I’ve trained in martial arts for a little over a decade. Some styles, like Wing Chun, I’ve had limited experience with. Others, like boxing, Kali, Jiu-Jitsu, and Krav Maga, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know intimately by way of jabs, arm bars, ground submissions, and spectacular blows to the head. Some of the dojos and gyms I’ve joined trained competitively for MMA. Others focused on emphasizing the traditions and techniques unique to their particular art. But always, always, always, I’ve been taught to keep my head up and on a swivel.
The tactical term for that is “awareness.”
It’s something that you’ll hear preached in almost every martial discipline around the world, regardless of style, history, or region of origin. At its most basic level, any form of combat training relies on awareness to perceive incoming threats before they happen. It’s why the element of surprise is so important in combat: Catch your opponent off guard and most training flies out the window in those first, critical moments as instinct takes control.
The thing is, that kind of awareness changes you, and not always for the better. It’s altered the way I see the world, how I act in public places, and how I travel. Because I’ve trained constantly and consistently for so long, it’s almost impossible to turn off that part of my brain, even when I’m alone. If it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is.
Martial awareness has as much to do with how someone moves as it does with how they act. People who are more comfortable in their own environment are more relaxed than those out of place. Sounds obvious, right? But it goes further than that, as any curious people watcher can confirm. It’s easy to tell how comfortable someone is in their own skin by watching them move across a room. You can often read intent off the way someone is dressed, who they approach, and what kind of social interactions they engage in — or don’t.
Someone with more social savvy than I have might be able to realign these details into a networking strategy. Compliment an outfit here. Shake hands with the man over there while he’s moving between social groups. Make nice with the wallflower sitting alone in the corner.
I don’t see that. I see whether or not there are any uncharacteristic bulges along a waistline, beneath an untucked shirt. I watch hands to see if someone is constantly patting their sides, or if their gait is awkward, indicating the presence of a foreign object — a weapon, maybe — tucked into a boot or strapped to a leg. Heavy coats in mild weather raise my suspicions. When random strangers approach me from my blind spots, it sets my nerves on edge. When I look around a room, I see exits, high vantage points, and common lanes of traffic. In most restaurants and pubs, I’ll find an observation point with my back near a wall and my eyes on the door so that I can see who comes and goes.
These habits are entirely counterintuitive to my love of travel. I like to be dropped into unfamiliar places and left to figure it out. I enjoy the challenge and the reward. If I rely on my wits and find the right information, I’ll come away with a unique travel experience and a better understanding of a new place.
At its most basic, travel — especially budget travel — is predicated on trusting and taking part in a community of like-minded individuals. Couchsurfing, Airbnb, hostels, and other low-cost lodging hinge on the notion that you’re entrusting your care to a gracious host. Ideally, you connect and bond with someone who opens their home to you. As a solo traveler, you might join a pub crawl or tour group departing from a hostel where you’ve taken a bunk.
For me, this is where awareness can easily transpose itself to conspiratorial paranoia. Is that low-priced room on Airbnb a trap for would-be travelers? Does that hostel group that wants me to tour with them just interested in snatching my camera and making a run for it? When you’re a long way from home, a mistake like that will have consequences. Trust often feels like a precious commodity.
It’s a fine line.
Don’t misunderstand: the world isn’t any different than it would’ve been had I chosen to stay out of martial arts. The same risks would be there; the same dangers — cultural, social, and otherwise — would have the same opportunity to present themselves. In many ways, I’m less of a target now because I’m on the lookout for trouble before it even starts. I’m simply aware of the danger in ways that I wouldn’t have been.
I often catch myself wondering if that ignorance is bliss. Threats to life and limb aside, maybe I shy away from risks that would otherwise be worth taking. I’ve had friends who do that without consequence, trusting strangers to take care of and protect them almost unconditionally. That risk-reward outcome is hard for me to wrap my head around.
As most self-defense practitioners will tell you, the best fight is no fight. I’m grateful that I know how to defend myself properly, but I’m just as grateful that I don’t have to call on that experience very often outside of sparring matches and practice bouts. Often, the willingness to stand up to an antagonist is worth more than bringing a disagreement to blows. The ability to perceive threats and escalating situations before they happen is what makes awareness so valuable.
For all the missed parties, dark alleys I didn’t take, and suspicions I have about random strangers, I don’t regret my martial experience. It’s better than being mugged and left in a ditch somewhere, but the paranoia and twitchiness that shoehorns its way into my mind really sucks sometimes.