20 May 2012

Motion Without (Muscular) Movement

In this post I am going to discuss the way in which ITF Taekwon-Do’s sine wave motion teaches the practitioner to achieve motion without muscular movement; in other words, how to move the body—shift the body’s centre of gravity, without tensing muscles.

The full sine wave motion has three distinct phases in which the body seems to move “down-up-down”, but which is slightly better described as “relax-rise-fall”. In this post I want to speak about an unusual value of the first phase of the sine wave motion—the relax-phase—to actually initiate movement, to cause movement without using any muscular tension. This sounds paradoxical, for all human motion is achieved by tensing muscles. If I want to bend my arm, I need to flex my biceps; conversely, if I want to straighten my arm I need to contract my triceps. For movement to occur there has to be muscles that contract and so manipulate the skeleton like a puppeteer’s strings, or the cables and pulleys in a crane, or the hydraulics in heavy machinery.

Motion Through Relaxation

There is, however, another way that the body can move without any muscular contraction involved. Do this simple exercise: With your arms by your side, bend one arm up towards you as if you are lifting a dumbbell—as your biceps tenses it shortens and causes your arm to bend upwards. To lower your arm again you can go about it in two ways. First, you can contract your triceps (and relax your biceps) and in so doing actively pull your arm back to its original position. Or, second, you can merely relax your biceps  and let your arm fall to your side—instead of your triceps pulling your arm straight, it is gravity’s pull that straightens it. In so doing, you have achieved motion without any activated muscles involved; thus achieving motion without active movement.

The first phase of the full sine wave motion does something similar. The sine wave motion is initiated not by contracting any muscles, but by relaxing muscle. For instance, if you are standing in a walking stance and wish to step forward, the sine wave motion dictates that you will completely relax your front leg, causing your body weight to fall forward towards that leg. Of course, you have to “catch” yourself and activate your leg muscles again lest you completely collapse, but the interesting thing is that you have actually commenced your movement, not by using in muscular tension, but quite the opposite. You have initiated your motion by relaxing!

Of all the different advantages that the initial phase of the sine wave motion has to offer, I think this  “motion through relaxation” is probably the most interesting, and probably one of the most unique contributions the sine wave motion brought to ITF Taekwon-Do. With it you can literally effortlessly shift your body's position. Depending on your initial stance, there are four directions in which you can shift your body weight: forwards, backwards, lateral, or even diagonal.

An Example

In this post I will present an example of lateral body weight shifting achieved through this  “motion through relaxation” method, into a particular intermediate position, and I will illustrate some strategic possibilities that this position and its relation to one's opponent offers. Remember that this is just one example of lateral movement. The effortless way in which forward or backward (or even diagonal) motion can be achieved also offers interesting possibilities.

Let’s look at an example of “motion through relaxation” that is achieved through the first relax-phase in the very first movement of the pattern Chon-Ji. The pattern starts with a low forearm block towards the left. Many instructors fall directly into this block, not passing through the intermediate position. This has a strategic advantage because it is a much quicker way to perform the block than when one actually passes through the intermediate position. However, this particular “motion through relaxation” intermediate position has other benefits. For one, it shifts the body away from the danger, allowing the defender a moment to assess the situation. It also teaches a very useful and practical lesson early on in the practitioner’s training, which will be the focus of the remainder of this post.

Look at the picture in which I move from the “ready position” of the pattern into the first intermediate position. The red line that runs through the first picture is my centre line and, assuming that my opponent is standing in front of me, this is also the likely attack line of my opponent. Without any effort or muscular tension I can shift my body off of the attack line by merely relaxing my weight onto my right leg and in so doing shifting practically all my vital spots out of dangers way. Shifting one’s body weight in this relaxed way occurs surprisingly fast. My new positioning (intermediate position) relative to my opponent also opens up various counter-attack possibilities as the video shows.

The video below begins with the full first movement of the pattern Chon-Ji, then shows how one shifts your body weight into the intermediate position by merely relaxing one leg and dropping your body weight onto that leg, and lastly demonstrates different possible applications from this position.

“Animal” MacYoung's “'great secret' of fighting”

“Gravity is the fastest and most effective way to get your entire body weight in motion! . . . You can move faster by intentionally falling down than you can by trying to muscle your weight out of the way.” – Marc “Animal” MacYoung

Renound self-defence expert Marc “Animal” MacYoung calls this principle the “'great secret' of fighting”. In his book A Professional's Guide to Ending Violence Quickly, MacYoung describes, what he calls the “drop step”. MacYoung's “drop step” and the intermediate position I explored above have much in common as they share the same principle. MacYoung's version is, however, bigger—in ITF Taekwon-Do we find a similar version in other patterns, for instance in Hwa-Rang. Obviously bigger body shifting will require the use of the muscles in the form of side-steps, dodges, and so on. But, once the practitioner understand how this “falling” or “dropping” works, one can easily adjust the technique to different situations. MacYoung's book provides variations and enhancements to his “drop step”, which I'm sure sensible and/or creative students and instructors can infer on their own as well.

In my mind, the sine wave motion, primarily as it is used in the patterns and some pre-arranged sparring, is ultimately a training tool to learn how to easily “get your entire body weight in motion”, preferably with the least amount of effort, and where appropriate by using gravity for this purpose. In this regard, the initial part of the sine wave motion that moves the body into different intermediate positions is especially important as it teaches the practitioner to attain “motion through relaxation”..


Ymar Sakar said...

Sanko, I wanted to ask you what difference you saw in this two training methods.


In the course of my research, I just happened to come across them when cross referencing something for Pinan Niidan.

Ymar Sakar said...

Looking back at the past and combining it with some of the things I've learned in Taiji Chuan, the sine wave form should not be used in its present state. This doesn't impact the sine wave theory or concept, but the sine wave form inculcates the wrong movements in a student.

When a person is moving in a horizontal direction, the power exerted is indeed less if there is any up or down displacement. That's because the energy it takes to go up or down, is "lost" and is no longer dedicated to the horizontal vector any more. And it is lost before the impact.

In circumstances where people have used the sine wave concept to better grasp movements that utilize vectors that go up or down in the gravity well, such as a throw or joint lock, that is a specific circumstance. One that should not be conflated with the form, especially with how it is demonstrated in videos.

Thus when moving horizontally, perpendicular to the pull of gravity, one must learn not to change one's height or to at least always be going down into the gravity well. When moving up or down, then it's different and should be clearly distinguished when teaching to students.

The habit of certain martial arts to do a lot of repetition training when that repetition training is either not helping the student or inculcating the wrong habits/memories, is something of a pandemic in the world. Until people learn to work just as hard on developing a good training methodology as they do in competition or sparring, there is a certain ceiling or cap on the rate of student progress. This is one of the reasons I prefer a distributed, not centralized, organization. There are far better fail safes present when individuals work by themselves according to their own individual vision.

A person that understands gravity and how to translate that power into human movement, won't be misled by sine wave or any variants. But the person that has not had this foundation, can easily be led into the wrong path. Personally, I'd rather focus on improving training conditions and methods, than figuring out ways to make use of people's erroneous previous experience. Although it's not like I can't make use of a student's previous erroneous experience if it was required or absolutely necessary. It's just that there is a permanent time loss. There's a limit to what teachers can transfer, and the rest is up to the student to work out by themselves. If the student spent 5 years thinking horizontal movement is done by moving up or down before the energy transfer is done, that's 5 years they spent training their mind in the wrong patterns. Intent is critically important to effective use of skills. Those 5 years of intent, I cannot recover completely.

This is a sort of more concrete conclusion or summary of my previous views. Previously I offered them as hypotheses on Dan's blog and yours. For the time being, integrating the wave theory with joint locks and throws would be time better spent than using it to teach a student how to move in a step. I don't think in such terms for joint locks or throws, but a student may find it useful to have one unified theory explaining a lot of things at once.

SooShimKwan said...

I agree with your premise, but disagree that in the case of ITF Taekwon-Do it is necessarily teaching wrong habits. What few people realize is that a vast majority of ITF Taekwon-Do's techniques are actually not traveling horizontally. The most common punch, the middle punch, in ITF Taekwon-Do is performed at a downward slant. Common strikes such as knife-hand side strikes or back fist strikes usually reach their target not purely horizontally, but slanted downward. Most blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do arcs from above downwards. Even some of the most common kicks reach their target at a diagonal (downward) angle -- including the turning kick (round house kick), which in WTF TKD, for instance, reaches it's target at an upward slant. In each of these downward slanted cases, body dropping (what the sine wave motion teaches) is relevant.

So yes, I agree that one should not learn bad habits, but I believe if the sine wave motion is applied, following a proper pedagogy, then it is indeed valuable and appropriate.

I am therefore against a completely uniform application of the full (down-up-down) sine wave motion where it doesn't make sense, for instance for high section punches, rising blocks, upper cuts, and so one. But in these case, a rising motion (pushing with the legs upward) applies and is in fact one manifestation of the sine wave motion (down-up), which we call a "half sine wave" (although it ought rightly be called a "two-thirds sine wave", but that aside). There are places where the sine wave motion doesn't occur; one example is the straight jab. Students are taught this at a very early stage. So I believe that if the sine wave motion is taught logically, the students very quickly learn where body dropping and body rising are appropriate, and where purely horizontal movement is appropriate.

I agree that some ITF instructors do not teach the sine wave motion correctly -- in part because they have a superficial understanding of the underlying principles, but that is the fault of the instructors, not the system.

Ymar Sakar said...

I believe a student should never learn any habits at all. Because to a warrior, all habits are bad habits, one way or another. Thus I do not concur with many people who say that a student must be taught good habits or that learning two martial arts inculcates bad habits or that self learning inculcates bad habits. To me, there are only habits and the products of a free will.


"In Jikishinkage-ryû and Mutô-ryû, it is said that we must rid ourselves of all habits that we have acquired since birth without noticing or intending. This is in order to completely deny our impure egos and take away any distinction among mind, body, and technique. We achieve this negation by thoroughly practicing forms and attacks, to the extent that body and mind are forgotten.

To practice by forms means to be able to repeat the same thing. In repeating the same thing, we rid ourselves of habit and make our bodies absorb that which is correct. In addition we can broach the experience of mushin. "

Leaving aside the issue of correct or incorrect application of the theory and its constituent practical parts, the more important topic to me is whether ITF TKD should be applying these hard type downward movements as hard blocks or whether they have taken a path specializing too much on conditioning and "hard" applications that do not fit the internal power generation of gravity/momentum.

Thus it is not so much that I think going up to go down can't be used with downwards blocks, strikes. But rather, I think there's a potential case of conflict here. A sort of mutually exclusive relationship between external and internal.

A rising motion is an example of heavy or the opposite of relaxation. When used in contact with a target, there is some product to the risk. Without contact to a target or foe, it's just loading up the leg. In Taiji stepping, one leg is pushing and the other leg is receiving. This results in a step, a displacement, but there's no need to go up during the step or movement. 1 reason why relaxation moves the body faster is because it only takes half the time to send a signal to a muscle to relax. To do the same for a muscle that is double loaded, such as the leg pushing the body up, one must send the command "cancel first command" and another command to "relax". In other words, the ball is thrown up, and one must wait for it to come down. Different from simply dropping a ball one is holding.

This concept is violated often times in sport and sparring because most people lack the skills and aggressive close range skills to take advantage of a person's loaded muscles. Certainly it is even more true in a sport arena where people are at a set distance. They make up for their lack of speed via reflexes. That's an external concept.

Ymar Sakar said...

I've never seen a student who is focused on the external, also learn the internal dynamics at the same time. For some reason, it is a mutually exclusive thing. Special prodigies may exist, but I do not think they are common. My concern is less about techniques and more about training methodology and concepts. A person that undergoes the form, which Dan and you posted and argued about, using TKD's founder(s) sine wave, will be thinking about exactly the wrong things required to learn sensitivity and core skills required for internal elements. Even if one can make the application/technique work, this doesn't change that person's thinking. If there is a conflict in the mental realm, there will also be a conflict in the external physical realm. Every external martial artist I've heard from or seen, has had to make certain "adjustments" mentally and/or physically when learning internal arts. I myself did not spend a long time learning external training methods, so my switch was more of a blank slate start. Nor do I believe in a purist or exclusively internal vs external point of view, since I believe my original training was essentially a hybrid of both methods.

Because I lack training in TKD and have not researched TKD as thoroughly as some other things, these are hypothesis so far, but ones I've made off of solid data sources. It is not that I claim it is impossible to fuse the internal with the external in ITF, it is just that since it didn't originally start out that way, a lot of elements don't feel like they fit perfectly just yet with each other.

This is not a subject that I can be convinced of on the internet one way or another. The proof, as always, is in the pudding. By producing students that can think and do. That is the only proof anyone ever needs in martial arts.

Since my objective is to increase the efficiency of knowledge transfers in martial arts, it doesn't matter to me how someone does things so long as they get results. It's a moot point for me whether I like their methods or not afterwards.

Originally I found my thinking to be very incompatible with martial artists I've talked to either at Yahoo, other martial arts forums, or in real life. Eventually I found out that my thinking is almost word for word the same as internal arts and the opposite of external arts. There is indeed a critical difference between a student that studies and practices using external ideas and someone who studies using internal ideas.

Ymar Sakar said...

You might be interested in reading this.


The asker, Possum, has 2-4 decades in WTF TKD and has started 1-3 years of aikido so far. Closer to 1 than 3, tho.

I picked this question because it's one of those things that gives me insight into how TKD, WTF specifically, thinks and how martial arts in general think. I'll leave judgment, if any, to you to make on your own.

SooShimKwan said...

I don't have much to say about the chambering issue. There are undoubtedly specific chambers in ITF Taekwon-Do and I find them useful to teach beginners the basic motions . . . they act as plot points on the path of a technique. However, when applied properly ITF's chambers are fluid and dynamic as I mentioned in my post on "Intermediate Positions".
About habits -- I have to say that I disagree about the idea of having no habits. I believe it is impossible to have no habits. Walking is a habit...putting one foot in front of the other, that is a habit. With no habits, such simple things such as walking would unnecessarily difficult and complex. The only habit-free people are infants. When they don't form healthy habits, we accept that their is something physiologically or neurologically wrong with them. Depending on your desired outcome, there are definitely good and bad habits.

The point you make that I think really cuts to the possible core problem is this: "It is not that I claim it is impossible to fuse the internal with the external in ITF, it is just that since it didn't originally start out that way, a lot of elements don't feel like they fit perfectly just yet with each other."

As I mentioned elsewhere, ITF Taekwon-Do has evolved from a hard style to this new hybrid that attempts to be both hard and soft at the same time. I don't think it is a problem in itself, it is quite possible to shift between the two approaches. The problem I see is that not all instructors have the ability to communicate both approaches in a unified way. And not all people care for both. There are some practitioners that feel content with the original hard style version. (I'm not one of those.)

Ymar Sakar said...

I would arrive at the issue from the other side. Lacking habits, people are required to exert greater mental concentration and power on things they would normally not think much about. A habit makes a person predictable, which is another way of saying that in Sun Tzu's the Art of War, the predictable General is a defeated General.

In order to utilize movements, leg work, in martial arts, one must break a student's habitual behavior of walking the way they normally do and inculcate a sense of how to walk in a different fashion. After awhile, they must be able to control, switch, between the various modes and methods based upon context. A person that utilizes one's thinking judgment to make decisions and switches, is not operating by habit but by something else. A higher level of consciousness or perhaps a lower level of one.

The previous masters of martial arts had it correct. In order to master something as an adult, one must necessarily become more childlike in certain things. That includes the reduction in habits, due to the strenuous act of eliminating habits, all kinds of habits, mental or physical.

An external martial artist will prefer to think in terms of good vs bad habits because that is how they have trained their skills for the most part. The hand moves in a strike automatically, without thought, that is the highest level of patterning. In internal arts, the highest level is to direct one's mental intent ahead of the physical motion, pulling the body behind it. Thus body follows mind, just as the body follows the head in throwing/grappling.

This is a necessary condition of training because a student that cannot direct their mental intent ahead of their body, cannot learn how to use internal principles, including internal power generation. External martial artists would never have looked into internal ideas if their body didn't fail them as they got older.

This state of affairs also applies to intellectual pursuits such as academic study or scientific research.

The problem with habits namely is that the mind isn't in control. When the mind isn't in control, then a superior mind can predict the movements easily. Or utilize sensitivity to detect physical movement, and thus get a very good idea of the enemy's mental planning. A person that has their body follow the mind, cannot be easily read because the body is utterly quiet and lacking in tension in the nerves/muscles. It would require telepathy, aura reading, or chi field sensitivity to detect such things.

External martial arts, currently, have not seen this kind of outcome because it's not seen in competition. Thus it is not a problem they believe needs to be solved. This is the super majority opinion. Even when external martial artists graduate to a softer way of doing things, one that relies more on the mind, less on the body, they cannot teach such things to their students that have been habituated to a physical regimen. Their students are still at a level where they are working the body, not the mind, thus telling them "do it this way because softer is better" doesn't necessarily compute. They lack the mental focus and energy to use such methods. They would have to go to the same journey as the master, before arriving at the same conclusions. Although some people get injured earlier and learn to utilize the mind more due to their physical circumstances.

SooShimKwan said...

Ymar, thank you for your thoughts.

You use different words "habits", "patterning", "conditioning" -- these are just synonyms for the same thing: synaptic pathways (in the brain). To me they are all just habits. Whether we reduce the big, obvious, predictable habits with smaller, softer habits, we are still just working with habits -- with replacing some synaptic pathways with other ones.

Even when students learn, as you describe the following: "After awhile, they must be able to control, switch, between the various modes and methods based upon context" -- they are learning a new habit. They are training their minds (training = forming synaptic pathways) to be able to "switch, between the various modes and methods". This is merely habits of a different kind; habits of the mind rather than the body, but habits nonetheless.

I also value the idea of mind training, of ensuring that the mind should be in control, but there is a danger in this as well. The mind is slower than the the spine (reflex). The reason why so many martial artists (and athletes from other sports) is drilling in the same movements over and over and over again, is to create conditioned reflexes. A reflex is a synaptic pathway that does not go to the mind (brain), but to the spine. This is faster. Yes, such conditioned habits can be predictable, but for typical self-defense situations they are better, I believe:

The chances of me coming face to face with a Taoist-master warrior with the abilities to stay in the "Void" and the skill to predict and exploit my reflexes, and who is intend on taking my life is infinitely smaller compared to the chances of me being attack by a street thug where my much faster conditioned (i.e. habitual) reflexes will come in quite handy.

As a martial art / self-defence instructor, I have to prepare my students for their most likely opponents. Taoist masters are not on the list. That is why basic boxing makes a better self-defense system in the short run, than a highly sensitive martial art like Tai-Chi. Yes, Tai-Chi is better in the long run--after maybe a couple of years of study--but after merely a couple of months of boxing training, a person have gained enough skill (appropriate habits) and far quicker too, to defend themselves against a common thug.

Now, I'm not saying that the higher, more sensitive Daoist pursuit is wholly without value. On the contrary, it has great value, but the value is of a more spiritual kind. Investing the amount of time and energy that we do in this "Daoist" (i.e. soft style) training has to be for other reasons than mere fighting. It has to be, because for mere fighting, the external training gets you MUCH quicker results and prepares you much faster for your most likely attacker. After some many years of martial arts training my focus has also shifted, my goals are also more "Daoist" -- softer, subtler, more ascetic. And there is great value in this . . . but it is a value I have to put in its proper context.

Ymar Sakar said...

Due to space limitations, my reply is here.


Feel free to post your reply here at this blog post of yours if you wish. I have RSS feeds on either side.



SooShimKwan said...

Hi Ymar,

That is indeed a long reply. I've already read it, but will respond to it a little later on your blog once I have more time.