The Structure-Balance Relationship: Part 2

Relaxation, Sinking and Rooting

Once you’ve aligned your centers of mass along your vertical axis and the center of your base of support, the next step toward stability and balance is rooting. Rooting is a widely used term in the martial arts which has to do with the quality of stability and connection to the ground inherent in a person’s posture. This quality requires more than just structural alignment, it requires relaxation. Letting go of muscular tension (and correcting passive muscular imbalances) loosens the body and allows the weight of your mass (previously held up by tension) to rest into your skeletal structure and through it, into the earth. When you relax in this manner the resulting settling of your mass (weight) is referred to as sinking. This is not the same as lowering your center of mass (a common mistake). It is a quality of inward settling that integrates the body’s structure and connects your mass more solidly to the earth.

Angulation of Force: Uprooting and Putting Down

When trying to affect a person’s structure to break their balance and take them down, one of the greatest obstacles is their root. Lifting straight up is the most physically demanding approach to uprooting someone, and depending on relative size and weight, may simply not be possible. Horizontal pushing or pulling force can be redirected through a rooted structure with relative ease, particularly along the strong line (base line). The best chance for uprooting someone is an upward diagonal force running through their vertical axis. This vector (direction and intensity of force) has the upward movement necessary to lift the center of mass off its support structures, while not directly contending with the weight of the subject. It also moves the center of mass toward the edge of the base of support, making it a sort of double whammy for a person’s structure to contend with. When a person’s mass is settled through their support structure, the leverage their feet have from the ground is solid. Also, the connection of the center to the support structure (legs of a standing person) gives the person good control over where they shift their center of mass. However, when you uproot them, the connection of their center of mass to their support structure and the connection of their support structure to the ground is diminished, or even lost completely, and they cannot easily shift or make a corrective step. Their center of mass is, in effect, floating. During this moment, they are most vulnerable to a downward diagonal force. I first hinted at downward diagonal force when I talked about triangulation points. The most direct path from the center of mass to a triangulation point is a diagonal line. Force along that line is most likely to put someone down. However, as long as they remain even marginally rooted (even the weight of a tense torso on its support structure is enough) they are likely to make a corrective step. However, if you first uproot with an upward diagonal force, then put them down with a downward diagonal force, they won’t have the necessary connection with the ground to take a corrective step (at least not easily) and they will find their center floating over a void. Think of a cartoon character walking off a cliff, and not falling until he notices that there’s nothing beneath him.

Cohesion and Leverage

In order to break someone’s balance and take them down, you need to connect your structure to theirs and apply your force with maximum efficiency. Often, a take-down attempt fails because of a lack of cohesion in the grip or body contact. Cohesion is more than just superficial contact, it’s a sealing-up of all the space between you and another person – pressing together – so that when you move they move. Otherwise the space in your connection will cause the force you’re generating to leak out. This will result in excessive effort to complete the take-down, or the attempt may fail. Good cohesion alone isn’t enough, though. It’s a bridge between your body and theirs and either one of you can use it. One way to take advantage of your connection is to use leverage. Leverage is a mechanical advantage that multiplies the amount of force you communicate into a structure. There are two essential factors to effective leverage: a fixed fulcrum and the longest possible lever. A lever is the point where you apply force to move an object. The longer the lever, the higher your force is multiplied by it. The fulcrum is the point of rotation around which the lever is moved. If the fulcrum moves, the force you exert on your lever will leak out at the fulcrum and not reach the object you’re trying to move. Think of a seesaw. If you were to sit on a seesaw and the support at the center sank into the ground when you sat on it, the other end would not go up. While we can apply these factors to the limbs to affect a person’s structure and balance, the most direct effect we can have is on the spine.

Applying Leverage to the Spine and the Three Spinal Levers

Perhaps the most simple and direct way to put a person down is to attack their spinal alignment. By bending the spine you move the centers of mass outside the base of support. Also, anatomically speaking, everything in the body anchors to the spine. Whether focusing on the neck, mid back, or low back (three spinal levers) the important thing is to fix one point of contact (fulcrum) and move the other (lever). For example, if you’re trying to manipulate a person’s head and neck, and you choose the forehead as your lever and the base of the neck just above the shoulder blades as your fulcrum (longest lever for neck manipulation) and you push both points of contact, you effectively cut your leverage in half by making the middle of the neck the point of rotation, not the base. Plus, you’re fighting the anatomical structure of the neck. If instead, you fix the point of contact at the base of the neck and only push the forehead, your effect will be multiplied and take advantage of the natural movement of the spine. A longer lever would be to fix the fulcrum at the mid back just below the shoulder blades. Of course the longest lever for using the spine to put a person down would be the forehead and the base of the spine (pelvic region). Generally speaking, the most effective direction to bend another person’s spine to break their structure and balance is backward. The hips compensate for the spine in forward bending, breaking your leverage. Bending the spine sideways runs into more structural resistance and is easier to adjust to by turning the body horizontally. Also, bending the spine backward will often take it toward the triangle points, where the person is most likely to fall.

The Three Planes of Motion

All motion through space can be described in terms of three planes: medial plane (motions from front to back or back to front such as walking, sitting, or shaking someone’s hand), frontal plane (motions to the side like jumping jacks or cartwheels), and the horizontal plane (motions like twisting at the waist, spinning, or clapping). These planes of motion exist relative to the position of a human body. In other words, if I’m facing north and you’re facing east, my medial plane is north to south and yours is east to west. The human body is accustomed to moving in one plane at a time. If you’re trying to break a person’s structure and balance, it can be much more effective if you combine planes of motion. For example: If you grab a person’s arm and pull with upward-diagonal force until they are uprooted and at tumble point, then pull their arm with downward diagonal force toward their triangle point (all in the medial plane) this may be enough to put them down, or they may manage to make a corrective step and recover their base. They practice that plane of motion every day when they walk, sit, or stand. However, if you pull with upward diagonal force to uproot and get them to tumble point, then cut across the front of their body in a downward diagonal pull, you combine frontal and horizontal plane motion in your pull and they are far less likely to be able to follow that force and adjust. It’s like a car moving at high speed and then trying to make a sharp turn. The force moves through their structure in a way it is not capable of adjusting to with balance. Just like the car, they are likely to flip over.

The Three Axes of Rotation

Related to the three planes of motion are the three axes of rotation in the body. For the sake of clarity we use the three geometrical axes and apply them to the human form. You may remember these from geometry class: the Y axis (from top of your head to the bottom of your pelvis), the X axis (approximately from hip to hip), and the Z axis (approximately from the base of your spine to a few finger-widths below your navel). The mass of your body is generally evenly distributed around these axes, and so the body will rotate around them with relative ease. It’s worth noting here that the junction of all three axes of rotation is your pelvic center of mass, yet another reason it is often referred to as the center. Each axis is set up to move the body through space most efficiently when aligned with its relative plane of motion (the Y axis aligns to the medial and frontal planes, the X and Z axes align to the horizontal plane). If you dis-align the axes of rotation from their comfortable plane of motion, rotation around them becomes extremely destructive to body-structure and balance and may even result in completely crumbling structure or flipping a person over.

Downward Spiral Force

So far we’ve described things in linear terms. However, the human body is hardwired to adapt to maintain balance. We’ve all been practicing it at some level since we were toddlers. Axial rotation, particularly around the Y axis (also called vertical axis, or axis of balance) allows for some dynamic fall-saves. I usually refer to this as the corrective step. While we can block, bump, drag, and otherwise prevent the corrective step from happening, we can also outrun it. If you were to drive someone’s center of mass backward toward their rear triangle point, even using a downward diagonal force, they are likely to catch themselves with a corrective step. That step will tend to land at or near the triangle point itself. In doing so, they have replaced their center of base under their center of mass. However, if you then continued to push toward their new triangle point, and continued to do so with each attempted corrective step, all the while driving with downward diagonal force, you would create a downward spiral force. This would constantly move their center of mass off their base as it descended toward the ground, eventually the anatomy of their leg wouldn’t allow them to step and they would fall. If you notice an overlap with combining affectation in the three planes of movement, you’re right. If you notice that a spiral is just a lot of little diagonal shifts, you’re right. Spirals exist simultaneously in all three planes of motion, and so affect a person’s structure in all three. There is a similar quality to circular motion.

Circular Motion for Maintaining and Breaking Balance.

Linear movement is easy to understand and apply. However, if a motion is linear (sometimes referred to as flat) it only contains one vector of force, easy to recognize and adjust to. You will commonly see fighters locked up, pressing on each other with everything they have and no one is going anywhere. Circular force on the other hand is essentially always changing direction. Think of a rotating wheel: up gradually becomes forward, forward becomes downward, downward becomes backward. Just like the downward spiral (which can be seen as the combination of circular motion in the horizontal plane descending along a downward path) a circular force stays ahead of a person’s ability to adjust because the force keeps changing. A vertical circular force contains within it upward-diagonal and downward-diagonal forces in a single smooth action. In addition, that force can be seamlessly blended into a horizontal circular force – which in turn can become a downward spiral force. Much of Aikido’s beautifully flowing technique is based on this principle. Circular motion has benefits for maintaining balance as well. Any motion you make to generate structure-breaking force is limited by the range of motion you can make without taking yourself out of balance. The shortest path for your center of mass to take to get outside your base and unbalance you is a straight line. If you extend your arm in a straight line to push someone down, you may eventually overextend yourself and risk falling with them, or worse, instead of them. Let’s take a spinal lever take-down as an example. You stand to the side of the person you’re trying to take down (straddle his base-line). You put one hand at the base of his spine and the other on his forehead. You’ve done a good job fixing your fulcrum, but the guy is big and very strong and you’ve reached the limit of your arm’s ability to extend – and he still isn’t falling down! If you use a circular force on his forehead instead, you combine an upward-diagonal force to uproot him first, with a downward-diagonal force to take him down, and you do that within your own base of support, so you don’t overextend yourself. Circular motion that remains in your own base of support can have a longer effect (more time to generate force on their structure) than linear force, and remains within your zone of balance (a sort of wall around you that extends up from the edges of your base of support). You can project tremendous force through your structure with circular motion without the danger of falling prey to unbalancing momentum because circular force has a return path to its origin – which should always be your own center.

The Structure-Balance Relationship: Part 1

Structural alignment is one of the most fundamental elements of postural health, as well as functional movement. It is absolutely essential for martial arts and self-defense training. Understanding the structure-balance relationship, and the role it plays in stability and mobility, is a necessity for maintaining your own balance and control, and taking it away from someone else (especially if the other person involved has physical advantages such as size and strength). The following sections will explore this relationship.

Base of Support and Center of Mass

The relationship between these primary aspects of structure dictates whether or not your body is in or out of a state of balance. Balance is not a mysterious quality that some posses and others don’t, it is a state achieved when the center of mass is aligned over the center of the base of support. The base of support is defined as a sort of imaginary box drawn by making a line from the tips of one set of toes to the others and from one heel to the other. The center of this base of support is your optimal balance point. Your center of mass in an upright or vertical posture, is defined as the core mass of the body along its vertical and horizontal axes, usually located below the navel and midway between the hips and the belly and spine. When the center of mass is over the center of your base, you are in a state of balance. If you shift your center over the center of one foot, that foot now supports all your mass (weight) and the other foot becomes a passive support structure, meaning it is free to move without affecting your balance.

Alignment and Multiple Centers of Mass

Although the pelvic center of mass is generally referred to as the center, the truth is a bit more complex, but important for understanding balance. For the sake of keeping things as simple as possible, let’s say that the head and torso comprise four centers of mass: the head, chest, abdominal, and pelvic centers. When these centers all line up over the center of your base of support, you’re in balance. However, to the extent they shift out of alignment with the center of your base, your balance becomes more precarious and difficult to maintain. The weight of your masses will pull on your vertical axis (an imaginary vertical line extending up from the center of your base of support) which will cause excessive muscular tension to support your posture at the least. If your true center of mass moves beyond the edge of your base of support, you start to fall.

True Center and Counter-Balancing

The reason the pelvic center is often referred to as the center is because it is the last stop for the weight of all the masses above it before encountering your support structures (which are your legs when standing). However, your true center can shift and change according to your posture. For example, if you stand upright and begin to lean your head and chest forward, there will come a point in which your pelvis begins to shift back. It may happen so fast and subtly that you don’t even notice it at first. If you look in the mirror at yourself from the side, you’ll find that you’re sticking out your rear end. Your true center of mass has become your abdominal center. It may be possible for some people to even be able to stick out their rear far enough (and counter-balance with their arms likely) to shift their true center to their chest (or thoracic) center of mass. The same experiment can be done by seeing how far back you can lean. Extending the limbs can also increase the amount of mass on one side of the center of your base and shift your true center. If you’re not falling, you’ve stayed in balance. If you want to see truly impressive examples of shifting true center through counter balancing, check out a Cirque du Soleil performance.

Strong Line and Weak Line

Your base of support has a strong line and a weak line. Often the strong line is referred to as the base-line. In any posture, it is the longest line running through the center of your base of support. I refer to it as the strong line because it is the line along which your base of support can absorb the most force. The weak line runs between your support structures (your feet and legs when standing). In any posture it is the line through the center of your base along which you can absorb the least force. It also tends to be the shortest line to move the center of mass beyond the base of support. By continuing along the weak line to a distance from your center of base equivalent to the height of your true center of mass, you find the triangulation points.

Triangulation Points, Tumble Point and Fall Points

There are two triangulation points to any stance (or any two support structure base). If you stand with your feet parallel and somewhat apart (shoulder width is a good starting point) then imagine the center of each foot represents a corner in a triangle on the floor, you’ll see that the third corner could be in front of you, or behind you. You can experiment with different arrangements of your feet (different stances) and practice finding the triangle points. Once you’ve located it, shift your true center of mass (if upright it’s your pelvic center) toward one of the two points. You’ll quickly feel a loss in balance. If you don’t shift back over your base of support, or take a step (creating a new base of support under your center of mass) you will fall. While the triangle points are the shortest path to move the center of mass off of the base of support (and put someone on the ground) there are essentially infinite fall points. A fall point is any point outside of the base of support where the center of mass will reach the ground. All you have to do is shift a person’s center of mass outside the edge of their base of support and prevent them from counter balancing or stepping to replace their base. It’s worth noting that the triangulation points are just the two nearest and structurally most vulnerable fall points. Tumble point is the point at which the center of mass is just about to drop off the edge of the base of support and descend toward a fall point.

Lengthening and Shortening the Base-line and the Optimal Base of Support.

The stability of our structure is based upon the relationship between the width and depth of our base of support and the height of our center of mass. If our base is narrow, such as having the feet together or being on one foot, and our center of mass is high up, such as having your leg or legs fully extended, the inverse ratio of height of mass to width of support becomes very unstable. Think of trying to set a pen down on its end. The slightest breath would knock it over. As we widen our base and lower our center of mass, that ratio improves, eventually reaching an optimal state of stability without sacrificing mobility. As your feet continue to lengthen apart and your center of mass gets lower to the ground, you move beyond your optimal base of support and your stability and balance become increasingly precarious. Remember that your triangle points are found by considering the distance of your center of mass (true center) from the ground and the length of your base-line. The lower your center of mass and longer your base-line, the nearer your triangulation points come to the edge of your base of support. Imagine setting a cellphone on its long edge. The lightest touch would knock it down. While in your optimal base of support, you combine stability and mobility, because your feet are close enough to your center of mass (as a point on the ground) that you can shift your center over a single foot and move the other one quickly and easily. Also, your legs and feet are aligned more below your mass, which roots them to the ground and provides more contact friction between your feet and the ground.

Active and Passive Support Structures and Sweeping the Base

Earlier I mentioned that shifting your center of mass over one foot frees the other foot to move without disrupting your balance. This same notion can be used to make a leg heavier or lighter. When attempting a sweep (removing the base of support out from under the center of mass) you’ll find that it is very difficult to move the leg supporting the majority of the weight. The weight roots the foot to the ground and the friction it creates makes the leg very stable. However, if you move the center of mass over the other foot, you will make the foot you’re trying to sweep lighter, decreasing its friction against the ground and making it relatively easy to move. This is sometimes referred to as bumping the base-line. This takes some subtlety. If you bump too far toward the other foot, you will empty the foot you’re trying to sweep (no mass weighing it down – passive support structure) and this will free it to make a corrective step and escape your sweep. If you bump even further along the base-line, their center of mass will go outside their base of support and they will stumble away from you. When you bump the base-line, make sure the target leg remains an active support structure (center of mass remains dependent on its support for balance). When you move the foot, move it away from the current base-line without allowing the center of mass to move with it – in this way, the center of their base of support becomes a triangulation point beneath them and they fall straight down. You may also find that moving the target leg of your sweep along a diagonal path on the floor relative to their base-line is harder for the person to adjust and recover from. Human perception and human movement is not accustomed to dealing with diagonals.

Being Present for the Holidays

As the year comes to a close, it’s an excellent opportunity to spend some time in quiet meditation. Standing, sitting or laying, make your body still and focus on your breath. In and out, in and out, with long smooth breaths. Relax into your chosen pose and scan your whole body with your internal awareness. Let yourself really feel your body and adjust your position until it is comfortable and self-supportive. Take your time.

Next, bring your attention to your mind. Quietly observe the flow of your thoughts and feelings without actively engaging with them. If you find yourself thinking about your thoughts, return to focusing on the flow of your breath. Your breath is the only vital function of your body that is both under your conscious control and unconsciously automatic. It is the bridge between your mind and body, and your conscious and subconscious minds. Slowing and deepening your breath has the power to calm you.

Continue focusing on breathing and relaxing and observing the mental and physical sensations of just being. We spend the majority of our waking moments hyper-focused on the external effect we have on the world through our actions. Even thinking falls into this category. Give yourself permission to just be present in the moment. Just observe the course of being – both of yourself and the world around you. Let the sensations of the world around you flow in, and your consciousness flow out, without any concern for results. It’s perfectly natural to find it difficult to be still and quiet. It can feel initially boring, frustrating, and even pointless. That’s your survival mechanism talking – the part of you that evaluates all information as benefit or threat. It’s an essential part of you, but it tends to be overactive. Let it go for now. Don’t worry about the point. Think about it as a moment’s rest from feeling the need to be in control.

Return to your breath, and let the world and yourself continue on without any conscious effort on your part. Let your breath be natural. Observe how you breathe when you’re not trying to breathe. Simply let yourself breathe. Observe how you sit or stand when not trying, when you’re just resting into the posture. Spend at least ten minutes doing this. Put on some relaxing music or ambient sounds and just get into the moment. For that ten minutes or more, nothing else matters. Nothing needs to get done. Nothing needs to be solved. You just get to be. A sort of mini-vacation from the noise and chaos. After a while, you may begin to feel calmer, and the issues of life appear more distant.

Then, you may wish to engage with some thoughts and feelings. In this state your mind will be clearer. You will feel distanced from your negative emotions – more objective. Then you can raise questions to yourself. You can begin to dig deep into the fundamental issues you face within while being less affected by anxiety and fear. This is the time to think about who you really are, what you really want and need, and what direction you wish to take in this new year. You may not find this activity pleasant or easy at first, but it will get more so with each session. Eventually you may want to do twenty, thirty minutes – even an hour. Meditating daily, for as little as ten minutes, will cultivate a more balanced and centered state of being, granting you the ability to meet life’s challenges with patience and grace.

Finding Freedom through Exploring Movement

With all our technology and sophistication of culture it’s easy to forget that we’re part of the animal kingdom. The development and health of our minds and bodies is just as dependent upon variety and quality of movement as it is for other animals. As children we know this instinctively. We roll around on the floor, see how many times we can spin before falling, challenge ourselves to daring feats of balance, rough-house with siblings and friends, swing our arms around as fast as we possibly can, and hang upside-down on the couch. We explore our capacity for movement the same way other animals do and for the same reason, to prepare our bodies and minds (via the nervous system) to be able to do all the things we need to do to survive.

Except now, our modern lifestyle doesn’t demand the same physical prowess for survival that it once did. Functionally, most of us have civilized ourselves into moving in a limited range within the medial plane (front to back motion of the head, torso and limbs). We walk to the car, sit in the car, sit at the desk, walk to the car, sit on the couch, on the toilet, at the dinner table…most of us rarely break a ninety degree bend in our hips. Somehow, we abandon the exploration of movement as something childish and silly to grow out of. Then, we groan about the things we can’t do anymore, the aches and pains we feel, and we chalk it up to getting older.

Many of us know that we need to move our bodies to stay healthy, but we cringe at the idea of exercise. Being sweaty and tired is few people’s idea of a good time. The truth is, we’re not wired to do things just because they’re good for us. We’re wired to do things because we enjoy them. That’s why children don’t exercise…they play. The net result is the same thing. The body is moved and challenged, not as a chore – but as fun. To be healthy you don’t need to follow some exercise regimen. A thing doesn’t need to feel like work to be productive. Return to the playful exploration you engaged in as a child. Get on the floor and start rolling around, explore the range of motion of your joints. Test your balance. Crawl and jump and climb and swing. Rough-house with friends. Jump some rope. Don’t concern yourself with results. Don’t worry about what you’re achieving. Explore and play. Discover what you can do and what you feel like doing. Set a time if you need to. Eventually, you’ll find that you stretch, balance, perform feats of strength and coordination, and your sessions will begin to take on goals organically as you discover limits and desire to overcome them.

As you explore, it’s helpful to learn from disciplines such as tai chi, yoga, dance, gymnastics, parkour, martial arts and whatever else strikes you and resonates with you. However, don’t limit yourself to anyone else’s program. Keep exploring and expressing yourself through movement. Not only will you be healthier, you’ll be happier and you’ll look forward to your sessions. When we orient to physical activity as work, we feel pressure to accomplish something, and that can make us push ourselves beyond our current limits too soon. In contrast, exploration and play as an orientation is focused on the experience and therefore rarely inspires overwork. The result is a level of intensity based on what we feel within, rather than what we reach for without.

This exploratory approach doesn’t need to be whimsical. It can be a deeply mindful and meditative experience that restores the ease and healthy function of your body. The idea is to give yourself permission to feel and find your own way in your body. Let what you feel guide you and continue to explore new capacities. Respect your limits. Be nurturing to your body with your movement. If you cooperate with your body it will respond in kind. There’s no deadline and no ultimate goal, so don’t rush yourself. Enjoy yourself.

Mind of No-mind, Body of No-body

In his writings compiled under the title “The Unfettered Mind,” Takuan Soho talks about the mind that does not fixate on anything—not it’s own thoughts or intentions, not on any action of the body, nor on anything happening in one’s external environment. He says about this state “When this No-Mind has been well developed, the mind does not stop with one thing nor does it lack any one thing. It is like water overflowing and exists within itself. It appears appropriately when facing a time of need. The mind that becomes fixed and stops in one place does not function freely.”

In taiji, we practice standing post in the wuji posture. The goal of this exercise is just like that of Takuan’s “No-Mind,” but applied to the body as well. We seek to develop a state of body in which we do not fixate on any particular shape, motion, or intention—not our own nor that of anyone else. Wuji is often thought of as the void, the center, or neutral. These terms however have a certain static quality. They make wuji sound like a thing. As a thing, it can be fixated on. What makes wuji the essence of fluid response and effortless interaction is that it isn’t static. Wuji is a constant state of unmanifested potential.

My favorite analogy for wuji, as it applies to both mind and body, is the smooth surface of calm water. In its resting state it is shapeless, motionless. However, the moment a pebble drops into it, it makes ripples. When you put it into a container it takes the shape of that container. When no more pebbles drop, when you pour it out of its container, it returns to its calm, smooth state. This notion of going from stillness to motion, shapeless to shape, then returning to stillness and shapelessness is in the very nature of water. It is always in a state of potential. The potential for motion remains a part of its stillness. The potential for stillness remains a part of its motion.

You could say, that water is always discovering what motion and what shape it will take, in accordance with external forces and shapes. It has no particular intention, no desire. It isn’t trying. Water doesn’t do anything. This is the idea of Wuwei (non-doing). In the same way, our bodies should always be discovering what movements, shapes, and forces they will make, in accordance with that of the other person or persons we’re interacting with.

So, to say no-mind is to say no particular mind, or the mind that has yet to manifest any thought or intention. To say no-body is to say the body that has yet to manifest any action. Yet this mind and this body are suffused with potential for thought, and potential for action. Even when in the midst of thought and action, the mind of no-mind and the body of no-body still have the potential for instantly and spontaneously changing thought and action according to the external circumstances. That is because the actions of such a mind and body are manifested by, for, and with the external circumstance, and never imposed upon them.

This mind of no-mind and body of no-body are the goal of all taiji practice.

The relationship between structure and balance

Many people begin Tai Chi training with an interest in improving their balance. Balance, however, can often seem an elusive attribute. I often have students say to me, “I don’t have good balance.” To such students I explain that there’s no need to worry about balance, nor is there such a thing as good balance or bad balance. Balance is the result of aligning your skeletal structure, and “relaxing” down through it. So balance is not something you have or don’t have. Balance is a state you’re in or out of. If you want to improve your balance, correct your structural alignment. It’s all about the relationship between weight and structure. Weight is gravity’s downward pull on the center of your body masses.

Think about it this way. If you were stacking blocks one on top of the other, they would be in a balanced state if they were stacked with all sides even and flush. Gravity’s pull on the blocks would pass vertically and centrally through their structure providing maximal support. However if you were to slide one block a little to one side, and the one above that as well, you would create an increasingly precarious state until finally the blocks tumbled over. Now imagine strings or cords attached from one block to the next. As the blocks are slid out of alignment the cords take on more stress as they attempt to keep the blocks from falling off of each other. In this analogy, the blocks represent your skeletal structure and the cords represent your muscles. That’s what being out of alignment does to our bodies. It creates a chronic tension in our postural muscles and is also why it feels so difficult to balance. Tai Chi’s answer to balance is aligning skeletal structure so that our weight rests centrally through that structure. Then gravity will pin you to the ground from head to foot.

To find this alignment, start with your feet. The balls and heels of your feet should feel evenly weighted. The center of your weight should feel as though it floats in the center of the arch of your foot just behind the balls of your foot. From there move up through your ankles, knees and hips, seeking a sense of stacking them centrally one above the other. Moving past your hips, point your tailbone toward the ground so that it isn’t shifted forward, backward, or to either side. Then extend this feeling of stacking up your spine to the top of your head. Now your structure is stacked. From there, focus on relaxing as if the stacked feeling overflows through the top of your head and pours down through your shoulders, chest, ribs, abdomen, waist and back. The vertically stacked structure and downward relaxation should feel mutually reinforcing.

When performing stepping movements in Tai Chi, it is important to understand that having balance on one foot means shifting the axial structure of your skeleton (skull to tailbone not including limbs) over the central axis of one leg (center of hip to center of foot). In other words, you are stacking your structure over the supporting foot so the other foot is unburdened by weight and can move freely. Any sense of losing balance comes from losing vertical alignment during the shifting or stepping motions. Essentially, all of Tai Chi could be described as moving while maintaining a vertically aligned structure and relaxed body-state. It’s common to mistake leaning your upper body over one foot for proper shifting. There is a feeling of heaviness in that foot that gives the impression that you’ve shifted your weight over. You have actually, just not all of it. When shifting this way you’ll find that you can’t seem to move the opposite leg without undue muscular effort while struggling to maintain the precarious balance of your less than optimal alignment. Structurally speaking, you’ve split your upper body weight over both legs, with the upper portion (head, shoulders, chest etc.) over one foot and the lower portion (ribs, stomach, pelvis etc.) over the other foot. To achieve the graceful, effortless, and relaxed movement of Tai Chi, you have to stack your entire axial structure over the supporting foot – head to tailbone. Furthermore, the percentage of weight borne on one leg is directly connected to how far your axial structure is over that leg. If your tailbone points down right in the middle between your feet your weight will be evenly distributed. A little to one side and it’s 60%- 40%, more is 70% -30% and so on until your structure and therefore your weight is 100% over one leg. When shifting, think of moving from your tailbone – not your head.

Vertically stacking your structure isn’t just the key to balance, it’s the key to independent movement in two person exercises such as push-hands. As your training partner pushes and pulls on you, your goal is to adjust your position so that you can maintain your vertical posture. If you lean toward your partner he can take advantage of your unbalanced state and pull you off your feet. If you lean away he can similarly take advantage and push you back. There are many variations and subtleties, but the principle remains the same: vertically stacked structure is the first requirement for maintaining independent and balanced action. The next principle is to remain relaxed. By naturally settling your weight down through your structure, you create a state of body that can adjust to forces without losing balance by sinking down your vertical axis and turning around it. If you don’t utilize sinking and turning then your partner’s pushing or pulling force will directly affect the position of your axial structure and force you to move off your feet. If you struggle against your partner’s force to keep your position, you created force that he can use to unbalance you simply by reversing his push to a pull or vise-versa.
This can seem like a simple thing, but good alignment is a subtle thing requiring a lot of attention and patient practice and personal investigation into the relationship between different parts of your body. However, if you take the time to engage in improving your structural alignment, you will be rewarded with balance, grace, ease of movement, and even power.

Process of Learning (Progress)

Most of us begin learning an art form eager to demonstrate its highest levels of skill with ease. When our first attempts don’t manifest a master’s skill, we become discouraged. We begin to think we may not have whatever the mysterious thing is that makes some people good at the art. Unable to realize our desires, we succumb to frustration and waning motivation. This thought that we are missing some essential ingredient for success becomes a self-defeating belief that stops us before we can really get started. At the first sign of imperfect performance we say, “I guess I’m just not good at this.” This all-too-common downward spiral is based on a false perception of the normal process of learning a new skill.

The truth about learning a skill is that it involves far more mistakes and failed attempts than it does successes. What separates a master from a never-was is that the master accepts that mistakes and failures are part of the learning process, and the never-was thinks he should be able to produce masterpieces from day one.

The distance between having a desire to be good at something and the realization of a high level of skill can seem infinite. It’s normal to have a hard time believing any amount of training and practice could ever produce a master’s skill. That’s because we didn’t see the process the master went through to become a master at his craft. We may see a master perform their skill with ease and grace and say to ourselves, “I’ll never be as great as the master.” I call this the problem with greatness. The problem is the idea that greatness is something that a person just has. The truth is that greatness is not a quality a person does or doesn’t have. Greatness is in the perception of the observer. It’s the idea separate from its living, breathing truth. Somebody that we perceive as great may not see themselves as so. They know the process they have gone through and are still going through. They see their mistakes and flaws. The truth is that everyone, as we see them, is the product of a process with many steps, stumbles, and falls that have made them what they are.

Our ideas of things are deceptive. They are based on a glimpse of something or someone at one point along their process, and omit the rest of the process or even the notion that there is a process at all. Not including the role of process in our images of things generates a feeling of being trapped in our current state of being. We feel that we are either able to do something or not. That’s a normal way to feel in the absence of understanding process. Including an understanding of everything as in process, we can see the roads of possibility open before us. All we have to do is invest the time, effort, a bit of determination and a whole lot of patience; accept that we will make many mistakes, have some failures, and turn out some mediocre work as we go along. As we continue to develop ourselves, the time will come when we can recognize we are capable of performing decent skill in our chosen art, and some may call us master.

Non-duality and Non-choosing: flowing with the Tao

The source of all our strife is the perception of duality. At its root, it is the mental act of separating ourselves from everything else. When we perceive ourselves as separate from others, those others get split into two distinct possibilities: good or bad. Once we see things as either good or bad, we are thrust into a state of categorizing and calculating, as we try to avoid the bad things and ensure the good things. We seek to control events and we become quite stressed when things don’t go our way. We seek a state in which we can experience constant winning without the possibility of losing. This is ultimately frustrating and hopeless. The Taoist solution to this is somewhat unique. They offer a path of non-choosing.

Non-choosing isn’t quite the same as saying not choosing. It isn’t an indifference to events or simple passivity. In part, it is an acceptance of the fact that there is no winning without losing, no light without dark, no yang without yin. It is also an understanding that what things seem to be at one moment may not be the way they turn out, and that there is ultimately no need to worry. In essence, non-choosing is the recognition that everything is connected and in process, and the renunciation of such distinctions as good and bad.

There is an old Chinese folk tale that illustrates the approach of Non-choosing:

One day, an old farmer’s only horse ran away. Now he must plow the fields by hand.
All the villagers say to him, “What bad luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse returns with seven wild horses in tow.
All the villagers say to him, “What good luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
Later, the farmer’s son, while trying to train one of the wild horses, is thrown and breaks his leg.
All the villagers say to the farmer, “What bad luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
Some weeks pass, and the military comes to the village, conscripting the young men to fight. They pass over the farmer’s son because he is lame.
All the villagers say to the farmer, “What good luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”

The farmer in this story seems to be the victim of constant ups and downs. Yet, he remains calm and continues his work. At first glance, he seems indifferent to the events directing his life, but a closer examination reveals a uniquely Taoist perspective. It may be no accident that the protagonist of this story is a farmer – someone whose life is lived by the cycles of the seasons, who knows that both light and dark, rain and shine are necessary conditions for crops to grow and animals to thrive. The farmer also knows that everything is connected: the wind, the soil, the plants, insects, and animals, and he too, all have their place in a harmonious system of interrelationships. This perspective grants the farmer a seemingly peculiar attitude toward life’s events. To him, rain isn’t good or bad, rain is just rain, and luck isn’t a factor in his thinking. Things are what they are. By not choosing between possibilities, he is able to take things as they come and do only what he must do, simply and wholly.

Another lesson from this story is presentness. The farmer doesn’t seem too concerned with what has happened or what’s coming next. This is interesting since farmers must plan ahead to plant crops before certain turns in weather and seasonal changes and that sort of thing. However, in the story, the farmer doesn’t dwell on his lost horse, or wonder about the possibility of his son being called off to war. He remains present, and allows circumstances to reveal themselves before concerning himself with them. He doesn’t worry. Worry is a product of looking ahead and behind, always concerned with avoiding the bad and obtaining the good. It’s a product of dualistic perception.

The Tao Te Ching, the classic of the Way and Virtue, is full of verses expounding on this point of non-dualistic perception and non-choosing.

“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.”
– Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

In this first chapter of the Tao Te Ching the true nature of reality is revealed, as well as what causes us to miss it. This poem shows that no idea, no image, no name can describe the true nature of anything. The true nature of a thing can only be grasped through direct perception of it. A thing is what it’s doing. We do not live in a frozen world. All things are part of a constant Now, forever unfolding and revealing its nature in a shifting matrix of interrelationships.

Somehow, we forget to be present; maybe we forget how. We feel the need to name things, to categorize them, to see one thing as separate from another; ultimately, to see all things as separate from ourselves. We do this so that we can make calculations. We feel the need to calculate because once things have names and definitions, they become either good or bad – threat or benefit. This is the core of our dualistic perception. When things are seen as good or bad, we begin to fear the bad and desire the good. Then we must calculate, make plans and strategies – trying to ensure the good and avoid the bad. This is the birth of anxiety, stress, anger, jealousy, cruelty, ambition, and every self-damning act such emotions inspire.

When you understand that names are illusions, ideas that we create and impose on reality, then you can let go of names and allow all particular things to melt and blend into oneness. This oneness is the same as saying Now, the present, the universe, reality. You will also know yourself as part of the oneness; you will sense its motion and your part in it. Then you will not be concerned with what may happen, because you know – through direct perception – what is happening. You will be free of good and bad and the fear and desire they create.

Of course, names exist and are useful. The Tao Te Ching addresses this in the next verse of the same poem:

“Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.”
– Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

This next line reveals an important point that is difficult to grasp in the beginning. Yes, all things are one. Yes, names cannot express true nature; but, all things are also “particular things” – parts of the whole – and names do exist and describe them. Think of different languages. What English speakers call “water,” Spanish speakers call “agua.” Yet no name, no description, no matter how detailed, can quench your thirst. None of them are the real thing. They are sounds when spoken, symbols when written, images when imagined. They are not reality. Yet they do describe something real. Because there can be any symbol or sound to describe a thing (such as water), and those sounds and symbols can change, they are not the true names. No name is the true name. Water is … ”gulp gulp gulp – Ahhh!”

What we must do to realize the Tao is to reconcile what we perceive as being dual into non-dual. This is the lesson of yin and yang.

Yin and yang represent the opposite aspects of the whole. By being aspects of the whole they are not true opposites. In truth, opposites, as such, only exist in our minds. They are actually complementary pairs. More than complementary, they require each other. They give rise to each other. They are part of each other. Think of a coin. Try to imagine a one sided coin. You can’t do it. No matter whether they’re stamped with different impressions, or one or both sides are blank; even if you cut it in half you can’t get rid of a side. It is the very fact that it has two sides that makes it a coin. The two sides don’t oppose each other, they create each other. Also, it is interesting that we feel compelled to flip the coin, and watch the two sides blur into one. We miss the point and lose the Tao when we cease seeing the coin and begin focusing on the sides.

“The Tao does not take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil.”
– Chapter 5, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

The point of this passage is not that the Tao is indifferent, nor that we should be. The point is that the Tao doesn’t put things in terms of good and evil – it only sees action and events, simply what is. It does not make such distinctions. The distinctions of good and evil are created by people, they are names, they are the result of perceiving duality; but the truth of reality is non-dual.

So, the quote above is a bit of a riddle. It shows you the way of the Tao by showing that the Tao simultaneously is not good or evil (does not take sides) and is both good and evil (gives birth to both). The Tao is what simply is, before we impose our distinctions. Distinction gives birth to good and evil. Good and evil give birth to fear and desire. Fear and desire give birth codes of right and wrong, the mother of all the oppositions of mankind – all the conflict.

“When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.”
– Chapter 38, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

The above passage shows that we need not concern ourselves with contrived codes of morality. If we are present, mindful, and sincere we will be in step with the Tao, and right and wrong melt away in the light of clear perception. You see what must be done and you do it, just like the farmer.

Let go of impressions, both those you hold on to and those you project. Be unconcerned with how things seem to be. Only concern yourself with their substance. To know their substance, simply look, listen, feel, without bias or preconception. Do not want anything particular, do not reject anything offered. Accept what is and trust your heart – your deepest sense.

“Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go.”
– Chapter 38, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

So how does one dwell in reality and let all illusions go? Anything you try to do will be insufficient, because you try to do something particular – of course this is not the Way. That is based in your dualistic illusions and calculated using them. Of course, you can’t do absolutely nothing at all either. If you did, nothing would happen. Your avoidance of particular things is itself something particular. Be still. Look, listen, feel, smell, taste. Let names come to mind, but do not cling to them. Let your mind flow on in no particular way, and for no particular purpose. Accept all that you perceive. Don’t seek. Don’t deny. Be empty and let your self be filled. By doing nothing in particular and letting things go their way, you will be in accord with everything, and everything will do what it must, according to its true nature without contrivance (including yourself). There will be no fear and no desire, only certainty. Then you can move, and act, and think, and do – and there will be no conflict, only harmony – because you do not interfere, or impose.

Applying this non-dualistic thinking to your Tai Chi practice, you may be able to see that stillness and motion are one. In stillness, find perfect balance. Perfect balance is oneness. Wuji. In motion, maintain total harmony between complementary pairs. Taiji. Harmony is balance in motion. When your motion is such that perfect balance is maintained, your inner state is the same in motion as it is in stillness. Then it may not be clear whether you are moving through the world, or whether the world is moving around you.

The Tao, the ‘Force,’ and Martial Arts

There are ultimately just two styles of martial arts (and perhaps just two approaches to living): those that flow with the force, and those that try to force their will.

Most martial arts methods focus on overpowering or outmaneuvering their opponent. They consider what the opponent may do and what they must do to counter it. They consider what they want to do to their opponent and how to achieve that goal. They unknowingly impose their fears and desires on reality. They seek to control events, and try to devise better strategies to ensure victory. In short, they fall prey to the “Dark Side of the Force.”

While this way is quicker and easier, it is also deceptive. It feeds your ego and encourages your baser emotions such as fear, desire, anger, arrogance, and attachment to results. It leads down a path in which your prize is the ability to hurt others, as punishment for daring to oppose your will. It builds in you a chronic underlying fear that someone out there may be able to threaten your sense of dominance, resulting in a thirst for more power that can never be quenched. Your self-worth becomes tied to your sense of power over others, and so you feed it by bullying others to show your strength. At its extreme, this is the inner state of dictators and warlords, whose only salve for their chronic anxiety is to make others suffer. Imagine Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, leading the Empire’s vast destructive power to submit the galaxy, all the while chanting, “If you only knew the power of the Dark side of the Force.” Power is seductive. It seduces us into believing that we can control events and achieve a state in which things always go our way – into believing we can always be up, never down.

The Taoist approach is quite different. Like the Jedi, a Taoist sees all things as part of a greater Force that “penetrates and binds us” and moves us all along in its flow. They call it the Tao. To this way of thinking, attempting to force your will and control events is akin to splashing around in a river; all that effort may make some waves, but it will not change the flow of the river nor the direction of all things moving in it. By accepting that he is in the river and of it, and by being sensitive to its flow and going along with it, the Taoist’s strength – like the Jedi’s – “flows from the Force.” By going with the natural flow of events, the Taoist meets no resistance, and so his actions seem effortless. This way of acting without effort is called wuwei – literally, “without trying.” As Yoda instructs “Do or do not. There is no try.” This is not an admonishment to get it right the first time, it’s a description of the way one acts when in alignment with the Force. One could just as easily say “in alignment with the Tao.”

If you’re trying, you’re trying too hard. “Trust your feelings. Use the Force.” In martial arts and in life, this way of being leads to a very different approach to dealing with challenges. Rather than seeing them as attacks or obstacles to achieving a desired result, a Taoist sees all events as simply what’s happening, without judging them as either threat or benefit. He knows each bend in the river reveals new possibilities and surprising outcomes, and he has faith in the flow of Tao. So he simply flows along with the forces at work around him and focuses on maintaining his own balance, whether that force is the force of a physical attack or a challenging set of circumstances in his life. By letting go of expectations he clears his mind of fears and desires and lives in the present moment. He responds to events with ease and clarity, and exists in a state of simple contentment.

Meditative Awareness in Taoist Martial Arts

The importance of meditative awareness to the Taoist martial artist cannot be overstated. The entire Taoist approach to martial arts rests upon it as its foundation. Most of the time, we operate on a binary mode of perception, fueled by our survival instincts. This leads to a view of reality split into good and bad, past and present, self and other, and so on. This perception leads to hope and fear. We hope to achieve what we perceive as the good. We fear that we will not be able to prevent what we perceive as the bad. It is this binary perception that gives birth to fighting arts – strategies to achieve our hopes and prevent our fears, and to win rather than lose (another product of binary perception).

Meditative awareness removes the filter of our mental contrivance and leads to the direct perception of reality as it is. This direct perception leads to grasping reality not as differentiated entities playing against each other, but as a single indivisible whole in which exists every one of us. Everything is part of it – each a drop of water in a vast ocean.

An understanding like this leads to a different attitude and a different way of receiving and responding to events and relationships. Instead of having a constant sense of fear and a sense of yourself vs the world (the various obstacles and individuals who may try to stop you or take things away from you), you exist with a sense of wholeness, of completeness, a sense that everything is OK. A sense that everything is just as it must be, as it should be – perfect – and that it’s unnecessary to change things or to fight or resist. This sense also comes with sensitivity to the way things are in the moment. In other words, it’s a sensitivity to the processes of change and transformation, of individual things and their relationships to each other. You don’t see things as being separate, but connected, and so you feel the way your actions ripple out into others and your environment, and the way those others and your environment ripple into you. You see things as a matrix of interrelating factors creating change, and you begin to swim in it, feeling it. You can go along with it and act in such a way that you affect changes in events. It’s all simply about maintaining your center – not maintaining it against other things that are trying to take it – but yourself as the center of existence. It’s not egocentricity, but simply put, you are everything and your sense of being everything is centered in the single point that is you.

In martial arts, this creates a very different way of relating with an attacker or opponent, because you don’t fight. You don’t see yourself as something separate from this person. Therefore, their movements are your movements, their intentions are your intentions, so you couldn’t even really say from this point of view that they’re attacking or that you’re trying to defend yourself. There is a relationship, physical contact, and movement, but there is no particular intent or plan. What ends up happening is that you blend with the other person, that the two of you become one for an instant, while you maintain your center, your wholeness. In other words, you remain complete in yourself and unaffected. This is not an attempt at self-defense. This is simply the way in which one is in relation to another when flowing along with what is happening, without any resistance whatsoever.

On the other hand, when you are existing and working in a mode of consciousness based on images created by your binary sense of existence, when you see yourself as a distinct entity as apart from other entities, when you move through the world with concerns about the past and future, with concerns about what is being done and what you have to do and the way in which things can either be obstacles hurting you or blessings helping you, all of this leads to a sense of needing to do something. It leads to a sense of you vs the other, a sense of what the other will try to do and what you must do in order to protect yourself. It leads to a sense of winning or losing. In other words it leads to a sense of dichotomy, differentiation, separation – and when things are separate they can be against each other. This is the birth of all external martial arts, the desire to strike, the desire to block, the desire to move to avoid, to be faster, stronger, and tougher. It all comes from this. That is not our way. What I am endeavoring to illustrate here in words is that the martial arts that I practice and teach is not one of strategies, tactics, and techniques. It has nothing to do with offenses and defenses. It has nothing to do with winning and losing. The martial art that I teach arises naturally from the perception that is gained through meditative awareness, the perception that all is one, and then your way of interacting martially with another person is merely an organic expression of that awareness – your own sense of wholeness, centeredness, completeness. You move in such a way because that is the way that you must move to continue to be you such as you are, and that is all.