You Must Balance the Yin and the Yang
"Always remember that that the true meaning of Budo is that soft overcomes hard, small overcomes large."
So said Mas Oyama, the creator of the Kyokushinkai School of Karatedo so synonymous with the development of toughened full contact fighters, able to take seemingly hundreds of strikes at each practice.
“Shorin-ryu lays special emphasis on spiritual development and focuses on developing outward pliability balanced with a powerful inner strength.”
Stated Funakoshi Gichin when attempting to compare the two “styles” of Shorei-Ryu and Shorin-Ryu.
If, like me, you have practiced Karate you will have at many points in your training heard the term “relax”. Sometimes unresponsively so, sometimes frustratingly reminded.
In the Iain Abernethy podcast featuring Jesse Enkamp they laugh about how being told to “relax” in training at first gets interpreted as “don’t try so hard” and that understanding the difference between relaxation and effort is key.
Of course, this took me many years to understand. And I was to fully realise this whilst in Okinawa that being as relaxed as possible was critical to maximising power in your technique.
It was all down to timing for the correct use of tension.
I have the relaxed Okinawan Dojo atmosphere to thank for that - and the many Sensei's banging their heads against a wall telling me to "just relax."
From the outset, however, people think of Karate as being the opposite to what Mas Oyama and Funakoshi Gichin had to say.
They believe that building large arms, decked out chests, wide shoulders and tree trunk legs is the aim of self defence.
Except for the fact that if you are just aiming to be outwardly strong, then all it takes is someone harder, better, faster and stronger to beat you. (Cheeky D. P. shoutout)
“The pine fought the storm and broke. The willow yielded to the wind and snow and did not break. Practice Jiu-Jitsu in just this way.” And “Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort"
Said Kano Jigoro. He got it. Many Martial Artists get it.
Physical softness and flexibility with inner strength is the key.
Now let me back bend my post to talk about Yoga.
Yes, Yoga, which in my experience is the complete opposite to the above.
If you've been to a Yoga class before you will know it is not easy; especially if like me you have built to much of a solid frame in which to try and bend back into shape.
Often you will be holding poses for what seems like an eternity with parts of your body screaming for sweet release.
For many who try Yoga, they will begin their practice by pushing and trying to overcome. As a Martial Artist also they may try to apply the same principles of practice, using inner strength, and outer softness.
However, Yoga requires the opposite of this - here me out.
You will see many Yogis (not the bear, the people who practice Yoga) contorting themselves into shapes only thought possible by cats and Octopuses (FYI there is a very good explanation as to why the plural of Octopus is NOT Octopi)
So, when people see this they think, 'they must be super bendy'- and yes, in a way, they are, but it comes from the use of physical strength.
In order to correctly apply the body in Yoga many muscles have to be switched on and be active throughout.
Lots of tiny muscles in the feet, in the front and back of the legs, all the muscles of the inner and outer core. Muscles to lift and muscles to pull down your shoulders.
Don't forget to tuck your tailbone, bend the knees slightly, keep your big toes touching but not your heels, keep the hips aligned, knees apart, the crown of the head reaching forward, belly drawing into the spine, hug your ribs in, eyes gazing to your bum - you think remembering a Kata is difficult? That's all just for downward facing dog!
This is why I am such a sweaty mess when I am not even moving.
And the more you practice Yoga, the more muscles you are able to switch on. The further you practice Yoga, the more muscles you are able to switch on unconsciously.
But, there is an opposite to this outward strength.
That which lies within.
You see, Yoga doesn’t work if you try hard, and push using your mental strength.
You have to “free” your mind from expectations, allow it the space to observe, accept and relax while the body uses the energy. If you lose your mind, you lose your breath and you lose the posture.
You will often hear the phrase "Pull yourself back from your limit."
You with me?
Over time, and continual practice, the body adapts inch-by-inch, or in my case, by the millimeter.
Also, eventually you will begin to understand about the inner softness, the pacifying within, the inward calm. Usually phrased using "new age" language that can be confusing at first.
All this is of course is also bundled into the Martial Arts - but I find it so fascinating that what we see and believe from the outside looking in, is not the same as the actual practice.
What I also find fascinating is that the Yoga I described also has a counterpart which was developed by Chinese Martial Artists.
It is called Yin Yoga, and it requires using complete relaxation to stretch the fascia as opposed to muscle - holding poses for as long as 30 minutes at a time, with only your breath and your thoughts to keep you company.
For me, I regularly practice both Yin and Yang Yoga, as well as Karate and Kobudo (it keeps me busy and out of trouble).
And what I get is a far more rounded approach to my body and its mechanics.
I learn to have a deep connection and control with every muscle, allowing an inner calm, with a mental strength that allows me to concentrate on ensuring I remain relaxed throughout my technique, and can fire my tension as close as possible to the point of contact.
I believe that the Karate training many of us receive today, for the 4 hours per week at the Dojo, is not the full training that was taught before the spread of Karate to Japan.
So, to that end, go find those extra pieces, you just might find out how limitless your body really is.