Neurology of Self-Defense

Bringing in Needed Neurology

Connecting to how our brains process information during crisis allows us to create truly effective martial-selves.  We frequently hear the phrase “fight or flight,” but this is not a full or accurate statement. You Defense curriculum specifically focuses on preparing students for attack situations; including what their brains, minds, and bodies will face as they fight for safety. The drills, discussions, and exercises of You Defense seek to place the student’s “self” in full control of what’s happening at every step!

The Beautiful Brain

When our brains process signals from our bodies, the information is sent in two directions, high and low.  The high direction is to our frontal lobe, or our conscious mind.  At this level we are aware of thoughts and make rational decisions.  Long before information gets to the frontal lobe, however, it will have been screened for threats by other parts of the brain. These parts, the lower areas, process information faster than our conscious mind is aware of.  These parts are connected directly to our viscera, or guts.  This mechanism allows our emotional processing – our gut feeling – to be infinitely faster and more reliable than our frontal lobe during a crisis.

(a non-neuroscientist butchering of the amazing work of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s work  in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel Van der Kolk, Penguin Books, New York NY 2014)

Understanding the Traumatic Event

When our lower brains flag something as a possible safety threat an immediate series of actions are initiated that all occur before our rational mind is aware of what’s happening

(from Trauma and Memory: Brain and body in a search for the living past, Peter, A Levine, PhD, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley CA 2015).

  • We pause, or our hearts “skip a beat” as we enter arrest/alert processing.
  • If the stimuli continue to worsen, we’ll progress to stiffen and orient as we search for what is causing discomfort or danger.  
  • Once the cause of the worsening feeling is identified, we filter the stimuli to see if we need to assess it further.  
  • If so, we process if we should avoid, or approach what has captured our gut sensation.
  • If things continue to get worse, we attempt to fight through humanity’s strongest & most unique weapon in the animal world; our complex social relationships.  We automatically seek to fight – or flee – together as groups.  
  • If our search for other humans to aid us fails or if we are alone, we may seek to fight or flee alone.  
  • If we are unable to fight or flee, we will freeze with high levels of fear and nervous energy to wait out the threat.
  • If the threat continues to escalate, we will fold, dissociate, or shut down as a final strategy of survival

Grounded Self-Defense

Martial Arts Techniques

Instruction in each of these areas includes: in person presentation of material, in-class exercises for individuals and for groups, and access to instructional material for out-of-class practice and reminders

Moving / Blocking

Students will learn basic movements to evade or nullify attacks.  Additionally, students will learn, practice, and apply basic blocking and parrying movements for a variety of situations.

Hitting / Striking

Students will learn the basic movements and concepts of generating powerful kicks and punches.  Students will have opportunities to practice against heavy targets as well as precision targets.

Breaking / Locking

Students will learn and practice the basic concepts of joint locks, and will have chances to practice them with each other and the instructor.  Joint locks are the foundation of joint breaking, and instruction in joint locking includes these elements. Locking techniques are applied to both the upper body (hand – wrist – elbow) and lower body (foot – ankle – knee).

Pushing / Moving

Students will learn how to effectively move an attackers whole body in single motions.  Students will have chances to practice controlling attackers via controlling the attacker’s hips as well as via their head. 


Martial Arts Concepts

The practical techniques of YOU Defense are learned through exercises, drills, and scenarios. The techniques are practiced directly with the instructor, individually, with partners, and in groups.  The technical curriculum is focused on teaching all things through a small set of core martial arts concepts, listed below:


Zanshin: Combative Awareness

  • A deep and total awareness of your surroundings.  
  • Linking your mind to your body; training your mind to listen to your “gut feelings,” and your body to act on them instantly
  • Good zanshin will see you stopping attacks before they even have a chance to start!


Ma’ai: Combative distance / controlling your space

Total awareness of the space in-between you and an attacker, and of how close you need to be to an attacker to effectively launch a physical defense

Total awareness of the space in-between you and an attacker, and of how close an attacker would need to be to you to effectively attack you


Kamai: Combative ready position / owning your shape or stance

Learning to quickly and easily find your combative stance to defend yourself or launch attacks

Creating stances and movements with immense power and structural stability, and using these to end attacks


Yamabiko: Call out attack / controlling your boundaries

Allowing yourself to identify attack situations, and challenge them before they impact you

Completely controlling an attacker in an attack situation by controlling how the attack occurs


Takemusu: Creating infinite techniques / being the author of your story in every situation

Learning to use your awareness, distance, stance, and boundaries to create any technique

Learning to allow yourself to be powerful, to move without searching for a technique

Useful Self-Defense

Practical Self-Defense

To be practical is “to be of, relating to, or manifested in practice or action; not theoretical or ideal.” In teaching self-defense from a foundation of the neurology and psychology of trauma, YOU Defense is deeply practical.

How we process, store, and recall information is intricately linked to our emotional – not rational – reality. We process threats to our survival and well-being at a deep, gut level in our physical body’s viscera (our guts).  These threats and possible responses are all processed through emotional memory faster than the rational mind could recognize. If a threat is confirmed, our nervous systems react with incredible speed without the awareness of our conscious mind. 

If self-defense curriculum is not developed with this neurological understanding at its foundation, it will be taught to a brain that will likely be offline/inactive during our body’s crisis response. If self-defense courses are not taught from a foundational understanding of the links between emotion and memory, their techniques will remain theoretical to a person under attack. Finally, if a self-defense course is taught from the instructor’s perspective, the content will always only be an ideal for the students; never an organic reality!

Teaching for the student, not teaching -to- them

In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire writes of education-as-liberation.  Rather than believing students to be blank slates or empty jars to be filled by the teacher, Freire believed students should be co-creators of their own knowledge and the directors of their education.  

The reason for this dramatic reversal of traditional education authority was to circumvent the core issue Freire noticed in his native Brazil.  The education provided by the oppressor/colonial powers – even when benevolent – always ended up creating more “oppressors” out of those it educated. Freire finds that members of the oppressors – often themselves a product of violence and oppression – cannot create the solution to oppressive systems. Instead, the oppressed have the solutions and can discover them when given the space and support to do so. 

In self-defense terms, this means the martial arts instructor does not have the answers for the students.  The role of instructor is to listen to student concerns, be present for their physical education needs, and to guide them to their own knowledge of self-defense. The end product might not be the “ideal” technique or approach of the martial artist, but it will be infinitely more practical to the students!

Psychology of Self-Defense

Linking psychological and physical training

There is a fundamental paradox of self-defense instruction. If what we teach as brain and body defenses will destroy the self of the mind, we’re simply not teaching self-defense.  If what we teach isn’t simple, easy, and practical, it’s not defense. 

If martial arts are taught as details or techniques, they will be learned by the rational mind. This mind will likely be offline during an attack, making what they’ve learned ineffective. If the rational mind remains online during a self-defense situation, the defender may hesitate, or hold back their responses to the attacks, making what they’ve learned ineffective.  In self-defense, there is fundamental disconnect between the sense of “self” (your mind & who you are) and the “defense” (the actions your brain and body take to ensure your organism’s survival).

YOU Defense provides a possible answer to this paradox through the basic concepts of the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS), developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, Ph. D. The IFS Model describes each of us as having “subpersonalities” that work together to meet the challenges and tasks of our daily lives. We are viewed as “containing an ecology of relatively discrete minds.”  The first basic assumption of the IFS Model is

“It is the nature of the mind to be subdivided into an indeterminate number of  subpersonalities or parts. Everyone has a Self, and the Self can and should lead the individual’s internal system. The non-extreme intention of each part is something positive for the individual. There are no “bad” parts…”

The YOU Defense curriculum is guided by the idea that you are in charge of your “self.”  To ensure that both how you are taught and what you learn do not harm or hinder your command of your “self,” YOU Defense takes participants through the creation of a “martial-self” or “warrior-self”  This self is the recipient of self-defense knowledge and techniques. The role of this self is to take decisive action, to unleash your defenses when called upon.  Taking the time to create this part of you ensures that you will be able to effectively learn and use self-defense without defense destroying the self!

Empowerment Self-Defense

You Defense self-defense programming offers a unique chance to challenge your ideas of who you are and what you’re capable of!  You Defense is a deeply practical re-invention of the sometimes-stale and often abusive self-defense course.

Focused on You

You Defense teaches students practical and reliable ways to defend themselves — their whole selves — in any situation from any attack. Each course is devoted to understanding the many ways in which attack situations are created or might impact you.

Without critically examining and understanding the specific offensive threat, learning defensive tactics is pointless at best and harmful at worst.

The More You Know…

Understand the Threat

Strangers simply aren’t the danger they’re made out to be in our culture.  In reality, the likely attacker is someone you already know. As animals, we generally do not want to be assaulted or violated. As humans, we create psychological, relational, and physical barriers to protect us against things which we do not want. The data indicate that the barriers we create for this specific attack are not built correctly, leaving us at greater risk!

  • Studies show that approximately 80%-90% of women reporting sexual assaults knew their assailant.
  • The majority of assaults occur in places ordinarily thought to be safe, such as homes, cars and offices.
  • Many instances of sexual violence go unreported. However, reported sexual assaults are true, with very few exceptions. According to CONNSACS, only 2% of reported rapes are false.
Focus on the Solution

That sexual violence is most likely perpetrated by someone you know is not cause for alarm, but a battle call to refocus on the most important part of self-defense: self or “you”.  The most important part of self-defense is knowing and projecting who you are. Personal safety involves creating, communicating, and commanding your barriers.  These barriers are yours; they are applied how you see fit.  

YOU Defense training will assist you discover how to protect your physical barriers, and challenge you into creating ways to protect your many other barriers. 


Identify and Value Your Boundaries

Knowing what behavior you’re comfortable with coming from others verbally, emotionally, and physically

Being able to communicate this to others.

Creating action plans for when you notice any of your boundaries are violated


Own Your Identity in  Intimate Relationships

Set boundaries early-on  in your mind and in your relationship

If a boundary is crossed in a relationship, take action to change the relationship’s direction immediately

If a relationship doesn’t change, you are empowered to take action for your well-being


Understand and Respect Your Family Relationships

\We cannot choose the families into which we are born, it’s random.  Some people get million dollar loans from their dads, others are born into very different situations.  Since it’s nothing we can control, it doesn’t have anything to do with your worth, skill, or value as a person!

We cannot choose how our psychological and biological needs impact our early childhood.  We’re hardwired to survive, a part of this involves how we relate to our parents or caretakers. 

We cannot change the our parents and caretakers, including their past experiences that may impact their beliefs, behaviors, and/or actions.

You are the answer!

The self-defense curriculum of You Defense teaches students core martial arts concepts to keep their bodies safe, but also to identify and defend against broader relational, social, and cultural attacks.  You Defense classes involve “hands-on” exploration of martial arts concepts to instill originality and confidence, presentations with relevant information to encourage challenging cultural norms, and critical group-discussions to encourage ownership of cultural change.