"Hard and Soft Chi Kung"

By Si-Fu Scott Baker, Ph.D.


Within the different Martial systems there are two varieties of teaching internal or energy skills. Simply put they are hard and soft. For those who have invested some time and effort in the martial way it is usually easy to discern which of these two approaches an individual or style has adapted. Essentially the hard approach will include physical tension to some degree while the soft approach emphasizes the importance of staying relaxed. Many of the systems that become known for demonstrating breaking skills are utilizing hard Chi Kung methodologies to achieve these ends. Soft chi kung's skills are most often demonstrated upon other people as is the case in most good Tai Chi demonstrations.

HARD CHI KUNG TRAINING: Within the spectrum of hard chi kung skills breaking objects is undoubtedly the most common demonstrated and one of the easiest to develop. Breaking demonstrations where boards, bricks, or large blocks of ice are broken by a blow from a practitioner require a specific type of internal training that is typical of the training needed to develop most hard chi kung skills. The methodology for developing these skills has two steps. 1) The student learns to place energy into his hand (or any other part of his body he intends to strike with) in order to build up the strength or force of the blow. To do this he must tense that hand, thus locking the energy within the tissues while he uses his intent to direct or focus the chi into the hand. The tension blocks the energy from flowing out of the hand and acts much like a dam allowing the chi to accumulate and build up. Chi naturally flows within the universe, and within the human body. Itís natural state is fluid not static. The ability to direct your chi to your hand is really something everyone already does, but most of us do it unconsciously and do not control it. Hard and soft chi kung training teaches the student to use his mind to direct the chi to a specific place with more force or pressure than that of the natural chi flow. The tension then causes the energy to build up in the hand giving the hand greater strength and the blow greater force. 2) The second aspect of breaking skills is mental focus. The student is taught how to focus his mind through the object he is about to break. If he fears injury, doubts his ability to break it, or wavers in his focus in any way he will most often fail. He must believe his hand will pass through the object, that the object will break from his strike. The most successful way to develop this mental focus is through practice. As the student becomes successful at breaking a relatively easy board he will move to two, then three, and so on until he has progressed from boards to bricks and ice. Breaking is the most common way hard chi kung skills are demonstrated.

Breaking is also one of the easiest hard chi skills to develop. One of the more difficult hard chi kung skills would be the iron shirt skill. This is rarely seen in the west, as it requires some very serious and difficult training to develop the iron shirt effectively. The essence of iron shirt training is similar to that described above regarding breaking. The student learns to direct his chi to his skin. In the beginning the chi is directed to certain parts of his body, but eventually all over his body. He tenses his body to lock the energy into the tissues thus making his body hard like iron. The packed in layers of chi within the body tissues, and the mental intent of the practitioner, repel the effects of a blow allowing the practitioner to withstand tremendous abuse without injury. His body will not be bruised or damages from the attacks. The true masters of iron shirt are said to be able to withstand a sharp blade without being cut or damaged. Both the mental focus and discipline needed to develop this skill to this level requires arduous, painful training over many years. But the key aspects of the training are the same as for learning breaking skills; 1) directing and locking chi into your body tissues, and 2) focusing the mind's intent.

SOFT CHI KUNG TRAINING: Soft chi kung skills are somewhat more subtle and therefore not as easy to demonstrate as hard chi kung skills. Usually demonstrations of soft skills include a smaller, weak looking old man throwing around several young large men who are trying to move or strike the old master. Uyesheba, the great master and founder of Aikido, would often give such demonstrations, also many of the renowned Tai Chi masters have been seen demonstrating skill in this way. There are some demonstrations of breaking ability using soft chi skills but they are uncommon. The approach that soft chi training takes is based upon the idea that energy flows naturally in the universe, and that the mind can control and direct that flow. Hard chi kung also use this approach but with some notable differences. Soft training emphasizes a relaxed body rather than a tense one. Tension locks chi and stops or reduces the natural flow, while a relaxed body opens the flow and allows the chi to move, as it should. Learning to truly relax the mind and body takes some years of training and practice. Focusing the mind's intent is also a key factor in soft training just as it is in hard. However, there seems to be a wider range of potential skills that fit in the soft chi kung spectrum than those within the hard chi kung spectrum. All the listening, feeling, or sensing skills are part of the soft chi kung repertoire. Tension, as used in hard chi kung, negates ones ability to use these listening/feeling abilities of fluid energy. The reason is simply that tension blocks the flow of energy thereby eliminating the ability to sense or listen to that energy flow. Both Tai Chi and Wing Chun have elaborate exercises designed to develop these soft listening skills (i.e. Chi sau and Push hands).

Soft or internal strikes are also characteristic of this soft chi training. The difference between a soft internal blow and a hard blow is extreme. When one is hit with a hard chi kung blow like that used to break bricks, the damage is readily apparent. The area that was struck suffers obvious damage. The bones may be broken, the flesh bruised and even torn. A hard blow damages where it hits. On the other hand a soft chi kung blow has a very different effect. The point or surface where contact is made is not the place where the most damage is done. A soft internal blow releases chi into the target sending a shock wave through the mostly liquid substance of the body creating internal damage. Because soft chi training emphasizes and uses the flow of energy, a blow will essentially release a flow of strong energy into the target. Hard chi training uses pooled or blocked energy accumulation to increase the strength and power of a blow, thereby hitting onto a target with more power or force. Hard chi kung hits onto the target, soft chi kung hits into the target. A soft chi blow penetrates into the body cavity damaging the mostly liquid internal organs. A hard blow seeks to break the outside body defenses of muscle and bone to cause injury that disables from the outside in. A soft blow shuts down the internal organs that drive the body by sending shock waves of chi through the outer body defenses and into the vital organs, thus disabling from the inside out. You get hit with a hard blow, it hurts where it hit you. You get hit with a soft blow, it hurts on the inside; your internal organs will ache.

Soft training focuses on teaching deeper and deeper levels of relaxation. The saying goes that the first level of relaxation is to feel your muscles and tendons relax. This is as far as the average person ever goes. The second level of relaxation is where you can feel your skin and hair relax. The third level is where you can feel your internal organs relax. The forth level is where you can feel the marrow of your bones relax. They say that when you are able to feel into the marrow of your bones you will feel transparent. The other emphasis in soft training is in developing control over ones mind, by training your ability to focus your attention, and to strengthen your intention. Attention and intention are the two key mental attributes that are trained in both hard and soft chi kung training. However the outcomes of these two approaches to chi development are very different. Soft chi training aims at producing the ability to sense and control the chi in and around you, including that of your attacker. Hard chi training aims at developing powerful weapons to break up and damage the body and energy of your attacker or anything else you may hit. It builds up chi and uses it as a tool of force. Soft chi kung strengthens the flow of chi that occurs naturally, locks you into that flow so you can sense, feel and direct it, enabling you to use whatever is available in a harmonious response to the flow that already exists. Both systems of training develop the mind's ability to attend or focus, and its ability to intend or will something. However what they do with those abilities is quite different.

About the Author:

Dr. Scott Baker earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Brigham Young University in 1995. Born and raised in New Zealand, he began his training in Wing Chun there in 1972 under the direction of Master Tam Hung Fun. He is now a member of the Yuen Kay San line under Zopa Gyatso. Si-Fu Baker resides in New Zealand.




Questions or comments? Send them to: snaerskegg@mainewingchunkungfu.com