Posted by: Mike Ferruggia | February 22, 2010

Timing and Distance in Self Defense

One hint in self defense situation is the question of timing and distance. Imagine a stream of water coming out of you like a water hose jet of water, and connecting with your opponent. If he is far away from you, the imagined jetstream will have a particular force. If he begins to walk towards you, that imagined jet of water will begin to get shorter and stronger. You can practice this with a friend. Set up the imagined stream and then have them walk towards you(using an actual hose is only recommended in the summer time with good friends). Try to notice the strength of the jetstream. It should be very strong and forceful once he has approached you and this should be a good clue as to when to take a stance, or throw a preemptive strike.

Practicing on a wall is also a good tool. How far away from the wall do you have to stand in order to execute a good, strong kick or punch–keeping yourself centered over your own weight? See what it’s like to throw a kick or punch from too far away. This is the biggest mistake most beginners make, next to not using whole body movement.

Remember, tai chi chuan is an in close fighting system. It works in close! And remember that it is kind of not appropriate to try to execute tai chi self defense techniques without having learned tai chi! A tai chi person can demonstrate some usable techniques for self defense, but this does not qualify as tai chi. Using tai chi in self defense requires years of practice learning listening skills, sensitivity, body posture and movement. And it requires a change in mindset–not meeting the hard with hard, but the hard with soft. Learning to use the concepts of ward off, yield, press, push, grab pull down, rend or split, elbow and bump.



  1. Great comments. Thank you. I’m not a military strategist, but the question came to mind about “flanking.” I’m only aware of this rom what I’ve seen in movies. Can you discuss it a bit and perhaps relate it to tai chi. I think there’s more of an analogy here…

    • The concept of flanking goes back to ancient Greece, and in fact can be linked to the Greek invention of democracy. After ridding themselves of the tyrants, the Greeks decided to try a system whereby everybody would be accorded equal status, and government would be by common consent. Instead of a handful of aristocrats owning all the land, everybody would hold smaller pieces of land that they would manage themselves. Thus when a polis went to war, the people– who of course also formed the army– were fighting for their own land, rather than the land of some aristocrat.

      This motivated people to get wars over with quickly and decisively; got to be home in time for the harvest, after all. Such motivation allowed for greater discipline, too; a person is willing to spend more time on drill and practice if he’s going to get something for himself out of it. There’s also a freer flow of ideas when all men are equal and entitled to speak their minds, and so the Greeks had more imagination in their tactics.

      From out of this came a killing machine deadlier than anything the ancient world had ever seen– the phalanx. The Greeks found that by standing in rows and columns, shoulder to shoulder, they could present a seamless wall of shields and spears to an enemy, and steamroll right over him. As long as everybody stayed in rank, they were basically invulnerable. If one yahoo tried to sprint forward and take advantage of some momentary situation where, say, he could heroically kill three of the enemy, then the phalanx risked being cracked and shattered. Discipline became more important than individual heroism. Nobody else was fighting this way; all the other armies attacked in more-or-less a melee, with great opportunity for personal glory but little group cohesion. That was the last you saw of that kind of fighting; the phalanx became the new standard.

      Now, the phalanx was invulnerable in front. Along the sides, it was a different story, because the shields didn’t face sideways. Whenever two phalanxes would clash, the opposing generals would each try to get at the side of his opponent– to attack his flank. Innovations in order of battle, maneuver, cavalry, and so on all attempted to protect one’s own flank or attack the enemy’s flank. (Or, even better, get at the enemy’s rear. The supreme masterpiece battle of the ancient world occured when Hanibal caught the Romans in what we call a double envelopment at the battle of Cannae. Completely surrounded and too crowded together to fight, the Romans were annihilated, losing tens of thousands of people in one day.)

      Though the phalanx has been modified out of existence, the idea of troops attacking in row and column of some sort continued up until around the American Civil War and WWI. Flank attacks as classically understood remained relevant as well. During the War of 1812, at the Battle of New Orleans, General Jackson managed to maneuver some of his troops onto the enemy flank, and caught the British in what we call an enfilade– the enemy is all in a line, and you are at the end of that line, rather than facing it broadside. You get to fire up and down the line, rather than having to fire side to side, and the enemy is skewered. The British defeat at New Orleans was a rout.

      The development of the machine gun put and end to troops advancing rank-and-file once and for all. That lesson got learned the hard way during WWI, when both sides were forced into miserable, immobile trenches. Such fortified positions pretty much became strategically obsolete early in WWII, when the Nazis sidestepped the Maginot Line. Since then, warfare has depended heavily on maneuver, especially of smaller, more independent units.

      The concept of the flank attack is still around, but it finds application as more of an abstract idea; there is no flank in the sense of the original phalanx. There is, however, in any engagement, the direction in which an opponent is not so well defended, and we would usually be justified in terming an attack along that direction a flank attack.

      I would have difficulty applying this concept to tai chi– tai chi does not rely much on attack, and instead defeats an enemy by adopting a perfect defense. To attack, one must push outward; one must extend. This is true in warfare (Clausewtiz discussed the “culminating point of attack” at which the attackers strength, decreasing as he extends, matches the defenders strength, increasing as he compacts.), and obviously in self-defense. I guess you could say that as the opponent attacks, the tai chi practitioner exploits the necessary loss of balance, or goes after weaknesses that open up due to the attack. You would know more about that stuff than I do, though.

      • Cool info. In taichi, as in most martial arts, you want to get out of the way of the direct line of attack, usually achieved with some appropriate stepping and minor deflection–6 ounces defeats 1000 pounds. The four major directions are front, back, left and right, associated with the five elements. The best position in martial rts is to get to the opponent’s back where they are most vulnerable. But many of the techniques in tai chi are designed to get to the outside of the opponent’s strike where you can strike back. But taichi is not all circles, arcs and spirals. Many times the straight line comes out of the circle and one is “metal,” that is, you attack head on.

        I suppose the lesson of the boxer rebellion is that no matter how skilled you are in martial arts, a large disciplined army will slaughter you, or at least the lesson is it’s no match against an army armed with guns, along with the belief that you are impervious to bullets…

  2. “Using tai chi in self defense requires years of practice learning listening skills, sensitivity, body posture and movement. And it requires a change in mindset–not meeting the hard with hard, but the hard with soft. Learning to use the concepts of ward off, yield, press, push, grab pull down, rend or split, elbow and bump.”

    This remark has lingered with me the last few days. It has applications well beyond tai chi, and turns up in large-scale warfare.

    Two of the great theorists on strategy are Carl von Clausewitz, a Napoleon-era Prussian officer, and Basil Liddell Hart, a WWI British officer. Clausewitz said (among a great many other things) that war is about annihilation. Only annihilation, or the credible threat of annihilation, can sway our enemy from his purpose. Frontal assaults figured prominently in Clausewitz’s vision. Liddell Hart, who had to suffer through the fact that frontal assault + mechanization = trench warfare, saw great merit in the indirect approach of deception, maneuver, and surprise.

    Liddel Hart noted that many of history’s great generals– he cites Napoleon as a specific example– relied on the indirect approach early in their careers, but later came to depend on overwhelming strength and frontal assault. Liddel Hart seemed to think that this was due to intellectual laziness, but I don’t think so. When you have the strength to do it, frontal assault allows you to manage your risks more carefully; you only risk as much as you care to put forward, and you can withdraw more-or-less at your leisure. Some losses are certain, but the rate of loss is predictable. With indirect strategies, the risk is uncertain and potentially catastrophic. You might not get caught at all, but if you are caught, you could lose everything.

    (A good example of the is the Vicksburg campaign during the Civil War. Unable to approach Vicksburg head-on, General Grant separated from his supply lines and led a force of his men deep into enemy territory, to attack Vicksburg from behind. This was ultimately successful, but incredibly daring. Had his approach to Vicksburg’s rear gotten bogged down, his entire force would have been destroyed, operating as they were without support.)

    It seems to me, then, that we fight with indirect methods when we are weak, and direct methods when we are strong. There is no hypocrisy in this, it is just a form of risk management.

    Look now to guerrilla warfare. This form of fighting is virtually entirely indirect. The guerrilla attacks things like the enemy’s supply lines and means of communication. He never attacks the main body of the enemy force head-on. At best, the guerrilla might launch a frontal assault against isolated elements of the enemy force in those special situations when the guerrilla is able to amass a larger force. The goal of the guerrilla is not to annihilate the enemy, but to keep him disjointed, off-balance.

    One of the important theorists of guerrilla warfare was Mao Tse Tung, who would have been familiar with the writings of Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, Tsao Tsao, and others. Chinese strategists have celebrated the indirect approach for millenia– just look at their “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

    Tai chi, too, is indirect in its methods. Tai chi takes weakness and turns it into a strength. Tai chi seeks to get the opponent off balance by accepting and redirecting (rather than resisting) his attacks. It clobbers the enemy by disrupting flow through critical channels at critical moments, just like a guerrilla cutting a rail line or sabotaging a telephone line. The army as a whole is untouched, the opponent’s body is not struck, but neither are able to operate in a coordinated, effective manner. The army is starved and scattered, the opponent is thrown to the floor. “Supreme ultimate” indeed.

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