by Richard Conceicao
Elements of Structure
(or: The fat Chinese guys in the paintings had it right!)
Structure is an essential part of any martial art. It makes a difference in every technique, every stance, every move. It forms the basis of everything we do. It determines whether or not we do it correctly or more importantly, whether we completed it properly with the desired effect.A Quick example:
We do a high block to protect against a downward strike. Are both our hands positioned properly? Did we set correctly? Did we rotate our arm and and stop in the right position? Are our legs and feet in the right position? Our spine? Our head? Our hips? Can we properly and effectively take the blow, or are we just hoping we can?
All of these components are determined by our structure.
Structure can be thought of as the maximum postural integrity with minimal muscular usage of any given position. Classically correct structure, or in Chinese “Peng” (pronounced ‘Pong’), is the position that not only does the above, but also allows the maximum flow of Chi to our entire body.
Structure is the largely neglected foundation of all martial arts. In the student’s haste to get to the “advanced” techniques of his given art, the tendency is to substitute either muscular strength, or momentum, or both, to compensate for the lack of good, solid structure.
Some martial arts, notably the internal ones of China such as Tai Chi, spend years concentrating just on good structure. No techniques or applications are taught until the student can demonstrate proper structure in any given stance.
This is the primary reason why many people don’t feel that Tai Chi is a martial art because to them it appears that everything is being done so slowly. What they don’t realize is that this is intentional. In a sense, they force the student to go very slowly, so that he/she can go very rapidly in a correct manner later on.
It is highly instructive for most students to practice their basic stances, their forms, and their one step self-defense techniques, in a slow “Tai Chi mode” regardless of the style of martial art being studied. When you perform your forms and techniques in this way, it becomes quite obvious where you are “fudging” your motions and intent. You may be turning and throwing your low block before you have proper footing, you may be stepping too quickly and not providing an adequate foundation for your attack, or you may be rapidly rotating on your turns to compensate for a lack of stability on your part.
Practicing in slow motion is an important first step in uncovering these errors in structure. The first step is actual testing of each posture to ensure that it’s doing what it is supposed to be doing. For example, does your low block actually do what you are intending it to do? Have you ever had anyone press against it to see if you can actually hold it against resistance? Many students have never tested their basics to ensure that they actually work, and for some reason they just seem to think it does.
First let’s begin with the essential checkpoints of all structure:
1. While standing, raise the crown of your head. The feeling should be as if there was a piece of string pulling your head straight up into the air. If the head is not straight, it being the heaviest single part of your body, it will pull the rest of you out of alignment and you will not have any stability in standing or moving.
2. Your eyes should look far into the distance. This is to ensure that your head is level. When you look at things close by you tend to adjust the attitude and rotation of your head in order to accomplish this. Again, you will not be in proper spinal alignment.
3. Your ears are listening “inward”. This is a little harder to describe, but easier to understand when put into practice. The goal here is to connect your senses to your body. If you’ve ever watched somebody listening to something off in the distance, the tendency is for him or her to cock one ear or the other in the direction of the sound. You can see how this disturbs the position of the head, and in many cases, the rest of the body. By listening “inward” we maintain the proper alignment of our head.
4. Straighten your neck. The feeling here is as if you’re pushing the back of your neck against the collar of your shirt. This, in combination with the lifting of the Crown of your head tends to straighten out your neck. Many of us have a tendency to carry our heads forward with our neck bent. Of course this is quite damaging to our posture, and later in life you can see individuals who are basically stooped over from years of carrying themselves this way.
5. Head held as if balanced on a pin. Your head should be held in proper position with a minimum of muscular tension. Our goal is maximum fluidity and chi flow throughout the body. Any time we tense muscles, or curve our body unnaturally, we reduce the flow of our Chi.
6. Tongue on the roof of your mouth. Placement of the tongue on the roof of our mouth should be something we always do whenever we are not speaking or eating. This placement connects in Chinese medicine the governing vessel and the conception vessel meridians. When connected this is called the grand circulation. (Future link to meridian section)
7. Raise your back and drop your chest slightly forward. When this is done your shoulder blades will rotate slightly outward. This produces a curve of your back sometimes called the “C Back”. It is not something that is terribly exaggerated, although it is visible. If we watch animals when they are angry, or ready to attack, we notice that their “haunches” (i.e. shoulders) curve up. We tend to duplicate this effect as people.
8. Open up your belly (Buddha belly). We let our lower abdomens bulge out to drop our center of Gravity and enhance our breathing. All those pictures of little fat guys in Chinese paintings really had it right. It wasn’t calories, but good posture that they were representing.
As Westerners we always try to do the opposite. The lone gunslinger in our favorite movies always walks up to his opponent making himself really tall. He puffs up his chest, and sucks in his gut. By doing this, he makes himself actually far more vulnerable. His high center of gravity makes throwing him much easier, and his tight abdomen restricts his breathing, thereby tiring him more quickly.
9. Drop your pelvis to remove the curve from your lower back (lordosis). The curve in our lower back while natural, behaves as a leak of energy when we try to move forward as a complete unit. In order to avoid this we have to tuck our tailbone underneath to make our pelvis essentially level.
The English translation of pelvis is “basin”, as in a basin of water. We want to keep our basin level so that the water doesn’t spill out. Note that this cannot be done unless the rear, or weighted leg is bent at the knee.
It must be pointed out here that when we look at the normal position of the front stance in our forms, what we are looking at is completion of our follow-through. It is the position of what has happened aftercontact has been made. It is not the position of contact as so many believe. We will discuss this in more detail in a later section xxx
10. Correct Spinal Alignment. In Chinese, sometimes referred to as the “Ridgepole”, as in the support pole that holds up the circus tent in the middle. The spine is the central support of our bodies. In order to maximize our power transfer to our opponent we must move our body as a complete unit. We cannot do this without a straight spine.
As a final thought, before moving to the specifics of the stances, we have to understand that structure is not the same thing as “rootedness”. Being rooted is the ability of your feet to hold your ground in any given position. Take for example, someone standing on ice. They can have perfect structure, but no rootedness. You can push them around at will, in correct form, because they will just slide on the ice, yet hold the integrity of their posture. Conversely, they can stand on a high friction surface where you can’t move them, but any attack on them will succeed because they have poor structure.