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Continued from Stances Part I

Moving from stance to stance uses some of the biggest and strongest muscle complexes in your body – legs, hips, core, and lower back. It also usually involves either linear motion or rotation of your body’s center of mass. Both of these aspects come together with our ability to use the ground when understanding martial arts power generation. Think of your dantian (丹田) as your center of mass (tanden or hara for the Japanese stylists). Your ability to move your center comes most effectively from the muscle complexes around it and between it and what you’re bracing against – the Earth. You push your leg against the ground, and your body moves. You twist your waist/hips against the ground through your legs and your body turns. You expand your back and contract your center, and your body sinks. If you try to use muscle complexes above your center, you don’t move as efficiently, you’re likely to lose much of the power you’re trying to generate and apply, you can end up overextended, and/or you’re just using local arm power and not taking advantage of your structure and larger muscles.

Find the transition power generation in your own movements

If you are doing a traditional martial art and you do forms (chuan, kata, poomse, hyung, djuru, etc), an easy way to suss out how your movements give power to your applications (i.e. power generation) is by doing your forms without the arm motions. The intricacies and timing of your arm motions can distract you from feeling what is going on with your power generation. By stepping through your forms without those arm movements, you are forced to look at what you are doing with each transition, the how and the why. You effectively put a microscope on what is happening as you transition through the movements. Stepping, twisting, turning, rising, sinking – all of these have profound consequences for the arm movements you would otherwise be doing at the same time. Do this enough to get a good feel for what is going on with your stepping and shifting from posture to posture. Then, when you go back and do the form properly, you will have new insight into how those things should factor into your arm motions and especially their applications.

Examples of stance-shifting power

Here’s a simple exercise to show this type of power generation for twisting: stand in a comfortable right front forward stance with your right leg in front, slightly bent, and your left leg to the rear, mostly straight. Relax your hips and center, relax your upper body, and rock your hips under a bit (no clenching). Now, keeping your arms at your side, raise your hands and forearms only, making sure that your elbows (which should still be by your hips) and upper body are matched to your hips and will only move with their movement. From here, you can now experiment with Old Ox power by simply pivoting on your feet (I prefer heels or center), straightening your right leg, slightly bending your left leg, and turning your hips to change directions. Your torso and arms should have “ridden” on top of your hips and now face the new direction naturally as well. If you try this with a partner, you can put your hands on their upper arms or elbows and move them simply as part of your turn, with very little effort even if they’re in a stance as well. This is one example of shifting from stance to stance to generate power.

Similarly, when you grab someone and step and/or twist to accomplish a throw, you’re also using the stepping and shifting I’m talking about. You should not be depending upon your relatively weak arms to work the throw. You should have braced against the ground to position yourself relative to the opponent’s structure and leveraged against that with a step and a twist, and voilà, they will go tumbling against the biggest thing you can hit them with!

There are innumerable ways like this to use stepping or shifting to generate power for a throw, a lock, a strike, a sweep, a release, an escape, or whatever. And no doubt you already do some of these.

You should examine in detail all the movements in your style and ask yourself how is this being powered? For striking, you should also look at how a twist can add penetration, or a low stance can add gravity’s help, or how a step can power the hip that powers the strike, etc. For locking, you should look at how a shift can direct their center to the lock as opposed to using their arms, or how a hip twist can direct the lock through the opponent’s center, or how a step can drive the lock deeper instead of using arms, etc. For defense versus standup grappling, you should look at how that twist can dissolve a lock, or that step leverages a grab release, or sinking nullifies a throw, etc. And so on, for throwing, for kicking, for avoidance or quick unexpected motion, and more.


Once you know how your moves and applications are being powered, you can use that knowledge to work backwardsi.e. this motion teaches me to generate power thusly, so given my positioning how can I apply that power in combat or self defense? You should be pleasantly surprised with some of the new applications you find, and working to understand these things in depth should make your power generation more effortless, more natural, and more effective.

These are just some of the basics behind deconstructing the power generation behind your transitions from stance to stance. There are countless ways that shifting from stance to stance can inherently develop or add power to a technique. There are also more advanced options for using the up-down and in-out axes that we will explore more specifically in a later article.

So, for clarity’s sake and to foster more complete martial development, please think and teach “step,” shift,” or “transition” instead of “stance.” Or at least explain in detail and with examples what stances are for, even beyond what I’ve discussed here. I’ve only briefly touched upon the cornucopia of uses for moving between stances; as always, you must explore on your own to get the most out of your training.

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In traditional Chinese and other martial arts, we do a lot of training on stance work. What is usually not so clear is “why?” Most students (and some teachers) believe it is simply to strengthen the legs and train your fighting positions. Because of this, some practitioners think stances are “useless,” and were that all there was to stances, I would pretty much agree. However, I put it to you that stances are actually one of the most effective aspects of your every move. The surface interpretation is just the tip of the nose of the dragon.

“Stances” – an unfortunate translation

The Chinese character commonly translated as “stance”, 步 , is more properly translated as any of: “step; pace; walk; march; stages in a process.” While the use of “stance” might have been simple and easy, it served to obscure the real utility and focus for consideration of 步 . To me, one of the most important purposes and benefits of stance application in martial arts is completely lost if you take the unfortunate translation at face value – the use of motion!

In common English, stances are static, starting or ending points, bases from which to fight or move. Steps, on the other hand, are dynamic, with no beginning or end when taken together – stages in a process. In a combat situation, you shouldn’t “fight out of” a stance, rather you should be in a dynamic position, ready to move, to generate and apply power. And that should change freely based upon the circumstances of the moment. Instead of a base from which to fight or move, steps a large part of how you fight or move, in and of themselves. Moving from stance to stance, i.e. stepping (or shifting), gets you out of the way, controls of the relative distance and angle between you and your opponent, helps you manage your balance, generates power for striking, throwing, locking, etc. A fight is a dynamic thing, not posturing and posing – unless maybe you’re an extra in a bad movie!

Think “steps” or “shifts” instead

While static stance training can be a great way to strengthen muscles and tendons, feel the optimized structure of a particular position, work on qigong, or even develop a ground path (e.g., zhan zhuan, 站桩), it is the transition to, from, or even within stances that provides most of the leverage for your martial applications. How that leverage is applied is up to you and the details of the situation.

Looking at it straightforwardly, stepping or shifting from one stance to another is a way to control distance without sacrificing balance. It can bring you to your target or move you away from an incoming attack. In these cases, angling is paramount so that you can do both at the same time and not only manage distance but also optimize relative positioning. Don’t forget the up and down directions in addition to the left-right and near-far. For example, you can also position for a low attack while avoiding a head shot. Knowing your transitions from stance to stance and having them optimized for your use will allow you to move quickly, effectively, and for optimal positioning.

You can also directly apply your stepping or shifting to combat effects in and of themselves. Offensively, use that step as a sweep, a throw, a kick, etc. Conversely, your shifting from stance to stance can itself be used to avoid a sweep, dissolve or reverse a throw, jam a kick or advance, etc. These direct applications of stepping or shifting from stance to stance for positioning and combat use for stepping or shifting from stance to stance are just the tip of the iceberg. Nevertheless, to do these concepts justice using what you already know could (and should!) provide you countless hours for exploration before we even begin to look at how to use stepping/shifting more inherently, for all of your martial applications.

Bracing, or tipping the center of mass advantage

Before we move on, just for a second, shift your perspective and imagine that the ground is a wall, and it is the only thing you have to brace against if you don’t want Newton’s third law of motion to steal half your power for every direct application you do. If this is the case (and it essentially is), then your connection to what you are bracing yourself against is extremely important to accomplishing your goals. If you brace yourself well then any action you do and any power you generate is transferred specifically to your intended target and not to slipping against the ground, being absorbed by your structure, or otherwise having an equal and opposite reaction affect on you as much as it does your target. Effectively, a good connection with the ground lets you be as one with what you are bracing against (the Earth) such that any force you generate or move you do against an opponent goes completely into them because the ground certainly isn’t going to move! In physics terms, the center of mass is comparatively infinite (the Earth vs. 2 people), so any force you generate against it can only affect your target – or you, if you desire. Correctly executed, you can use your stances and especially your motion through them to make you a mountain of a (hu)man.

(Continued next article, Stances Part II: Power Generation)

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The Texas Penal Code covers the state law on Use Of Force in Chapter 9 and Weapons in Chapter 46. This should be covered with all students and instructors. Each state will have similar statutes.

Federal case law defines Deadly Force as:
• A Weapon – a physical tool (dedicated or improvised) or the individual’s body to inflict harm or damage
• Intent – verbal and non-verbal desire to inflict harm and damage
• Delivery System – physical ability to inflict harm and damage
• Motor Action – movement towards the goal of inflicting harm and damage

Air or tracheal chokes – pressure is applied to the trachea (windpipe). Due to the structure of the windpipe, pressure to the front of the neck can cause it to collapse, creating irreversible damage to the structure itself, and causing blood flow into the lungs. If one thinks of the cartilage of the trachea as a Styrofoam cup, then poke a pencil or a finger through the material and see how it leaks and is not repairable. Air chokes are not instantly apparent. How long can one hold their breath? Since there is oxygen still in the blood, the action of an air choke still takes a minute or so for the person to pass out or suffocate. This type of action is considered Deadly Force.

Blood or carotid / jugular / neck restraints – pressure is applied to the side of the neck. Due to the structure of the neck, pressure to the sides of the neck can cause a reduction of blood flow to the brain and a localized pressure increase. The cause of unconsciousness is from either decreased or stopped blood flow to the brain and immediate oxygen deprivation, increased localized blood pressure, or a stimulation of the Vagus nerve (sometimes called a Carotid massage in medical literature) which depresses the heart rate and blood pressure and subsequent loss of consciousness. Generally, but not always, the immediate release of neck pressure restores blood flow and normalized pressure, and the person wakes back up. This action happens quickly, within a few seconds.

Consensual fighting is illegal, but one always retains the right to Self Defense. From a legal standpoint, a choke is a deadly force encounter and a neck restraint is below that. Please use the term Neck Restraint, just as a joint lock is a limb restraint as compared to an “arm destruction” (words matter and their context). From the standpoint of Self Defense, once the Attacker has stopped attacking, the Defender has to stop their actions too. If the Defender continues to inflict punishment on the Attacker after the Attacker has had the Weapon removed or disabled, has removed the Intent, has prevented the Delivery System or Motor Action, then the Defender is now the “Bad Guy”.

If a Defender applies a Vascular Neck Restraint, the Defender must stop their action as soon as the Attacker has succumbed. Since the action is to prevent blood flow to the brain, damage occurs quickly if blood flow is not restored. Thus, one cannot “keep cranking” on the Attacker until help arrives. One can sit on top of the person in a position of control until help arrives, or leave. As necessary, call 911 to report the assault as soon as you are safe.

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You just learned a new martial arts drill. Congratulations! Now what?

By all means, work it until it becomes second nature, fast, impressive, and powerful. But, while you’re doing that, be sure to pay real attention, because the goal is not just to show off how good you are at that specific drill – that’s just martial arts patty cake. No, you have to dig into them, and to do that, you have to use that gray matter between your ears. Drills are at least as mental as they are physical, perhaps even more.

Drill Exploration

Drills need to be explored, but if you don’t practice them with intent, you’re just going through the motions, and you won’t get very far. For example, if the drill requires you to strike the temple, you should really aim for it with proper angling, distance, and timing, until the opponent either responds correctly or they don’t. If the latter, then you can adjust to avoid damaging them, and you continue so they can improve. Meanwhile, you’ve been true to your own training, developing proper attributes at the same time as good observation and reaction skills.

Eventually, you’ll want to push the drill more, properly exploring its limits. This is called making the drill “live.” Start by using broken or unpredictable rhythm so that the response is not anticipated in advance of the trigger, but rather it becomes correctly triggered. Eventually, you should stop “holding back” and really go for that temple strike we talked about earlier. If they fail to respond correctly, so be it – lesson learned.

Proper drill work can teach you a lot about positioning, timing, distance, targets, structure, sensitivity, power generation, speed, footwork/movement, counters, and so much more – and that’s without even “breaking” it. By paying attention to the flow of movements, you can get a feel for the reactions that are being trained, including what should be where, at what time, and why. You can learn how your positioning and footwork influence your available targets, your power generation, and your defenses. Did that movement just make it harder for them to hit a good target, or cause them to release their hold, maybe at the same time exposing targets for you and helping them to be off-balance? Perhaps if you do that parry just so, they are taken off-balance giving you extra advantage. Find out what makes the drill tick, what are its strengths, but also what are its weaknesses – no drill is perfect. Develop your understanding under the laboratory conditions of training because you if you have to think when you need your skills, it’s way too late.

Breaking the Drill

Once you get the drill, you should start to “break” it, but not before the participants have it down pat. Breaking is where the real exploration begins, and it can teach you opportunity, manipulation, broken rhythm, adaptation, reflex, and flow.

Examples of simple changes include choosing a slightly different target, changing a step to a kick or sweep, substituting an alternate means of accomplishing a particular move’s effect, or even inserting a new move into the standard mix (perhaps taking advantage of some weakness of the drill). It is also usually extremely useful to explore the drill opposite-handed, both simultaneously and one partner at a time.

More advanced changes would be to insert half-beat moves, such as an attack in between each movement, or on-beat simultaneous attacks by an otherwise unused limb. Contact triggers are another good approach wherein anytime your opponent makes contact you execute a trap, lock, or unbalancing movement – inserted without warning in the midst of the flow of the drill. Do an empty-handed drill with a weapon in hand, and vice-versa. If you know other drills, you can cross over to and from those other drills, at first maybe one side at a time and then eventually getting more and more random and unexpected action, which should be one of your ultimate goals.

Throughout your work exploring and breaking the drill, you should continue to practice with intent and keep paying attention to understand the implications of the changes – how do the movements work, what opportunities are there, how is the footwork affected, etc.

With a bit of creativity and your own martial arts background, there’s really no limit to what you can get out of a drill. So, explore away, get the most out of your drills, and grow as a martial artist.

If you’re not doing these kinds of things with your drills, using intent, and exploring, dissecting, and even breaking them, then you’re just going through the motions, and you’re not going to get much out of your work with drills. I certainly don’t want that, and I hope you don’t either.

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