Question of Balance
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When I recently visited my
friend and mentor, Master Isidro Archibeque, Master
Archibeque chided me for failing to properly emphasize
balance in my other articles.
"Archie," as Master Archibeque prefers to be called,
is the originator of many unique training techniques and
philosophies, some of which have been previously shared
with readers of Tae Kwon Do Times (Iron Fist
Archie's Junky Fighting Tactics (November 1991); Iron
Fist Archie's Exercise Junk (July 1987); Lesson of the
Iron Cross (January 1991)). Updated versions of
those articles can be found on this web site.
Like all great Masters, Archie places particular
emphasis on basics, in many instances, using mastery of
basics to propel performance beyond the ordinary.
Archie reminded balance is essential to every aspect
of the martial arts. "Once a stance becomes fluid, it
manifests as a body in harmony, or having balanced
motion if you will. Power is delivered to the target
only to the extent balance remains intact at moment and
point of impact. A stance can be strong only if allied
equally to strong balance."
Archie remembered my early visits to his camp. Though
I had already attained Black Belt status in other
styles, I was unable to pass even his basic tests for
It was a sore memory and, for that reason, long since
forgotten. His words brought it all back. The
resurrected the image of several stakes mounted in the
ground with a 2"x4" board suspended edgewise between
them. While his students worked out, he challenged I
should walk the thin edge from one endpost to the other.
I appraised it to be a feat for circus performers and
let the challenge pass, thinking he wasn't serious. He
thereupon lined up his students and each traversed
without fail. When the last student crossed, Archie
pointed to me and ordered, "Now, your turn!"
At first, I failed, the second step spinning me sideways
off the board. Archie's students stood respectfully
silent. No one in his class would laugh at incompetence,
having been there themselves. By their measure, what
deserved laughter was acceptance of incompetence.
Clearly, my frustration signaled I would make the effort
to master the skill, whatever it took. The remainder of
that visit, I practiced crossing the board. The 2"x4"
was soft beneath my feet. As I leaned right, the board
oscillated left. When I finally managed several steps,
it oscillated unpredictably, throwing me like a wild
buck. I asked Archie's students to "demonstrate their
technique." They lined up and crossed smoothly. One
student did it backwards, another hopped across on one
foot. Still another stunned me by doing the moon walk.
When class ended, I questioned Archie how I could
master the skill. He responded balance was either there,
or it was not. He stressed I should not think of it so
much as a skill but rather re-discovery of a natural
physical ability. He explained balance was related to
mechanisms in the middle ear, which existed for
everyone. When functioning normally, they would make the
trip across the board an easy feat, even when the board
was soft and spongy to my step.
"How did I lose the ability?"
"I'm not concerned with how you lost it. I'm concerned
with whether you can get it back. Look at your
lifestyle. Look at how you spend most of your time.
Sitting at home, sitting at work, sitting at the TV,
sitting in your car. It's a wonder your body even
functions, considering all the time you've spent molding
it into the shape of a seat."
He invited me back promising to reveal "the secret." Of
course, I accepted.
The secret meant nothing
other than hard work. For several hours each class, I
stood at the exercise station attempting to cross over.
By week two, I had strung five steps together, without
falling. This increased slightly each passing week,
until eventually, I proudly succeeded in my first
#1a, b & c: This simple
balance apparatus is identical to that used
by myself and can be constructed for less
than $40.00 out of pocket.
I was satisfied to end
with that achievement, except Archie reprimanded I was
only "beginning" with the lesson. He penciled a drawing
and ordered I build a practice station in my yard, where
I should work daily to perfect the requisite balance
skills. His station is portrayed in photographs
#1a-c, which demonstrate a 14' length of "2
x 6" board, mounted between 2 end-posts anchored in the
ground. The end-posts are configured using adjacent "4 x
4" supports, mounted with a "2 x 4" as a spacer in
between. In effect, the "2 x 6" bridge dovetails into
the end-posts and can be replaced by a lighter ("2 x 4")
board if one dares.
The configuration in the
photographs takes approximately two hours to construct,
using materials costing less than $40.
Archie stressed that with
diligence, I should be able to cross the bridge, never
falling. He urged I should practice in all weather,
under all conditions -- wet, dry, icy, windy. It became
something I could do at leisure (see photographic
sequence #2a-g), almost a play activity.
After several months, I met again with Archie and
proudly demonstrated I could cross the bridge five times
without falling or dismounting. It was then he said I
was ready for Stage II, "walking backwards."
He emphasized I should
continue to expand my forward movement. By his
reckoning, this meant being able to cross 50 times
consecutively without losing balance. Concurrently, I
should attempt to develop "walking backwards," in effect
a new and separate balancing skill. As my skills
crossing forward increased beyond my expectations, I
struggled with the basics of crossing backward.
Again months passed.
Frustrated with my efforts, I called Archie for
guidance. He stressed crossing backwards was simply
walking backwards and that I should not think about the
board or about technique. The only issue was balance and
my focus on the task.
Eventually, I made a
successful backward crossing. With additional practice,
I could cross consistently (see photographic sequence
As was the case with all
he did, Archie had a clear standard to indicate when a
technique was mastered. I could now make the forward
crossing 50 times in succession and could cross
backwards several times each workout. He immediately
pronounced that I demonstrate 10 backward crossings
without losing balance. Only then would I be ready for
Two years into the
practice, I met his second standard. Next, I was asked
to cross to the mid-point of the bridge, turn 180
degrees and return to the post. Then, I crossed
backward, turned 180 degrees around and continued
Finally, I was ordered
to cross in darkness. Without light and vision, I was
again a beginner, having to find new and deeper
instincts to guide my crossing.
Currently, I am years
into the process. I expect Archie will continue to come
up with new challenges for each new level, so I don't
tell him where I'm at in my progress. When I first
worked on these concepts, I sported a full head of black
hair. As you can see in the photographs, that is no
longer the case.
In closing, I wish to
share a few bonuses not promised when Archie first
encouraged my work on balance. Not surprisingly, these
drills have a clear meditative value. Early in my study,
I abandoned other meditation exercises I had been
practicing. Deeper focus and heightened awareness were
immediate derivatives of the balance exercises and these
carried over into all of my martial arts movement.
Secondly, my skills in balance have continued to grow.
Once, to my surprise and delight, I found a "2 x 6"
wooden rail running approximately 100 yards around a
high school parking lot. With glee, I attacked the
challenge. As an added challenge, some of the support
posts were loose and poorly anchored to the ground. As
they oscillated, I instinctively adjusted, then
proceeded to complete the entire circuit successfully.
No sooner was that accomplished, then the voice of my
mentor challenged within that I should be able to do it
backwards, and then with multiple crossings. Before
long, I was bringing my own students to the location as
a test of their balance and focus.
As I implied at the
beginning of the article, Archie's chiding was
warranted. In presenting some of the more esoteric
aspects of his teachings, I overlooked that where he is
most unique is in the emphasis on basics.
I once had opportunity
to demonstrate a complex form for a panel of masters,
with Archie as a guest in attendance. I had prepared
diligently for the exhibition and did well. The
execution was superior, and the panel was duly
impressed. Afterwards, as I chatted with my mentor in
the corner, I worked to draw his praise and favorable
comments, finally asking what he thought of my
performance. He turned, nodded his head and said, "Good
A high compliment indeed,
considering the source.