Martial artists of all styles and stripes and colors are generally aware that one should seek a proper balance between “strength” and “gentleness”, “soft” and “hard,” or in Japanese, the go and ju of Goju-ryu karatedo. But what does that mean, really? My own understanding is that it’s a bit more complicated than that, albeit in some ways, by understanding the complex workings of our bodies and mind, the action and attitude is really quite natural and should be more reflexive and unforced.
Let’s look at the “go” part. This often literally translates as “hard,” as opposed to “soft” (as in Goju-ryu karatedo; a balance of “hard” and “soft” movements). A superficial understanding of go is that you use all the strength in your body, meeting an attack forcefully, head on, and replying with brute force. That’s an interpretation of the go as “strong” or “forceful.” But consider a different interpretation. Consider Go and Ju another way of saying Yin and Yang (or In and Yo, or Onmyo, in the Japanese pronunciation). Yang is the bright, sunny, hot, extroverted “characters” of elements, while Yin are the shaded, shadowy, introverted characters of elements. There needs to be a balance in the body and mind of Yin and Yang, in Chinese Taoist theory, for one to be healthy. In this case, Go goes beyond merely being machismo and macho. It’s not just getting rock-hard and taking blows to your abdomen or face, or tightening all your muscles to forcefully block an attack.
Go means your attitude has to be forceful and dynamic as well, not just your physical form. But in Taoism, within Go there is always a bit of Ju, and within Ju, there is always a bit of Go. Being completely tensed up all the time is not proper use of Go and Ju. It’s just being completely tensed up.
Here’s a concrete example: A video made the rounds of my martial arts friends recently, which got me to thinking about WHY did we react so negatively to it? Several people made fun of the kata performance, but WHY did we think it was so bad?
I decided to take the video seriously and try to self-analyze myself and the other folk as to why we reacted the way we did, rather than just laugh at it and make fun of it. The video was of a kata performance at a “traditional karate” tournament. The performer was performing the entire kata with a kind of strange dynamic tension, made evident by a breathing pattern that I could only compare to a combination of Sanchin kata breathing, “hot” Yoga fast breathing, and abdominal pushing for breathing that I could only compare to when someone has acute constipation, is passing a kidney stone, and/or hitherto movements I only saw at a strip bar which featured some extraordinary feats of muscular control and spare change in quarters.
Her kiai were like uncontrolled raging screeches of pain, going out into the arena and then getting lost way out in the hinterlands, not compact and controlled. But proper kiai is a whole other subject, in any case. The glaring problem was that she had poor focus, over-exaggerated and improper form, stiffness throughout the kata, and bad breathing. I think she and her teacher mistook “go” or strength for just what is called “baka-chikara,” “stupid crazy person brute strength.”
To be sure I wasn’t just being critical of the way “traditional” karate was being taught nowadays, I searched the Internet for other “traditional” karate kata videos, particularly those of women karateka. I found some JKA All-Japan women’s kata contest videos and watched these women. Their kata were superb. And they were definitely different: Precise forms, sharp focus, real attention to the riai and applicability, sharp and controlled kiai, and controlled breathing. Wow. Soft and hard, blended together.
The former karateka moved like a robot, stiffly, as if you could hear rusty joints creaking and then snapping, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, because her muscles were tensed all the time. The latter karateka women moved like greased lightning, from one position to another, because they moved effortlessly, without any stiffness, and then stopped instantaneously at a precise moment, at the apex of their movement. THAT to me was proper go and ju. You need a balance of both within the same kata. Too much go and you end up too stiff and contrived.
Too much ju, of course, is also a problem. The best examples of being too “soft” tend to come in aikido; where some beginners think “relaxing” and being “ju” means being soft, like a wet noodle, or like being a couch potato slouched in a very soft living room couch or bean bag chair. In actuality, a better definition of ju is not “soft,” but “flexible,” as in green bamboo, that bends with a strong wind and then snaps back into its original stance, or a limp, flexible whip that can generate incredible cutting force when it is lashed out. Having a too-compliant tori in aikido that will fall over if you even breathe on him will often lead a beginner to think being “ju” means slouching and moving like a wet soba noodle, without any backbone or dynamic energy.
I have always considered Chinese internal martial arts to be the most sophisticated when it came to describing internal body dynamics, although sometimes I think the concepts based on traditional Chinese medical concepts may be antique and unscientific. In those arts, such as Tai Chi Ch’uan, there is a huge difference between being a limp rag that has no integrity, and a dynamic, energetic martial artist. “Softness” is translated again as “flexible,” not a wet noodle. There has to be a backbone, and in Tai Chi Ch’uan, posture and flexibility go hand in hand. The spine has to be properly aligned, erect and held together by proper posture and musculature. Having an erect spine means it’s like a central post, upon which your limbs can rotate and have complete freedom of movement.
The headmaster of the Wu style Tai Chi Ch’uan, Sifu Eddie Wu, once put it like this to me: too many people think Tai Chi Ch’uan was like being a slug, in that “relaxed” meant having no strength. He pulled out a handkerchief. Here, he said. This is too relaxed. This has no backbone. He opened up the handkerchief and let it fall. He explained that the handkerchief can’t stand up on its own because it had no backbone. Rather than that, the “relaxed” nature of Tai Chi meant a kind of dynamic, moving reaction to the forces outside your body, using your spine and natural supporting muscles to have substance and strength, while your limbs snap about like whips, deflecting blows or striking out.
“Strength” arises, therefore, naturally, from proper posture, created by the proper use of muscles that are meant to hold up your spinal column and body parts as they should, naturally, so that your appendages, your arms and legs, can be the supple, flexible elements of the go and ju combination.
Perhaps the problem arises in kata geiko training in aikido (too “soft”) and karate (too “hard”) because the kata forms don’t find testing in “free training,” as in judo, or other grappling arts, which eschew too much theoretical clap trap and just have you go at it. As senior grapplers will tell you, if you are stiff all the time, you are going to wear yourself out much faster than the opponent will. If you are a limp rag doll, then of course you are going to be beat. You need to combine a careful application of strength only when you can apply a proper technique, or evade an attack, not stiffen your body throughout the entire free sparring match.
Still, it’s difficult in finding the proper balance in any martial art, even in koryu, even in judo (I have had too many experiences of judo players who try to stiff-arm their way through entire training sessions), in any martial art, all over the place. And I also have to have the humility to constantly check my own self during training to make sure I’m not stiff where I should be supple. It’s a constant battle, a constant testing.
And combining go and ju is not just a physical method. It is internal, mental and philosophical as well. There is a wonderful Japanese phrase that is somewhat hard to translate literally into English. “Shikkari seyo!” More or less, it means “Get a grip!” It doesn’t mean stiffen up, it means get yourself together and grow a backbone.
In my own club, sometimes some students misunderstand it when I try to get them to balance go and ju. They make their arms stiff as wooden planks when they block an attack, but their bodies are slouched over and in poor alignment, with no tension in their seika tanden (lower abdominal area) when it should be the exact opposite: they should have good posture, a little tension in the seika tanden, and a relaxed, whiplike feel to their arms. So when they meet an attack, they shake from the impact because they aren’t properly centered with their “one point.” They need more strength internally, in their seika tanden, and less stiffness in their arms.
Philosophically speaking, too much mental laxness will lead to laziness and inability to endure. Too much stiffness will lead to selfish, one-track mindedness and brutality. Self-discipline needs to be balanced with compassion, endurance with understanding, Stoicism with humanity. In essence, learning to balance go and ju is learning to be more fully human.