Saturday, November 10, 2012

a firm foundation: involving the torso

Until now I haven't said anything about what to do with your arms. There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, up until now it really hasn't mattered what you did with your arms, other than to have them ready to catch you if you suddenly felt an overwhelming need to escape from a painful position. But there is another reason, which is that once the arms become involved it's all too easy to let them take precedence over the legs, which would be an unfortunate mistake.

However the time has come to move a little higher, involving the hips and shoulders, and everything in between. For now I'm going to suggest that you put your hands on you hips to keep your arms from flopping around and making a general nuisance of themselves.

At the end of the last installment we were rocking back and forth, side-to-side, moving our weight almost but not quite entirely from one foot to the other. Now we're going to add some rotation around a vertical axis, from about 45º to one side to about 45º to the other side, for a total rotation of about 90º. The axis in question is the vertical line passing through the top center of your skull, and also through the center of your tailbone. You are going to pivot your upper body around this axis.

Standing with your feet under your shoulders, from a neutral (central) position, turn your head slightly to the left, shift your weight onto your right foot, continue to turn your head to the left, allowing your shoulders and hips to follow it until they have turned approximately 45º, replant your left foot with its toes pointing outward at 45º.

Now reverse the movement, turning your head slightly to the right, shifting weight onto your left foot, continuing to turn your head, allowing shoulders and hips to follow until you've pivoted 90º to the right (45º right of center), replant your right foot pointing outward at 45º. Your feet should now be slightly further apart than your shoulders and at a 90º angle to each other, and, except for slight adjustments while unweighted, should remain approximately as they now are. Turn your head slightly to the left.

Continue shifting your weight and pivoting your hips and shoulders, left, right, left, right. Notice that you are backing your body away from whichever direction you are turning toward, and unweighting what is becoming the leading foot as you turn. To the extent that it has any martial content at all, this is a defensive exercise.

Now try to synchronize your breathing with the movement so that your lungs are maximally inflated as you pass through neutral.

If your legs begin to shake uncontrollably, stop right away and do some gentle stretching.

PS: If you find that turning your body 45º to the side is too much, don't fret. Just do what you can comfortably and work very gradually in the direction of 45º. It will become easier when we add arm motions.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

the passing of Bataan Faigao

I just learned of the death of Bataan Faigao, with whom I was somewhat acquainted. Bataan was born in The Philippines, into a Chinese family, immigrating to the U.S. as a young man. He and his wife, Jane, were both tai chi chuan teachers, until Jane's death in 2001. Bataan was among the founders of Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) and a long-time faculty member.

There's more I could say, but those who have been posting on his Facebook page new him better than I, so I'll defer to them.

I will say this much, Bataan understood “aging gracefully through gentle martial practice” deeply and thoroughly, and kept at it until the end. In this he provided as shinning an example as any of us can hope to.

Monday, September 3, 2012

a firm foundation: unweighting, part two

As must be obvious to anyone who gives it more than a moment's thought, if you keep increasing the percentage of your weight that you move from one foot to the other, eventually you'll be transferring all of your weight, or 50% if you figure that the starting point is equal distribution. Either way the result is that one foot will be supporting all of your weight and the other supporting none, not even its own.

(You might wonder what the big deal is, since we all do this every time we walk. Walking is automatic behavior, something our skeletons are designed for and our neural systems are predisposed to learn. Moving sideways is at least less so on both counts.)

To be quite truthful, even this state (complete unweighting) is not the end point of weight transfer, but merely a plateau, one you may not ever feel the need to progress beyond. What lies beyond is transferring weight not just linearly, between one foot and the other, but transferring it in time, and between force and momentum.

While you mull that over, let's get back to the plateau state, where all your weight is supported by one foot and none on the other. One thing you will quickly notice is that it suddenly becomes much harder to maintain your balance. This is because, instead of using small forces on a long lever (the distance between your knees), you are now having to use larger forces on a much smaller lever (the distance across a single knee). This increase in difficulty happens as the last few ounces of weight are removed from the unweighted foot, so let's put them back onto it for the time being, just enough to allow you to keep your balance without putting extra strain on the knee that's already supporting very nearly your entire weight.

You can use the ball of your unweighted foot, or leave it flat on the ground, or pull your toes back and use the heel, and it's best to try all three. While moving your weight back and forth you'll want to slow that movement so it comes to a stop, pauses briefly, and reverses just short of a complete transfer. Occasionally you'll overshoot and your unweighted foot will lose contact with the ground while the opposite knee complains about the sudden increase in strain. For this reason it's best to start out with something solid in front of you that you can hold onto or grab quickly when needed. A horizontal bar attached to a wall at about elbow height works well for this. If you're practicing outside, you might also try a pair of ski poles, with their points planted in line with or slightly behind your heels, and about two feet further apart. (Placing the points in front of your feet may cause you to fall backwards if you need to make use of the ski poles.) In urban areas, you may be able to find guardrails along sidewalks made from welded pipe; these are ideal.

This is the first fully reciprocal exercise. The end of the movement in one direction blends into the beginning of the movement in the other direction. These reciprocal exercises are an important feature of the practice I'm describing here, and there will be more of them.

a firm foundation: unweighting, part one

Once you can comfortably sit/stand with your feet spread about 1.5 times the distance between your shoulders, bend your knees sufficiently to place them directly above the balls of your feet, and hold that position for half a minute or so, it's time to begin playing around with variations on the theme.

The first and most important variation is about whether your weight is equally distributed on both feet or supported primarily by one foot.

To begin with, simple move your body gently in a sideways rocking motion, left-right-left-right. Take your time with this, and pay attention to how it feels in your feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs, hips, buttocks, lower back, and belly. Practice for a short time, whenever you can, being careful not to overtire ANY of these links in the chain.

Start with your feet fairly close together (a high stance) and your toes pointed outward at about 30 to 45 degrees, then move your feet further apart (a lower stance) as your muscles begin to warm up and loosen up. Finish off by moving your feet closer together again.

For now it's enough to move 10% of your weight back and forth, so you move from placing 60% of your weight on one foot to placing 60% of your weight on the other. (If the math doesn't seem to work out, remember that equal distribution is 50% on each foot.)

When you are ready to go further, you can move more of your weight back and forth, deepen your stance (move your feet further apart), and spend more time in lower stances.

As before, it's best to have something soft in front of you in case you need an escape route.

That's enough for one lesson.

Monday, July 16, 2012

a firm foundation: from the ground up

Much of the value of my year practicing with an end-weighted staff was that it forced my attention onto my feet, because it was so heavy that the force required to put it into motion or stop it would cause my feet to slip, unless planted firmly, and the awareness that force was being transmitted between my feet and my hands sensitized me to every link in that chain, beginning with the alignment of the balls of the feet, ankles, knees, and hips.

The strongest arrangement is for all four to be in a single plane, but the best approach is to maintain an approximation of that alignment dynamically, having stretched so that both ankles and knees can safely range well out of the plane without tearing ligaments, and having built the muscular strength to recenter them.

With the ankles flexibility is usually not so much the issue as the strength to prevent overextension (a sprain). Standing on the balls of your feet and moving the ankles a very short distance in all directions is a good way to begin. As with everything else, be careful not to overdo it.

The classic horse stance builds both flexibility and strength for letting the knees range to the outside of the center plane, and, in its most extreme form, also for the ankles. Kneeling with your knees together and your feet spread and turned outward (without trying to force them flat), and then sitting back between your feet, is an approximate inverse of the horse stance, but be very careful with this as it's easy to go too far too soon. It's best to position a chair on either side so you can support yourself with your arms if needed and/or a large pillow in front so you can escape by rolling forward with your upper torso. Go slow and stop as soon as it begins to burn. Alternatively, you can stand with your feet spread and very slowly move your knees closer together, until they begin to shake, then move them back to center alignment or a bit further out, rest for a minute, repeating a few times, or until the shaking starts as soon as you move your knees inside of center alignment.

The deeper the horse stance (or inverse), the more effective it is, but before going deeper make sure you can sit with your torso erect where you are. The tendency is to lean forward, and rolling forward is the way to escape if you go too far. Best to practice initially facing a bed or something else you can safely fall onto.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

for everything there is a continuum

If you can find a perfectly flat, level surface, and walk across it in as straight a line as you can manage, each step may look very much like the last one, but they will not be identical, in fact no two will be exactly the same.

This will be more true when walking across a surface with slight variations, and still more true when walking a rough trail. Each step is a unique action designed to keep us moving generally in the chosen direction, and while we may pay conscious attention to the process, and consciously choose among various options (placing your foot to the left or the right of a rock or on top of it), the calculations involved in determining the fine adjustments all happen unconsciously, and are already being executed by our muscles by the time we become aware of them, if we do at all.

In working one's way through a dense maze, say through a forest thick with trees, both standing and fallen, and underbrush, the path one takes becomes more complex, and far more interesting, engaging the conscious mind to a greater degree. And while the overall motion can no longer be described adequately in terms of steps, let's continue to concentrate on foot placement.

At various times you will find yourself standing with your toes turned inward, at other times your feet will be parallel, and still other times they will be spread to varying degrees, at every conceivable angle the range of motion of your joints will allow.

So it is with practice. There is no one right way to stand. Rather, one's feet and legs should become accustomed to and learn to support every variation on the theme. Classic stances represent extreme positions, but are hardly ever used in their pure form because each has its own instability. Instead use them as starting and ending positions, and concentrate on making smooth transitions between them.


As a youth I was fat and weak. In high school I went out for wrestling one year, and slimmed down nearly to my ideal weight, but not quite enough so to avoid wrestling in the heavy-weight class. My first year in college, I took a class in Judo for the physical education credits, but was quickly hooked and returned to audit that class (unofficially a Judo club) for two more semesters, during which time I had an opportunity to watch a guest practicing karate (Wado Ryu). Noticing my interest, he drew me in for a bit of light sparring, during which he lightly landed several punches for every one I began to throw. His arms were slightly shorter than mine, but it didn't matter; he had an overwhelming advantage.

I was reminded of a situation years earlier, when an older student had taken exception to my campaigning for a ballot issue to authorize a bond to build a new high school, mid-way between the county's two largest towns. I was too close to the polling place, but that wasn't what he was objecting to. He picked me up, pinned me against a wall, and threatened to do worse. I'd been defenseless. Actions I could have taken occurred to me later, but it's just as well that they didn't at the time, because I would not have been able to follow up. He had an overwhelming advantage.

There I was, my second year in college, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, feeling less vulnerable following three semester in Judo, but still vulnerable, and newly fascinated with karate. This was also when the television series Kung Fu was in its first run. Deciding that what I was seeing on television suited me better than utilitarian karate, I started looking for a kung fu school. The closest I found with a reputable teacher was in Denver, so I moved to Denver, interrupting my formal education in the process.

The story of the following two years is probably best left untold, at least for the moment, primarily because it does not bear directly on my purpose here.

Later on I learned a little Tai Chi, and much later I spent nearly a year practicing regularly with a long, end-weighted staff. Since then I have continued to practice sporadically, and that practice has evolved into a personal style with some theory behind it.

It is that style and theory that I mean to address here, and my doing so is as much to motivate myself into more regular exercise (because I want to age gracefully) as it is to inform or inspire others, although that may happen too.