Saturday, August 01, 2009

Oh for the springiness of a flea or kangaroo!

The stretching that I do for martial arts is more about developing and harnessing the elasticity of the body than increasing my flexibility (range of motion).  For inspiration and understanding I look to our animal cousins, not the traditional five animals of kung fu -- dragon, tiger, leopard, crane, and snake -- but rather the flea (such as you might find on a dog) and the kangaroo ...

The flea and the kangaroo
Apparently fleas -- who can jump over 100 times their own body length -- can only jump so well because they have built-in elastic structures in their legs.  They don't use their muscles to jump directly, but rather to stretch -- much like pulling on a bow string -- and then the elastic snap powers the tremendous jump.  Source: The Flea, the Catapult and the Bow.

Another animal that uses elastic energy in dramatic fashion, this time for energy efficiency, is the kangaroo:
A red kangaroo
Kangaroos have large, stretchy tendons in their hind legs. They store elastic strain energy in the tendons of their large hind legs, providing most of the energy required for each hop by the spring action of the tendons rather than by any muscular effort. This is true in all animal species which have muscles connected to their skeleton through elastic elements such as tendons, but the effect is more pronounced in kangaroos.

There is also a link between the hopping action and breathing: as the feet leave the ground, air is expelled from the lungs; bringing the feet forward ready for landing refills the lungs, providing further energy efficiency. Studies of kangaroos and wallabies have demonstrated that, beyond the minimum energy expenditure required to hop at all, increased speed requires very little extra effort (much less than the same speed increase in, say, a horse, dog or human), and that the extra energy is required to carry extra weight. -- Source: Wikipedia.

Now: The human body, while not having the same degree of elasticity as the flea or kangaroo has a certain amount of elasticity in its muscles and connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, etc.) and it is possible to usefully harness this springiness both in day-to-day life, sports and martial arts.

A smattering of martial arts applications
In horse-stance punching beginners typically use their shoulder muscles to laboriously pu-u-u-u-ush out one fist and pu-u-u-u-ull back the other.  After 500 punches this is very wearing, but fortunately (or not) most people are more distracted by their sore legs to notice.  In time one should start to feel the stretch from the extended fist through the back and into the retracted elbow, and use the release of this stretch to help power the next punch and retraction, and to wind up the next stretch.

Similarly, a loud breakfall in part comes from the release of an elastic connection from the break-falling arm(s) into the back.  Beginners have wimpy break-falls because they are yet to learn to harness this connection, and instead rely (again) on their shoulder muscles.

Cutting with the bokken (Japanese wooden sword) is another good example.  When I took some kenjitsu classes my shoulders and inner arms became fearfully sore from over-use of these muscles. Recently -- after a long hiatus -- I picked up my bokken and tried to do it differently.   Having begun to notice the elastic connections between my arms and both the front- and back-sides of my body I now had some clues about a better approach.  By harnessing these connections I have been able to reduce the reliance on my shoulder-muscles when raising the bokken, and on my inside arm muscles to stop the downward cut.

Lastly, here's an awesome demo by sixty-something Chen-style taijiquan master Chen Xiaowang: 

You don't get that kind of proficiency from a short-course of self-defence!

Training the mind and body
So there you have it.  We all have the potential to harness our own elasticity, but first we need to recognize our own potential.  Next, it's handy to start noticing connections:  Where are the stretch connections in the body?  Which movements can (or could) use them?  Walking is a good activity in this respect.

And then there's the training of the body.  Suddenly stretching is less about increasing joint-flexibility and more about sensing and developing elastic connections.  This is worth reflecting on if you already do regular stretching, or hatha yoga.  Warm-up /stretching exercises such as you might find in a traditional kung fu or aikido class may also appear in a somewhat different light.

Besides my own training and exploration, I have been informed by Mike Sigman's approach to what he calls Internal Strength (see especially article #2: Connection).


Andi said...

That guy in the video .... I wouldn't want to get on his bad side. He could do some serious damage to a person.
Love you Sensei Dan!!