My Stance on Stances

My Stance on Stances

A few years ago I was teaching a joint seminar with Gavin Mulholland (Fig 1) and Gavin’s opening words when be began to teach were “The two most misunderstood words in karate are stance and block”. He then went on to show how the stances of Goju can be applied in a highly functional way. I totally agree with Gavin and in the article I’d like to address some of the misunderstandings associated with “stances”.

I think the first issue we need to address is the connotations of the word “stance”. Some dictionary definitions of stance would be:

1 - The manner and position in which a person or animal stands

2 - The posture assumed when about to play the ball, as in golf, cricket, etc.

3 - A general emotional or intellectual attitude

The problem we have in karate, and related martial arts, is that none of those definitions work from a martial perspective. However, the common usage of the word “stance” colours how people view stances within the martial arts.

I’ll explain this more in a moment, but I’ll begin by stating that a fundamental error when it comes to martial stances is the view that they represent “fixed positions”. They don’t, but the common usage of the word “stance” helps foster that misunderstanding. Let’s look at each of those common usages in turn and see why they don’t work from a martial perspective.

1 - The manner and position in which a person or animal stands

The trouble here is the word “stands”. We are still when we stand (i.e. “stand still”) and hence this definition supports the mistaken view that stances are static.

2 - The posture assumed when about to play the ball, as in golf, cricket, etc.

The trouble with this one is when it says “the posture assumed when ABOUT to play the ball”. This suggests that we assume the stance before we apply a technique. That’s wrong, we don’t. Again this definition supports the mistaken view that stances are positions we assume before doing something.

3 - A general emotional or intellectual attitude

This one would seem to be irrelevant for our proposes, but it’s not really. In everyday English we use the word “stance” to infer a pre-existing or unchanging position or viewpoint i.e. “That is my stance on that issue” or “I’m taking an uncompromising stance on this”, etc. Again, the common use of the word “stance” can confuse martial artists in to thinking that martial stances are also pre-existing or unchanging. They are not.

The English world “stance” does not adequately describe “martial stances” and this leads to great confusion. So what are stances for and how should they be viewed?

I see stances as having two functions; the primary and overriding one being getting bodyweight into the technique (we’ll come to the other function later).

Any instructors reading this will be aware of the problems you can have when teaching the correct shifting of bodyweight. If you tell someone to adjust a hand, move a leg, bend a knee, etc then that’s very straight forward for them to do. However, requests to drop their bodyweight, project their bodyweight, pull with their bodyweight, stabilise their bodyweight, etc are most often greeted with a look that says, “What the hell is my bodyweight and how do I move it?”

Knowing how to move bodyweight requires that you get the correct feeling for doing so. And one of the best ways to gain that feeling is through stances. When the lower grade student shifts through the relative stances what they are effectively doing is learning to move their bodyweight. Through this practise they will gain the correct “feel” for bodyweight and eventually shifting bodyweight will become natural and intuitive.

This is what is behind Gichin Funakoshi’s seventeenth precept. That precept states, “Stances are for beginners; advanced students will use natural body positions”. This does not refer to a change in practise where beginners use stances and advanced students abandon them in favour of something else. What it refers to is the “stances” of the beginners becoming the “natural body positions” of the more advanced student.

Through the practise of stances the beginning student learns to shift their weight such that they will eventually do this intuitively and naturally. All the same postures will be there, but for the beginner they are fixed postures that they think about; whereas for the advanced student they will be positions they move through quite naturally and without much conscious thought.

One of my favourite sayings in the marital arts is from Genwa Nakasone. In his clarifications of Funakoshi’s seventeenth precept he said, “Karate has many stances; it also has none.” I love that! Pure genius in my view. It may seem like a paradox but it is not. Karate has no fixed postures; but we move through many postures as we move.

If you were to take a snapshot one of these transitions / shifts in bodyweight then you have a “stance”. So in theory – and in lower grade practise – karate does have many stances, but in reality and application karate has no stances because all movement will be natural and fluid. But that natural and fluid motion will contain many stances!

I hope you get where I am coming from with this and it does not seem too paradoxical? It’s actually very straight forward and my well worn “golf swing analogy” many help.

To communicate this point I often demonstrate my “golf swing kata” at my seminars. Essentially a golf swing has three key postures or “stances”. There is the backswing, the point of contact with the ball, and the follow through. If any one of these positions is wrong the ball will not fly true or as far as it could. A golf coach will therefore ensure the trainee golfer understands where their body and club should be at these three key points. A golf swing kata – if you can imagine such a thing – would therefore freeze at each of these points to ensure the correct posture was understood. The kata would therefore have three stances. However, when swinging the club for real, the golfer would move through all positions (so the stances are still there) but they would not freeze on them (so the stances are not there).

It must always be remembered that we fight with the information within kata: we don’t fight with kata. This is very similar to how we cook good food by following recipes, but we don’t eat recipes! The stances are there in kata so we can see how the bodyweight should shift and the positions we should move through (Fig 2). In bunkai training (kata application) we must flow through these postures and not freeze in position (you tend to get hit a lot if you do that).

There are some who feel that we could skip the “stance stage” and move straight to natural motion. However, that’s a bit like building the rooms of a house before laying down the foundation. If we skip or short change the “learning to move our weight through defined postures” stage then we never really get to the point where we can intuitively move bodyweight. You simply can’t jump to the optimum stage without going through the basic stages first.

One of the problems I see in modern martial arts is people wanting to run before they can walk. They never get the basics to a solid level and, just like a building with a poor foundation, they therefore limit the heights they can reach.

A desire to get “functional and fast” can lead to people not spending enough time on the foundations and hence they never reach high skill levels. Many traditional martial artists have the opposite problem however. It’s not so much running before they can walk, but never moving beyond walking, and then wondering why they can’t win races.

To return to the building analogy; Yes, you need a good foundation, but you don’t live in the foundations! The useable bit lies on top of the foundations. So practise stances and continually refine them, always remembering that the aim is flowing and powerful movement that effectively uses bodyweight.

So let’s go back the way the word “stance” is used in everyday English for a moment. As we saw is has strong connotations of something fixed, immovable and pre-existing or assumed in preparation.

Fixed and immoveable is wrong as the “stances” in karate are transitory positions we move to and through. They are never fixed or indicative of static positions in combat. The static people are normally the unconscious ones or the ones about to be unconscious. I hope I have satisfactorily explained that stances are an important means to an end in the teaching and development process and that they are not meant to be fixed postures. However, the word “stance” can and does lead to misunderstanding about these postures.

The other common misunderstanding based on the way the word “stance” is used in English is the idea that we assume a stance to fight or perform a certain technique i.e. it is something we do in preparation, as was suggested by our dictionary definition. Again, this is not so. The stances are positions we move to and though. We start from wherever we are. That could be a natural standing position, sitting in chair, reeling from a punch, being on balance, being off balance, the conclusion of the last motion or technique and so on.

We don’t get into a stance to do techniques; we do techniques by moving into stances.

It is the motion into stances that ensures we have weight behind whatever technique we are applying. A punch is powerful because the weight is going forward. If we go forward (i.e. assume the stance)… and then punch, it will be very weak because the bodyweight finished moving before the punch started. Such a practise will also mean we are static and that causes major defensive problems as well as offensive ones.

The damage is done to the enemy through the assuming of the stance; we don’t assume the stance first and then try to do damage. The bodyweight must be moving as the technique is being applied. Moving the body before or after the technique means it will be devoid of bodyweight and hence ineffective. Remember that stances show us where we should move to or through; they do not represent a mandatory start position and the instance a stance is assumed and a technique applied it will seamlessly move on to the next position that the dictates of the situation requires.

As we have discussed, the word “stance” has connotations of something fixed and immovable. In combat, however, situations are constantly changing and hence the stances should also be in a state of flux. The distribution of the bodyweight should not be fixed, but should be constantly changing depending upon the technique being utilised at that time. Stances will be assumed as and when required, before instantly shifting the bodyweight to the next appropriate position.

As a quick aside, within karate circles there is often a debate as to which is the best way of performing the stances. Some say that stances should be high, because this increases the mobility of the karateka. Others say that the stances should be low, because this means the karateka's centre of gravity is also low and hence any techniques that are delivered will be more effective. However, common sense should tell you that you should assume whatever stance is required at that instance. If you require mobility, the stance should be high at that particular moment. If you require stability, then the stance should be low. It is always about function and what is appropriate at the time.

Near the start of this article you may recall I said that stances have two functions and the primary one is getting bodyweight into technique. The secondary one in limiting the enemy’s motion (Fig 3). What I mean by this is legs getting in the way of the enemy’s legs to prevent them from moving, kneeling on their chest to stop them immediately getting up, etc. Those applications are “bunkai specific” and it’s difficult to discuss them generally in an article such as this. They key point though is that I only acknowledge those two functions (i.e. bodyweight and restricting motion) and I don’t accept non-combative things such as strengthening legs and improving balance to be valid explanations of stances.

Now I’m not denying that sifting through stances can strengthen your legs, what I’m saying is that they were not created for that purpose. To use an analogy, when I batter the punch bag it gets my heart rate up and is good for my health. However, punches were not designed to improve my health; they we designed to ruin other people’s health.

So when looking at the stances within kata we must always look for a combative function and not accept non-combative “explanations” of the stance.

The final thing I’d like to quickly mention in this article is that all systems use stances. They may not utilise the term “stance”, and they may have different teaching methodologies, but they will have positions to move to and through and to my way of thinking those positions are stances. I can recall a fair number of situations where people have told me they don’t use stances, before shortly afterward emphasising a given body position by freeze framing it. That is what a stance is and when they say they don’t use stances, what they normally mean is they don’t understand what stances actually are. And that’s fair enough because most martial artists who purport to make use of stances don’t understand them either as they mistakenly see them as fixed postures.

Stances are not something fixed or static or something assumed before a technique is executed. They represent positions we flow to and through during the execution of a technique. By freeze framing and isolating these positions for less experienced students we give them the opportunity to learn the otherwise intangible idea of efficiently shifting bodyweight in the optimum way. Once we can walk, we then need to run and internalise the stances so they are there but not there. It is then that we can apply our techniques in the optimum way.

If you fail to understand how stances develop then you will never reach optimum levels. Likewise, if you try to short circuit the process and try to flow before you can effectively shift weight you will again fail to reach optimum levels. If you understand the process and stick with it, not only will you reach the high levels of the martial arts, but you will also understand what a genius Nakasone was when he said, “Karate has many stances; it also has none.”