Grounding and energy generation—the basis of so many combat and meditative arts in real life, and referred to directly or indirectly in a multitude of fictional magic and fighting systems. In the latter, it’s often described as rooting, or as drawing from the earth, or in other non-specific and spiritual-sounding ways. Gripping the earth with our feet, sinking or connecting, and other aspects of energy use.
I’ve also seen some rather ridiculous demonstrations that can best be deemed Karate Magic or Sensei-Fu—the great and powerful master who uses a pinky finger and hand-wave-um to send faithful students tumbling and sprawling as a demonstration of great power drawn from the earth and channeled into superhuman chi. Here’s an example of what happens when self-delusion walks into reality.
I’m more of a practical gal, I suppose.
Yes, I could say grounding gives you a connection to the earth beneath your feet—and indeed modern research demonstrates an incredible energy exchange when one walks barefoot on soil—but that isn’t extensively useful in a sudden and unexpected fight.
Think about it: the notion of “grounding” as tapping into the earth’s energy means you cannot expect your powerful techniques to work if you’re on a boat, on a plane, in a high-rise, or having to defend yourself within the confines of a spaceship. Or, for that matter, on a yoga mat on the gym’s second floor. Grounding might make one feel connected with the earth or with the universe, but that’s the result of the act rather than the act itself. It’s a metaphor that has, by some instructors and fiction writers, been taken way too far.
Grounding is not a spiritual act dependent upon the Think Method.
Now, I’m not trash-talking fictional magic systems that depend upon inherent elemental power. Frankly, I love elemental magic. (I’ve this little series called Desert Rising, after all!) What I don’t much love is the pseudo martial arts training that presents earthly grounding as a reality-based component of non-magical fight training and skill. What I really dislike is seeing those fictional depictions show up in real-life training folks have paid good money for.
Example: One of my Viable Paradise instructors has extensive Aikido training, and the depth of his skill—and therefore the quality of his instruction—is evident in every line of his body. I recall studying him during one discussion session, when he was merely standing off to one side. I remember thinking to myself, “If I tried to punch him, I’d be the one falling over from the recoil.”
(Is that an odd thing to think? Probably. Unless you tend to think about this stuff all the time. Honestly, I didn’t want to hit him!)
But why did I think that? It wasn’t because he was stiff and stoic. It wasn’t because he played at puffing out his chest and acting tough. It was because he was so obviously balanced, stable, and comfortable. He was both stone and sapling—solid and rooted and flexible.
And when I caught a glimpse of him moving through a couple techniques, that sense of solidity in motion remained.
That’s grounding. For reals.
The most bland description, and therefore the most useful and educational place to start, is simple: grounding is the use of biomechanics to choose how and when your body moves.
Grounding comes down to choosing one’s structure—or, perhaps even more basic, one’s posture. If you’re wavering or falling over often, posture is often to blame. If as a martial arts student, you’re stumbling when you strike an opponent or a heavy bag, your posture is again most often to blame.*
Certainly I can tell a student to “sink.” To “connect with the ground.” To “find their stability.” If I’m not a very skilled teacher, I keep repeating those things until the student either finds the right body alignment through trial and error or, as is often the case with intermediate students, quits in frustration. (There is a reason, my darlings, why so many brown belt students drop out…)
So… fix the posture, and fix the technique, right?
Well… yes and no.
Grounding involves the coordination of muscle groups we don’t usually think about. You let your knees bend a little. You take the muscles of your pelvic floor and “lift” them toward your diaphragm. You straighten the outward curve of your lower spine. Bonus points can be earned for being able to tense and relax the upper inner thighs while keeping your knees aligned over your feet. (Just the inner thighs, mind. Tensing other parts of the thigh actually reduces your ability to move quickly.)
Now drop your shoulders (I add that part because the one thing the majority of adult students do when thinking about what the rest of their body is doing is tense and lift their shoulders) and align those shoulders over your hips. Adjust your chin so your eyes are level and your ears are aligned between your shoulders—not in front of them or behind them. Take a deep breath that expands deep in your belly without lifting your shoulders or pushing out your upper chest.
Go ahead and try it. I know you want to.
Those instructions are the bare bones, nothing more, and they are not the only words and actions that will produce results. They are simply the ones I’ve learned. I could toss in koshi and gamaku, chat a bit about the stability of the muscles connecting ribcage to pelvis, talk about the expansion of vertebrae spacing and the shape of the bottom of your feet… There are as many ways to verbally describe the process as there are applications of it.
On the other hand, were you standing in front of me, I could touch your body in four places to help you identify the muscles we’re talking about,** push your shoulders and hips a couple times, and have you grounded. At least in that moment.
Then I’d tell you to shake out your limbs, walk a circle around the mat, and try it again. We’d do this until you could identify the parts of your body that were tense and the parts that were relaxed, with both touch and words. Then I’d have you run kata or spar, and randomly ask you to ground yourself and explain the process. Yes, yes, I know fighting doesn’t involve words, but our intellectual processing does, and though words can get in the way of physical learning at times, deeper understanding and lasting learning usually includes them. The ability to define something physically and verbally ensures your “thinking” brain will eventually get out of the way so your body can do what it must.
Eventually, you’d be able to settle your body into a grounded posture without running a mental checklist. And I’ll tell you now—that feels really, really good.
So… that’s it, right? Grounding in a nutshell!
Grounding when you’re standing still is pretty simple, truly. The real learning comes into play when grounding must be done while punching, kicking, blocking, evading… When one must be in motion. When grounding isn’t about connecting with what’s beneath your feet, but about choosing your body’s structure as it moves.
It sounds like a contradiction at first, the grounding while moving thing. But consider what I said above—that grounding isn’t dependent on the physical ground—and it’ll begin to make sense.
If I bump your shoulder, you’ll shift to absorb the force. Do you shift at the waist or the shoulders? The hips? The knees or ankles? If your feet move, where do they go? What happens to your chin? What do your arms do? If your body rotates, how much and in what direction?
Those answers are all part of grounding.
Musicians ground themselves with posture proper to their instrument in order to play their best. Backpackers adjust their loads based upon biomechanics in order to reduce strain and injury. Artists know the alignment of their bodies affects the translation of vision into intention. Workers who lift heavy loads learn the importance of using certain muscles more than others. Increasingly, athletics is using science to coach promising athletes by deciphering micro-movements, joint rotation, and ligament/tendon coordination. And there is an entire field of workplace ergonomics dedicated to determining the proper physical alignment for everything from answering the phone to deboning chickens on an assembly line.
There is nothing magical and mystical about fighters doing the same thing.
Accepting—indeed, being excited by the prospect—that grounding is, ahem, grounded in science that can be studied and understood by any average person doesn’t in any way detract from the skill required to achieve it and the awesome results of practicing it. Understanding enhances those things.
Now consider that knowledge in light of writing about fighters and their training.
How long will it take a new fighter to understand and implement grounding if their teacher tells them to feel the earth and sink, and waits for the fighter to figure it out?
How long will it take a new fighter to understand and implement grounding if their teacher demands an exact posture because the needs of war won’t wait upon a student’s soul-searching?
The methods of training depend upon the urgency of the need. Soldiers who have the luxury of three, four, or five years of training without constant threat of deployment will be taught differently than those who have a couple weeks at most before losses on the front line require them to step into hand-to-hand combat in defense of their territory. Ye gads, I’d certainly hope they’d be trained differently!
The same goes for the teaching of grounding. When it’s a more spiritual and internal quest—a personal search for a connection with self and the greater world—we can afford to take our time with ambiguous and interpretive language. When it’s intended to support a fighter’s ability to fight—to survive—practicality rules.
And in real life, there are scant few reasons other than ego or inexperience to withhold specific information from students.
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