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Sep 16

Hard and Soft

Let’s be very scientific and logical regarding our understanding of the differences between our “hard” and “soft” training. There are distinct differences, and it’s about time all our Uechi-Ryu practitioners follow science rather than a religion like “blind belief.” I hear many references to the soft aspect of training: breathing, spiritual, soul refinement, meditation, and a host of philosophical, non-sensible bedtime stories.

Why can’t soft Uechi-Ryu be just that? Why can’t we just understand that there are hard ways of delivering effective movements and a similar soft way of doing the same? Why can’t we differentiate between what movements are soft and what movements are hard? It is so simple to see and as clear as night and day.

After all these years of training in a system originally called “hard and soft,” most of us look like Neanderthals beating each other on the head with clubs. Even they look more educated in soft as their swing looks less rigid than most of our katas. I’ve heard people say, “the harder and more rigid you are, the better your kata.” Are you kidding me? How do you fight while being that rigid?

One of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard is kata is kata and not fighting. If our kata is not fighting, why do we practice kata? Isn’t karate a fighting art? Does kata not teach us the techniques within our style and how to use them? If katas are not actual fighting techniques, why are we trying to develop muscle memories we can’t use while fighting?

I’m also told our movements in kata are neutral movements providing options to be used in many different ways as needed if we are engaged in fighting. That says to me, these people are not fighters and haven’t practiced a lot of fighting. Please realize fighting is not methodical, and each step is planned. Let’s not confuse actual fighting with yakasuko, where every attack and defensive reaction are orchestrated. Fighting is instinctual and reactional. Your expected scenarios will change in a nanosecond, and you’ll have no idea what to do except getting ice for your black eye and paper towels for your bloody nose.

If you need to think about what to do when someone is attacking you, consider yourself beaten. When someone is throwing a punch or a kick, and you are there scratching your head deciding what to do from your neutral muscle memories, you don’t belong in that situation. If you need to think about what to do every time you have an altercation, you must get beaten up a lot.

In a real scrimmage, you need to stay fluid. Allow yourself the ability to attack at every opportunity quickly or to softly and quickly step out of reach of your attacker if necessary. That is some of the most important aspects of being soft, speed and agility.

Please do not misunderstand the value I place in soft to discredit the hard aspect of martial arts. Regardless of how soft we want to be, there will always be a presence and a degree of hardness in everything we do. Just as when we try to remain as hard as a rock, we need to soften a little just to move. Has anyone ever seen a statue throw a punch? The majority of us perform our katas as if we are statues.

Let’s get to the more scientific idea of hard and soft movements. The entire study of karate as a science is to understand how our body will generate the greatest and most effective force during combat. As we’ve learned in grade school, force is mass times acceleration (F = m x a). A more complicated formula

Is FNet = Fa + Fg + Ff + FN. Net force is when a body is in motion and other forces are involved like gravitational force Fg, frictional force Ff, and the normal force. This applies to both hard and soft techniques.

Let’s first discuss the use of hard, which we all prescribe. Hard techniques require more mass. It is the mass behind our projected weapons, be it our hands, our feet, or whatever we choose to use to hit. That is why linear (straight motions) are usually hard techniques. The less circular our movements, the more we can retain our body’s mass behind the strike.

Remember FN, which is normal force, can only be obtained by allowing ourselves a certain degree of softness to accelerate our weapons to achieve maximum force. Retaining your extreme tightness can only slow your acceleration which reduces your ability for maximized force. Please be mindful your mass is constant. To maximize force, your only option is to loosen up and increase your acceleration.

I would also like to mention another teaching we’ve received that doesn’t make much sense. This idea that our body needs to be perfectly square to the front as we punch, kick, and block. What are the benefits of that? What do we gain if our body is not engaged as a part of our entire fighting machine? How do we develop muscle memory elements like timing, balancing, anchoring, speed, and fluency if all aspects are not engaged together?

The benefits of a rotation are so overwhelmingly obvious to a student who follows science with an open mind. Most important of all, this rotation allows the inclusion of our mass to be injected into the force of the attack. This rotation also allows us to retain our upright posture as we strike. Has anyone noticed our current Uechi-Ryu students performing kata and demonstrating this slight body bounce and leaning in the direction of their strike? Take a close look. You’ll see many of our masters rank still doing that. There is little mass being used, and we are leaning forwards off balance. Is that good karate? Is this what we are teaching our students? Do you really believe this training is better than a slight rotation, including more mass for power, more speed for power, and better balance?

I will now address my understanding of our soft aspect of Uechi-Ryu. The power of soft in China is referred to as “ging.” Ging is the force you are delivering while hitting soft and quick. That is the entire premise of Yang Tai-Chi. If we hit someone with a stick, we will leave a bruise. If we tie a rock on a soft rope and spin that rock in a circular motion and contact our opponent, we will break his skin, causing much external and internal damage. That is only one example of softness.

While engaged in a fight, and we remain hard and unmoved, getting hit due to our lack of movement or our inability to move, neither one walks away unscathed. We are conditioned on getting hit, so we can say, “this didn’t hurt.” Maybe mentally you’ve conditioned yourself to believe you can take this bruising. However, your body, with its black and blues marks, says differently. You’re still bleeding internally, and that is never “good.” If you’ve developed an understanding and use of being soft and fast, you may be able to avoid much of these damaging contacts.

Soft movements are more sophisticated and skillful as it requires timing and positioning. As soft techniques usees mass, they will require more speed. We need to determine which Uechi-Ryu movements have less mass support. I would suggest we consider our circular movements. Circular movements (like that rock on a string) comes around quicker and have a better chance of hitting their mark. Remember, speed is what gives soft techniques its force; we need to soften up to generate more speed.

While I work with people during kata, I’ve always asked everyone to feel their movements and feel the power they can generate with their movements. That is how you can understand and learn how to work with your body to gain strength and speed in your movements. Your body needs to connect with every moving part and feel the flow and the ease of movement. If your body moves rigidly and not working cohesively together, you are restricting and fighting yourself. You’ll never reach or recognize your full potential.

When and if we become masters, what are we mastering? Are we mastering the movements? After 11 to 15 years of training, we should have learned every movement and technique in the system. Why is there such importance in “time in grade”?

Time in Grade offers us the development of our minds and bodies to the many movements and options to the many techniques we’ve learned these formative years. The time in training during each of the master ranks helps develop and heighten our physical and mental attachment to our movements. Every one of our movements, while continuously training, becomes more uniquely part of who we are.

Those who rush to promotion and speedy advancements only demonstrate their lack of interest in the honor and respect for the arts. It certainly detracts from their mind, body, and spirit.

How are we masters of an art rooted in understanding “HARD” and “SOFT” when all anyone sees is hard?

by Darin Yee

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