Martial arts require a variety of skills for the adept to become proficient. These go from body skills (feeling heavy, being connected, being elastic are some of the possible options here), to learning techniques to being able to apply both in free situations, and of course developing some mental qualities with regards to dealing with the stress of a martial encounter.
All of these are essential skills to have and will need to be developed with time, but today let’s talk about one of them that is essential although too often missing: softness.
Doing Jujutsu, the art of softness, one would expect softness to be an obvious matter. However, a glance at the mats can often be disappointing as we see people tensing up, grabbing as hard as they can, bracing, and moving in a broken way. Ego is partly responsible. As we train in martial arts, our mind is focusing on winning a martial encounter, beating up the guy in front of us, no matter what. Except… we are in the dojo to train and to develop skills that would be useful in an encounter, the question is not to win now, in our well ironed white pajama on the comfortable mats of the dojo.
Softness is one of these skills, and it applies to both our body and our mind as a soft mind will be more flexible and able to adapt to an ever-changing environment. It is also one of these essential skills that are critical to go to the next stage, as you can only go so far by applying power. There will always be a guy who is bigger than you, stronger than you, faster than you; brute power in this situation will quickly show limitations.
Soften up! Softening up is going back to a more natural way to move. I don’t believe any of us is tensing up so much when walking in the street, grabbing a cup of coffee or sitting down, although there’s certainly still a lot to say about how we move in day-to-day situations. But if people were moving in the street the same way they tend to move in the dojo I’m pretty sure a lot of people would look at them in a very weird way… Which reminds me of one of my first encounters with Hiroo Mochizuki, son of Minoru Mochizuki and founder of Yoseikan Budo. On that day, Hiroo suddenly asked us to walk. And everyone start walking from one guard to another. It didn’t take 10 seconds for Hiroo to stop us and ask us if that’s how we came to the dojo in the morning. Embarrassed smiles were on all faces… But he made a point, there is more to martial arts than taking “poses”, and moving naturally means being “available”: able to move in any direction without so much effort.
Soften up! Martial arts encounters are stressful as you have to deal with someone that doesn’t want you any good. Stress creates tension, tension that can be used against you. Soften your body and your mind, breathe normally, and keep your clarity of mind. Soften up and you will be able to remove information at the point of contact, you won’t give anything to your opponent and if he has nothing on you his options will be rather limited.
Soften up! Martial arts training is not about winning, at least not about winning here and now. It’s a process and that makes it all about HOW you are doing it and not WHAT you are trying to achieve in the end. Don’t forget why you’re coming to training: to learn and improve. And if you feel you cannot go any softer, maybe you’re simply going too fast.