Movement and Flexibility

Courtney

Not good. Good. Really bad. In my opinion, anyway. Martial artists always talk about one another. It’s somewhat essential…we train in combat arts, we’d be stupid to not be paying attention to what everyone else is doing and how they are doing it. Hanging out with older and more deeply experienced eastern martial artists, there are some common critiques of western martial artists and instructors. Most critique can be brushed off simply because they aren’t seeing what they expect to see, but some is more telling.

Walking through a local mall recently, there was this very old south asian guy walking by. He didn’t stand out at all, but to my eye he immediately lit up as a very scary dude. The vibe was that of a serious martial artist, one with teaching and practical experience. To my eye, it was clear.

I have no idea if I was right or not, but I do recognize what it was I saw that equated with threat in my eyes. It wasn’t just his perfect posture, but how he moved that posture through space. It’s a thing many western martial artists lack. It’s a result of poor, but well intentioned, training. Focusing on just the sword leads to some really sloppy mechanics.

I’m teaching a stretching class tonight. At least, that’s what we call it. It really has nothing to do with stretching. It’s really a range of motion class. What we do is work on moving our body and limbs around their different axis, using only muscle power. Instead of trying to do the splits, we see how far we can pull our legs apart using only the associated abductors. We aim for a functional flexibility based on strength. Range of motion is developed by contrasting active relaxation and contraction of opposing muscles.

It forces good posture. Working through our set sequence of exercises, everything in the body is re-aligned. It’s not always an enjoyable process, but you become very aware of your favoritisms in muscle use. Habitual mannerisms show in painful ways, and you learn how you should correct yourself.

We always finish out this special class with a series of exercises designed to integrate what we have just learned into our practice. We re-learn how to sit, how to stand, and how to walk. We touch again on our basic hollow body and arch holds. Sometimes we try to move our new alignment understanding into handstand and cartwheel work. And then, we take the same lessons and move into swordplay. We re-learn how to hold a guard that works for us, how to lunge and maintain our internal alignments.

I’m half tempted to rename the class “Prana-bindu” just because some of us are hardcore Dune geeks. Posture is important to all martial artists because it’s our foundation for all movement. Good posture is individual and has to be learned from internal observation. It takes work. Everyone can move, perform, compete and even succeed without putting in that work, but they will never reach their own potential without it.

And this is what a lot of martial artists see wrong in western martial arts practice. People get excited about swordplay, and work on learning the mechanics of the sword while ignoring their own less-exciting mechanics. It happens in eastern martial arts as well, but it’s less common since a wider range of body motion is the norm. There are western martial arts schools that pay attention to body mechanics, I know of at least three, but a quick glance at youtube will show you how uncommon such practice is.

I know that I started to add posture training to my own practice as a way to get past the epidemic of rotator-cuff wear injuries in the rapier community. It’s certainly worked to fix that problem for me and for our school.

 

7 Comments

  1. When I reached a point where I could start recognizing that very deliberate motion, on the street, I generally saw it in one of two groups: experienced traditional martial artists and classical dancers. Even when I was at my peak in Tae Kwon Do, it was always humbling to see the pure awareness of every motion that came with that kind of training. I’ve since come to also place gymnasts and those who take yoga very seriously into that category of “those with enviable body control.” And then there are those who just have the genetics for that, and it’s hard not to be envious of that.

    The pursuit of this quality is why I enjoy both the internal martial arts and grappling. Internal martial arts are not subtle about the fact that mastery comes from that awareness, and carry that principle into every exercise. Grappling is not conscious about it, but a lot of success comes from being able to read the situation without sight. I find that the ability to read your opponent’s slight movements as well as control yours tends to evolve more organically in that environment.

  2. You have a very nice way of saying it. I am impressed by how you managed to form the argument without it sounding as insulting as when I do. I am not good with that kind of stuff, usually my statement is “Most HEMA guys have no idea of biomechanics”. I am humbled, I never thought that idea could be expressed in such a clear way.

  3. This is an excellent blog. I did eastern martial arts all through my childhood and teens. I’m in my late twenties now and have been doing HEMA for just over a year. I’m probably just as strong as I was as a teen, but miss the range of motion and functional flexibility I had then. Could the author point me in the direction of information about these exercises so that might incorporate something similar in my own training. Thanks

  4. Could you do a post on what those exercises are? They sound interesting, and I could use some more range of motion.

    • Jim, I might do that in the near future, but it’s not likely. They are really hard to describe. I would suggest reading some books on Ideokinesis, or Eric Franklin’s excellent Conditioning for Dancers: http://www.amazon.ca/Conditioning-Dance-Eric-Franklin/dp/0736041567

      Basically, though, you can extrapolate from one simple exercise: Try to squeeze your shoulder blades together, as tight as you can, until you feel a solid stretch in your pectoralis muscles. After holding that for a bit, squeeze together the stretched pectoral muscles until you feel a stretch between your shoulder blades. Or flex the bicep until the the tricep is “stretched” and then reverse. Basically work through every single opposing muscle group in the body with the hardest possible contraction. That’s the basic stretch. We follow that up by then performing the same action, but using muscle chains instead of individual muscles.

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