Softness and hardness

By Gerald Lopez on April 11, 2020
Aikido is a combination of softness and hardness. Gerald Lopez explores how the interplay of softness and hardness creates a resilience like that of bamboo.

Aikido is a combination of softness and hardness. Hardness on its own is resistance, you can see that in uke (aikido attackers) who try to be "strong." Softness on its own is weakness, especially in physical conflict. Many benign societies in history were unable to defend themselves from attackers, and were overcome.

The flow of ki comes from a softness that has come out of hardness. My teacher, Sensei Williams had trained in the hardness and toughness of the Budo days, yet he had chosen softness, and his softness was powerful, definite and clear. You clearly felt the ki, sometimes like the crashing of a large wave.

Hard aikido or soft aikido - which is better?

Some aikidoists decry the soft approach of some aikido schools, calling them 'tofu-like.' They ask, how can one learn about the reality of conflict when everything is soft and fairy-like? Other aikidoists criticise the 'mechanical' approach of technical schools of aikido, saying it results in roughness and woodenness.

Both approaches are dualistic, emphasising either the mind or the body. Ki comes from a unification of mind and body, a state where the entire body is connected and acting as one unit. There is no conflict within the body, yet it is firm and powerful. The attacker feels no resistance, yet feels projected or dropped by an unstoppable force.

When we practice Mind Body Coordination we must not forget the rule of body. If we break a bone in our body it has to be reset. We cannot mend it by mind alone. Many people only teach about the mind and others only teach about the body. Mind and body are one and should never be separated even though they have different rules.

Kenneth Williams

The qualities of being both hard and soft

Bamboo is flexible and bends in violent winds, yet is strong enough to build bridges. When I was young, living in Malaysia, builders made scaffoldings out of bamboo tied with rattan, even for high-rise buildings!

Japanese swords have a combination of pliability so they don’t easily break on impact, and tempered hardness that carries a razor-sharp edge.

I believe the hardness of conflicts, competition and aggression we carry with us as we undergo our life and aikido journey, serve a purpose. They are not there to be denied, they are to be used, to temper us, and finally to be released. This may take a whole life's journey.

Aggression is found in children and animals, and some people become clever at disguising it, for example they become subtly arrogant about being peace-loving or vegetarian or spiritual. This is sometimes called passive-aggressiveness. Beware the man with the soft voice!

Hard and soft is an enigma. There are no intellectual rules for it. It is a felt experience, an embodied experience, that we explore, and often make 'mistakes' about. Sometimes we transcend it, and feel the exhilaration of spontaneous expression, or perfectly resolving a conflict, or performing a magnificent throw.

Aikido teaches us infinite options

I consider aikido a highly sophisticated practice, because it enables us to have the confidence that we have many, many options for dealing with situations, from brutal, decisive and hard, to wonderfully gentle, soft and caring.

We learn that we have the choice of response, according to the circumstances. For most attacks, verbal or physical, it's not about you; it is most often about the attacker's distress, maybe due to a history of abuse. By dealing with their attack in a firm but empathetic way, hard and soft, sometimes you are giving someone the opportunity of being heard for the first time in their life. This can be absolutely life-changing.

The maturation process

As we age, our bodies naturally become harder. If we do not at the same time learn to become softer, we will eventually become brittle and rigid, in body and mind.

Create a firm foundation early in life. Work hard, exercise hard, play hard, love hard. This will build up an incredible resilience like that of bamboo. At the same time, learn about mind-body coordination, relaxation and extension of ki.

As you mature, and your body goes through the seemingly-inevitable ageing processes, you will find that mind-body coordination will become more clear and important in your life. By extending ki, you will maintain suppleness and power, giving you the ability to experience life vigorously and energetically to the end of your days.

I have practiced with very mature people who were or still are wonderful examples of energy and power in aikido, and full participation in life.

I encourage you to consider the interplay of hard and soft in your life.

Through the study of Aikido, one will discover true values and learn to enjoy a harmonious relationship with one's fellow man. Aikido is not merely an art of techniques, but into its exercises and movements are woven elements of philosophy, psychology and dynamics. As one learns the various arts, one will, at the same time, train the mind, improve the health and develop an unbreakable self-confidence.

Kenneth Williams
Article written by Gerald Lopez

2 comments on “Softness and hardness”

  1. Thank you for sharing about this. I find it very interesting what you are saying and look forward to experiencing it myself. At this point I don't study Aikido yet but I do chi kung I learned many years ago. I would like to when I can, study Aikido, too. In the meanwhile, I am reading about it and I found your website.

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