Saturday, November 30, 2013

7 basic rules for pivoting


Readers might recall that last year I wrote a piece titled "A pivotal question" - an essay where I analysed where and when one should pivot on the ball of foot versus the heel.

In that essay I noted that most of the time we martial artists pivot on the ball of the foot.  Why?  Principally for two reasons: balance and "power".  This sentiment is echoed by Lucio Maurino sensei in the video below (one that is embedded in Jesse Enkamp's recent article covering this issue):

But really, judging by the comments on Jesse-san's article I really don't get any sense that people are aware of where and when it might be appropriate to pivot on the heel - which is something I've previously covered.  Some insist that it is never appropriate, while others insist on defending their own particular tradition.  But relatively few seem to accept that both ball of foot and heel are appropriate pivot points depending on one's objective.

Indeed it never ceases to amaze me how my analysis of instances where one might appropriately/optimally choose to pivot on the heel has managed to confound people.  I'd say that at least 70% of the responses to my article have been: "I find what you say interesting, but I disagree..."

I have never had a satisfactory account of why these people disagree with me on this issue.  The closest I get is a discussion about how pivoting on the toes "adds force in every instance", rather than "drawing it away" in the one example that I gave (ie. of pivoting on the balls of both feet simultaneously when turning more or less from one side to another).

The problem is this folks: that was just one example (a rather artificial one!) that I chose simply to show that pivoting on the heels could produce more power than the ball of foot in some cases.  It wasn't a definitive "guide to pivoting".  (If you note, the video that accompanied that article was just taken from random footage in class: it was never intended as some sort of "be-all and end-all" accounting for every instance of pivoting.)

Lately it has dawned on me that unless I wrote something that was "exhaustive" (read "suitable as a spoon feeding exercise"), I would never really communicate what is, frankly, common sense!  Really folks, it isn't all that hard!  Most of the time we martial artists are going to pivot on the balls of our feet.  But like it or not, there are times when we can - indeed should - pivot on our heels.

So here are my own "7 easy steps" to understanding this subject.  The video below is a summary if you couldn't be bothered reading further:

# 1: Pivot on the ball of your rear foot to drive a punch forwards

This seems to be that scenario that concerns most folks: they take a jiyu dachi (free stance - what kenpo call a "neutral bow stance") and then convert it into a zenkutsu dachi (forward/bow stance) and they want to know "how to do the pivoting part".

Most of the time the answer is simple: pivot your rear foot on the ball - not the heel.  Why?  Your weight is moving towards the front.  This means your weight is being driven off the back of your foot and onto your toes - particularly in the case of your rear foot.

Like a sprinter on a starting block, you use your ball of foot (or your toes) to help accelerate your movement by pushing off.  You push with your toes, not your heel.

It's a bit of a "duh" really.

#2: Pivot on the heel of the front foot to turn

Okay, suppose you are now taking your weight the other way - ie. you're retreating off your front foot and onto your back.  Suppose you're doing that so as to turn around.

In that case, you'll be pivoting on the heel of your front foot.


Because as your weight comes off your front foot your toes will lift, putting your weight on your heel. In fact, what happens is the exact opposite of when you push weight forward onto your toes.  So that means your heel will be in contact with the ground.  Accordingly that is the surface on which you're going to be pivoting.

What about balance?

Well, your weight is on your back foot - and that is where your balance is.  Balance just isn't an issue as regards your front foot, because you don't have sufficient weight on it.

Okay, what about if you assume a cat stance?  Well what of it?  If you draw into cat stance and have to pivot on the front foot, you'll be pivoting on your toes.  But I'm assuming that you're withdrawing to turn - not responding to an attacker from the front (which is what cat stance is good for).

Okay, what if you're walking forwards and want to pivot just as you step?  Again, you pivot on the heel!

It's no big surprise folks: we all walk "heel/toe".  Only sprinters and ballet dancers have any reason to move on their "tippy toes".

"Heel/toe" is your natural gait.  This is why armed forces personnel talk about "turning on your heel" in their marching: they're talking about a pivot on the heel because it is this that permits the fastest, most efficient turn-around!

So really, this is another "duh" if you care to think about it.  We all pivot on the heel every single day of our lives - even if we aren't aware of it.

#3: Pivot using a combination of 1 and 2 

I won't go into it, but with a lot of turns (simple and complex) we basically do a combination of both #1 and #2 above.   In other words, we rock back on the heel to pivot and turn, then we pivot on the balls of the feet to drive a technique in the opposite direction.

An example of the above is the sequence in taijiquan known as "diagonal single whip".  I won't go into detail here - you can watch it on my video.

#4: Pivot on balls of both feet simultaneously for balance and to move off line

As I illustrate in my video, if you choose to pivot on both feet simultaneously, you really have no choice but to pivot on the balls of the feet (ie. your "toes").  Why?  Because you lose all balance otherwise!  It's a no-brainer!  While we might choose to pivot on the heel of a foot which is carrying little to no weight, we would certainly never pivot on both heels.  This would simply result in us having absolutely no stability at all.

A good test of this is to try to walk around the dojo on tip-toe for 3 minutes.  Easy enough, right?  Now try to walk around the dojo on your heels for 30 seconds!  You won't last - trust me.  It's near-enough impossible.  Why is it so hard?  Because your body is screaming at you: "What the f*** have you done to your balance - I'm having to fire the supporting muscles to their max just to keep you upright, you idiot!"

The advantage of pivoting on the balls of both feet is also that this takes you off line, as you'll see when executing bong sau in wing chun (see the adjacent pictures).  If anyone tells you that this should be done on the heels, they have obviously never encountered real pressure before.  Because the slightest "charge" and you will get knocked onto your ass.

Eli Montaigue teaches his father's "Small San Sau" form using his late father Erle's "double heel pivot" (set to start at the right point). 

For example consider the "Small San Sau" form in the above video: I was shown this by Erle Montaigue way back in the late 80s.  The idea that you would be able to withstand any sort of real force from the front while balancing on both heels is something I feel is self-evidently non-viable.

The central problem is that the counterstrike won't have enough support/stability to arrest the oncoming momentum of even a moderately committed opponent because there is no ability to use the "spring" in the knees, ankles and toes to redirect the force into the ground (ie. what I have previously described as "grounding" or "rooting"). (Note that the average "feet side by side" zhan zhuang posture has you standing with weight biased to the balls of your feet!)

In fact, the foundation offered by the heels in the above instance is even too weak to cause any real damage: the force of your blow (such as it is) is more likely to push you backwards than be directed into your opponent in any meaningful way.

#5: Pivot on both heels SEQUENTIALLY for power when turning

This seems to have been the biggest sticking point in relation to my previous article.  Many people seem to think I was saying that if you pivot on your balls of your feet, you're "always moving off line" and you're "not getting power": that the only remedy to this is to "pivot on both heels".

Well first, this is nothing like what I was saying.

The example I chose was a direct parallel to the "bong sau" example above - intended to show that pivoting on the heels can actually add power in some (very specific) circumstances (principally by not moving you off line - as Erle Montaigue pointed out to me all those years ago).  This is one: if you want to turn from one side to the other, pivoting on the balls of your feet can actually reduce power, where pivoting and turning in this way on your heels can add it.


First, note that I was talking about: "pivoting and turning".  You'll rarely want/need to do this exact sort of turn.  What was an exercise to show that "heel turning isn't always less powerful" has been interpreted as some sort of "immutable rule".  I'm suggesting no such thing.

Second, (as I observe above under the video above) if you choose to pivot on both heels to do your punch, you'll rapidly find yourself losing balance.  For what?  A bit more momentum in your punch (if it lands)?

So if you ever want to use the "power heel turn" principle, please note that you're best off avoiding the simultaneous pivot on both heels.
You might however pivot them in sequence.
Or, as with tip #3 you might combine an initial heel pivot turn with a ball of foot pivot punch.  It's your choice.  Just make them sequential will you?  If you choose to pivot on both feet, you're stuck with balls of feet I'm afraid.  Maurino sensei was right in this respect!

[The above video of Erle's son Eli demonstrating the "Small San Sau" form (featuring a pivot on both heels) is a recipe for being knocked over with great ease.  If you doubt me, get someone to wear a whole lot of padding (Michelin Man style - so that you can hit them hard), get them to punch you with committed momentum and try to resist the attack with a counter strike, using the double heel pivot method shown...]

#6: Pivot on the ball of the foot when you are balancing on one leg

So what's the other scenario where balance is at a premium, forcing you to pivot on the ball of your foot?  The obvious answer is this:
When one leg is off the ground!  
Try doing a mawashi geri (roundhouse kick) while balancing on the heel of your supporting foot and you'll see how daft it feels!

And ditto every time you do any sort of pirouette or turn.  Big turns = lots of balance needed.

There are some exceptions I've encountered in the internal arts, but the circumstances are so complex and specific I dare not go into them here for messing up what has (hopefully) been a fairly simple guide!

#7: Pivot on the ball of the rear foot to turn

Last, but not least, there is the exact opposite of tip #2: if you want to pivot on your back foot - particularly as you step backwards - what do you think your first contact point is going to be?  Your toes of course!  If you're in a hurry, you're going to pivot on the toes/ball of the foot - you're not going to wait until your heel is firmly planted, now are you!

When it comes to stepping anywhere in-between it becomes a "shade of grey": step 45 degrees forward and you're pivoting on the heel. Step 45 degrees back and you're reaching with your toes.  Step straight to the side and it's "take your pick" - it will depend on where you want to pivot - and why.


It really isn't that hard: common sense and logic - as well as a rudimentary knowledge of human biomechanics - is all you need to decide how you should be pivoting in a particular situation.

So next time you're wondering whether what you've been taught in this regard makes any sense in a particular kata move, use the above as a guide.  Are you being asked to do something nonsensical/dogmatic?  Or is it just less than ideal?

As a "bonus" I examine a movement from the kata "gekisai dai ichi" at the very end of my video: the point where you go from the gedan barai up into the chudan uke.

One chap wrote on Jesse's blog:
"As mention in previous posts, at least in goju-ryu (Meibukan being my branch of choice), its always the ball of the foot. The one exception I can think of is the seventh? movement in gekisai-ichi/ni, stepping up from the gedan barai into the chudan uchi uke."
The answer is, you can indeed pivot on the heel to straighten your support leg before you move into chudan uke.  But why wouldn't you pivot on the ball of the foot as you finish your moving into the chudan uke?  If you did this, you'd be having to use the ball of foot.  And this would add some forwards momentum/push to your chudan uke giving it more force.  You can do it the "other way" if you like - but you'll just be losing the extra force you could add.  Why would you want to?  In my experience, every little bit of extra force counts!

As I said in my previous essay, this really is a "pivotal issue".  But it isn't one that is all that hard to fathom.

[PS. Please, oh please, don't come back to me with the old "I pivot on the middle of the foot" chestnut!

I can tell you right now that 99% of the time I hear that it is a grand "bet-hedging" gesture: it advances the debate not one iota.

Yes, there are times when you pivot on both ball of foot and heel (using what is effectively a flat foot), but I only practise one form where this is required - and the reasons are palpable (in that case, greater friction is required to increase resistance at a particular point in a movement).  More often than not, however, it is a device for people to employ when they haven't yet "figured it out".

Remember: a "middle of the road" response to pivoting is no less dogmatic than one focused on the heel or the ball of foot - it just seeks to avoid the issue via compromise.]

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The "battle stance" of xingyi

Stances: the foundation of traditional martial arts

Four years ago, almost to the day, I wrote an article about the function of stances in traditional martial arts.  At the time I was pleased to see that my piece met with a fairly universal positive reaction in traditional martial circles - regardless of style.

I suspect this is because almost all traditional martial arts share the same stances (more or less) and these are used  for pretty much the same pedagogic reasons:

You have a forward (or bow) stance, a reverse stance, a cat stance, a horse stance, a twisted stance and, from southern China and Okinawa, "sanzhan/sanchin" - an hourglass stance.  While there are a host of other less common stances, for the most part these constitute nothing more than minor variations of, or transitions between, the previously-mentioned stances.

The "odd man out": xingyi's principle stance

But what if there were a stance that seemingly "bucked the trend"?  What if there were a stance in one system that appeared pretty much out of kilter with all other traditional fighting arts?  What would this say about the stance - and indeed the system itself?

As it happens there is such a beast - and it comes from what is arguably the oldest of the Asian unarmed fighting arts - xingyiquan.  The stance is, of course, the stance commonly known as "san ti shi" (三體勢 - literally "three bodies power/force"), depicted in the adjacent picture.

I tend to reserve the term "san ti shi" for more than just the stance: I use it to mean the entire posture found in the first element of xingyiquan - namely pi quan (splitting fist).  This posture covers more than just the feet and weight distribution; it also covers a very particular placement of the head and hands, as well as a particular angle of the torso.

I was first introduced to the san ti shi posture in 1996 when I started studying xingyiquan with my teacher, Bob Davies.  He was over on one of his visits and our hectic training schedule meant that we continued training until late into the night to make the most of the limited time.  It was about 11 pm on his final night when he introduced san ti shi: he explained that it was a principal zhan zhuang (standing post training) posture (as I see is noted in by Wikipedia).

He had us hold it for an hour on each side - with constant corrections.  That is how I got "acquainted" with san ti shi!

Naming the stance

So what might we call the stance that underpins san ti shi?  My instructor referred to it as the "battle step" - zhan bu (戰步).

This is by no means a popular term amongst martial artists.  In particular, I doubt it is used generally by students of xingyiquan and other internal artists.  I suspect many have never heard this term.

Even if they have, I doubt that many students of xingyiquan use it.  Most xingyi students I know refer to "san ti shi" because they find a great deal of philosophical meaning in the latter term.

However I personally like having a term that isolates the stance - especially since it occurs in a variety of techniques in the forms I study, both in xingyiquan and hybrid external/internal forms (in particular the "bridging forms" of Hong Yi Xiang) without the other elements of san ti shi (as I understand them).

Where did it come from?

I have already indicated my view that xingyiquan is arguably the oldest of the Far East Asian martial arts.  I have previously recounted my meeting in Hong Kong with martial historian CS Tang.  If you recall, I wrote the following:
Our interview got much more interesting when I asked Master Tang to imagine himself going back 500 to 600 years... What would he expect to see in terms of martial arts? The master's answer took me quite by surprise. He said:
"Just weapons."
Master Tang went on to express the view that unarmed systems of combat, as we know them today (and I assumed he meant the wushu/striking type arts with forms), probably only originated around 200-300 years ago. In other words, before that time martial arts in China consisted of practical practice with weapons (as was the trend in the rest of the world, eg. in Europe). For some reason, a couple of hundred years ago something in the broader Chinese culture - a particular zeitgeist - gave rise to the kinds of martial arts we come to associate with China today; form-based systems that cover striking, blocking and qin-na (locking/grappling/throwing) applications.
In other words Master Tang was of the view that what we know as the unarmed fighting arts of China descended from pure weapons systems.

And while he was clear that he didn't think that xingyiquan was the progenitor of all modern quan fa in China, he did acknowledge it as one of the oldest unarmed martial arts - dating from around the time such systems evolved from their armed ancestors.

Indeed, if you look at the 5 elements of xingyiquan, I think you can still see how an attempt was being made to translate the physical form of using a weapon to the empty hand - ranging from a chopping blow of a two-handed sabre or halberd (pi quan), the piercing thrust of a straight sword (zuan quan), the heavy thrust of a spear (beng quan), the use of a cannon (pao quan) and the overhand curving thrust of any number of sharp weapons (heng quan).

I personally think that pao quan gives us an approximate date for the formation of xingyiquan: some time soon after the invention of gun powder.

Why should this have spurred the development of unarmed fighting methods?  Precisely because hand-to-hand battlefield combat with weapons like swords became less relevant.  This left the field open for hand-to-hand fighting arts to move into the civilian realm for defence and into culture as a form of dance/art/philosophical expression.

I imagine that initially weapons such as the straight-sided, non-battlefield sword known as the jian were modified for civilian defence use as well as turned into dance-like art forms, but that unarmed forms followed soon after.

But what is significant is that, in each case, the unarmed "boxing" traditions of China were based on striking - cf. grappling which already comprised an existing system of unarmed fighting (whether on the battlefield or in sport).

That is arguably why there are no "grappling solo forms"; they didn't form part of this tradition of "unarmed fighting descended from armed fighting".  This translation of "arms" (in the form of weapons) to "arms" (in the form of "human arms") also accounts for why xingyiquan has virtually no kicks; aside from a low kick on the turn in beng quan, one has to go to the 12 animal forms to see any kicks at all, and even these are scarce.

Another salient fact is that the basic "launch platform" - the stance - remains more or less the same: the principle battlefield spear or other weapon stance tends to be slightly backward weighted, just like the xingyiquan "zhan bu" - the battle step/stance.

What form does it take?

So how can we describe the xingyiquan zhan bu?

Well, the feet are positioned so that the front foot points forward and the rear foot is off at an angle.  The width of the stance is one of your feet (or one typical floorboard), while the length of the stance is anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 shoulder widths.

Your weight should be distributed slightly back from 50/50, but a slight lean forwards means the 50/50 weight distribution is restored.

Why would a backward weighted stance be relevant for weapon fighting?  Simply this: you want to be able to escape the optimum striking range of your opponent; being overly committed in a forward stance during weapons fighting doesn't leave you much time to avoid a powerful attack, nor does it give you stability and strength in your base.

In fact, when receiving a powerful blow, your stance needs to be rock-solid in terms of attacks facing from your front.

I describe the stance in detail in the video below:

The influence on other stances

You'll also notice at the outset of the above video that I discuss my "pet theory" that the xingyiquan battle stance is, somewhat counter-intuitively, a predecessor to (or, at least, influence on) the "sanzhan-like" stances.  This theory might seem far-fetched until you realise the following:
  1. Sanzhan is the name of a form, not a stance.  In that form there are typically 3 forward and 3 backward steps (out of Buddhist symbolism - for luck).  This accounts for the "san" (3).  The "zhan" is of course "battle".  When describing the form, one could use the descriptor "sanzhan bu" (3 battle steps).  And indeed many forms are named this way in China (see my articles "Numeric names of kata" and "The naming of sanchin").  In arts like ngo cho kun, the "sanzhan stance" is known as "chien be" - Hokkien for "zhan bu".
  2. In Fujian, sanzhan most commonly takes the form of a stance that is substantially similar in appearance to the xingyiquan stance - only shorter.  Compare the picture of my friend Martin Watts doing sanzhan and you'll see what I mean.
  3. In Okinawan karate, there is a similar stance in the older Suidi forms of seisan known as "seisan dachi".  I think it is really more or less identical to the white crane sanzhan.
  4. While the Naha te tradition uses the "pigeon-toed" sanchin, it also has at least some tradition of a "seisan dachi" - which is to all intents and purposes a longer, xingyi-like stance that occurs in one move of the goju ryu seisan.  While this might not be much on which to hang one's hat, I think that it might just establish at least some "cultural memory" of an older stance - one that was longer than both the modern "seisan dachi" in the Suidi tradition and the sanzhan of the white crane tradition.
  5. As you'll note in my video, I think an early sanzhan-like stance ultimately morphed into the pigeon-toed wing chun "A" stance in mainland China, in much the same way as it led to Naha te sanchin; the shorter the stance became, the higher the premium on turning the feet in for stability.
What's it good for?

So what's so special about the "zhan bu"?  I've already foreshadowed that it is particularly useful in weapons fighting.

In fact, one need only look at the parallel evolution of Okinawa's kobudo weapons systems to see how prevalent the back-weighted kokutsu dachi (a close counterpart to xingyiquan's stance) is.

Furthermore, it seems clear to me that this "weapons stance" also made the transition early on into the unarmed fighting traditions of Okinawa (ie. "te" or "ti", which eventually became "tode" or "karate").

Why should a stance designed for weapons be useful in unarmed fighting?  For precisely the same reason that it is useful in weapons fighting: it is extremely solid, providing you with a suitable foundation for intercepting and deflecting blows.

Weapons blows carry a lot of momentum, so it is unsurprising that a stance like the reverse stance would come to be favoured for "uke" (receiving blows).  The same is true (albeit to a lesser extent) of unarmed fighting, when facing a powerful cross punch: your stability is paramount in enabling a deflection.

I illustrate the solidity in the video above against a push.  It is important to note however that pushes are nothing more than a limited demonstration of the solidity.  The stance is not intended to be used for grappling.  It is a stance for fighting using strikes.  For true pushing (and other sumo-style grappling), an even-weighted stance is should be preferred:

Keeping you in the unarmed melee range and out of grappling range

So the zhan bu is particularly stable in striking arts.  Isn't it still a weapons stance that is arguably too long for unarmed fighting?  Shouldn't some allowance be made for the absence of weapons?

Indeed.  That is precisely why xingyiquan's stance is not really the same as the archetypal kokutsu dachi of kobudo and the Suidi karate tradition in Okinawa.

For a start, the xingyi stance is shorter, bringing you closer to your opponent.

Second, the xingyi stance has a forward lean, restoring some of your 50/50 balance.

Last, the xingyi stance has the hips facing forwards, not off to the side.  In a sense it is like the boxer's stance, only slightly backward weighted.

But the biggest advantage of the zhan bu in striking arts is simply this: it is nothing short of critical in keeping you out of grappling range, yet within striking range.  I illustrate this in the video below: the stance, combined with the unique xingyiquan footwork, lets you close the gap to strike, while still keeping you sufficiently out of range to avoid being trapped by a grappler.  Even if you are in range of being grabbed, the backward weight distribution/bias enables a quick withdrawal, where otherwise you'd be stuck.

As I've previously highlighted, this is of enormous importance in civilian defence, where you generally do not want to be tied down with one opponent for any length of time.


To me, the xingyiquan zhan bu - battle stance - is a fascinating stance; one that links you directly to ancient knowledge of the realities of fighting for survival; to a period where mankind was moving from warfare with hand-held weapons to firearm and other projectile weapons; a period when fighting systems were moving from the military to the civilian defence and cultural arts domains.

Xingyiquan is certainly not the only art to retain the zhan bu: indeed, it is arguable that every step in baguazhang is performed in the same stance, simply along a circle.  But somehow the circle walking makes it a great deal easier to adopt the stance in bagua (or at least "disguise" any mistakes!)

And the stance is not otherwise manifest in the other internal arts of taijiquan and liu he ba fa (if it does occur, it is only in the course of transition).

Last, despite my references to "seisan dachi" and "sanzhan", zhan bu is not really present (at least to any significant extent) in any external martial art.

This makes the zhan bu stance in xingyiquan unique.  It also makes it very difficult to teach.  I've previously highlighted this when discussing my hybrid forms; it is easier to leave out the "zhan bu" than include it in any form that purports to borrow "xingyiquan principles" for a "combined platform".  That is because, of all the methods of xingyiquan, the one that requires the most "rewiring of the brain" is the ability to adopt and use this stance.

Yet at first glance, it doesn't seem all that difficult.  Isn't it just a kokutsu dachi (reverse/reverse bow) stance?  Yes and no.  It is so similar that students of karate and other external arts - even taijiquan - unconsciously default to such a reverse stance.  And if they don't do this, they default to a cat stance or even a forward stance.  In fact, it is my experience that students tend to do anything but the correct zhan bu / san ti shi.

And yet, to make the stance work in an optimal sense, you need to have a high degree of fidelity to the required form.  When you do, the stance is remarkable; in my experience it constitutes one of the most subtle and effective ways of melee range fighting.  And it simultaneously allows you all the freedom to expand into grappling if you want - or avoid it completely.

In short, the zhan bu is so subtle it is what I would class as an "advanced technique" of the highest order.  I've seen it reduce an entire class of seasoned practitioners of 30-40 years martial experience (in a wide variety of external and internal arts) to an untidy mess of uncertain steps and constant awkward readjustment.  Inevitably my teacher, sitting on the sidelines, is shaking his head sadly.

Only now, 17 years after I started studying the zhan bu / san ti shi, am I really feeling a modicum of comfort in this stance.

If in martial arts the subtleties are the hardest, yet most potent, parts to learn, there is nothing harder - and more potent - than learning the xingyiquan battle step.  For me, it remains ancient knowledge of the highest order.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, November 15, 2013

Teacher chi: the path to the "dark side"

In my recent article  on zhan zhuang I referred to martial arts teachers who start "believing their own hype" and the tendency this has to make the teacher's students more prone to becoming complicit (usually unconsciously) in the process.

This is something today's marital artists commonly call "teacher chi" (a term first coined, I believe, by respected uechi ryu karate instructor Dana Sheets).

In my experience, you often (though by no means always) see "teacher chi" in schools that test "pushing".

Now I want to be clear that in general I think tests of "pushing" are fine: solid structure can give you a good foundation for developing a strong push.  If such tests are presented appropriately, I have no issue with them at all.  An example of an unobjectionable "pushing test" is the yiquan one below.

Nonetheless, I think that the data gained from such a "test of pushing" is of limited value.  Why?

The first thing you can find out is the strength of your partner's structure.  If your partner is standing inertly, non-resistant to your push, this is hardly useful data: you should already know what to expect from such a "test".

Second, you can find out how well you are able to displace people with a push.  If these are people who aren't trying to resist your push in any active sense (ie. pushing back, adopting a strong stance or simply slipping/brushing aside your push), then once again the data value is low; it will tell you nothing more than how well you can push an inert target.  It will just be a test of strength.  And if you want to test strength, you're better off examining your bench press scores than pushing around compliant partners...

In any event, as I discuss in my article on pushingcivilian defence is rarely about pushing people - it's more about damaging them so they can't damage you.  Sure, causing someone to fly across the room from a push is impressive (I'll get back to "impressiveness" in a moment).  And yes, sometimes civilian defense involves projecting your opponent (ie. removing him or her from your vicinity - whether by some sort of push, lever or redirection).
But more often than not, effective civilian defence involves very little displacement of your target.  
This is consistent with most of the techniques of the internal (and external) martial arts: applications of forms very rarely feature "pushes" (I can think of only a few which might fall into this category).  Most of the time, traditional civilian counters involve some sort of percussion or restraint.  Any real "displacement" usually takes the form of a lever (eg. a single leg takedown) or throw (eg. over the hip) - not just a "shove".

The latter should come as no surprise: what "looks impressive" isn't necessarily what "does the job" in terms of civilian defence (see my article "Visible force vs. applied force").  

Personally I find tests of resisting a push much more useful than tests of pushing.  As you will note from my previous article, I feel the most important thing one should be testing is the strength of one's own structure.

Consider my own "pushing" video below and note the difference in what is being tested:

But in the end, this isn't nearly as impressive as sending someone flying across the room into a padded wall, now is it?

So we come to my main concern with "tests of pushing": I am less concerned with the limitations of their "data value" than I am of their "impressiveness"; because it is precisely this "impressiveness" that creates a greater risk, for both teacher and student, of  falling prey to"teacher chi".  Who doesn't want to train in an art that looks "impressive"?  And who wants their revered teacher to look less than impressive?

This tendency is compounded by the fact that it is relatively easy for students to be allow themselves to be pushed (at least, much farther than they would otherwise, given the strength of the push).  By contrast, it is much harder for students to "fake" (consciously or subconsciously) a strong push.

Combine this with a natural  tendency for people to prioritise attack over defence and you can start to see how tempting it is to move to the "dark side"...

For example, consider the video below and compare it to the yiquan "test of pushing" demonstrated at the start of this article.  The two tests are very similar in concept.  However in the one below I think it's quite clear that an element of "teacher chi" has crept in...

I note that the mere fact of adding the padded wall is a strong "mentalist" device, compelling greater subconscious cooperation by the student: if you expect to be pushed hard enough to hit the padding with some force, there is a greater chance you will let this happen.

If the wall was unpadded (or, perhaps, was covered in spikes), think we'd be seeing a very different result.  As it is, the padding serves as part of the autosuggestion: "Fall this way."

A dead giveaway of cooperation in this "test" is when the student jumps upwards, particularly when the angle of the push on the arms could not actually generate a moment at that angle.

It shows the student is trying (consciously or subconsciously) to aid the push by using his leg muscles.  The problem is, it is hard to get a "lift-off" with a backward moment; instead the student's body does a "jackknife" upwards, with the student's body initially leaning forwards into the push (rather than away, as you might expect).

This is clearly the result of a "spring" from the student's legs rather than a push to the student at the chest level.

Such a ploy might be fine for staging a "photo opportunity" (who wants a boring picture?) but it scarcely represents a true "test" of "pushing power" (in this case "fajin" - an explosive force using a short movement).

Once you have gone to this level of "teacher chi" I think it is a small step to go the "whole 9 yards" to get to the utter parody below:

For me, the moment that is the funniest (and saddest) is when both the teacher and student start to "jackknife" together in sympathy at around 2:16.

What follows is something reminiscent of a very ugly folk dance, where one partner continues bouncing around as if possessed by the ghost of basketball.

This tendency is, sadly, quite common in such "chi demonstrations".  If you see such bouncing, you know it can't possibly emanate from the purported "chi master".

So what happens when someone who has started to believe their own hype is finally resisted - even moderately?  We've probably all seen the poor "kiai master" copping a smack from the MMA figher, but let's look at a more modest example (and, for a change, a female "chi master"):

You'll see that towards the end, when facing fairly light resistance, she manages push the participants, but only in the order of a foot or so (which is what you might expect of someone being shoved).  All of the mystical "chi power" has vanished.  In its place there is a fairly honest reflection of Newtonian physics.

[See also my article "Chi/ki tests".]

Addendum: I made this animated gif to show just obvious a "fake push" is when you analyse the elements.  Note how the student bends his legs to spring upwards.

Some have argued that this is possible to achieve with a push.  On the arms?  Really?  You could only do so if they were locked at the elbows and shoulders, which is not possible at this angle.  And even if you could, why would you bother?

In the end though, one need only look at the obvious: the student is springing up at the knees before the push even starts...

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Zhan zhuang: grounding, structure, intention and qi


There is a tendency in the Chinese, and increasingly in the Japanese, martial arts to venerate “standing post” training - what is known as zhan zhuang (站樁 - literally “standing like a post”).  In particular the internal arts of China are known for this practise.  Even more particularly, the art of yiquan (意拳 - literally “concept fist”) focuses almost entirely on this as a martial training method.

Yiquan, which is also called “da cheng quan” (大成拳 - literally “great achievement boxing”), was developed by xingyiquan master Wang Xiangzhai (26 November 1885 - 12 July 1963).  One of his students was the Taiwan-based martial artist Wang Shujin (a master of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan who happens to have also been one of my grandmaster Chen Pan Ling's main students).

In Japan the yiquan tradition was continued by Kenichi Sawai, founder of the school of taikiken (体気拳 - literally “mind and spirit fist”).

So what is the point of “standing post training”?  Can it have any martial function at all?  Clearly Wang Shujin, a respected and well-attested and experienced full-contact fighter, felt so.  However things tend to get more than a little clouded whenever people start to go into specifics of “how” or “why” zhan zhuang should be useful in martial training...

Mostly the claims centre on the notion that zhan zhuang helps you develop “great power”.  And in a sense I can corroborate this claim.  However it does depend greatly what you mean by “power”.

Of concern to me is the notion that zhan zhuang is useful because it develops a kind of “mystical” or “superhuman” power  - one which is often read into the character 気 (qi/chi in Chinese and ki in Japanese).  In my experience zhan zhuang does no such thing.

However, it might be said to develop “qi” if by this term one means something far more subtle - namely “intention”.

Channelling intention: the martial function of zhan zhuang

An ability to channel “intention” is of far greater value than most martial artists think.  In some respects, I see it as the cornerstone of all effective martial training.

After all, what is it that differentiates MMA champions like Georges St Pierre and Anderson Silva from any number of rivals?  Is it their size, strength or speed?  I would say no: there are many fighters who are larger, stronger and faster than either of those champions.

Is it their overall skill and athleticism?  Again, I would say no: there are many fighters who have pinpoint accuracy, excellent technique, efficient movement, etc.

I have gone some way to suggesting that champions have better defence - but even that comprises just another set of skills in movement - skills that many fighters have.

Now we could go all “vague” and say “champions have better timing” but that just delays a further question: what is it that makes their “timing” better?

I think the answer is simply this:
They are better able to translate “intention” into “action”. 
In other words, the psychology of the fighters makes all the difference: how you think affects how you feel, which affects what you do, which affects what you become.

This should come as no surprise: the notion that our minds and bodies are somehow separate is manifest nonsense.  Cartesian dualism has always been, in my opinion, a con.  Rather, each of us comprises one single, connected organism.

So the answer to why champions are better than their rivals is, I think, summed up in this way:
Champions are better than their rivals at channelling their intention.  
I think the Chinese ancients tried to describe this channelling of thought into efficient action as the “guided flow of qi”.

However if it is true that the ancients used "qi" to describe what are basically mental processes, why didn’t they just use the expression "guided thoughts"?  I suspect it is because they intuitively understood that thoughts are not separate, “non-physical” processes. After all, the whole "mind-body dualism" is a Western conceptualisation that wasn't part of the east Asian world view to begin with.  And in the absence of modern science - in particular, understanding the functions of neurons and electro-chemical signals, fascia, muscle tissue etc. - they devised a suitable, internally consistent paradigm to cover these processes as one single, unified system they called "qi".

Mindfulness: the key to channelling intention

Regardless, it is not as if the Chinese ancients didn’t have “thoughts” firmly in focus when considering “qi”.

You get an immediate sense of their perspective by examining the term “xingyiquan” (arguably the oldest form of Chinese unarmed martial art).

 Consider that “xing” (形) means “form, shape or structure” while “yi” (意) means “thought” or “concept”.  Of course, “quan” (拳) just means “fist” (ie. it denotes a martial system).  In other words, the name “xingyiquan” just means “physical/psychological martial system”.

Yiquan of course evolved from xingyiquan.  As you can tell, it drops the word “xing” so that it means simply “thought system”.

In other words, yiquan (of which zhan zhuang is a large component) is about “mindfulness”; it is focused squarely on the oft-neglected “mental” (as opposed to “physical”) component of training.  In this sense, yiquan can be translated as “mindfulness fist”.

Another, less current, term for “mindfulness” is simply “meditation”.

Today psychologists often speak about meditation or “mindfulness” (which is a better translation of "yi") as a means of relieving stress, managing pain, improving performance and even directly controlling autonomic biological systems (like one's heart rate).  Indeed, meditation/mindfulness is rapidly being understood as the only real pathway to “happiness” - at least, going by brain scans of those who have mastered it.  Consider the story of this Buddhist monk, for example and note the video below:

Another way of referring to mindfulness/meditation is by reference to "mental discipline".  It is clear to me that if you have mental discipline, you are able to control your thought processes to a much higher extent.  If you can control your thought processes, you can channel your thoughts into effective, efficient action - without even momentary hesitation, impediment or distraction.

By contrast, consider the average person's lack of mental discipline in the context of getting an annoying tune out of his or her head; or of not being able to get to sleep due to an inability to stop particular thoughts (resulting in the same ground being fruitlessly traversed repeatedly, all night long).

In other words, mindfulness is the key to the highest levels of physical efficiency and efficacy.  How can you get mindfulness?  By practising it.  And such practise becomes ever more important as you reach higher and higher levels of physical skill - precisely because this is what will differentiate you from your equally physically skilled opponent.

Why zhan zhuang is the "meditation of choice" for martial artists

Okay, so you are a martial artist and you want to practise meditation to improve your performance.  What form should such meditation take?

Ideally, it takes a form that revolves around martial structure.

Unlike other forms of meditation, martial meditation has more specific goals.  One of these is improving efficiency and efficacy of martial movement.  And the foundation of all of this is how you stand.  This is crucial long before you have the luxury of considering how you move.

On this subject, see the post of my brother-in-law Trevor Aungthan here, Trevor relates his Macau-based teacher's comments about "standing practise" as follows:
"Sifu Leung explained it is the most basic but most important basic training of tai chi. If you cannot hold your root while standing still how can you hold it when moving?"
Accordingly it should come as no surprise that zhan zhuang involves a form of standing meditation - one where you become "mindful" of every detail of your posture and alignment.  In so doing you develop a foundation on which you can build structure.  That structure should then be solid enough, and dependable enough, to permit efficient, effective action.

Standing mindfully can be done in any posture.  However it is particularly useful to do so in one that highlights the essential principles of solid grounding (what some call "rooting").  This is going to increase your awareness, and ultimately your balance, posture and strength, on a very fundamental, intuitive level.

Basically, what this means is that you can start to control your structure rather than let it control you.  Only once you can control your own structure are you able to affect someone else's.

Getting back to "power" and "qi"

Which brings me back to the question of "power".  How does "grounding" gained from zhan zhuang manifest as the "great power" of which I spoke at the outset?

In training, good grounding typically manifests in what is known as "push hands" exercises - ie. the sensitivity drills typical of the internal arts in which you try to unbalance your opponent.  As Trevor Aungthan points out, the best practitioners of push hands are not able to be bested.  They can push you.  But, much more importantly:
You can't push them.
Not only is it very difficult to get any purchase on them in the first place (which is due to a higher sensitivity/awareness of your movement), but even when you do get your hands on them, they are basically too "rooted" to the ground to be unbalanced.  They become the fulcrum in the dynamic interplay between your two bodies. The harder you push, the more you lose your own structure - whether it is by pushing yourself back or falling forward past a "fern-like" body that bends to redirect your (ineffective) force.

To me, this is the true test of zhan zhuang: how grounded/rooted you are.  This is what shows whether your "mindfulness" has managed to control your structure in such a way as to shape it into a more efficient form.  This is the first step in channelling intention into action.

I also think this is what comprises the kernel of truth underlying the "fantastical" and "superhuman" legends associated with the internal arts.  The "great power" of the internal arts does not lie in some amazing ability to push someone so hard that they "fly away".  Rather it lies in the subtle skill of not being pushed, lifted or otherwise moved.

In other words, the true purpose of zhan zhuang is one of "building structure" through focused intent.  And the true test of whether you've achieved that purpose is to test the strength of that structure by pushing against it.

Consider my video below and note that my student is trying his level best to push me, but cannot.

I can assure you that this video is not "acted".  Nor am I "lifting his elbows" or otherwise employing a subtle "trick".  I am simply letting my structure (in this case xingyi's "zhan bu" or "san ti" stance) work for me to direct the force of his push into the ground.

Later in the video I demonstrate grounding in sanchin.  I've previously shown how this can be employed against a push too, but the relative shortness of the stance means that testing it against a push is only really appropriate if your partner is also in sanchin.  By contrast, the xingyi stance is perfect for resisting a forward push because of its inherent structure, so it can be tested by a push of any kind - even a fully committed lean.

Truthfully, you can utlise grounding in any stance - it doesn't matter.  Some stances for zhan zhuang involve deeply rooted postures like the xingyi or sanchin stance.  Others use a stance that has the weight biased towards the balls of the feet.  Whatever the stance, you should be able to develop "grounding" or "rooting" to the maximum extent afforded by that stance.  Indeed, this will help to retain good structure even in the course of transition.

Through all of this, it is important to remember what it is that permits the development of "grounding": intention channelled by your mindfulness.

You'll see in the opening push that I ask my student to pause for a moment while I get myself focused.  Why?  Because in order to better resist the push (one I know will be executed without restraint) I have to be "in the zone".  The better focused I am, the better my grounding and the better my structure and, therefore, my resistance. (Before you start flaming me with statements like "You don't have time to focus in a fight," please note my comments below under the heading "The bounds of the test".)

In the above video I also demonstrate lifting in sanchin.  Again, you will see a student of mine trying to lift me.  Without grounding being employed, I am easily lifted.  However when I focus on the grounding I become much "heavier".  You see this particularly on the last lift where I am most focused - and where my student doesn't quite manage to get both my feet off the ground at all, despite a much greater height and weight advantage.

The role of physics

Okay, so if it it isn't something supernatural, how does it work?  On one level it seems counter-intuitive.  So is it fakery?  Is it "mentalism"?

I think the video makes it clear that my students are actively trying to move me (within the bounds of the test, of course - more on that in a minute).

Moreover I think it is clear I am also working hard - both mentally and physically.  If you look closely, at the end of the opening pushes you can hear that I am actually out of breath.  I certainly haven't been "defying physics" - as "impressive" or "counter-intuitive" as these demonstrations might be.  I have been using physical strength in the form of my structure, albeit in a subtle way.

Given that nothing more than physics is at play, it is apposite to note that against a much larger and stronger opponent I would have been pushed over or lifted, as the case requires.  In other words, there is a "tipping point" for any such "test".

For example, I could observe that I once ran the pushing test at my gym against sceptical gym rats, most of them very experienced power lifters and/or body builders.  The only one of them who managed to push me off balance was a rugby full-forward (well trained in practical pushing as well the one who had the most practical strength).  And even he didn't move me all that easily.

But then again, I wasn't exactly a "small" guy in those days.  The adjacent image was taken at around that time - ie. I weighed a good 15 kg (33 lb) more than I do in the above video and I was squatting over 136 kg (300 lb) for 4 sets of 20 repetitions.

In other words, to resist strong guys, I had to be "strong" myself.  Mindfulness and technique are important - but let's not forget that they are limited by your physical properties.

To give you an extreme example, none of us would stand a chance if pushed by King Kong or Godzilla.  Obviously the same applies to more realistically sized opponents who are sufficiently larger/stronger than we are.

And if you can barely lift a brick, you won't be able to resist many (probably most) attackers - no matter how "mindful" you are and no matter how efficient your technique, or how solid your structure, might be.

The bounds of the test

Finally, it is important to remember that the demonstrations in my video are nothing more than isolated tests of structure from specific angles.  For example, if you pushed me from the side in the xingyi stance, or if you tried to lift me using a more potent method (eg. grabbing around the thighs), I couldn't resist it - at least, not simply by remaining in the same stance and relying on "grounding"

(I might resist your efforts by a host of other measures, including smacking you in the face, but that is another story altogether!).

So I'm not demonstrating "fighting techniques" or "scripted responses".  I'm merely demonstrating appropriate (and limited) methods of testing structure in the context of resisting a forces from certain angles.

Obviously if you're not absolutely honest - with others or even yourself - about what is really going on in such tests, and the necessary limitations on the data gained, you might be tempted to go down the path of believing in something "more than physical".

That is the point you will start "believing your own hype".  And the more a teacher believes "self-generated hype", the more likely his or her students are to become complicit (usually unconsciously) in the process.  This is something today's marital artists commonly call "teacher chi".

Don't go there.


Zhan zhuang - "standing post training" is, I believe, a very useful tool to the martial artist.  However  I also believe it is generally misunderstood - and almost entirely so.

Wang Shujin's 4 standing postures
It doesn't function to confer on the practitioner any "mystical" or "supernatural" powers.  Rather, it functions as a form of training in "mindfulness": a form of martially focused meditation.  

What is the primary goal of this meditation?  To give you a sense of "grounding" or "rooting" - ie. to improve your structure in subtle ways that enable you to utilise your body's structure - ie. its alignment, posture and relationship to incoming (or outgoing) force - in an optimal, unified way.

In a sense, when you practise zhan zhuang you are doing what a sports psychologist might already advise: you're visualising a very desireable attribute: solid structure leading to good grounding.  Mindful visualisation can, it seems, can lead to physical results, particularly when paired with the appropriate physical activity.

Yes, it is possible to analyse the function of zhan zhuang in terms of qi.  However  to do so in any sense that is logical or practically useful, I think one has to discard the "supernatural" connotations of that term and consider it as a kind of "catch-all metaphor" for the requisite "physical" and "psychological" processes working together - something I call "channelled intention".  While "channelled intention", like the related placebo effect, is still quite poorly understood in exact physiological terms, there is no doubt about its power to influence outcomes.  

Accordingly I have a great deal of time for people who describe the complex interplay of "physical" and "psychological" factors as a kind of "energy flow" which they call "qi".  Until science comes up with a more complete analysis (and while we continue to labour under the fallacy that our minds and bodies are somehow "separate") this compendious expression might well provide a convenient label to some.  

However one has to be wary of allowing "supernatural elements" to creep into one's definition of "qi".  Yes, zhan zhuang can indeed give you subtle skills that defy intuition (at least, at first glance).  But this does not justify a leap to supernatural conclusions.

I think "small things" based on reality have a "magic" all of their own: they are far more "impressive" to me than than any cheap parlour tricks.  Good grounding from zhan zhuang is one of those "magical" things.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic