Should women learn self defence?

I asked Susan Bird to write an article on why a women would practise self defence. Susan has been a student of our amazing arts since 1991. It is indeed a very rare thing to have a woman practise continually for this length of time, I personally found her thoughts fascinating. Read on because I think you will too...

Susan receiving her Tai Chi Area Coach award. The highest award ever issued to a female student

Feng Shou –  some ideas from a female perspective..

It was a friend’s birthday dinner and we were all sitting around a rectangular table, a mixture of male and female. Across the table was a lady, with whom I wasn’t acquainted, she seemed pleasant and quite gregarious. My friend, whose birthday it was, mentioned that I practised Kung Fu to this lady, so I explained a little about our style being suitable for women  as it didn’t rely on brute strength etc... I then added that I thought it was a good idea for all women to have some self- defence skills. To my amazement, she declared, in a loud voice, that she thought I was talking “complete utter rubbish!”. After a pause I asked her what she would do should she have the misfortune to be in a situation when she needed to defend herself. She replied simply and loudly, “By using my mouth!! I would talk to them or shout for help or I would be able to stop them with my powers of persuasion.”  Considering her statement carefully, but moreover not wanting to enter into a potentially heated discussion with such a formidable orator at my friend’s birthday celebrations, I simply agreed that talking would be the ideal solution if at all possible and then promptly changed the subject turning to speak to a friendly chap on my right. There are some people you simply can’t reason with.

Of course, ultimately, she was right, fighting is the last resort and if we do have to fight it could be argued, we have indeed lost. However, until a person is placed in a threatening situation, none can truly say how they will react. Our sense of survival is strong in all of us. In that lady’s experience she had never encountered a situation where she needed to use anything more than her verbal skills. If we consider that 45% of women in the UK have experienced some sort of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking, though this figure relies on reported incidences, one site suggests the figure may be closer to 70% worldwide, then she is, indeed, one lucky lady. It’s a bit tricky to have a conversation if someone has grabbed you suddenly from behind placing their hand over your mouth. It is my sincerest wish that her opinion, based on her personal experience, never has to change.

Recently, and in stark contrast to the lady above, an old lady came along to my T’ai chi group for the first time. We were doing a bit of sticky hands, and, I was showing her a little of what we teach, when she told me and a student, that she wished she had learnt self-defence years ago. She explained that as a shop owner she had been attacked four times, and on one occasion had to open up the shop, the very next day after a robbery and assault, on her own.  How profoundly different can one person’s experience be from another? I wondered, presumably she had come to T’ai Chi for the usual exercise and relaxation reasons, why then hadn’t she taken up self-defence classes after the first incident?

Here lies the rub. Why do many women and girls still avoid self-defence classes or martial arts, even if they have been attacked or subject to violence?

 Why do many women and girls prefer to learn T’ai Chi than Feng Shou? Why are there so few women in martial arts, especially in the higher grades?  Or, perhaps more probing, why do so few women continue to practice a self-defence art?

The truth is I do not know. Perhaps the answers are complex, both individual and universal, but, here are a few of my ruminations on the matter.

Fighting is largely seen as a man’s domain, though it is fair to say that this is changing. Women are breaking into the field of boxing for example, think of Nicola Adams, reigning champion in the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, and there have always been some women practicing martial arts though perhaps not known. When I first started Feng Shou well over 2 decades ago, the class was largely dominated by men, there were few role models around at that time.

There is a lot of violence against women in the media but few fight back in any effective way, portrayed very much as the victim, though of course there are exceptions. Where a woman does fight back, think “Kill Bill” or “Salt”,  the female has gone through the most extreme brutal violence, somehow survived and has some even more tragic past. Is it possible that this repeated exposure to the victimisation of women or the inevitable tragic ending of a woman who does fight back, becomes some kind of social straight-jacket? From a young age girls are socialised into behaving in a certain way and, in the main, discouraged from fighting and even some forms of physical activity, if it is seen as unfeminine. Therefore, generally speaking, learning to “fight”/ defend themselves can seem alien, unfeminine and sometimes unacceptable culturally.

Perhaps people don’t always separate a violent act from one of self-defence. Sometimes what a person is capable of when confronted with a violent situation, when we need to protect ourselves, might be unacceptable to the person’s psyche. Do we not like to think of ourselves as nice people? Nice women.

Many martial art clubs promote competitive fighting, well let’s leave that to the peacocks shall we?

Susan wearing the red belt sparring with Mark Kirby

Why do I practice Feng Shou?

Originally my motivation, even though I had encountered at least four violent and several frightening situations by the time I was 22 years old, was actually unclear. Thinking back, perhaps it was because I had defended myself from a gang attack, whilst in a phone box, to such an extent that they had ran away, therefore I didn’t feel the need. Perhaps my attackers thought I was too much trouble? Or perhaps they were just messing????? Or maybe there was a random police car passing by, I couldn’t see past all the faces?  It was extremely frightening but I also remember feeling annoyed because my Mum, on the other end of the line, was panicking able to hear terrible banging and shouting. To this day I do not know why they left though I can still remember the look of menace change to that of disbelief, then fear, on that young man’s face. So on the one hand I was kind of pleased and relieved to have defended myself, I had had a lucky escape, whilst on the other, being in shock and absolutely horrified at what I was capable of when in fear of my life. In reality, I didn’t want to think about it, ever.

When I started training in T’ai Chi, back then if you wanted to train with Howard, then you had to attend his Feng Shou (Kung fu) class first  before you could learn T’ai Chi – so really I had no choice but to learn it. Everything seemed so unnatural, very daunting, I didn’t ever want to have to fight again. Preferring to focus more on T’ai Chi as it seemed less scary, Feng Shou still had a draw.

At that time several aspects of self-defence that Howard discussed struck a chord. The first was something along these lines;

A hunter (attacker) will seek out the weakest and if a person believes themselves to be a victim (prey) then they are, that will be their fate. How true this is on many levels.

So I set out to learn some skills, to become strong internally and to hopefully never have to fight again. If I did, however, the idea of having the ability and skills to defend myself in an effective, but, not necessarily harmful way also appealed. To be able to have some control over my reactions was something very important then and still is now.  

The second thing;

It’s necessary to put ourselves in situations we do not feel comfortable with in order to develop.

Training in Feng Shou can feel very awkward at first because it might be a completely new skill for a female in particular. Learning to be comfortable enough to train in close proximity with another person requires a lot of trust. Practicing self-defence in a controlled and safe environment where we have the opportunity to develop our skills, is a valuable experience I continue to be truly grateful for.

The third thing;

When we develop our sensitivity we will be able to sense trouble before it arrives and thus avoid it completely or diffuse it before it manifests. This is the ultimate goal I feel, and, in a way, relates on this level back to what the lady at birthday party was saying, by default.

The fourth thing;

The arts followed the way of the female, there was a lot of talk about being soft and gentle but to be honest, although I liked the idea, didn’t really believe it nor did it seem that everyone followed the way to my untrained eye. Though it did seem to work somehow for other advanced students and instructors - it was all very confusing – just learning the sets and forms was challenge enough when starting from scratch. The idea that this style didn’t rely on bulking muscle and was suitable for females, children and older people suited me as I wasn’t particularly fit.  In contrast to some other styles, how can softness possibly ward off a hefty strike? Well you have to practice and practice becoming softer and softer but with substance. I have found Feng Shou to be the structure within which we become softer and our touch lighter and yet your opponent feels you to be stronger. Once we embrace the physicality of training and importantly lose our fear, being soft within becomes natural, yin within.

The practicality of training as a novice can be quite daunting. For example, learning to strike effectively can be difficult. It might feel so very alien, to be encouraged to strike at someone’s face and uncomfortable to have a hand aiming at your own during rollaways.  Also, getting your partner to strike properly in return is a tricky balance to achieve. You see most people are nice and they find even feigning a strike difficult, quite often they target the air next to your face. Once you have both established a rhythm in rollaways, you have to ask your partner to aim for your face, slowly of course. I spent many years training with such nice people that when it came to a real strike, my ward-offs proved ineffective, having learned to ward off a miss. Once you find a partner who can strike properly in a controlled way, the techniques you are learning are more effective and really only work from a committed strike. That’s great isn’t it because the skills you learn are truly defensive and, as such, not born of aggression. There is a world of difference between this approach and some base applications of martial arts like cage fighting.

Feng Shou then could be said to be the loving practice of non-violent self- defence. Because we have to learn to control our reactions, careful not to cause harm, but training effectively so that your partner can develop too, it in essence, becomes a spiritual experience based on trust and cooperation. These days I have grown more confident in my practice and my reasons to train have changed from one of ambivalence (denial) and fear to that of pure joy and excitement. Practising Feng Shou is such an empowering and fun experience. To be awarded a Black jacket, something I didn’t dare dream about, and, because I had initially, virtually no understanding of, or ability in, the skills needed, did not even believe possible. I have been very lucky to have been able to train with Howard and all the other instructors and students over the years, their patience and guidance have been so important.

Even if you have little or no experience of self-defence training I would encourage anyone who is practising T’ai chi to learn Feng shou; they are totally intertwined and understanding both disciplines enhances your experience. Where T’ai chi helps relax and revive, Feng shou invigorates and delights. In an ideal world we can use our intellect and verbal skills to reason our way out of most situations and our sensitivity training helps us avoid difficult, possibly threatening situations, but Feng Shou will give you unparalleled understanding of yourself , if you dare open the door to who you really are.

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Tai Chi for beginners

I Thought this may be helpful for our newer members.

A reminder of your first few lessons in lee Style Tai Chi form.

Chi Energy Fact or Fiction?

It will come as no surprise to you that as a practitioner of Tai Chi for the last 45 years I believe that Chi energy is a fact. However, that was not always the case. In my early days of training with Master Chee Soo I often thought the Chi energy exercises and demonstrations were pure fiction, illusion, accepted as truth by deluded students.

So what changed my mind?

Was it attending training Tai Chi days for quite some time and seeing Master Chee Soo occasionally demonstrate Chi energy in various ways, usually on one of his instructors? Nope, that certainly didn’t help convince me at all. Curious, I talked to a few of them and frankly got the impression that they were merely sycophants, willing to accept whatever they were told by the Master. One or two others however, seemed normal enough. These instructors had experienced Chee Soo’s demonstrations of this Chi energy first hand, and whilst their explanation seemed a little tongue in cheek at best I had to admit they did not come across as weird or puppets of the Master’s will. They seemed perfectly well adjusted people. Of course I was just a newby so would be unlikely to be chosen for a demonstration, and to be honest the thought of being on the receiving end of this mysterious energy was a little scary.

So what to do in search of the truth?

Some time later after a great training weekend I arrived home after a three hour drive, tired but content. I had learned a lot, and also seen yet another Chi energy exercise which left me yet again not convinced. I sat down to a welcome meal and then plonked myself in front of the TV for some light entertainment. My youngest daughter had other ideas and pestered me to play with her. My protest that I was tired and wanted to rest fell on deaf ears, all you parents will know this one, so eventually I gave in.

Then suddenly I had one of those moments that often arrive after you subject yourself to the inevitable. Why not try some of these Chi exercises with my daughter. She was only four years old and had no knowledge of what to expect.

At the end of this article is a short video of the exercise that convinced me that Chi energy was a reality. But please read the rest of the article first.

So it became a regular thing I would see and try some Chi energy exercise and then return home and try them with my daughter. She loved it. Dad was playing games with her and for me it was an eye opener that was to play a major part in my development and understanding of the art of Tai Chi. You see I realised my daughter had no preconceptions as to the outcome whilst I tended to form an opinion as I watched these demonstrations. Naturally I tried to analyse something new to me, something that I didn’t understand. I tended to look for a reference point in my internal computer i.e. my brain. If nothing came back from the memory bank I tended to disbelieve what I saw. My daughter however, just immersed herself in the game with no expectations but just enjoyed the experience. True Taoism is action. No wonder the Taoists talk so much about returning to the child’s mind, a little understood aspect of Taoism most people gloss over as its doesn’t fit well with their world view of themselves. For me this was a defining moment in my development of the arts. Over time I cultured a different attitude, instead of questioning whether a Chi demonstration or technique in some other part of the arts worked or not, I merely went away and practised it. I eventually came to be able to look and see, without peppering what I saw with my own thoughts. A quantum leap in development of the art followed.

Take a look at the exercise I shared with my students on one of my day courses. But first consider this - why should you become heavier because you point your fingers at the floor and imagine pushing them downwards? There is no logical explanation why you should become heavier, you weigh what you weigh.. The answer is you send you Chi downwards and it makes appear you heavy to your partner.

© Copyright 2018 Howard Gibbon – all rights reserved

What’s the most importance thing a new student should do?

Hi Howard, I’m enjoying reading all of the articles on your blog.

My question would be: What, in your opinion/experience is the most important thing a new student should do, in order to progress in the various Lee Arts ?

Respect/Regards, Nic Bravin - London

Great question Nic, thank you for that. Here is my opinion:

Over the last 45 years of practising and teaching the Lee Style Arts I have come to the conclusion that the most important thing for new students who wish to progress is to make time for practice outside the training hall.

This is easily said and I know from watching students that many find this difficult. But as an instructor it soon becomes apparent who practises at home and who doesn’t. Sports experts say that to become an expert in any discipline you need to practise for 10,000 hours. As a beginner this is perhaps a daunting thought. However, the Chinese saying of ‘A thousand mile journey starts with a single step’ holds true here, too.

If you allocate say 10 to 20 minutes a day for practise in whatever aspect of the arts you enjoy in the beginning that will kick in the habit after 30 days and practise will become a part of your day.

My favorite practise is the Tai Chi form but it can be anything, in my early days I was learning the art of Feng Shou Kung Fu and used to practise the Shou Pay Fah upstairs along the landing in an evening after work. Later when I also added Tai Chi I started practising the form and have stuck to that ever since supplementing various other parts of the arts now and then i.e. the sword and staff etc. In the summer I often practise for 45 to 90 minutes depending on what I choose to supplement my Tai Chi form practise with, usually 20 to 30 minutes. I much prefer practising outside when the weather allows and I am now fortunate that I can practise in the morning which sets me up for the day. Being a Gemini my brain is usually busy, we all have our problems, eh! My morning Tai Chi form practise calms and relaxes me, stretches and loosens my body, gets my energy moving. All this gives me an appreciation of just how lucky I am to be living in a wonderful country. Being alive and healthy and able to teach such a beautiful thing as the Lee Style arts to others. This is something I am very, very grateful for.

If you are a beginner, please continue, I have been given so many gifts from the practise of Tai Chi and our related arts. In times of difficulties Tai Chi training has always stood me in good stead. However, being consistent in my practise has not always been easy and there have been times when I lapsed a little but the benefits are too great to give up once you become accustomed to them to lapse for long.

So find time for your practise and enjoy the experience and soon you will find it is a part of your day that you cannot do without.

I wish you all I wish for myself


Should I go to Tai Chi class if I am tired?

Watch the video to see Howard's thoughts.

Tai Chi A Good Slapping From Chee Soo

An amusing story of Howard training with Chee Soo in our exercise of whirling arms at a course held at Carnegie college Leeds in 1980s

Kai Men and Dao Yin Question

Morgan from Leeds asks

In the arts of kaimen and daoyin, why are the repetitions either in 3s or 4s?

When we trained with Chee Soo we always used three repetitions for exercises that don’t have a left and right section, an example would be cobra stance and some eagle and frog stance exercises.

An exercise such as dragon, leg triangle etc the exercise is performed on the left and then the right, and gets repeated twice on each side,  first during the sequence and then the same again during the extension. That is the recommended quantity. I personally don’t recommend practising any Kai Men or Dao Yin exercise repeatedly but rather I suggest you vary the exercises and especially if you are a fairly new student. Say two Kai Men only per day, followed perhaps by some Tai Chi Form and then the next day two Dao Yin, followed by some Tai Chi Form, or, if you prefer, the Tai Chi form first and the Kai Men or Dao Yin after.

More repetitions of the same exercise can be done by students with many years experience under their belt. But caution is needed. Too many repetitions can cause injury.

A very experienced student of mine once rang me to say he would not be attending class that week. I asked if the reason was their work hours, but he replied that he had a bad back, due to practising the cobra exercises every day, I had only taught them the previous week! The lesson here is to increase the repetitions only if you are a seasoned practitioner and then pay attention to your body and stop as soon as you feel enough is enough. Never push yourself to do just one more. Learning to understand how you feel and then to stop pursuing repetitions before overtraining is all part of the learning process in our arts. Remember the arts are ultimately a journey of self discovery.

My personal preference is to practise the Tai Chi form, something I have done daily with an odd exception for the last 45 years. Adding a few Kai Men or Dao Yin usually 2 or 3 time during the week and occasionally replacing my Tai Chi form practise with a longer Kai Men or Dao Yin session i.e. 5 or 6 different exercises, practiced by repeating them 3 or 4 times as explained above. Once a year, usually in December, I give a Kai Men and Meditation course and during these often we practise some of the Kai Men exercises with a greater number of repetitions, the maximum repetition we do are 10 i.e. 5 each side or as in the case of cobra etc where there is only one side 6 would be the limit.

As I said the arts to me are a journey of self discovery. Once after a few years training, when I was already an instructor, Chee Soo who had been waiting for some training suits to be made, which took a very long time. Students were complaining they had paid but had not received their suits yet, so Chee Soo decided to deliver them himself. When he arrived at my house we had a cup of tea and a chat and as he got into his car to continue his journey he said “Do you know why I have practised the arts these last 60 years?” I stared at him blankly but with great expectation. I had no idea what the answer would be. Was I about to be given a great secret? I felt myself tingle in anticipation. Chee Soo stared deep into my eyes and said “Because you are learning about yourself, no one else, just yourself”. Then he got into his car and drove off to turn round to travel back in the direction he had came from and gave me a wave as he passed. A great grin spread across his face, probably because he noticed the look on my face, me basically thinking, what the £$&$ is that supposed to mean?

As with many other things he told me over the years I came to realise the wisdom in his simple words. Chee Soo could pack such splendid knowledge into one elementary statement. How fortunate I was to be able to train with this remarkable man for 21 fascinating years.

The only fitting statement is ‘Thank you for the training, Master’.

© Copyright 2018 Howard Gibbon – all rights reserved

What is Chee Soo’s Shou Pay Fah?

What is Chee Soo's Shou Pay Fah in the art of Feng Shou Kung Fu?

Watch this short video to get an overview.

If you would like to learn this fancinating art, a training DVD or subscription to our online membership is available from our shop. Take a look to learn more. Shop

Why do we face South when practising Tai Chi

Why do we face South to start practising Tai Chi?

A great question asked by Morgan from Leeds

Firstly what I say here applies the Lee Style Tai Chi as taught by the late Master Chee Soo. If you practise another Tai Chi Style I suggest you check with your instructor to see there are no contradictions.

Taking into consideration your available practice space any direction that is suitable will be fine.

However, if you have the choice, as Chee Soo says in his Tai Chi book, stand facing South with your back facing North. East should then be to your left and West to your right.

I am fortunate that my living room, my practice area in bad weather, allows me to face South but when the weather allows I prefer to train outside.

The Chinese Five Elements System places North under Yin and South Yang, well to be accurate, South is Lesser Yang and North is Greater Yin.

So we start facing South and perform ‘Gather Celestial Energy’ drawing in Li energy in the process. At the end of the form set 41 we perform ‘Gather Earth’s Energy’ drawing the Chi up the body into the chest and then letting it sink (Set 42) to its natural home in the Dan Dien. Between the sets of the Tai Chi form we move through Greater Yang (East) and Lesser Yin (West) passing through Lesser Yang (South) as we absorb oxygen energising our body.  Stretching and relaxing muscles, moving the weight from one leg to another exploring and perfecting our balance in the process. Then learning to circulating our Chi and allowing in Li energy from heaven, letting it pass through us revitalising us, providing it is unimpeded by tense muscles and a busy mind.

So by facing South to start our Tai Chi practice allows the Li energy to reach us more easily as we perform our movements

These benefits only come when one puts in the the practice on a regular basis for the benefits of Tai Chi have to be worked for. Having a goal to attain these gifts is not enough the Tao (The Way) must be walked step by step.

I hope you found this helpful. Any questions please ask.

The only stupid questions are the ones you didn’t ask but wish you had.


© Copyright 2018 Howard Gibbon – all rights reserved