Ma Bu and Ma Bu Stance

by Peter Casini, based on the teachings of Master Marlon Ma

It is amazing how much is written about Tai Chi and Tai Chi practice and yet very little is mentioned about Ma Bu. For those practicing Tai Chi or any form of Chinese Martial Art (CMA) they know what is Ma Bu. They know for example that the Ma Bu stance is essential to develop leg strength. Using the correct posture and position will also generate inner body heat and better circulation.

I believe that little is written about this subject because there are many practitioners who do not know or fully understand the implication and benefits of the Ma Bu Form. Some advance the hypothesis that the Ma Bu position should be held for as long as possible. They suggest holding the position until the body trembles and shakes uncontrollably and until the pain is unbearable. Others suggest the position be held for twenty or thirty minutes for the average student and one hour or more for advanced students. An alternative approach is to take the basic position, (refer to figure #1), and modify it from time to time with new positions of punching, kicking or twisting of the legs, that sequence is usually referred to the Ma Bu exercise. The question that immediately comes to mind is: Which is the correct Ma Bu Stance and how long should it be held?

In order for us to answer this question we have to investigate what causes and effects are placed on the body while practicing this form. Just as in Tai Chi movements there are martial art applications as well as health benefits, this is also true for Ma Bu.

For example, Master Ma will take a new student interested in Tai Chi and Kung Fu and begin that student with the Ma Bu Stance. He believes that good health comes from strong legs. That in the process of developing strong legs properly all of the body organs are benefited as well as blood flow and circulation. Since all forms of CMA require that the legs be bent to some extent, strong legs are necessary and imperative. That is why most new students will also practice Ma Bu and the Ma Bu sequence of movements simultaneously with other studies. There are two basic reasons for this approach. One is that it affords the student an opportunity to increase leg strength and balance. The second is that greater leg strength allows the student to be more rooted and controlled, being more rooted and controlled accord the student a smooth and fluid flow of movements. This postulate is particularly true for older students who loose confidence in their own ability to balance themselves and hold a position. Once the student feels rooted and controlled the awkwardness of loosing ones balance is diminished. The overall effect is that the student gains confidence not only in their movements but also while functioning at their normal daily activities. After all isn’t it the goal of Tai Chi or Kung Fu to be confident, strong and fluid in your movements? Of course it is. It is the very nature of our practice, it is the essence of our study to be relaxed and fluid. Once the body can move freely, smoothly and relaxed it allows the body Chi to flow unhindered and unencumbered.

In order to ascertain the duration of time necessary to achieve optimum benefit we must examine the Ma Bu stance and the physical implications of that stance on the overall body. The correct Ma Bu stance requires that the knees be bent so that the thighs are level. The upper body should be upright with the pelvis section pushed slightly forward and the back slightly arched but erect. (Refer to Fig. #1) The correct placement of the feet is crucial in holding the Ma Bu stance. (Refer to fig.#3) A principle concept of the Ma Bu stance is to open up the lower back. The stance is intended to open the space between the Sacrum, coccyx and the Hips. As one grows older or with lack of exercise the hips, sacrum and coccyx tend to fuse together. This can also occur in people susceptible to arthritis. Under normal circumstances, with time and age, these three bone elements have a tendency to fuse together. The detrimental effect is loss of movement, degeneration, loss of flexibility and possible development of arthritis. To avoid these dire consequences it is essential that the feet be placed as shown in Fig. #3; this causes the material between the hips, sacrum and coccyx to be more flexible and plastic rather than hard and rigid. Today’s medicine encourages movement and exercise as the best preventive medicine for Arthritis and the best method to reverse the effects of Arthritis. As one takes the sitting position with the proper foot placement the lower back is made more flexible and loose. By examining the Posterior aspect of the lower back, (Refer to Fig. #4), it is easy to observe the relationship between the elements of the lower back.

There are many well known Sifu’s who place their feet as shown in figure #2. As can be seen in Fig. #2 the angle of the feet is directed inward. That is exactly what is happening to the Hips, they are being pressed against the Sacrum and coccyx acerbating the situation and creating a strong possibility of injury to the lower back. This premise can be easy to prove or disprove. At this point I suggest the reader to stand up, place your feet as shown in Fig.#2, you can feel your hips being compressed against your Sacrum. Now place your feet as in Fig. #3, you can feel your hips being pulled away from the Sacrum. This movement is the essence of Ma Bu. When the feet are correct the pelvis is loosened from the sacrum and coccyx resulting in greater elasticity of the joints and freedom of movement. Just watch a child at play and witness how flexible he is, particularly, at the hips and back, that is our goal for good health and longevity as well as quickness in martial arts training.

But the benefits of Ma Bu are not limited to just loosening the lower back. At once the practitioner can feel his legs being stressed, his body heat being increased and a general, overall warmth taking place. This warmth stimulates our organs and increases blood flow and better circulation. Better blood circulation is needed to mainntain our body temperature by cooling the overall body as the heat increases. This creates an overall regeneration of cells and improved health (the regeneration and improved health benefits will be discussed in a subsequent paper).

So not only are our leg muscles being strengthened but our general well being is also improved. Of course the novice practitioner will not be able to take the Ma Bu stance where the thighs are horizontally level, this will take considerable time and effort. At first the novice should maintain the correct upper body posture and bend at the knees as much as possible. For some it may only be a slight bend at the knees for others it may be much greater, no matter, in time and practice your goal will be accomplished.

But we have not answered our original question regarding time and duration of the exercise. Let us begin our answer with a couple of questions. Is it better to run 3 miles, 10 miles or 22 miles per day? What are the benefits and what are the consequences? No one can answer these questions except you, you must find your own limit and what is best suited to you. The key word here is “limit”. How often have you been to a health club and overheard the trainer encouraging someone to go “beyond your limit” What may happen in going beyond your limit is that the muscles become overstressed, swollen and fatigued. In most cases in health clubs swollen muscles is exactly the goal. However, in Chinese Martial Arts swollen and fatigued muscles are not desirable but detrimental because they reduce quickness and flexibility, quickness to respond, to defend or attack. Furthermore, overstressing the body will cause the body organs to work harder to reduce the trauma taking place. In Tai Chi and Kung Fu studies the students are asked to extend themselves permitting them to reach their limit. As one improves with patience and practice that limit will be extended and extended creating a wider range of movement and stamina. We can generalize here by saying that each person must determine their own limit. But we have still not answered our original question, how long to hold the position?

We have seen that the basic benefits from Ma Bu stance is to loosen the lower back and develop greater leg strength as well as inner strength of the organs. What is important is not to overstress the ligaments in our lower back or to cause friction between the three affected bones. If the Ma Bu stance is held too long it can overstress the body. It can fatigue the muscles and over work the organs. It can cause swelling and inflammation of the tendons, joints and ligaments. The first assumption that must be dispelled is the premise, “No pain no gain”. With the implementation of the Ma Bu stance pain can cause serious back problems or knee injury or both.

The novice should work his way slowly and patiently. In the beginning the position should be held for one minute. It should be practiced five times, each time with a one minute duration and one to three minute pause between. With time and practice that duration can be expanded to five minutes with the same one to three minute intervals between. The significance of Ma Bu is to build total body strength and not just leg strength or muscle development. Proper movement affords greater flexibility and mobility resuting in improved body constitution. The overwhelming advantage of greater elasticity and mobility is an un-encumbered chi flow.

Therefore, the answer to the question, how long, is not how long to hold the position, but to know how to use the position to promote the best possible benefits. In most cases the optimum time for the advanced practitioner is approximately five minutes, five times; this will achieve the most favoralbe results.

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