Karate is for Self-Defense

During the years I’ve been training karate-Do I’ve gone through periods of intense training and, for various reasons, periods of little training. I even went through a period of martial art identity crisis,  which is something I think all martial art practitioners experience at some point in their life, where I questioned the value of karate as a true self defence science/art. I questioned the value of karate techniques, its applications and whether they would work in a real ‘dangerous’ situation.

This ‘crisis’ pushed me to try other martial arts and I flirt for 2 years with aikido, capoeira and a mixture of kung-fu styles applied to ‘real life situations’, but I didn’t quite find my path there either…

The question whether Karate is valid for self defence taunted me for a while and, as a matter of fact, it is something I still discuss with a dear and beloved  friend of mine who fall out of karate a few years ago, but who I met, ironically, thanks to karate.  One day, though, I realised I was asking the wrong question. The question is not whether karate, or any other martial art in this respect, it’s valid for self defence or not. The question is what is self-defence?

Typically, we reduce the definition of self defence to that of a physical action or reaction in order to protect yourself from a physical threat or attack, and with the explosion of MMA, Cage Fight, K1 and other fighting modalities, martial arts seems to be judged on this fighting ability alone. I’m not criticising these fighting sports at all, far from it. As a matter of fact, I quite enjoy watching it myself.

The point I am trying to make is that, in my opinion, to measure karate on this respect alone is vague, to say the least. Of course, there’s a very important core element of fighting skills in karate. Essential, in fact; but self defence is not just about learning how to fight and be able to take one, two, three, hundreds of attackers and send them to hospital. Where’s the limit then?  How far can we take the “what if” scenarios we so much love to question ourselves in order to test our fighting abilities. How to take one person down? Two people? Ten? An attackers carrying knives? Or guns? How to avoid a sniper?

We can carry on with the most ridiculous ‘battle context’ scenarios where no martial art technique will ever protect you. But then, again, other aspects of your training might do: you build confidence to talk in a tense situation, you develop a sense of conflict awareness and learn to read a situation before it kicks off;  your body reacts to other people’s body language and protects itself just by naturally changing your stand and loosing up your hands and legs; more often than not, there’s always an honourable way to slowly walk away from the conflict because, let’s face it, it’s just not worth it.

Have I ever had a real fight? Sure I have, but I will keep that to myself; the fights I didn’t have is what now, looking back, I’m more proud of. And trust me, is not due to lack of opportunities because the world is full of egomaniacs with a sad need of making a point to overcome their void and lack of achievement in life. Do they deserve your fight? Absolutely No. Me, personally, I don’t want to go back to work on Monday with a black eye even if I ‘win’ (whatever that means) the fight. Unless me, my family or my friends’ physical integrity is under genuine threat, fighting is just not worth it. Cross that line and it’s a different story… Romantic? No, not really. Just practical.  I love free sparring and Goju kumite. We, Karatekas, live in an eternal contradiction: we train to fight so we don’t have to fight, and this ‘contradiction’ is not new; it is captured in Vegetius’ adage, si vis pacem, para bellum.

But, again, self defence is way more than everything I mention above: self defence is also building confidence to say ‘no’ to an abusing work colleague, self defence is being able to stop bullies at school by facing up against the offender and saying up loud ‘enough!’; self defence is to assertively stand up for yourself against an unfair and dictatorial boss and say what you think and how you feel; self defence is about being smart; self defence is to be able to look to another human being with respect and no fear. Self defence is that profound feeling of not being afraid again and karate helps to build the confidence, the character and the respect to achieve this very ultimately goal of overcoming your fears, whatever they might be.

Ever since I started training some 19 years ago Karate has always been in my life, whether undertaking intense formal training, assisting to seminars and workshops, talking about it, reading about it, watching videos and looking at other karatekas’ moves, using the mirrors of a lift while performing a ‘quick and dirty’ sanchin kata, or a kake uke standing on sanchin dachi while waiting for the bus, or messing around with a friend play fighting, the occasions are endless where your mind is doing karate. It follows you wherever you go and in this moment of my life I’m absorbing as much karate as I can so I can deliver good quality teaching which, I feel, is bringing some interesting holistic results because teaching karate is also making me a better karateka.

Karate-Do is a very personal experience. A personal path, guided by your instructors and assisted by your training mates, but walked alone. It’s a path of perfection, not a goal of perfection, because there’s no such a goal. A path of perfection in your techniques, your moves, your breathing, your stands, your fighting abilities, your whole body awareness… You train your techniques consciously to feel them unconsciously.

At a personal level, Karate has given me more friends in more countries than I ever dreamed having. It has always been there in one way or another. It was there for me when I was at my lowest and it has given more to me than I have managed to give back; and this is the underlying feeling that embraces the start of the Surrey Karate Academy, which rests in four pillars:

  • respect to yourself
  • respect to others
  • respect to the environment
  • train with discipline

I love Karate with a passion and, yes, as well as having an exhaustive repertory of nasty and applicable fighting techniques it is fantastic for self defence for all the reasons explained above.

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