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.