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About stances

Intro

The famous Japanese swordsman Musash, who survived over 60 actual life and death duels and then wrote his classic text on strategy, The Book of Five Rings, wrote:
"Make your fighting stance your everyday stance; make your everyday stance your fighting stance."
Stability and movement are essential in the practice of the martial arts. To resist and attack, the body but be stable and well grounded. For any block or attack to be effective, the body must be stable, so maximum force may be transferred to the opponent. And, while maintaining its stability, the body must also be able to move quickly.

What is a stance?

Stance primarily refers to the lower portion of the body, the hips and legs. A strong stable base (stance) is needed to perform powerful, fast, accurate, and smoothly executed techniques. The upper part of the body is balanced on this firm base, with the back straight and perpendicular to the ground. This relatively stationary stability is called static stability. However, it is only necessary to assume this position just before delivering an attack. If one concentrates too much on remaining in a firm and stable position, he or she will be stiff and unable to move quickly. During movement, the body must still maintain stability, this is called dynamic stability.

All martial art styles use stances. Low stances are very stable and powerful. High, upright stances are less stable but allow for quick movement. For example, wrestlers use a low, crouched stance, most karate stylists use a low, upright stance, most Chinese stylists use a low, long stance, Aikido uses mostly upright stances, and taekwondo, while considered an upright style, also uses low stances.
Stances form the foundation of all martial arts movements and techniques since they maintain stability while permitting quick movement.

When the body is stable, tension in legs and feet is transferred to the body’s center of balance to furnish a firm foundation for any technique while still permitting rapid body movement in all directions. Without a firm foundation, movements will be unstable, and techniques will lack speed and power.

Stances involve the concepts of body position, range, focus, and breathing. This article discusses body positioning as related to stances. Range, focus, and breathing are discussed in other topics and articles. Stances also express the user’s state of mind, spirit, purpose, and determination—they reflect the user’s intention to do battle.

Stance and movement

Some martial arts teach awkward stances and movements. This may be okay as related to the art part of a martial art since good art is in the eye of the beholder. However, when it comes to the martial part of a martial art, these awkward stances and movements are counterproductive.

If a baby human is left in the forest and raised by wolves, such as in the legend of Romulus and Remus, at some point the baby will stand and begin to walk on two legs. This will occur without the baby ever seeing another human to imitate. The child will walk naturally and make needed stances without any instruction from a martial art “master.” As the child gets older and becomes an adult, he or she may become less physically fit and become lax in making effective stances and movements, but the instincts are still there so he or she will still be able to use them if necessary, especially when fatigued. For example, if you turn your head to look over the left shoulder, your left arm naturally tenses, and right arm relaxes. This is why your car drifts to the right when you check look to the left at a traffic accident as you pass it.

Natural vs. forced

When a martial art instructor tries to teach unnatural stances and movements to students, the students don’t perform them well since they do against their human instincts, so they must be trained to perform the stances. Natural stances and movements are easy to perform; the instructor only needs to teach students how to perform them better.

Purpose of stance

Stances serve several purposes, such as:
  • They allow you to stand.
  • They enable smooth shifting and change of direction.
  • They permit maximum use of an external force (floor in the case) to increase the internal force (our own body musculature) into a technique. A good stance, coordinated with proper breathing and correct posture helps transfer forces from the feet into the technique.
  • They absorb any recoil forces from the instant of contact of a technique.
When discussing stances, balance, power, and mobility must be considered. Maximum power and mobility are obtained when the center of balance (a point in the center of the body behind the belt knot) is as low as practically possible. If the center of balance is too high, the body is unstable and leg movement is limited, so power and mobility are reduced. If the center of balance is too low, it is difficult to use the inner thigh muscles for leg movement which limits both power and mobility.
Beginning students first learn stationary stances. As they progress in training, they learn that stances are merely transitory positions that are changing dynamically as circumstances demand.

Points of concern

Nomenclature

When the right foot is forward in a stance, it is called a right stance and vice versa.

Pose

Poses are specific postures used in stances. For example, from a back stance, you may lift your front knee into a front kick chamber pose to act as a guard against a kicking attack. Poses are dynamic, not static. They are instinctive definable movements that occur spontaneously and change as needed at the moment. Chambers used during patterns are poses when they are done with intent and they flow seamlessly within the movements.

Focus

Keep your eyes focused on your opponent. Don’t stare, but try to have strong, powerful, piercing eyes that reflect your intense power and dedication to purpose. Don’t concentrate your vision straight ahead. Look at your target but be aware of any peripheral movement.

Relax

Relax the muscles and stay loose. Tension reduces endurance and the speed and effectiveness of techniques.

Slide

When stepping, release weight from the moving foot and push off the supporting leg using the inner thigh muscles to propel the body. The movement is more of a sliding step since the moving foot remains in contact with the ground, or slightly above it. In a street defensive situation, you cannot clearly see the ground or what may be lying on its surface, such as broken glass or gravel. If you step into a hole or onto something slippery, you may lose your balance and open yourself to an attack. By sliding a moving foot, it clears its path. You are "seeing" the ground with your feet as you move. Do not shift your weight onto the moving foot until it is in position on a firm surface. Once the weight starts shifting, you are committed to the movement, so if the foot is not on firm ground, you may expose yourself to an attack or the possibility of falling. This technique also works well when walking on a slippery surface, such as a wet floor or ice.

Base

While moving in any stance, the feet should always stay at least a shoulder width apart. This insures you always maintain minimum balance.

Settling

Once in correct position for a stance, settle the body weight/mass/center of balance down into the stance. You should feel as though you are making yourself very, very heavy; so heavy that no one could pick you up, but at the same time, you should feel light on your feet so that you can still move quickly.

Foot Pressure

When you are settled into a stance, the force of the body's mass is transferred to the floor through the areas of the soles of the feet that make contact with the floor. For most stances, these areas are primarily the heel, the ball of the foot behind the big toe, and the big toe itself. When standing in a formal stance, think about where the feet are contacting the floor and keep your weight concentrated over these three points. This is commonly called "rooting." During movement, the amount of pressure on each of these three points may vary, but after the movement is completed, the body should once again become rooted.

Hip Height

When lifting the leg for a kick, do not raise the hips. Raising the hips will raise the center of mass, weaken stability, and weaken the kick.

Hip Rotation

Hip rotation is important in achieving maximum power in a technique. Some stances aid in hip rotation, while other stances hamper it. The front stance aids hip rotation the most, while the back and sitting stance hamper it. Since the knees are not free to move in these stances, the hips may not rotate unless a step is taken. For this reason, hip rotation frequently occurs when moving between stances, such as moving from a back stance into a front stance. Sometimes students will try to rotate the hips from a stance that does not support the movement by letting the stance collapse and moving their knees. This should not be done, it is better to shift into another stance that supports hip rotation.

Stance may weaken a technique

It can happen! When you are standing in place, you are pressing into the floor at a constant froce, which is a component of both gravity and your mass. When you begin to push into an object that is not easily moved, such as when punching an opponent, you add a third support for your body weight. Your feet and fist are acting as a sort of tripod. In other words, some of the body weight that you want to apply through your fist is being exerted through your feet.

If you lift the front foot of a front stance while punching into a wall, you will notice the increased pressure on your punching arm; since your body weight is only supported by your rear leg, your punch, and the connecting points in between. This demonstrates how a punch landed just before the front foot connects with the floor may be timed to have a larger mass component than a punch thrown with both feet planted in a stance. If a larger opponent is punched while charging in, don’t let the hips rise when lifting the foot or the body may rise and be up-ended.

Stance correction

After each movement, check all aspects of your stance and make corrections as needed before continuing.

Intermediate stances

Intermediate stances are non-standard stances that are momentarily used to prepare the body to shift into a proper stance. Although effective in maintaining stability while moving, they are not stable enough to use in techniques. Intermediate stances aid in maintaining dynamic balance while moving.

Movements

Movement may be linear (forward or backward in straight or nearly straight lines), circular (in circles or curved lines), perpendicular (side to side in straight or nearly straight lines), and up and down (vertically or nearly vertical).

Learn to move quickly

Movements are a series of contractions and expansions. Contraction refers to bringing the arms and legs inward toward the centerline of the body, and expansion refers moving them away from the centerline. While performs patterns, we first chamber and contract the arms and legs, and then expand them into the technique and stance. During turns, it is important to contact the body as close to the rotational axis of the body as possible.

Ever notice an ice skater doing a "scratch spin." The skater starts to turn rather slowly with the arms extended (expanded). As the arms contract closer to the body, the spin gets faster and faster. You turn faster with your arms contracted than with them expanded. For example, when performing a 270-degree jump turn in the martial arts, you start from a forward stance with the arms and legs held away from the center of the body. As you start rotating, you cross the arms close to the body and bring the legs under the center of gravity. The rotation is stopped by extending the arms and legs away from the torso. For smooth turns, the hips need to rotate directly over the base foot and the head and shoulders should remain in line with the hips.

Training

One common training method is to maintain the same stance under tension for a long time. Another method is to alternately tense and relax the muscles in the same way they are used when focusing a technique. When learning a stance, it is useful to practice the offensive and defensive techniques that are best suited to it.

Points to remember

  • In all stances, the knees and toes of each leg should point in the same direction.
  • Knees and ankles must be bent sufficiently and remain firm.
  • Soles of the feet should adhere to the floor.
  • The height of the hips is about the same for all stances.
  • The hip position must be accurate, so proper weight distribution is maintained.
  • Stances vary according to the objective.

Common errors

  • Buttocks sticking out to the rear.
  • Too much concern about form.
  • Hips positioned improperly.
  • Ankles too relaxed.
  • Heels floating.
  • Knees and toes out of alignment.

Stance choice

Each stance has qualities which are advantageous or disadvantageous, according to the situation. Also, each stance changes, according to its use. For instance, in preparation for an attack from a front stance, the front knee is bent and both legs are relaxed to permit quick and flexible movement. However, at the moment of impact of the attack, the muscles of the legs must contract to strengthen the hold of the feet on the ground and to give power to the technique. Maintaining unnecessary tension in the legs or using a stance which is too low will hinder quick movement.

Stance tips

  • Learn all the stances and when to use them. 
  • Use stances that fit your size and ability, fit the technique you are using, and fit the attacking style of your opponent. 
  • Practice using stances on both sides. 
  • Certain techniques are easier to execute from a specific stance, such as a leading foot front kick from a front stance. 
  • Some techniques must be executed from a specific stance, such as a sliding side kick from a sitting stance.

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