The Road to Mastering Martial Arts and Self Defense

Recently, a student at our San Diego dojo asked me:

”I read somewhere that the Naihanchi katas, by themselves, teach one how to defend themselves. In other words, if one knew the Naihanchi katas, they would automatically be able to defend themselves. Is that true?

Asked differently: is there one kata or a set of techniques or drills, whereby someone knowing those would automatically be able to defend themselves?”

This is an excellent question!

With respect to the statement of “learn ‘this’ and you will know everything you need to know to defend yourself,” I have heard such statements directed at some of the following:

  • Standing meditation
  • Tai Chi form
  • Naihanchi kata
  • Sanchin kata
  • Other Okinawan, Chinese, or Silat forms
  • Drills such as basics, moving basics, heavy-bad work, shadow boxing, or other drills
  • Oh, and, of course, the best of them all: “My eight week program of self defense, which I developed over two seasons of fighting in the Octagon” (sorry – I could not resist the reference to Rex Kwan Do in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite”)
Standing meditation practice

Standing meditation practice

Over time I came to realize that these statement are both true and false (OK, putting Rex Kwan Do aside).

IF you really apply yourself in any one of those, AND are able to both understand the principals and develop a DEEP awareness of your body and mind, THEN, by practicing one of the above you will have developed the skills needed for self defense.

I also believe that each of the above bona-fide activities has high value, even if you did not “dedicate your life to it.” Furthermore, I believe that even at the highest level of martial arts, the practice of basic drills, as well as kata and meditation will add value to the practitioner.

The reason for my belief is that, at their base, martial arts and self defense are about understanding gravity, human anatomy, and the human mind. And, more than anything, they are about getting us to know ourselves better. This is Budo—the martial way— which has been as universal in successful warriors throughout the times – be they the Greeks in the Battle of Thermopylae in 490 BC, or today’s Navy Seals.

Let’s look at how each of the above activities develops these skills.

Standing Meditation

Standing mediation is a cornerstone of many Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Called Zhan Zhuang in Chinese, and Tachi Zen in Japanese, standing meditation involves holding a static position while clearing the mind – for anywhere from a few minutes to over thirty minutes. Practiced properly, standing meditation develops our calmness of mind, stillness, focus and sensitivity.

Master Wang Xiangzhai (1885-1965) was one of first Chinese martial arts teachers to publicly teach standing mediation. Wang Xiangzhai also made standing mediation a key tenant of his art of Yiquan (mind-intention-boxing, which evolved from Xingyiquan), and some of his descendent hold firms beliefs that deep practice of standing meditation is all you need to become a great fighter.

Wang Xiangzhai practicing Zhan-Zhuang (standing meditation)

Wang Xiangzhai practicing Zhan-Zhuang (standing meditation)

When you practice standing meditation for a long time, just by virtue of your body getting tired, you will EVENTUALLY (hopefully) find an efficient way to stand, i.e., with good alignment and stacking of your joints, and minimal energy expenditure. If you don’t, you will hurt, and probably quit. So, the people who are able to persist in long standing mediation sessions develop a deep understanding gravity.

Consistent meditation practice, as Yoga practitioners also know, produced a deep sense of calm, and an enhanced level of sensitivity to the world around us. These skills are invaluable in self defense fighting situations. With a calm mind, you are able to grasp what is happening around you. This allows for better de-escalation skills, and avoidance of a fight. Also, if a physical altercation was to break out, a calm mind allows you to “sense” the attacks before they happen, and allow you to dedicate yourself to the moment, rather than be distracted by extraneous thoughts (such as “this is bad”, “I am going to get hit”, etc.). In summary, standing mediation help develop all martial arts skills.

Notice that I did not say “develop quickly”. Most people are not initially good at meditation, and therefore an investment in time and effort is required before the benefits start to be noticed.

Sanchin Kata / Tai Chi form / Naihanchi Kata

The kata (form) Sanchin is a key tenant in both Okinawan Goju-ryu karate, as well as in Uechi-ryu karate. Coming from a Southern Chinese (Fujian) origin called Pangai-Noon, Sanchin kata is used to develop strength, root and speed. It also helps the student learn proper use and activation of the diaphragm – in breathing, and for power generation.

When executing Sanchin kata in some styles, all the muscles are flexed and tensed. In this type of practice, Sanchin is one of the earliest form of isometric strength and conditioning training known throughout history (isometric exercises are also known in certain types of yoga). In summary, Sanchin kata combines, mental, physical and spiritual exercises. Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu karate, used to say often that “all you need is Sanchin.”

Kanei Uechi, son of Uechi-Ryu founder Kanbum Uechi,

Kanei Uechi, son of Uechi-Ryu founder Kanbum Uechi, performing Sanchin kata

Many kata also teach us various techniques, tactics and strategy for fighting and self defense. Naihanchi kata is a good example of a kata that “packs” the knowledge of an entire fighting system. Naihanchi is a key kata in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu, as well as in other styles of karate, including modern Shotokan Karate (where it is called “Tekki”). The famous Okinanwan karateka Choki Motobu (1870-1944), who was renowned for his fighting abilities, credited Naihanchi kata with containing all that one needs to know to become a proficient fighter.

Choki Motobu practicing Naihanchi kata

Choki Motobu practicing Naihanchi kata

Similarly, many Tai-Chi forms have been designed to teach proper alignment, different methods of power (chi) generation, and a variety of techniques and strategies. Diligent practice of the Tai Chi form will build not just strength and flexibility, but will also develop sensitivity and calmness of mind.

Kata / form practice has many benefits and, properly done, is a complete mind-body exercise. On the physical side, kata practice conditions and strengthens the muscles. It also teaches our bodies proper patterns of movement. On the mental and spiritual sides, kata practice is a form of moving meditation – similarly to yoga asanas (yoga poses)—which produces a deep sense of calm and relaxation.

Getting those benefits from kata practice takes time and diligence. Old masters used to say: “Hito Kata San-Nen”, which means, one kata – three years. Those masters considered three years as the time required to “unpack” and internalize the knowledge in the kata. As Sensei Richard Kim would say “Proper understanding of the kata will help fill the cup of life with clear water, not dirty water.


Drills, such as shadow boxing, heavy bag hitting and makiwara practice can be incredibly helpful in developing self defense fighting skills. In fact, for the beginners, having a small arsenal of well executed techniques is far superior to having a large set of not-so-well executed techniques.

As in improving in any activity, the key is to practice drills “like you mean it.” Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect. By practicing well, we are doing ourselves a favor in conditioning the correct response and correct movement into our “muscle memory.”

Practicing Heavy-bag Drills at the Full Potential Martial Arts dojo in San Diego

Practicing Heavy-bag Drills at the Full Potential Martial Arts dojo in San Diego

All (good) Roads lead to Rome

So what is the right path to mastering self-defense skills?

At its base, the principals of martial arts and self defense are simple. They are not difficult or complicated. The difficulty arises in training our bodies to internalize those principals at a deep level. As we discuss in a separate article, although we are born with good instincts, through the way we conduct modern life we tend to “forget” them, and settle into less natural and more unhealthy ways. Therefore, a big part of martial arts training is shedding the “non-useful instincts”, and replacing them with natural martial arts responses. For example, when startled, instead of “freezing” like a dear, we want to “sink and energize” like a hunting tiger. Developing those correct instincts is easier said than done.

There are many roads to “get to Rome”, and all the above roads are valid (in isolation or in combination).

The importance of Cooperative and Non-Cooperative Partner Training

Now, I also believe that, if the student’s intent is to be good at self defense, having partner training can get you there quicker, and is therefore very important. This includes both cooperative partner training and non-cooperative partner training.

We utilize cooperative partner training to learn principals and techniques together. Our partner is helping us, for example, by providing the right amount of resistance appropriate to our level. As we improve, our partner makes things progressively more difficult for us. This way we can internalize principals and techniques into our “muscle memory”.

Equally important is non-cooperative partner training, be it in specific drills or in full-on free sparring. In non-cooperative partner training, our partner’s objective is to frustrate our goals, and our objective is to prevail in spite of the challenge. You can pretty much bet that an assailant in a real-life situation will not be cooperative. Non-cooperative partner training helps us more accurately simulate this situation. In the dojo (training hall / studio), we cultivate a high-trust environment where we aim to practice as realistically as possible, while still preserving standards of safety. This allows us to benefit from the induced stress of non-cooperative partner work, while minimizing the risk of injury inherent in any form or combat.

TRUE, if you are very good in meditating, and in imagination, you CAN explore all areas of martial through meditation. In my opinion, you would have to get VERY good at meditation to achieve that.

Okinawan karate master Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-Ryu karate, wrote: “The correct practice of Kata […] is the most important thing for a Karate student. However, the Karateka must never neglect Kumite- and Makiwara-practice.“ If the Karateka, however, disregards Kata training and concentrates completely on sparring this, according to Mabuni, will lead to “unexpected failure when the time comes to utilize your skills.”

So, this is a long way of saying “I agree with those statements, but there is no magic bullet”.

Oh, and before we finish, here is Rex himself showcasing his “eight week program of self defense” to Napoleon Dynamite and his brother Kip:

See you at training!

Brian is a life-long martial artist, athlete, and serial entrepreneur. He teaches martial arts and self defense to adult and teen students in San Diego, at the Full Potential Martial Arts dojo in Carmel Valley.

5 comments on “The Road to Mastering Martial Arts and Self Defense
  1. AG says:

    Wonderful article. Right Road to Perfection!

  2. Ken D. says:

    What an excellent and detailed article!

    I really like the philosophy, about the Road to Mastering Martial Arts and Self Defense.

    The article has opened my mind even more, to realize the potential I can gain; by following one or more of the activities listed.

    I also believe, “what you put into it; you get out of it.” Needless to say, Practicing correctly and focusing on what you’re doing; will get you there, in time.

    Thanks again for sharing your experience and knowledge.

  3. Jel says:

    For me, as long as we practice any kind of martial arts and apply it personally and understanding its principles, we can be able to defend ourselves to whatever situation we might be.

  4. Laura P says:

    While the road to mastering martial arts is long, it is the journey that is just as enjoyable as the destination.

  5. Lanny P. says:

    I have been practicing Shachin kata every day for the last 10 years. Could not agree more about the development of the martial artist!
    I love your martial arts blog!

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