Thursday, June 16, 2005

The balance between the hard and the soft

I've been training in Martial Arts for going on 10 years now, predominately in Cheng Man Ching Tai-Chi, a 'soft' style of Chinese Gung-fu. My training has gone through many peaks and troughs over the years, periods of revelation and frantic ideas followed by plateau's of varying lengths with a feeling of nothing much happening until the next revelation and so on. I've termed it the 'Fuck Me Factor' or FMF for short, as in the exclamation "Fuck me I've got it!" that generally occurs after a moment of extreme clarity.

I came to a realization long ago, after many sweaty hours scaring neighbors swinging swords about in my garden and whacking friends and strangers in various generic sports halls dotted around the country (as well as a couple of trips to Malaysia, where the experience was similar but the sweating much more intense) that undertaking any activity with the view of mastery is stupid and ultimately self defeating. 'It's not the destination it's the journey' is a clich├ęd and hackneyed saying but the reason it's so over used is because it's very true.

At this particular point in time my training is going through some interesting twists and turns, mostly inspired by a beating I took in a full contact competition last year. What it boiled down to was that I kept dropping my guard and staying out on the end of my opponents fists, meaning I got smacked in the head, a lot. I termed this a 'learning experience' but as my friend and (very good) martial artist Glenn pointed out, you really don't want too many of those.

After this 'experience' I changed my training pattern. I added in harder elements and started going to a boxing gym down the road from my flat to get in more sparring. After I had been doing this for a few months I went to a seminar by a visiting Tai Chi master in the Chen Style (A different style to the one I normally practice) going back and practicing pure Tai-Chi after months of harder stuff made me realize that I had begun to lose that softer element, that feeling relaxed power and connection between body, breath and mind that Tai Chi does so well. My mind was drawn back that something else that Glenn had said (and I really should have listened to in the first place), for every hour of hard training you should do two of soft.

Now actually achieving this two to one ratio in real life is pretty hard, trying to balance all my Yoga studies, a full time job and a social life with Tai-Chi training is difficult as it is (though not impossible if you're willing to get up a bit earlier in the morning) but the rationale of a balance between hard and soft training is a fundamental one.

So what is all this issue with hard and soft styles? Within martial arts in general, but especially Chinese and Japanese disciplines, you often see one art classified as a 'hard' style and another a 'soft', for instance Karate and Five Ancestors Gung Fu are seen as hard styles and Aikido and Tai-Chi are normally classified as soft. Hard styles generally rely on physical strength and conditioning while soft styles are distinguished by an emphasis on flowing movement, physical alignment and the structural displacement of an opponent. Of course this is just a gross generalization and often you see many elements of one in the other, as my teacher always states all martial arts are heading to the same destination, they just take slightly different routes to get there.

This is where we come back, in a roundabout fashion, to the question of balance. In my view there have to be elements of both hard and soft, yin and yang in any training otherwise you are really only studying half an art. I've seen many martial artists of harder styles who move like robots and are plagued by injury in later life because of to much harder training in earlier years. One of my teachers, teacher's, teachers Master Lau a man now in his seventies who's Tai-Chi is phenomenally good and can throw around men half his age and twice his size has a permanent shaking in his hands brought on from conditioning exercises he did when he trained Shaolin Gung Fu in his youth.

On the other side of the coin there are many within the Tai-Chi fraternity who see 'force' and 'strength' as a dirty word, considering anything remotely physical (like cardiovascular work or actual contact) as 'too hard'. This dream world where they're able to yield to any force and gently lead an attacker with the barest touch is normally resoundingly shattered as soon as someone punches them in the head.

Soft training enables the subtler aspects of Tai-Chi to begin to take root in the body. Teaching the student how to marry the breath, mind and body into one unit so that it becomes a vehicle for the intent, so that all action is applied using the most efficient body mechanics and the minimum amount of effort. Hard training builds strength and endurance, allows the lessons learned from the soft training to be applied at speed and under pressure and, most importantly , teaches you what it's like to get hit (it's no good having a punch that can shatter concrete if your jaw is made of glass).

Without this harder edge you lose that mental toughness
and physical conditioning required in martial arts and without the inherent softness you loose that flowing and effortless power cultivated in the tai-chi form. The Tai-Chi (yin-yang) symbol is probably the best example of this principle. As Yin reaches it's peak it becomes Yang and vise versa. A union of opposites, each one containing a part of the other.

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