Do you know how martial artists spell irony? R-B-S-D.
RBSD, or reality-based self-defense, is a blanket term for martial arts training that purports to focus on practical applications. In truth, however, these applications—gross motor skills such as the straight punch and Thai-style knee strike—can only be deemed “practical” within a fiat-based reality.
Reality as measured by the CDC is strikingly different. Among the leading causes of death in 2005, assault ranks in 15th place—behind heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses. In the USA, death by suicide is 50% more common than homicide. Statistically speaking, influenza is far deadlier than any fatigue-clad RBSD play-warrior, or the threats they would prepare you to face.
Despite the indisputable fact that sickness is the greatest danger to the average person, martial arts for health have somehow earned a bad reputation. Why? It may be that because health and wellness are relative and intangible (compared to the result of a fight or sparring match), these claims are most frequently made by teachers that would, by any other measurement, be regarded as unqualified frauds.
While acknowledging that there is no shortage of incompetence among the New Age wellness set, we should also remember that many well-respected masters used the arts to improve their poor health. In doing so, they not only cured themselves, but gained formidable combat skills almost as a side effect. Here are a few examples…
As a consequence of his premature birth, Morihei was rather frail and sickly as an infant. Early on, though, he displayed an insatiable interest in both esoteric and exoteric science. The boy devoured hundreds of books an all manner of subjects, being especially intrigued by mathematics and physics.
Yoroku, concerned about his son’s weak physique and nervous temperament, encouraged Morihei to engage in sumo wrestling, running, and swimming…Morihei gradually built up his body.
Awakened to his potential power, the body dreamed of someday becoming the strongest man in the world. He toughened his skin by dousing himself daily with ice-cold water and asking his friends to pelt him with prickly chestnuts. His power increased so much that he was called on to carry sick children on his back to the doctor in the nearest town, some fifty miles distant.
[source: Abundant Peace by John Stevens]
In adulthood, Morihei Ueshiba became an incomparable master of jujitsu, and later founded the art of Aikido.
Chen Fake was the youngest of three brothers. Both of his older brothers passed away in their early ages. His father was in his sixties when Chen Fake was born. Fake was spoiled as a young child, and did not have a good diet. He eventually developed a stomach ailment and could not digest food very well, and his health was poor. While playing outside one day when he was 14 years old, he overheard family elders lamenting his laziness: “This family has produced so many accomplished masters: his ancestor, his grandfather, and his father. This glory seems to be ending now because he is only interested in playing and having fun and not in practicing Taiji.”
From then on, Chen Fake started working hard and practiced the form several dozen times a day. After a few years of training, he cured his stomach problem and became very strong.
[source: Center for Taiji Studies]
Chen Fake introduced his Chen style Taiji to Beijing, and became famous both for his good character and his outstanding skills. (His second-generation disciple Chen Zhonghua overcame severe health problems of his own, including bronchitis and arthritis.)
The Huo family had a long tradition as Wushu practitioners. Huo Yuanjia, however, was born weak and susceptible to illness. At an early age he contracted jaundice, an illness that would recur periodically for the rest of his life. His father refused to teach him Wushu; because of his weakness, Huo En Di wanted his son to pursue scholarly interests instead of learning Wushu. This was perhaps a blessing, as he in later life became renowned for his humility and educated judgment.
However at the time, pursuing scholarly interests was a great blow to Yuanjia’s pride. As As a twelve year-old child, he was continuously and humiliatingly defeated by local eight and nine year olds. His father hired a teacher from Japan, Chen Seng Ho (Chiang Ho), who in exchange for being taught his family style of martial arts (Mízongyì), taught Yuanjia the values of humility and perseverance.
Refusing to accept the vocation his father had chosen for him, Huo Yuanjia hid in bushes, and even dug out a small hole in the wall of the training area, to secretly observe his father teaching martial arts. Each day he quietly sat and watched, and each night he went to a tree grove and practiced secretly with his tutor. This continued for about ten years.
Huo Yuanjia founded the Jingwu Athletic Association, and his life served as the basis for Jet Li’s hit move Fearless.
Wang Xiangzhai was born in 1885 in the Shenxian district of Hebei province. As a small boy, Wang developed a severe case of asthma which stunted his growth and left him in poor health. When he was 8 years old, in order to remedy his illness and help him regain his health and strength, his father made him take up the practice of Xingyiquan with his Elder Uncle, the famous Guo Yunshen.
Actually, the old Master did not really want to take on young Wang Xiangzhai as his apprentice, because he was old and suffered from “sickness in the legs” such that he could barely walk. But two things changed his mind. First, his own son and heir to the lineage had an accident; he fell from a horse and died. Also, Wang had come with excellent recommendations from another relative. Thus, Guo Yunshen relented and agreed to accept Wang Xiangzhai as his live-in student. [source:The Tao of Yiquan by Jan Diepersloot]
Wang Xiangzhai became famous after issuing a challenge, printed in the Beijing newspapers, for any and all martial artists to visit and taste his skills. Wang Xiangzhai founded the art of Yiquan.
Helio Gracie, the youngest son of Gastão and Cesalina Gracie’s eight children, was always a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells, and no one could figure out why.
At age fourteen, he moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu in a house in Botafogo, a borough of Rio de Janeiro. Following doctor’s recommendations, Helio would spend the next few years limited to only watching his brothers teach.
One day, when Helio was 16 years old, a student showed up for class when Carlos was not around. Helio, who had memorized all the techniques from watching his brothers teach, offered to start the class. When the class was over, Carlos showed up and apologized for his delay. The student answered, “No problem. I enjoyed the class with Helio very much and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue learning from him.” Carlos agreed, and Helio became an instructor.
[source: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy]
With their winning fight records, Helio Gracie (and family) revolutionized the popular perception and practice of martial arts. Helio swore that, due to his diet and exercise habits, he never suffered a single day of sickness in his entire adult life.
Other examples, such as the biographies of Gao Fu and Guo Lin, show that even the middle-aged and elderly can realize substantial health benefits from martial arts practice. Whether or not they become able fighters, their participation should be encouraged.
If you’ve beaten arthritis, bronchitis or cancer, then you are tough. Otherwise…maybe you really don’t know a lick about reality-based self-defense?