I have come to believe that those who study martial arts should never look on the Yin Yang figure as a mere symbol. Instead they should think of it as a formula, an equation written with pictures instead of numbers. You may feed in certain ideas, then see what comes out on the other side of that equal sign. Here is an example of that figure, the spiral alternation of black and white. This clearly shows that the basic idea behind the Yin and Yang picture characterizes these states as continually turning into one another: Yin to Yang and Yang to Yin.
You can grab any two opposites in the martial arts and use this formula to comprehend their complementary aspects. Any pair of opposites, such as hard and soft, or striking and grappling, can be understood as we just pompously designated as “continually successive states.” Like dawn and dusk, these transformations will follow one another for as long as our sun lives and quite a bit more besides.
Take relaxation and tension. Everyone pays lip service to the idea that relaxation is good. They might as well be reciting from memory . This ignores the fact that it is very difficult to learn new things without tension, because tension formalizes the learning in the nervous system; it is analogous to hitting the “save” button on your computer. Let’s say that you have been studying just a few months. Your punch has steadily increased in power. Your body is engaging more muscles in a coordinated manner, and the result of this is crisper punches, but more tension.
This tension, linked with power, keeps increasing until it’s time for your instructor to walk up and whisper, “Relax your muscles.” Now comes the hard part, because to gain the benefits of relaxation you have to completely let go. The problem remains that when you completely relax, the power evaporates. Yes, that’s all right, the power may indeed diminish, but the new path of the arm is infinitely more efficient; a relaxed arm motion is always more efficient.
A dilemma still seems to raise its ugly head. Do you want an inefficient but powerful punch, or an efficient but powerless punch? At this point you can use the principle of continual successive states. First, you practice toward the prejudice of power and then flip to the other side, seeking improved grace and efficiency. You will find yourself hiking back and forth, back and forth. I believe that one definition of martial expertise is how short that round trip becomes; in other words, how rapidly you can travel from tension to relaxation and back until you have isolated the most relaxed yet powerful punch.
Often the heavy punch that is also relaxed will probably be the most powerful punch that you throw, but not necessarily. It just may be the strongest punch manageable that is also that relaxed. Sometimes you will give up a modicum of power to gain total relaxation. It is definitely a maximum/minimum problem. Where do power and efficiency intersect?
In training it can be useful to exaggerate. You can go so limp you see that you have wandered beyond relaxation and you have no power to call upon; you are probably not that efficient either. This can be instructive. In another case, I occasionally tell my students to tense up as much as they can so they can understand what real tension is and not be so enamored either of it or its all too common surrogate. I tell them to tighten up because, in general, it is easy for people to tense up; hard for them to relax. And, as an added bonus, when I press them to really tense up they generally relax. Such is the orneriness of people.
This constant vacillation between any two points of training is a common strategy in martial arts. The differentiation of Yin and Yang creates all sorts of complementary pairs like heavy and light, fast and slow, substantial and insubstantial, true and deceptive. This challenge of tense and relaxed is so natural that everyone has to go through it and it lurks on all levels of martial training from day one to the end of your mastery.
Inventory your abilities and training and see which set of opposing forces is the stickiest problem for you.