Isshin-ryu is a blend of hard and soft?

Way back in 1983, when I first started training in Isshin-ryu, I was told that it is a blend of hard and soft, with Goju-ryu typically portrayed as the hard influence and Shorin-ryu portrayed as the soft influence. But what exactly does that mean?

After, all, isn’t Goju literally Japanese for hard-soft? So Goju-ryu, too, is a blend of hard and soft? What happened to the soft?

Are there no “hard” techniques in Shorin-ryu? I have seen some Shorin-ryu kata performed and I certainly spotted what looked like “hard” techniques to me.

Uechi-ryu is also a blend of hard and soft. According to Sensei Noel, Darin Yee, the president of the Internation Uechi-ryu Karate Federation, once asked how you can claim to be a master of Uechi-ryu without understanding the soft, as well as the hard side of Uechi-ryu? I think that is a really good question.

So if you ask, what makes Isshin-ryu a hard-soft style, you will often get an answer that is something like … Isshin-ryu is a blend of Goju-ryu (hard) and Shorin-ryu (soft), which in my opinion is not an answer at all.

Exploring the idea of hard and soft.

Back in the 90s, I spent a great deal of time exploring this question and looking for the “soft” side of Isshin-ryu. I began to research Chinese martial arts, Yin and Yang, and even learned and practiced a Yang-stye Tai Chi long form. Sensei Kathryn Eldridge used to come by my dojo regularly and worked on Tai Chi with me and some of my students. We also did push hand drills as well. I thought … maybe I was beginning to get some idea, at least.

Enter Sensei Sherman Harrill

Let me just say, there is nothing “soft” about being on the receiving end of a soft technique. I remember on several occasions Sensei being asked about hard and soft techniques. He would typically answer that he does not think about doing “hard” or “soft” techniques. He just executed his technique, and whether it was hard or soft was most often determined by the intent of the attacker or opponent.

Now that was a very interesting concept to me, and it stuck in my head. I began to work on that idea and what it meant to my Isshin-ryu Karate. I had already been working hard on body mechanics and natural body movements. We often say that Isshin-ryu is a “natural” style, meaning we use natural body movements and proper body alignment to generate power in our techniques, rather than extreme conditioning or exercise. However, that does not mean conditioning and exercise should not be a part of your Isshin-ryu training!

For a while, I had been experimenting with what I called “neutral positions” or being “dynamically relaxed” from which you exploded into the techniques and then returned to. It is kind of a “remaining mind” idea. So you stayed in this dynamically relaxed state from which you could instantly shift into a soft or hard technique as the situation demanded. While not exactly what Sensei Harrill was describing, it think I may have been working my way in that direction.

The Hard/Soft Continuum

Over the years, and based on what I have learned from Sensei Harrill, Sensei Kerker, and my own research, I have come to a conclusion for myself and how I understand and teach the ideas of hard and soft in Isshin-ryu Karate.

I now look at the idea of hard and soft as a continuum. If you think of “Soft” as being one end of the continuum and “Hard” being at the other, Isshin-ryu, as I teach it and practice it, floats around in the middle. It is neither hard, nor soft, but a state of being in between. It is not one or the other, it is both. By staying in the middle range, you can instantly shift a bit toward either hard or soft as needed, and then immediately return to the middle (or neutral state).

If, as Sensei Harrill said, you consistently execute your techniques the same way, meaning in a relaxed, natural, and mechanically sound manner, hard or soft almost becomes, as I heard Sensei Kerker state once, a simple weapons choice, doesn’t it?

If I hit my opponent with my fist, essentially it’s a hard technique. If I use an open hand technique, it is a soft technique. However, the mechanics of my technique stay the same.

Just food for thought …