This article was originally written in German by Jochen Wolfgramm of Bailung e.V. You can find the German version on their blog as well as on Kampfkunst Board. This is a slightly edited and translated version, which we wanted to feature for you.
Of course there is a wide array of approaches concerning correct stances and this is one of them. Gongbu 弓步 for example can be executed as a practice to enhance leg musculature, to improve the back posture or to stretch the pelvis area. There are also variations concerning foot positioning to relieve pressure on the knees or to make the stance more demanding for leg muscles. We want to encourace practicioners to question the way they perform stances and to accept the fact that there is no single best way of excecuting a ‘correct’ stance.
All Gong Fu styles have at least one thing in common: stances and the importance thereof. Some styles may have some stances more or less, but mostly they just distinguish themselves by their naming.
As a basic principle in any style, you have to work on your stances through extensive and scrupulous training. Therefore, in many styles you can find a set of stances, often called Ba Shi 八式 – eight stances. These sets help train the most important and basic stances for the style and to remember them correctly. The training is mostly static with long intervals of standing in each stance.
Furthermore the training of Bu Fa 步法 – stepping methods is used to train stances dynamically.
In the following part of this article we’ll go deeper into important criteria of stances and their training.
First we’ll have a look at the static components of a stance. When standing in any stance the practitioner should pay attention to following basic, always valid criteria:
- Correct foot placement: Almost without exception the toes should point in the same direction as the knee. The foot of the supporting leg should touch the ground with the whole sole or the style specific important parts thereof.
- The legs shouldn’t be unnecessarily tense or unreasonably extended. The goal should be a harmonic overall structure that supports the respective stance in stability but also mobility. Overextended joints are not very helpful here.
- Involvement of the Kua 胯 – the pelvic or hip region – is important. Here the connection of legs and torso is maintained. If the Kua is not flexible and open enough, stances get weak and less effective.
- The upper body should usually be upright and relaxed. Only few stances really require the upper body to bend forward. A deep Ma Bu 馬步 – horse stance for example should usually be performed with the upper body in an upright position.
- The center of the body should be sunken and relaxed. Only then a stance can get really solid. This is also called “rooting” of the body.
For the dynamic component of stances – or Bu Fa – there’s following set of criteria:
- Mobility and stability should go hand in hand. They complement each other and without one the other one cannot be perfected.
- When moving dynamically the legs should still be able to comply to above mentioned static criteria, while the upper body and arms are agile and move on intention.
- Despite the dynamic movement, the center should always be sunken to maintain the structure of the body. The body should be “full”, which is full of energy and intention.
Stance Training and Important Requirements thereof
First, it should be made clear that the training of stances is an important and integral part of every Gong Fu education – always, at any point in your education, even when you’re already training for 20 years. Stance training is a lifelong companion of every Gong Fu practitioner on different levels. Accordingly, you should accept this training and see it as an opportunity to fundamentally (quite literary) improve your Gong Fu.
The second point is to see reason that stance training is not only to improve your stances alone. Rather it is about understanding that this training is the best way leading to good Gong Fu. Right execution of stances trains you in several ways: rooting, structure, inner balance, internal strength, relaxation and much more. Thus, it not only the performing and holding of a stance, but rather the transitions from one stance to another, the “how do I stand”, which is important. You should refrain from just standing.
Once you have understood the transitions, you know how to get into a specific position and what is associated with it (e.g. the application of the stance). It gets a lot easier to strike a good stance and hold it for a longer period of time. The stance is always lively and agile, even if you’re standing calm and motionless.
Exercises for Improving your Stances
To train stances effectively, several exercises should get integrated into regular training routines.
Here, it is important not only to stretch, but much more mobilize the joints and their surrounding structures (capsules, ligaments, and tendons). Especially mobilizing the Kua 胯 should be in focus. Only a flexible and open hip region can enable proper and effective stances. Kua here means the region of the body incorporating the hip, hip joints, and also the pelvis.
One of the best exercises for improving Kua-flexibility is armsiwinging in Mabu 馬步. Here, we stand in not too low horsestance and swing the arms through rotating the hips, so that the arms hit the body in the front and the back respectively. Some important aspects of this exercise are:
- Feet stay parallel the whole time
- Knees go back and forth, but stay above the feet. No collapsing inwards or outwards.
- Height of the stance stays constant. No up and down movement. The center is sunken.
- Arms are relaxed and swing only because of the Kua rotation.
Other exercises are for example turning in the pelvis in a deep bow stance 弓步 (Gongbu) with the rear foot on toes – rear leg extended to stretch the hip joints etc. General stretching exercises that make the leg tissues and joints more flexible are also important.
Common mistakes when training stances
Some mistakes when training stances are sadly very common. One of the most common ones is the rear foot in Gongbu or Dengshanbu 蹬山步, which is often left in a 90° angle. This rotates the rear leg outwards and blocks the Kua, which in turn breaks the structure and energy flow to the arm and hand. Techniques like a straight punch get powerless. Correct would be an angle of about 45° (foot and knee are aligned!), which opens the Kua and enables free energy flow through that area.
In the pictures you can clearly see the increased reach and better use of the hip.
Mabu 馬步 can be executed in different ways. There is high, midhigh, low, wide, narrow, etc. However, with all variations one thing should be clear: height and width of the stance should only be adjusted in the range that is possible for the respective practitioner. It is useless to stand a very low Mabu if following aspects can’t be fulfilled:
- Feet are parallel
- Knees and Feet are aligned
- Tailbone is sunken, the buttocks are not protruding backwards
- Upper body is straight, head stretching upwards
Looking at the left picture you see clearly that the feet are not parallel, the tailbone is not sunk and the head is not stretching upward but forward with the chin.
Execution of the Xubu (empty stance or tiger/cat stance) is also not easy and can lead to many mistakes. Again generally we can state:
- The tailbone should be relaxed and sunken, buttocks are not extruding backwards
- Head stretches upward
- Upper body is straight
Aditionally this stance requires paying attention to following:
- Front foot is “empy” and touches the ground only with the ball of the foot
- The whole weight lies on the rear leg
- The rear (supporting) leg is bent
When training stances one has to pay attention to the right alignment (connection of the joints), right execution of stances and also transitions between those. This kind of training teaches the practitioner essential basics of Gongfu and creates a solid basis for good technique. Thus, the training of stances and their transitions is very important to any good Gongfu training. This post just focused on the stances but transitions between those should not be neglected. However, they have they’re own aspects of consideration, which require to be explained in a further post on Bufa.