ZMAINW Self Defense
Basic Self Defense
This outline of basic self-defense is taught throughout the Zen Martial Arts curriculum. By the time a student completes the color belt track, they are expected to be familiar enough with each bullet point in this list to be able to teach it effectively to someone else.
I am not a trained professional self-defense instructor, but I have been practicing martial arts for many years and have learned a lot in that time about how to protect myself and others. This document is a summary of the basics of self-defense as I interpret them. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments! - James Swartwood
Contrary to popular belief, self-defense is not just a collection of physical techniques. In fact, the majority of self-defense happens before anything escalates. There are a few key things to cover before diving into the material.
People never ask for, cause, invite, or deserve to be assaulted or treated with malice. While people sometimes exercise poor judgment about safety behavior, that does not make them responsible for any attack. Anyone that initiates violence in their thoughts or actions is the sole person to blame for how they express their malice.
Self-defense is not a system that makes you invincible. There is no perfect way to protect yourself, and everything is highly situational. Despite this, there are some things to practice and remember that could make a difference in the safety and security of yourself and your friends.
Instructors are not perfect and all-knowing. I am not an exception to this rule. Everything you see or hear taught as self-defense should be questioned thoroughly. You should use proper discernment and critical thinking as you read about self-defense here or anywhere else online.
It is always okay to say no! No matter the time or place, you have a voice, and it is up to every individual in every community to make sure that all voices are heard. If you do not feel comfortable at any point, it is perfectly fine to step away from whatever situation you are in. This includes stepping away from self-defense training if it makes you uneasy.
Treat everyone around you with respect and care. This is an important virtue in life but becomes all the more important when discussing topics of self-defense with people. I expect each of us, myself included, to exemplify this behavior.
Self-defense does not require intensive study to perfect. It is a collection of ideas, habits, and tools that promote well-being in dangerous environments. Implementing self-defense should be equally accessible to all who are able, no matter how much training a person has in it.
As a martial arts instructor with many years of experience, I can confidently say that self-defense is not martial arts, and martial arts is not self-defense. While martial arts practice might be able to add physical and mental resolve, believing that the arts are a good form of protection is ultimately going to cause more problems than it will solve.
I like to think of basic self-defense as having four main topics of interest:
Defense Outfitting and Tools
Urgent Emergency (911)
The best defense is a community that looks out for one another.
Take care of the people around you and find groups and spaces that will do the same for you.
University of Washington Specific:
Non-urgent Emergency (SafeCampus)
Tracking (SafeZone and Life360)
UWPD (Night Walk and Night Shuttle)
Identify Unsafe Environments
Whether you are in your house, outside on the street, or anywhere else, there will always be some level of danger. Some danger lies in spaces that are easy to identify, other danger finds its place in the most unexpected of places. While I do not mean to encourage paranoia, it is healthy to understand that this world is not a stable place and it is our responsibility to be alert.
Observe Threatening Body Language
Someone’s hands fidgeting in their pockets with nervous or tense energy can indicate danger.
Someone keeping their hand behind their back to the side of their body, out of your line of sight while they try to project a sense of “calm”, is likely trying to lower your guard or distract you.
It is not an insult to not trust a stranger’s gifts. Better to be safe than sorry. We should all work to normalize saying “no” and “I am not comfortable with that”
Passive Awareness and 6th Sense
Pay attention to worry without perceived reason. Trust your instinct and be ready to help those in need. It is possible that someone will need your help, just as it is possible that someday you might need theirs.
Calls for Help
Palm forward, thumb tuck, fingers folder over. This signals that the person performing this action needs help but cannot express it normally. (More information)
There are times when you might need to call 911 but cannot speak for any reason. There is a silent 911 call procedure. It is a good idea to look into this ahead of time to know what resources are available to you.
1 = “police”, 2 = “fire”, 3 = “ambulance”
4 = “yes”, 5 = “no”
In other locations:
Stay on the line. The dispatcher is doing their best to work with you. Be consistent with silent responses (1 keypad push = “yes”, 2 keypad pushes = “no”).
Avoid Narrowing Focus
Don’t get absorbed in looking at your phone or any other thing in particular. Doing so places you in danger of potential threats around you.
Remember this phrase: “Head up, eyes open, ears listening”
Defense Outfitting and Tools
Your choice of outfit at any given time can make all the difference in what is available for you to defend yourself. One of the best things you can do is wear shoes that you can run in, as running is the best thing you can do if a dangerous situation escalates.
Good Defense Tools:
Learn how to use this tool and try it before you ever have to. There are many ways for it to be used improperly that can affect you just as much, if not more so, than your target.
Bad Defense Tools:
Placing your keys in between your fingers or across your hand as an improvised weapon will hurt you far more than any target you hit.
Swinging your purse may feel like it has some weight to it that can do damage, but in reality, it is one of the weakest strikes you can perform due to low speed and accuracy.
In most instances where a rope could be used for self-defense, it would likely end up tangling up the person holding it. It also minimizes opportunities to use your hands effectively for anything else.
Perfect for throwing at a target to distract them.
Perfect for rubbing in sensitive locations, i.e. eyes and ears.
Any other object (including “bad defense tools” above)
These are best used as throwing weapons. Do not hang onto anything you do not need to.
Disclaimer: It is easy to misunderstand the written descriptions of physical actions. The following notes are best used to remind people of what they have learned from an in-person self-defense session on this material, where they were able to see an instructor demonstrate the actions and correct mistakes. Despite the shortcomings of written language, there is still much to be learned here for those who have not yet received in-person instruction. As always, you may contact me with any questions.
The ready stance should not appear threatening but should display awareness and control.
Feet shoulder-width apart
Knees slightly bent
Elbows gently floating
Hands open and in front
If a situation escalates to physical danger, the best thing you can do is run.
Hand covers the back of your head at the top of the neck so that the arm protects the side of your head. Another arm covers your ribs.
Head tucks so that your chin goes down.
Turn so that the side of the head that is covered is closest to the source of the danger for optimal protection.
Drive your head forward as you run in the direction you are now facing.
Keep your knees bent and legs moving. Even if you fall down, pick yourself up and continue running.
You have a voice. Do not be afraid to express your feelings or to say no.
Pushing will be the most natural way to create distance between you and an aggressor. Remember that you should never fully extend your limbs when doing this. A slight bend at full extension can make all the difference in keeping you safe.
Using your hands is a great idea, but there are certain ways that will work well and other ways that will end up working against you.
Good strikes with hands:
Flicking the back of your hand at the face.
Striking your palm across an ear.
Hammering your fist down at the back of the neck just below the head.
Bad strikes with hands:
Landing a good punch is near impossible in tense situations, even for professionally trained fighters. Not hurting yourself in the process of punching is another tall task, as there are so many ways to strike improperly and damage your hand and wrist.
Striking with your elbows if they are free is a quick and efficient way to break free of an attack from behind.
Note that elbows can strike backward and straight down. They are not good tools for striking forward.
The best target for elbow strikes are the ribs, particularly the lower ribs, also called the “floating ribs”.
Striking with your knees can be a great driving force forward.
While elbows strike backward and down, knees should strike forward and up.
In most situations where you are standing and can knee a target, choose instead to run. Only use the knee if you are stuck.
Like with the elbow strikes, the ribs are the best target for knee strikes.
Striking at the groin is usually not a good form of self-defense. The groin is an effective target only if the situation has not escalated yet, and self-defense is not about initiating attacks. If adrenaline is high, people who are hit there will usually not feel anything in the moment. The pain only sets in after their adrenaline has gone down.
Your legs are some of the strongest tools available to you on your person.
Thrust kicking at hip or chest height, aimed at the center of their body so at to not deflect to the side, is a great way to put distance between you and a target. Whether they are pushed backward or you are, the distance made will allow a short moment to escape.
If you can stomp the ground, you can stomp at a person’s knee. It does not matter what angle you are at, push straight at the knee with your foot as if you were going through the target to stomp on the ground behind it. This can cause a high amount of damage.
One of the easiest tools to forget in self-defense is your head.
The top-center point of your forehead is a strong weapon with lots of bashing potential. Anywhere else on the head is a bad weapon to use, as your skull is weaker from other angles.
Reminder: Everything we have already covered should be used to escape whatever dangerous situation you find yourself in. Do not use one thing and stop. Keep moving and running until you are safe.
Jujitsu has taught me one very key detail. You can escape most grabs at your wrist by rotating your arm as a lever to put force on the weakest point of their grip, in between the tips of their fingers.
If you are bear-hugged from behind but your elbows are free, default to elbow strikes as you rotate and run. If your elbows are not free, scrunch your shoulders to protect your neck, squat slightly, push your elbows out, and then rotate and run.
If your hands are forced behind your back, do not pull them to try to escape. Instead, rotate your body so that one of your hands is in front of your body. Then pull and twist to escape as you rotate and run.
Key ideas: keep moving, rotate, and run
Intermediate Self Defense
The intermediate self-defense curriculum is more open-ended than the basic self-defense defined above. Learning these topics involves deeper discussions with instructors. These topics are used as a way to spread awareness of violent realities so that each person can better defend themselves and the people around them. These topics are not discussed in much detail with those who are not yet ready and are intended for mature individuals. We require completion of these topics across the first three black belt ranks in the Zen Martial Arts system.
Topics of Discussion
Martial Arts vs Self Defense
Impact vs Momentum
Scanning for Intent
Scanning Break Points
Advanced Self Defense
The advanced self-defense topics are intended to provide instructors with the insights they need to understand the implications of their actions and words as it relates to self-defense, and maybe even the defense of their martial arts school. These topics are required discussions before earning the fourth black belt rank in Zen Martial Arts.
Topics of Discussion
Meekness as Strength