Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Timing and the Moment.


            Many decades ago I used to play Capoeira. It must be admitted that I was not the most athletic or acrobatic of players but what techniques I did use in the Roda I was very sure of. That used to catch some of the younger players off balance. One in particular used to get quite worked up that he could make some fancy move and walk right onto a relatively simple attack  from me.

            My signature move was the benson, which is the Capoeira name for a front thrust kick. Everyone knew I was likely to use this move, yet still it would seem to come out of nowhere and all of a sudden the sole of my foot would materialize inches from an opponent’s face. Some would just laugh at getting caught again, others would get worked up, actually making them easy meat for a repeat.

            Front thrust kick was a technique I had barely practiced in my earlier Karate days so it was perhaps surprising this became my signature. My success with this move was not that I could execute it fluidly and rapidly (which I could). The secret was in the timing. I could identify the exact moment in an opponent’s movements where they were committed to an action and I could insert my kick perfectly to interrupt it.

            I’m recalling this today since I mentioned Moshé Feldenkrais in my post the other day. This inspired me to reread “Practical Unarmed Combat” and I even found a copy of the expanded later version “Hadaka-jime : Practical Unarmed Combat”. There will be some blog posts on Feldenkrais’ books but for the moment I will concentrate on a small section. In the book Feldenkrais illustrates a point by means of a little story, which I will paraphrase.
            A samurai gathers his students together and gives them the following scenario:-
“You are lying awake in your bed when you hear soft footsteps approaching. The door quietly opens and you see it is your sworn enemy, come to murder you in your sleep. He closes the door so that the light spilling in does not awake you. Thinking you still asleep, he approaches to murder you. Students, when was the best time to attack the intruder?”

What was your answer? The answer the samurai sought was when the intruder was closing the door. When he approached the room he would have been very wary. When he approached the bed, he would have been wary and there was very little time for the intended victim to untangle himself from his bedclothes and get up. As he was closing the door, he is in transition. Not only is he partially distracted by the task of shutting the door but he has also just completed one risky phase of his operation and is probably thinking about how to do the next.

Feldenkrais uses this story to illustrate parrying a knife or bayonet, although what he is saying holds true for other forms of attack. If you move too early against a trust the attacker can change his action and do something such as stick the knife in your hand. Too late with the parry and you may deflect it insufficiently to avoid it. Parry at the right moment and you avoid the attack and have a window of opportunity to counter attack. “Hadaka-jime : Practical Unarmed Combat” adds an appropriate quotation it attributes to Musashi “A skilful person may appear slow but he is never off the beat”. You may begin to see why a wartime manual about a judo technique reminded me of my time in the Roda.


In “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” Bruce Lee talks about timing a lot, and it can seem somewhat daunting to a novice. I get the impression that Lee was wrestling with putting into text something that he had an inherent understanding of but was very difficult to put down on a page. If he had lived longer I suspect the Tao of JKD would have undergone a number of rewrites. “I cannot teach you, only help you to explore yourself” Jeet Kune Do means “way of the intercepting fist”. If you watch some videos of interviews and demonstrations by Lee you will appreciate that what he meant by this is what this today’s blog is about. As the enemy commits to an attack it is intercepted with a jab or side kick at the optimum moment. Fencing also likes to talk about timing and rhythm. The stop-hit is the equivalent of JKD’s intercepting fist. In fencing one can get the impression that you need to spar with someone long enough to learn their rhythm and that being able to break rhythm is the mark of a master.
Personally, I am not sure that this is the best way to understand what is going on or what is needed. Perhaps it is better understood as recognising and acting in moments that occur within a sequence. You attack or parry not when you want to, but in the moments that your foe creates that you can act in. Timing is a very difficult thing to teach in a written format and rather than attempt to do so here I will be content that I may have given you something to think about and to be more aware of during your practice.   

The Books