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.