Box and Ball: The Basics of Basics

Being a martial instructor sometimes requires a good deal of diplomacy. For instance a student may come in with some previous training, convinced that the basics he spent so much time perfecting is pretty much the whole story.

box and ballIf the previous instructor has done her job well, the student will demonstrate good basics, physically. But that does not guarantee that he understands where those skills lie in the big picture. If, for example, the student has only reached a particular and not highly advanced level of skill and range of experience he may be unaware that those almost-sacred basics should eventually morph into something quite different.

I think this clinging to a certain safe, but repetitive, approach comes from not knowing that there are really two kinds of basics:  principle and contingent. The one is eternal and as difficult to revoke as the conservation of energy law. The second is not meant and was never meant to be anything other than a stepping stone to a higher destination.

art_boxall2A good example of this is the relation of the hips and waist in martial training. Though of course the final goal is always complete unification of the body, you might for a moment think of hips and waist as exhibiting two distinct levels of skill. The hips we can imagine as a box-shaped mass which essentially rotates on a Y-axis delivering power when synchronized with legs and arm actions. The motion of this mass has some variation but it is its stability and simplicity that makes it so foundational.

This coordination of hips with limbs allow students to throw a decent punch with all the accompanying snap, the proper hip turn, the synchronized tensing of the body parts. The mechanics is so clear that many styles, both Chinese and otherwise, use them to build their basic workout.

Anyone who has learned the proper details of a lunge punch knows the security and satisfaction that come from a crisp and committed action that synchronizes all instruments to create that convergent CRASH marking the end of the overture. When you have felt the successful coordination of just about every muscle in your body colluding to create the snap of that sleeve, the twist of the feet into the mat, even the drop of sweat sent flying from your brow, it is a seductive moment. Look, I created power out of nothing!

The waist and the hips...As skill improves, however, a problem arises from the fact that the hips are unable to easily generate power on any plane other than horizontal. The hips can bestow ability while creating limitation. The hips love horizontal movement.

As the student progresses, though, he learns to distinguish the hips from their sister, the waist. This distinction is clear anatomically, but difficult to perform. Think of the the hips as a “box” and the waist as a “ball”; two basic shapes as old as Pythogoras. The hips can always supply a needed edge of power, definite and forceful. But the waist can supply partial circles, change ups and arcs impossible to the hips.

As the movements in each art become more and more sophisticated the student learns that certain angles are ONLY possible through waist control. At first the waist actions seemed layered on top of the hips action like a ball balancing on a box. Practice though eventually wears away the distinctions between hips and waist and, lo and behold, no martial movement is ever the same from that point onward.

art_boxall4Start immediately emphasizing each specialty. When you are in that extended stance, hips locked into a power position, take a few seconds to explore the range of the waist, its turn and returns. Without surrendering your hips you will discover new angles and applications, doubtless.

Throw a single punch, the old standby lunge or reverse punch is fine. Then consider some alternative flight path, perhaps a swallow-like dive that drops, skims then shoots upward for a surprise finish. Just as the elbow shows itself to be useful for adding that magical and essential ingredient of unpredictability, so too does the waist create pathways for application that make even the simplest punch into a nerve-racking experience for your opponent. The more you apply these new angles and varied deliveries the more you will see the mastery that can come from controlling the waist.

The hips are a solid road to grasping essential skills. But, once you know the lay of the land, it is time to wander off-road and explore the landscape.



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