Lessons from My Masters 13: Observations - Looseness
Oct 25, 2018
Now that I’ve discussed “Anticipation” and the importance of “Timing” I’m going to discuss the importance of Looseness but not from the perspective of re-teaching it, but to discuss some of what I believe are some of the misconceptions about it. This is going to be tough because in my view there are number of things regarding looseness that seem to contradict each other. I personally don't believe they are contradictions, rather I believe the confusion lies in a fundamental misunderstanding or how our body's can carry out multiple movements simultaneously.
On Being Supple
As I’ve written in various newsletters before for those who have been involved with the martial arts for some time have often heard, “You must learn to be as supple as a blade of grass in a storm... you must become like water…” and on and on.
In Guided Chaos folks are always talking about being loose or getting loose. I remember years ago when I first started training in the art how all you would hear from folks was that no matter what your problem was. No matter what ailed you the remedy to everything was you had to “get looser”. If you got pushed you had to get looser, if you didn’t move in time you had to get looser. If "you" pushed you had to get looser. If you got hit you had to get looser. Pretty much if you so much as "farted" the answer was, well you had to get looser.
It was unbelievable and I believe it was this way of thinking that contributed to and still does to this day cause much confusion among practitioners of the art.
So to reiterate here’s what I believe and this is just my observation, the reason for so much confusion is that there are various ranges of Looseness that span a spectrum or range of movement (I’ll come back to this later). For those who’ve been to my classes they’ve often heard me describe looseness as “subtle muscle control”. The reason for this is like I said there is a range of movement that I believe covers a wide range of physical states that make up looseness, here’s why.
For those who’ve heard me tell the story before when I first began training in the art under the tutelage of Grandmaster Carron. If you will recall he would often admonish me for “pushing”. In my frustration I asked, “I don’t understand because it feels like you’re pushing me”. He then stated something along the lines of, “here put your hands here”. So he placed his hands on top of mine and applied pressure he then had me take my hands away fast. When I did his hands stayed in the same place. He did a few other experiments like this and then said, “It’s not that I’m pushing I’m giving you equal pressure”.
He then had me flow with him where he deliberately moved his body around and his arms but no matter what he did, the pressure against my hands “never” changed. I would later learn that this was a form of “isolation”. By this point there was smoke coming out of my ears because what he did made at the time absolutely no sense yet I was experiencing it first-hand. This was one of many cool things Tim would teach me. He went on to say something like,
“When you move with John you’ll notice sometimes he has to stop you yet he just steps out of the way but he doesn’t push you. It’s because he’s balanced enough to control you, hold you in place without pushing and just step off line and hit you”.
I was like, “Yeah”.
He said, “Well that’s what he’s doing. Here let me show you something”.
So he says, “Do whatever you want”.
You know where this is going...
So while we were flowing Tim catches my elbow and lifts me up "juuuuust enough" to break my balance. He then tells me, “See if you can’t get out of this”. So as I try to get away from him he starts to hit me in the ribs, not hard but hard enough for me to know it would be over for me if he meant it. But here was the weird thing. No matter how much I moved, no matter how much he hit me the pressure against my arm never changed. He then started shifting side-to-side hitting me wherever he wanted too. Now at this point he’s laughing at me as he keeps saying to me, “Get out of the way, move your body”, which because he’s laughing now he has me laughing while I’m telling him, “I can’t”.
He then explains that when you have your balance and you take another person’s balance you can do whatever you want. He then states, “You hear John say it in class all of the time without your balance you can’t get loose”.
Looseness is Balance?
“Well the truth is Looseness and Balance are really the same thing but you can’t really teach it that way because it gets too confusing for people because they actually play off each other.”
Tim use to elude to this all of the time and I’ve heard John say this over the years probably a hundred times but it took a long time to grasp what they were saying. You see when you are controlling your equilibrium your body has to be loose in order to make the adjustments you need to shift your center of gravity. To the same token if you are not balanced you cannot move, mold or shift your body appropriately in order to either shift your root, yield, or get out of the way. The point is they are always playing off of each other and cannot be separated which is why we place so much emphasis on the balance exercises.
The more balance you develop the looser, "to a point of course", that you can get or at least the easier it is to get loose. The problem is if you teach it in that fashion as John says it becomes difficult to present it in the beginning so we separate it out to focus on each of the principles. The key point here is that in looseness there is always an element of balance and in balance there is always an element of looseness. I know for some this is as clear as mud but none the less it is the truth.
The Ranges of Looseness
We've all heard how people describe that you must be "like water", formless and taking the shape of whatever container it fills etc. Yet most people when they hear this only think about the softer aspects of water or the "Yin" aspects and forget water cannot be compressed and can take on the qualities of concrete and has a very "Yang" feel as well. Remember, water cannot be compressed so when you squeeze a container with water it moves around, if it has nowhere to go it takes on the quality of a solid. The interesting thing is that the resistance you feel is water in its natural state not being able to move so it takes on the quality of a solid. It's not so much that it's pushing you as "you are pushing it". When you lighten your touch, so does the water in the container. Increase the force and the the force of resistance increases. At this point it's just the inertia of the water resisting with equal force or as Tim described what he use to do with me "Equal Pressure".
Once again, looseness is nothing more than using your muscles in an efficient manner. It is not just muscular relaxation as some think although that plays a role but it is the “subtle muscle control” one requires when moving to strike from one point to another or while avoiding a strike while delivering one all at the same time. It is the ability to be hard and soft all at the same time and everything in between. It is the ability to slip through the smallest space possible or elongate your body when you need to. It is the ability to be solid like a rock, liquid or vapor all at the same time by isolating various parts of your body through subtle muscle control.
To illustrate this point though I usually don’t include charts in my Blog Posts, for this one I will because what I just described above is difficult for people to understand so I'm going to lay it out visually here.
Obviously there's more to than what I'm describing above but you get the idea. These "ranges of looseness" as I describe them are constantly changing depending on what you feel you need to do when you need to do it. The key is to learn how to control and manipulate them as you move. Understand, lest I forget, that these "skills" that I refer to them within the various stages or ranges of looseness. Correlate into your body's ability to control not only your equilibrium but the over-travel and ability to lighten ones touch or create false surfaces through equal pressure, isolate your body around a given point or whatever you feel you need to do from one moment to the next when you need to.
You're Always Going Back to the Beginning
"You're always going back to the beginning."
--Grandmaster Tim Carron
One of the first things Tim taught me about how my body should be is how to be light with my hands. However, in the beginning I found this concept difficult to understand because I was like, "How can you be light and yet at times feel hard all at the same time?"
This of course was before he got into the concept of equal pressure. So one day I'm working outside with John at the old Church or North Yonkers where we had our school at the time, and John said something that at the time I found even more strange that I thought I'd share here. He said something along the lines of, "You need to lighten up your hands you're trying to muscle me". So he says, "Stand on this log". So he has me get up on this log in the parking lot. It was one of those logs that people use for parking spaces.
He then says, "Try to stay on the log and just stay with my hands". While I'm working on the log he starts to talk to me, now granted I'm not saying anything at this point I'm just trying to not fall. He then says,
"You want to make your body to feel neutral. You want to make your whole body as light as your hands, that's why you have to work your balance. Light hands-light body. You want your body to become as light as your hands. This is what allows you to be loose and free in your body".
Just like that I started to get it even if only a little better.
"You want your body to become as light as your hands. This is what allows you to be loose and free in your body"
That's all I needed to hear! I didn't need anymore explanation than that. This is what Tim was trying to get me to understand. By the way this is also why the "Wobble Board" is an indispensable training tool. It works so many different attributes of the art that they are too numerous to name here at least with out explaining them.
When training folks to become "neutral" in their body, along with working their balance of course, I've found that the best way is to first get people to become as light as a feather while flowing with folks. I call this lightness the "default setting". Meaning when you have the ability to instantly, without thought become light as a feather if necessary while moving. It also allows you to abandon things that if for some reason you had to apply a little force such as redirecting someone or you had to "stop" something, because you couldn't get out of the way in time if but for a brief moment. It allows you to hit the reset button "after" you get your body out of the way via "isolation", neutralizing their force in that moment in time. You can accomplish this because you were never overly committed to the movement in the first place but neutral in the body. Much of looseness is all about being able to remain neutral in the body.
Notice now I said, "after" you get your body out of the way?
This is crucial because should you break contact while doing this "before" you isolate and get your body out of the way you may give your attacker the opening to strike you. But, if your body is already out of the way (unavailable) it resets the problem for him where he has to regroup in his attack, which takes time. A luxury you should never grant them.
When I'm flowing with folks I'm doing this type of thing all-of-the-time. Playing along this scale along the various ranges of looseness if you will, going in and out of these different ranges, because I try to keep my body neutral I'm constantly changing even if only a little, to manipulate people, redirect people or as I like to use the military term, "shape" them. The thing about when you shape people is if you're subtle enough even when using equal pressure, as long as you are able to isolate your body properly as you move. It allows you to create false surfaces. Guiding them to where you want them to go. The key here is that in order to pull this off your movement must be seamless when you isolate regardless of how little pressure you use to include not using pressure at all such as when you are "ghosting" (Vapor Body).
If you've every felt how John can disappear on you with his body right on you, or move in a way where he sticks you to the ground, or how you try to move and even though there is "no pressure" on you takes your balance in a way where you can't move. You have no idea how deep this concept really is. I'll tell you a story, I've told this numerous times over the years to students and I like telling it because, a) it's funny and; b) it really illustrates what I'm trying to convey here.
Anyway, I remember working with John once where while flowing at speed I was able to get past John. Folks I have to tell you this like never happens, like for real, and I can tell you you feeling of accomplishment, the elation that I actually got past him where I thought I had the advantage.
It was in that moment I had a vision like "Obi Wan Kenobi" coming to visit me from "The Force" only it was a vision of one of my mentors in the Marine Corps from when I was a young officer and I could see The Evil Gunny Miller-Perry, with his freshly starched cover on his brow saying,
"I'll tell you what Lieutenant, if your attacks going too well, if that shit feels easy, it's a fucking ambush."
I should have listened...
Next thing I know John, I shit you not, is moving at me "sideways" practically like the picture of Neo in The Matrix at the top of the page. He then... "belly bumps" me practically knocking the wind out of me.
As I felt myself slipping from consciousness I had another vision, it was Col Jack Sparks, one of my old Regimental Commander's and all I could hear him say was,
"Remember, hope is not a plan..."
You see, when I got past him even if for a second, but for a fleeting moment I was filed with "hope". The hope that what I did was going to work... but as the good Col said, "Hope is not a plan".
I should have listened...
After he hit me and I recovered I was like, "What the Hell was that?"
John just laughed and said, "I had to do something..."
Ah... good times. This stuff is just too funny...
But you know what? When you have this level of control over your balance this level of looseness is available for your use at will. Trust me what John did that day was not a matter of "thought" as it was the ability to adapt and bend the fight to his will based on what he actually felt me trying to do. This is what I mean by "shaping". When you're being shaped by the time you recognize it... it's already too late.
But remember as I said in Lessons from My Masters 11. This is not something that he is consciously planning out or some sort of step-by-step process but a byproduct of mastering the principles and movement to the point where, without thought he can get to the future and take advantage of the time he has bought himself where, even if he makes a mistake he can recover faster than the opponent because he has bought himself enough time to do so.
Understand, and John will tell you this himself, it's not that he doesn't make mistakes or doesn't get caught from time-to-time, it's what he does about it that counts. Please re-read what I just said because if you get this point it will triple your ability practically overnight because it will change the way you think about how you train and in particular practice Contact and Combat Flow.
You see John takes certain things into his calculus, he assumes the bad guy gets a vote so he has honed his skills so that when all else fails the "luck" due to his preparation generally falls on his side. John and Tim use to always say to me, "You want to be neutral in your body... You want to be neutral with your balance". Again this is one of those things that would take me years to unravel the meaning and understanding.
But understand it I eventually did...
Well that's it for this installment hope this helps folks out in understanding some of this stuff. Remember, these are just my thoughts on this stuff based on my experiences.
LtCol Al Ridenhour
Senior Master Instructor
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