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In Defense of Self Defense

by Henry Shaw about a year ago in fighting
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A Peculiar Punching Passion

In Defense of Self Defense
Photo by Thao Le Hoang on Unsplash

Sibling Senseis

With all the physical prowess of the Pillsbury doughboy, my life as the youngest of five kids was not all cookies and ice cream. As the baby of the family, I held the high position of being the guinea pig of each of my siblings. My sisters tested their hairstyling skills on me and my brothers tested their wrestling moves on me. By the end of the day, I wasn’t sure if my black eye came from the mascara my sisters tried on me, or the “accidental” fist one of my brothers slipped on me while my arms were pinned behind my back.

As tough as things were though, I learned a lot from my siblings. My brothers, in particular, had a profound influence on me as I got older. Their examples lead me to discover some of my greatest passions in life. It was through following in their footsteps that I first really started to grow my love of martial arts. You see, it all began when, like my brothers before me, I joined the highschool wrestling team.

Although I tried other sports, the one I latched onto as tight as a barnacle was wrestling. I loved the competitive and gritty nature of it, the daily grind you had to put yourself through to win, to improve. Since I was a little boy I’d always wanted to learn karate, kung fu, or the wild things you see in comic books and movies.

I always wanted to be like Batman, who seemed to know all the martial arts, and wrestling was the first step for me in fulfilling that dream. I realized that it was just as much a martial art as Karate or Taekwondo. Unfortunately for me, living in a small town made it hard to find more places that offered martial arts training.

In spite of this dilemma, I traveled one summer to Portland to train at a Muay Thai Kickboxing gym. My trip may have only lasted a week before I had to return home, but I was forever hooked. I scoured and searched for martial arts classes after returning home like a pirate searches for treasure. Eventually, I joined a small Karate class with my brother in law and ever since then I’ve continued to pursue my love for martial arts through learning, teaching, and applying.

A Peculiar Passion

You may wonder why I have a passion for such a physically grueling hobby? Do I enjoy the competition, winning against an opponent? The catharsis of punching something to take out my frustrations? The pure adrenaline rush of being in a fist fight?

No, for me, martial arts is much more. All combat sports are dear to me because of how much I learn. It's about what I gain from being a student of numerous disciplines with various wise instructors, and countless unique opponents.

From my time as a wrestler I learned about hard work, determination, and the diligence it takes to improve and to win. It taught me to never be satisfied with being just good enough, I could always get better. I could always find something to improve. I learned that no matter how badly you lose, you keep moving forward and continue to try your best.

My Time as a Wrestler Courtesy of Baker/Powder Valley Wrestling Team

Karate, being based heavily in the traditions and customs of Japan, taught me extensively about respect, honor, and discipline. Karate showed me that martial arts is not about winning fights, but about defending yourself and getting out of dangerous situations safely. It's not about trying to be Chuck Norris in an over-the-top fight scene. I gained greater confidence, overcame my fears, and wasn’t afraid to stand up for myself because of Karate.

There is much a person can learn and gain from self defense and martial arts. Leadership, accountability, discipline, and respect are just a few things martial arts and self defense training can offer. On the surface it seems like violence, or simply a way to defend against an attacker, but that's only a small drop in the vast ocean of martial arts and self defense.

The Dilemma

With all that has been said concerning my history with and love for martial arts serving as a backdrop, I must now heave a deep, melancholy sigh. For as wonderful as martial arts and self defense can be, I want to air my frustration with its two greatest challenges: accessibility, and affordability.

I was one who struggled in a small town to find even one legitimate, organized martial arts class. As a result, I had to travel to the larger city of Portland, a sizable 4 hour drive from where I lived, just to participate in a few sessions. Those sessions weren’t cheap either.

Almost any martial arts class or training facility you come across will charge quite a hefty sum to teach you a few simple punches and kicks, and that's just for enrollment and monthly membership fees. Most martial arts require equipment for sparring, testing fees, and traditional uniforms or Gi’s based on the style.

But this isn’t the fault of martial arts instructors, just like anyone else they have bills to pay. In an article by martial arts instructor Mathew Booe, he discusses the many challenges that martial arts gyms face and the uphill battle they fight to pay fees on property, equipment, and testing. Upon starting a martial arts gym, instructors have usually racked up a great deal of debt before they even have their first student.

The sad reality is that those who can’t afford self defense classes are often those who need it most. Those in poverty, those less privileged, those who are oppressed are at greater risk and therefore have a greater need to know how to protect themselves.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' website, from 2008 to 2012 persons in poor households at or below the federal poverty level had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households. Why can’t we offer more to those who have less? How can we help people of all incomes, in any location, receive their desired training in martial arts and basic self defense?

To answer these questions I think it's important we look first into the history of martial arts, martial arts schooling around the world, and then how we can apply the principles we learn from them to our current day.

The Heroes of Martial Arts History

The ultimate irony of martial arts’ lack of affordability and accessibility to the oppressed and poverty stricken is that they were most often the very people who invented it. Many martial art styles were born out of necessity from people who were enslaved, abused, and disarmed by oppressive nations. In such times, the oppressed would band together, teaching and learning from one another the ways to defend themselves.


Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1825, published in 1835, Image From Wikipedia

During the 16th century, Portugal spread its conquest to places such as Brazil. In hopes to quickly colonize the area they would use the many slaves they had procured from the continent of Africa. As part of their colonization, sugar cane farms were constructed known as engenhos where slaves worked tireless hours and were often horribly mistreated.

As strongly as they yearned for freedom from their oppression, the slaves knew it would mean escaping from some of the most ruthless slave drivers Portugal had to offer. To make an escape would also entail facing one of Portugal's most feared military units, the Dragoons.

Openly practicing fighting techniques would almost certainly end in severe punishment, even death. But with incredible ingenuity the African slaves devised a way to disguise their training. Capoeira, as it is called today, was a martial art made to look like the slaves were dancing so as not to draw the suspicion of their masters. They would play and practice to lively music with the Portugese unaware of the incredibly effective martial art they were perfecting.

With such an unorthodox fighting style to defend themselves, many of the slaves were able to successfully escape their oppressors, forming small settlements far away from the influence of the Portugese. Even when faced with eventual attacks and invasions, these small settlements were able to fend off many soldiers and Dragoons. Because of the martial art Capoeira, conceived out of necessity by the oppressed, these people were able to find freedom and safety.

The Legend of Nai Khonam Thom

By Pablo Rebolledo on Unsplash

In a time where the Burmese empire had seized control of Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of modern day Thailand, Burma took with it many prisoners. One of these prisoners was Nai Khonam Thom, a relatively unknown Thai boxer. During his time as a prisoner of Burma, Thom was given an opportunity to compete in a boxing tournament. One of the main forms of entertainment at a grand festival held by the king of Burma.

The king sought to prove the strength of the Burmese nation with this competition. Pitting his best fighters against the Thai boxers of the area, he believed they would make quick work of Thailand's best.

After disposing of the first Burmese fighter with ease, Thom fought nine more fighters and knocked each of them out cold. Impressed, and deeply humbled, the king granted Thom his freedom.

Although not the founder of Muay Thai kickboxing, the legend of Nai Khonam Thom, is still told in Thailand today. As a prisoner stricken with poverty and oppression, Thom’s martial arts equipped him with what he needed to gain freedom without any money in his pocket.

Martial Arts Since the Dawn of Time

If we consider some of the earliest forms of martial arts and how they were taught, we find that much of the time they were played like games. We’ve commonly dubbed such things in our modern day as sports. Wrestling is perhaps one of the oldest martial arts appearing in places such as ancient scripture, mythology, and some of the earliest works of art. Most notably wrestling found its first widespread practice and exposure within the Olympic games, starting in roughly 776 BCE.

By The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Similarly, in Japan and Korea, the ancient arts of Sumo and Ssireum, were played for fun among all classes of people respectively. From the most common of the workforce to the kings of the land, these wrestling styles were not exclusive to those with the most money. Even Korea’s ancient martial art Taekkyeon, thought to be the ancestor of Taekwondo, was said to be a game common even among children during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty.

How do we fix the issue?

If these ancestors of modern day martial arts were merely games, practiced and played by people of all backgrounds and all ages, why are we excluding so many people due to their location and/or financial status? If people like the Capoeiristas of Brazil and Nai Khonam Thom of Thailand who were enslaved, imprisoned, and afflicted could break free from their oppressors with martial arts, why are we not arming people struggling in similar situations today?

Many schools in Japan feature Judo as an integral part of the physical education curriculum. It is not taught from the beginnings of white belt all the way to black, but the schools allow students to learn the basics of self defense. Perhaps more important than just the self defense aspect, martial arts such as Judo are built around deep philosophical ideas on how to live a productive and healthy life. It isn’t about kids learning how to fight in school, it's about discipline and respect. Respect for yourself, your instructors, and those around you.

China has also applied methods of incorporating martial arts into school curriculum, most notably in the Fujian Province. With the bar set at mastering 24 of its moves to be able to graduate, Tai Chi has become a part of many Chinese students' scholarly progression. Tai Chi, in addition to being applicable to fighting, is also an incredibly soothing art centered on breathing and meditation. Similar to Yoga, it is often helpful to those with chronic joint pain and heart problems.

By Mark Hang Fung So on Unsplash

I feel that a necessary step in offering martial arts to all people is offering it through schools, similar to these other countries. As we learn from China’s Tai Chi, and Japan’s Judo, both are not only great for physical application, but also teach students about healthy living.

It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum either. Simply offering it as an elective class, or forming a sports team or club around it, funded by grants from the community, could provide opportunities that some might not otherwise have. Not only would this help students in need of self defense training, but martial arts instructors could also find jobs without sinking themselves into debt, trying to find their own facilities, equipment, and students.

My Personal Goal

If I could have my wish, and as a means of monetizing my passion, I would use a streaming app to teach self defense courses online. Similar to the BeachBody on Demand streaming app, I feel that a simplified martial art training service would help people learn the essentials. Once people learn those essentials they can then attend live training and competitions held by the program to improve their skills even more.

Membership to the program would allow you access to numerous free videos and courses featuring various martial arts styles to choose from. All of this content would be totally free upon simply signing up for membership with an email address. Video calls with instructors could be scheduled with the click of a button for clarification and one on one instruction.

The simple streamlined, pre-recorded video library would offer great first level exposure for beginners, as well as a great way to stay active and exercise. Members would also be able to purchase an affordable series of more advanced courses, about the cost of an average new DVD release, should they find a style of martial arts they wish to pursue further.

It would all start with 4 beginner level courses. These 4 courses would be more specific classes on their self defense or martial art style of choice. The first 3 courses would be pre recorded videos to watch, learn, and practice on their own and the 4th would be a live video call with an instructor.

After going over what the student has learned in the video call, they can then move on to the intermediate level courses, and eventually to the advanced. Each level would cost a small fee, similar to a rank advancement in any martial arts style.

By Ozan Safak on Unsplash

Once members have progressed through the advanced course, they can pay a one time fee to receive a virtual ticket to an upcoming competition. This event would be in their preferred martial art style, granted they have finished the prerequisite courses. At the competition they can participate by using what they have learned and apply it in a real world setting. In addition they can interact with other members who are attending and trade information, experience, and techniques.

Those with virtual tickets can also participate in training classes that will be offered during the competitions. With no extra charge, participants will receive training and feedback directly from instructors in person. They could then learn about martial arts classes and schools in their area should they want to continue learning more

This could also be a great method for instructors struggling to recruit new students. Instructors coming from their respective facilities can promote their business and attract new students while teaching numerous people at these events.

By creating this service, martial arts and self defense would be accessible to anyone and everyone able to use a smartphone. It would be affordable with 90% of the pre recorded video content being free upon signing up. Much of the basic tools people need to adequately defend themselves would be offered in the free base package. Although advanced courses would cost extra, they would be much less expensive than a normal martial arts class.


When we think of self defense and martial arts, we think of protecting ourselves physically, but it goes far beyond the realms of fists and kicks. Martial arts has also brought me protection mentally and emotionally. It has bolstered my self esteem and confidence not just in competition and sparring, but also in job interviews, public speaking, and yes, even writing and publishing works like this article for others to read.

I love martial arts. My time spent training has taught me how to show myself and others respect. I’ve learned how to set goals and achieve them with hard work and determination.

It is my hope that we can make martial arts more accessible, more affordable, and teach the people who need it most, how to defend themselves. To arm the impoverished and oppressed with the means to fight back and stand up for themselves as they have in times past. From Brazil, to Thailand, to America, there is always someone in need of protection. So let's extend the help to those in need, let's stand in defense of self defense


About the author

Henry Shaw

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