Working on stances

April 21, 2016

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Confusion about what we’re doing with the back and pelvis might reveal itself in pain or discomfort (in the back or leg joints) when adopting positions such as horse stance (image courtesy of Tinou Bao).

Having a conversation with a martial arts instructor a while back about a high profile figure from the world of taekwondo who had had to undergo several hip operations, he concluded with a little exasperation that “there’s something wrong with your technique” if you’re needing multiple operations.

I’ve dabbled with martial arts myself over the years, and though still far from being a skilled practitioner, I think I’ve reached a point where I can train without much in the way of pain or injury – a great advance on where I was 15 years ago when I assumed I might only have a few years left of being able to train at all, such were my difficulties (and the inadequacy of the answers I received when seeking solutions).

A lot of my own confusion about body awareness has been with the pelvis and lower back. This seems to be an area where a lot of people feel confused, from what I can observe. And it can be difficult to discern from a visual inspection, whether or not someone is making life needlessly difficult for themselves in this area.

In very small children and – I would say – people in whom things appear to be working well, there seems to be more of a unity between the back and pelvis, as though the two work together as a single structure.

What seems more prevalent among adults is a tendency to break this unity, to move in a way where the back and pelvis are moving independently. A common pattern is the pelvis tilting forwards and the lower back curving inwards to an excessive degree. Or when someone is walking or moving around, you’ll be able to see that they’re moving their entire pelvis with each step, rather than simply moving the legs.

This tends to weaken the back and make movement generally more cumbersome. My own attempts to eliminate this tendency have come with a sense that my knees and hip joints have been “oiled” – I almost never suffer from pain there anymore, and feel i can move much more easily. And this is something I’ve observed with other people too.

You can explore your own tendencies in this area by trying the following experiment: First, stand near a wall with your back facing the wall and your feet a few inches away from the wall. Let your back and buttocks rest against the wall. Your head will probably be a few inches away from the wall in this position – and so it should be as the spine has an ‘S’ shape (so don’t bend your neck to make your head touch the wall).

Keep your back and pelvis in contact with the wall and allow your knees to bend, so your whole body slides down the wall. If you notice an irresistible tendency to take your backside off the wall then that’s probably a sign that you tend to break this unity between back and pelvis unnaturally, a habit that tends to weaken the back and make movement of all kinds more cumbersome and less fluid.

Using a wall in this way can help you gain more insight into your technique. If there’s a stance you habitually perform which can be worked with in this manner, such as horse stance, try doing it against a wall. As you go into the stance notice whether you feel inclined to change the connection between the wall and bits of your back or pelvis, to pull one side of the back or your pelvis away from the wall as you bend your knees, for example.

Changing a habitual style of movement feels unnatural – this is just because of its unfamiliarity. What feels wrong might actually be right (or more right than before) – although pain definitely shoudn’t be ignored.

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