It is common in some Martial Arts for practitioners to be focussed on their ability to ‘Root’ and maintain a constant sinking quality. We see this tactic in myriad videos of TaiJi practitioners performing fixed step push hands for instance, where the slightest step is seen as a failure or defeat, or in the tests of a martial artists structure, where people push against them, the person not moving and inch as a result. This is a skill that can be extremely useful in arts where grappling is a focus and the type of security that it can create is like a shield to ward off someone’s force until you are ready to enact your own tactic.
Certainly, if you have read my recent article on ‘The Skill of being Heavy’ you will note this ability is a very useful one, both for health and combat. However, there is another attribute expressed by some of the top performers. It is one that is often neglected but remains equally important none the less in the MartialBody training system. It is the skill of lightness and is, in fact, the other side of the same coin as Heaviness with which it is intimately linked.
This skill is often portrayed in the Martial Arts Movies as an ability to leap huge distances, to run up walls or to run along bamboo stalks, but there is a much more down to earth utility to this skill. People who have mastered lightness in the body are often extremely agile in combat, and capable of great speed, deceptive motion and lightning fast techniques. To get an impression of connecting with the ‘Up’ direction, think of the Gazelle. This is an animal with intense speed and agility, it is completely connected to the ‘Up’ direction and will move with huge jumps and extreme acceleration. We do not have the anatomy to produce this sort of leaping and rebounding skill of course but the mental image is a good one to help us see the up direction at work. Indeed, a Ba Gua Master I studied with for a short time had a technique called ‘Deer Running’ which looked quite a lot like that Gazelle.
The skill of lightness has a positive impact on many body functions and has a great applicability to the combative environment. Lightness is predicated on the tissues of the body being elastic, springy and healthy and of the mind being unfixed and free, the result of focused training in this attribute being a balanced agile body and a light and open mind.
It is the result of training our relationship with the ground and our elastic components in our bodies such that their ability to store and release energy as our mass acts on the earth. This is not possible if the joints are stiff, the tissues are brittle, and the muscles are tense. It is simply not possible to have lightness skills and be tense or ‘stuck’ in your body.
Further, when we view MartialBody methods through the lens of their original purpose, enhancing the methods of combat, it makes sense for agility to be a founding concept. Agility is one of the core attributes that the martial artists must possess but in the MartialBody system this is combined with the other 5 attributes which remain present simultaneously.
Lightness in the body.
At its heart, agility though lightness is founded in the practitioners ability to utilise the ‘UP’ direction. In contrast of course, Heavyness and root are predicated of the practitioners use of the ‘down’. The up direction is used in a variety of ways in these in the Martial Arts, from ‘floating’ the limbs such as the leg in order to kick without giving anyway sign of it, to the ability to raise a partner out of their root when in grappling exchange, to the ability to use deceptive or agile footwork. For health, utilizing the upwards direction is used to lengthen or open the spine, to release pressure in the joints, to create extension and ‘leading’ forces that relax and transform the tissues.
It is possible to feel the up direction and its associated internal ‘lightness’ by simply jumping. As you compress in the take-off phase the body will feel slightly heavier than body weight. As we take off and the body is accelerating upwards we are still under acceleration forces, however the tissues have now given up their energetic power and the body begins to become ‘lighter’ inside. This reaches its zenith as we come to the apex of our leap and at this stage the body reaches maximum ‘lightness’ inside. Then we decent back to the earth and eventually equilibrium once again.
The Ground Reaction Force
The Light body is described in some traditional models as connecting to the upwards or rebound force of the earth and is considered the equal opposite to the force of gravity. We have a name for this force acting on up in the up direction, opposing gravity, it is called ‘The Ground Reaction Force’ . The ground reaction force, or GRF as I will refer to it later in this article, it is the force that the solidity of the ground provides back to our structure as an equal opposite force to gravity, thus maintaining the balance of the system.
Because we are essentially structures of bone linked together with varied tissues and internal pressures we constantly store a level of potential energy in our bodies. It is along this network of our structure that Body action, gravity and ground reaction forces are focuses and used as we move.
Connecting to the GRF is the opposite of connecting with gravity and once felt and observed with intense scrutiny can be just as easy to feel. This ground reaction force can be consciously felt in the body as a type of upwards expansion or lightening of the body after certain actions. For instance, returning to the jump, during the compression phase the body will feel denser, then in the expansion, jumping phase it will feel light. Just like the Gazelle eventually we are able to connect with it in an instant, and move with great speed.
Feeling the upwards direction
So, we could say that simply reaching up or jumping would be enough to feel the Ground reaction force and our ability to generate the upwards direction inside us. But, just like with the HeavyBody, to be able to make its use strong and natural we must bring this sensation under conscious influence and control, so that we can apply this power in the tiniest of spaces or opportunities. To do this we need to train the body and mind to feel the upwards directing in a very clear but somewhat isolated way.
Initially we need to understand what the upwards directed feels like in our bodies and for this, gross motor actions like jumping or leaping can be adequate with enough time placed on understanding the sensation. But such large motions can also mask the force under a blanket of muscular tensions and releases, so we often need to scale back everything to some simple exercises to feel this force acting in our bodies. The simplest way to get in touch with the upwards direction is by lightly bouncing our mass off the earth. This process starts with a simply understanding of extension, and how to open our bodies up, but then we start to release and drop our mass onto the earth and feeling the resulting rebound in our bodies. It is a process of deepening the connection via this rebound and one which, after a short time can result in you inadvertently coming off the floor in little hops as you connect to the strong upwards direction you are creating.
Up isn’t always up
Ground reaction force isn’t only acting in the vertical plane however, it is acting in association with the forces you are applying to the earth. So, in an upright pose, you will be applying a steady downward pressure on the earth from your mass, which will result in an equal opposite upwards force. But if you begin to move horizontally along the earth, the angle of the force applied to the earth changes and GRF forces begin to change angles as well. This is where Agility, speed and complex motions can be enhanced and refined. Through the understanding and feeling of the GRF in all rapid motion we can make very fast, light, but powerful directional movement and changes. As a fighter or athlete advances on their opponent, they must do so with some urgency and rapid motion. It is not enough to waddle in and hope for the best, especially if your partner is agile. So the more we can train to be able to connect with lightness the more easily we can transition from 0 < 100 in the blink of an eye.
The Tissue Component
As I have discussed previously in articles relating to the Connected Body, our bodies are spanned with connective components which spread throughout our structure like webs. These components include a multitude of tissue like tendons, ligaments, muscle and fascia and it is through these tissues that we can further enhance the speed and agility we are able to create..
Firstly, it is the skeletal structure that primarily transmits the upwards direction. This is our scaffolding and just like any scaffolding it needs to be well aligned to support material and allow work to be done around it. When the Skeleton is misaligned it will result in muscular tension required to maintain posture. In this state the muscles under constant tension will be susceptible to a type of fatigue that will limit their elasticity and ability to transmit the GRF effectively. However, if well aligned, it is in the spanning of this scaffolding with the various tissues that the GRF can be perceived. The bones maintain a position and the tissues flex and stretch in response to the articulation and angulation of the bones as we move around. This is a constant interplay of mechanical action, gravity and GRF, sometimes called the “Heaven, Man, Earth” model in the traditional arts.
As we move, we are producing compressive forces on our scaffolding and creating joint articulations that result in motion. This process applies forces on the earth, or aligned with Gravity that translate into the various planes of motion. This process of motion, connecting our mechanical motions with the ground and the effect of gravity is the interplay that, if focussed through dedicated development, can product the heavy, stable, connect and elastic attributes in the Martial artist.
The ElasticBody attribute is typified by the ability to move quickly, swiftly and with agility. Part of this is in the development of certain tissues in order to increase the elastic component. There are many methods that can achieve a perceived increase in elasticity, from standardised stretching modalities to arts like Yoga or Pilates. However, Flexibility and Elasticity are not quite the same thing and should not be confused. In research studies focused on the development of the elastic components in our bodies, it was found that ‘bouncing’ and ‘rebounding’ motions had a greater impact on the elasticity of our tissues that stretching or similar processes of elongating the muscle.
Speed & Agility.
Bounding, rebounding and bouncing can be seen in many of the basic training modalities found in the traditional Martial Arts. During my study of Ba Gua one teacher would have us perform a training method known as ‘Deer Running’ where you would bound or leap long distances like a deer running from a predator. The comment was always ‘” Rebound, Catch the force!”.
We have already discussed the ‘force’ described in this statement, but why the importance on rebounding? Firstly, we need to look at something known as ‘foot speed’. This is a concept used by a number of trainers where the foots time in contact with the ground and the athletes time to spring out of the feet is reduced as much as possible. I was once told from a traditional perspective to imagine the ground is hot and that you didn’t want to linger on it too long. This creates the right image for training ‘foot speed’ and will help the athlete to understand the importance of minimising ground contact time for this specific training purpose.
But what does foot speed bring to the table? When we think of stand-up martial arts techniques, ground contact is the foundation of everything. Although we can use some techniques that do not necessarily rely on ground contact, for the clear majority of techniques it is the first and vital part of the mechanical puzzle related to producing force.
For most of the time our feet are connected with the earth and as such the development of their sensitivity and strength will prove to be fruitful for us. To do this we need to employ a number of methods, from the rocking methods found in the StableBody Course to the bouncing and rebounding methods found in the ElasticBody course. But what are we doing as we consciously and deliberately load the foot along different aspects?
The foot is packed full of ‘sensors’ that help us in a variety of ways. From sensors to understand the nature of a surface we are standing upon, to sensors to detect loss of balance (when slipping on ice for example) to sensors that note vibration or compression, used to understand load on the ground and how to appropriately format the body to handle it. All of these sensors constantly work in unison to provide us with an accurate map of our position in relation to the earth and our environment (proprioception) and all of them can be trained to be more sensitive.
For speed we need our feet to be able to perceive and act on changing pressures so that we can ‘pop’ off the floor as required. But moreover, we need the feet to be capable of controlling the sort of forces we are able to produce as we bounce away or move rapidly. As such foot strengthening and developing the tissues of the feet through targeted practice is also extremely important.
The Neural Component of speed and agility.
One of my teachers would say that the ability to pick up complex movement skills reflected the internal state, the more developed you were, the easier it would be to move with precision. This statement was pointing towards the fact that all movement is in fact a reflection of our ability to make our body act in a certain way via the nervous system. The signal to the muscle and the resulting volume of force produced are highly reliant on the nervous system and a poorly developed connection here will impact your ability to act and react to a given stimulus.
Humans are quite diverse in their make up when it comes to muscular structure, some like elite marathon runners, being mainly composed of slow twitch endurance muscle fibres and others, like Olympic sprinters, being bundled of fast twitch highly responsive fibres. So, in some sense we are limited by our biology when it comes to out and out speed.
However, with correct action/reaction training combined with the co-ordination of our body structure, gravity and GRF we are able to move much more quickly that we may originally realise. Training ourselves to be ‘fast out of the gates’ resides in the domain of partner training and external stimulus drills. Techniques like plyometrics on a random command or partner games where one person tried to ‘get’ the other and they respond in a particular way can lead us towards the goal of reducing the time between the given stimulus and the action.
Over relatively short periods of time individuals can tune into action or reaction games and their times drop dramatically. This is evidence that our reaction times are not static as some may believe, they are in fact fluid and dependant on circumstance and environment. The interesting point here is that if they are highly changeable, then we, through correct training can begin to create the habit making them remain in the optimum range.
Ultimately the up direction and the ElasticBody attribute associated with it is the equal opposite side of the coin to the downwards direction and the HeavyBody. As I mentioned at the start of this article, it is often neglected, thinking that to be light is to be easily manipulated. However, the attribute proves to be extremely useful when used in conjunction with the HeavyBody during the ever changing conditions of the fight.
We want to be the coin so that at any point we can show you the Heavy Face, where crushing forces are applied, then in an instant, I can flip the coin and show you the light face where I disappear from your touch or range. The centre point between these two attributes is a type of trained equilibrium, rooted in the Stable and Connected Bodies. It is from this position that we can produce varied and highly successful body methods and attributes no matter what art we use or study.
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