Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Strengths and Weaknesses

Fluidity in combat is based on understanding yin and yang, which express the direction in which energy is flowing. We move through positions of strength and weakness. What we want is to maximize our strengths and minimize exposure to our weaknesses, while exploiting weaknesses and neutralizing the strengths of our opponent.

Musashi wrote that to one who understands strategy, a battle with thousands is the same as a one-to-one duel. In what ways might this be valid?

An army occupying a secure position might have to move out to engage the enemy on other ground. To minimize vulnerability, it may employ advance scouts, strengthen the flanks, and move under the cover of darkness or weather.

A fighter might use footwork or feints to draw his opponent’s response, keeping elbows in tight to the body and utilizing environmental factors to evade or hinder the opponent.

The goal is always the same – to defeat the enemy. How that is accomplished is completely variable, determined only by one’s strategic and tactical skills. This is true whether negotiating a contract, playing a sport or running a war. The terms of engagement may differ, but the desired outcome is essentially similar.

This is where careful analysis of one’s technique is helpful, as I opined in the last post. We move from position of strength to position of strength, passing through areas that may be weaker due to unalterable physiological causes.

Some martial arts may focus on those strong positions. Think of katas that emphasize locking punches or deep stances with a loud kiai. On the other hand we need efficient movement between those positions. Motion and focused point of concentrated energy are two sides of the same dynamic and are mutually complementary. One without the other is incomplete.

Can we identify our powerful positions? How can we tweak them for maximum performance? How does raising the peak broaden the base of our capabilities? For example, developing a powerful punch as a strength deletes weak punching from the liability side of the equation.

Just as in a yin/yang symbol, weakness and strength contain their opposites within them. Weakness can be a lure to draw an opponent; strength can create rigid overconfidence. For instance, a punch at full power is the point where balance might be most easily compromised or the joints most effectively attacked.

Weaker positions are generally those we gloss over on the way to more advantageous ones. For instance, we sidestep a punch; the step weak moves us from a vulnerable position to a less vulnerable one. We need to have a strong position for our counter to be effective, whether a block or strike. How many of us only concentrate on the end result of the punch while ignoring the dynamics that set it up?

This isn’t to say a soft parry can’t be effective while we transit our opponent’s line of attack. That is, in fact, the counterpart to the more powerful example preceding it. The fact is, soft and hard can both be utilized. There are no perfect positions, just appropriate options at the right time.

At a certain level, it doesn’t matter what attack comes, it’s all just timing and angles. Everything else is simply descriptive detail. This is the genius of the Filipino martial arts, that they study angles of attack and perfect timing through live practice with partners.

How can we test strength or weakness? Generally this is through partner practice. Wing Chun has chi sao, Tai Chi has push hands, FMA has hubud hubud. One must be able to feel emptiness in one’s own technique as well as read it in another’s, allowing one to absorb and redirect attacks. This is where slow practice is valuable. It allows one to stop and examine the dynamic exchange of energy at any point, and even, if both people are paying attention, to back up and re-examine positions already passed.

Sometimes one can realign a weak position to make it stronger. For instance, a block that extends the arm might rely on just the shoulder muscles, which are relatively weak, but that block might be accomplished by keeping the arm in stronger alignment closer to the centerline while turning the waist to achieve the same or better result. In general the closer we stay to our own centerline, the stronger we are because we draw more stability from the core muscles of the body.

Techniques of muscle testing from Applied Kinesiology or other healing modalities can be applied to understanding strength or weakness of internal alignments. The better we get at “reading” our opponent through touch, the less time and energy it takes to understand intention behind movement.

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