The Ying Yang of Goju-ryu

IOGKF Canada member Stuart Reid writes a very informative article on the ying-yang and its relationship to Goju-ryu. For rare pictures of Chojun Miyagi, check out the FREE IOGKF International Magazine, available through this website!



The Yin-Yang of Goju-Ryu


If I was to select one symbol that best relates to the human experience, it would be the yin-yang.  In essence, every aspect of our existence from physical movement to intellectual thought to spiritual awareness can be represented within this symbol.   



This deceptively simple symbol has become a focal point for two very important aspects of my life – my martial arts training and my studies in becoming a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner.  My teachers gracefully demonstrates the fluidic nature of  this symbol in the nuances of the movements throughout our Qi-Gong and Tai-Chi forms.  The opening lines of my Traditional Chinese Medicine textbook describes its importance as follows: 

The concept of Yin-Yang is probably the single most important and distinctive theory of Chinese Medicine.  It could be said that all Chinese medical physiology, pathology and treatment can, eventually, be reduced to Yin-Yang.  The concept of Yin-Yang is extremely simple, yet very profound.  One can seemingly understand it on a rational level, and yet, continually find new expressions of it in clinical practice and, indeed, in life.

Maciocia then goes on to describe the Yin-Yang School (or the Naturalist School), that dates back to the Warring States period (476-221 BC), and how they developed the theory of Yin-Yang to its highest degree.  This school was rooted in Taoism which is a philosophy to observe the way of the universe.   Everything in existence is balanced with the existence of its opposite in order to achieve unity.  The Yin-Yang Model demonstrates this philosophy by contrasting one element against another element thereby defining both. (ex. night and day cannot exist without the other)  Further to this, however, is that yin-yang elements exist in a dynamic continuum where they are 1) interdependant, 2) mutually consuming-supportive, 3) oppositional, and are 4) constantly transforming. These are the aspects of the Yin-Yang Model on which this article will focus, and I will share my understanding of them through my martial arts experience. 

The style of karate that I am practicing is called Goju-Ryu.  ‘Go’ means hard or resilient; ‘Ju’ means soft or yielding.  Therefore, Goju-Ryu translates as the Hard-Soft School.  This paradoxical dualism is relevant to both the technical characteristics of the style and to its underlying philosophy.  The founder, Grand Master Chojun Miyagi, chose this name as it represented the essence of what he learned and subsequently taught.

It came from the third of eight precepts of the classic Chinese writing the Kempo Hakku found in the Bubishi. It states: Ho wa goju wo donto su: The way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness. 

Though the systemized teaching structure of Goju-Ryu originated in Okinawa, Japan with Miyagi Sensei in the 1930s, its roots came from Miyagi Sensei’s Sensei who studied in China under a Sensei who was also an accomplished Chinese Herbalist.  Given that Taoism is a fundamental root philosophy of Classical Chinese Medicine,  it makes sense that the teachings that made up the groundwork of  Goju-Ryu would have been heavily influenced by Taoism and, namely, the Yin-Yang Model.  Some of Miyagi Sensei’s teaching that form the core of Goju-Ryu’s philosophy exemplifies this nicely:

1.      ‘As supple as a willow, as solid as Mount Tai.’ It is when the two extremes of hard and soft are wholly united as one     body that… the harmony of heaven and earth will evolve;

2.      The stronger one becomes, the more that person should express their gentler side;

3.      The most important purpose of karate is to develop balance within ourselves so that we may express our true nature and become better human beings; and

4.      To achieve harmony… everything must express a balanced nature


Verse 8 of the Tao states, ‘One who lives in accordance with nature does not go against the way of things.  He moves in harmony with the present moment, always knowing the truth of just what to do.’ Miyagi Sensei’s goals through Goju-Ryu are a clear reflection of this Verse.

These goals of Goju-Ryu also show how its practitioners are expected to improve their character by training their minds as well as their bodies.  As a starting point, I will assign one’s mind as ‘yin’ and one’s body as ‘yang’ given that the yin aspect of the two elements on the same continuum tend to be of a more receptive nature to its yang element that is relatively more aggressive.  This assignment of yin-mind and yang-body is an extrapolation of such common determinations of yin to yang as night to day, winter to summer, and water to fire. 

The most important kata in Goju-Ryu is Sanchin kata which is a specific sequence of slow yet powerful movements done in a deliberate manner.  Its goal is to generate internal power through the muscular system while simultaneously having relaxed breathing and a clear mind.  Translated to ‘Three Battle’, Sanchin refers to the balancing of the opposing forces of body and mind to achieve higher spiritual awareness.

I have also realized the mutual consumption-supportive and transformational principles of the Yin-Yang Model through Goju-Ryu by first understanding that every yin-element (and yang-element) can are be subdivided into furhter yin-yang elements.  Recalling that water is yin relative to fire’s yang energy, water can also be thought of as both yin-ice and yang-steam.  ‘As supple as a willow, as solid as Mount Tai’ philosophy can be applied to both the mind and the body thereby creating a yin-yang within the mind and a yin-yang within the body. 

Martial Arts help to train a person to defend him/herself by being relaxed when confronted so that quick movement of whole body or part of one’s body is possible.  Having tight or flexed arm and leg muscles would inhibit avoidance manoeuvres.  At the same time, one must keep core muscles active in order to maintain posture and balance.  Opposition principle of yin-yang within the yang-body.  If avoidance is not possible then the affected muscles need to either become more relaxed (yin) to absorb the attack or rigid enough (yang) to block it.  Transitional principle of yin-yang within the yang-body.

Countering technique require speed that comes from using one’s body extremities in a whip-like motion.  But at the point of execution or contact, one’s body needs to be instantly rigid or the technique would be ineffective.  A rope (whip) has no strength if stationary or if pushed upon.  So to does the body need to turn from a supple willow to a mountain for that split second of contact then back to a willow.  Though the willow could be considered yang to the relatively less mobile mountain, in this context, the immobile mountain is far more energetic and would be the yang element.  Making one’s body as rigid as a mountain is the result of numerous chemical reactions causing contractions of almost all the skeletal musculature so that every joint and articulating surface is fixated.  Without such rigidity, the delivered technique would be absorbed or nullified within the karateka’s body; the equivalent of using a weapon that is collapsible or has shock absorbers.  This rigid yang-state requires a lot of energy and without transitioning back to a yin state, the contracted muscles would fatigue (yang-energy would be consumed), leaving the karateka with less energetic yin-muscle.  Mutual consumption principle of yin-yang.

Training one’s mind is the other important element of martial arts.  One must learn, train, and develop techniques that are repeated so often that they become automatic.  This mental process requires much effort and would result in reversing the previous yin-yang labels to yang-mind to a relatively yin-body.  Once automatic, however, those techniques can be delivered reflexively instead of consciously so the mind would now be back in a yin-state.  From that point, new techniques can be learned and developed, repeating the cycle.  Mutually supportive and transitional principles of yin-yang.  Having a yang-active mind during a confrontation (eg. thinking along the lines of  ‘if he throws this type of punch then I will block in this fashion then counter with this technique…’) would render that person fixed on one course of action.  If anything other than the anticipated attack occurs, that person now has to first break his/her train of thought and then think of what to do, all the while probably getting hit for being too slow.  Keeping a clear mind that can reflexively respond is the product of a very relaxed yin mind that came from the consumption of a yang state of training. 

The last correlation that I would like to share is evident at the closing ceremony of every Goju-Ryu class with the recital of the Dojo Kun.   Composed of 5 ways to improve one’s character, one of the Dojo Kun translates to ‘Train your mind and body, strive to reach the essence of Goju-Ryu.’  The essence of Goju-Ryu lie within the spiritual or meditative side of training in which one tries to be in balance with one’s own nature and the nature of the universe.  The Yin-Yang Model provides a framework that illustrates how this goal is obtainable by balancing opposing elements  that are independent, transitional and mutually consuming and supportive within a person.  My karate training makes it easy to appreciate the advantages of utilizes such dichotomous elements in order to defend myself; being able to transition between a hard (resilient) and soft (yielding) body and a hard (active) and soft (receptive) mind.  Practicing Sanchin kata, where this paradox is the focus, is the way that I best internalize the Naturalists School’s requirments for applying the Yin-Yang Model.  The Yin-Yang of Goju-Ryu.