Ahhh the ankles, everybody's favorite topic. Not the sexiest, I know, but maybe you can give me just a few minutes to try to change your mind, release some tension, and see if there's a deeper story they tell that about your potential for power, healing, and connection.
Let's start our journey through ankle tension with the Wang way to run.
The Right Way is the Wang Way
Hey… I lived in China nearly 15 years, I get to make puns.
So there I was, nearly 20 years ago, running down the streets of Ganzhou with Master Wang beside me, when I noticed he kept looking down with furrowed brows. Eventually, he pointed at my ankles and asked, “Why so tight?”
It was the first time in my life anyone had mentioned ankle tension, which is odd, as I’d been around extraordinary movers prior. But it’s also possible they had ankle tension, and were no more aware of it than I.
Shaolin training is a different beast, with levels of depth and principles of movement that get overlooked by other modalities. This is due to their having a 2,000+ year lineage, where techniques were tried and tested on extraordinary human specimens, and literally battle tested for efficacy. It’s also due to other modalities not having six hours a day, six days a week, to mold their trainees into god-like creatures.
Master Wang, ex-Shaolin monk and national Wushu champion, was bothered by my ankle tension.
He held up his hand and flopped it around, limp wristed, demonstrating the free play the ankle joint ought to have. As soon as I looked down and tried to copy, I realized I couldn’t. I also realized his ankles were doing things mine weren’t - fully articulated and extraordinarily fluid.
How the hell did I miss this after a decade+ of martial arts?
Ankle tension may not sound like a big deal at first, but when you see a 5’2” man leap six feet effortlessly and flip through the air with a sword for the sake of demoing Shaolin to a foreigner on zero warmup, you realize there’s more to this game.
His first recommendation was to abandon Western sneakers with arch and heal support and a couple inches of padded sole, which I was fashioning, and instead buy cheap, $1 canvas shoes with a thin rubber sole that all Shaolin monks wear. These shoes are so thin and flexible you can literally bend and fold them in half, twist them in all directions, without an ounce of resistance. In other words, they don’t prevent contact between you and the earth.
They also had no arch or heal support. Your ankles and feet have to do the work.
Cavemen and Their Zero Drops
Shoes built to support you do exactly the opposite. They prevent the musculature of the feet from generating tensional forces that create a natural arch, and heal support inhibits full ankle flexion - a frustrating reality I’d become all too familiar with. They also prevent a natural stride with impact forces that develop bone density in a meaningful way.
This all ads up to one predictable phenomenon - ankle tension.
And though I could perform at a relatively high level back then, after watching Master Wang sprint and leap, I could see that where my efforts were forceful, his were effortless, relying more on the elasticity of his soft tissue that the contractile force of his muscles.
That story begins and ends with the ankles.
The support we adopt to make life easier counteracts the impact of stressors that would otherwise build strong, resilient bodies. The first point of contact for those forces is the feet. And their communication to the rest of the body is facilitated by the ankles.
I hit on this point often, but it really is one of the strongest filters we have for assessing supplements, devices, and supports. Homo sapiens have a long history, and the ancestors from which we evolved, even longer. They didn’t have shoes, at least not as we understand them today. If they wore anything, they were the minimalist covers of the Tarahumara, and likely thin, organic material like hide or hemp.
Shoes were non-existent, or they were zero-drop - minimalist protective covers where the heal of the foot was at the same height as the ball, and which allowed the forces of walking, running and leaping to be received by one's entire frame.
The intelligent design of the bone structure, alignment, and soft tissue in our feet wasn’t the byproduct of an academic thought piece on how we should walk. It evolved over millions of years - those with greater fitness passing on their characteristics through the gene pool, and those with lesser fitness dying early of illness or injury - you can imagine how damage to the feet was treated a million years ago.
The magnitude of this process didn’t strike me from biology or anthropology study, but from a video on AI car design.
AI Designs a Car
Years ago, must be going on ten, I watched a Ted Talk on an AI designed car. It may still be online. And this video confirmed and augmented my feelings on the intelligence behind our mind-body hardware, and the evils of ‘supporting it.’
In this video a racecar was hooked up with thousands of electrodes meant to monitor every force vector - every slight twist and curve - the frame of the car had to absorb as it speeded along the track. This is a level of data car makers had never had, and if they had, they wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
The complex interrelations of that data - of those forces - is mind boggling, and would have required super intelligence to process it. And it did.
AI was tasked with taking millions of data points chronicling the real world forces impacting the frame, and design a car that handles them better. And what it turned out blew my mind.
The body of the car… looked like bone.
It was alien, no doubt, but still recognizable as a car. But the single shell body was porous and curved, with no straight lines. If you haven’t seen a closeup image of bone before, it isn’t some hard block of collagen and calcium, but is a porous, asymmetric structure built to flex, absorb, and distribute forces that impact it.
It becomes even more fascinating when you realize than bones are alive, and can adapt, grow, and heal.
How would an adaptable block of living tissue come to form as an asymmetric, porous, and remarkably resilient compression member of the human body?
Trillions of data points over millions of years!
Bone (and muscles/tendons/ligaments) could not have been designed. It could only have evolved from extraordinarily complex inputs over a ridiculously long period of time. “Failed experiments” died early. The strong produced offspring. And gradually, one generation at a time, our bodies evolved to account for infinitely many potential environmental forces.
And if the AI was tasked with adding complexities that would enable the car to climb trees and go under water and hike mountains, it would have added tension members connecting multiple bone-like segments - tendons, ligaments, and fascia.
Do you really think a handful of PHD’s at Nike can outthink millions of years of battle tested hypotheses where survival was the only real metric?
They can however make you temporarily more comfortable… until the structural weaknesses they enable cascade throughout your whole system, causing imbalances that lead to pains, pains that lead injuries, and injuries that lead to sedentary living (to avoid more pain) that steals your health and opens the door for deep illness.
A tad hyperbolic for a discussion on ankle tension? Perhaps.
Or perhaps we should go deeper.
An Old Man Squeezes Your Calf
The ankles transmit energy and information from the feet to the rest of the body. But what happens when ankle tension prevents the communication of those forces upstream? And of equal importance, prevents the coordination of smooth biomechanics from head to toe?
There’s an old allegory, possibly true, of an old Tai chi master observing another Tai chi master practicing in the park. The man practicing had beautiful technique, highly refined. When the old man was asked what he thought of the other master’s kung fu, he walk over, crouched down, and squeezed the man’s calf. “Meh.”
He didn’t analyze his structural alignment. He didn’t test his force potential. He didn’t assess his agility or reaction time. He checked the tension in his calf. And he wasn’t impressed.
What does this say about how we frame the transference of power, and the level of one’s mind-body development?
The Tai chi master held more tension than necessary to control his stance. So what?
While this story is looking at elite levels of human development, it provides important insights into how we frame health and performance on a sliding scale. Or on a spectrum, as I like to say. Tension, whether of the foot, ankle, or calf, is of the same origin. These are the last living translators between your mind and contact with the earth.
You want to talk power? Ankle tension matters.
You want to talk healing? Ankle tension matters.
Power is born of whip-like coordination that cascades throughout the kinetic chain. The one and only counterforce for the whip? The earth. All power stems from, and is coordinated against the counterforce of the earth.
Coordination is the fluid relationship between tension and relaxation. A tense muscle cannot contract (it’s already contracted), and therefore, is incapable of contributing to the global coordination of power, let alone relatively sound biomechanics. It also, and this is important, severs the chain.
An old man squeezes your calf… for good reason.
That is what we call kung fu (often translated as deep skill). If the calf, the ankles, the muscles of the feet, are tense, then deep power can never be realized. Nor can deep healing. You’re a a disconnected human walking around with clubs for feet.
But why disconnected?
Tension, while responsible for inhibiting coordination, also numbs you to information. It desensitizes you. In this particular case, we might say it inhibits proprioception - or unconscious data transference from your environment, through your feet, ankles, calves, and throughout the rest of the body.
This happens so fast that there’s no time for cognitive assessment. But the body can feel it and can make minute adjustments at lightning speeds. Think Olympic level reaction speeds.
It also signals to your nervous system that all is not well. Part of you is under stress, resisting your environment. While health and healing can reach a modicum of robustness without addressing ankle tension, the depths of healing potential within is far from realized.
Ankle tension is the last line of defense for your disconnected self.
The Last Line of Defense
One of the reasons we practice meditation standing in Weightlessness Training is to address the problem of ankle tension, which isn’t even on the radar when you’re sitting.
When I was at Shaolin Monastery soaking in the chi-rich aura of Shi De Jian, rightful heir of the Shaolin Temple, we practiced a form of standing meditation every evening after supper. This wasn’t a static posture, as in Weightlessness, but was a slowly rotating, tree in the wind type oscillation of the whole body.
The point he kept emphasizing was the origin of the movement. This movement didn’t start with the arms, the head, or even the waist, as many in Western martial arts training might assume. He kept pointing down.
“There. The movement starts from there. From the toes. Must relax the ankles.”
Each and every movement from toe to head is a fluid, coordinated response to momentary tension in the kinetic link that preceded it and was then released - a wave from toe to head.
I’d had 10 years of reflection since running with Master Wang, and had made good headway on this particular point, so I wasn’t scolded, fortunately. But I heard Grandmaster Shi reprimand those around me with the same cues, over and over again.
This was the same man I saw ‘dancing’ on narrow rooftop, demonstrating his Shaolin forms on a 3 foot wide slant overlooking a bottomless ravine. I could only see mist below… a feat which made him infamous throughout China when a visitor leaked video footage.
When I asked him why he practices there, he replied, “Because if I make a mistake, I die. I don't want to die. So even my toes grip the earth with complete commitment.”
Ahhh… the purifying filter of survival.
The toes. Imagine the connection.
Shaolin swaying, as I’ll refer to it, is meant to reveal those points of tension that suspend you above the earth, rather than connecting you fully to it. When those points release, there’s what may be considered a spiritual revelation that follows.
You’re not isolated from the world, but connected, in living, breathing communion with it. And your qi (chi) has no bounds.
Stand on the Ground, Not On Top of It
In the early stages of Weightlessness Training there’s attention payed to structural development and alignment. This is the organization of tensional forces meant to balance the body, and align you against the force of gravity - the force that leads to most physical pain, as we produce tensions to compensate for poor alignment.
In standing meditation, this is how we set our frames, so as to experience as little internal resistance as possible.
Intermediate levels of training emphasize the antithesis, the unwinding of unneeded tensions, and relaxation of the whole mind-body system (without a loss of structure). Many can activate facial relaxation, and many can relax the shoulders, back, and even hips. Very few can relax the quads, and fewer still the calves and ankles.
Ankle tension is the last line of defense between who you are, and who you can be.
Release of that tension requires conscious awareness, not only of the joint, but of those muscles up and downstream of it. This is ideally accompanied by an ever improving structural stacking that removes the need for tension generated only to support your frame and prevent collapsing due to gravity.
In my own distillation of these lessons, tend to pass on this critical point of awareness in the form, “Stand on the ground, not on top of it.”
A peculiar cue perhaps, but once one begins to realize that their level of internal resistance is betrayed by ankle tension - in the unconscious refusal to fully communicate with the earth and instead reaffirm individual isolation - the peculiarity goes away and a felt sense of deep resistance surfaces.
That resistance must be addressed though the release of tension in the ankles so that the feet can enliven, and reunion with environment is possible. For this, there is no greater tool than standing meditation. It's the laboratory where disconnection is observed, and mind-body connection designed.
Standing on top of the ground is disconnect. The old man in the park knew this. Master Wang knew this. And Shi De Jian knew this. There is no healing, let alone kung fu, without it.
The release of the ankles is a release of tension throughout the entire chain, and its an invitation to your nervous system to stop fighting, to connect, and to heal.
Feel the ground. Relax your feet, ankles, and calves. And connect.
Stand on the ground, not on top of it, and...