Bio-Mechanics of Martial Arts

Bio-Mechanics of Martial Arts

I live in Boulder, Colorado.  If you get into trouble socially in Boulder, all you have to say is the magic word, "sustainability."  This works for all situations.  If the police are trying to arrest you, just say, "sustainability," and they will let you go.  If you step on someone's foot at the cafe, say "sustainability," and everyone smiles. If your dog barks at someone, if your goats get out of the yard and chew up the seats of your neighbor's convertible, if you forget a friend's birthday, just say "sustainability;" it is the universal safe word for Boulder. All advertising, marketing, education and politics uses the word "sustainability," in all situations. 

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Gross Motor and Fine Motor - Reconsidered

I've been puzzling over the meanings of the terms gross motor and fine motor.  A while back I proposed that we could coin a new term to describe the movement of internal martial artists--monster motor.  I got this from pondering and imitating the way wild predators move.  That's fun, but on re-consideration it might be more prudent of me to push for definitions of gross and fine motor which are more consistent with my understanding of human movement.

Fine motor control seems to be mainly about stuff we do with our hands.   Since most body action and control has been observed to develop from the torso outwards, fine motor control develops after gross motor control.  Gross motor is the more challenging term.  This particular list of infant development is helpful in defining gross motor: Toddler clapping hands

  1. Symmetrical Bilateral Integration. Symmetrical bilateral integration involves both sides of the body working in mirror-image unison, where the actions on one side of the body mirror the actions performed on the other side.

  2. Reciprocal Bilateral Integration. Reciprocal bilateral integration involves moving both sides of the body at the same time in opposite motions.Toddler crawling

  3. Asymmetrical Bilateral Integration. Asymmetrical bilateral integration involves each side of the body acting in a different way to complete a single specific task. For example, one foot may kick a ball as the other foot plants on the ground and balances the body.

  4. Crossing the Midline. The “midline” is the imaginary line down the center of your body from the top of your head to your toes). Crossing the midline involves instinctively reaching across your body to complete an activity.Toddler kicking ball

These are all process of basic spacial awareness that fall under the larger gross motor label.  The problem arises for me when we start applying the same term to actions like throwing a ball or skipping rope.  These actions in practice require a great deal of fine motor control on top of gross motor skills.  Even proper adult walking (the way I walk when I want people to think I'm normal) requires peripheral and distal (away from the torso) precision.

The physical therapy kinesiology world may have become confused because it has emphasized the use of  muscles and muscle groups to describe action categories.  It's my suspicion that because they possessed a detailed "scientific" map of the muscles early kinesiologists felt obligated to reference it as a way to confer authority on the field as a whole.  But individuated muscle groups don't exist in a mind which is learning new movement.  If we parse our imagination into muscles it will actually inhibit learning.

I'm still having trouble with the categories.  I want one category for movement in which the mind is inside the body guiding and controlling!  And I want a second category for movement which is driven by visual or auditory impulses seen, felt or imagined outside of the body!

Then again, I'm almost willing to accept that gross motor movement is the same as whole body power.  And then re-define fine motor control as movement strategies which reduce, limit or focus power.

I'm suggesting that gross motor movement starts out pure, with the mind always leading the qi. Babies bodies are empty (kong) and don't store any stress in the muscles (xu) therefore their locomotion is only initiated by changes in spacial perception.  Because they are xu, qi floats around the their body not in the muscles and bones. Because they are kong the shape of their whole torso changes to support and propel their actions as their spacial mind changes.

In any event, the process of learning internal martial arts forces me to consider this problem deeply.  Lately I've been trying to take my Shaolin Wuhu Dao (five tiger broad sword) and my Baxian Jian (8 immortal double edged straight sword) forms and make them purely internal martial arts.  I find that the big challenge is in the grip!  To use internal power the sword must be inside my qi body.  To accomplish this my connection to the entire sword has to be solid, and that requires a firm grip, like a baby grabbing your finger.  However the techniques in both forms require a lot of fast loose changing of angles.  The traditional grips I learned are ever changing, sometimes loose, sometimes tight, sometimes rolling.  If I take out all that fine motor control in the grip it feels great--there is so much whole body power behind the swords.  But many of the techniques don't look right--I simply don't have the wrist flexibility to execute them with a firm grip.  Yet.
His Bones are Soft, his muscles are weak,

But his grip is very strong! --Laozi

Now check out how a baby at 6 months can lift his head!  I key gross motor skill. Ask yourself honestly, do you know any adults that can do this?  With grace and power?  With soft enthusiasm?  Every time qi rises in the body this is how it should look and feel.  The Chinese term for this is zheng -- to be upright, to rectify, cosmic harmony.

Becoming Left Handed

I was talking to George Xu the other day and he compared the process of changing from being an external martial artist to being and internal martial artist to the process of changing from being right handed to being left handed.  To accomplish that, you would have give up writing and feeding yourself with your right hand and learn those actions with your left hand.  Simple enough, I suppose, if you're a hermit in the mountains with a years supply of edible mushrooms.

However, if you are going to keep your life going you'd have to accomplish it in steps, gradually going back and forth between left handed and right handed actions.  I imagine it would take a lot of confidence and determination.6a00e55404668688330115724cc09b970b-pi

Of course we aren't trying to change from right to left, we are trying to change from so called "external" to so called "internal."  Add to the problem that there are few people who can model it well, and even fewer that can clearly explain the task-at-hand.

But my point here is that learning internal arts has a real similarity to trying to do stuff with your non-dominant hand.  You have to turn off the well established how to messages, and replace them with clumsy awkward undeveloped ways of moving.  And you have to do this consistently, in an experimental feedback loop, over an extended period of time.

Baby, Baby, Babies

med_illustration_1Being baby-like is used as a metaphor to describe the Dao in several key chapters of the Daodejing.  I've ventured into this particular play-pen many times before, but each time I see things differently.

Speaking of seeing, did you know that babies learn to track with their eyes at two months of age.  The ability to track moving objects continues to improve for a few months until the baby can actually reach for things and grab them.  This is usually called Gross Motor movement.  But interestingly, they can reach for things without grabbing before that.

Babies can reach for things before they have control over their arms!  How do they do this?  Well the theory is that when their arms come into their field of vision, they can position them where they want them by moving other parts of their body, like their torso and head.  In Tai Chi terms, they move their dantian and the arms follow!

The ability to track a moving object with the eyes requires imagination.  Our mind creates the illusion that our entire field of vision is clear and focused.  But if you look at a single word on this page you will not be able to see the other words in focus.  The part of our eyes that focuses is a very small part of our vision.  This is probably why people experiencing intense fear or excitement usually see with tunnel vision.  It's actually the only part of our vision which focuses.  Normally our focused vision is dancing around and attending to whatever interests us and that memory-image becomes part of the whole picture we "see."  Our eyes can normally spot movement and color changes in the periphery but in order to track a moving object and grab it, we probably need to have an image of the whole field of vision in our mind.  This is a an "automatic" function of the imagination. But it is a function that develops with age and practice, during the first 2 to 6 months of life. It is a type of effort.

diego_san_2But children often have some difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is imaginary.  It's easy to see how this might come about, especially if most of what we think we are "seeing" is actually being organized by our imagination.  We usually see ghosts out of the corner of our eyes.  Magicians use 'slight of hand' which basically means they get you to focus one way and imagine the other.  When someone shouts in a crowd, "He's got a knife!" lots of people will be certain they saw it, even if it never existed.

The ability to distinguish what is real from what is imaginary is a developmental process.  It develops out of something called an "action cognitive sequence."  I'm new two this theory but it seems simple enough.  Basically, you see it and you notice it change, then you see it and you imagine it changing, then you see it, you imagine it changing and you change it.   After a couple years of this you have touched everything, put nearly everything in your mouth and you are ready to enter politics.

Because the ability to distinguish reality from imagination develops out of a type of action, it is possible to turn it off!  It is an ability related to tracking objects with the eyes, which is also a type of effort which can be relaxed.  Before gross motor control of the arms develops, babies have the ability to see without focusing, and they have the ability to reach for things without controlling their arms.  This is of course a description of the internal martial arts, tai chi, xingyi, bagua and qigong.

There is so much more we can learn from babies.  All of the above theories have been tested in one way or another.  The tests are imperfect, new theories keep showing up, and new tests bring old ones into doubt.  The paper that inspired this post is here if you want to check it out.  (The Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 2009, 50, P. 617-623)

diego_san_4The paper was sent to me because I told someone I thought the idea of reflexes was a bit flimsy.  The paper offers evidence to counter the idea that babies have reflexes.  The "rooting" reflex used by babies to find their mothers breast seems to turn off after they have eaten!  And the "sucking" reflex is very dynamic.  Babies adjust how much they are sucking moment to moment depending on how much milk is available.  They also change their sucking patterns in order to get their mother's to vocalize.  In other words, babies are in control!

And that leads to my final point, in the practice of internal martial arts we can turn off:

  1. The focus-tracking function of the eyes,

  2. The distinction between what is real and imaginary,

  3. The impulse to articulate the limbs,

  4. The use of feed-back from the eyes to "correct" balance,

  5. And the "felt" awareness of where our body is in space.

Once these impulses are turned off, once these learned types of effort are relaxed,  there is still something alive and in control.  Neo-nates, little babies, move by shrinking and expanding, by twisting and spiraling.  They seem to move from the belly...which is the dantian...which seems to include everything.