A few days ago I’ve had the misfortune of speaking with a most unpleasant individual. What started as an attempt at civil conversation degenerated into a one-way tirade of insults, hyperbole and outright lies. It reached the point where he uttered three lies in the space of a breath. I called him out on that, and he flew into a rage.
“Fuck off!” he shouted. “I don’t want to talk to you any more!”
I silently gathered my things and made for the door. He stomped up to me, closing within arm’s length, apoplectic with rage. His fists clenched, his face scarlet, he yelled, “Fuck off!”
There was no way to leave. Someone else was opening the door. Until she made room there was nowhere to go. And he was too close.
“Back off!” I said.
“You want to fight, is it?!” he replied.
He raised his fists to his hips.
In that moment, I saw with crystal clarity a panoply of methods to destroy him. Elbows, slaps, stomps, takedowns. I’d trained for this moment. I was ready.
I breathed, and did nothing.
The door opened.
“I am leaving!” I declared. “Stay where you are!”
I sidestepped to the doorway, keeping my eyes on him. Stepped back, still watching him.
I turned around and walked away.
And nobody had to go to the hospital or the morgue that day.
How to Stay Out of Jail
Many ‘self defence’ courses are great for learning techniques and principles, but omit a critical skill: how to stay out of jail.
In the words of Marc MacYoung, self-defence is an affirmative defence. It is an admission that you committed an act of violence — an illegal act in ordinary times — but you had to act due to circumstances out of your control. Per American law, these circumstances are usually abbreviated as AOJP: the threat has the Ability and the Opportunity to harm you, you are in Jeopardy, and the situation Precludes all other options.
In layman’s terms, this means that there is a clear and present threat to life and limb, there is no way to avoid or escape the threat, use of force must be appropriate to the threat, and force must end when the threat is no longer able to harm you. If any of these elements are not present, it is not self-defense. It is illegal violence and you will go to jail.
Going back to the above scenario, any use of force on my part in that incident would be criminal use of force. Even if I had come out the better of the exchange, there would be no way to justify it. Not when there was no actual threat, and when I was able to walk away. The incident was not combat — it was a dominance display, a monkey dance, and monkey dancing does not justify violence.
It’s easy to state all this after the fact. But when you’re caught in the moment, when the blood is up, adrenaline is surging through your veins and the fight-or-flight reflex kicks in, it becomes too easily to allow your emotions to destroy you.
The lizard brain, more formally known as the amygdala, is responsible for threat response. However, it does not differentiate between a threat to your life and a threat to your ego. It can’t tell if someone truly wants to kill you, or if he is acting out a monkey dance in an attempt to prove his superiority. The moment it perceives a threat, the amygdala lights up. It sends signals telling your body to fight. You become aggressive, your body goes into overdrive, and the human in front of you becomes a threat to be destroyed.
It’s one thing to tap into this aggressive response to fend off someone who is trying to harm you. It’s quite another to cripple or kill someone for insulting you. To prevent yourself from going to jail, you need to reign in the lizard brain and access the human — i.e. rational — brain.
The easiest way to do this is deep breathing.
Among the nervous systems in your body are the somatic and the autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system controls voluntary movements. Pause now and raise your arm above your head. That is the SNS at work. On the flip side, the autonomic nervous system is in charge of involuntary physiological responses. You can’t simply will yourself to sweat, accelerate your heart rate to 180 bpm and force your bladder to dump its contents — but under stress, your ANS will make it happen. While the SNS and ANS are mainly independent of each other, they are connected through one simple motion: breathing.
Take a deep breath and let it out. That is the SNS working. But breathing isn’t a conscious action all the time. When you sleep, for instance, you breathe automatically. That is your ANS in action. And through deliberate, conscious breathing, you can instill in yourself a sense of calm and bring your ANS under control — and with it, your physiological response to potential threats.
In On Combat, Dave Grossman discusses the concept of tactical breathing: deliberate breathing before, during and after a critical incident for maximum performance and well-being. His version is to inhale using your diaphragm for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for another four seconds, and hold for four more seconds before beginning anew. In practice, any kind of rhythm works, so long as it is deep and regular regular.
Throughout the incident described above, I was using tactical breathing. The moment he displayed outright hostility, I knew it was time to go. Saying anything else would further escalate the situation, so I remained silent. But when he entered my personal space, alarm bells began to ring.
When someone acts aggressively towards you and closes to an arm’s breadth, he is too close. He can act faster than you can react. If his hands disappear below your line of sight you won’t see an attack coming. I told the subject to back off, but he interpreted it as an escalation and clenched his fists.
I was ready to jump in. But he kept his hands low, and out the corner of my eye I noticed the door was open. So I rephrased my demand: “I am leaving! Stay where you are!”
He did not react, buying me the time and space to leave.
Through deep breathing, I remained calm during the incident. I was able to rationally analyse the situation, read the subject’s body language and behaviours, and pick a course of action that allowed for a safe exit. In doing so, I avoided doing anything that either of us would regret.
While tactical breathing was essential to the resolution of the incident, my other training contributed to the outcome, specifically weapons training and rehearsals.
I train in Pekiti Tirsia Kali, a Filipino martial art noted for its weapons-centric approach. Weapons are fast, faster than most untrained humans can move, and they have a longer reach than the human arm. The ability to read distance and timing is crucial. When weapons are coming in at high speed, you must react swiftly and correctly. You can’t afford to panic. If you do, you’ll step into a blow, or leave yourself undefended against the follow-up strike.
In my kali training, we routinely train at combat speed, both with pre-arranged drills and spontaneous flow. In my humble opinion, it serves as a kind of stress inoculation, forcing the practitioner to maintain awareness of weapons, timing and distance. Having trained to breathe tactically under pressure, I was able to employ it in the above incident.
Weapons training in other systems also provide additional benefits. Two-man kata from traditional Japanese koryu requires complete awareness and control at every stage, including the ritualised opening and closing of the kata. Watch the following clip:
During the opening and the closing movements, both practitioners are watching each other’s posture, weapon, range and movements. The opening sequence trains the practitioner to recognize what a threat looks like when he draws his weapon and is advancing on him, while the closing sequence acts as a standing down procedure to demonstrate the other party is no longer a potential threat — and any deviation from the stand down ritual must be treated as a sneak attack. This is the same concept I utilized when I exit the situation, by keeping my eyes on the subject at all times while I backed off — and by staying ready to respond to a sudden escalation until I was sure he was out of range.
In addition to formal martial arts training, when training in my own time I practiced yelling ‘Back off!’ and other verbalisations, as well as defensive hand gestures and postures to signal my intent while covering against sudden attack. Rehearsals help you build a mental script. When the adrenaline is up, rational thought becomes extremely difficult. Having a script to fall back on is invaluable. Scripts enable to you act smoothly and authoritatively, presenting strength and confidence, and discouraging would-be predators from attacking.
At the same time, you have to recognize when a script fails. I yelled ‘Back off!’ as part of my script, but when I noticed that the subject interpreted it as an escalation, I moved to a different tack. Similarly, above and beyond developing scripts, you need to develop appropriate responses when a person goes off-script — or at least retain the presence of mind to act appropriately.
More Than Mere Fighting
If you are reading this article, you are probably not likely to ever be on the receiving end of criminal violence. But you might find yourself caught in a monkey dance. Knowing how and when to use force is important, but knowing when not to use force is even more so.
Self-defence is more than just learning how to beat someone up. It’s about ensuring you go home alive and free. Going to jail is not successful self-defence. Keeping calm, differentiating between a threat and a monkey dance, and acting appropriately are critical skills. Training, rehearsals and, most of all, tactical breathing must be integral components of a comprehensive self defence program.
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