Improving Balance

A 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 balance.

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 crossing.

Photographs #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.

Photographic Sequence #2a-h:

Though it may look simple, crossing the mounted beam takes heightened focus, and considerable practice to master.

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 #3a-e).

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 Stage III.

Photographic Sequence #3a-e: Not for the timid, advanced levels cross the beams walking backwards. Completing this challenge prepares one for the ultimate...crossing in darkness.

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 forward.

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.

Video Demonstration


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 balance!"

A high compliment indeed, considering the source.

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