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.

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 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.