Three kinds of power – ‘jins’ or energy-flows – are used in Chinese and Okinawan martial arts. All three are used in our Shorin Ryu White Crane as they are in Goju Ryu and other styles. All three are needed to meet the changing dynamics of combat.
There is mystification around this because some people claim that you should prefer one or the other. Some claim, for example, that karate relies on only one power-form, and that tai chi and other internal styles rely exclusively on another.
That is not accurate. Hard and soft, internal and external, are valid distinctions, but every style of combatives will include both internal and external training, hard, hard-soft and soft energy transmission techniques.
The three ‘power modes’ 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.
With practice 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 convey power 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 a street would likely use a hard-soft technique.
Boxing is hard-soft technique. When a boxer trains to ‘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.
Train with him. Spar with him. Watch him. 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 suddenly releasing all muscle tension. Increasing frequency and amplitude of the cycle of muscle tension and relaxation is a fundamental of speed training, and of power projection. It is something every trained boxer, martial artist or competitive athlete – in baseball, tennis or golf, anything – strives to improve.
The defining quality of hard-soft punching technique is that it is ballistic, that is – it is thrown with minimum resistance in the opposing muscles. It finishes with sufficient focus and compression of the muscles to prevent the joints from hyperextending or the fist from distorting, so the power of the punch will penetrate 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 Japanese naming convention, the energy cycle of the technique is soft-hard-soft, for initiating, executing and finishing the technique, and either connecting it seamlessly to the subsequent technique or concluding the encounter.
It is sometimes necessary to use hard technique in wrestling and in ground fighting. It is useful in some of our kata movements as well. This is especially true in the naihanchi kata.
Hard techniques are required in a clinch. In grappling, especially if the opponent’s hold has been effectively applied and he is locked on to you, 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, break 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 – center core helical motion – and compression – rapid shift between concave/convex position of the shoulders and hips around the dantien – 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 opportunity to counter or escape for counterattack.
The side-stepping techniques in naihanchi kata are an example of this, where dynamic tension is maintained while shifting position.
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 an application of a hard technique.
Those moves can be interpreted in other ways, with hard-soft applications, but they can be interpreted as pinning/grappling moves that can be defeated by hard technique if the opponent has made contact and has effectively applied his grab or lock – immobilizing his own limb, momentarily.
The technique is ‘hard’ in the sense that we maintain resistance in the opposing muscles of the limb in contact with the opponent, and in the architecture of the body. This tension enables 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 here require a hard jin application.
Soft technique is less familiar to our ordinary way of moving but it is easy to learn once you see it done. It requires a more highly developed sense of your own 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 of the body structure, and the mechanical and energetic pathways which link the root, center and limbs forming a coherent whole.
Hard-soft technique is resilient; hard technique is rigid. Soft technique functions like a wave of energy 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, and naihanchi 3. Rohai, a White Crane 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.
In a soft jin technique the part of your body that makes contact with the target – 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, and your koshi reverses before the limb it is pulling. The limb is relaxed at the moment of contact, penetrates, and then withdraws. A benefit of this commitment to instant retraction of the technique is that if you are grabbed you can free your limb or destabilize the opponent – even if he has been 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 static 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 the 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.