Most goju-ryu practitioners associate the ju aspects of the art with “soft” blocks.
In the common understanding, this is in contrast to “hard” attacks like kicks and punches applied with tremendous force to the point of impact.
By soft blocks, it is meant to deflect and control without knocking away the attack — where force does not meet force, but is intercepted and redirected away from the target.
Yet, there is so much more to soft blocks than simply that.
To intercept an oncoming attack one must anticipate the attacking movement, then sense and join with the forward momentum of the energy that moves it.
That involves a considerable degree of awareness, first on a perception level of the eye that must see the first hint of movement, which signals must be transmitted electronically across the nerves to the brain.
The brain then must interpret and subconsciously recognize the movement as an attack requiring response, and in turn activate the appropriate bodily response to join, deflect or redirect the attack.
Think about it.
In the instant the attack is initiated, the defender must respond almost instantaneously with an effective defense mounted in time to accomplish the “soft” block.
Yet there’s more.
Block without blocking
For as Sensei Stamper has said, a block is not a block. In soft “blocking,” engaging the attack does not only involve the movement of the arm and hand to meet the oncoming strike or punch.
Instead, it is engaged with a complex set of body motions to: 1) move off the centerline of the attack (rotating the body and/or side, back and in-stepping); 2) weight shift coordinated with all elements of the body’s movement; 3) responding with the appropriate block; 4) simultaneously counter-attack, or 5) move into a position from which one could be performed without having to readjust body position or distance.
And all of that is to be performed subconsciously, by reflex without conscious thought.
Still, the first thought that comes to every goju practitioner’s mind are techniques like kake uke and mawashi uke. As well they should, for these appear to be Okinawan interpretations of the internal principles of deflection and control.
But in traditional joju-ryu practice, the “soft” application of such blocks is no where to be seen in kihon practice, and almost no where in kata.
Kake uke, for instance, is performed from a static posture, usually a sanchin stance, as if your arm moves like a windshield wiper. It’s little different than yoko uke, other than the hand position and hooking motion.
Here’s what I mean:
Unlearning what you’ve been taught
Goju students who practice this way (which is how most of us are taught in kihon practice) will learn the raw motion of the block, but they won’t learn anything about softness, much less how to apply kake uke in a way that reflects the principles of ju.
Instead, what I hope to impart is the use of these or other blocks in a “soft” manner must be accompanied by movement and all the other intangibles of internal training.
There are two primary ways of performing kake uke, both with body movement.
The first is a hooking and grab of the attacking wrist, continuing its momentum forward.
So far I have not found an example of such an application of kake uke, so let me show you how a tai chi master might apply similar technique.
Jump to the 2:00 mark. Notice the side and in-stepping as the blocking hand engages the attack, then continues its momentum forward.
This demonstrates the basic concept involved with soft blocking — getting out of the way while engaging the attacking limb in a way that allows you to control it.
Contrast this with how you might do this applying your goju basics.
The second method of applying kake uke also requires softness and sensing your opponent’s energy. However, this method is more along the lines of a covering (or smothering) block per the White Crane system from which the Okinawan technique was derived.
It is applied JUST THE OPPOSITE OF KAKE UKE, with the block coming from outside in, making with the wrist/forearm, then gently deflecting or parrying the attack downward, smothering, deflecting and controlling it while the body moves out of the way.
The wrist hooks (tension only in the thumb and 1st finger) over the extended attack. It then “cuts” downward and around in a circular fashion, effectively rotating the attacking arm and deflecting it downward before being controlled an continued on around with the attacking arm.
Here’s a video to demonstrate:
As you can see, the block is applied more as an out-to-in soft block (not knocking the attack away), then hooking and cutting through it to control it.
A similar inward-hooking block is also found in Wing Chun, as shown here in this rare video of Yip Man:
also demonstrated in the form here:
In practice, it is a block performed by trapping the attack, then deflecting it to wherever you want to move it.
For such an attack, side-step into a left sanchin stance. Rotate the body as you move and block. (Note: Coordinated movement of all parts of the body is essential here.) Deflect with the left and control the attack with a right kake uke.
From there, the attack can be redirected and controlled, and immediately counter-attacked by using an arm bar (think mawashi uke) or otherwise.
Also practice it White Crane style, deflecting and hooking with the forward arm as the body rotates.
I suggest that in your kihon practice, you experiment with stepping forward (in-stepping) into sanchin at a 45° angle, rotating your stance (so it now faces 45° in a right sanchin stance toward the attacker), as you apply each block.
Experiment with different stances and directions of movement, including moving the opposite (right ) leg back and around. Find what works for you, and know what doesn’t. That’s half the battle, knowing yourself and what you’re capable of performing.
But that doesn’t mean forgetting the movements that are hard for you. Keep practicing them, for one day they may become your favorites.
Return to yoi (heiko dachi, or ready posture) after each movement. Alternate sides.
The emphasis in practice should NOT be on speed and power, but rather sensitivity to feel the oncoming energy of attack and lightness of touch to join with it. Don’t be afraid to work in slow-motion and at half-speed. Gradually speed it up. Only after you master the complex coordination and softness required should you try it at full speed.
Once you do, let me know in the comments below your thoughts and questions.