Everyone seems to be acquainted with balance at least on the surface since walking, standing, sitting, and running all require balance. While we can basically keep our balance in our everyday lives, but are we really all that balanced? You could argue that, “we don’t fall over so we must be balanced, right?” Well, you could argue that, yet people slip and fall, people run into things, people have back problems and sore knees. To have balance isn’t as simple as failing to fall over, it is something a bit deeper than that. For taijutsu, it is crucial to develop a better sense of balance, a maximal sense of balance. Just to remain standing and failing to fall over isn’t enough. We need to control both our own balance as well as the opponents balance. However, we must start with our own balance. So, what does it mean to be balanced?
Chushin (中心) basically means middle heart, but it is used to represent balance, balance points, and center of balance. So, this description again doesn’t help us understand what balance really is, words aren’t enough for the body to understand. So, let’s begin with an exercise to find our balance. First, let’s align the body with the shoulders, hips, knees, and feet in proper alignment. This stance is almost what we call shizen no kamae (自然の構え). I say almost, because, just standing this way doesn’t make you maximally balanced, there are few more things to align first before we can call it a true shizen no kamae.
We need our hips to be in aligned and we need to use a few core muscles as well to keep the hips in alignment with the rest the body. Our shoulders should be back and pulled down, we also should have our hips (pelvis) titled forward and our glutes should be taunt (you can flex your glutes to get the pelvis to shift into the right spot. Your bodies weight should be in the middle of the foot right before the balls of the feet. There should be a straight line from your knee to the middle point of your feet. The knees should point the same direction as the direction of your foot. To ensure, you have the proper alignment tighten the core and attempt to flex the muscles in the direction of you tail bone while tightening your glutes and extending your elbows to the floor and rotating your hands/wrists in the direction of your belt and sink slightly while having the sense of your legs extending outwards. Then relax, breathing naturally through your hara (腹[), or diaphragm, without raising your shoulders up and down. Breaths should start with the nose and end being pushed out the mouth, but through the nose only is ok if your breaths don’t raise your shoulders. Now we can call this shizen no kamae and you should be balanced. But, standing still and statically without being able to move doesn’t help much, so in make sure we can move in a balanced manner we need to find how to initiate movement from this position. But, first let’s see if we are balanced with another check.
Once you have a good shizen no kamae, you want to sink down into a squat slowly while keeping your feet flat on the floor. Your knees should start the movement as you squat, if you feel like your balance is shifting back you haven’t aligned your hips properly you should be shifting forward. Most likely if your balance is shifting backwards, you have pushed your glutes backward thus causing the shift. If anything, you should feel like you have to rise up on your toes. This keeps your balance aligned[. Now hopefully you are getting a sense where your balance is and how to maintain it while standing. However, this is just the beginning, the goal is to control your balance throughout all your movements and maintaining control of its vector. Yes, I said it, vector. A vector is a line of force, which is important to taijutsu and an important aspect to how you need to control your balance.
In moving and maintaining your balance, you must learn how to control your hips and let the knees become your feedback sensor. Basically, you must learn to listen to your body and make your body a sensor (this goes beyond balance, but it is first place to start). So, what do I mean by sensor, well I generally mean feeling the natural loading and weight/ tension on the knees and thighs and the moment your weight begins to shift over the balls of your foot. So, to illustrate this, start in shizen no kamae and slowly sink as we did in the previous balance and alignment check. Sink until you reach about 75-80 percent weight on your knees, or until you feel like you’re forced to lift your heels off the ground. This is the moment of movement, your legs, knees and feet become coiled like a spring (building torque) and you launch forward with one of your legs. The lifting leg is lifted straight off the ground and the back leg pushes forward by using the glutes. Extending the back leg fully then pulling it in reaching 50/50 with the two legs. If done correctly, you should feel an explosiveness to the movement at first, but for the sake of understanding your balance slow it down and try not to shift the weight to one leg too much. Also, try it with both legs. Your belt should be a good guide, keep it pointed straight forward towards your target, don’t twist the upper body.
If you think you have the basic stepping forward action, we will move to stepping at forty-five degrees. First off, most people step back something steeper than forty-five, in order to understand how to step back, I recommend having something square to align your foot placement better. Stepping back at forty-five you want to sink and drop into it, it should feel as if you are stepping down stairs backwards, your body weight should also be 50/50 on both legs and hips aligned the similar as your forward step. To check if you have proper balance, you should easily be able to lift either leg without pulling the leg in but lifting it straight up. Some common issues you may have is taking to large of a step or you have rotated your core and shifted your balance outside a position you can easily control or manipulate for movement (this will cause wasted movement, and allow others to read your movements.) Also, when moving you might have tendency to twist your body, twisting the body causes major shifts in your balance. By twisting I mean anytime your hips, knees, shoulders, and feet are not aligned.
When stepping back at forty-five degrees, you should sink by lifting the back foot straight up of the ground evenly. Then you should land the foot with an even amount of pressure, placing it evenly on the ground. Your placement of your feet needs to be flat, not heel toe or toe heel. The sinking, stepping, and placement of the foot should be in one even motion. To lift the back leg, focus on using the muscle closest to the hip (sartorius muscle). Focus on this muscle to lift either leg to move forward or back, focus on this muscle alone. If you have a proper shizen no kamae and simply lift the leg and sink with proper timing you should naturally fall on a 45-degree diagonal line (test this by putting down lines or find a corner of a square or triangle[).
With some practice and testing, you should have a bit of understanding of your general balance, now lets look at a few other aspects regarding specific lines using 地の形 (Chi no Kata). So, everyone should generally understand chi no kata, but doing it with precision and naturally using balance is a bit easier said than done ( I will specifically use a certain version of Chi no kata most may not be familiar with so keep this in mind). So, first begin by lifting your left arm up with a feeling of having the finger tips extending outward in an ark along a line moving and pointing of the middle finger at the left eye. Then flip the left hand as if to cut the left eye with your hand. Then move the arm on a flat line until you can no longer move it naturally back, then release any muscle tension and let the arm natural fall towards your center until it reaches the knot of your belt. From there engage your left pec and the muscle near your scapula to pull/ push the arm out into an uke nagashi. While simultaneously sinking and lifting the right leg straight of the ground with the right hand extending towards the floor as if you are trying to extend your middle finger into the ground. Do not twist, to do this movement. Your left elbow should be over your knee and your knee should be over the point behind the ball of the foot. Your right elbow should be in line with your right knee and the same point in the foot[. Moving forward, sink and rock ( or extend) forward via the knot of your belt while using the right knee and then simply pick up the back foot (Do not push off with the back foot just lift it.) In unison with the sink and movement forward, the foot, knee and elbow maintain alignment. Use the left glute to extend the left leg to get a thrust forward. The timing of the striking fist changes about half way through to the target. At the end of the strike. Sink and shift the weight by using the knees and then pull the left hand back and lift the leg in one motion back into shizen no kame.
If you can put all these points together using the body and balance in unison and precision with timing and chained motions you will have a better since of balance, as well as an initiation into what taijutsu in general is about.