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Something a Little Different for the Weekend

How Not to Get Hit has a friend in China who arranges Kung Fu experiences for people looking for a life-changing adventure, from one month to one year.

He’s a fascinating bloke, who has his own blog.  It’s been a busy month for me so in the absence of writing one myself, I thought I;d share with you an interview he recently did  with a genuine, bona-fide Kung Fu Chinese master.  Just to open your eyes a little to life on the other side of the world; everyone could do with having their horizon’s broadened from time to time…

If you like what you read, why not take a closer look at what they do over at – you never know, it might change your life

Interview with Zhou Zhen Dong of Taiji Mantis

Zhou Zhen Dong is the head of the Yantai branch of Taiji Mantis. The sole inheritor to his teacher, Zhang Kai Tang, he teaches Taiji Mantis as well as Hao family Meihua Mantis. Highly respected both in China and the west, he has taught students from many countries, including UK, USA, Austria, Hungary, Russia and Japan as well as various parts of China. 



Zhou Zhen Dong performing “facing the heavens elbow”

Zhou Shifu, please could you tell us how you started your training in Kung Fu 

My first teacher was called Yu Zhi Ru. I was around 15 when I started training with him.  

Master Yu was a Chinese doctor. He would read people’s pulse and prescribe them herbs for a small fee. He did this secretly. He was very skilled, you didn’t need to tell him what illness you had, he could tell by your pulse. Actually I met him because he was a friend of my grandfather. When I was a child he often came to our home, and sometimes he talked about kung fu, showing us some moves. I was interested, and started learning “sheng yuan men” (saintly ape style) from him. The forms included “bai yuan chu dong” (white ape exits the cave), “bai yuan kui yuan” (white ape spies the orchard), “bai yuan tou tao” (white ape steals a peach), “bai yuan gun” (white ape staff), “bai yuan xian tao” (white ape offers the peach), “bei dou quan” (fist of the north star). These are derived from a Chinese myth.

 Could you share the myth for those unfamiliar

 There was a white ape. His father died and then his mother got ill from depression. White ape heard there was an orchard on a mountain where the peaches of immortality grew every 500 years. He decided to get his mother a peach. So after leaving his cave he set off on a long journey. When he finally arrived on the slopes of the sacred mountain, he found the orchard, first spying it from afar to see if it was guarded. Seeing the coast was clear he ran right in and stole a peach. However he was caught by Er Lang and the two of them had a staff fight. Bai Yuan begged him to stop attacking. Once Er Lang realised Bai Yuan could talk he asked why he stole the peach. Moved by the story of his mother, he agreed to give him one peach. Bai Yuan returned home and gave the peach to his mother. Surely, his mother was cured, and so they bowed down and paid respects to the god of the north star. 

Master Yu had a huge black cat which he really loved. That time China was really poor and people were hungry. One day the cat stole some neighbours dried fish, and they caught it and killed it. My teacher became really depressed and got sick. At that time, Master Yu was over 80 years old, and his wife was 30 years younger than him. He was retired at home, and she was still working. Everyday after school I helped to look after my teacher. He told me to go out and buy ginger, leek and radish, and then cook it and put it in a cloth. He then put the cloth on his body to sweat out the sickness. After doing that for a while he started to get better. But then after a year or two, he got sick again, this time more serious. He stopped teaching me kung fu as he got weaker, and taught me pulse reading and Chinese medicine, making me read a lot of old books I didn’t really understand. His wife and I looked after him until he passed away at 85. Me and his wife carried his body to be cremated.

 How did you come to meet Zhang Kai Tang 

Zhang Kai Tang was my neighbour. My sister was engaged to his son and she introduced me. Master Zhang asked me to show him what I learnt, so I performed “bai yuan tou tao”. I used all my power. That time, everybody said I was really good. But he wasnt impressed at all. He said I was just using my arms, and had no body power. He offered to teach me the form “beng bu”. Before, I never imagined kung fu could be so difficult! Also, at that time, I didn’t understand much, what was Taiji Mantis, what was Meihua Mantis. Slowly Master Zhang explained. Bengbu is Taiji Mantis, which comes from Cui Shou Shan. He didn’t plan on teaching me anything more. But I kept hanging around, determined to learn more. So he asked me what do I want to learn, Meihua Lu or Chuan Zhi? He showed me a few moves. I thought Chuan Zhi looked nice, so I said Chuan Zhi. He explained Chuan Zhi was Meihua Mantis, from the Hao family. Chuan Zhi was 4 forms, 20 roads in total.



Zhang Kai Tang

 Can you tell us something about Zhang Kai Tang

 Zhang Kai Tang studied with Hao Heng Xin for six years. Hao Heng Xin was one of six brothers who were the masters of the Hao family Meihua Mantis. After that, his uncle invited Cui Shou Shan to be his live in teacher for another 6 years. That time was very strict, a private teacher who ate and slept with them. In the morning, they did iron body training, trained kung fu all day, then at 11pm every night did meditation. Zhang Kai Tang had 2 brothers, but they couldn’t take the harsh training and dropped out.

 So first he learnt under Hao Heng Xin, later under Cui Shou Shan. Can you tell us something about these great masters

 Hao Heng Xin was famous for his iron palm. It was said he could strike a match on his hand. Zhang Kai Tang learnt this skill from him. One time, during sparring, he hit his partner in the face. It made a cut on his eye which made his whole face swollen. This was due to the medicine they soaked their hands in before and after iron palm training. Hao Heng Xin had a student called Su Shi Chang. He was really strong, as he pulled the rickshaws for a living. He was out fighting one day and beat his opponent. He came back really happy to brag to his master. Hao Heng Xin was meditating, and got annoyed by his disturbance. Master Hao slipped his shoes half on and stood up with his eyes closed, offering to show the student some real skill. His left hand behind his back he held out his right hand softly and told the student to attack him. As soon as the student moved in, Master Hao palmed him in the face, cutting his eye. The next day it was swollen so bad he couldn’t even open it.

 After 6 years, he learnt everything from Hao Heng Xin. His uncle offered to find him “a top level master from Laiyang, the home of mantis”. So he brought Cui Shou Shan to his home to teach the 3 brothers. As soon as he met Master Cui, he was really impressed by his depth of knowledge. His first teacher was really angry, and got his brothers together to beat Master Cui. My teacher went to Master Hao and explained, “You are always my shifu, I learnt everything from you. But I want to keep learning and developing, Master Cui has a lot to teach me.” My teacher always sent gifts to Master Hao during festivals. All his life he said “I have two masters, Master Hao and Master Cui.” 



Cui Shou Shan

After 6 years, Master Cui left at the invitation of Sun Xiang Ting to teach in a school there. Hao Heng Lu (elder brother of Hao Heng Xin) approached him saying “your boxing is great, really great, but you still haven’t mastered all the weapons yet.” He then asked my teacher to teach Master Cui’s style in his school and taught him Damo Jian (bodhidharma sword), Baxian Jian (eight immortals sword), Qixing Jian (seven star sword) and Meihua Qiang (plum blossom spear) in return. Master Cui was really angry by this and forbid my teacher to continue doing this.

 Could you explain about your training during the Cultural Revolution 

During the Cultural Revolution, traditional martial arts were classed under the “four olds”. Any kind of old culture or antiques were forbidden and destroyed. All you were allowed to do was study “Mao Ze Dong thought”, sing “socialism is great” etc.

As far as traditional arts, they were replaced with modern wushu. “first level fist” “second level fist” “first level sabre” “second level sabre” etc. national regulated forms. This included the 24 posture form of taiji. You had to learn all the different Mao Ze Dong books and quotes, life were really boring. There was nothing you could do to enjoy yourself, no happiness. On top of that, life was harsh. Everything was planned and provided by the state. How much meat and grain you could eat every day was regulated.

 So if you were engaged in traditional activities, people would condemn you, persecute you. So that time we had to train in secret. In my teacher’s home, or at night after dinner, I would find a dark place with no people to train. I was seen by people from time to time, if people saw me, they would leave immediately, didn’t dare to get involved. Actually, not many people really went outside at night, they were so poor, so after eating, normally they just slept. And there was no lighting outside anyway.

 During the Cultural Revolution, the red guards just came into everyone’s homes, and took away anything old. Nobody could say or do anything, they took what they wanted and left. If you refused, they put a hat on your head and beat you in public. Called you a “right winger”, “bad element”, “counter revolutionary” etc. After Deng Xiao Ping came to power, these words were banned from use, and the hats were all burnt. He said we are all equal, nobody can persecute anyone else.

 When the Japanese invaded China they banned martial arts training, calling it “iron man training”. That time my teacher buried his weapons and iron palm urn under the ground. After several years, the Japanese were defeated, he dug them up. But they were all rusted. The iron palm urn was totally wrecked, but he restored the weapons. He taught his oldest son with his sabre, and they would cut bricks with it. Then during the Cultural Revolution, this sabre was taken away again.

What about your view on the present state of martial arts in China 

Nowadays, a lot of westerners like kung fu. In the beginning, westerners didn’t know what kung fu really is, and went to universities, or other places like shaolin temple, to learn kung fu. Cartwheels, flying kicks, actually that’s the same as gymnastics. Real kung fu is “among the people”. Slowly, westerners started to realise this, and are now looking among the people, rather than learning “flowery fists and embroidered kicks”, in the old days it was called “chou gong fu” “jun bashi”. Running around the hall leaping around, that isn’t martial arts, it’s gymastics or “yishu”. So after Deng Xiao Ping made the “open door policy” China realised the treasure of traditional culture and is trying to revive it. Tanglang quan has been included in the list of “intangeible cultural heritage”.

 Nowadays due to higher living standards and especially the “one child policy”, Chinese people are afraid of “eating bitter”. This means to endure hardship. This is especially the case in the cities. If you look in the big kung fu schools, the kids are all from poor rural areas. City kids will learn piano, English, dance etc. a lot of old masters have nobody to teach, their arts die with them. A lot of westerners come to China, train hard, respect and love the art; of course a teacher will want to pass their art onto them. Before, a lot of old masters were persecuted, killed, we learnt in secret, we couldn’t open a school or openly teach people.



Zhou shifu with students, Chinese and western

 Anyway, a lot of old styles are being lost. In fact, I believe, in 20-30 years, if Chinese want to revive our arts; we will have to go to the west to learn kung fu. Kids aren’t interested, parents don’t want their kids to learn.

 Thank you for your time, Zhou Shifu

This interview was conducted by Will Wain-Williams. For more information on his teacher, and on praying mantis kung fu, you can visit his website here.

Seven Simple Things

Let’s start this essay, and it is an essay, with a little test.  No wait come back, don’t worry, this will be a fun one I promise.  Give yourself thirty seconds to read through the following list of words.  It’ll help to say them out loud as you read, and visualise items as you go.  Ready, set, go:

Train; cutlery; coffee; rucksack; curtain; ocean; jungle; airplane; shirt; crockery; coffee; trousers.

Finished?  Right no cheating, cover up the words and write down as many as you can remember.

How did you get on?  If you got 10, 11 or 12, stop reading this and go join Mensa right now, you’re a genius.  If you got 1, 2 or 3, maybe try again later when you’re not driving, or fall-down drunk.  Really I’m not being funny, there’s probably something wrong with you if you got 1-3.  Get help.

If you got anything between 4 and 9, congratulations – you’re average.  You’re in the normal range of people who take this test.  If you got 6, 7 or 8 then you’re right at the top of the bell curve, in the good company of the vast majority of the population.  The most average of the average, if you will.  If you were a colour, it would be beige.

Well that was a jolly nice bit of fun.  Now that we’ve broken the ice you and I, keeping your score in mind, let me tell you a little tale…

There’s a city in Latin America which bears the lofty accolade, quite literally, of being the highest metropolis in the world – rubbing shoulders with the mountains and the sky at a dizzying 2,800 meters above sea level.  It’s so high that if you fly there from a lower locale, you run a very real risk of altitude sickness as soon as you get out of the airplane – not, perhaps, the best way to start a relaxing holiday.

This is why many people choose instead to fly to a nearby city near the coast, where the mountains dip their toes into the cool surf of the Pacific Ocean.  There you can catch a train up the mountain, gradually acclimatising to the altitude as you ascend.  Well, I say gradually, but the path from coast to crest is nothing of the sort scaling, as it does, the sheer face of the mountain.

To do this, the train has carved tracks out of the very stuff of the mountainside and to make its’ ascent it zig-zags its’ way across the slope, reversing on itself at the end of each section to make the next climb.

This takes time.  The flight from city to city takes 50 minutes, the drive five hours, and the train a stately four days to reach its destination.  But to dismiss such a journey based on time alone would be to miss out on some astonishing views as the lush, equatorial rainforest that bursts from the coast gradually dissolves into green rolling hills, which in turn give way to purple, jagged mountain tops.

And what a train!  We are not talking about some creaking metal worm in whose innards you perch uncomfortably on plastic seats, sipping bad coffee from a polystyrene cup and nibbling a dried, curled egg sandwich.  No in this train the stately Victorian carriages are made of the finest carved wood, dripping with luxury and excess.  The sound is deadened by the rich, deep carpets and the thick bound curtains whilst tea is served from the finest silverware and china.

All this, and the gentle incline allows the traveller by train to reach the top energised and ready to explore the city, whilst his counterpart alighting an airplane clutches his throat and collapses, vainly clawing the sky as he gasps for oxygen from the thin, mountain air….

I wonder, if we asked these two men as one draws a satisfied breath and takes in the view, and the other takes panicked gasps for oxygen as he drops to his knees, how many words from the list at the start of this story they might recall.  One no doubt will breeze through as he gently takes satisfied sips of air whilst the other will stare at you confused, pre-occupied perhaps with the one single dominating thought of his continued survival.  I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you which is which.

A man I know, let’s call him Ted, recently made such a trip, which as you can probably guess is why I’m able to wax so lyrically about this little-known attraction.  True to form, the gentle ascent meant he positively leaped from the train, ready to explore the beautiful city it took him to backpack on his back, camera at the ready.  Eagerly Ted strode forward, and out of the station.  Here he paused, taking in the extended views of rooftops vanishing into the distance; the crystal clear air making the distant buildings look like a quilt of Lego, or an over-zealous domino track made by a particularly enthusiastic nine year old.

And then, with but a cursory glance to those asphyxiating at the airport, Ted set off.  And immediately into a local man coming the other way, who spilled hot coffee all over our hero’s shirt, trousers and rucksack.  Luckily the local was not annoyed, more troubled in fact by the mess he’d made of Ted.  He began to help, padding with a hankie as Ted tried to deal with the hot coffee on his shirt and trousers, the fear his camera could be ruined, and this man industriously patting at his clothing.  It was at this point that another man arrived on the scene, equally concerned, and began helping Ted off with his rucksack as the coffee was seeping into the pockets, and running down Ted’s back.  Off came the rucksack, which the man then appeared to drop on the ground by mistake.  Another man appeared, picked up the rucksack, and in the blink of an eye all three dissolved into the crowd.

And Ted was left alone, dazed, and with the growing realisation that he had just been mugged.

Speaking about it afterwards, he told me his strongest memory was just how good the four people who did it were. There was no noise, no violence, no force – just a well rehearsed set of actions that left him on the ground without his rucksack.

“By the time I was off my knees, they had gone. I still have no idea where they went. The hotel doorman saw nothing. There were people in the street but nobody reacted. Everything was normal and quiet, apart from the fact that I was standing on the pavement, without my rucksack and with no idea where it was and these people had gone.”

I should mention here that Ted’s not your average holiday-maker.  He’s a seasoned traveller who has seen half the globe over the years; he’s a martial artist of 20 years experience, and he’s an ex-professional rugby player.  And all that was for nought because of seven little things.

Seven little things.  Spilled coffee.  Wet clothes.  Wet rucksack. Apologising, fussing man.  Second, fussing man. Dropped rucksack.  Third man.

The human brain, constantly exposed to thousands of points of stimulus every second of every day, is actually only able to process and retain at any one time, seven simple things.  That’s why you could only remember about that many from the list of objects at the beginning; it’s also why it takes three men twenty seconds to relieve a world-wise, very experienced traveller of a rucksack that was securely attached to his back, and vanish.

Buckle Your Belt

I had the fortune, the other day, to be walking along the road behind one of those ‘teenagers’ they have these days.  It was of what I believe is called the ‘Hip-Hop’ variety; you know, the ones that wear lopsided baseball caps precariously balanced on their lopsided heads; the kind who somehow manage to appear to be constantly walking round in circles, even when they’re going in a straight line, as they saunter from one street corner to the next with their adorable lopsided strides.

I know I’m not the first to draw attention to the peculiar pack-conforming behaviours and fashion choices of the youth of today, and to be fair who am I to judge these attempts to belong – those who have read How Not to Get Hit will be all too aware of my own personal fashion choices from those lost years (it’s too painful to go back over here, buy the book – but if I were to tell you a doorman once exited me from a nightclub using the item he could get the best grip on, which happened to be my pony tail, you’ll begin to get the idea).

Still, even though I’m probably the last person who should be casting linguistic missiles from my cosy glass-pained abode, I can’t help thinking that of all the peculiar attire with which these ‘teenagers’ tend to adorn themselves, their method of wearing trousers is, frankly, witchcraft. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to walk down a street with a pair of jeans sitting below your butt cheeks but frankly, it’s impossible.  I can only assume that those precariously balanced baseball caps grant these ‘teenagers’ the magical ability to defy the laws of physics.  Or perhaps it explains the lopsided walk, as they’re actually clenching their butt-cheeks tighter than a doorman clutching a ponytail in a desperate attempt to keep their hippety-hoppety jeans above their hippety-hoppety knees. 

For god’s sake chaps, if you’re reading this, buy a belt.  Not only will this free up your butt-cheeks for party tricks such as cracking walnuts, such must be your toning after years of clenching; not only will you discover walking in a straight line isn’t just something other people can do; not only will you be able to wear your comfy old worn-out underwear out of the house since two-thirds won’t constantly be on display; you’ll also learn a valuable lesson in self defence.  Honestly.

You see belts aren’t just good for holding up trousers; they’re also a fantastic way of finding out where your centre of gravity is and this, my friends, is the road to the nirvana of combat.

Accessing your maximum power is all about identifying and using your centre of gravity. Taking away someone’s strength is all about destabilising their centre of gravity.  Throwing someone is all about destabilising their centre of gravity.  Tripping someone over is all about destabilising their centre of gravity.  Neutralising an attack is all about destabilising the centre of gravity.  Winning fights is all about destabilising the centre of gravity.

Power comes not from your muscles, it comes from your balance.  This one’s easy to prove – try hitting a punch-bag as hard as you can whilst standing on one leg.  Very little will happen save for an embarrassed cough from the bag and, perhaps, the floor hitting you.  This is down to the fact that to realise the force in your skeletal stricture you need to anchor that structure against something.  To anchor it, you need to be stable yourself or some of that force will be lost in your own, unplanned movement rather than transferring all the energy into your target.  Ideally you would create this using three points of contact with the ground.  Sadly most of us only have two, so we use our centre of balance as the third anchor point – moving it in relation to our feet to maintain balance and transfer energy into a target, rather than our own wasted movement.  Think about those cool little desk toys from the 80’s, with four suspended metal balls knocking into each other.  It’ll help.

Once this is understood in your own body (give it a few years), then it becomes a simple task to understand how an opponent is creating force (give it a few more years) and, through manipulation of their centre of gravity, nullify this force as the energy they would have put into a strike must be redirected into adjusting their balance, or falling over.

Throwing  is a simple matter of finding your opponents centre of gravity and using your own as leverage to move it.  If you’re big, and they’re small, you can move someone without leverage. The other way round, though, and you’ve got a problem.  Have you ever tried to pick up a sack of potatoes?  Actually no, you probably haven’t, this isn’t the 19th century after all.  Um, modern analogy… ah – got it. 

Have you ever been to IKEA and had to pick up a really heavy bag full of home furnishings? Think about how you use your bum as leverage to get the thing over your shoulder – you lift it halfway, and then kind of move your bum under it, yes?  Well, that’s it – you’re moving your balance to a point where you can move the weight around through leverage against your core body, rather than trying to use your muscles to shift all those lampshades, picture frames and washing-up brushes (isn’t it odd how you always seem to leave with one of those washing-up brushes from the escalator). 

To throw someone, you have to find their centre of gravity, move yours to a position where you can create leverage, and allow your opponent to ‘fall’ around your own, stable centre.

Tripping is similar to throwing, except instead of creating leverage against your opponents centre of gravity, you’re using their imaginary third leg to make them fall.  No sniggering at the back – your third leg is actually the shifting point of balance created by your centre of gravity to stop you falling over, and ladies have it too.  We all stand on two feet; when we move, we basically start falling over towards our ‘third leg’, or at least where it would be if we had one, and then stick a foot in the way.  By placing a foot where our third leg should have been, we get it under our centre of gravity again to stop falling over and repeat (except those hippety-hoppety teenagers – God only knows how they do it).

So, to throw someone, we need to make sure that our own centre of gravity is rooted and stable, find the point where someone’s third leg is / should be, move their body toward this point (you’ll be surprised at how little resistance you encounter in doing this) and stop their leg from moving under their centre of gravity again.  Hey presto – they are now falling.

Confused?  Yeah me too; nobody said this was going to be easy.  But trust me, you can’t go wrong if you start by buying yourself a good sturdy belt.

You Don’t Know How to Breathe

You know, sometimes it’s easy to write a blog.   Sometimes you’ll be walking along the street and you’ll see something, or something will happen, and you’ll think “that’s it!” and suddenly you’ll have a topic, or good entry into a point, or both and some deep insightful point about personal safety would be just around the corner.

A couple of years ago that kind of thing used to happen to me all the time, travelling around China for a year it’d be a strange day if I didn’t find something I could write about.  These days, sadly, my experiences are not such blog fodder – my horizons have shrunk to England, a regular 9-5 job, a mortgage, a dog.

Well, no dog.

But I like the image.

And I want a dog.

Such a sedentary lifestyle also comes with its own problems – you don’t realise how much you moved in a day until it’s gone, and your commute consists of stumbling downstairs into the spare room (I work from home).  If you’re over 30, this takes its toll – stiffness, low energy, short breath.  If you’re under 30, you bastard, don’t worry you may not understand yet – but you will…

So, to try and defend against my creeping atrophy, I dedicated my early mornings to stretching, and breathing.  Self defence against sloth, if you will.  For me it was Qi Gong, a series of Chinese stretches and diaphragmatic breathing techniques using dynamic tension.

If that sounds a bit confusing, don’t worry it sounds harder than it is but you’re not alone – almost nobody I know knows how to breathe.  Oh sure they think they do, and they manage to do it well enough to not collapse in a dying heap on the floor every 20 seconds, but trust me they don’t.  No offence but there’s a pretty good chance that you, reading this, don’t know how to either.

And you know what, I’m not sure why.  Babies know how to breathe – you watch the wee nappy wearing tykes as they trot along; you can see their belly thrusting in and out as their lungs remain pretty still.  That’s because they’re breathing with their diaphragm.  In fact you watch a running horse or dog, even an angry gorilla – diaphragm, diaphragm, diaphragm.  (although if you are watching an angry Gorilla to be fair the fact that there is an angry Gorilla at close proximity is probably the main thought that’ll be running through your head. Rather than ‘ooh, look at how he uses his diaphragm to do such a fancy roar’).

Somehow, along the way, we forget on our path to adulthood and replace the correct muscle memory for breathing with a shallow, chest-led breathing that only accesses about 60% of our total lung capacity.

Now this is fine for our modern aged sedentary lifestyle of sitting at home, sitting in a car, sitting on the train then sitting at a desk.  You don’t need much oxygen for that, and you’re not getting much.  Job done.

The problem is, when you’re suddenly put into a high-stress situation like, say, being attacked, you’re not going to be able to cope.  As soon as the adrenal response kicks in, your blood vessels dilate so that more blood can be pumped around the body, giving more oxygen to your limbs and organs to function at a much higher rate for short periods of time – to fight back, run swiftly in the opposite direction, or both.  Any which way, you’re going to need oxygen, and lots of it.

The problem is that with all that shallow breathing you’ve spend all that time training your body to do that’s what you’re going to do in a pickle, and your body is making much higher demands of your oxygen supply, you’re just not going to get enough fuel to get the job done.  It’d be like trying to drive a race car with half the sparkplugs, or running a steam train with half the coal.  Or an angry Gorilla with half the bananas.  Or something.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to learn to breathe properly and then do it – all the time. This is easier than you might think.  Qi Gong does it for me, but you can also get it from most traditional martial arts (with a good instructor), Tai Chi, Yoga, Pilates, a good fitness instructor or even an actor or speech coach

Through QiGong and martial arts I learnt how to access breathing and use it to add power to movement, but I actually learned most about how to actively engage the diaphragm through a speech coach.

Whatever the source they key is to do it.  As much as you can.  When sitting, walking, exercising, everywhere.  Because you need to turn it into a muscle memory, make it normal, replace that horrible shallow lung-breathing I see everywhere with some lovely, deep, diaphragmatic breathing.

Then, and only then, in a high-stress situation, will you will the correct muscle memory response kick in and get your enough of the 02 good stuff to do what you need to do.  Your body will be primed to squeeze every last drop of goodness from the air and turning it to energy to fight back, escape, survive.

It’ll also help you sleep, and concentrate, and reduce stress, and increase energy and if you’re really luck, tenuously link a dull life of lethargy to a fundamental lesson on self defence for a blog promoting an awesome book.



Twenty Six Things

Excellent blog from my instructor that I just had to share:

Twenty six things.

When is an SAS Army Sniper not an SAS Army Sniper?

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, the London Underground is 150 years old today.  I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty amazing – that such a labyrinthian network of underground tunnels and transport was built before the invention of the car.  In fact I caught site of the first underground train on TV last night, and was amazed – not the lithe, smooth metal snakes we see sliding in and out of gaping dark mouths, sparks glancing off their wheels, but a steam train – an actual steam train – that looked like it had been grown in a train-egg without enough space to grow properly.  Hunched, squat, squashed, but unmistakably a good old fashioned steam train.

I love London.  The character of the place, the history that seeps out of every nook and cranny.  Turn in to a side street in any part of the centre and after a few twists and turns the noise, dirt, traffic and tourists of the main roads fade away and pockets of life emerge.  An ancient pub, a tailor, a square populated by city bankers, couriers, cleaners, performers, newspaper sellers and every walk of life you could imagine.  Save for the daft Bluetooth headsets and interesting fashion choices the scene could come out of any decade since the invention of the Tube itself.

I travel there from time to time for my real job, when I’m not pretending to be an author, and sometimes I get lucky with my hotels – which is why, this Monday evening, I was walking across Westminster Bridge under the shadow of Big Ben chiming 9 o’clock, towards my Houses of Parliament-overlooking digs for the night.  I like to pace the streets when I visit, taking in the smells of the big city, turning random corners and getting myself lost just to see what I find.

On this occasion, though, something found me. Well, someone actually, as I walked along the river past the white steel monstrous behemoth that is the London Eye (for those uninitiated with the London Eye imagine a big wheel like you see at the fair, but on steroids, and shoved completely inappropriately across the road from one of the most famous, historic buildings in the world with all the intelligent juxtaposition of a child with too many coloured blocks and not enough spatial awareness).

He was asking for help.  A man in his forties, carrying a hold-all and wearing a tweed jacket, hunched over and looking distressed. I walked over to him and he clutched hold of my hand, staring at me with red eyes that looked as though they were about to burst in to tears at any minute.

“How do I get to the M1 Motorway from here?”  He asked. Now, given that we were in central London and both of us were on foot, I wasn’t too sure how to answer this. 

“I think you’re a bit lost mate” was about as helpful as I could get in the spur of the moment.  He paused for a few seconds.

“Can you help a poor soldier just out of hospital?”  He said.  True enough, there was a hospital across the road.  Seemed reasonable enough.  I asked him what was wrong.

“Can I ask you a question?”  He replied (I hate it when people answer a question with a question, but I was inclined to let it slip on this occasion, suspecting war veterans freshly out of hospital were not usually in any kind of disposition to have their grammar corrected).  Not waiting for a reply, he carried on:

“What should an SAS soldier do, on his own straight out of hospital, just back from Afghanistan?  Who can he talk to, now he’s home and able to talk about what he’s done?”

This seemed rhetorical, so I waited for him to carry on talking.   Instead he squeezed my hand (which he was still holding) even harder, and his lip quivered a bit.  To break the silence I grinned awkwardly.

“Go to the pub?” I suggested.

He shook his head, and nodded towards his bag – which I could now see contained a 4-pack of lager in a plastic carrier.

“What should an SAS sniper (he seemed to have promoted himself in the brief silence) just out of a war-zone do?” His brows furrowed, he looked to be in no small amount of distress.  He seemed to choke back a  tear.  “I just want to get home.” Bite lip.” Could you, could you help me?” Pensive look off to the side.  Nod to bag. “My ID is in there, I just need you to trust me.  I’ve got £65,000 in a safe back at my house, I just need you to trust me.  I’ll give you £5,000.”  Eyes water.

At this point I felt things had gone far enough, and I could break the charade without seeing rude and causing offence.

“Can I just stop you there?” I said politely.  “If it’s money you’re after, I can’t help you…” I was about to continue on to ask if there was anything else I could do, just to show willing to the obvious conman, but in the blink of an eye he had already switched character. He let go of my hand, all signs of emotion left his face replaced by a detached annoyance.

“Ah screw you then” he said angrily, turned and walked off – no doubt to try and lure in the next unsuspecting victim.

It was all there – the appeal to my humanity & charity, my opportunity to help one of our soldiers in need (which I of course would do in an instant were he, y’know, actually a soldier), the body contact to establish a bond, the tears to show his frailty, the appeal for me to trust him, the offer of future returns far in excess of the £100 he was probably about to ask for a train ticket.  It was, to all intents and purposes, the face to face equivalent of one of those emails you get asking for your bank account details so some African who has discovered a diamond mine can transfer £1 million to you to get it out of the country.

The rest of the night passed without incident.  I still love London, and treat it, its dark alleys and the people in it with the health dose of respect and caution they deserve, but I thought I’d share this with you as a friendly little reminder that not all self defense, or personal safety, is about violence and that a little common sense, and a vague notion of where injured troops are sent when they return from war, can go a long way.ImageWhere the magic happened…

Alpha Santa

Poor old Rudolph. Of all the anthropomorphic manifestations of ritual sun worship, he has to belong to the most fickle. That a reindeers’ fate in the social pecking order can be decided by something so trivial as who drives a sleigh once every 365 days is simply Santa propagating and encouraging mindless competition between the herd, encouraging them to fight between themselves purely so he can remain top dog.

I mean that’s all it took wasn’t it? One night Rudolf is the butt of every joke; kicked and taunted, bullied and jeered, shunned and cast out by reindeer society – an outsider, a freak. Then one foggy Christmas Eve Santa rocks up, and before you can say ‘freak muzzle mutation’ Rudolf’s up top, guiding Santas sleigh that night just because his nose is bright. Suddenly, all the reindeers love him don’t they? Whooping and jumping, shouting out with glee, spouting stuff and nonsense about history.

Alpha Santa – that’s who he is; scheming and manipulating to assert dominance and control over his pack. It’d be easy to assume that one of the other reindeer – you know, one of the ones that used to laugh and call him names – was dominant, because they were asserting some dominance over Rudolf. But that’s not actually how packs, or groups, work. Contrary to what you might think the Alpha of any group isn’t usually the loudest, or the most cruel; that role goes to the most Beta of the betas.

An established alpha male is generally confident in their authority; they have already proved their position and don’t have the need to constantly assert as much through constant threat displays and signs of dominance. To do so would, in fact, be counter-productive, as it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, as sign that the alpha doesn’t actually have faith in their own authority. No, it’s the betas who have to show signs of dominance, since they’re the ones that are vying for position. The betas are constantly in-fighting and slipping up and down the greasy ranks of the reindeer social hierarchy. And the ones who are closest to the top are the worst, since they’re the ones with the most to lose and are doing their best to challenge the alpha.

This is, of course, why Santa doesn’t kick any of his reindeer in the shins in any of the songs, why you never seem to see his reindeers cower from him in fear in the movies. No, Santa’s method of control is far more manipulative and scheming – he just encourages his clan to fight between themselves, meaning none have the energy or focus to challenge his supreme, total authority.

This isn’t just true of reindeers though – you can see it in your own friend groups, your family, your office politics, your kids playing in the playground. The one who everyone defers to, who everyone listens to, isn’t normally the loudest or the most bullish; control doesn’t come from something so simple as intimidation. The loudest, the most aggressive, is usually a beta somewhere fairly far up the pecking order, who has the most to lose from any lack of authority and so will defend their position out of desperation and fear – which is often difficult to discern from aggression and confidence, funnily enough.

This is where the scuffles happen and in a pack, this is the one to fear the most as they will go the farthest to make a demonstration out of any victim. When challenged by a pack of people, this is the one who will be doing all the gesturing, become the most violent and the one you have the most to fear from in a violent scenario.

This means that the top beta is the most likely to become violent, probably the first to begin an approach, but will always be looking to the alpha for approval for their actions, or the approval of the pack.  If the top beta is attacking though, the rest are less likely to follow since, well. he ain’t top dog.  If the beta gets beat down, then he’s just learnt a lesson. If the alpha gets involved in an assault, then you can expect the rest of the pack to weigh in too.  It’s the difference between the beta in your friend group saying ‘right lets go’ and walking out of the door wiith nobody following him, because everybody is waiting to see what the real top dog, the quiet one, does.  I’ll bet you even do this yourself without realising it.  Unless you;re the one walking to the door on your own of course…

That’s why the reindeer used to laugh and call him names – fear, and dominance. Then, one foggy Christmas Eve one poor, picked on, mutant reindeer had enough, and fought back. A little known fact about the famous song is that Rudolf’s nose used to glow bright white – that red you can see? That’s reindeer blood.


How Not to Get Hit – US

How Not to Get Hit – UK


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