The real secret to martial arts – Bruce Lee and the concept of Jeet

Today I want to talk about a very useful martial arts teaching called the 3 timings. In many ways, these teachings are the secret to all martial arts, so you’re getting some pretty good value out of this free blog post! 🙂

The three timings have been handed down in many different martial arts lineages under different guises, but it’s all the same teaching. I suspect the 3 timings are as old as time itself.

Personally, I’ve found the three timings most applicable to weapons work, but they are obviously important for barehand too.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

The version of the 3 timings handed down in my Chinese lineage was called “Yi timing, Chi timing and Xing timing”, but in English you’ll find them explained perfectly well by Paul Vunak here as simply, before, during and after:

Paul Vunak is a Jeet Kune Do teacher. Bruce thought the concept of “Jeet” was so important he named his martial art after it. The “Jeet” in Jeet June Do means to intercept, and intercepting is what the 3 timings are all about.

The 3 timings is a pretty simple concept. You can hit somebody:

  1. After” they have completed their technique (xing timing), for which you obviously have to move out of the way before you respond. This is the slowest timing and easiest to perform.
  2. During” their attack (chi timing). This is a much shorter timing, and it could end up in a simultaneous strike where you both hit each other, but ideally you would just sneak in first and beat them to the punch.
  3. And finally, “before” they strike you (yi timing). This is the hardest timing to achieve, because it’s very easy to get wrong. For true Yi timing you need to hit them before they launch their attack, but equally, their attack does need to be a genuine attack. If you fire on Yi timing (”intention” timing), and they are faking, or not attacking, you’ll end up out of position and vulnerable. Yi timing therefore requires immense practice and sensitivity so that you can accurately read the whole situation in the blink of an eye.

Timing is the ultimate skill in martial arts. If you are a master of timing, then you almost don’t need any technique. If we are both holding swords and I can always time my attack to hit you anytime you come towards me then I can forget about “Green Dragon Scoops the water” or whatever fancy technique I know. It all becomes irrelevant.

So how do you practice the 3 timings? Well, I’d suggest that the first stage would involve getting a partner, like Mr Vunak has done in that video, and practicing responding to set attacks, so you can develop a feel for each timing. Obviously this would need to be done predictably at the start then slowly more variation can be introduced and the sparring can become freer. Instead of the other person just feeding attacks, they can try to start to make their own attacks and counters.

If you practice barehand and with weapons then you’ll notice how much quicker the timing needs to be with weapons. You have so much less time to react. In fact, going back to barehand after using weapons you will almost feel like you are moving in slow motion, which is a handy skill to have for obvious reasons.

With the timings at the heart of your practice you might also change the way you think about moving in martial arts. Ways of moving that require a unity of body and mind become much more important. You need to move everything together, and as one, to hit your timings.

The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification become more important:

“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack.
When the centre moves, the upper and lower support,
Internal and external, front and rear are combined,
This is called “Threading into one”,
This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”

Hundreds of years after these words were written, Bruce Lee came to the same conclusions, and based his new martial art around the concept of timing, naming it Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist.

How to use the mind in Tai Chi

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on

All movements are motivated by Yi, not external form”,

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about things to do with the body in Tai Chi, but I’ve not really said much about the mind before. That’s because it’s a lot harder to talk about, since, as you’ll discover, the requirement for correct use of the mind in Tai Chi has nothing to do with “thinking”, which makes it especially hard to talk about because as soon as you verbalize or write down your thoughts you are, in effect, thinking about it. See the problem?

The classics use three words to describe the mind in Tai Chi:  Shen, Xin and Yi.

We’ll leave Shen and Xin off the table for now, but the important point is that different words are being used to describe different aspects of the mind.

Let’s look at the big one: Yi.  The Tai Chi classics are pretty unequivocal about the importance of Yi to Tai Chi:

All movements are motivated by Yi,

not external form.”

But what is meant by Yi? The English translation given is usually “intention”. However, I think this is cause of more confusion about Tai Chi than anything else. People take it literally and think it’s the intention you have when performing the movements of Tai Chi – like the intention to grab and arm, or the intention to fight, or the intention to break a wrist, etc..

When people try to demonstrate this correct intention they simply pull a mean face and try to look a bit stern and aggressive while punching or doing something dramatic. That’s not it.

The word “intention” is definitely related to what Yi really is, but it’s not what is meant by Yi, not by a long way.

If you look at the face of somebody good performing Tai Chi they never look like they’re straining, aggressive or mean. Instead, they look like they are full of awareness, absorbed in what they’re doing, but open to their environment at the same time.

Yi has nothing to do with thinking, in the conventional sense at all. If you look at somebody doing Tai Chi who is thinking at the same time their movements look a bit empty, their eyes fidget all over the place, they are absorbed in themselves but not really ‘in’ their bodies. The mind and body have become separated.

In Tai Chi you want to achieve a unity of mind and body, so that there’s effectively no difference. You are just one unit doing the work, or rather, letting the work be done through you. You are present, but simultaneously aware.

I like to call Yi “directed mind”. It’s all about directions. When I’m performing the opening movement of Tai Chi for example, I am performing an opening of the body as the hands raise and a closing of the body as the hands fall. My mind is performing the directions up, in, down and forward in that order.  I am directing where the body is going with my mind and eyes. Your eyes have to be working in harmony with the whole process, not distracted, or looking in the wrong direction for the movement you’re doing. Don’t look at your hands, look through them. When you do press for example you are pressing towards the horizon, not just at your imagined opponent.

All of this direction thinking – the quality of using the mind this way – is impossible if you are thinking thoughts. As soon as you notice you are thinking thoughts you’ve lost it.

When attempting this type of training my Tai Chi teacher would advise me to stop the form altogether if I noticed my mind had wandered off and go back to the start. After repeatedly doing this, your mind kind of gets the message that you’re not kidding. You really want it to stay with the body and what you’re doing for the next 5 minutes, and it quietens down and takes a back seat, allowing your awareness to come to the fore.

“Focussed awareness” is another good phrase to use to describe Yi.

Hopefully this post has helped you understand what is meant by the phrase, All movements are motivated by Yi, not external form”, a little better. As you can see, it’s tricky to talk about. The only way to ‘get it’ is by practice. What I’m describing is a quality that isn’t a physical object or movement, so it’s hard to grasp, but with repeated practice over time it will become as real as the very device you’re reading this on.