18 April 2014

The importance of balance in the practice of arnis, escrima and kali

Balance is a crucial component in the practice of the Filipino martial arts (FMA). Arnis, escrima and kali, favoring gross motor skills (simple movements) over fine motor skills (complex movements) have a different requirement concerning balance compared to other Asian martial arts. This is evident in the fact that unlike many of its counterparts, the FMA rarely employ movements requiring backward bending of the spine or single-leg stances.

Before we proceed any further, it is good to establish the definition of balance. Balance for the purpose of this discussion simply means the ability to move in any direction with equilibrium even in the presence of factors promoting imbalance. 

The first thing to consider in the development of balance is the awareness of the body’s center of gravity (COG). While in a stationary position, the COG of the human anatomy is located approximately in the anterior to the second sacral vertebra.

It’s presumed that both feet are planted on the ground in the practice of arnis, escrima and kali. Unlike in other Asian martial arts, the stability desired in FMA is dynamic not static. The goal is to maintain stability while attacking or defending. To quote Dan Inosanto: “The main concern of martial arts is supporting the movement that runs vaguely parallel to the floor. Any upward motion is supported against the floor and downward motion uses gravity as a support. If one or both feet are off the ground, momentum is the mainstay (The Filipino Martial Arts Know Now, 1980).”

There are three elements that can be adjusted accordingly to attain this objective. The first one is the base of support, which in the case of an arnisador are his feet. By broadening the base of support (accomplished by widening the stance by increasing the distance between the two feet), one increases stability. A wider stance of course would mean slower mobility while a narrower stance would mean faster mobility but lesser stability.

The second one is aligning the body’s line of gravity to the center of the base. To visualize this, imagine a straight line running through your body from the top of your head to your groin. Aligning this line of gravity to the center of the base can be accomplished through postural adjustment like straightening the back or keeping the head upright. The last element is the lowering of one’s center of gravity to increase stability. This is basically an instinctive movement for whenever a person felt that his balance is being disturbed; he instinctively bends his knees to lower his center of gravity. But just like in the second element, a lower stance slows down mobility.

There’s yet another component that affects stability and that is the fighter’s size. A big stick fighter has greater stability because of his big mass compared to a smaller stick fighter with a small mass.

The goal of understanding the principles of balance and stability is for a fighter to fortify his own base and to know how to destroy that of his opponent’s. 

Students of Dan Inosanto practicing weapons sparring on a bench (from Jeet Kune Do: The Art and Philosophy of Bruce Lee, Know Now 1976).

Destroying your opponent’s balance and making him fall to the ground carries a number of advantages. Throwing your foe into the ground could result to multiple injuries (particularly head trauma) that could greatly reduce his ability to fight.

Disrupting your foe’s balance is not that hard if you understand structure in relation to balance and stability. The idea is not to go mass against mass particularly if you’re facing a bigger opponent but to exploit leverage points. Walking for instance is controlled falling. In this act, balance is attained while in motion by the rhythmic shifting of one’s weight between the left and right foot. But disrupt that rhythm by say, whacking one of the feet before it hits the ground, and the person tumbles easily.

Most people would prefer fighting standing up meaning their COG is resting on both legs. By destroying either of the two legs, which are his foundations, or disrupting the alignment of his COG and his base (his feet); you’ve just ruined your foe’s balance. 

Besides visual calculation, we maintain balance through a fluid located in the inner ear. This fluid with the aid of responsive hair cells detects and moves around according to gravitational pull. Thus, striking your opponent’s ears with your palms is a very effective way of destroying his sense of balance.

As mentioned earlier, the desired balance in arnis, escrima and kali is dynamic not static. This attribute can only be honed by practicing “live” alone and with a partner on varying types of terrain. One traditional FMA method of developing balance is to practice footwork on half coconut shells (bao in Tagalog). This sharpens balance because the body learns to achieve correct structure and equilibrium on an uneven and unstable base. The ability to achieve optimum balance is also connected to the practitioner’s level of kinesthetic sensitivity, strength and fitness and his ability to relax. 

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