Nowadays more and more martial artists are moving away from using the term “self defence”, believing the term to be associated with reaction rather than being proactive. But for now we’ll stick with the generally accepted meaning of the term “self-defence” as the actions we take to protect ourselves from a physical attack by another person or persons. Self-defence may also extend to defending others that we consider under attack.
In law self defence generally means: “the reasonable force or actions we use when it appears necessary to prevent a probable injury” or “using reasonable force against an unjust threat”. This can, in some cases extend to pre-emptive strikes but if you do use pre-emptive strikes you may have to prove to the judge that you were in imminent danger of being harmed. Either way you must be able to justify the use of force.
The requirement to implement some form of “self defence” will range from a minor verbal altercation to the most sickening episode of life threatening violence ever imaginable. So the best way to approach self-defence is to develop awareness and use our natural intuition to avoid placing ourselves in risky situations in the first place. This is a basic state we aim to achieve, which for some may come naturally whilst for others will take years of development. In our school we begin to incorporate this concept at the start of our training. The first level of self defence is to use this awareness to place yourself at a safe distance from the perceived threat. If we do find ourselves in circumstances that may become threatening, we should do what we can to de-escalate the situation before it gets worse. If it gets to the point where we have to meet an attack head on, the Aikido methodology is always to step aside and blend with it and that can apply equally to both verbal or physical attacks.
Most, if not all martial arts include of a range of self defence techniques against physical attacks. Many will claim that these techniques were developed over hundreds of years “in the battlefield”. This is generally true but bear in mind the self defence situation you find yourself in today is unlikely to resemble the battlefield of centuries ago.
Aikido is Budo, it is a “Do” (way) and some Aikidoka will practice it as a form of enhancing spiritual development and may not initially pay that much attention to its self defence attributes. Others will study the mechanics of the techniques and will constantly be working on how the movements can be applied to self defence situations.
In our school we practice with the bokken (wooden sword). Some will maintain that this is pointless because we can’t legally take the bokken out on the street and use it in self defence applications. However, the use of weapons in our training is invaluable because this helps improve and correct our Aikido technique (waza), body movements (tai sabaki), distance (maai) and posture (shisei). Same goes for suwari waza (techniques performed kneeling) which dates back to feudal Japan where it had some relevance when Japanese spent much time on their knees especially in the presence of their Lords and Masters. Fights can very often end up on the ground but the movements in suwari waza are very different to the groundwork techniques you would find in Wrestling, Jujitsu or Judo. If you do end up on the floor suwari waza may or may not be useful but for Aikidoka the main purpose of suwari waza is to strengthen the core and just like weapons practice, improve technique and correct form. If however, you can become so proficient at suwari waza that you are able to use it in real situations where you end up on the floor well that’s an added bonus. One of the great outcomes of suwari waza practice is that; if you can move well on your knees you will be much more proficient in performing standing techniques (tachi waza).
A common attack we learn to defend from in Aikido is the wrist grab. Once again this dates back to times of the Samurai when the wrist would be grabbed to prevent you from drawing your sword. Well we don’t carry swords these days so why do we still put so much emphasis on this type of attack? The simple answer is it’s a perfect starting point for learning basic Aikido techniques before moving on to learn the same defensive technique from other attacks, strikes, punches and holds. This makes it possible for the beginning student to develop the basic Aikido principles before advancing to defences from attacks that are delivered with much more force and intent. As we progress we learn to understand that if the wrist is grabbed in a genuine attack it is more than likely to be quickly followed by some other action like a strike, hold or an attempt to drag you way. Once you learn to master the Aikido defences from wrist grabs you will begin to apply them just as the wrist is being grabbed in addition to situations where the wrist is actually being held.
Everyone will progress at their own pace but before Aikido can be effective in self-defence situations, the training has to become realistic. This means that our training partners have to attack us with “true intent”. If your Aikido training is for self-defence purposes, then you have to move to this stage before Aikido can become effective. Always keeping in mind that even the term “true intent” is subjective. If we’re not careful the warm cosy dojo can lead us into a sense of false security. Real attackers on the street don’t just leave their arm there while you put a technique on them.
In addition to a repertoire of techniques, “state of mind” will play a major part in how we deal with real life attacks both physical and verbal. Real attacks can have a catastrophic effect on the state of our composure. This will vary greatly from person to person and may intensify when weapons are involved. To varying levels when under attack, our heart rate will increase and we will experience an adrenaline rush. It is likely that we will encounter a reduction of motor skills and our peripheral vision will narrow. Hyperventilation can occur causing dizziness or even fainting. Our ability to make decisions becomes impaired and in some cases we simply freeze up altogether. On the positive side this chemical release that happens as our body prepares itself to deal with the threat may also improve our pain barrier, speed our reactions and sharpen our vision and awareness.
These are all symptoms of chronic stress or our “fight or flight response” that can be encountered under conditions of threat or fear. Therefore, our state of mind will play an essential role in the outcome of any self-defence situation. Self defence training has to be geared to account for this.
We train to develop the state of “mushin” (no mind). This is the level we aim for and have to achieve before Aikido can become effective in self-defence situations. The reality is that only repetition and perfection of the techniques in the dojo will place us in a position where we would be able to react and execute them without thinking about them. This will almost certainly take many years of practice. So as we begin our Aikido journey our emphasis is on the “Art” both physically and as a spiritual discipline, on learning how to understand our limitations and on the development of our values and behavior within ourselves.