lca2011 talk: Applying martial arts in real life

Below is a talk I gave in the Haecksen miniconf at 2011 (Brisbane). I’ve tried to embed some videos and links that would be useful and interesting to people, and I’ll link the video of the talk once that’s available (although I warn you, it includes physical demonstrations and a live overdubbing of Kung Fu Panda due to not having sound for my presentation) :).

Update: Video of the talk below, and then the more detailed blog post. Warning, I speak *very* fast ๐Ÿ™‚

Basic introduction to martial arts and concepts

“Life is what you make it.”

We’re all given that advice from birth, and many of us, particularly in the West expect then to be able to strong arm our way into whatever we want to do. I see life as much less just at the whim of the individual, and more subject to the conditions and context of their environment. This is not to say we are limited, but rather we need to recognise, take into account and respond to or indeed modify our environment if we are to achieve what we set out to do.

Martial arts is essentially the study of oneself, ones environment and how the two interact. At a very basic level, martial arts will help you better navigate face to face combat or read your environment and the people around you to avoid conflict in the first instance, if indeed you want to avoid the conflict.

However, applied properly, martial arts will prepare you to be completely and utterly competent to deal with everything life throws at you. They help you see conflict as a practise ground, see your habits are conquerable, see fear as just another form of energy, and importantly, see everything as a gift.

In this talk I’ll be dealing with some martial theories and how they translate from combat to everyday life, but first I would like to talk a little about fear.

Dealing with fear

I’d like to draw from one of the most important modern classics in the theory and practise of martial arts.

That’s right, Kung Fu Panda.

Throughout the film, Po greatly fears Tai Leng and thinks himself incapable of possibly taking up theย  challenge of defeating him.

Fear is usually used to achieve or maintain power by appearing to limit the options available, which means it is only as effective as the recipient permits. If you are terrified, your animal instincts kick in reducing you to a few base reactive options. If you are not fearful, then you have many options open to you.

When it comes to combat, self defence is a real challenge for many women, because we feel overly sensitive to what we learn being able to be applied in real life because there is so much fear around women being attacked. I put to you that fear is not just a symptom, but part of the cause of the disproportionate suffering of women in society. By constantly differentiating women as being “weaker” or in need of protection (“women and children first!”) we have set the condition by which it is assumed women are an easier target and unable to help themselves.

Nowadays, I feel very uncomfortable using the term “self defence” because I reject the premise that I am a victim.

I prefer “combat” ๐Ÿ™‚

The fact is many martial arts take into account the fact that humans come in all shapes in sizes and regardless of strength, size, flexibility or personality, an individual can easily learn and apply appropriate methods for their specific disposition which will be utterly effective.

One of the best lessons I ever had in combat was surprisingly from a four year old girl. I was at a friends place and her little girl was running full bawl at me in a game where I was using some combat techniques to gently draw her in, redirect her slightly into a 180 degree turn and then propelling her back into her mini-couch. It was an incredible lesson because I discovered that I was applying the particular function (9 Palace Palm) the most effectively I ever had. It was through the joyful application of the function that it was relaxed, was precise, was perfectly effective not in turning a small child around, but in seamlessly redirecting her intent.

So with regards to fear, it is important to learn the root of your fears, deal with them, and then not be limited by them. It is important to deal with anything life throws at your with fresh eyes and free of baggage, so you can see things for exactly what they are and deal with them effectively, even joyfully rather than buying into a state of mind you don’t actually want to have.

So, bringing it back to Kung Fu Panda, by the end of the movie (the big “fight” scene) we find that Po chooses to not buy into the fear Tai Leng provokes, but sees the situation as a joyful one and his attitude undoes the fear Tai Leng has tried to bring to bear. It means Po does not respond as Tai Leng expects, it gives him the opportunity to change the playing field completely.


Now with some of the head space taken care of.

Martial arts teach you how to be strategic. They teach you to see things for what they are and deal accordingly. They teach you to be so in tune with yourself and your environment that you are capable of choosing the most strategic and harmonious outcome to any situation, or indeed to your life as a whole.

What does harmony matter? Living harmoniously doesn’t mean being kicked around, it doesn’t mean taking the “good” or moral path (or the “bad” path for that matter), it means choosing the least destructive path possible, trying to “leave no footprints”. It means recognising that your every action has repercussions. Only by being able to see and take responsibility for your every action, can you make a well considered decision and take the least damaging path for all concerned. This both empowers you by opening up options, and allows you to think more laterally about what it is you are trying to achieve.

Harmony doesn’t necessarily mean flowers and candy, it might mean turning the other cheek, it might mean waging war, it might mean setting yourself on fire. It is the path of least destruction upon taking *everything* into account, now and into the future.

Basically, martial arts are about learning to really see what is happening around you and choosing a path, rather than stumbling along blindly, swearing at the furniture that you bump into.

Below are a few concepts and how they apply in combat and in life.

Embrace and extend

Often in combat, it is easier to buy into, or at least appear to buy into the direction and intent of your opponent, and through subtle redirection to turn the situation around.

A good combat example is the 9 Palace Palm technique I mentioned before, where your arm extends and touches your opponents punch as it extends and subtly, without them feeling it, you move the arm the 2 degrees or do so it misses you whilst placing them in a vulnerable position close to you. You use their energy to place them exactly where you want them, and you need to be subtle, because if they feel their arm being grabbed, or forced, they will simply pull back and you lose the ability too leverage their momentum.

An example in real life, indeed my own childhood, is my wonderful Grandpa, who upon hearing the annoying pleas from my brother and I as young children to go to McDonalds (I know, I’m embarrassed). He would greet our enthused cries with “Where? Where is it? Awww! We missed it! Next time kids!”. I didn’t tweak to this trick until many years later ๐Ÿ™‚ If we’d known he was intentionally going past we would not have been nearly as gracious in our acceptance of missing out.


When you see a situation completely, you can determine if you want to allow it to progress to its natural conclusion. If you accept the premise of a situation you now limit yourself to the associated options. You do however, at all times, have the option to reframe, to change the premise.

The best combat example of all time is the scene in Indiana Jones between him and the sword fighter. The sword fighter displays his skillz utterly confident he is one of the best sword fighters (although he’s kind of rubbish), and rather than buying into that premise, Indy shoots him. Please see the talk video for a combat example.


A wonderful example of reframing in real life is where one of my martial arts teachers was at a beer garden with friends, children and family when a local oaf approached him very aggressively and demanded a fight to determine who was the best fighter. My master rapidly realised that to buy into the premise of combat would put people around him in danger, including the children attending. So he did something that the oaf was simply not prepared for. He fell to the ground saying “‘don’t hurt me”. The oaf said “stupid pussy” and walked off, my teacher got up and completed his meal with his family in peace. The opinion of such a person is rarely worth worrying about ๐Ÿ™‚

Limit your opponents options

Sometimes it is within your power to limit the options of opponents around you, at least as the situation pertains to you. This can be a useful way to at least make more predictable an opponents actions.

For instance, if someone is clearly shaping up to engage you in combat, you can get your self into a stance which either limits where they can hit you, or specifically invites them to attack a target in order to lull them into a trap. In either case, you have also limited your options, but you’ve made the conflict easier to manage and the dangers easier to mitigate.

In life, an effective but not very nice example would be telling someone something that will make them angry in a public place to try to minimise their reaction.

Use what you have

Knowing what is available to your at all times is a good way to ensure you always use what you have to hand effectively. One reason there are so many weapons in Chinese martial arts is because martial arts have been banned by various rulers or warlords, so people had to find less obvious weapons such as chopsticks, umbrellas or fans to defend themselves in what have been at times quite violent periods.

Know your Strengths and weaknesses

Everyone is unique and thus have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. This is a large part of the reason why there are so many styles, they each cater to a different physiological and psychological makeup. Those who believe that strength is important to combat are quite deluded. Often strength makes a person a little slower, and seeing it takes so little to hurt a person (much less than everyone assumes) the faster opponent will often have a good advantage in combat.

There are still people who like to debate the “myth of women warriors”, and it is quite ridiculous because we have had women warriors right throughout history, and because battle is even now, less about brute strength and more about strategy. Check out the extended reading below for a good blog post on this by my Shifu (master) and the Wikipedia page is also awesome.

In Shaolin Gung Fu, the many animal styles are a great way to understand how you can both find a skills that suits your unique makeup, and how you can shift physical and mental tools to best tackle the situation in front of you.

In the video of the talk I spoke about and demonstrated very basically a few different animals, so please watch the video for these demonstrations. I discussed Crane, Tiger, Snake, Leopard and Drunkard boxing. Please check out the Shanmen Shaolin school website category of animal styles articles for more information on various animal styles ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s much more detailed and useful that I spoke about.


The body is a temple

In ancient times when the founder of Gung Fu, an Indian Buddhist monk called Da Mo came to lead Shaolin temple, he basically found a bunch of pious tubbies. He showed them that you can’t find clarity unless your body is an enabler, rather than an inhibitor. Martial Arts, as with all things, are easier to put into practise if you are healthy. A large part of the reason I am vegetarian is because for me, I am healthier, so figure out what is healthy for you.

Determining the battlefield

Finally it is worth briefly mentioning that by determining the battlefield you have some control over the battle. Some ideas to consider include:

  • try to avoid conflict through good living
  • honesty, discipline, fairness, equality are all important to maintaining a good army, basically don’t be a tool
  • do not involve yourself with the impractical
  • understand each conversation, argument, and all things as parts of a whole
  • strive to understand it all
  • make sure you only engage in battle when it suits you and under conditions favourable to you. If you can’t, then ensure you minimise any benefits the enemy holds over you

Always leave an exit

At the Geek Girl dinner after Haecksen, I met Jess who added to the list of stuff from my talk a wonderful little gem. Always ensure your opponent has an exit available to them. If you don’t provide a way out ofย  the situation, combat or verbally, then they are backed into a corner and you limit the opportunities to achieve a harmonious outcome. The situation simply escalates.

Last word

In everything you do, own it, take responsibility for your every action, and try to live with awareness and harmoniously and you’ll find things fall into place.


9 thoughts on “lca2011 talk: Applying martial arts in real life”

  1. Nice post Pia! Pity I couldn’t be at LCA this year, but I’ll be hanging out for the video.

    One key thing I’ve taken away from my training over the years is to have fun with it. Yes there is a serious aspect, but having a light heart makes training, combat, work and life easier.

  2. Just Look at Wing Chun for anyone who doesn’t except Woman Worriers. Look at mums with more than 1 child or female pre-school or school teachers. Great post.

  3. As a strength athlete with some limited (years ago) martial-arts experience, I have a tiny bone to pick with this:

    Often strength makes a person a little slower, and seeing it takes so little to hurt a person (much less than everyone assumes) the faster opponent will often have a good advantage in combat.

    If you train for power, the explosive generation of force, then it will help you. Training for power involves emphasising nerual adaptation and the development of Type II muscle fibres.

    If you train for hypertrophy, for the size of muscle, then depending on your hypertrophic technique, yes, you will become slower.

    Martial artists who anecdotally report that they became musclebound and slow almost universally trained bodybuilding style: many isolated exercises, performed slowly, to failure, for high reps.

    If you want to become stronger and quicker, train like an Olympic weightlifting: compound exercises, performed explosively, for low reps.

    1. Great point, thanks for that ๐Ÿ™‚ I was making a generalisation but you are right that there are different types of strength. Which oddly also reinforces the point that it’s simply not as clear cut as many people assume ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Too much info too fast is OK… โ€™coz it means that the info is out there, & (as per the video) anybody whose mind runs at less than Warp Factor 12 can (later) think through what youโ€™ve said at their own pace.

    My mind also generally runs at > Warp Factor 11ยฝ, however in slightly different ways to yours, so that is exactly what I am doing as I type this.

    WRT โ€œas clear cut,โ€ certainty that one knows exactly what is going on is a good general indicator that youโ€™ve missed (at least one) important factor… ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Oh… an addition thought along the lines of life is what you make it:

    โ€œThe happiest people are not those who have the best of everything.
    It is those who make the best of everything.โ€

  6. Terrific article, and I agree with your philosophy about life. Well articulated. The way we choose to perceive our lives is what frames our choices on what to do with it. So why not choose a perception that’s most enabling?

    Btw I had thought Aikido was the only martial art that works with the combatant’s energy but obviously Kung Fu does too. Cool. (Maybe even other styles as well.)

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