Motion is to Pencak Silat what Rooted Stances are to Karate
Stance + Posture = Structure
Structure + Footwork = Mobility
Structure divided by Footwork = Mobility vs. Stability
In the above equations I am using the following terms and definitions in a calculated formulae:
1: Stance: The position and transition of all body elements from the waist down. This sometimes includes the spine.
2: Posture: Position and alignment of all body elements from the waist up. This always includes the spine.
3: Structure: The marriage of Stance and Posture to reflect the needs of the body’s defenses or attack at any given time. Structure is a fluid concept, it does not mean “Stance” or “Footwork”, it means the use of a variety of postures in Silat while maintaining balance in motion.
“Stance” in the accepted Martial Arts reference can be misleading when it comes to Pencak Silat. In the fundamental training of any Martial Art, a stance is noted as a means of sinking the body closer to the ground using the legs for support and stabilization. Now, we do that anyway, every day, just by walking. But a stance is more of an unmoving thing, and the word itself when in reference to Martial Arts usually invokes a kind of statuesque image, the practitioner in a deep-seated squat of some sort, tensing his body and rooting himself as much as possible. Although this is a correct definition, it’s not a really a true one.
Balance is the heart of stance work, and any art worth its salt will show this early on. Pencak Silat is no different in this regard, only in the approach. In any art, there are essentially two applications of balance in Silat, and they both serve an important purpose:
1: Balance in STILLNESS (Rooted stance, sinking/squatting with a wide base, almost no mobility at all)
2: Balance in MOTION (Footwork, Body English, high mobility & ground coverage)
Balance in stillness isn’t difficult to achieve, it only presents one option: Stand still and find your balance. You would have to be a pretty thick brick to not have some degree of mastery over this after a few months of training. Some arts specialize in this, the common rationale behind such training being that you must be able to stand there and absorb ANYTHING that is being hurled at you. Indeed, most arts advocate sinking deeper in whatever stance and rooting to the ground to appear “immoveable”. The fallacy with that sort of thinking is that it’s only one side of a two sided coin: Motion is just as important as static rooting, and a lack of one will force you to overcompensate with the other. Thus will begin a long confusing road of trying to force the fit of something into a situation where it doesn’t belong, a place where common sense should have just pointed to MOVING out of the way for a better vantage point.
Balance in motion is the more difficult concept, it doesn’t have a permanent place of residence and therefore harder to nail down in specific terms and postures.
You can observe the stance-posture-structure relationship in any martial art and discover how it supports the nuances of that particular style: Pencak Silat is mobile and fluid, so less time is spent in rooted positions. Karate is more rigid in terms of posture and stance, so it’s mobility lends itself to the rooted approach. Southern Chinese Kung Fu styles usually have a blend of the two, although it’s never a balanced one, the static sink/root method being the more dominant.
To understand the unique use of stance in Kali and Pencak Silat, first look at the objective of these arts: Motion. Everything in the combat systems of the Archipelagos points to MOVING, not ROOTING. Think of stance like this: If you are constantly moving with an innate sense of balance and coordination, then your stance becomes just wherever you happen to be standing, in whatever position your legs/feet happen to be in. It’s not something you think about, or have to look down to make sure it’s there; if you train for it then it WILL be there. The first action in the feet should be to move, not root to the ground. You need to be able to find balance and stability in motion, moving from one point to another without achieving the rooted aspect of stance. If your first action is to sink and root, then you will have to bring your musculature back to the initial point of relaxation before you can move at all, and who has that kind of time in a fight? Mobility is necessary for entries, evasion and counters. Mobility allows you to adjust for sudden changes in tempo and rhythm of the fight, as well as drastic shifts in terrain, conditions, etc. Mobility promotes adaptability, and helps you maintain a feeling with your opponent at several angles at once. Rooting in stance/structure only applies in a force-against-force contest, something you should be striving to avoid.
The rooting method is usually the first style of stance work trained, and therefore it’s the style that’s emphasized the longest in a practitioner’s life. It’s embedded in his mind, and he will always return to it because it was drilled in as a beginner. Because of this, progression is really the key when training stance. Most beginning students can’t tell their left from their right when they start training Martial Arts, and complex motor patterns will only confuse them. In this respect, focused stance training is fundamental because it teaches a slow step by step process of transitioning from one space to another in a specific manner. Without this training, the beginner will usually have a much rougher road to achieving flow in Silat. That being said, there should be a natural progression OUT of stance work and INTO footwork/Body English, a progression that should move with the momentum of the student’s learning curve. If you delay the transition into motion, then the student gets used to drilling in a static stance, and will have a knee-jerk impulse to “sink and root” in preparation of any conflict.
The problem with this approach is that it encourages you to “sink into a stance” during times of stress in combat, and root when you should move. It is a static element brought into a dynamic atmosphere (fighting). In training different Martial Arts styles, I have discovered that the traditionalist is often taught that the right stance can counter anything, and by implication, if their stance is strong enough then they can withstand even the most brutal attacks. There is some merit to this, and it does have application…But it’s not really a strategy you can go to war with. A rooted stance of ANY sort only works in one direction at a time: The front, or whichever way you are facing/direction you are going, and it will assuredly stack the deck against you in a fight because you will feel encouraged to either stand in the path of danger and “absorb it” as if you were a tree, or meet the attacking force head-on. This is not a very prudent strategy, especially if your opponent is faster or stronger than you, and it will cause you to make poor decisions in combat because you chose a poor position to begin with, and will constantly be playing “catch up” to your opponent’s lead.
Also, if you were successful in the initial clash and you did manage to deflect the incoming barrage, you will likely have every muscle and joint locked down, with the muscle mass so dense and rigid it can hardly move at all. You will be inhibited from responding to any openings quickly, nor will you be able to recover or change positions with any real speed, you must unclench your body first. Once you activate density in your body during combat stress, you will find it difficult (if not impossible) to regain mobility and relaxation needed for fluidity, because you have an innate momentum built up in favor of tension over relaxed, dynamic motion. Again, you will return to your first principles, the thing you were taught at the beginning, only it will be working against you even if you are doing it right.
It may seem as if I am campaigning against the rooted stance approach. Actually, it’s a necessary element, and it does have its uses…but they are far more limited than the use of mobility, and it doesn’t lend itself to fluidity very easily. For this reason you must have a firm grasp of the uses and disadvantages of each.
There is much written about the mathematical and mechanical elements of stance, many calculations, diagrams and equations laid out to give the appearance of something more meaningful than simply “balance in motion”. In a motion-based martial art, this idea is fundamentally wrong, and it’s a mistake to pursue some algebraic formulae hidden within horse stance, except maybe as an academic exercise. Not that the math itself won’t add up, it will. In fact, if you try hard enough you will discover several different formulae for each stance you know. However, the focus will always be on finding that math in the first place, looking for geometrical patterns in every stance instead of looking for the fluidity OUT of stance.
Next on the list: Posture.
By posture, let me say right off the bat that I am not speaking of “proper bone alignment” or “correct shoulder-spinal placement” like what you get from etiquette class. This isn’t the kind of straight-backed walking posture, but how you position your upper body in relationship with two separate points: Your feet & your opponent. Your posture will reflect your ability to move, defend or attack, depending on how you position yourself against an opponent.
Structure is the final element, and it’s last for a reason: You will have to master Stance and Posture to get to Structure, because it’s a combined element of the first two. Structure deals with our body’s trained and natural defenses, and how we find balance while using them in motion. But the definition of structure isn’t “Stagnant”. There are degrees of stability, and you have to decide what you need more of at the appropriate moment: Rooted, unmovable structure or a fluid, less stable one. There are times for sinking down and absorbing everything coming at you, and times to get the hell out of the way.
Moving allows you to negate an attack when “structure” cannot withstand the force. If you do not know or train for this, then you will not be prepared for it when it hits, nor will you be able to recognize when the opponent is doing it to you. If you train for balance in motion, you will not be confused. Your hands and feet will seem to move almost on their own, and your attention will be focused on the attacker, not how good your stance is. Balance is something you FEEL, not SEE.
When it comes to the Filipino and Indo-Malay martial arts, the name of the game is balance in motion. We don’t simply lurch in one direction and pray to God that we have balance when we arrive. The recognition and capitalization of an opening in your opponent’s defenses will only occur if one or more of you is in motion, usually responding to the other’s motion. To pull this off under combat stress conditions, you must be comfortable and confident in your abilities to flow with balance.
If an opponent is simply standing there with his guard up, why attack? You will need to move to a better position, or change your strategy. Also, motion is critical in countering your opponent mentally. Standing still is a mistake, because it allows your opponent to draw a clear bead on you, plot his attack, and gain the advantage of ground and the ability to adjust for his surroundings, as well as any tactical advantages to be had. Movement makes planning difficult for your opponent and allows you to stack the odds in your favor by choosing the setting & pace of the fight.
Rooting also doesn’t address what to do if the attacker decides to use a feint & you are caught by it. The purpose of feinting is to lure your opponent into over-committing to an attack that was never going to the evident target in the first place, a tactic designed specifically for targeting rooted structure. Mobility will save you, but a rooted, non-mobile structure bets the farm on a single roll of the dice. You better be able to fight perfectly every time, because that’s what you are training for. And nobody ever fights perfectly, something always goes wrong.
This article isn't about "A" versus "B", but to bring to light the glaring differences between the rooted and mobility camps. In the end, you have to have a mastery of all four elements. Then you can decide for yourself what tool is most prudent for your situation, mobility vs. stability, strength vs. speed, footwork/Body English vs. stance.