Lately I’ve been putting some of my students through what I call floorwork, which is based upon movement while close to the ground, such as kneeling or sitting. I use this term to distinguish it from groundwork, which to me encompasses grappling arts such as Gracie Jujitsu. Floorwork generally is less engaged in submission, more focused on evasion, hitting and escape. The purpose of training this is two-fold.
My original motivation was tactical, how to defend myself while sitting on the ground. Modalities include use of kicks, leg traps and takedowns, how to drop to the ground either in attack or defensive modes, use of the hands to defend while moving on the ground, and how to get up with or without aid of hands.
The goal is having a three-dimensional vertical perspective of personal combat space. What we see from our eyes is not what we would see if we look up from the ground. To learn to kick effectively, my Kenpo teacher actually had us place our heads where our feet had been, to see from below the holes in the defense of an opponent who appears well protected. The same logic applies, btw, to the perspective as seen from the tip of our weapon.
The secondary aspect is conditioning and proprioceptive awareness. What I’ve discovered is how difficult low movement seems to many, whether physically or imaginatively. There are three “bridges” taught in kung-fu: arms, legs and torso. Working on the ground helps develop a stronger commitment of core body strength while changing our understanding of leg work.
Perhaps it is easy for me because I am comfortable sitting on the ground, and have done so regularly for years while reading, watching tv, playing with animals, stretching, meditating, etc. It helps that long ago I was exposed to techniques from cultures where sitting on the ground is customary. For reference, I draw my inspiration (roughly in order) from Chinese Kenpo (particularly Fukien-style groundfighting), Aikido’s suwari waza (movement from kneeling) and various techniques from Silat, especially Harimau, a Sumatran tiger style.
As in so many other areas of life, the ability to outperform others is advantageous. Many arts teach us to defend “the box,” a target zone which is essentially our torso and head. Leg defenses are more esoteric; arts such as Western boxing don’t account for this at all. By dropping low we are able to defend our own box, albeit mostly in the high zone, but our opponents are forced to work “below the radar.” If they can drop too, we again have a relatively equal relationship, but if they cannot go low, it presents them with unusual problems.
There’s a good example of this in the next-to-last episode of the HBO series “Rome,” where one of the heroes takes on a huge gladiator to save his friend, and by going to his knees is able to sever the lower leg of the giant, who falls, whereupon the hero rises to finish off his protagonist.
It’s common in FMA to talk of three ranges of combat as long (largo mano), medium (medio) and close (corto). I’d like to propose a triad of categories for the vertical plane, which would be standing (high), kneeling (middle) and sitting or prone (low).
This isn’t particularly new, but a re-synthesis of existing ideas. For instance, many FMA systems start with or include a five-angle pattern, known as “cinco teros.” This generally targets high and low torso strikes. Some styles break down their numbering systems according to left or right sides, and high, medium or low, to include the legs. The degree to which the practitioner drops towards the ground vs. only striking towards that direction is another variable, which my proposal of vertical ranges would address.
Here are some of the exercises I’m using to develop these attributes. Caution is advised if you have problems with your knees.
Standing to kneeling: This is based on Japanese suwari waza, techniques done while sitting seiza, which is kneeling and sitting back on one’s heels. Like many non-Western cultures, the Japanese are familiar with sitting on the floor, particularly in formal or traditional venues. This is good for developing and maintaining strong and flexible legs (the old “use it or lose it” principle of functionality).
The idea of this first exercise is to be able to go from standing position to seiza and to be able to rise back up onto one’s feet. These actions should be accomplished without putting one’s hands on the floor, and are to be done smoothly and with economy of motion.
A key tip, taught in Aikido, is to “think forward.” One cannot rise if thinking about the direction “up.” Those who cannot get up without use of hands can usually correct this with a simple mind trick. By thinking “forward” your body rolls its center of mass from the feet forward over the knees. From there it is simple to step to one’s feet.
Standing to sitting: This is pretty similar. Go down to one or both knees (half or full kneeling), then sit back into whatever cross-legged position is comfortable (I generally use a half-lotus). To rise, again think “forward.” This is such a key concept in martial arts, it can be applied to just about anything.
What is typically done is for folks to throw their hands and a lead leg forward to generate momentum, using this to come upright. An easier method is to first roll forward with both legs still folded. This essentially brings one to seiza sitting position, from whence one can simply rise on the knees and then step up. This simple method is helpful if, for instance, your hands are tied behind your back. Clasp them there and try to get up without rolling forward. It’s amazing how many people feel completely stuck, or struggle to get their feet underneath first and wind up falling forward on their faces.
The concepts of these preceding techniques are essentially elements found in basic front and back rolls.
Spiral to sitting: This is a move demonstrated by the late Silat master Herman Suwanda. Stand with feet a bit wider than shoulder width. A horse stance will work. Turn 180º and sit down; the feet can pivot, but don’t move from their relative spots. Come back up by reversing, then go down the other way. Come up and change directions again; repeat!
The legs will cross in a manner more familiar to many women than to most men. Turning left (counterclockwise) will tuck the right leg underneath horizontally, the left leg crossing the right thigh above the knee in an upright (vertical) position. Both knees will basically be lined up in front of my centerline. If your legs are flexible enough, this can be a comfortable sitting position. If not, breathe into it as a stretch if possible.
To address this in simplest manner, practice your self-defense techniques in sitting position. I like to do this with empty hand versions of my FMA techniques. In any technique, I consider three things: weapon hand, live hand, and body angle. If you are simply sitting, those relationships and how they affect balance become readily apparent. By eliminating the legs as our fundamental support system, we become much more aware of the dynamic stability within the inner core of our torso.
Regardless of weaponry (or lack thereof) in either hand, I think of my right hand as “weapon” and the left as “live”or “check” hand. This coordinates timing across the widest range of possibilities.
Techniques should test range of motion for parries, blocks and strikes while maintaining sitting. They can also incorporate joint locks, takedowns and even kicks.
This is from Harimau: From a seated position, practice falling to either side. If going to the right, catch yourself on the right forearm and left hand. Use of that right forearm and elbow will be stronger, more stable and lower than using both hands. Your left leg will be in an upright position. To come upright, use both hands to push off the ground. Reverse and repeat on the opposite side.
If you need to roll even further downward, bend your groundward arm so your hand supports the head, and twist the body, landing on the back of your shoulder and lats (similar to shuai jiao falls). To get up from here, you may need to kick out with your upper leg for momentum and balance shift.
This down position is a deceptively good defense, since it appears open but you are guarding with shins and elbow. It also supports strong low kicks, in particular horizontal front roundhouses, heel hooks and thrusts. You can ankle hook with the low leg while attacking the knee with the upper leg, creating leg locks and takedowns.
Rolling over quickly onto the opposite knee brings one up into position for higher kicks towards the underbelly. Both hands are used for support, bracing against the kick.
Serrada footwork has the “papeet” or “replacement step”, where one foot is in front the other behind, similar to fencing alignment. The feet come together at the forward point and then the opposite foot goes back. Actually, at the point of feet together, it is neutral and either foot can go back, but for drills we practice switching. The papeet can also be done on one’s knees!
Start from an upright kneeling position (over the knees, not seated). Stay on the toes instead of the feet flat as in seiza. Rotate one knee to the side so that foot is flat on the ground. This leg should now be perpendicular to the direction it was facing when the knee was down. Now drop that knee, and catching the momentum, swing the other one up. Congratulations! You should now be able to switch sides while in a kneeling position. You can extend the “up” leg for increased stability and greater reach with your hands (the wider your base, the further you can project yourself). I generally find that leg extends backwards at a diagonal angle.
Tactically I’ve seen guys sparring on their knees, simply sitting upright and immobile. By having an “outrigger” for support, one can utilize much greater angles to attack, evade and even kick. One can have the lead leg up in front (half kneeling) and by swinging it away to the side, effectively retreat and switch lead sides.
Knee walking: This is another Japanese practice, known as shikka, done from sitting seiza. From kneeling position, raise one knee. As that foot comes forward, the “down” foot swings forward as well so the feet stay close together (sometimes beginners use their gi belt to tie the feet in proximity). Weight is on the balls of the feet and the rear knee. Walking is accomplished by putting down the lead knee and swinging the other leg forward, continuing to keep the feet together.
SEATED TRANSITIONAL EXERCISE
This can go either direction; I’ll only describe it counterclockwise. Again, be careful with your knees if you have issues. It shouldn’t be too difficult for most people, however.
From a seated cross-legged position, raise your left knee so you can reverse your left leg, swinging it to the outside and tucked alongside your buttocks. Your weight is basically on your right side. Come up on your knees just long enough to swing both feet across underneath to the opposite side and drop back down onto your left buttock. Raise the right knee and bring that foot back to the front into a cross-legged position. When you get comfortable, this can be done continuously in either direction.
Why, you might ask, would I want to do this? Imagine working on something like a car while seated. You drop a socket that rolls just out of reach to the right. Extend the left leg, lean right to get it (basic Tai Chi principle). From there come up into kneeling to get better leverage on the bolt you’re working on. Sit back afterwards to put the tools back in their box.
In all my techniques I try to find the most natural way of doing things. The best techniques are not necessarily the ones that are most unusual, but the ones most integrated with normal movements done unconsciously in daily life. Sometimes things seem awkward and different when we first try them, when what is really new is our perception and not the reality. At some point we may realize “Oh, that’s what it is!” Once we see a movement within an ordinary context, it suddenly falls into place and is no longer some esoteric thing. It is often difficult only because we think it so. None of the above exercises take any great skills of coordination or strength. It is lack of familiarity that makes us shy away in fear from the effort, when in fact the result will be increased flexibility and confidence.