One warm summer day my dad and I drove up to New Castle Island to take a kayak tour of the Piscataqua River. The guide went over a few safety tips and how-tos, then people slipped their boats off the rocky bank into the water. I stepped into my kayak, placing one foot in the center, and then pushed off with the other foot. The boat and I shot into the water with me standing in it like a paddle boarder.
“You a surfer?” the guide asked.
“Nope, he’s a black belt,” my father answered.
I hadn’t thought about it when I did it, I was just trying to get the boat into the river with me on it but, apparently, what I’d done was a minor feat of balance. My Dad’s comment got me thinking about how much the martial arts focuses on balance. It’s a great physical skill to have, especially if you live up here in New England where driveways and sidewalks tend to get a bit slick in the winter months. Couple balance with learning to fall and most martial artist can make it through some dicey situations unscathed.
On the flip side, my cousin and I were loading stuff and ourselves into a rowboat. It too was a warm summer day and we were going to row out to a sailboat that was just off New Castle Island. I stepped off the dock and into the boat first. I spun around and sat down missing the seat altogether and found myself lying flat at the bottom of the boat in three inches of slimy, lukewarm water. I was looking up at the clouds and my cousin who was laughing hysterically. Nobody asked me if I were a surfer or made comments about my martial arts experience. I did, however, get to row out to the sailboat soaked to my underwear.
What is Balance?
Balance sits at the center of many things we do and learn. It can be thought of as that thing that keep us from falling on our you-know-what’s when we do something like kick, stand on one leg, jump into a kayak or try to sit in a rowboat. But, it’s so much more than just a skill to keep us from falling. So, let’s look at what it does for us physically.
We can think of balance as staying upright but it is much more than that. Good balance means that your center of gravity is over your feet. Why is this important? Because, if your center of gravity is over your feet and your feet are under you, you can move. It’s one of the first things beginning martial artist learn. Your feet have to go with you. If you step with one foot the other follows. In the Tao of Jeet Kune do, Bruce Lee writes, “Aim always to move fluidly but retain the relative position of the two feet.” In the Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi writes, “There is something in the way called the Yin-Yang Foot, and it is considered essential. The Yin-Yang Foot means never moving just one foot. With Yin-Yang, you step right and left, right and left, whether striking, pulling back or parrying a blow. I repeat: you should never step with just one foot.” So now balance is not just some magic function of the inner ear but solid technique with a purpose.
Balance also means that you have two feet. If you bring both feet together (like one foot) the job of staying upright becomes much more difficult. The feet coming together is the exact condition a good Judo player looks for in his opponent. If they see two feet together, it’s time to react and put the person on their you-know-what. Fortunate for the opponents, there are no water-logged row boats nearby. Judo in wet underwear would be no fun!
Now we know that balance means even distribution over a stable base, like two sides of a scale hovering at the same height. This even distribution means that things stay upright and can move. While it may be true that balance has to shift to create movement, it shouldn’t shift too far and should find its way back to center quickly. This principle doesn’t just exist in the physical world it can also be applied to the way we organize our lives.
Something most of us think about at one time or another is our work-life balance or school-life balance in the case of the little ones. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to shift our weight toward work. The imbalance creates stress. The American Institute of Stress claims that stress is America’s number one health problem, and “job stress is the major culprit.” According to HealthGuide.org “Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.” Hmmm… all this because you didn’t move both feet.
We keep both feet under us so we can move. Conversely, if we step with just one foot and don’t bring the other along with us, we get locked in that position. When something else comes at us, we can’t move to avoid it. We’re now in a position where we need to expend significant effort to pull the other foot under us and regain balance or fall. While we’re expending this effort, we’re getting hit by attacks we can’t avoid.
Why are we stepping in the first place? The answer is simple. We’re reacting to something. In our lives it may be the need for more money – your family grows you get a more demanding job that pays more money. If you’re in the dojo doing a technique, it’s because someone is taking a swing at you.
Martial Arts Technique
So let’s think about a simple technique to defend against a straight punch. The punch is coming at you so you move to avoid it by stepping to the left and forward. Imagine you are facing north to start, you step your left foot to north-west to avoid the punch. Now is the time to drag your right foot along so that your immediately back in balance with both feet under you and your weight is even. It’s not a step where the right foot moves in front of the left. You maintain the relative position of your feet and just bring the right along so they are not too spread out. All your options are open. Because you’re in balance you can strike, kick, grab even move again.
The key is to move your feet one right after the other so you don’t you get caught in place. This happens to boxers when they don’t step properly and get caught on their heels. With our work life balance it’s the same, it’s much easier to “bring the other foot with you” right away. As you take new jobs or accept increases in responsibility, consider how it affects your life and what you can do to balance it out. If the answer is nothing or very little, ask yourself if the change is worth it. The important thing is when you react, react fully. Move both feet so you don’t get caught off-balance and have to fight to get your feet back under you when it’s too late.
Now consider balance in your family dynamic. My family is my sanctuary – the one place I accept nothing less than harmony. When my family is harmonious and in balance I can handle anything anywhere else in my life. It can, however, be difficult to maintain the balance. Take the case of disciplining children. Not only does a child’s negative behavior create tension but disagreement in how to handle it creates tension among parents. That, in turn, can shift the balance of power to the child. In this case the parents are the two feet. If one chooses one way to discipline, the other must support it.
Bouncing, Naps and Cookies
Staying in balance with our spouse is easier said than done, right? The typical dynamic is that Junior bounces on the couch over and over screaming, “Mommy.” Mommy screams for him to stop while tearing out her own hair. Dad sits on a different couch clicking the remote pretending not to hear then takes a nap. Mom finally blows up and loses her mind. In a tornado of psycho-screaming she sends junior to his room and takes away everything he owns. Dad is woken up from his nap, gets upset at mom, who then stomps from the house to, “run an errand.” Junior whines to dad about being grounded and having all his stuff taken away. Dad un-grounds him, gives his stuff back so he can get back to his nap in peace. While Dad’s asleep, Junior eats all the chocolate chip cookies and starts jumping on the couch again.
Bring both feet together (dad gets off his you-know-what and helps mom discipline Junior) and Junior is presented with a unified front. The rules are clearly defined and supported by both parents. A punishment is doled out and enforced by the unified front. Knowing that both parents will follow through and stick with a punishment, Junior doesn’t jump on the couch again. Mom still runs her errand, which is to get milk. Dad sneaks in a few winks while she’s gone. When mom returns, there are still lots of chocolate chip cookies. The whole family reunites on the couch and gets cookies and milk. Therefore, it is clear that good balance leads to cookies and milk!
The Check List
Think about balance as you move through your day. Look at the dynamics of the things as you do and ask yourself if they are in balance. The check list used to make sure you’re physically balanced as you do your techniques can be used in any situation:
- Are both feet under you?
- Is your base stable?
- Is your body over your feet?
- Can you move in any direction?
If it’s a “yes” to all these things then you are in good shape. You should experience minimal stress. If you answered “no” to any, then you need to correct it or risk “falling.” Like anything it’s much easier to stay in balance as you move vs. trying to correct it once you been off-balance for a while. So, as you make choices, go through the checklist and stay in balance.