Hard to be Soft

When I was a young man training at the Chito-Ryu hombu in Kumamoto, Japan, O-Sensei (Tsuyoshi Chitose) would often stop a class to check our stances. He would go around to test leg muscles and exhort the students to use more shime (closing or contracting tension).

Before going to Japan in 1977 and ’79, I had trained in Chito-Ryu in Toronto, Canada under Higashi-Sensei. At that time, the head of the style in Canada was Masami Tsuruoka-Sensei. While Tsuruoka-Sensei was a remarkable teacher, none of the weekly classes I took with him – supplementing my training at Higashi dojo – prepared me for my experience in Japan. Instead of zenkutsu-dachi, the long Shotokan-style front stance taught by Tsuruoka-Sensei, we did the shorter hangetsu-dachi (half-moon stance), which is now called seisan-dachi in Chito-Ryu.

After doing zenkutsu-dachi in Canada for a decade, I was drilled in hangetsu-dachi in Japan, in 1979. (I’m the ugly foreigner on the right.) My high, stiff stance shows that I had little understanding of the principles of shime and shibori.

But even more difficult was trying to understand and apply the concepts of shime and shibori. Shime comes from the Japanese word “shimeru,” meaning “to shut or close,” and referred to the inward tension applied to stances such as uchi-hachiji-dachi and hangetsu-dachi. (In stances such as shiko-dachi, an outward tension is applied, called hari.) And shibori comes from shiboru, meaning “to wring or squeeze.”

As I wrestled to make shime and shibori part of my technique, O-Sensei would make comments translated by his son, the current Chito-Ryu Soke, or Sakamoto-Sensei, his son-in-law. I was too tight. I had to learn to soften up.

Thoroughly frustrated, I thought, “What I am supposed to be, hard or soft?

A Stiff Challenge
This is the dilemma faced by many students of Chito-Ryu and derivative styles. How do they apply the tension of shime and shibori to their technique, yet stay soft and supple, so they can move freely and respond effectively to the circumstances of combat?

Tension can be misapplied by students of all ranks. Too much contraction slows movement and forces up the centre of gravity. Ask a student, for example, to stand in uchi-hachiji-dachi and apply as much shime as possible. Go behind and lift them around the waist. They should be easy to pick up. Then ask the student to hold the stance and relax with a dead-weight feeling, almost as if they were drunk. Then they become very difficult to pick up, if you can do it at all.

So shime improperly applied actually interferes with rooting, the sinking of the weight into the ground – an essential feature of many traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts.

As a young man, Sakamoto-Sensei
demonstrates basic Chito-Ryu stances.
Though the stances are high, his weight
is rooted into the ground.

As I tried to understand shime and shibori, I was puzzled by some other senior Japanese Chito-Ryu instructors’ attitude towards the concepts. Outside the hombu dojo, the emphasis on shime/shibori varied quite a bit. Often, if it was taught at all, it wasn’t given the same importance as by young Chitose-Sensei and Sakamoto-Sensei.

Whether this situation was a matter of Sakamoto and Chitose being privy to O-Sensei’ advanced technique as live-in students, or O-Sensei evolving this teaching emphasis late in life, or the young men fastening on a single facet of O-Sensei’s teaching and developing it as the core of their technique – I don’t know. I’ll leave it to someone braver than me to ask.

Put a Spring in Your Step
Ask different instructors about the function of shime and you’ll get different answers. Hardening the body to withstand blows is one. And indeed there is a long Okinawan karate tradition of toughening and strengthening the body, so the practitioner can absorb punishment and still triumph in a fight. Another commonsense use of inward tension is to protect the groin from attack. And “wrapping the groin” is a strategy found in Chinese martial arts such as taijiquan (Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, Taijiquan Theory, YMAA Publication Centre, 2003).

While taiji might protect the groin with the knee, its techniques are performed using a soft, fluid body. With the joints and muscles relaxed, the “body can act as a single whipping unit. Taijiquan jin [power] acts like the whipping of a soft whip. When there is a stiffness in any joint, the whipping power will be reduced.”

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming
does a form. In taijiquan
you must keep your body
relaxed and use it like
a whip.

At first blush, Chito-Ryu karate, with its shime and shibori, seems to be at odds with this ideal of relaxed or soft power. But this may be due to the way the concepts are generally interpreted. In his new Ryusei Karate-Do technical manual, Sakamoto-Sensei compares shime and shibori to a “compressed spring” or “an arrow waiting to be shot from a bow.” So when not applying focus to a technique, the muscles are supple, not hard, coiled to unleash with whip-like power.

As with taiji, power should be generated from the feet, directed and controlled by the waist and finally manifested in the hands. And when talking about this type of power, we are of course referring to ki or internal energy – the development of which, I believe, is the chief purpose of shime and shibori.

A New Twist
As a principle, shibori is more difficult to apply than shime. Working from the feet up, the feeling in the muscles is a wringing or upward spiral of tension. This contraction describes the path power should flow, as it rises from the ground and is traffic-copped by the hips.

If you read some qigong and taiji texts, they suggest clawing the ground with your foot or twisting it to activate an important ki cavity in the middle, front part of the foot, called “yongquan” or “gushing spring” (on the primary kidney channel) (Yang, Jwing-Ming). I think this relates to the primary purpose of shibori.

Shibori is supposed to help activate this acupuncture point on the bottom of the feet, guide the energy in a spiral up the legs and lead it to the perineum, where the huiyin (“sea bottom”). Not only does the huiyin lead to the tanden, but it is the meeting place of a number of different ki meridians. The ki rises through the Governing Vessel going up your back, splits between shoulder blades and then runs down your arms (Yang, Jwing-Ming).

In the Sakamoto approach to stepping, the yongquan plays a major role. As sandan Matthew Mannerow observes in his “Japan 2004 Training Notes with Okashita-Shihan” (unpublished), at first the Ryusei karate student is supposed keep their feet flat on the floor as they step. But as they rise into the yudansha (black belt) levels and apply more shibori, the focus moves to the front of the foot, around the yongquan cavity. Eventually, the heel will actually begin to float and rise off the ground during stepping.

In clinics, Sakamoto-Sensei sometimes exhorts students to “bite and drink” with their toes and front of their feet, in an effort to coax the rise of energy through the yongquan. The power should also be projected down into the ground to work with the lowering of the body’s centre to create strong rooting.

You Knead Power
In examining the development of internal power, Sakamoto-Sensei charts a clear progression. The simple inward tension of shime, leads to the spiralling power of shibori. This in turn gives rise to “neri” (from “neru,” “to knead”), which takes place in the tanden. I interpret this as a physical action of the muscles around the tanden, squeezing or massaging it, condensing the power inward. At the same time, the power produced in the tanden by neri is constantly maintained through a surface tension described as “tame.” (Progression illustrated below by Sakamoto-Sensei.)

In a similar vein, Yang, Jwing-Ming describes the difference between what he calls “Buddhist” and “Daoist” breathing. In the Buddhist breathing method (the one normally used by karateka), the abdomen moves out with the inhalation and squeezes in with the exhalation, as the practitioner keeps concentration on their tanden. With Daoist (or reverse adominal) breathing, the practitioner again concentrates on the tanden but the abdomen contracts (as well as the muscles of the perineum and lower back) with the inhalation and expands with the exhalation.

While this latter method may seem counterintuitive, combining the inhalation and muscular contraction is supposed to condense the ki inwards. With sufficient ki stored and armed with the right method of release, an adept can then direct the power outwards in an explosion of destructive power that Sakamoto-Sensei calls “hakkei.” (In Chinese martial arts, the release of this pent-up energy is sometimes called “fajing.”)

Of course, this is easier said than done. Building up and directing ki is something that takes many years of practice and is sometimes never mastered. O-Sensei would only have taught his most senior and dedicated students internal methods. But Sakamoto-Sensei, apparently, has sought to democratize the discipline, making it available to junior practitioners.

In order to systemitize the esoteric discipline, he has borrowed from Chinese internal arts and also encourages the practice of seated meditation. Classes with Sakamoto-Sensei might include cultivation exercises familiar to qigong practitioners, including“standing at the stake.” This involves standing still 20 minutes or more with your knees bent and arms held in front of you in a semicircle (unfortunately, like hugging a tree). Concentrating on your breathing, you build upyour store of ki, eventually directing it up the Governing Vessel in your back and down the Conception Vessel in your front. When the ki flow in this circuit is plentiful enough, it can be directed down other meridians into your limbs.

To help cultivate ki, Sakamoto-
Sensei has adopted Chinese qigong methods into his teaching.

Once the ki flows abundantly throughout the body, the practitioner can start working on the methods of projecting the energy outwards, using it for combat. But again, this is easier said than done. And time will tell whether Sakamoto-Sensei’s decision to introduce students to internal methods early in their training will pay long-term dividends or serve to confuse them.

Fighting Three Battles
In any discussion of internal strength and karate, the kata of Sanchin (Three Battles) must figure prominently. With its deep breathing and powerful dynamic tension, not only is Sanchin the fundamental kata of Goju-Ryu, the unique version passed on by O-Sensei should play a central role in the training of Ryusei karateka. Sakamoto-Sensei insists that “Sanchin is everything” – it contains all that a student needs to know about the higher practices of the style.

O-Sensei practising the opening move of Sanchin in 1965. Image used courtesy of the U.S. Chito-Ryu Karate Federation.

Although I love Sanchin and try to practise it daily, I find myself wondering about the extreme tension some people put into the kata. Indeed, I’ve read articles about adepts who have developed bodybuilder physiques through their practice. But I think it is a mistake when the amount of strength applied– muscles straining against themselves – becomes the sole purpose of Sanchin, feeding into the masochistic tendencies of karate. Seeing how much strain you can stand only provides limited training value.

The great champion of the dynamic, muscular Sanchin is Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu karate, and a fellow student of O-Sensei’s when he trained under master Higashionna Kanryo (Michael Colling, “A Bridge Through Time,” Dragon Times, 2003). Practitioners performing without gi tops (to show they are tensing the correct muscles), in pigeon-toed stances, breathing harshly as a teacher checks the tension of muscles with hearty slaps are the hallmarks of this approach.

Chojun Miyagi tests the
shime of a student’s Sanchin.

But if you look at the history of Sanchin, this is not the only the only way to perform the kata. Sanchin or San Chian (I’ve also seen it transliterated as San Chien, San Zhan, Sam Jin, etc.) originated in Fujian province of China, practiced by kung-fu styles such as White Crane, Five Ancestors and the Tiger-Crane Combination style of Ang Lian-Huat (Wikipedia). Not only was the form practised open-handed, but it would be done with different degrees of tension. In Japan, Uechi-Ryu seems closer to the original model, with its open-hand performance and (from the online video clips I’ve seen) lighter breathing and tension. Like Miyagi, Uechi-Ryu founder Kanbun Uechi practised Sanchin while studying martial arts in China.

But I’m not dissing the Goju approach to Sanchin. Indeed, there are plenty of examples in qigong and Chinese martial arts of using muscle tension as a device to coax the internal flow of energy. But if you divorce the means from the end, the practice becomes shallow.

Just as you can experiment with breathing patterns in Sanchin, I believe that you can play with different levels of tension. The important thing is not how much contraction you apply but that it is applied in the right way and right places. And as you do it, you should be trying to control and direct the internal flow of energy with your mind.

Should you find yourself with only a little tension in your body, but deeply concentrated on your tanden and breathing, feeling the movement of energy inside, you’re not being lazy. I’d say that you were on the right track. If you want to atone for your sin of not using terrific muscular force, do Sanchin double-hard tomorrow or pump iron at the gym.

Stiff as a Board
Let’s leave aside the issue of ki for a moment and return to soft and hard power. The place where most karateka would agree that a strong muscle contraction is need is on the focus, or kime, of a technique, as it strikes the target, adding extra deadly impact.

But I think you have to beware of interpreting kime solely in terms of muscle contraction. Think of hitting a makiwara (the springy board that Okinawans used to strengthen their strikes). If you punch it with a right gyaku zuki (reverse punch), you would contract your base, in keeping with Chito-Ryu/Ryusei principles, and your left arm, so it retracts. But the muscles of your punching arm, right lateral muscle, etc. would expand to hit the target.

The moment you apply a contraction to the striking limb, you cut off, not increase, the power. The furthest point the makiwara pushes back is with the expanding muscles. The contraction only serves to stop the makiwara from returning to its original position. By this point, the damage has already been done.

It might be useful for a beginner to contract the muscles and hold the makiwara as it pushes back, showing whether or not you are using the correct muscles to apply the punch. (If, for example, your shoulder raises up as the makiwara pushes back, then it’s a safe bet that you used your shoulder too much when you applied the punch.) However, if you continue to use this makiwara in this way as an advanced belt, you may not only limit your progress but delude yourself as to the nature of power generation.

The strongest strike is a swift, penetrating blow that retracts immediately after impact. Your whole body must work together like a whip. In this case, shime is used to retract the limb. Instead of locking the arm on impact, it is used for swift recovery, or hikite.

Shigeru Egami, founder of Shotokai,
practising his powerful
 punch. Image used
courtesy of the Shigeru Egami Gallery.

Given the widespread misuse of makiwara, it’s not surprising to learn that Shigeru Egami (1912-’81), the founder of Shotokai karate, gave it up after many years of enthusiastic pounding (Shigeru Egami Gallery). To test the percussiveness of different strikes, Egami was given to letting people from different walks of life punch him in the gut. Of this painful research, he writes: “The result of the studies were extremely depressing because I was able to discover that the karate tsuki [punch] was the least effective. And I had to admit a very shocking thing: The more and more seriously a karateka had trained the less effective were their tsuki. The most percussive tsuki was that of the boxers. Another very surprising fact was that the blows from a person that had never studied anything were surprisingly percussive.”

While I disagree with Egami-Sensei’s conclusion about the usefulness of makiwara, I think his experience does show we need to rethink how we use it and apply power.

The Ki to Soft and Hard
In discussing what is better, hard or soft power, I am playing devil’s advocate. Karate technique really needs both. But it becomes a question of when and how you apply each.

Western society tends to think about strength from the outside in. Lots of attention is paid to muscular power but little consideration is given to the inner workings of strength. I have grown to prefer the softer, Eastern approach, where strength is on the inside and the outside is soft. A taiji metaphor for this type of power that I like is “iron wrapped in cotton.”

O-Sensei performing kata in 1975. Image used courtesy of the U.S. Chito-Ryu Karate Federation.

Although I am far from achieving it, the ideal that I aspire to is contained in the image I have of O-Sensei performing kata, especially the higher, more Chinese ones. His movements are fluid, soft, one flowing into another without break, yet he radiates tremendous strength and presence.

Strong flows from the insubstantial. The calm, complacent mind gives rise to dynamic action. And yes, you must be soft to be hard.

— Peter Giffen, 5th Dan, Barrie Ryusei Karate

Note: Permission was sought to use all images in this article. In most cases it was given by the owner. In a couple of instances, I did not get responses to my queries. I will remove these images from the article immediately if the rightful owner contacts me and makes the request.