Saturday, August 27, 2016


by Phillip Starr

Is your style of karate or kung-fu considered a “hard style” or a “soft style?” Most Western practitioners of these disciplines are able to answer this question in a heartbeat. They may elaborate on the subject a bit, but they immediately understand the question and what it implies; “hard styles” rely on the development and application of brute, muscular force while “soft styles” emphasize relaxation, minimal muscular effort, and the utilization of qi (internal power). I remember when the terms “hard style” and “soft style” were first introduced to Western martial arts enthusiasts by the martial arts media back in the 1960's. I'd never heard of these phrases and I asked my teacher, Master W. C. Chen about them. I was astounded when I saw that he was every bit as confused as I was. These appellations have never been used in China or any other part of Asia. They were, as nearly as I can determine, created by the martial arts magazines of the day.

Some karate and kung-fu enthusiasts elaborate a bit further and explain that “hard styles” utilize techniques that travel in straight lines and “soft styles” promote the use of circular techniques. I've never understood how anyone could accept this terribly flawed explanation and when would ask for some elaboration, the answers I received were almost comical. “We use straight punches”, they would say. I would counter this statement and remind them that the so-called “soft styles” utilize exactly the same type of forefist thrust. Moreover, this type of direct punch employs a (circular) turn of the hips as well as a (circular) screwing motion of the wrist just prior to contact.

Not to be so easily dissuaded, they would argue that their kicks were directed along a straight path. They would happily demonstrate a front snap kick and a side thrust kick as proof of this. I countered easily and showed them that both kicks travel along arcs (as they must, since they are chambered from the height of the kicker's knee). I would also show them techniques such as sword-hand and backfist strikes, both of which travel along semi-circular paths.
Even so, they would not be dissuaded. “Our blocking techniques are circular but our punches are straight”, they argued. I had to shrug my shoulders. There's no point in quibbling with a closed mind. Their convictions were based on remarks made in their favorite monthly martial arts publications, so there could be no doubt as to their validity, right?

You bet.

These were the same magazines that avowed that “soft styles” such as taijiquan and baguazhang didn't require the application of any muscular effort whatsoever. Many aspiring martial arts masters understood this to mean that any “98 lb. weakling” could easily become an expert at time travel by knocking his larger opponent into next week! The few taiji schools that were available were soon packed to the gills with students and the cash flowed quickly and easily. But the truth got lost in there somewhere.

Some karateists prided themselves on practicing systems that were touted as being both hard and soft. Goju-ryu is a prime example. “Go” means “hard”, they would say. And “ju” means “soft.” So there you have it, right?

No, not quite. Like the early practitioners of judo, who believed that the “ju” of judo meant “soft, gentle”, they didn't bother to learn something of the Japanese language and culture. The word “ju” does NOT mean “soft.” Not by a long shot. Rather, it refers to a type of pliability such as we might see with the flexible limbs of a young tree. Push against it and it gives way easily. It does not, however, collapse entirely. When you release it, the limb will snap back to it's original shape. This kind of elasticity is what “ju” refers to.

All martial arts, from karate to kendo, aikido, kung-fu and kendo underscore the importance of doing more with less. That's a fancy way of saying that one shouldn't use any more (muscular) strength than is absolutely necessary. Ever. A highly skilled practitioner of karate, which is generally referred to as a “hard style”, will perform his techniques with celerity but without excessive brute force. I have trained and socialized with some of the finest karate masters of the last century such as Hidetaka Nishiyama and Seiyu Oyata. Their techniques were crisp and quick, delivered with minimal muscular effort. To the novice, such techniques would appear to be lacking any real destructive power but those senior practitioners who had had the dubious pleasure of being on the receiving end of those techniques knew better.

At the same time, I have known a great many practitioners of taijiquan who prided themselves on their ability to push a foe some distance. The fact is that their pushing technique was seriously flawed and was more of what I call a”shove” rather than a “push.” And in any case, I've never known a push to end a serious conflict! Taijiquan, as well as baguazhang and xingyiquan (the three classical “sister” styles that are generally referred to as “soft” or “internal”) utilize a wide variety of punching, striking, and kicking techniques that, when applied correctly, are terrifically powerful. But if you're thinking of finding someone who can demonstrate such skill to you, you'd best plan to travel for a long, long time. Such skill nowadays in the “soft styles” is extremely rare, even in China.

The terms “external style/school” (waijia) and “internal style/school” (neijia) are often used interchangably with “hard” and “soft”, respectively. Again, such phrases are rarely used in China. They were originally coined by a famous teacher of the neijia, Sun-Lutang, back in the 1930's. Some people argue that they actually refer to where a given style originated; those that originated outside of China were called “waijia” and those that were native to the Middle Kingdom (that's China for you rednecks) were referred to as “neijia.” Put simply, this argument is wrong.

Sun wanted to differentiate between styles that rely on the development of “coiling power” (chansi-jin) and the manipulation of small, inconspicuous, internal tissues and those that focus solely on the use of the larger, overt muscle groups. Such a distinction does, in fact, exist. Most contemporary karate styles do not utilize coiling power at all. However, my research indicates that the early Okinawan forms of karate did. Over the generations, most of this information has been lost or forgotten. However, this would qualify such styles as forms of neijia! That statement probably won't help me win any martial arts popularity contests, but it's true.

So, hard or soft, internal or external, what counts is that you learn to perform your techniques and form correctly. Hard and soft eventually become one. And THAT is where real skill lies.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


by Phillip Starr
    As we enjoy our practice of our chosen martial disciplines we tend to get caught up in what I call the "punch-kick" mentality. That is, we’re looking at the outside of what we do and not thinking much about anything else. It’s kind of like driving your car and being overly-concerned with how it looks as opposed to what’s going on inside; how it should work compared to how it’s working at the present time (that’s usually too scary to contemplate), and what makes it work in the first place – or even what can be done to make it work better.

     The Buddha once said, "As a man thinketh, so he is…" Truer words were never spoken although most of us, after hearing these words, simply acknowledge their profundity and then go on with our lives and training as usual.

     Some time ago a former student of mine who has taken up iaido and kendo said she happened to open up a book written by Mr. Dave Lowry entitled, "Autumn Lightning." She looked at the page before her and read about how Mr. Lowry’s iaido teacher (a Japanese gentleman who was teaching at a nearby university) insisted that his iaido pupil learn to speak Japanese. This, he said, was essential if one was to understand the true spirit of the art. And he was right.

     You see, we’re brought up to speak American (we don’t speak English; the British speak English and believe me, it’s a bit different than the American version) and the result is that we unconsciously learn to think in American. This can be a real problem when we’re presented with (foreign) concepts for which our language has no word or phrase. Not only is it difficult for us to find an appropriate American word or phrase to match to the foreign tongue, it’s often impossible to IMAGINE the concept in the first place because it doesn’t fit into our language/thought processes!

     The most ready example is the word qi (“ki” in Japanese). There simply is no American/English equivalent for this concept and the end result is that many of us completely misunderstand the whole idea! And we get charlatans trying to prove that they can knock people over without touching them and generally playing "Star Trek" with their bare hands…

     Or shen (“shin” in Japanese), which we roughly translate as "spirit" but that’s not quite right. And yi, which is often translated as "intention" or "mind" but the real meaning goes much deeper than that… I believe that language impacts the way in which we think (and subsequently act). It can also limit the way in which we (are able to) think…and this can lead to misunderstandings about the arts that we practice; how they should be practiced and what makes them tick.

     Let’s take the word "yi." It is written with two radicals, one above the other. One radical means "sound" and the other means "heart." In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that the heart houses the emotions and what we call "mind" (not the brain). So if you take a little time to consider what this means, it can change the way you feel about the word "yi." Those of you who practice a martial art such as Xingyiquan may acquire a finer understanding of what the name implies.

     Xingyi is usually translated as "Form/Shape of the Mind" but once you understand the FEELING behind the word for mind (yi), it can change your understanding of the name of the art and how it’s intended to be practiced.

     The word Xing is usually translated as "form, shape, pattern." It can also mean "image." That has a slightly different implication than "form." Moreover, the Japanese/Okinawan pronunciation for (the character) Xing is…KATACHI (for you taekwondo stylists, it is "Hyung")!

     So it really helps if you learn, at least to some degree, how to speak the language of the culture in which your particular art was developed, and to read some of it as well. Most westerners are loathe to do this and consider it too much of a bother. But the fact is, if you truly want to understand your art more fully, you need to spend some time immersing yourself in its culture – and that includes language.

     But there’s more.

     Consider mathematics. I always hated math. But my teacher, Master W.C. Chen, once told me that the reason mathematics is so heavily emphasized in school has little to do with whether or not we’ll ever use algebraic equations as we go through life…it’s because mathematics is a language! And just as the languages we learn to speak impact the way we think, mathematics teaches us new and different ways of analyzing and thinking.

     Many years later my own father would echo these same words. "Math teaches you to think in a certain way," he said. It would be some years before I fully understood what he meant.

     If we learn only one "language", as it were, our "way" of thinking is very limited. By learning more languages, we develop our mental faculties more fully.

      My teacher, Master W. C. Chen told me that individual techniques are like words. Combinations of techniques are like sentences and paragraphs. A bad combination – one in which the techniques do not flow smoothly – is like a badly written sentence. Good combinations are like fine poetry and our forms are books, being comprised of many sentences and paragraphs.

      Moreover, each form teaches us to think in a certain way! Each one is different; it has its own sentences and spirit (like a "style" of writing, no?). Your forms may use many of the same words but the sentences and the style of writing are very different. A comma here, and semi-colon there, parentheses over here (and what’s inside those parentheses?), indentations for paragraphs, and so on.

     It’s a book! At first you learn to read it like you did when you first learned to read. For me, back in the days of covered wagons, we used the old "Dick and Jane" readers; incredibly boring and stupid stories which everyone read aloud in a REALLY boring monotone with no emphasis on any particular words or phrases… Then as you become more literate and you can read with greater skill, your form (your recitation of the book) takes on more meaning and life! And as you continue to practice it, that form will teach you to think in a certain way!

     This is very important. Very. Important. Go back and re-read that last paragraph.

    It’s the same thing when you first learn to play a musical instrument. You can’t possibly start off with the classical, complex, highbrow stuff. On a piano, you have to learn the keyboard and start with really simple, boring stuff…but there’s more to it than just memorizing keys and melodies. You’re learning to think in a new way! And when you learn to play a particular piece of music you learn another way of thinking and hearing and tasting and experiencing and BEING the music.

    Then you move on to another piece to expand your understanding and learn to think in yet another way. Music is, after all, a LANGUAGE! Like math. They’re much the same thing.
And as you learn more "languages", you are better able to express yourself and you are better able to understand others!

     Remember, as you think…

Thursday, August 4, 2016


by Phillip Starr

Do what you cannot possibly do.
Make the impossible possible.”
-Masutatsu Oyama
Founder of Kyokushin karate

I first heard those words many, many years ago and I took them to heart. Martial arts were my great passion and they remain so to this day. I wanted to push the envelope; to see just how far I could go. I read about numerous masters of times past and determined that I would do what they'd done. After all, they weren't gods; they were men just like me. If they could do it, I could do it.

Many of you are probably shaking your heads and thinking, “What a fool... That's a fine way to get hurt very badly. Or killed. You were certainly a very foolish young man.” And looking back on those days, I'd have to agree with you. But I wasn't stupid.

I read about the legendary “arrow catch”, which is an extremely dangerous technique that involves catching an arrow in mid-flight. The legendary “godhand”, Master Masutatsu Oyama, said that of 1,000 students, only one or two would attempt to learn such a technique. And of the 1,000 who set out to perform it, only a couple who be successful. It kind of makes you wonder what happened to the 998 who failed, doesn't it? But I didn't consider that. I was never much good at math, anyway.

I was still in college and young enough to think that I was invincible; that I could be one of the “one or two” who would succeed. “If they can do it, I can do it”, I thought. One of my students was a very skilled archer who owned a good recurved bow and he agreed to work with me, We spent months practicing together. Eventually, I would face him at the opposite end of a basketball court. An arrow-net was placed behind me to prevent arrows from striking the walls of the old college gym. Just as he released the arrow, I'd pivot and catch it.

This isn't something that can be accomplished after only a couple of weeks of practice. I may have been foolhardy but I wasn't stupid. We started out by having me simply stand off to one side and observe how quickly the arrows passed by me. Then I would reach out and try to grab them. It was a slow and gradual process that required some considerable time. I would go on to demonstrate this technique at several demonstrations.

I also wanted to test myself by breaking large stones. Starting with very small ones, I eventually succeeded in cutting a 25 lb. stone with my sword-hand. My hand shook uncontrollably for three days but I was pleased that I had accomplished what I'd set out to do. I continued to train until I could shatter a “paver” brick (which is a little more than an inch thick) with my fingertips and split a coconut with a single blow.

Now, I'm not bragging. I've never been one to indulge in self-aggrandizement. I've never had much time for people who do. The point of this short essay is simply this; although what I pushed myself to do was often very dangerous, it had a very profound impact on my mind and spirit. Martial arts isn't just about learning some exotic forms of kicking and punching; it's also about pushing yourself beyond what you perceive as your limits. It's about setting goals and then going beyond them. If you mindlessly practice a few punches and kicks once or twice a week, you're not really practicing martial arts; you're dancing. Without proper spirit, martial arts devolve into little more than some nifty-looking calisthenics.

Certainly, I'm not suggesting that you run to the nearest sporting goods store and purchase a good bow and a handful of arrows or drive through the countryside until you can find a 20 lb. stone. After all, techniques such as the arrow-catch are fraught with danger and anyone who aspires to do them must train very carefully and gradually. You must push yourself slowly, step by step. Remember that when I trained to perform these things I was young, in excellent physical condition (I suppose my mental condition could be called questionable), and I had practiced martial arts for a very long time.

What I'm suggesting is that you strive to push yourself past your “limits.” After all, it's YOU who set those limits in the first place! It's going to take some considerable work and sweat to get to the very edge of your limits... and then it'll require more than just sweat to go beyond them; it's going to take time, guts, and belief in yourself.