Thursday, July 30, 2009

Always the Ground

The ground is always there, and is always waiting. Personally, that is a profound and terrifically simple martial concept that guides many principles of movement taking maximum advantage of tactics and strategy. From issuing power to grappling and evasion using weapons, and everything in between; regardless of what anyone does, the ground is always there. Advanced practitioners have become intimate with the ground; they and the ground are more than old friends. They know each other well and are comfortable in their relationship with each other. In the past the ground has not been kind. Frequently, the ground was downright hostile as a new student was slammed around by the guru and fellow classmates. Often, the ground seemed to rise up of its own accord to trip or hamper a movement much to the detriment of the martial student.

Emotionless, the ground remains for those who trod, jump, roll and fall upon it seeking knowledge. A vast eternal resource, the ground is instinctively used by animals silently crouched, muscles relaxed but appearing bunched underneath fur and skin. An explosion of claws and teeth signal the impossibly sudden movement of a tiger throwing his weight fully committed with absolute focus of intention while springing off the ground launching into his prey. Momentum amplified by quickness and the abrupt introduction of the ground, the prey collapses under the force of the tiger's attack, pinned to the ground with well placed forepaws, rear legs, and jaws.

Remorseless, the ground is unmoved when used as an anvil re-shaping bodies as they are dropped or accelerated earthward. It does not hear cries of pain or grow weary of the play. Hammering the novice into a seasoned practitioner if the student endures, or damaging the opponent in defense, the ground makes no judgments. Often scuffed, beaten down, slippery, hard, uneven or treacherous, the ground is immune to blame and neither celebrates nor commiserates the result. While the surface may dictate tactics, the principles remain the same. The successful practitioner accepts the ground as an ever present companion or even part of the body. Understanding its limitations and potential while continuously rising to stand again is a crucial part of the path to proficiency.

Kuntao Silat de Thouars quickly guides the student down the path of ground familiarity. Striking, grappling, stepping, leaping, throwing, weapons use, and groundfighting, all practitioners are introduced to the ground and begin that special relationship required for competency and skill. Regardless of the langkah or djuru practiced to understand the guiding principles, the ground will help show the way.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Internal and Martial Art Movement, a Short Essay

Uncle has always stated that his art is internal and external. Obviously, this means that some of the methods he uses are based upon internal power generation and others methods are external based power generation. Naturally, the age old question arises of what is "internal" movement that causes the specific type of power generation everyone talks about. It is commonly accepted that "external" is pure muscular force based upon the skeletal musculature of the individual moving and nothing else; others state it is the mere isolated movement of the limbs resulting in that force generation alone.

Even the Chinese argue about "internal" and "external" designations to their own martial movements among themselves, so someone shouldn't feel alone in this regard. One of the more theoretical answers from a well known Chinese teacher of the Chinese martial arts states that "internal" is merely a label for those martial systems that originated within the Chinese borders (e.g., Emei and Wu Dang based arts), while the "external" systems are those that came from outside Chinese culture such as Indian based systems. Interesting.

However, I've noticed a thread, or essence, of commonality through all arts that claim internal based movements. Of course, I had to simplify and conceptualize principles, but these principles hold true in every instance. Four principles adhered to in every internal art I've witnessed and trained in are as follows:
  • Total Body Awareness
  • Physical and Mental Relaxation
  • Weight Center Utilization
  • Gravity/ Ground Exploitation

Total Body Awareness includes many things in the context of martial arts, but with regard to internal it is the practitioner's recognition and immediate comprehension of the relationship of his body in many dimensions at once (e.g., space, time, distance and angles from obstacles and opponents or friends, structural alignment, limitations of musculoskeletal ability, gravity relationship, injuries, weaknesses, etc.) by mere feeling alone all at once. The internal martial artist must intimately understand and be their body in every sense.

Physical and Mental Relaxation is exactly that. Many people attach many meanings to the words in the previous sentence. A proper internal movement requires mental and physical relaxation at every level in the proper way in order to be able to utilize the proper resources for power and force generation. Too much physical relaxation and no movement can occur, but there should only be enough physical tension to accomplish the movement as desired and no more. Too much mental relaxation and no motivation exists to defend the body or initiate the movement until too late. The mind requires relaxation in order to avoid too much physical tension which will destroy the necessary use of the other three principles as the most common error.

Weight Center Utilization is defined as using the center of the body to effect movement. Former karate practitiners call it hara, the Chinese call it the dan tian, some call it the center of the body, but the weight center of the body is what we're looking for here. For most people it is about two inches (five centimeters) below the navel. I use the term "weight center" because without gravity there is no weight, but there is still mass, and without gravity it simply doesn't matter as internal movement is rendered moot in a martial context. Internal stylists use the center of their weight to accomplish all movement regardless of how small or great. As one's abilities increase the requirement of obvious signs of movement in that area can't be as easily observed, but the weight center is very active; however, much move efficiently. Uncle is an excellent example of exquisite use of the center through many, many years of practice and training.

Gravity/ Ground Exploitation is how all internal movement power is initiated. Some people report "No, it is the center," but with more observation it can be seen that the center is more like the primary transformer and not the generator. Without gravity and resistance of the ground there is nothing for the center to transform; no internal movement can intiate at all. Moreover, without proper structural alignment the internal movment stops wherever the structure is off and that latent power remains wasted from the weight center and ground. There are some different methods of exploiting the ground or resistance caused by our bodies against the effects of gravity; for example, Taijiquan stylists typically root deeply while apparently using their center to absorb or release force, while Baguazhang stylists usually develop a "traveling root" that uses their constantly changing contact with the ground and alignment of their center with momentum and vertices of gravity to evade and deliver force. But make no mistake, an advanced practitioner of each art understands completely their body's relationship with gravity on an intimate level despite the fact that some people say Taijiquan people appear too soft and have terrible footwork (!) while others claim Baguazhang stylists float and have no root or power (!). A statement such as those in the preceding sentence only demonstrate the ignorance of the observer making the statement.

After fully incorporating the four principles outlined above, experience and training further refines internal movement principles into the primary methods of the particular art is doubtless cause of much discussion since there are a myriad of ways to obtain a goal when only principles of movement are necessary instead of the dictate of specific techniques. For example, there are principles of flight which both the prop-turbo airplane and the helicopter use to fly, but each in different ways. There is no denying that both are very successful at flying in their own way; therefore, they must use flight principles well indeed.

And it's been said by some Chinese martial artists that external stylists eventually end up being internal practitioners, or that there are internal forms at the advanced level. It is my belief that while more difficult, and certainly more subtle, that internal movement is much more efficient and even external based practitioners eventually come to this realization through practice and experience. I've observed that it is usually better to have access to both depending upon who is being taught, or what is being done, and for what reason.