What is “frame?” If the answer doesn’t come immediately, don’t worry—this is a concept that confuses a good segment of the martial student body. At first glance, it simply consists of standing a certain way and holding your limbs in an agreed upon configuration. Of course, people assume different shapes—but sometimes what they think of as an impenetrable en garde really leaks like a hovel made from discarded pallettes. A good frame doesn’t leak.

There are said to be three main frames in the art and science of Kung Fu: large, medium and small. These divisions correspond to the foundational concept of heaven, mankind and earth. These are thought to be the universal levels of martial reality, whether coin small or galaxy large.

Although this gives us a fair beginning, a frame is more than a tri-sected “frozen” position—it is not just a stance, but a personal space in which to take that stance, to move around in, and to claim.

Some martial instructors designate this as an “envelope.” I disagree, because envelopes are mainly about  protective zones. Practicing your ‘frame’ also involves topics such as release of power, internal training and more. It is the shape of the entire body and how it relates to itself. A “small” frame, popular in some southern styles, is practiced with abbreviated movements, while Yang style Tai Chi is known for a large and rather elegant frame.

Frames are not straitjackets. They can be adjusted at will. You may adjust your frame for fighting, for multi-opponent attacks, for Qigong, for conditioning, for distance. Not only MAY you make this adjustment, but you SHOULD.

A good frame is a theme that brings together thought and actions. A frame integrates the elements of posture, stance, and intent within its shape. Unlike an envelope, which defensively limits fighting space, frame dynamically secures or even exceeds the space. It is responsive, not only to the opponent but to the action inside it.

Frames are not arbitrary, but they are flexible. The idea of a frame is really understandable when you consider weapons. In a knife-carrying frame you want to keep your limbs inside the frame. Facing someone with a knife, for instance, requires a different frame than going against a long stick.

Frame teaches boundaries; just let that tennis ball go out of bounds or that hooking punch take the big, inefficient path toward your pate. Recognizing your opponent’s frame is like knowing his private code. It encourages all the proportions and numbers like the painter holding up his out-stretched arm and thumb to measure a subject’s distance in space, or the gauging jab of western boxing.

One of the major achievements of Chinese martial arts lies in the genius of layered information. For instance, putting yourself into the right frame, correcting any inequities in posture and alignment, not to mention practicing that ever-present intention to explode out of your position—these all can be coordinated into a single frame exercise, a perfect example of deep layers of information: the data.

kung fu frame

Example of proper Kung Fu frame.

Taking the frame into your studio allows you to fine tune what you see in the mirror, work with partners, use equipment. Can you generate power from this position? Can you conceal the source of this power? Is your frame appropriate, considering your imagined opponent?

I don’t want to dishearten any practitioners’ efforts, but over the years I’ve seen many people obsessed with speed, power and balance (all good topics in themselves) yet almost oblivious when it comes to posture and frame.

The need for frames pops up everywhere. Eliminating couch slouch, ignoring instructions from your teacher, messing around with classical moves so they seem to FEEL more power, pushing yourself to distraction; in all sorts of ways frame training can have a positive effect correcting life’s bad habits no matter which corner of the mat you start with.

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