Rise to the Occasion
The stances and footwork of Palace Hand seem unusual to those unfamiliar with this particular martial art style. The raised heels and straight legs stand in contrast to karate and other combat sports, which use wider stances and a bent knee. So why do we use such footwork?
Different fighting styles have different purposes (sport vs self-protection for instance), they generate power in different ways and are often specialized to work best at a certain distance. All of this influences footwork and stance preferences as there are advantages and disadvantages to the various ways in which a fighter stands and moves.
The footwork of Palace Hand is essentially the same footwork utilized in kendo (Japanese sword fighting sport). Because Palace Hand is a sword-based martial art, the empty hand (without weapons) aspects of our practice use the same movement, tactics and principles as those used in our sword work.
Modern martial arts are optimized for sporting contests against a single opponent who is in front of you. With one opponent it makes sense to present a strong forward facing stance. Palace Hand, in contrast, evolved for the ancient battlefield and the assumption is that there is always another attacker, even if unseen. The upright nature of our stances allows free movement in any direction for attacking or defending in multiple attacker situations.
Our upright stance closely resembles the way we carry ourselves when we are not in the Dojo. Through practice we learn to improve our normal walking and posture eventually transforming our everyday movement into the same movement we use for our strikes, throws, weapons and other techniques. Miyamoto Musashi, an undefeated samurai who won 61 duels, wrote ‘There should be no difference between the way you walk in daily life and the way you walk in battle.’ Very few martial arts offer this. With Palace Hand you don’t get into a stance and change your mindset when faced with an adversary. Once embodied, the way you move and think is natural, fluid, calm and ready. There is no separation between you and your movement or between thought and action.
Our upright stance is a manifestation of combined technique, tactic and strategy. As Takamiyagi Sensei taught us, we strive ‘to appear unprepared while being prepared’ and ‘to provide no information to the opponent’. This not only allows us to face a hostile person with a calm non-threatening posture, it also can aid in surprising the opponent when we move without any preparatory motion. If we are standing or walking we are already in our fighting stance.
This is a big one. There have been numerous studies proving the benefit of training with instability. The stabilizer muscles (muscles in your joints and core) work overtime engaging and disengaging when your stability is challenged. This also helps your mind and body to work together more effectively. If your stabilizers are weak they are often unable to adapt to unpredictable movements and this can cause injuries or falls. Weak stabilizers also lead to misalignment and poor joint position which, for our purposes, contribute to inefficient movement, loss of speed and loss of power.
Beginners often comment on the instability they feel when moving the Palace Hand way. But the stances and footwork are not inherently unstable, it is the weakness of a persons stabilizing system that is the problem. Oftentimes people deal with the instability by lowering ones heels but this is merely avoiding the problem rather than addressing it. As we practice technique, walk backwards, and get pushed around while holding targets for our partners, we challenge our stability system. This strengthens our core, improves the response time and coordination between our brain and stabilizers, and we get better at managing the challenges of instability- as long as we are holding our heels high. By mastering control of our bodies we get better at staying on our feet when an adversary tries to take us down.
Lastly, the free movement permitted by our stance is a great advantage when receiving the type of techniques that we practice. When someone applies a throw or joint lock to someone something has to give. Torque and other forces build up when a person doesn’t yield and this can prove disastrous. I have seen what can happen when an immovable person receives an effective joint lock. It results in catastrophic failure of bone and uprightness. It can be instantly destructive. And a person who always trains to be in a strong stance often is unable to relax quickly enough to receive a joint lock or throw safely.
You often hear me say, ‘lift your heels higher’. Now you know why.