to Rory Miller's workshop on real world violence thinking or believing that.  My teachers were all too modest to ever say anything like that either.  I have only come too realize this through testing and reflecting on the forms that I teach after having taken Rory's workshop.

Frankly this is totally counter intuitive because the style of Northern Shaolin I teach begins in a very theatrical way, with a stamp and a quick parting of the curtains followed immediately by a special run where the feet kick backwards, which is followed by the 'monk clears his sleaves' movement which ends in a stamp balanced on one foot with the other knee up at chest level and with a fist high in the air.

I have long been an advocate for teaching Chinese martial arts as a performing art.  I have also argued extensively that historically these arts were understood as performing arts with real life applications.  You could really fight with these arts, you could also put them on a stage or in a parade.  In many parts of the world you can find some type of amateur theater, or folk dance, which has very real and important therapeutic and social purposes.  In traditional Chinese culture, martial arts were woven into everything.  Depending on who you talk to this is either extreme heresy or so obvious it doesn't need to be said.

I've been teaching these opening Shaolin movements as self-defense for twenty years.  I've always taken the martial component seriously, meaning I've always been frank and open about what I know and don't know and given students an opportunity to practice these movements with a partner who attacks them in a whole bunch of different ways at different speeds from different angles.  But because self-defense was of limited interest to me my perspective was limited.

One of Rory Miller's big challenges is to analyze martial arts by asking questions like, "How do bad guys really attack?"  And "Would this work against a really bad guy."  Rory obviously has a lot of material in this area that he didn't have time to cover in the workshop, but a couple of things really got me thinking.

According to Tony Bauer, it is important to choose a single action which your body can go to in a surprise attack.  It should be a position from which you can fight which defends your head and neck and is itself a return attack.  This wasn't hard for me to do, I have at least 20 of these and picking a favorite was easy. (Watch a Tony Bauer video)

We practiced this by doing the same movement while three people took turns (spontaneously) attacking us from the front and the left and right.  (This made it obvious how important it is to train side power, but more on that another day.)  Everyone's movement involved putting their hands up in one way or another.

After this Rory took the women aside (I decide to pretend I was a woman) and told us that there are two common ways women and children are attacked which require a different type of response.  The first is being grabbed from behind by the neck and pulled backwards.  The necessary response to this attack is an elbow strike backwards and it should be practiced.  The second is a bear hug from behind which traps your arms and lifts you off of the ground so that you can be carried away and thrown in a car or something.  Most self-defense classes teach that at the moment you are being grabbed you should suddenly sink your weight straight down.  This could potentially work if the person attacking was just grabbing you.  But as Rory pointed out, they don't do that, they grab you as they are running.

This Summer George Xu was showing us how effectively he can sink making himself impossible to lift.  A strong healthy student offered to help with his demonstration and promptly came up behind and lifted George into the air.  To his great credit George immediately admitted that his method had completely failed and we went on to analyze why.  It turned out that his attacker was charging forward before lifting.  When George added turning to defuse the forward motion and sinking at the same time, it worked, he couldn't be lifted.  But heavens, if it didn't work for George Xu the first time, do you think it will work for you?

So that's what Rory said too.  If you are still on the ground being bear hugged you can try the sinking thing, but if you are already in the air you need a different strategy.  He suggested using your hands to trap you attackers hands and leaning forward.  If the attacker is moving they will likely stumble forward and as you have their hands they are very likely to fall forward and to the side, shattering their collar bone on the ground.  Great stuff.  (He cautioned  that practicing this, even on a mat, has a high probability of leaving the attacker with broken bones.)

The Northern Shaolin opening movements follows this exact logic and take it a step further.  Rather than try to get this all in a writing, here is a video I just made!