Understanding softness

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Hard and soft martial arts

The external martial arts are sometimes referred to as the hard-style arts whilst the internal martial arts are soft. This distinction is accurate but can lead to misconceptions.
Novices often associate the word 'hard' with strong and 'soft' with weak

Hard style

The external arts use the human body in a habitual fashion that is common for both martial and non-martial people alike. Muscles are tensed, joints are locked, balance is ignored.
Aggression and force are favoured. From a martial arts standpoint, this method is quite good. It capitalises upon existing habits of body use. It favours the strong, the fast, the fit and the young


The internal martial arts appear to offer similar skills to the external arts. There are applications which look quite like the techniques seen in other arts e.g. judo, aikido or ju jutsu.
What is fundamentally different is the emphasis
. In taijiquan our concern is with the way in which the movements are performed and applied.

Not internal...

A taijiquan student may apply a chin na application in an accurate seeming manner. However, they might have achieved the outcome by using local muscle tension, force and disconnected arm movement.
This is not taijiquan

A feather cannot be placed, and a fly cannot alight on any part of the body.

(Wang Tsung-yueh)

What is softness?

Softness refers to the play in the joints and the spine. This is only possible when the muscles relax and the joints cease to lock.
The limbs are connected to the torso in a manner that enables the legs to power the whole body. Sensitivity, softness and yielding allow the exponent to skilfully use 4 ounces of pressure at all times
There is no blocking, banging, bracing, tensing, being awkward or fighting back.

Why softness is important

By being soft, the taijiquan student avoids fatigue. They reduce wear and tear on the body. This is good for your long term fitness. Force is unnecessary. There is no need to become upset or aggressive.

Your mind

It is necessary to have a receptive, open, pliable, flexible mind in taijiquan. Stubbornness, resistance, fixity and obstinacy are not valued. There must be change, adaptation, spontaneity and freshness.
Only with a supple mind can a taijiquan student hope to practice this art.


In taijiquan, you are not learning skills or techniques akin to the external arts.
You are acquiring abilities: 4 ounces of pressure, balance, centre, jing, listening, peng, sensitivity, yielding, stickiness, wu wei... etc
These abilities can be applied in all situations - martial and otherwise. They are explored in class with a partner, but honed with daily home practice and usage.

Natural unnaturalness

Only a student who trains daily at home can hope to cultivate softness; for one lesson a week in class is nowhere near enough training for this ability to emerge.
Being able to relax and be soft deliberately and consciously is good. But this will not aid you in combat. Softness needs to be second nature - present and expressed - irrespective of your state of mind.


A beginner is typically external in all respects. They use their body in a clumsy, forceful manner. Qigong, form practice and simple partnered exercises encourage the individual to soften and release
The student adds yielding basic skills and pushing hands to their repertoire. These powerful drills train the body to avoid being tense.
Some people approach such drills with a competitive, external attitude and make little progress.

Sensitivity exercises

The exercises serve to identify and work on your own weaknesses, not those of somebody else. There is no one to compete against and nothing to win except freedom from tension.

Not taijiquan

To move beyond the lower grades the student must prove themselves adept with softness. Bracing, blocking, force and tension clearly indicate that the student is not ready for more material.
At present, their training is not taijiquan. They have yet to embrace the exercises Sifu Waller has taught them. They are not ready to move up a grade.

People at birth
are soft and supple:
At death,
they are hard and stiff.

When plants are alive,
they are green and bending;
When they are dead,
they are dry and brittle.

Soft and bending is the way of the living;
Hard and brittle is the way of the dying.

a great strength
that is inflexible,
Will break in the wind
like an old dead tree.

So the arrogant and the unyielding
will fall;
And the humble and the yielding
will overcome

(Lao Tzu)

Skill with softness

Once the student has become soft, they are doing taijiquan. And they are capable of learning more.
Without this necessary softness, new material would simply mean even more drills and exercises being performed externally. What would be the point of that?

Worth reading

Confusing internal & external training methods

External to internal
Using the mind instead of force

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Page created 21 May 1997
Last updated 15 February 2020