Taichi and “Evidence-Based” Martial Arts

January 28, 2014

Imagine a contest. In one corner, there is a small, middle-aged taichi practitioner who has perhaps never hit, or been hit by, another person. Her practice consists of practicing meditative positions and movements and occasionally push hands. She has perhaps never tested her fighting skills against another person.

In the other corner, there is a muscular, twenty-year-old mixed martial arts competitor. Her training consists of regularly punching, kicking, throwing, joint-locking other people, and having those things done to her. She tests her ability to use these techniques on another person several times a week.

The outcome of the contest can be used as evidence to speak to the effectiveness of each art, right?

Certainly. Do you already have a prediction of who would win the contest?

Before you place your bet, however, be sure you know the rules of this contest. In this case, the winner is not determined by one practitioner physically besting the other in the ring. Let us look at what other criteria can be used to decide who wins.

Who would you bet on if the winner was the one who scored higher for longevity, daily feelings of comfort and well-being, fulfillment, patience, abilities to sleep well and wake up feeling good, overall mindfulness, well-being after serious illness, and resilience during stressful times?

Significant and voluminous scientific evidence supports the taichi practitioner’s chances to win such a contest. Some examples include a three-month study of the effects of taichi on the mental health of college students (Wang et al., 2004), a 24-week study of the effects of taichi on the sleep of older adults (Li et al., 2004), a 12-week study of the effect of taichi on the balance of individuals who were suffering from chronic strokes (Au-Yeung et al., 2009) and 22 studies showing the effect of taichi on blood pressure (Yeh et al., 2008). So far, I have not found studies that show this kind of evidence that kick-boxing, grappling or cage fighting provide the same advantages.

Now, imagine a contest where the winner is the one who is best able to protect herself from a malicious attacker in the street. Who would you put your money on?

Many would insist that the MMA fighter has the advantage, and there is good reason for this. She has plenty of experience responding to others using their bodies to try to overpower her, and so it can be said she is better trained for this situation. This is a logical inference based on the perceived similarities between two different situations. Because one is trained for one situation, we imagine how that training prepares her for situations that are somehow similar.

The problem with this step is that logical inferences do not provide proof. In fact, evidence does not prove anything. It provides reason to believe a hypothesis is likely to be true, but a hypothesis is all we have until we have tested it. If our tests fail to disprove a hypothesis, then we have a theory.

In other words, the fact that sparring and competitive fighting share some similarities with self-defense fighting only suggests that skill in one would prepare one for the other: it does not prove it. Moreover, while there are similarities between the two situations, there are also drastic differences. There is a good amount of warning before an MMA fight or sparring session. There are rules about what techniques are allowed and perhaps a general belief that your opponent does not really want to hurt you. From the outside, it might look like a self-protection situation in form, but the biochemistry-altering mood could be completely different.

Rigorous empirical testing in the self-defense effectiveness of different practices could be great. It may be difficult, because actual self-defense situations are hard to simulate and replicate. A solution could be to track practitioners of martial arts, document their self-protection situations and observe trends. Would there be a trend in which art had practitioners who experienced fewer self-defense situations?

My imagination predicts the following trends:

First, taichi practitioners would report far fewer self-defense situations than those of many other arts. I believe this because I believe that our thoughts, values and habitual actions lend themselves to creating the situations we find ourselves in.  I believe that rigorous practice in dominating other humans is more likely to be fueled by some kind of insecurity than rigorous practice in quieting and extending your mind. That insecurity, no matter how deeply buried it may be in the unconscious parts, would play a part in who gets invited into the practitioner’s daily life. My first goal that brought me to taichi practice was to feel physically and mentally good. That goal kept me going until I started to become very excited about how the practice could strengthen my life far beyond that.

I can also imagine a trend of taichi practitioners responding to self-defense situations as I have found myself responding. The few times I have encountered a malicious attacker, my response has been to feel very alive, aware, calm and quiet while my physical body very precisely and directly put the matter to rest. There was no conscious strategizing or even concern for my well-being. There was simply natural response, as natural as responding to a friendly handshake.

What interests me most about my experiences responding to real-life attackers is that I have never been at all good at sparring. I have never gotten good at “winning” in situations where two training partners or competitors agree that they will face off. At least, I have tended not to be as good at sparring as my sparring partners. Coupled with the fact that I’ve heard other taichi practitioners relate similar tales, this is one reason why I believe that there is something about taichi practice that can prepare an individual for effectively responding to an aggressive attacker, even though taichi practice looks a lot less like fighting than sparring does. It is much deeper than the common reasoning that can sound like, “I’m good at fighting because I spar all the time,” or “Taichi isn’t effective for real-world scenarios because they never fight.” Truthfully, my experience is that taichi, taught in the classical form with all the traditional exercises that supplement it, is far more challenging a practice than wrestling or kick-boxing.

The third trend I’d predict is that taichi practitioners experience the need to protect themselves much less after a certain number of years spent in practice. Anyone can mature and look back on their feisty youth as a time when they had not yet grown out of the need to get into messes with people, but I believe that the taichi lifestyle can support people in living long and harmonious lives in subtler ways than this. I believe that the intensive study of one’s physical and mental selves that is taichi facilitates a subtle and deep study of the world around us. This study leads us to naturally, and perhaps unconsciously, make life-preserving decisions. I have heard of one martial artist saying that if there was a sniper waiting to blow his head off after he walks out the front door of a restaurant, he would instead go out the back door. I’ve also heard the story of a martial artist who, while boarding a bus in Latin America, got hungry and decided to get off and go find some food instead. Later, he heard the news that bandits stopped that very bus he was supposed to be on and killed all the passengers.

My purpose in writing this was not to impress readers with amazing anecdotes, or to deny that there are good reasons to believe that combat-competition martial arts are not effective for self defense. Possible purposes instead may include raising the question about why one really chooses to practice a martial art. Second, in the presence of a trend of using misunderstandings of science to debunk the value of more traditional arts, pushing the idea that the world is marked by a vast unknown. This unknown permeates even science, which hypothesizes much, theorizes when hypotheses are not yet disproved, and at the end of the day, “I don’t know” is almost always the most honest conclusion.


Au-Yeung, S., Hui-Chan, C., & Tang, J. C. S. (2009). Short-form tai chi improves standing balance of people with chronic stroke. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, 23(5), 515-522. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1545968308326425

Li, F., Fisher, K. J., Harmer, P., Irbe, D., Tearse, R. G., & Weimer, C. (2004). Tai chi and self-rated quality of sleep and daytime sleepiness in older adults: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 52(6), 892-900. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2004.52255.x

Wang, Y., Taylor, L., Pearl, M., & Chang, L. (2004). Effects of tai chi exercise on physical and mental health of college students. American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 32(3), 453-459. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/17584792?accountid=5683

Yeh, G. Y., Wang, C., Wayne, P. M., & Phillips, R. S. (2008). The effect of tai chi exercise on blood pressure: A systematic review. Preventative Cardiology, 11(2), 82-89. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-7141.2008.07565.x


Comments are closed.