By Aaron Hoopes
One of the most important things I have learned in teaching breathing to martial artists is that one can only understand its importance by actually practicing deep breathing oneself. The same is true with stillness training. It is impossible to adequately understand the benefits of contrasting movement with stillness without actually trying it yourself.
Shotokan karate is a powerful and dynamic martial art. Yet, sometimes its emphasis on strong, hard techniques seems one-dimensional and overshadows the need for contrast. Without weakness there is no such thing as strength. Without soft there is no hard. This idea of contrast or balance in the martial arts is best symbolized by the concept of Yin and Yang. The Yin/Yang symbol is one of the oldest and best-known life symbols in the world. It represents the two poles of existence, which are opposite but complementary, and which exist everywhere in every part of the universe. The light, white Yang moves up blending into the dark, black Yin which is moving down. The two aspects are in opposition to each other but they are also interdependent. Yin and Yang can be described as dependent opposite forces that must always be in balance. The opposite forces flow in a natural cycle, one always replacing the other. Each force contains the seed of the other, which is why we see a black spot of Yin in the Yang segment and a white spot of Yang in the Yin. They do not merely replace each other but actually become each other. Absolute or pure Yin (or Yang) does not exist. Everything contains some degree of its opposite.
What the Yin/Yang dichotomy is telling us is that in life all things have two opposite dimensions. If light exists then darkness exists as well. Wherever there is an “up” there will also be a “down”. If something has a front it must have a back. Something that is born will eventually die. There are no advantages without disadvantages; there are no disadvantages without advantages. All the opposites one perceives in the universe, then, are embodied in the opposing forces of Yin and Yang. This changing combination of negative and positive, dark and light, cold and hot is what keeps the world in motion. In our individual lives all change can be seen as one opposite becoming the other.
As something reaches an extreme, it always gives way to its opposite. Just as the seasons cycle through summer-fall-winter-spring and create opposite periods of hot and cold, windy and still, rainy and dry. Yin and Yang cycle through active and passive, dark and light, strength and weakness. If Yin and Yang are balanced and flowing, life itself is balanced and flowing. Each of us must have this balance to be complete.
For people who train in the martial Arts, one of the most important principles embodied by the concept of Yin and Yang, is the relationship between stillness and motion. Stillness is the natural state before movement begins, and yet it is also the basis of all movement. Understanding the symbiosis of stillness and movement can guide you in establishing true balance and control within yourself. A technique which begins from perfect stillness enables you to execute the movement in a coordinated and efficient manner which, in turn, allows your body and mind to reach together a balanced harmony. Furthermore, by increasing your efficiency of movement, you can release unnecessary tension and relax more completely.
The best method for learning the principle embodied in stillness and movement is to stand still - completely still. To begin, choose an individual position from your favorite kata. For beginners it may be a back-stance, knife-hand block (kokutsu shuto-uke). More advanced karate-ka may choose the first move from Sochin or the last move from Gojushiho-sho. The actual position of the arms and legs is less important than the requirement of the training, which is simply to remain completely still. Once in position, do not move at all. The goal is to achieve total, pure stillness. This is different from just getting into a stance and holding it. The point here is to make absolutely no movement at all. No adjustment, no shifting of weight, nothing. I realize that this may sound simplistic. But if you practice this training you will eventually come to understand the difference between absolute stillness and what passes for stillness in your regular training. You will become intimately aware of each and every muscle that is in use. Then the quality of your movement will naturally move toward perfection.
Once you have achieved stillness, relax the focus of your eyes and bring your attention inward to your hara or dan tien (the spot just below the navel). Begin slow Abdominal Breathing (see my article, “Breathing Training for Martial Artists” ). Keep completely still in every other way. Ignore the itch on your cheek, the twinge in your foot and the ache in your muscles. Hold the position for as long as you can without moving. If you are training alone at home, it may be useful to play music and stay in position for the duration of a song, then gradually lengthen the time to two or three songs. When you cannot stay still any longer, slowly - as slowly as possible - shift your position so that you are in a mirror image of the original position. Hold still again for another session.
By learning to achieve a state of stillness, you enable the body and mind to come to a restful position. Then, any movement initiated from this stillness is done with complete awareness and true intent. Your actions become the embodiment of quality and perfection. As you become more adept at practicing stillness, you will learn that it can be incorporated into your regular training. Once you have a feeling for perfect stillness you will be able to call on it whenever needed. In a kata you may only be still for a split second between moves, but if it is perfect stillness then the transition between the moves becomes flawless.
Finally, there is an additional benefit to this training - muscle strengthening. But it’s a different type of strengthening. In weightlifting, for instance, we breakdown muscle tissue so that it grows back stronger. Stillness training, on the other hand, rather than breaking down the muscle. tones the fibers of the muscle tissue. While it does not expand the size of your muscles, it does make them stronger. The more you practice the exercise the stronger your muscles will become and the longer you will be able to hold you stances.
As you get used to this exercise, see if you can bring it into your daily life. When you find yourself with a free moment, practice it - or one adapted to your particular situation. Soon you will become more and more aware of the feeling of true stillness and you will begin to recognize how it contrasts with movement. We are constantly moving all during the day. Try to take a moment and bring stillness into your daily life. It will benefit your training immensely.
The balance of Yin and Yang is apparent in every aspect of life. We just don’t take the time to pay attention to it. Stillness training is a method of enhancing awareness of the inherent balance in life. It is a tool for keeping us on the path of karate as a way of life.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Aaron Hoopes and was first published in Shotokan Karate Magazine (www.shotokanmag.com)
Aaron Hoopes is a native of Vermont and the founder of Zen Yoga. He is the author of: Zen Yoga: A Path to Enlightenment through Breathing, Movement and Meditation, Breathe Smart, and Perfecting Ourselves: Coordinating Body, Mind and Spirit. He has studied the martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and alternative medicine in the United States, Australia, and Japan for over twenty-five years. He has a degree in Asian History and Japanese Culture from Tulane University and spent a number of years in Japan studying under Masatoshi Nakayama, the chief instructor at the headquarters of the Japan Karate Association, until his death in 1987. He holds a third degree black belt in Japanese Shotokan Karate and is a certified instructor and one of the Hoitsugan Instructors. He is also certified as an instructor of Shanti Yoga and Meditation as well as Tamashii Tai Chi. He is trained in Chinese Qigong (Chi Kung) Energy Healing and studied Shiatsu Finger Pressure Therapy under Hitoshi Koeda in Japan. In addition, he has extensive knowledge of Iyengar Yoga, White Crane Qigong, Okinawan Karate, Shorinji Kenpo, Wing Chun Kung Fu and Zen Meditation.