Seeking Off Balance

When a new student signs up to study he fills out a questionnaire. I sometimes wonder how many of them, reading that line about GOALS,  write in the words “centering” or “rooting” or “grounding”? You are going to say, “Of course, you live in California.” But this ability to maintain perfect balance all through one’s life is a skill many people associate with martial arts study. That’s why these new students are somewhat confounded when I inform them— months down the line— that real martial arts is almost never on balance. Martial arts is about doing something. To make the point I give a silly definition. I throw my hip one way and my shoulder in the other direction. “This is dance.” Then I throw hip and shoulder in the same direction momentarily appearing either drunk or a denizen of a mountain town. “This is martial arts.” We do not seek perfect balance in martial arts, I tell them. We seek dynamic balance or more properly dynamic unbalance.

Knowing basic calligraphy is one thing, all your characters look perfect and balanced. But it is a higher art to show the wildness of “grass” style writing. A bit of lean is the salt that brings out the taste of a posture. In Kung Fu this is the real reason to study the Drunken forms. A bit of over-extension can be useful in many ways retraining the eyes—which always want to stay horizontal—the inner balance, the muscles and more. There are new studies showing, for instance, the use of being off-balance for people suffering from dyslexia.

But if that is the case, why do all the classics instruct us to remain vertical when we work out? This can be very confusing unless you understand the rules and regulations. But first we should realize that unless we reset our internal meters to the vertical we will be unable to tell what is on balance or not. Then we can experiment with which degree of inclination for which movement.

Let the brilliant M. Feldenkrais, creator of his own body correction method,  explain it.

“We cannot receive consciousness without fixing the position of our body in relation to the outside world. More precisely, we cannot appreciate any sensory experience, emotion or feeling without presenting to ourselves our relation to the vertical.”

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He didn’t just say “vertical” here, he said “relation to the vertical”. This is the key. Styles from Wu Tai Chi to Jeet Kune Do all use body inclination to create power. This seems so foreign to so much of our early training that it makes us uncomfortable. One of my top brown belts just couldn’t believe that fighting from a horse stance with its fifty-fifty weight distribution could be anything but perfect. After thinking about it for a minute I asked him, “Yes, but when you are really fighting do you ever stand there with your weight exactly divided? He admitted that he only did that when he was posing, not fighting. People in martial arts are always talking about internal training. They should realize that starting at the vertical slowly, continually and internally piling on more and more stress in small quantities might indeed move the qi, rearrange the internal organs and bestow some fine tuned strength training…

…not to mention giving life to the movement. Dynamic balance breathes soul into the traditional actions and every single practitioner contributes her own sense of balance and commitment so the ancient postures are ever new.  Look closely at the old masters. You will see the off—kilter feeling of someone who isn’t static, who seems to have interrupted a movement, like a bird in mid-flight caught by a photographer, like a statue by Giacometti, the moment of movement is just there, a feather trembling at the lips of possibility.

One Response to “Seeking Off Balance”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    Heh, heh, come from Kalihi area where Kajukenpo was formed. Just wanted to learn how to fight and knock someone down. Was 12 or 13 at the time, But that was a very, very, long time ago. From that beginning, my study has branched out to the study of the subject of this article and other related fields. =)

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