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What's in between Stiffness and Freedom?

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

From the Mind of an Archer #10

In dance, therapeutic and even athletic contexts it is common to use 'stiffness' with a negative connotation. The general approach is that an activity becomes skillful once it is 'fluent' and that this can be achieved by eliminating unnecessary tension or stiffness. Practically, this statement can lead to a lot of confusion and lack of precision. In order to move we need to resist weight, gravity or even our own body. There isn't any movement without tension. So what is the difference between supportive and purposeful tension, and the ambiguous stiffness?

In this short article I will try to shed a bit of light from my own experience on this topic.

The basic look on progressive practice is that our bodies adapt to whatever we put it through. Make someone run every day and they will get better at running. Have someone swim every day and the resistance of the water will gradually become less and less significant. The other side of this perspective is that too much exposure will create the opposite effect. Over-training, fatigue, injury, emotional trauma, etc. High intensity without gradual progress leads to a decrease in the capacities that we originally desired.

So what's the right amount of exposure to intensity/tension?

There are endless great answers for this one and they all include some sort of 'it depends on several factors.' I very much like the Chinese proverb that goes something like “if you carry a baby bull every day down the field, by the time he will turn 10 years old you will be the strongest man in your village." Obviously, if you try to pick up a 10-year-old bull and before that the heaviest animal you've ever carried was a chicken you will probably get a hernia, or at least fail miserably.

Until here we are grasping the obvious.

What is less obvious is that the body's choice of adapting also depends on the resource that is the most proximate or easily accessible.

This is where technique comes into the picture.

If repetition highlights our first choice of resource (expression of movement) to deal with a challenge, technique is making sure we are also activating 2nd, 3rd and even 4th and 5th resources in parallel. A well-crafted technique (and any technique should be crafted well in my opinion) covers all the possible tools to overcome the challenge and offers a strategy that doesn't rely exclusively on a single resource.

Think about running and swimming and what would happen if we teach both of them only through exposure and without any technical input. We can speculate that a person with strong legs might run with strong strikes and will not exploit the potential of the falling angle. A swimmer with mobile shoulders potentially will not learn to rotate the hips. The meaning of technique is the activation of the kinetic potential without exploiting a dominant capacity. It is almost like extracting the experience of many people's trial and error into your own method of action, and through this you learn to maximize human kinetics and not only your personal current kinetics.

But perfect technique happens only in an ideal world.

We humans have intentions that are often translated into ambitions. We want to go and reach further than our current achievements. This always leads to certain amount of exploitation. Exploitation of personal resources is not bad in itself, but there is a huge difference between doing it consciously or as an 'automatic' mechanism.

Imagine playing basketball. You are dribbling down the court and from out of your sight a 2-meter player rushes from the diagonal to snatch the ball from you. In the terror of the moment, you spin without lifting your heel, your knee twists inside and torques towards your center line. This will be an extreme example of unconscious exploitation.

Now imagine another scenario in which the opponent is being seen from afar and you skillfully rotate your knee inside to shift the weight quickly and perform a crossover. Same mechanism, conscious versus unconscious performance and totally different results. One is painful, even just the imagination of it, and the other is fluent and casual.

This is just an example of one single moment but what happens if we repeat this over and over throughout our process?

What happens if the same effect of the unconscious rotation happens repetitively as a result of ambition over time? If we don’t take the time and space to adapt our movement reactions to our own goals, we could lose some necessary awareness to some of the mechanisms that we perform.

We can highlight this point from another angle. When we begin learning a new technique we need to say or sing it in our heads; a novice drummer will repeat “tuck my elbow, flick the wrist” again and again in their beginning phases of drumming. A few years of practice later, ask the drummer to play a Metallica song and the flicking wrist technique will be 'forgotten' or 'natural'. It means that they will be able to do very complex things with this technique without having to engage in the prior internal dialogue.

In neuroscience this is the transition of the brain activity from the frontal cortex to other more 'reflexive' areas of the brain (Cerebellum for example, but there are others as well). The existence of this 'change' in brain activity indicates that this process is not so ambiguous and does have a certain frame of time or experience.

Take this information and apply it to the scenario from before. The basketball player gradually transfers their unconscious response of torquing the knee inwards when an opponent comes to steal the ball to the reflexive brain areas. It will become natural and this 'feeling' of naturalness might overwhelm the sensation of instability or pain. The player will survive daily torques but on the long run it is very hard to imagine this person developing a fluent defensive game. And we can probably agree that fluency over time increases longevity and unconscious reactions become a game of survival. And part of this survival is the expression of stiffness. (Another topic that gradually reveals itself here is what is the difference between resource and a 'tool' even though both are expressed through movement, but we'll keep this for another article.)

Now make no mistake, there are no 'wrong' patterns and there are no 'wrong' goals. The same person, with enough awareness, could develop a knee torque that respects the tensegrity of the ankle-knee-hips, has a coherent rhythm, and possesses plenty of qualities to turn this 'accident' into a supportive pattern. But, they will have to take the focused time and space for this research and conscious change.

With enough time and dedicated practice almost any movement pattern can become 'fluent' including torquing knees, jumping on elbows and carrying heavy weight in dynamic scenarios. The question is if our ambition runs 'faster' than our awareness and if our chosen patterns respect both our goal and our means of achieving it. Awareness can lead us to realize that certain patterns exploit our resources. Following that with conscious action we can find more economic strategies, ones that will not channel all of the tension towards one area.

Important to emphasize that I offer awareness rather than to be overcautious to what we make natural. Old fashioned methodology of exercise dealt a lot with making only the 'right' pattern a reflexive pattern. I believe that playing with many patterns and awareness to what I do consciously and unconsciously can cover a wider ground of capacities and provide freedom.

It is completely fine to consider a physical objective more important than the means that are necessary to achieve it. But without a careful study of those means and the tensegrity between them, the objective will be achieved through a heavy price.

Skillful tension is actually the fluidity of doing difficult things with ease, unconscious stiffness is a sign that we've spent too much time looking ahead and not enough time looking inwards.

So what's the practical solution to have less stiffness and more freedom?

Well firstly to consider freedom as fluidity of awareness rather than a concrete set of skills. If the awareness flows in all of my actions and the reasons for my actions then I might be able to shed some light on where I can give up some of my natural advantages and how to explore more of a 'learning' quality in my practice. In many modern-day schools, there is the attempt to mix or combine linear progress with meditation practice. This is not a bad proposition. But I propose that furthermore, considering progression of technique as a long period of meditation can be a more wholistic way to overcome stiffness.

In the end something very simple can be extracted: even in the most ambitious pursuits we can find fluidity, it all depends on how much can we develop awareness to the tensions we need to apply (and endure) throughout our journey.


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