This is a great question about the relationship between hard and soft styles:
“Recently I started training in Old Yang Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan in order to add to my Okinawan Kenpo Karate background. I was wondering if there is any particular relation between hard and soft styles. Do they compliment/take away from each other, is there any historical relationship between the two, etc?”
Here’s my take on it:
Diversifying training is a very natural and organic part of martial arts growth. Being exposed to a wider variety of methods and mindset can not only fill in skillset gaps but can actually provide fresh perspective on the core art of a practitioner. It’s like seeing a sculpture from one angle for years, and then being allowed to view it from the reverse angle. Certainly you’ll gain new appreciation for the artwork.
Of course, cross training comes with inherent risks. When done sloppily, lazily, or hastily it can prohibit the practitioner from learning the new art well and negatively effect the core art.
With that in mind, let’s look at the particular situation presented by this question – mixing Yang Style Taijiquan with Okinawa Kenpo Karate.
It’s generally accepted that karate is a hard art. Hard arts are characterized by a propensity for striking, solid stancework, impact blocking, hard body development, externally focused breathing, and muscular tension for power generation. Conversely, soft arts like taijiquan feature flowing movement, soft hands, internal based breathing, and energetic striking.
The key to understanding if a “hard art” like Okinawa Kenpo and “soft art” like taijiquan has historical connection and can possibly co-mingle rests on the question: which versions are you talking about?
Dual Tracks for Taijiquan and Okinawa Kenpo
When thinking of taijiquan, most people picture the modern fitness studio version that focuses almost entirely on the meditative aspects of the practice. The movements are very slow and deliberate with a body that is as relaxed as possible throughout. This version of taijiquan is certainly healthful and can teach a person about body awareness, but it is not the complete art of taijiquan as established by it’s creators. Back in “the day”, taiji was an explosive and complex method of body development, energy transmission, and fighting technique as well as meditative practice.
For a look at more complete taijiquan, please watch this video of Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming. He provides a quick encapsulation of what taiji and external kung fu are, and at the 2:20 mark demonstrates an energetic and impactful taiji form:
As you can see, what Dr. Yang is able to do is quite a bit different than typical meditative taiji forms. His older, more complete understanding of the art begins to mix fighting technique with internal concepts.
Let’s switch gears now for a moment and look at Okinawa Kenpo, a form of karate with direct lineage from Okinawa. The founder of the style, Nakamura Shigeru, followed an interesting path throughout his karate career. He began his training while in middle school. At that time innovators like Itosu Anko and Higashionna Kanryo were just starting to bring karate out of obscurity and into mainstream Okinawan and Japanese culture. One of their objectives, inspired and supported by the Japanese government, was to integrate karate training into the Okinawan school systems. The goal was to create fitter youth with a better sense of duty, military preparedness, and Japanese organization.
Karate, as it had been done in prior generations, was not well suited for young children in large groups with limited training time. So Itosu and a handful of others set out to simplify, organize, and Japanize the process. What happened as a result was a stronger focus on linear striking, group forms, hard blocks, etc (the things we now recognize as modern karate).
After coming up through that system and gaining reputation as a skilled karateka, Nakamura decided to seek out more of his roots and learn about the classical karate that existed outside of the school system. One of his primary influences for this older style learning was a gentleman named Kuniyoshi Shinkichi, an Okinawan who had spent a significant amount of time in China learning about chuanfa and the Chinese ways. As a result, Nakamura’s karate became an interesting mix of school-era and pre-school-era karate. This dichotomy still exists in the style and is visible today when analyzing Okinawa Kenpo practitioners.
The Key to Historical Connection
When observing modern styles of karate and taijiquan it’s easy to see that the two have more differences than similarities. However, when digging deeply into the past of both styles you’ll find they come closer and closer together both in terms of execution and historical interaction. Karate’s history is speckled with Chinese influence, getting more Chinese the further back you go. While karate has always been less internal focused than taijiquan and execution of the two arts has never been identical, they do have more shared focus and technical execution than most people realize.
The Key to Technical Connection
This all begs the question: is it impossible to cross-train modern styles of karate with modern styles of taijiquan?
No. In fact, I know a number of individuals who have really benefited from experiencing the drastic difference between the two. Going from extremely hard to extremely soft (or vice-versa) can generate serious aha! moments that improve the practitioner greatly. However, large hard-soft gaps can also create confusion in both body and mind and can potentially degrade a person’s overall ability to perform when it counts. It’s a similar problem to having 100 decent self defense techniques vs 10 great ones. The body/mind/spirit never get a chance to transcend in any one particular way.
Is it possible to cross-train modern hard and soft? Yes. Is it time intensive with potential problems? Yes.
By focusing on the older methods of taijiquan and karate, a practitioner can put themselves ahead of the game by working off of connections built by generations of practitioners who shared the same goals – to create a functional system that is capable of learning from new resources while not degrading the core foundation of the art. In fact, some arts considered this pursuit of Hard+Soft central to their methodology (think Goju Ryu).
Odo Seikichi, inheritor of Okinawa Kenpo from Nakamura Shigeru, was a brilliant proponent of this method of martial development.
You wouldn’t confuse Odo Sensei’s performance for taijiquan, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a tournament karate kata either. There is a patient, energetic cadence to his movements.
Sometimes my ideas on this subject can seem counter-intuitive. I believe cross-training is extremely valuable and necessary for martial growth, while at the same time I don’t believe the foundation of a classical art should be compromised. It sounds impossible or impractical on the surface, but once a practitioner studies a core art for long enough they understand what makes it tick and can use outside arts to unlock new perspectives on the same foundational material. That’s why beginning cross-training too soon can be dangerous, while never exploring new ideas can be equally dangerous.
It’s a delicate balance that requires the utmost thought and respect. The trick is to continuously keep ego out of the equation. Resist the urge to believe that studying two or three arts has let you transcend your original art, because that mindset often means you didn’t understand your core art to begin with.
We have a great question today from Nicholas regarding wellness and diet:
Most of us as martial artists practice arts that come from east Asian countries. For the sake of performance, do you think that our diet should mirror as closely as possible the diets from the region of our respective art? Obviously, eating Sheppard’s pie before a training session might not end so well, but do you think diets deemed ‘healthy’ by Western standards really lend themselves to maximum performance in a discipline that is not?
Here’s my take on it:
I’ve always believed that the wider the understanding of an art the better a practitioner can express it. There are subtle factors that go into the growth of a traditional art that are built on generations of ritual and cultural subtext. It may seem that learning an art (say karate for example) shouldn’t involve much more than punching, kicking, kata, and fighting. Yet the expressions found in those kata, and the methods of movement, have foundational cues that are informed by the rest of the surrounding culture.
In karate, you’ll often hear terms like “low block” and “augmented block” for fundamental movements. However, if you look at the Japanese term for low block it is “gedan barai”, which is better translated as “lower level sweep”. True, Gedan Barai could be a block but it could also be much more. Understanding the language in this instance hints at the bigger picture for a seemingly open-and-shut case of technique execution. “Augmented block” is even more interesting. The Okinawans had a term for it known as “meotode”, meaning “husband and wife hand”. Without getting far off topic, let’s just say that meotode as a concept has little to do with augmenting a block, and somewhere along the line the real context got lost in translation.
Diet fits into this puzzle in a similar way.
In his book “My Journey with the Grandmaster”, Bill Hayes Sensei discusses dinner at Shimabukuro Eizo’s house (his instructor on Okinawa). After an evening of training Shimabukuro Sensei and Hayes Sensei would occassionally retire to the kitchen where they were greeted by Mrs. Shimabukuro, who would ask them what kind of training they had done that day. Depending on the intensity, method, and duration of the training Mrs. Shimabukuro would concoct different meals. The intent of her meals was to directly counteract negative effects of the day’s training.
Most people don’t think of diet as a direct part of their training program. They realize that eating healthy is good and eating fast food is bad, but don’t go too far beyond that. In an art like karate the body can be intentionally (or unintentionally) degraded in certain ways using vital point striking, joint locking, percussive striking, etc. Some of the old Okinawan masters had developed an attuned eye for the effects of herbs and natural pharmacopia on the body. They then used natural resources at hand to help aid the body in withstanding the specific rigors of karate training.
As you might imagine, practitioners like Bill Hayes gained a significant advantage by paying attention to these seemingly mundane details.
Hayes Sensei did something else important – he investigated dietary science even after leaving Okinawa. When he got back to the United States it became evident that the day-to-day diet of the Okinawans was going to be extremely difficult and expensive to maintain. Instead of reverting back to a standard American diet (a trap many of the American GI’s fell into) Hayes Sensei decided to study how he might use supplements and healthly local foods to replicate the specific effects of the strategic Okinawan meals as prepared by Mrs. Shimabukuro. He attempted to find Western equivalents of things like the Okinawan Goya, which was an extremely bitter vegetable that happened to be jam packed with antioxidants.
In Hayes Sensei’s story we see both sides of the answer to this particular question.
Should practitioners adopt the diet of the home country of their art? Potentially yes. The diet may have been specifically suited to enhance the art in question. Furthermore, countries like Okinawa and Japan naturally have more foods that are known to be extremely healthy – things like fish, vegetables, green tea, etc.
That being said, Eastern diet isn’t a unique and unreplicatable necessity for understanding a traditional art and can be replaced but smart Western eating. Science is starting to unlock some of the secrets of nutrition and a healthy, balanced diet can be established using more Western means.
I think perhaps the most important takeaway here is lining up training intent with dietary action. Going to GNC and loading up on Muscle Milk and Creotine may help a person achieve a bulky, muscular body that appeals to Western eyes but such body development is hardly ideal for classical martial arts training where flexibility, fast twitch muscles, and balanced physique is desireable. Furthermore, a one-size-fits-all diet plan for general health (lots of veggies, water, low sugars, etc) is a good starting place for any martial artist but doesn’t take into consideration the specific kinds of damage the body may go through in a particular art. In that way, observing that art’s classical diet may prove informative.
Lastly, looking at global blue zones like Okinawa, Sardinia, Icaria, and Loma Linda can help provide a basis of understanding for good longevity. Studying these places can provide ideas for integrating dietary decisions from different parts of the world with indigenous diet to form a personalized and effective wellness regiment.
Every now and again I like to do a Q&A session with readers. I never claim to have any super insight, but sometimes it’s good to get some fresh perspective on a topic you’ve been mulling over. If you visit the video dojo and scroll down to “In the Office” you can see some prior examples. In the past readers have asked about all sorts of things including history, martial arts pop culture, technique, and more. The door is pretty wide open.
Right now we are in between interviews and articles so I figured it was a great chance to gather a few fresh questions from members of the site.
So what have you been thinking about lately? Is there a specific question about style, philosophy, wellness, etc that you’d like to ask? Do you have a recommendation for an article topic?
Let me know! My response can come in the form of a new article or even video depending on the topic.
Ask Your Question or Make a Topic Recommendation:
Individuals asking questions can be kept anonymous if they feel self conscious or if asking might compromise their position with their dojo/organization. Conversely I can link to the question asker’s blog or dojo page if they’d like a little extra publicity. I’m happy to assist individuals who choose to participate here.