Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Martial Arts Instruction Videos Reviewed

I recently ordered and received Kung Fu Grandmaster John C. Y. Tsai’s video tapes, “How to Protect Yourself” and “How to Protect Yourself Against Weapons.” These originally went for $99.95 back in the ’90s but I got each tape for a couple of bucks through Amazon.com. Tsai (who pronounces it “tie,” presumably for the benefit of those English speakers who cannot handle pronouncing “ts” at the beginning of a word even though we miraculously manage to pronounce it at the ends of words like “puts”) offers many useful notions and techniques but underplays the importance of footwork and hip work in the execution of many of the moves he demonstrates. This is unfortunate. You would benefit far more from these tapes if you had some idea about what is going on below Grandmaster Tsai’s waist where the frame of the camera conceals what the rest of his body is doing when he steps aside from an attacker’s thrust. That said, his basic ideas about self-defense in life-threatening situations seem sound.

First of all, learn not to think like a victim. This is, of course, easier stated than done, but Tsai has a plausible psychological gimmick to counter the impulse to curl up in a ball and await the inevitable. He suggests thinking of your loved ones, as if they were with you and also under threat from your assailant. I would add that if you have sufficient self-esteem, you might even realize that your loved ones would really miss you terribly if someone killed you. So, even though your spouse or parents or children or friends might not be there, thinking of them might motivate you to put yourself into what Tsai calls a “protective” as opposed to a “victim” mode.

The next consideration is that you must be willing to counterattack unhesitatingly and ruthlessly if you want to survive a life-threatening assault. The saying “He who hesitates is lost” applies to this situation. Tsai urges his audience to practice the moves he teaches so that your body learns to perform them unhesitatingly. (An old Roman military saying puts it this way: “Conduct your drills like bloodless battles, and your battles like bloody drills.”)

Tsai limits his instruction to a few moves because he does not want to bewilder the student with too many choices and have him or her hesitate because of too many possible responses to a given attack. There are two components to the techniques he teaches: 1) counterattacks using the hand or foot, and 2) vulnerable areas of the assailants body that can be easily and effectively targeted. Tsai does not advocate that his presumably out-of-condition audience should try to learn fancy techniques such as reverse-spiral flying kicks. Rather, he recommends a finger or a knuckle to the eye, the edge of the hand to the throat, low kicks to the knee caps, and stepping on toes or the instep (especially effective with a woman’s high heel). The most vulnerable targets on the assailant’s body include the eyes, neck, throat and knee areas. About kicking somebody in the knee cap, Tsai notes humorously, “When somebody is bigger than me, and when I kick right, then he probably be shorter than I am.”

For the hand thrusts to the eyes and throat, Tsai advocates that you train yourself by putting your arm through paper targets. The idea is to learn to follow through so that you use your hand against your assailant’s body with enough force to cause damage by penetrating the surface. Psychologically, this is difficult for most human beings because it doesn’t sit well with the area of our brains that keep us from torturing puppies or gouging out another human being’s eyes. When faced with an opponent in whom that part of the brain is inoperative, however, it may be necessary to override your inhibitions in order to defend yourself. Paradoxically, if my life were threatened, I might have less compunction about delivering a penetrating blow to the throat than to the eyes, even though that could actually be more deadly than an eye gouge. Tsai even teaches a special technique called the eagle claw, which, when applied to the throat could bring about death very quickly. This is a sobering aspect of Tsai’s videos: the techniques he teaches on these tapes can kill, in some cases instantly. He does not teach these things with the intention of making killers better at killing, but with the expectation that his video student is a normal human being who might one day face a life-threatening attack, and Tsai hopes to prepare him or her to stay alive.

Advanced martial arts training takes years to perfect, and many quickie self-defense courses uselessly teach you to block blows, merely delaying your attacker. Such minimal defense could get you killed in a real, life-threatening situation. As Tsai notes in the “Against Weapons” video, you should not use your arm to block a knife attack because you will only end up getting your arm cut open. The best defense is an offense. Far better to attack a vulnerable area immediately and disable or even kill a knife-wielding assailant as quickly as possible. (At one point, Tsai mentions an easy way to stop an attacker using an ordinary pen—yes, it can literally be mightier than the sword.) The aim is to prepare you for fast and dirty ways of staying alive if the worst should happen.

Tsai’s Chinese accent does get in the way sometimes, and I found myself wishing that there were subtitles, but if you watch these tapes over and over—as you should if you want to get anything out of them—eventually you will understand almost everything he says. Although a little more attention to rudimentary footwork would have been in order, Tsai’s videos each deserve a B+.

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You might understand the importance of hip and footwork better if you were to see the few tapes that I have from “Human Weapon,” the cable TV series from a few years back. It was a reality/documentary-type program about two young men who travel the world studying martial arts in different countries. It is not to be confused with a less edifying copycat show, “Fight Quest,” which focused, as its title suggests, on its pair of young men getting into fights in different countries and often getting hurt without teaching them or the audience very much of anything. Instructive comparison episodes for these two series are the ones that each did on Krav Maga (Hebrew for “close combat”), the Israeli Defense Force’s official martial art. “Fight Quest” does provide a brief scene of Israeli soldiers practicing the use of an empty firearm as a club, but this constitutes a negligible addition to the superior information provided by “Human Weapon.” “Human Weapon” went into Krav Maga’s history (invented by a man whose father had introduced jujitsu to Czechoslovakia one hundred years ago), philosophy (similar to Grandmaster Tsai’s but for advanced combatants), and physics (including hip and footwork). Meanwhile, the installment of “Fight Quest” left you wondering what, if anything, set Krav Maga apart from any other martial art. That’s an A for “Human Weapon” and a C- for “Fight Quest.”

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