The Structure-Balance Relationship: Part 3

Sinking and Looseness

Sinking creates a state of body-being that draws intrinsic strength from the earth through the body’s structure: a process called rooting. This state is naturally resilient to force and has a quality of springiness. Your body structure becomes a sort of conduit between external forces applied to it and the floor. It’s likely to cause a person to “bounce off” of you when they attempt to use any sort of pushing force. There is a quality of elasticity to it – of holding form. Looseness on the other hand offers no resistance. There is no holding of form. It yields and gives way, making it difficult for another person to find any anchor to your center. In a way, looseness seems to be the opposite of good structure. If one looks deeper however, it becomes evident that they are two complementary sides of the same proverbial coin. No posture/structure can be strong in all directions. Force applied at the right angle with appropriate leverage will still weaken and unbalance it, or the applied force may simply surpass the structure’s limit to withstand it. This shows the limitation when relying purely on rooting your body structure through relaxation and sinking. Looseness breaks the connection between the leverage that a person’s contact point offers on your centers of mass. In other words, if the part of your body another person is applying force to in order to move you, rolls and slides and shifts around your centers of mass, the force they are applying will not reach your centers of mass and therefore, it will be ineffective at unbalancing you. Looseness also has its limits. Anatomically, every part of your body is attached. No matter how loose and mobile that attachment is, it has a limited range of motion. Once reached, the force acting on you will ultimately anchor to your center. For this reason, pushing force is much easier to yield to than pulling force. However, when combined with sinking and good structural alignment, as well as circular and spiraling motion, it is a powerful tool for maintaining balance when somebody else is trying to take it.

Looseness and Circular Motion

We mentioned before that circular motion helps maintain balance because it has a return pattern that prevents the force it generates from pulling your centers of mass outside of your base of support. We also saw how the yielding capacity of looseness is limited by the anatomical range of motion at any given joint of the body. This is true as long as that motion is linear. Circular motions however have no true limit. You can continue to circle within the natural range of motion of a joint without ever reaching its limit. When you combine the yielding capacity of a loose body-structure with circular movement, you get a potentially limitless capacity to yield to external force. That means if you can coordinate the parts of your body to move in complementary circular motions at a congruent pace to the external forces acting on your structure, then you can neutralize those forces before they can anchor onto and have an effect on your centers of mass. Applying this concept comes with its challenges. Circular motions with the arms, and even the legs, are fairly accessible to most people, but circular motions of the torso are more challenging to do and have a more direct effect on structural alignment and balance. To get the yielding benefit of circular motions with the torso without giving up structure and balance, the key is to keep them within your zone of balance.

Momentum and Axial Rotation

One of the greatest challenges to maintaining balance in motion is momentum. For our purposes here, let’s define momentum as the leftover force that continues to move an object through space after the initial action that generated that force has stopped. To illustrate the way that momentum can rob us of balance think about the last time you tripped over something. You generated motion to carry your center of mass forward and lifted a foot to place it ahead of your center creating a new (and very temporary) base of support. However, on its way to that destination, your foot caught on something and was unable to make its crucial appointment. The force you generated to move your center forward was still going, and despite the signal your foot sent your brain to stop all forward action, the momentum of your stepping motion carries you forward and you stumble, and maybe even fall. Momentum is the force acting on an object after the action that generated it has stopped – which means it is motion that is not under our control. For us, this means that we want to minimize the momentum working on our center at any given time. One fundamental way to do this is to avoid generating force by accelerating your center of mass. For example, let’s say you’re pushing someone. The force you generate is intended to drive their center of mass outside their base of support causing them to move, stumble, or even fall. Most people intuitively generate pushing force by bearing their mass forward. This often causes them to lean out of alignment, and even uproot themselves. In the process they create momentum on their own centers, and if the person they are pushing understands how to yield or deflect their motion, that momentum can throw them out of their own base of support. The alternative is much less threatening to your state of balance and far more powerful. Rather than shifting your center of mass, rotate it. By rotating your center of mass on its axis (usually the Y axis) it stays comfortably in the middle of your base of support, and is able to continue to sink into your aligned structure. Done with a relaxed and loose body-state, this motion generates essentially no momentum on your center, allowing you to project massive amounts of force while maintaining balance.

Momentum and Yielding

As much as momentum is something we want to avoid in our own movement, we want to encourage it and utilize it in others. In the art of unbalancing others, we are wise to use as little of our own force as possible. There is a wealth of available forces that can aid us in robbing another of balance. Momentum is chief among these, because it is motion not under control. It is easier to steer an object already in motion than to cause an object at rest to move – even more so when that motion is fully committed and unable to stop. If a person is generating force toward you, particularly to push you back several steps, they will often lean their mass into the effort and generate momentum on their center. There are several ways to make use of this kind of force. To encourage momentum, yield at first (allow the force to move you without resisting it). You need only do this a brief moment. Then you may apply a sudden upward diagonal force, driving their upper-body back and up while the momentum of the lower-body causes it to continue forward. The person’s base of support is then removed by their own momentum. Another way you may take advantage of momentum from a pushing force like that is to yield (offer no resistance) and move off the line of motion (a positional yield), pulling their far-side arm across their upper-body in a downward-diagonal motion (downward spiral force). The momentum will cause their lower-body to flip over the upper-body. A simpler way would be to step aside and extend your own leg across theirs, tripping them. In specific details the list is almost endless. However, in principle, using momentum to unbalance someone is always the same. You yield to their force and use it to fuel your technique.

Momentum and Reaction Force

The forces people generate to stay balanced against disruptive external forces is what I term reaction force. You could also call it “corrective force” because it is the force generated by a person’s attempt to re-center themselves, or to maintain center against an actual or perceived force. That last bit is what makes this such an effective tactic. Most people intuitively know that they need to maintain some vertical alignment to stay balanced and in control of their motion. So, if you push or pull on them in a manner that threatens their center’s position over their base of support, you will likely be met with resistance. That jolt of resistance is reaction force. That reaction allows you to set a person up so that they generate force in the direction you want them to move. For example, say I want to push someone back. I give their shoulders a tug with a short downward-diagonal pull. They respond by using their back muscles to pull backward and upward against my pull. In that moment I change my force to an upward-diagonal push on their shoulders and send them backward off their base of support. The same principle works in any pair of directions. This is an extremely difficult reaction to overcome in one’s own body. It is in our nature to seek to control ourselves and maintain balance. Our knee-jerk response to being forced is to resist. That’s why, if you can make someone think you’re going to force in one direction, you don’t even have to – their resistance to the perceived direction becomes an irresistible reaction. That resisting reaction is similar to momentum in that it is committed and out of a person’s control (can’t stop it once you’ve begun). As a matter of fact, reaction force will tend to follow momentum. If someone generates unbalancing momentum on their body (and you don’t or can’t capitalize on it) then they will undoubtedly have a moment of self-correction. In this case they are reacting to their own momentum force. If you miss the window to use their momentum, use their reaction force.

Reaction Force and Yielding

Yielding was shown to be a valuable tool for encouraging and utilizing another’s momentum. Here we will see that it is also the cure for reaction force in our own bodies. I said reaction force is an irresistible reaction to external forces, and it is, if you are operating under the point of view that you must hold your position and have complete control over your own movement. On the other hand, the reaction to resist can easily be overwritten by changing that point of view and yielding. The more you try to resist the forces working on your centers, the stronger their hold on you. Furthermore, a skilled person will simply use that resistance as reaction force and you’ll lose balance and control anyways. The cure for this is yielding because it denies the other person a connection to your centers. This hearkens back to relaxation, rooting, looseness, and circular motion. Yielding relies on all of those elements. If you develop and employ them in yielding, then the initial force generated on you will not disrupt your centers and your balance will be maintained. Therefore, there is no need for a corrective reaction force.

Listening, Following, and Blending Force

A person may not offer us opportunities such as momentum or reaction force. A more skilled person will remain centered and yielding. As such, it is unlikely we will be able to initiate imbalance in them.
However, any action they initiate to unbalance us can be used. All motion, no matter how correct, generates forces in the body. Whether as a passive support system or an active force generator, every joint and moving part of the body is affected by the motion of every other part. The way forces are generated and transferred through the body to create motion is called a kinetic chain. Most people are not conscious of this interrelationship. That lack of consciousness can be the undoing of even the most rooted and yielding person. Any link in a kinetic chain can be picked up and extended by adding your own force in its wake. The result will be that the person’s structure will collapse in on itself, or cause them to be uprooted, or jam their force into their own joint, etc. This is a far more subtle art than any of the others previously mentioned.
To accomplish this first requires an application of sensitivity I will term listening. This is the careful and accurate feeling of the forces moving through a person’s body – the identification of the kinetic chain at work within them. Somewhere in that kinetic chain is a vector of force (direction and intensity of force) that can be amplified and redirected to undo a person’s alignment and balance. This is found by following their force with your motion. When you can feel that you have connected to the right force in their kinetic chain, you add your force to it. This adding of your own force first amplifies it and then you steer it in a new direction, a direction that will undo their alignment and balance. This I term blending. Before you can succeed in this, you must first establish good rooting and looseness, and be skilled at yielding. You must also learn to generate force using axial rotation and circular motion. Without these skills, you will be too busy fighting to maintain your own balance to so deftly undermine someone else’s.

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.

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.

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.