Standing and Moving

We have been training on pretty uneven ground the last few weeks. Well, ground might be a bit of misnomer; we have been training on 3-6” of compressed snow and ice. It makes for some pretty interesting footwork at times. It also, at least for me, has been drawing attention to that footwork, and to our stances. We were talking about this at the end of training Saturday. The conditions can necessitate adapting your stances- height, width, etc.. They can also affect your footwork- how fast and far you move and how you transfer your weight when doing so. For example, a couple of Wednesdays ago I wound up doing turns very slowly, as the snow we were training in was wet and thick, but with a frozen surface. That meant it was a little slick when you didn’t break through but when you did the mush underneath essentially grabbed your foot. A fast turn, particularly if one of your feet slipped and the other was grabbed by the snow, could easily have resulted in a bad knee or ankle injury. So I had to adapt. But doing so made me focus on what those adaptations were, and how I could adapt for conditions and still be able to do what I intended, to move like I was trying to. To better understand, actually, what those positions, and more importantly the movements between them, are for.

You see, I often see people talking about “adapting their stances” when they don’t need to. Or, to be more precise, when what they really mean is that they want to make them easier. When the condition is them, not their surroundings.That is a shame, as the basic body positions and the methods for moving between them are the first building blocks of a system. They enable you to get where you need to be and do what you need to do when you get there, for how that system is designed. Changing them can fundamentally change what the system is capable of.

We train in a classical system. This can mean a lot of things, but one thing it does mean is that there are prescribed ways of positioning your body (stances) and methods for moving between them. Stances are a difficult thing to learn, however, and to teach. People seem to think they are only present in formal Asian arts but there are stances in boxing or MMA, they just don’t look exactly like stances in karate or kobudo. Certainly people training these methods are taught how to carry their weight, to position themselves to use their bodies properly, and how to move. That is what stances and footwork are, nothing more.

Toguchi Seikichi in Neko Ashi Dachi. He, like the seniors in the Shodokan and Ryushinkai, told me that in this stance you needed to get low, but it was essential your shoulders stayed over your hips. Breaking that alignment breaks the stance. You might be able to do something else with it , but not what was intended. If you look here, you will notice that he is essentially maintaining a sanchin frame in his neko ashi. The photo was taken by Anthony Mirakian in the 1950s.

It is easy to judge a stance on how it appears. Not often useful, but easy. There are external measures of stance. When they are poorly taught they are sometimes described like: “put your back foot twelve inches from your front foot”. The measurements are based on something universal, like inches or centimeters, and stances can be judged by their conforming to that measure. Shape is another method of judging stance- how it looks relative to other versions of the stance. But that is not very useful either. Different body types may give different shapes even when they are “correct”. Stances are primarily internal.

And judging a stance is easy, if you know what it is supposed to do. If you understand its purpose, you can judge, by look and by feel, how the person’s weight is distributed, what the various levels of tension are in different muscle groups, how the spine is aligned with the stance, where the feet are relative to the legs and core, and so on. Each of these things will be slightly different person to person in the same stance, based primarily on their body- size, proportions, strength, etc.. Certain relative measures can be useful- things like “the toes of your back foot line up with the heel of your front foot”- but even they don’t always work for every body type. The real measure is how the stance functions. Does it allow for easy movement? Does it enable generation and absorption of power in the desired direction(s)? Is it balanced? Does it protect the body as desired? If these things are checked you find that each person’s body necessitates slight adjustments in stance. And if someone has an issue they are working with- bad knee, fused vertebrae, etc.- that adaptation is even more essential.

That does not mean each person can just stand and move how they want. The goal is to shape your body to the system, not change the system. So if your legs or back gets tired or you can’t go low enough to comfortably get in the position that allows you to do x, then do more leg or core work to build yourself up. Be able to do the system. It also means you need to understand what you are checking when you are teaching and practicing your footwork. You need to build your body so it can conform to the system’s practice and build your understanding of the system so that you can know what you are doing with that body. Then you might have a chance of getting your stances “correct”.

So yes, understand your stances and you can change them if you need to. At least if you understand them both physically and mentally. If you can do what the stance is meant to do then you have a decent chance of changing it in a way that still allows you do what you need to do. If you can’t, then there is little chance that under adverse conditions you are going to be able to do what those stances and forms of movement are requiring of you. And when you are training, or fighting, in calf deep sticky snow you will really be stuck.

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