A number of years ago now, maybe as many as eight, but certainly at least five, a student from South Korea was on my fencing team. I was trying to show him a new move he didn’t know; the double-disengage. The arm has to be extended (in foil) for the attack to work; if you bend your arm, your turn to attack, your right-of-way, ends. Accordingly, the arm has to be able to move fluidly from shoulder to wrist, without much elbow (or any elbow) at all.
As I was showing the student the movement, he said something in Korean to a friend of his on the team, who jabbered back. I caught the words ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. I’ve written about this before, I think, but the student I was directly teaching then asked me, “So do you do this movement (word in Korean) or (word in Korean)? In English, hard or soft?” I asked him what he meant, and in response he flexed his arm, slightly. The muscles in his upper and lower arms stood out from his flesh, and rippled. “This is (first word), hard? And this is (second word), soft?” The muscles … unflexed, I guess, and his arm looked completely relaxed and at ease.
I remember frowning. “I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s try it both ways, and see which works.” So we did. We tried it a total of six times, three in the soft position, and three in the hard. Afterwards, in consultation, he said, “It works better in the soft position,” he said. “But it’s hard to know if it’s just because I’m a beginner or not.”
Fast forward to three years ago, when I started doing tai chi. I found that I could not do the whole form ‘hard’. It was simply too difficult. I knew the whole form well, but I couldn’t manage the physical exertion necessary to perform tai chi in a ‘hardened’ state, with every muscle flexing.
For some reason, today I felt like trying to do the whole form ‘hard’. Wow. I could. I can. It left me sweating and wearied at least at first. But now I feel energized and empowered. I’ve finally gotten here. Not because this was my goal, but because it’s been a natural outgrowth of my practice.