Seeking the Softness in Hung Gar

This article was originally published in the March 2000 edition of Inside Kung Fu Magazine.

Much of what I’ve seen of Hung Gar supports the popular notion that Hung Gar is an external martial art. This classification is a misnomer and does not begin to characterize this traditional multifaceted system. When my students exhibit Hung Gar, they are often misunderstood and considered to be practicing a hybrid system. Our use of natural strength is in conflict with what is perceived to be strength in martial arts. However, taken to a higher level, Hung Gar is both an internal as well as external martial art. In fact, all martial arts must be refined to the level of internal as well as external to fully appreciate their practical application.

Just as hardness in the sense of stiffness is not what creates external power, softness in the sense of flaccidity is not what creates internal power. In fact, hard and soft are two extremes we never want to reach. The external aspects of all martial arts must be guided by internal principles to develop explosive executions. However, internal principles are not achieved simply by practicing in slow motion.

Too often, the hardness prevalent in Hung Gar comes from stiffness resulting in brute force or dead strength. This is due to movements being isolated. Isolation of movement is what we strive to overcome at the higher levels. The internal aspect of all martial arts is achieved when mind and body become integrated and movements become totally connected with balance and strength and total body coordination. It is not easy to see the soft side of Hung Gar at its higher levels because the subtleties of the movements are camouflaged within their transitions. Softness comes from the ability to yield to movements through sequential coordination of body components. This is considered live strength, yielding and pliable. The body works together as a connected unit, not as separate isolated movements.

All Hung Gar is noted for its bridges and low stances. There may be slight variances in form sequence, but more often the difference is in the execution of techniques. The strength and stiffness of execution will vary in practitioners depending on their level of understanding. Beginners view power as strength so they have difficulty practicing a martial art without using strength. Because beginners do not understand how to use their strength, their movements are done with too much force and postures become stiff. Their tendency to use excessive strength in the arm requires their bodies to be rigid. This is reactive tension created to compensate for the excessive force generated by the arm. In this rigid state, the practitioner loses balance when stepping is incorporated. The irony is that using excessive strength leads to stiffness which becomes a hindrance rather than an asset in the execution of technique.

Hung Gar has a history of hardness. The early martial artists were vagabonds who traveled and learned from different teachers. They tended to become attached to the hard side of the martial art because it was more easily attainable. Today’s society is not much different. People want to learn things fast. By learning things fast, they misinterpret strength and are misguided through their learning experience. Hung Gar is not often practiced to the soft stage of refinement because not everyone trains for a long period of time or has the opportunity to study with the great masters. Taking martial arts to more advanced, softer levels require time to develop muscle memory and programming of the sequential events that underlie motor skills. What most practitioners have attained is the hard or external level. The agility of footwork and the softness comes with years and years of training and enough time to understand the principles of Hung Gar.

The use of natural strength is contrary to our perception of power. Power as brute force is more commonly accepted. However, once this concept of hard execution is adopted, it is very difficult to change until the methods change. And the methods can’t change until the understanding of the movement changes. At that point, the teacher has to offer guidance to soften the movements. Hardness can also be learned through assimilation. If a teacher exhibits dynamic power, then the students will pick up the hardness through mimicry without understanding the true execution. This lack of understanding can manifest itself into stiff execution and over time it becomes habit. Breaking that habit is a process that takes even more time.

It’s the training approach that makes the difference. The goal is to attain a naturalness in the postures that is inherent in the geometry of one’s skeletal makeup. Levers and fulcrums play an important role in body mechanics helping to maximize the efficiency of the strength used to create a force. Using natural strength, students develop soft movement without the stiffness that is apparent in many styles and learn to create the same force without excessive strength. Once this concept is understood, then the student is ready to evolve to the next stage of development which follows the same process.

In traditional systems like Hung Gar, characteristics and principles are built into the forms. The guidelines that control the characteristics of the system are further governed by the principles in martial arts theory enabling a practitioner to achieve a high level of martial skill. Until the principles are absorbed into the body and mind and become natural, the movements will be forced. The founders of these styles had the insight and depth to create the forms as a mapping of footwork and strategies and as a means of preserving their systems. They are the textbooks of traditional kung fu systems and equivalent to the precepts of the tai chi classics.

Many people practice form without knowing its true purpose. Built into the form are imagery, fundamental principles and martial guidelines and through the stages of refining the form, a student evolves into the higher levels. The twelve bridges of Hung Gar categorize the methods of the hand maneuvers. They are guided by other principles in what is termed as the five coordinates: hand, eye, body, waist and stance. These coordinates must work in unison to achieve a higher skill level. The summation of components, the five coordinates results into total body movement, a concept that is more evident in the internal systems, but is inherent in all martial arts in their advanced stages.

The hard and the soft theories should be prevalent in all systems of martial arts. At the higher levels where hard and soft meet the distinction between external and internal cannot be detected. Hardness and softness are not what appear on the surface. However, hardness works even when it is not generated from natural strength. But softness is ineffective without a deeper understanding of the mechanics of the movement and the body’s understanding of the principles that guide it.

Principles are subjective through interpretation. If the practitioner is not at a level where the principle can be interpreted as a concept of integration and the unification of body components, the movement remains stiff. When the principles are in place, the sequence of postures in a form should be fluid. Fluidity comes from the linkage of postures through the transitions. The postures may be similar, but the transitions are varied, all of which are guided by martial arts principles. Any practitioner who wants to seek the soft level has to analyze and relearn many of the movements. Taking a single form to its highest level is how a student achieves in martial arts.

Within hardness there is softness and within softness there is hardness. Ultimately there should be a balance of hard and soft. Soft controls the hard, never the other way around. In order to execute a movement effectively, the practitioner has to be relaxed. A movement has to be balanced with relaxation and contraction of opposing groups of muscles. When the movement is rigid there is tension that creates imbalance and the movement is stiff. When the movement is soft you can direct the movement better and focus on developing the hard. Hard not as being rigid, but being strong and explosive. Softness does not mean that movements are done slowly or completely flaccid. In our Hung Gar training, we try to eliminate that conflict with the use of hard and soft executions. The soft should become more apparent and the focus should not be purely on developing dynamic power. Developing good transition with sound principle and creating correct body alignment allows the practitioner to use innate strength and to use it efficiently. It is more difficult to make the transition from hard to soft, but once you have developed softness, you can never be rigid.

There is no secret formula in finding the softness in Hung Gar. The soft stage evolves over time through the understanding of the guidelines and principles of a traditional system. Fundamental guidelines and principles are the true differences between what is traditional and what is eclectic. Hybrid systems are created when complex concepts and theories are extrapolated from traditional systems and simplified. In their fragmented and eclectic state, they do not contain the depth of information found in whole traditional systems. The knowledge gained in a traditional system taught by a qualified teacher is boundless because evolution is endless. You constantly discover and reinforce your understanding of what is attainable in martial arts.