By Gabriel Yakub
Just about every martial arts style has a distinct way of standing ‘en guarde’, aimed at aiding the combatant to strike, block and hold their ground effectively against an opponent. This is typically referred to as ‘stance’, in Chinese it’s called Ma.
Ma is a broad leap from the typical ‘plant your feet and guard your face’ approach to stance. Ma is a skill; multifaceted and hidden from view – one that this limited article can’t hope to cover in its entirety. Ma, among other things, allows one to generate power very efficiently. Part of this skill, as I’ve come to understand it, lies in the utilisation and exploitation of the intricate, and sometimes hidden, relationships between the interrelated parts of the body.
So, what does Ma look like? Not much, when cultivated it is indistinguishable from someone simply standing before you. So, what does it feel like? Almost quite literally impenetrable.
When my Sifu demonstrates his Ma, it always defies expectations. On my first day, he asked me to hold onto his arm and push him backward as he stood with his feet parallel to each other. I couldn’t – as hard as I tried, even leaning and pushing my entire body weight against him didn’t work. However, this is only one type of demonstration of Ma, and it might give the false impression that it is some inert state akin to that of a statue. This is not so. Ma is not static like a stone or a wall, Ma is alive; even when it is still.
Generally speaking, within the larger paradigm of martial arts and other fighting styles like boxing, power of any level is generated from the body to strike or block. However, where Ma differs is that its force doesn’t activate upon striking, nor does it only reside through the arms or legs. Ma permeates across the entire body.
But this is no walk in the park – in fact it’s a life-time pursuit of constant refinement. In the beginning, learning Ma is learning to fundamentally change your everyday approach to using your body – it’s an overhaul. So, it also very much requires a transformation of the mind thru months of training.
When I began learning Ma, it almost felt like learning to write with my left hand, but on a much bigger scale. In the beginning, Ma imposes on the body – it feels restrictive, awkward and at times clumsy. Therefore, at a near constant basis, you fight your every instinct to do things the old way. It’s a difficult path to embody a new mode of operation. However, having gained some semblance of Ma, I’m able to do things I’ve never done before – in some strange way I’ve gotten stronger without getting strong. But I know that even now, I’m still building the foundations of what’s to come.
See also The Apex In Wing Chun