Subscribe to Blog Feed   Add to Technorati Favorites

Positioning your body around your brain

In I.33, we have started off teaching a posture with the following features (whenever I describe any technique, I assume a right-handed fighter):

  • Right foot shoulder width in front of, and to the right of, the left foot.
  • Both feet facing forward.
  • Rear heel raised off the ground, with the weight of the body well forward—such that if a line were drawn from the shoulders it would pass through the forward knee into the ball of the right foot.

In practicing this posture, I found that having the rear foot facing directly forward (what I shall refer to as "straight", for ease of reference) was distinctly uncomfortable. Now, I am not one to dismiss a posture as bad simply because it does not feel natural, but such a stance is not one I've ever seen before in HEMA, and it seems unsound for several reasons. Following some discussion with Colin and Dean McKinstry, I believe this posture is simply wrong. Here is why:

Firstly, although it makes for a powerful forward-and-back position, it leaves you vulnerable to imbalance when attacked from a sideways vector. Related to this, it is also entirely less suited to movement on the circle, because springing with the rear foot will impel the body directly forward—rather than forward and to the side, as is nearly always advocated (for numerous reasons which bear their own discussion at some length).

Secondly, however, is a biomechanical consideration. I'd like to use the specific example of the I.33 posture to expand on a core principle in biomechanics, as well as provide some commentary on our coursework. This principle is, basically, that the brain is the most selfish organ in the body.

How the brain coordinates the body in response to threats

Not all biomechanics is about how the parts of the body move. In fact, studying how they move is secondary in some critical ways to the matter of when they move, and why.

In combat, the brain always acts to protect itself. The head is the target which is always defended automatically, at the expense of any other part of the body. It will sacrifice anything to protect itself. The corollary of this is that attacks made to other parts of the body (particularly to the extremities) are treated with a lower priority. The brain simply won't act to protect a limb in the same way it will act to protect the head. Priority 1 is the head; priority 2 is the torso; and the limbs come in at priority 3, which is to say that they are expendable.

In the case of our I.33 posture, the brain is aware that attacks can be warded off using the right side of the body. It is aware that the right side is exposed and must be protected. That is where the threat is, and attacks need to get through the right arm before they can reach the head or torso. Since the right arm is holding a sword, this is okay. It can be used to keep the head (and body) safe, and no one can attack the arm directly because the sword is in the way. This is good. In fact, this instinct can be refined into good warding and striking technique.

But, in such a situation, the brain has a tendency to assume that the left side of the body is "out of action". Since you are in a right foot forward posture, the right arm is the primary defense. The left arm is ignored. The brain is expecting attacks to the right side, because that's what is exposed. It will automatically defend against the most obvious and immediate threats, which means attacks from the front: either to the right arm, to the right side of the torso, or to the head itself. Thus, the left side of the body is given a very low priority. This is made even lower because the brain thinks this side is protected by merit of having a buckler. Therefore, any attack coming to the left side will effectively be ignored, because the brain is preoccupied with defending itself and the torso from the right side.

Now, if an attack does come to the left side, and is threatening the head or torso first, then this becomes a top-priority issue. The brain will bring in whatever part of the body it can to keep itself safe—namely the buckler in the left hand. However, if the attack is not threatening the head or torso (in that order, of course), the brain will act very slowly to defend, leaving the left side vulnerable.

Consider this in relation to our I.33 posture. With your left foot straight, your entire posture rotates slightly, becoming more forward-facing. This brings your left shoulder and elbow into a position where they are effectively covering your torso. Because the torso is then not immediately exposed, any attack which does not threaten the head directly will illicit no defensive response: the brain sees the torso as protected by the left arm. It doesn't care about sacrificing the shoulder or elbow (depending on the height of the strike); it just sees that the torso is okay because the expendable part will be hit instead, and so it fails to defend properly.

If we modify the posture to a more conventional one by rotating the left foot outward (usually at around 30-45 degrees), your upper body rotates backward with it, bringing both the left shoulder and elbow slightly behind your torso. This leaves the torso exposed, and so any attack to the left side will cause your brain to automatically bring your left arm into action in defense.

To summarize: by straightening your left foot and bringing your left side forward to be more available to defend, you ironically make it less useful because your brain perceives it as being already "good enough". If you leave your torso a little more exposed, the brain will always try to correct this by bringing the left arm in for defense automatically when it is threatened. Therefore, in this case, a posture with the rear foot angled outward is better not only for balance and for directional stepping, but also for protecting the left arm from being sniped. Hopefully this example illustrates why a knowledge of biomechanics is so critical to informing one's interpretation of HEMA techniques.

No comments: