Stance Training

I am now going to tell you things about stance training you have probably never heard. These things will advisedly NOT remove the pragmatic doubts we all have about standing around and waiting for the revelation of true power so often promised. This will NOT be a practical demonstration, with neither a “bottom line” nor a “take away.” It will be the opposite.

Bow and Arrow Stance @plumpub.comLet’s first scan an abbreviated recap of all that came before, containing all the previous reasoning for why we so diligently practice these positions:

Stances create leg power.
Stances set the default position for when in doubt.
Stances reduce fear (George Xu.)
Stances drop the qi.
Stances create excess jing (YiQuan and Tai Chi.)
Stances rewire the neurological connections (Mancuso.)
Stances are mostly useless.
Stances don’t exist (Adam Hsu.)
and so many more…

I even know one Taoist teacher who attached stance to martial training in a true example of reverse logic. He believed that it really developed in the times when bandits swooped down on the villages (a common occurrence, according to Chinese records.) The villagers would often simply leave their belongings behind and retire to the woods. In this environment, the ability to remain for long periods of time immobile and in absolute silence,while their village houses were being raided, was the stuff of life and death.

Each of these are at least an attempt at something functional in the so-called “real world of combat”. Some explanations are more medical, some more health-oriented, and some are more martial.

The Kung Fu Horse Stance @plumpub.comHowever, this doesn’t even begin to recognize the particular intersection with the greater culture, and it is the greater culture we too often overlook, as though any martial art could develop without its moorings.
Let me refer to that copy of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies sitting casually at my elbow …
(page 485)

“It cannot be a coincidence that three of the prophylactic postures in the Shui-hui-ti demonography are the names of exercises in later physical cultivation literature (reclining in a crouch, sitting like a winnowing basket, the leaning stand); that the winnowing basket posture also occurs in pre-Han and Han literature as an expression of scorn; and that the now obscure posture known as ‘interlinked motion’ is related to animal configurations which are depicted in Han religious art. These are indications of complex interrelations between the postures and gestures used in magic-religious practice, those adopted in popular custom, and those which became part of the exercise regimen of physical cultivation.
“Later Han literature on physical cultivation states that making the body resistant to demonic incursions is one of the benefits to be realized from practicing breath cultivation, exercise, and dietetics, and it is likely that the prophylactic postures in the demonography prologue were already therapeutic exercises in the physical cultivation arts of the third century b.c.e.”

Should it really surprise us that there is this connotation to the act of postural practice? Of course, a culture as ancient as that in China retains every layer of meaning to activities which have been practiced and shared for millennium. An aspiring anthropologist could easily recognize the deeply shamanistic, religious and mythic qualities involved in assuming a certain shape and configuration.

This is a shade of martial training we try to ignore while engaging in the borrowed thrills of watching martial arts movies and seeing people beating one another to unconsciousness on television. Though I’ve been thinking and reading about this part of the martial practice for decades, I just wanted to bring it up here to possibly tweak —in relation to our shared art—that most valuable of characteristics: curiosity.

8 Responses to “Stance Training”

  1. Bob Figler says:

    “Though I’ve been thinking and reading about this part of the martial practice for decades, I just wanted to bring it up here to possibly tweak —in relation to our shared art—that most valuable of characteristics: curiosity.”

    What more can be said? Excellent!

  2. patrick says:

    There is something called Ecstatic Posture training done by
    some researchers of ancient shamanic practices that border on the metaphysical rather than martial.

  3. Nicholas Hancock says:

    As a student of Chinese medicine, this article really resonated with me simply because I struggle with Chinese concepts that have dramatically diverged from their original context every day. The idea that stance training may have magico-religious origins relating to prophylactic health regimes makes perfect sense to me. Another thread in this same line of thinking relates to the often poorly translated concept of “evil qi”, or xie qi. The concept is often approached by students without any kind of contextual framework to support an understanding of the evolution of the medicine from its ancient shamanic origins. Needless to say, in the case of both martial arts and Chinese medicine, any approach to an understanding and appreciation for the context of Chinese thought and culture yields tremendous rewards. Thanks for sharing this fascinating article!

  4. Kieren Nanasi says:

    Thanks Ted,

    Stance training is one of my many obsessions. I keep returning to two questions: 1) what am I trying to accomplish? 2) Is there a more efficient way of accomplishing the goal of this practice? Case in point is San Ti and whether “the plank” with some pistol squats accomplishes pretty much the same thing but more effectively.

    How much of what we do in the martial arts is mere tradition and not good science? (i have no idea)


  5. David says:

    Thanks for an interesting piece of standing practice. May we know which article and copy of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies? That you quote from.

    Patrick. Dr Goodman’s research is both very interesting and valuable. However there are major flaws in the assumptions taken about HOW or WHY methods and practices are undertaken from the pov of indigenous people, rather then people looking in from the outside.

    Posture is not used as a way INTO those experiences, but through the connection and experience they/or related ‘postures’ may be expressed physically. Static postures, certainly in animist indigenous practices are rare. Movement is far more common. In my opinion it seems that such a focus on postures developed later amongst religious persuasions.

  6. Jeff says:

    Indeed, a timely article, for I was thinking about stances just this morning, though certainly not their shamanistic aspects. However, this doesn’t surprise me, because when you assume a stance, or for that matter practice a form, you become something other than yourself. I’ve seen it many times – normally quite, good-natured people who become another person when practicing a form. It’s a movement that conjures the spirit warrior within.

  7. Gordon Cooper says:

    I have studied and stood in stances for a number of decades, and must take exception to a number of “givens” about them.

    Not all humans are bilaterally symmetric. Standing in some postures is simply bad medicine for some of us. Body shape, terrain, and a host of other features affects what is desirable and possible, yet stances are a fairly “rigid” feature of most martial arts.

    To me, the big question has always been “What’s the goal?” Discipline? Patterning?

    I was hit by a car some decades ago and had the right gastroc. crushed. I was unable to even hobble for a year or more, and discovered that everything about my posture and desired posture had changed due to the injury. I spent over a year doing forms on my knees or in a chair until I could stand up. My appreciation for just how much power was generated through the legs certainly improved-but so did my ability to pull or push through the torso and arms without the legs.

    To this day, I think that most martial artists that don’t have a serious grappling component in their studies can come to some new comprehensions of what is possible by spending a third of their practice time seated, or on their knees. There are some really subtle uses of back muscles in moving that I think are largely ignored in most standing or stepping practices.

    The Felicitas Goodman book on ecstatic posture is interesting, but selective. Different postures have different meanings across human cultures, and I do not see enough universality in human behavior to construct a useful theory of universal neo-shamanic energy working.

    Can we hope for a few dvd presentations on the Four Cripples Styles? Or has that material simply disappeared over the last century or so?

  8. Plum Staff says:


    Offprint from
    The Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
    Volume 45: Number 2
    December 1985
    Harvard-Yenching Institute 1985

    “A Chinese Demonography of the Third Century B.C.”
    by Donald Harper
    Stanford University

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