The Three Powers of Karate

There is nothing mystical or mysterious about the three kinds of martial power – ‘jins’ or energy-flows – that are used in Chinese, Japanese and Okinawan martial arts.  All three are useful in the dynamics of combat. All three are accessible to us.

Some claim that karate relies on only one kind of power, and that tai chi and other internal styles use another.

Hard and soft, internal and external, are valid distinctions, and you have to start somewhere. But as you train you find that practical combative styles include both internal and external training, introducing a spectrum of “hard,” “hard-soft” and “soft” energy transmission techniques.

These three ‘powers’ are tools. Each has its use.

They are not mysterious. They are not secret. They are natural.

Hard-Soft Techniques – When its Time to Go Ballistic

Hard-soft techniques are ballistic, that is they are thrown explosively, with minimum resistance in the opposing muscles. They focus energy and intention at a single point. They use a sudden compression of the muscles on contact. This muscle contraction prevents the joints from hyperextending or collapsing, driving the power of the punch into the target. Joint alignment supports the target penetration from deep inside your body.

It is natural to use a hard-soft technique when you punch. People in a confrontation – on the street, in a jail or in a school yard – will use an approximation of a hard-soft technique.

Boxing uses hard-soft technique. When a boxer trains to ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ he is describing a kind of soft-hard technique. It can be applied to every attack, defense and evasion.  Boxers don’t use rigid arms or legs.

Training for speed in combative technique means shortening the muscle cycle – from soft to hard to soft and back. That is true whether we are firing a single explosive technique or a sequences of techniques.  While we increase the cycle speed we also increase the amplitude of the cycle – maximizing muscle contraction, then instantly releasing any residual muscle tension that might slow us down as we continue. Like ‘wind and lightning’. Or like automatic rifle fire.

In Okinawan styles we use makiwara training to condition the hands – espcially the knuckles and knife edges.  Little by little that conditioning goes deep – into the arms and shoulders, chest and back, koshi and tanden, feet and foundation.  Full-arc “soft-hard” oscillation is one of the results of good makiwara training.

Hard Techniques – Dangerous, Not Difficult

It is a truism in Chinese and other Asian martial arts that hard overcomes soft, and soft overcomes hard. Hard techniques are a critical component of skillful combatives. Hard techniques are useful in grappling and in ground fighting.  They are emphasized in naihanchi kata and appear in many others.

When a part of your body is immobilized, placing a joint at risk, we can use a ‘hard’ technique in response.  This is true in defending against chin na and in applying chin na grappling techniques. There are other uses, as in a bear hug, choke or other restraint and compression technique.

If your joint is locked at the limit of its range of motion, releasing tension under the opponent’s pressure can result in injury – to your joint, kyusho nerve point or cavity. Some responses require local hard response while the rest of the body is free to move. Like breaking an immobilizing hold on a wrist.

But a full body hard technique is different.  There, under pressure, we move while maintaining resistance in the opposing muscles – moving the body in a single, unified movement like a leaf spring, without ever completely releasing tension. This resembles the sudden movement of a carp in the water.

You can do the same type of movement using the koshi – (the center core helical motion), and compression – (the rapid shift between concave/convex position of the four points made by the shoulders and the hips around the tanden) – whether you are on your feet or down 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 to escape for counterattack.

The side-stepping techniques in naihanchi kata are an example of this, where dynamic tension is maintained while shifting position.

The carp movement is also used for soft and soft-hard techniqes, for full-body energy generation.

We can use a hardened body – an earth-element posture and technique – while motionless, to absorb and transfer impact. At the other end of the spectrum: knee, hip and shoulder strikes can be done using hard energy.

When there is fist-to-arm or palm-to-arm contact in a kata posture – as in Pinan 1, Pinan 4, Wankan, etc., we can apply a hard technique.

The technique is ‘hard’ when we maintain muscle tension in a limb or in the architecture of the body when we contact the opponent.

Soft Technique – (Note: they don’t feel ‘soft’ to the opponent)

A boat is moving on the water. A wave comes up and turns the boat over. The water itself did not change at all. That is the same water the boat was floating in a minute before the wave appeared. The water itself did not hurt the boat. The energy moving through the water did. It was communicated into the structure of the boat and affected the boat’s position.  Rolling it over. Submerging it. Destroying it.

Then the 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, electricity through a wire, wind in a storm, sound through the air – is familiar to us.

Soft technique is used in most combative styles.

(Note: The chi kung, energy cultivation, components of our practice are not the ones I am describing here. I am describing combative soft-energy techniques.)

Soft jin requires an unimpeded flow of energy from the center of the body out to the target.  A wave from your root on the ground, generated by and through 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, along 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 is a wave of energy moving along 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 through it. The key training challenge is to delete obstructions to the flow of energy.

It is not better to minimize the resistance in the muscles at all times in all combative encounters. But it has its place. In push-hands you can feel moments when only the slightest redirection of incoming energy will destabilize your opponent, even a strong and aggressive one, if their posture is over-extended or biased.

It is the same in combatives: there may be a moment when you can redirect an incoming technique, sweep, pivot, body shift, continue an opponent’s overextension, retreat or use another similar movement, in which it is to your advantage to transmit your energy into the opponent’s body, redirecting his motion, or penetrating one of his soft targets.

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, allowing for maximum speed and penetration before disppearing from contact range.

That makes it hard to grab; and if you are grabbed you can instantly apply a release technique or destabilize the opponent.

Beyond Blunt Force Trauma – Applying the Three Energies

You can hit anywhere, including nerve points or cavities, with hard-soft technique, and cause blunt force trama. If you hit hard enough every target is a weak point. But there are alternatives to overwhelming your opponent with soft-hard power. If they are stronger than you – you may need an alternative.

Everyone has nerves, and everyone has body cavities. No matter how big and strong they are they are vulnerable to high-speed low-mass strikes. Cavity and nerve attacks rely on simultaneous pressure and counter-pressure – a pincer motion –  at the target point to be effective. That is you have to stabilize the target in order to compress the point or penetrate cavity, otherwise the opponent will just move away.

However – the techniques in our kata that make best use of a soft-jin interpretation are cavity or pressure point strikes that do not need static counter-pressure.

Instead the soft jin cavity strikes depend on high-speed energy transmission into the target, taking advantage of the inertia of the target itself as the counter pressure.

This kind of application will work against a destabilized opponent, and is applied to weak target structures. That is how you can use deception and skill to overcome power.

There are many well-proven ways to develop all of these techniques, many of which you are using or are discovering as you go deeper into your art.


Post by Jeff Brooks, Copyright © 2019, adapted from “The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts” Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle Edition ebook.

Carp in Motion – original 9′ x 3′ hanging scroll painted by Tarleton Brooks copyright © 2001-2019 by Tarleton Brooks

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