In our yoga practice, with proper alignment, we can achieve balance, breath, effortless strength, and blood, air, and energy flow like water through a straight, unobstructed hose. Functional and beautiful, like an archway or the Golden Gate bridge. Without the proper pulling and pushing these structures would collapse, however, with proper alignment and physics, they not only stay up, we marvel at their simple structural integrity.
In our martial arts practice, we may be moving more dynamically, but the same principles apply. “Breaking Structure”… this principle is a constant when playing as a martial artist. If you can break the other persons structure, then balance, strength, air, blood flow and energy are now running inefficiently. Maybe one or maybe all are affected. This is why we need good flow and awareness in and out of our structure in our practice.
If the goal is to break structure, then the other goal is to understand and be able to maintain structure. Because in all this madness, if we are playing this game, our opponent is playing it too. This is with striking arts and grappling arts, as well as internal or more esoteric arts (bagua, taichi) and sport driven arts too (kickboxing, wrestling, mma, etc…).
Throw a punch, for example, at a face. In practice of course, this is not a daily practice of mine in social settings. If I hit the face, I have to realize that the face is also hitting my fist. Thus if the face moves, as it often does… and I hit the head just around the corner of the face… if I don’t have good structure in my hand, I could suffer some serious damage to my hand. Same goes for kicks, elbows, knife hands (don’t get me started on knife hands to the chest in forms) etc… so even in the small “weapons” of the body there is a great need to realize structure as well.
Yoga is a great way to understand structure of the body, of the spine, hips, elbows, etc… and to exist in this structure mindfully. The slower arts like taichi have push hands, or the slow work of Systema. They become exercises in intuitively adapting to another persons energy and intention on breaking your structure. They also allow us the opportunity to build the habit of training with posture. If you’ve ever done push hands, you’ll vouch for me when I say, that the first few months is just a reminder of how bad your balance and structure is when given resistance. Standing wrist to wrist with some old master that doesn’t speak English as he just uproots your whole body without touching your body. Then the internal dialogue starts of “man I should just jump back and punch this guy”, but we all know this is not cool, or a good idea. Then they smile, and you connect again for more information on how to get better.
Jujitsu… It’s all about structure. Break theirs, maintain yours. You won’t get the lock or the choke if you don’t have it. You’ll exhaust yourself. We learn that meeting structure head on with force usually isn’t the way. I mean, aren’t most structures designed to absorb or stay strong when met with force. A great exercise in this is grappling arts.
For example: an archway has the brick in the center. The more force down onto it the stronger the archway. Remove that brick the thing falls, or becomes very compromised thanks to todays regulations of rebar and cement, etc… In the body our hips act like that center brick. In a horse stance or standing feet shoulder width, our hips are there… also there’s an arch to our feet. These structures are designed for downward force. Just like an archway. Don’t try to knock it down by pressing down on that center brick. There’s got to be another angle that can compromise it’s structure. Grappling is a great exercise in this. Just find another angle. In an archway just push up on the center brick. Or take your finger and push the brick out back or front. (this is in theory, just to illustrate a way to start looking at our structure)
Then there’s the nervous system. Ok now your structure is good. Then it all happens and you forget to breathe, or your heart rate flies up, and you get the jitters. The next step is to calm down. We are not gonna achieve this through sparring with the intention of winning. It’s not about fighting… it’s about getting in there, slowing down, and relaxing. Being ok with losing, and realizing that there’s really nothing to lose.
If stealing your structure is meant to not only compromise your balance, but to also compromise your efficiency (breathing, circulation, proprioception, etc…) then maintaining a calm nervous system is important. Often times, a skilled fighter could just get your nervous system into a panic, then your heart, breathing, and mind are already running inefficiently. This is when we break ourselves. A frantic state turns us into reactionary beings, flinching and flailing. Sometimes this works. I’ve had countless conversations in my life about people saying “I don’t need to know how to fight, when I get mad I just black out and start kicking ass, I don’t know what I’ll do.” And it goes on and on.
This is a common thing I hear. I’m not doubting that your blind rage isn’t like the avatar state, however, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to remain calm and not have any accidents that could perhaps harm the other person or yourself, or put you in a position of using inhumane force and perhaps doing permanent damage to someone that just made you mad.
A healthy nervous system allows us to observe and be proactive. It expands our tools and our awareness to be able to see other means of dealing with our indifferences or aggression. It’s an awareness tool to see if we are about to black out and get all “hulk” on the room, and perhaps see that there’s a more efficient way to return back to peace. This “blacking out” and being ok with it is, in the ayurdedic practice, a form of disease. They define disease as “when the senses act inappropriately to the object of the sense”. How do we protect ourselves and stop once we’re protected. MMA fighters often are trained to keep punching until the ref pulls us off of the other guy. This is good for the ring because this is what sells tickets and it’s known that a ref is there. In life there is no ref. If we keep swinging and kill someone, we aren’t the winner, we’re brutal killers. This is not martial arts, this is not the warrior path, this is warrior pathology.
The dojo is where we stay in a state of struggle. Learn to relax, get yourself trapped. It’s our woodshed, and the testing ground where we turn our liabilities into assets. If we win with what we know we’re not going to discover our liabilities.
The nervous system plays a big part in our structure. Proprioception, and balance for example. Thus striking is a tool as well, not just for damage and traumatizing tissue, but for breaking structure. Striking joints, the head, even to the body.
Back to yoga, back to conditioning. When we can understand our structure and how to maintain it. Then it can also carry into our lives. I see so many great martial artists and yogis leaving their practice in the schools when they’re done training. This to me is more common in martial arts than yoga. Yoga emphasizes posture so much and it’s part of our common language now. Martial arts is still not talked about too much unless its UFC, or MMA. Try having a conversation with a coworker about yoga then segue into a martial arts talk. Usually it will end quickly or UFC will come up… The brutality of the sport isn’t something that we can look at and think “wow those guys must have great posture and breathe awareness”.
They often don’t. At first. But it’s trained into those athletes whether they know it or not. This is common in sports. There’s a system, there’s a dogma. There’s a trophy and a career if you subscribe, and on the high levels… these guys have great trainers. It’s our job as trainers to keep these guys healthy and it’s also our responsibility to lose our egos and know that running these guys into the ground just so we can have a trophy at the expense of their beat up bodies is showing how superficial and shallow we are as trainers. It’s the result of a trainer that knows the game, not the body. We need to integrate.
Randy Couture is the prime example… this guy has fought well into his 40’s… he’s humble and works hard. I’d love to get inside his trainers heads and into his mindset as well. This guy is still in shape and speaks kindly and is a great example of what good training can accomplish.
My yoga practice allows me to have an open supple structure and to be able to focus my mind and breath as my body continues to change and flow. Calm mind in a constant changing environment. Sound like life? Probably, I guess.
My martial arts adds a level to this. It is the practice of observing and adapting to lifes changes and challenges in a non-reactive way. How to act appropriately to our environment. Martial artists don’t just fight. Yoga was the first martial art. It’s our responsibility to be able to protect ourselves whether it’s from bandits stealing your land, or someone trying to harm you or your loved ones, or by understanding that your computer is also trying to steal your structure. So we adapt. When we’re on the yoga mat with someone telling us to breath and lift the spine, great. When we’re at work are we doing that? This is martial arts. Knowing that our habits towards maintaining our structure is something we can always practice.
Standing, sitting, working, carrying things. Our posture is our relationship with gravity and how all of our bones can effortlessly stay stacked on top of each other. What better way to learn this than to have a kind hearted opponent try to lovingly take it away from us. Is this a fight? I hope not. Our nervous system should act accordingly. We go slow, we communicate, we act appropriately to the situation. Now it’s time to take that practice into our lives. This is part of the warrior path.
Martial arts, yoga… these are healing arts. I’ve been a part of people’s healing path for decades, and in our new age world of consciousness, there are so many opportunities to control when and how our healing will take place. A circle, a massage, a past life reading, a somatic healing session… these are all attempts at controlling our health and healing process.
However, the martial artist always meets a moment when the situation can’t be controlled. When life steals our life’s and mind’s structure then what. The path of “letting go” is vital in our lives and always in our dialogue as evolutionary beings. It seems every bathroom or facebook page on earth will have a couple quotes about this. Then we have those moments of “letting go” Where we look at our stuff and practice it. Maybe it’s a yard sale, maybe it’s a break up, maybe it’s throwing away your old college papers.
These are all structured events. The warrior path is also about letting go, however, imagine when you’re going through your garage to decide what to throw away and what to donate and what to put on craigslist… a flood comes and washes it all away. This is the warrior mind. Time to really let go. This was nature taking your structure. The organizing of the piles was yoga. It was a self controlled practice with a mindful intent, but the flood was another force taking that structure and really challenging it that’s your sparring buddy, that’s martial arts. We can only give ourselves so much resistance then we need something else to “up” it and really teach us. Wear a cup.