There is no mystery: the ideas may be new but the difference between hard techniques, hard-soft techniques, and soft techniques becomes clear as you master your karate.
The distinction is made between three kinds of ‘jins’ or energy-flows, described in Chinese and Okinawan martial arts. All three are used in Shorin Ryu White Crane as they are in Goju Ryu and other styles of karate. All three are needed to meet the changing demands of combative interaction.
There is mystification around the distinction because some claim that you should prefer one or the other. Some claim, for example, that karate style rely on one jin or that and tai chi and other internal styles rely exclusively on another.
That is not accurate. Hard and soft, internal and external are starting points in learning styles of movement, but every style of martial arts will include both internal and external training, hard, hard-soft and soft energy transmission techniques, to meet the demands of application.
The three ‘jins’ are tools. They are not difficult to use. In your first month of training you already use the first two of them. If you train consistently you will be able to use all of them appropriately and spontaneously.
They are not mysterious. They are natural.
It is natural to use a hard-soft technique when you punch. If you have average athletic ability it does not take any special training. When you ‘throw’ a punch the fist is launched ballisticly from the initial position of the fist, toward the target.
To project power out into the target instead of absorbing the power in your own fist, you tighten your fist on or just before impact. Anyone in a fight in a schoolyard, a barroom or on a street corner might use a hard-soft technique.
Boxing is hard-soft technique. If a boxer says he will ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ he is describing soft-hard technique, and it will be applied to every punch and body shift.
No boxer will use rigid arms and legs.
Speed in combative technique means learning to shorten the reflex arc – from soft to hard to soft and back, as rapidly as possible. At the same time we learn to increase the amplitude of the muscle response – maximizing muscle contraction and the completing the release of muscle tension. That is something every trained boxer, martial artist or any other combative athlete in baseball, tennis or golf, for example, strives to improve.
The defining quality of hard-soft punching technique is that it is ballistic, that is it is thrown while minimizing resistance in the opposing muscles of the arm. It finishes with enough focus and compression of the muscles to prevent the fist from distorting, and so to physically penetrate the space occupied by the target. Although makiwara training has other benefits, ‘full-arc punching’ is one of skills that makiwara training provides.
Each move you learned in your first week as a beginner in Shorin Ryu White Crane – each block, punch, body shift, and kick – will be most effectively executed as a hard-soft technique. You will get better at reducing resistance in the flexors when projecting your punch or kick. You will get better at reaching full compression in the contact alignment – from the fist through the forearm into the shoulder, hips, stance and feet – as you land your technique, as well.
Although we all get better with practice the principle itself is established immediately. And although we call it a ‘hard-soft’ technique, following the Chinese naming convention, the energy cycle of the technique is soft-hard-soft, for intiating, executing and finishing the technique, and connecting it either to the subsequent technique or to conclude the encounter.
It is sometimes necessary to use hard technique in sport wrestling and in ground fighting, and it is useful in some of our kata movements as well.
For the most part hard techniques are required in a clinch and when grappling. In grappling, especially if the opponent’s hold has been applied or locked, you cannot afford to relax the part of your body that is being attacked. There are effective ways to maneuver out of the hold, and to counter it, without releasing the tension in the part of the body that the opponent is trying to restrain or manipulate.
If your joint is locked at a point that is at or close to the limit of its natural range of motion, releasing tension under the opponent’s pressure and control will result in injury to your joint or cavity, or to defeat.
Therefore we learn to move with resistance maintained in the body. You can do this by using the body in a single unified movement like a leaf spring, without ever releasing tension. This resembles the movement of a carp in the water.
You can do the same type of movement using the koshi and compression, whether you are on your feet or on the ground, to control the opponent’s balance point, distort his stance, weaken his posture and cause him to release momentarily, somewhere. That provides you with your opening to counter.
An example of this type of application where dynamic tension is maintained while shifting position, are the side-stepping techniques in naihanchi kata.
Any time there is fist to arm or palm to arm contact shown in a kata posture – as in pinan 1, pinan 4, wankan, etc., we can look for a possible application of a hard technique.
Those moves can be interpreted in other ways, with hard-soft applications, but they can be interpreted as grappling moves that can be defeated by hard technique if the opponent has made contact and has applied the grab or lock.
The technique is ‘hard’ in the sense that maintaining resistance in the opposing muscles of the limb in contact, and in the architecture of the rest of the body, is an advantage in the effective application of the technique. It is possible to use a dynamic hard technique in other situations, such as a knee, hip or shoulder strike, but the grappling techniques mentioned require a hard jin application.
Soft technique is less familiar to our ordinary way of moving but it is easy to do when someone shows you how. It requires a more highly developed sense of the strengths and weaknesses of your posture and of the posture of your opponent, with less margin of error than the other techniques.
It also requires a more precise coordination of the flow of energy from the center of the body out to the target: sending an unimpeded energy wave from your root on the ground, generated by the central reservoir of energy at the hara, coordinated with the central rotating physical structure of the koshi at the pelvis and lower back, transmitting the energy out through the limbs to the target using the arches, the mechanical and energetic pathways of the body which link the root, center and limbs in to a coherent whole.
Hard-soft technique is resilient; hard technique is rigid. Soft technique functions like a wave moving through a whip.
The important component of the soft technique’s effectiveness is not the material it is made of – your arm, leg, etc., but of the wave of energy that passes, unobstructed, through it.
A boat is sailing along on the water. A wave comes up and turns it over. It is not that the water around the boat was suddenly rigid material, or that the water itself had any special effect on the boat. The energy moving through the water was communicated to the structure of the boat and affected the boat’s position. Then that energy wave was gone. The water itself was completely the same before, during and after the wave passed through it. Soft technique works this way.
Energy propagated through a medium – a wave in water, wind in a storm, sound through air – is familiar to us. We use this same principle in our soft technique.
It is not that it is ‘better’ to punch a target softly. That is goofy. It is not that it is better to minimize the resistance in the muscles at all times in all combative encounters.
If you have done push-hands training you can feel that there are moments when it only takes the slightest, feather-light redirection to destabilize an opponent, even a very strong and aggressive one, if their posture is over extended or biased.
Just as in a dynamic combative encounter – there may be a permutation in which you are able to redirect an incoming technique, sweep, pivot, body shift, continue an opponent’s overextension, retreat or other similar moment, in which it is to your advantage to have your energy transmit to the opponent’s body flow without tensing your body or distorting your own body dynamics or energy flow. That is one way in which a soft technique works. It is fast.
Soft, whipping posture changes and strikes are featured in pinan 3, naihanchi 1, naihanchi 3 and kusanku. Rohai, a White Crane derived kata, features multiple soft jin techniques, as do Gojushiho and Kusanku.
The soft strikes depend on an unimpeded wave of energy passing through your body to the target, and then reversing at high speed, like a whip.
The contact point of your body – fist, fingertips, toe tips or whatever you are using – will transmit energy out of your body and into the target without stopping or slowing down. The feeling of reversing direction suddenly, like the snapping of a whip, will project more power than is apparent because your intent to reverse comes slightly ahead of the reversal of the extended limb. The limb is very relaxed at the moment of contact, penetrates, and then withdraws. A benefit of this commitment to instant retraction of the technique is that if it is grabbed you have a high likelihood of releasing your limb or destabilizing the opponent if he is able to establish a secure hold.
There are many techniques in our kata that can be interpreted as soft jin applications, but they do not have to be interpreted that way.
The ones that require soft jin techniques are cavity strikes. Most cavity and pressure point strikes rely on simultaneous counter-pressure at the target point to be effective. The techniques in our kata that demand a soft-jin interpretation are cavity or pressure point strikes that do not have a counter-pressure component.
Instead these soft, whipping, cavity strikes depend on high-speed ‘fa jing’ energy transmission into the target along with precision targeting, to make use of the inertia of the mass of the target itself as counter pressure. This kind of application will work at high speed, against a destabilized opponent, and is generally applied to weak target structures.
This takes a little longer to learn to do well that the other applications mentioned above.
There are many well-proven ways to develop all of these techniques, some of which you are already using, to good advantage.