Karate can be a board breakin, sweat drenchin, spirit shoutin kind of art. That’s all good stuff, but it’s important to remember that there is a softer side to karate. A yin to the yang, so to speak.
Soft techniques are, for some baffling reason, fairly under utilized in karate. I think it’s because they are less visually dynamic than the impact techniques for which karate is famous (the flying kick shown above is just an example). Despite that, the “soft” has been around just as long as the “hard”. Goju-Ryu, a very popular style of karate, helps illustrate this point. The name Goju-Ryu translates to “hard soft style” and is a term that Chojun Miyagi, the founder, took from an important book called The Bubishi.
Soft elements of karate can trace their roots all the way back to early Chinese influence. Chinese immigrants and traders made their way to Okinawa throughout the two countries history of commerce, and some of the earliest recorded karate exponents told stories of their trips to China both for political and combat training purposes. That being the case, and taking into consideration the strong cultural emphasis on preservation and traditionalism, it only makes sense to realize that soft elements are still to be found in karate.
This begs the question – what exactly ARE soft elements? Isn’t softness an undesirable trait when dealing with martial arts, especially percussion based arts like karate?
Softness, to the eastern mind, is not quite the same thing as it is in the west. In the east, it represents blending of force, redirection, and deflection. A soft technique can appear like it does in Aikido, where the exponent uses circular momentum to over promote the momentum of an attacker.
Don’t grab that guy’s wrist.
Softness can also appear in arts like Judo (“the gentle way”), where weight and balance are deftly manipulated.
There are many other examples, but that is the basic idea. Karate, through its transitioning of stances and crossing-uncrossing of hands, can utilize those same concepts. Although we as kareteka generally practice kihon and kata by locking into stances and techniques, we don’t necessarily HAVE to do that.
Something To Try
Here is something you might enjoy. Pick a kata you are very familiar with and run through its typical bunkai (application) once or twice. After that, try it in a “soft” way. Instead of block, strike, block, block strike…allow your techniques to flow into each other. Let your blocking movements work in a circular fashion as oppossed to hard hits. Don’t feel completely locked into stances – allow yourself to move through them as if they were just one moment in a continous string of moments. Use strikes to hit, but also to off balance, push, pull, and twist your opponent.
This is a fun way to gain a new perspective on kata, and also a method of discovering new ways to manipulate the human body. Like many things in the martial arts, not everything you discover will be correct right off the bat, and you might feel awkward for awhile. That’s ok. Self exploration is an invaluable addition to traditional means of learning; neither should exist without the other.
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No matter how far I veer off course talking about martial arts santas or no-touch-knockouts, I always feel like I have to reign myself back in and ask – why practice martial arts? MA can be costly, taxing, aggravating, tiring, and discouraging. Why bother with all that racket?
I believe one reward is something called resilient optimism.
What is Resilient Optimism?
Resilient Optimism is that human quality that allows us to see the silver lining in a bad situation. It’s a burning in our chest that ignites when our sensibilities tell us to quit and give up.
There’s a Japanese proverb that states: “fall down seven times, get up eight.” This expression embodies unyielding determination, but in the phrase’s simplicity it speaks to many human qualities, resilient optimism being among them. It means that even when things look bleak, there is a possibility for growth and goodness in the end.
Martial Arts, Human Nature, Resilient Optimism
In order to find out how martial arts truly effect resilient optimism, we have to dig into human nature itself. In general, people have a base level of happiness and contentment. That means, regardless of what happens, they return to this level (think laws of equilibrium).
It looks like this:
There are ups and downs, but after all is said and done, that baseline is reestablished. The waves you see can be very big, or they can be very small. For example, winning $10 on a scratch off lottery ticket would make a small upward wave. Woohoo! Free ten bucks! But nothing really changes and life goes on. Winning $1.5 million in the real lottery would make a much much bigger upward wave. Swish! See you in Tahiti suckers! But ultimately the hassles, family strife, scams, and emotional tensions would bring a person back to where they started, even if it took years. There may be more dollars in their pocket, but their baseline would return to its equilibrium.
Luckily, there are ways for people to make lasting changes to their baseline level. Unfortunately, it’s nothing as easy as buying a lottery ticket. Real change must come internally; all external factors are like wind blowing at the branches of a willow. They can bend it this way or that, but they can’t make any fundamental alteration or growth. That has to come from the tree itself.
Plateauing and The Human Baseline
The human baseline can be moved up or down, and plateauing is the most common way for that to happen. Plateauing is something that occurs whenever we wish to cause change in ourselves.
It looks like this:
What we see here is long stretches of equilibrium followed by periods of growth. The one real variable is time. Depending on the task being undertaken, each plateau can last a vastly different amount of time. If you’re talking about getting better at a video game, each plateau could be an hour. Getting better at a kata would take longer. Unfortunately, emotional plateaus are far less predictable. Each level could be a matter of months, or a matter of decades.
So How Do Martial Arts Effect Resilient Optimism?
At their core, the martial arts train emotional and mental aspects just as much as physical. They do so by providing challenges, goals, disappointments, adversaries, friends, and more. By struggling through martial arts, practitioners ultimately enhance their self confidence, self reliance, and determination. Resilient optimism, the ability to see the good in even bitter situations, is made up of these same components.
The most important thing to remember about resilient optimism is that it is not an opiate. The goal is not to turn a blind eye to suffering and tragedy because it’s easier to accept good news. Instead, resilient optimism through the martial arts teaches us to accept pain because we’ve put ourselves through the pain of personal growth for so many years. We’ve looked at ourselves wholly and unapologetically and asked how we can make ourselves a better fighter, a better student, a better teacher. When compared to the ironworks of our own motivation, the tribulations of the outside world are pale – which is why resilient optimism is as natural as a bouy floating in the water.
When you put it all together, it looks something like this:
A Personal Example
Sometimes optimism can be difficult, no matter who you are. For example, while writing this post my new puppy threw up three times. Kata never prepared me for this.
His name is Nero, and he has been living up to the noise of his name. I am resiliently optimistic that one day he’ll be a good boy and not eat things he’s not supposed to. That day is not today.
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I’m back from both Christmas and the bubonic plague. It’s amazing how quickly some of these flu viruses can spread, and how effective they are at putting people out of commission.
Anyway, overlooking those details I’d rather not relive, I’d like to share a piece of my Christmas spoils with you. Check this out:
Pardon the weird angle, I was trying to avoid glare. This is an excellent art print of a classical Samurai that I received. It’s about the size of a normal poster, but came framed and ready to go. I was very pleased! This is a great look at real Samurai garb in action, as opposed to resting idly in a museum somewhere.
The development of Samurai armor is very interesting and demonstrates great battlefield ingenuity. This complex weaving of chords, iron plates, and fibers creates a durable yet flexible protective shell. Furthermore, the development of arts such as Jujitsu, Aikido, and Judo were all born from the Samurai and were utilized against opponents wearing this exact kind of protection!
But why does Samurai armor look so much different than the war-gear of other countries? Most predominently it’s due to the focus of speed and flexibility over raw protection. While a European Knight would be able to withstand blows and deliver punishing, pulverizing strikes with his broadsword, Samurai were more interested in quick killing blows with katana or spear. They would use accurate and evasive tactics throughout the battlefield, foregoing the protection of platemail in favor of maneuverability.
Furthermore, the armor of a Samurai was indicative of a great many things on the battlefield (not just how many hits he could take). A warrior’s clan, status, and military propensity could all be determined by his protective gear. Each clan had their own Gusoku-shi, or armor makers, who would design armor specifically for each Samurai (no walmart brand available at that time).
Furthermore, time and necessity changed the design of Samurai armor. In the picture above we see a very functional, battle-ready suit. This is quite unlike the decorative, Tokugawa-era pieces that rest in many showcases.
As times became more peaceful and Samurai more irrelevant, armor became more ornamental and therefore functioned better as display.
Samurai armor has many many pieces, and every minute detail is important (for example: the way you laced your armor would be indicative of your rank and status), but essentially there are six main components: chest protector (yoroi), helmet (kabuto), mask (ho-ate), sleeves (kote), shin gaurds (sune-ate), and loin gaurd (koshi-ate…also known as the most important piece).
High ranking officers would ride into battle mounted, wearing extremely elaborate suits of armor and demonizing masks, displaying their prowess and clan identity. Warring samurai, like the one in my poster above, stuck to what was functional.
Samurai armor and culture is extraordinarly complex, and not a single knot goes without deep contemplation. Although we only scratched the surface, we did learn a little about the individual featured in my picture above. Hopefully he’ll serve as a reminder to me that there is still much to learn, and more budo spirit to be attained!
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