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.