Kenpo Budokan Karate: White Belt: Lessons: 15 – Horse Stance / Toe to Heal

"Mabu posture". Also called "Ho...
“Mabu posture”. Also called “Horse stance” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Horse Stance / Toe to Heal

Horse Stances

One of the primary training stances in all martial arts is some variation of the horse stance (kiba-dachi 騎馬立ち). Kenpo Budokan Karate is no exception. When you are training, or performing your forms, you should strive for a low, solid horse stance. In a self defense situation, you’re not looking for low horse stances so much as you are lowering your center of gravity – which is why many kenpo styles don’t emphasize the low stances. We’re not looking for perfectly parallel legs forming right angles at the knees. What we are looking for is strong solid base movements to the extent of your physical capabilities.

So what does having a low horse stance do for us? It kills your leg muscles and works on strengthening your core muscles. When you practice the stance – let’s say as you are doing the Master 8 Fold form, or are going through Short 1, you are working on these muscles creating a very powerful base for your techniques.

Riding the Horse

  1. Step out with your feet about twice shoulder width apart.
  2. Turn your toes inward, dig into the ground with the side of your feet.
  3. Bend at the knees and try to bring your legs parallel to the ground, with your shins perpendicular to the ground, so that your knees form a right angle.
  4. Hold this position for a minute and tell me that this is not an effective way to train your leg muscles (then try holding it for 30 minutes or 3 hours….)

Some things to note, whichever direction your toes are pointing is where your feet are going to go. Imagine doing a horse stance on a slippery floor. If your toes are pointed outward, you feed will start sliding outward until the next thing you know you are in a full split. Dig in with the side of your feet for proper grip and balance. This also serves to help solidify your base and gives you additional power and balance in your stance.

If you are down in a horse stance and can sit there for more than 5 minutes without feeling the burn in your legs this means that you already have very powerful legs, or more likely, you aren’t sinking deep enough in the horse stance. If this is the first time you are doing a horse stance, you legs should really be shaking after 60 seconds in the stance, if not, then you’re not doing it correctly. Try and increase the time you can stay into a deep horse stance for as many minutes as you can. Use this time to focus on isolation of your punches or blocks, do the master 8 fold form, etc… Build up your strength until you can comfortably do 15 minutes without dying (you may be in pain, but not dead, and not having to flex your legs to get relief).

Super Low Stances and Super High Kicks

Back in the day, your martial arts competitions was divided into forms (empty hand and weapons) and sparring (point and full-contact). Today, go to any modern day martial arts competition and you will see that they’ve divided the forms into traditional and modern sections (along with a dozen other divisions) – with the modern forms incorporating a lot more gymnastics than actual martial arts movements. The idea was that these more modern forms were highlighting athletic ability and gymnastic prowess more so than traditional martial arts movements – and as such they pulled them out, so that only forms considered traditional in styles would be allowed to compete in the traditional forms division. Unfortunately, over time, the judges started to expect stances to be low to the ground, and kicks to be perpendicular – and thus your competition training began.

Low stances aren’t a bad thing, and are very useful for training purposes (and for competitions). Some low stances are useful in some self-defense situations (lowering your center of gravity to assist your technique). However, by and large, if you try and get low, low, low to the ground in a self defense situation, you not only make yourself that much more vulnerable, you are much less maneuverable, and more prone to getting stuck. The same thing goes for high kicks. Kenpo kicks all attack targets of opportunity with most kicks usually never going above waist level. When you start kicking higher, the chance of loosing balance or being countered increases exponentially. This is not to say that high kicks aren’t effectual – they can be very effective. The issue is, that at this level (10 kyuu), trying to kick too high is only going to get you in more trouble than its worth. Come back in a a couple of years and then start talking about getting your kicks high in a self-defense situation. I’m still waiting for someone to show me how a “scorpion kick” can actually be effective….

Toe to Heal Alignment

The rule of thumb here is where ever you are facing, the toe of the foot in front should align with the heal on the foot in the back. Why is this?

First, when in a self defense situation, you want to limit the exposure of your targets to your attacker, and by turning your body to the side you limit the vulnerable targets to you head. Putting your hands into the guard position limits this exponentially. Your groin and stomach are exposed to swings from the side, but proper positioning limits the attacker’s ability to reach those targets.

Secondly, it provides a strong base from which you can attack from. If you stand face forward feet together, you have very little balance against pushes from the front or the rear. If you remember the self defense techniques from this level, the first thing you did was step, with the goal of getting your body into proper alignment and giving you the power and balance needed to properly execute the technique.

Thirdly, it allows for proper power and reach for your attacks. In the ideal world you could stand perfectly toe to toe and would have the world’s best balance against lateral shoves. The problem, is that standing toe to toe reduces your ability to provide power behind your strikes. Do this as a practice. Stand in a horse stance and reach your one arm across your body and try to hit a target on the other side. While you may have some muscular strength in your arms, your power is severely limited. Additionally, your reach is restricted to how flexible your torso is in twisting. Next, get into a proper toe to heal stance and do the same exercise. You should notice a lot more power behind the punches as well as a lot more range of motion and reach.

So why not heal to toe? Because this would leave you with part of your back exposed to your attacker – which is something you want to try and avoid as much as possible. You can only defend against that which you can see.

The first time you encounter this is really within Short 1 Kata. As you move through the form, you are stepping in such a manner that your stances align all along straight pathways, and you are in proper toe to heal stance. As you progress through the levels, you will find that the toe to heal stance is the base that you keep coming back to. Focusing on proper foot placement now will save you a ton of headache down the line.

Slow Tension Practice

One of the practices we recommend for your training sessions is a slow tension exercise. You go through the technique as normal, but at an extremely slow pace, keeping your muscles tensed through the whole movement or form. While you do this practice, you should focus on your proper hand position, but more importantly, watch proper foot placement to ensure that your stances are low, and your feet are facing the proper direction. If you do this correctly, not only should this be a great practice for focusing on your techniques, but you should also have a great full body workout as a result.

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