Choke. It's an ugly word for an ugly action, whether you are talking about strangling someone or letting anxiety overwhelm you. The choke attack, the instinct to "go for the throat," is as deeply imbedded in humanity's reptile brain—our primitive memory—as any form of attack.
Whether it's a crude two-handed strangulation or more complicated techniques like a "guillotine" or "rear naked," a choke not only shuts down the victim's ability to get oxygen to the brain—either by closing the airway or cutting off the blood supply—it also induces panic.
Like the primal instinct that motivates it, a choke is powerful but can be overcome with practically applied knowledge. There are three basic concepts to defending against a choke attack:
1. Clear the airway.
2. Come to center.
3. Follow the path of least resistance.
Knowing the basic concepts of how to defend against the choke will keep you from "choking" if the need ever arises to defend against one.
Clear the Airway
The most important thing to do when an attacker begins choking you is to clear the airway. Nothing else is as high priority. This means you must alleviate pressure on the carotid artery in a blood choke or gain space around the trachea in an air choke. Before striking or off balancing your opponent—no matter how open or tempting that may be—you must first put as much weight as possible on the hands or arms that are choking you.
Hesitating to take the pressure off the choke is the difference between staying awake and going to sleep, possibly forever.
Simply hand fighting or trying to peel away the grip is not enough. Getting your hands, or in the case of a two-handed choke your forearms, on the point of contact and then "getting heavy" on that contact point as quickly as possible is imperative.
Once you have attached yourself to the choke point, drop as much of your weight as possible against it without losing your balance. Pit your weight against the attacker's grip.
You will loosen the pressure, even if only a small amount. This will allow critical oxygen flow to your brain. At the same time, getting heavy while clearing the airway wears down the strength of the attacker's hold. If you keep breathing, you keep fighting. If you keep fighting, you will prevail.
Come to Center
Once you can breathe, your next step is to regain a centered position. A powerful choke move will take the victim's head out of alignment with the rest of the body. To escape the hold, you must return your hips, back, and neck to that alignment. If you are being strangled or guillotined, continue dropping your weight against the choke while using that motion to lower your hips below your opponent's.
Step in close to your opponent using a lunging step, driving your hips toward them. Get as close as you can and then rise upward out of your lunge. This off centers your opponent and increases your structural leverage against their grip with your lower body. Your upper body must also re-establish center along with your legs and hips.
When defending against a two-handed strangle hold, one strong technique is to use a two-handed circular or clock strike from one side to the other, attacking first one arm and then the other.
A guillotine should be countered by keeping the outside arm fighting the choke while the inside arm (the one closest to the opponent's head) is thrown over the opponent's shoulder on the opposite side of the head, landing as heavily as possible—similar to an overhead version of a clothesline blow—and immediately pulling the opponent's torso to the side, allowing you to regain a balanced and centered position.
In the case of a rear naked choke, the motions are almost reversed from the other counters. You bridge against your opponent, pinning their head to the ground by putting the back of your head against their chin and using your legs to drive against them.
In all three cases you are now the centered, balanced combatant preparing the way for your escape.
Follow the path of least resistance to escape the choke.
In the cases of all three attack counters that we have discussed, weight and pressure and leverage are all reducing the power of the chokes. Now find the way out by feeling where the pressure isn't.
In the strangle hold, one side or the other will bend under the intermittent pressure and two armed clock strikes. Isolate that side's attacker's hand with both hands and step hard and fast toward that side to escape.
In the guillotine scenario, keep stepping around the outside arm. This will isolate the arm wrapped around your head. The motion will either trap it in a bent arm lock or the attacker will clear it, giving you a clear path to either escape or make a counterattack.
In the rear naked scenario, continue bridging backward and driving away from the choking arm wrapped around your chin. Force your shoulders flat against the floor beside your opponent and then bridge toward them to take the "mount" position and complete your escape.
While the variety of choke attacks is nearly infinite and the specific techniques to counter them just as numerous, all escapes from choke holds follow these universal principles.
You must first clear the airway. If you can't breathe, you can't fight back. Then come to center. If you don't regain a balanced position, you can't attempt an escape. Follow the path of least resistance once you have created the opening. This means you should never hesitate to go where your opponent isn't to defeat the choke and either escape or counterattack.
Training and sparring using these principles is essential to making these choke defenses part of your muscle memory. If you do train with these concepts in mind then, even when you are hurt and under an attack that makes breathing nearly impossible, you will not choke when escaping the choke.
Joe Fiorentino is a deputy with the Cook County (IL) Sheriff's Office and a certified defensive tactics instructor who lives in Chicago. He's also a Shidokan Black Belt who's been inducted into the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame.