Learning Soft in the Martial Arts

After you have been punched a few times you learn to duck. It’s not really that difficult a lesson. The martial arts abound in key lessons, such as trying to make your opponent miss as much as possible. Not every one of them is as obvious as ducking or as quick to be adopted. It’s just that we respond to clobbering so well but logic so poorly. Was it G.B. Shaw who said that, “Art is the best teacher next to torture?”

And what about that other, more artistic, teacher? One of her  key lessons encourages the acquisition of softness. For over 1000 years martial arts teachers have traditionally lauded the soft path to skill. The reason for this is not a moral one as we might think of in the west. It is not a form of “The meek shall inherit the earth.” It is more of a deep recognition that life walks along on two feet, one hard and one soft, and that using both feet greatly aids in perambulation.

If we are lucky we learn something about softness from the study of martial arts. We might even learn some uses of it in daily life. Part of this process is to unload some burdensome preconceptions. For instance, we must know that soft is not surrender. But soft does yield. Yielding and surrendering are two different animals. Yielding allows you to bend but not break. Surrender is recognition that you are broken. We say a branch yields to weight or even to the wind but the implication is that it will naturally snap back when the pressure is released.

And that brings me to another distinctive characteristic. Softness is tenacious. It holds on. This Yin aspect is one of its most powerful attributes. In martial arts we admire the willow tree that dumps it burden of snow then springs back to its unburdened shape. Water yields to everything but it tenaciously searches out all those cracks and crevices. It has the persistence of a newly ordained pastor and the purposeful attention of a bone-hunting dog. Tenacity and yielding not only keep you on track, they  keep you coming back to the track.

Softness allows us to respond in a way less bound by habit. If someone grabs your wrist there are all sorts of ways to respond. But what people actually DO is to place themselves in exactly the weakest, most contentious position they can find and then resist the grab with all their diminishing might. Instead softness listens and, without tensing and struggling, finds the way out.

At my school we practice a seizing art called Chin Na. Invariably the person who has been captured for the first time runs the risk of making a common and intuitive error, namely picking the wrong direction to escape. Sometimes, even in their frustration, they realize that it is their own strength and tension that have trapped them like those woven Chinese finger cuffs you can only escape by moving in the “wrong” direction.

Softness teaches us a better way. It pays attention and learns. It accommodates to end up ahead of the game. Not a bad strategy at that.

One Response to “Learning Soft in the Martial Arts”

  1. This reminds me of being in class for three months under Master Jianhua Guo and he described me as ‘soft’, but needng to learn how to ‘explode’ in my movement. I learned three and a half sequences in that time to everyone’s amazement.

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