Yoga meets Martial Arts: Foot Positioning

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Most standing asanas can be traced back to four basic positions in terms of foot position, which are common in martial arts.
In martial arts, each position is embedded in a context, typically an attack or defense situation. For example, the Warrior I in yoga is a forward oriented, active posture, while the Warrior II is lateral and defensive.

Each posture has characteristics that result from the foot and hip position, inside leg distance and weight distribution. Thus, the foot and hip position determines the orientation: Frontal (jp. „mae”, 前) or lateral (jp. „yoko”, 横). The inside leg distance affects the center of gravity.

This results in high, medium and low postures with their respective advantages and disadvantages. A high posture, with rather straight legs, is more flexible; a low position however, with bent legs, is more stable. The weight distribution determines the supporting leg and the free leg, which is the one most likely to be moved next. This will also define, whether this posture has a more offensive or defensive attitude.

If we identify asanas that coincide with martial arts postures, we can derive alignment principles (jp. genri, 原理) to use them in our yoga practice.

Standing Postures

Standing postures and techniques are called „tachiwaza” (jp. 立ち技) in karate and aikido (jp. 立 ち 技). The word „tachi” translates to „stand” or „standing” (jp. 立ち). The term „waza” means technique in the sense of ability or skill.

When preceded by a description, the word „tachi” turns into „dachi”, as for example in „Zenkutsu-dachi” (jp. 前屈立), the standing forward posture (zen = forward, kutsu = bent, tachi = stand).

The numerous standing techniques are divided into basic postures (jp. 自然体) and combat postures (jp. 組手立ち). The basic postures are more of a natural readiness attitude. This is different with the combat posture, since they must always be appropriate to a potentially threatening situation. Isn’t it interesting that the peaceful Warrior I and Warrior II asanas are among the combat postures?

Basic Stances

Let’s start with a basic posture, the neutral stand (sk. Tāḍāsana). Tāḍāsana has the highest centre of gravity and is thus less stable but very flexible. The feet are closed and parallel to each other, which is called „heisoku-dachi” (jp. 閉足立, en. closed parallel posture).
Heisoku-dachi is a popular posture at the beginning or end of a kata (jp. 形 or 型). A kata is a form of practice similar to a vinyasa, with several individual postures – like the „sun salutation”, which also begins and ends with tāḍāsana.
Tadasana
Stand (sk. Tāḍāsana, Samāsthiti) / Heisoku-dachi

Combat Stances

Warrior I
The Warrior I (sk. Vīrabhadra Āsana) is a forward oriented stance, with the feet hip distance apart and a bent front knee. This stance is similar to „zenkutsu-dachi”, the standing forward posture.
With respect to the foot distance, this position is also known as „wide stance”. The weight distribution is almost equal, with a tendency on the front leg.

Warrior I (sk. Vīrabhadra Āsana I) / Zenkutsu-dachi

Although there are various forms of this posture in martial arts, they all have the back heel touching the ground. That is quite difficult for some yogiNis as the pelvis should remain aligned to the front at the same time. Thus the heel is often raised to release the hip flexor, even if the stand becomes less stable.

Another option is a slight external rotation of the back leg, so that the foot can be turned out to about 30-45°, in order to bring the heel to the ground – like it is common in Ashtanga yoga. The back hip is slightly open, no longer aligned frontally forward (square). That can be useful: When throwing a punch in boxing, the back leg turns in on the ball of the foot, which will explosively move the hip (jp. Koshi, 腰) and the shoulder (jp. Kata, 肩) forward too, creating some extra power for this particularly effective boxing stroke.

In Aikido this foot position is called „kamae” (jp .構え), which means „natural posture”. It is an upright readiness posture. It also incorporates the inner attitude and appears to be de-escalating as it is not aggressive. Kamae is more than an ordinary foot position and differs in various martial arts.

Sometimes the back hip is opened so far that the back heel is in line with the front foot or even crosses it. The foot position is not that crucial – rather the entire posture and the presence. If the presence is neither aggressive nor revealing any gaps in coverage, an attacker may discard his aggressive plans before a confrontation even occurs.

Warrior II

In Warrior II (sk. Vīrabhadra Āsana II), the front foot and the back heel are in line. It is a „line stance”.

The back leg is outward rotated and the pelvis is sideways. This position resembles „kokutsu-dachi” (jp. 後屈立), the reverse position – a deep, lateral and fairly stable defensive stance.

The inside leg distance is similar to Warrior I. Therefore, the transition between these two postures is easy: The front leg remains bent and the movement is initiated in the back hip.

While weight distribution in Warrior II is about 60-70 % on the front foot, kokutsu-dachi is the opposite. That is why the back leg is bent in kokutsu-dachi which reinforces the more backward, defensive character of this posture.

Warrior II (sk. Vīrabhadra Āsana II) / Kokutsu-dachi

In aikido a similar stance is called „hanmi” (jp. 半身), composed of „han” = half and „mi” = body, as only have of the body is visible to the opponent.
This is to protect the front body with the inner organs. The upper body is thus twisted laterally – not as much as in Warrior II though.
The straddle
The height of the straddle posture is similar to the Warrior stances, except that both legs might be slightly bent and the feet are parallel to each other.
In yoga, this rider posture is usually associated with a forward bend, as in „Prasārita Pādottān Āsana”.

Straddle (sk. Prasārita Pādottān Āsana) / Kiba-dachi / Shiko-dachi

The foot position corresponds with „kiba-dachi” (jp. 騎馬立), the rider posture. There is also a variation called „shiko-dachi” (jp. 四股立), with slightly externally rotated legs, which is more comfortable for the bent knees. The weight distribution in this posture is 50/50 – a pretty stable position.
With the feet standing on the same frontline, this posture does not allow much forward force. We need to tilt the pelvis backward to cope for this disadvantage.
Right and wrong

We are often unsure about the correct alignment in yoga asanas. There are many opinions on the right foot and hip position. This uncertainty remain as long as we see asanas as isolated postures.

As soon as we put asanas in a context – like in martial arts – focus, alignment and appropriate variations become clearer. Martial arts movements are extremely efficient in this manner because they are always related to some sort of combat situation.

We can find a similar guidance in vinyasa yoga, as a vinyasa – just like a kata – becomes a smooth transition when each limb is moved with the least effort. In vinyasa yoga, every asana is embedded between a predecessor and a successor and it is influenced by its surroundings. Inevitably an asana will not always look the same – it varies with its context.

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