Hardness within Softness

Róu zhōng yǒu gāng gōng bùpò, gāng zhōng wú róu bù wéi jiān.

Róu zhōng yǒu gāng gōng bùpò, gāng zhōng wú róu bù wéi jiān.

When hardness is contained in softness, attacks are unstoppable.  
When hardness does not contain softness, it cannot be maintained.

In many ways, all movements are a balance between hard and soft.  The human body itself has hard bones and soft tissue.  When the body moves, that mixture of hard and soft is the mass that is accelerated to deliver force.

Movement requires that we encase our hardness in our softness.  On a very basic level, if we tense up all of our muscles we will be unable to move – at least not with any speed or range.  One can stand stock still in a fully locked and tensed position and learn how to take hard hits to various parts of the body.  But, as the quote framing this post says, this cannot be maintained.  One, it is physically exhausting and punishing. Two, it will not put you in a strategic position to come out of an attack safely.  It would, at best, buy you time.

Life is movement.  This is true both in terms of health and in terms of self defense.

Movement requires softness.  The power to deliver unstoppable attacks requires that there be hardness contained within the softness.  Hitting someone with a wet noodle doesn’t do much more than insult them (or make them laugh).

This is one of the distinctions between qigong for health and the martial arts.  Martial arts cannot be completely soft when it comes to the moment of impact.

But there are different kinds of hardness that different martial artists can develop:

  1. The hardness of bone
  2. The hardness of muscle
  3. The hardness of structure
  4. The hardness of energy

The hardness of bone is somewhat self explanatory, but certain styles use particular conditioning methods to stress the bones and make them stronger.  In some cases they go so far as to hit the bones into increasingly hard materials to the point of punching steel plates in order to turn the bones into punishing tools.  This method does work, but can leave the fighter crippled in his old age.  The hardness without softness cannot be maintained.

The hardness of muscle refers to the building up of the muscles through resistance training and the coordinated tensing and relaxing of these muscles at various stages of movement.  This is the next level up in terms of sophistication in developing the necessary hardness for martial application.  One risk of this method lies in the psychological comfort and apparent safety of being tensed.  Some practitioners and some styles move deeply into the tension training and loose the ability to fully relax into movements and structures.  The tension eats away at the softness, limiting power and range.

The hardness of structure is a strategy by which the practitioner supports the power of bone with the power of muscle, but attempts to do so at a minimum.  We let the structure of the human body determine our movement patterns and static positions.  The static positions (stances) are the endpoints of our applications, and thus represent a body organization that directs power through the frame in specific directions.  Our muscles are soft in movement, but only tense enough when delivering power to organize and support the structure through which the technique is applied.  As much of the force is the result of careful deployment of the body’s structure against an opponent, tendons (connecting muscle to bone) and ligaments (connecting bone to bone) come to play a greater role in this strategy than in the pure hardness of muscle approach.

The hardness of energy is the highest level of the hardness of structure approach.  Muscular movement is refined to the point that it outwardly appears completely soft.  And yet tremendous force can be applied to objects or people.  Because the structure is well developed and supported by minimal expenditure of muscular tension (which is always necessary, however), and the tendons and ligaments have come to support the structure (which eases the role of the muscles), movements can be faster and more accurate.  More acceleration is thus applied to a finely tempered hardness.  Thus the body manifests nuanced, relaxed, sustainable, and surprising power against an opponent.

“When hardness is contained in softness, attacks are unstoppable.”

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