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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

Where’s Wally

The other day I was at a service station near Bristol, making the obligatory coffee-stop the addict in me convinces me I need to live, should I ever make a journey in the car further than 60 miles. Which I do often, as I’ a mobile worker and my nearest office is actually a two hour drive from my house. Good for Monday mornings, which are often approached at a more gentle pace for me than much of the rest of the world; bad for team meetings, coupled as they are with a four hour round trip, which begins at 6am.

This particular sojourn was a good 76 miles, and at 8am, so clearly an extra large fresh coffee was required, and not one of those monstrosities from the machine you get in the magazine shop. You know the ones; clunking, steaming, whirring, so huge I sometimes wonder if they’ve actually got a full sized Starbucks Barista making the stuff inside it, a theory that only falls apart when you realize there’s almost no coffee inside and the milk is made out of powdered chemicals.

This early morning at a service station was not like any other I have experienced, though, (and I have experienced many – 2hrs to the office, remember?) since this time I was joined by what I can only describe as the entire UK Green Beret marine forces. Seriously, there were hundreds of them – and because of the early start, there were almost no other customers, which led to a surreal site.

Row upon row of identically dressed, tall, proud looking marines everywhere I looked. A good twenty milling about outside smoking cigarettes, fifty ore in the sweet shop, another fifteen playing on the arcades, forty in the queue for a breakfast bap. All wearing that famous Green Beret, all dressed in identical light-green fatigues.

Which led to a surreal site when I joined the queue for my coffee. Twenty 6-foot marines clutching brightly coloured sweets and crisps in their arms, then one 6-foot charcoal suit-wearing businessman, long black overcoat with the collar up & large coffee in hand, then another twenty-odd identical marines behind him, and not another customer in the shop. All standing in silence, staring at nothing. It must have looked like an army issue ‘Where’s Wally’ book; I would have loved nothing more than to ask the sergeant in front f me to take a picture, but frankly I didn’t have the balls.

It was quite an odd feeling being surrounded by so many trained killers, particularly as most of them seemed preoccupied with buying sweets and playing computer games. I’ve seen the movies; they should have had two men out front covering the entrance with snipers, two more at each door inside and been either chewing tobacco, doing pull-ups, singing “I don’t know what I’ve been tol, at 8am it’s mighty cold” or – at the very least – stabbing scorpions with a hunting knife (just for fun – name the film).

But I guess even trained professional warriors are, at the end of the day, just normal guys who wear slippers and like ketchup when they’re not in war-torn countries being shot at by bad guys, abseiling out of helicopters and aiming laser guided missiles at giant robots. Or something. I haven’t watched the news that recently.

Anyway, I was reflecting on the irony as I stood there – here was me, a weekend martial artist who spent his time pretending to be a warrior and simulating fighting, surrounded by professionals who do it for real.

It was a little bit existential, to be honest with you. It makes you question stuff. These guys are taught hand to hand combat, no doubt; in fact what they learn is probably martial arts in its purest form – it’s tested, stripped down to only what works, and specialised to the type of combat required. These guys don’t learn how to use swords, but you can but they’re pretty good with a knife attached to the end of a rifle.

All arts have the same limiting factor, after all – the human body. No matter how you approach it, it still moves in the same way. An arm bends this way, a muscle does that if you hit it like this, balance goes there but not over there, etc. All the variation of arts across the world are not based on efficacy, but context and culture. You learn how to use what you have to do a job required at the time.

In Taijutsu, one of the arts I study, there are several different schools (styles). One of them is from the battlefield, created for warfare. The techniques are all based around throwing someone to the ground in a manner that breaks something, stomping on them, and moving on to the next knowing that if they are not dead yet, they soon will be. Another has no killing moves, but is focussed purely on control and restraint, like doormen, since it was used by bodyguards in imperial courts. Different tool for a different job. You didn’t want to kill a man who tried to kill the Emperor, you wanted to find out where he came from. And then kill him. But slooooowly…..

What we learn, as martial artists, is a tool for a job. Depending on the job, they each have varying degrees of use for matters of personal safety. Some will turn self defense in to a fight – bad idea, now you’re as guilty as your attacker; some will be so stylised from their historical context they will be next to useless for defending yourself (Kudo – Zen archery, or Iado – the art of drawing the sword spring to mind). And some will be just the right combination of control, evasion and combat to tread the fine line that keeps you safe from harm, whilst also keeping you safe from the legal fallout and consequences of going that little bit too far.

This ain’t Afghanistan, after all. You can’t go around bayoneting everybody who jumps the queue in front of you in Starbucks. At least, for my sake, I hope not…

How Not to Get Hit: America & the world

How Not to Get Hit: United Kingdom


Don’t Get in the Car

Before he was a respectable businessman & middle-class father of two, my old man was a bit of a hard one to tie down. He spent his twenties as a semi-professional rugby player, sailing instructor and general tough-guy; but before that, he spent his early years of adulthood navigating the local street urchins, Mods & Rockers of small-town Essex, a figure of fun & ridicule in his smart uniform as he walked past the local kids to his nearby Grammar School, a hard-fought position in a time and place when such things were not seen as aspirational, merely different – ‘not us’ – to the local kids.

Read more…

Unreasonable Force

So, the UK government has decided to de-criminalise members of the public who use excessive force on those who taken it upon themselves to pay an unannounced, unofficial and illegal visit to your house and family, sporting a crowbar and a balaclava.

A large proportion of you are probably sat there thinking ‘what a good idea’, ‘the law should be on our side’, ‘we should be able to defend our own homes without fear’ or something similar. Having our own homes, our castles, invaded is many people’s single greatest fear and the idea that we are in the wrong by trying to protect our castle by any means necessary has an inevitable, powerful, emotional response and we instinctively protest when we hear about people being punished for doing so.

Take Tony Martin, for example – British national hero of injustice, who shot at some burglars out of fear and self defense – who had broken in to his isolated farmhouse – with a legally owned shotgun. Except that he had an illegal shotgun, his firearms license had been revoked, he had already fired it at someone else for scrumping apples from his orchard, and was proven to have lay in wait for the burglars, ambushed them and fired two shots in to their backs as they were trying to escape.

Or how about Munir Hussain, who was tied up with his family, threatened with 12in knives and told they would all be murdered that night, who then escaped, raised the alarm and chased after the burglars, catching them in next door’s garden? He and three other men then proceeded to beat one of the burglars to within an inch of his life with a cricket bat and a hockey stick, were begged to stop by an onlooker but refused, and left the burglar with permanent brain damage.

These are the two most famous cases in the UK, and are common in the public outcry that resulted from their convictions. Were they reasonable? Proportionate? A fair and balanced response to the situation? No.

In both cases, the worst damage was done after the criminals were trying to escape – crucially, after the danger had passed, and this is what the cases hang on. This is what the judge, Judge Reddihough, said about the Munir Hussain case:

The prosecution rightly made it plain that there was no allegation against you, Munir Hussain, in respect of the force you used against Salem in defending your own home and family or of the force used by either of you in apprehending Salem.

However, the attack which then occurred was totally unnecessary and amounted to a very violent revenge attack on a defenceless man. It may be that some members of the public or media commentators will assert that Salem deserved what happened to him, and that you should not have been prosecuted and need not be punished. The courts must make it clear that such conduct is criminal and unacceptable .

Be that as it may, can it be so bad for the government to be on the side of the victim a little bit? To acknowledge in law the powerful emotional reaction we all have to home invaders, and to acknowledge that maybe we might lose control a bit, and that’s OK? Well, yeah, but that’s not really what they’re doing.

The truth is that, between 1990 and 2005, there were just 11 prosecutions for people tackling intruders in any premises, including seven involving homes. Less than one a year. The government is not responding to a social problem, it’s responding to a perceived fear – it’s playing on our emotional responses to romance the right-wing press and our base, primal urges.

The truth is that the law is already on your side. You are entitled to use reasonable force to defend yourself and your property, and this includes perceived risk. Once, whilst working as a manager at a bowling alley, a guy high on drugs threatened to slit my throat, and lunged for his pocket. I didnpt see a knife. It could have been a phone down there. He could even have been pleased to see me. But legally, I would have been within my rights there to use enough force to protect my life against a man holding a knife – i.e. quite a lot – because I had reasonable cause to assume it was there.

The problem comes along when your brain gets in the way, and chucks some fear in to the mix like a flash-bang grenade at your nan’s 80th birthday party. Fear changes our perceptions, it changes our view of the world, it changes our behaviour and our responses. Panic and adrenaline shut down your senses, so that you only notice what your lizard brain thinks is relevant to your survival. After all, these are predators invading your nest to eat your young.

What, you thought your fear was really because someone’s nicking your telly? No, not at all. Your primal lizard brain, the small bit at the back that really runs the show, is screaming at you that there’s a dinosaur munching on your babies, even if it’s really a scally in a track-suit trying to unplug the stereo.

Should we legislate against the lizard brain? I for one don’t think we should. I don’t want my legal system to be based around a set of instinctual fear responses that are a hangover from a distant ancestor, and play no part in the risks and consequences of living in a modern, civilised society. I want my laws to be aspirational, not reverting to the law of the jungle for their justice.

I needn’t worry. This is a publicity stunt, not a real change. This new legislation wouldn’t have gotten Tony Martin off the hook; Munir Hussain would still have gone to prison. It’s a cynical attempt t tug at your strings, to play you like a dumb animal scared for its nest and eggs. Don’t fall for it. Choose society. Turn your back on the jungle.

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