Thanks for clarifying the distinctions between the Yang Association's emphasis and other styles' emphases. I don't tend to make distinctions easily, so I enjoy reading what you think because then I get to see the details more clearly. That's how I read the first part of your message.
In the second part, you wrote:
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As for being “soft,” I think our system requires a clear distinction between “ruan” (“pillow soft”?) and “rou” (“yielding and resilient”?). We seek the latter, but not the former. In other systems, the distinction is not so important or else is not emphasized.
Let me give a few concrete examples:
In the Preparation Posture, do you let the arms hang loose and leave the shoulders and fingers alone? Or, do you use “energy” and “effort” to extend the shoulders and fingers?
In Press, do you leave the fingers alone, since they do not appear integral to the application? Or, do you use “effort” to extend the fingers?
In the kicks, do you leave the standing leg as is? Or, do you extend the knee of the standing leg? When you prepare the kicking leg or bring it back in, do you simply leave the ankle alone? Or, do you expend energy to point the toe a little bit?
In forming any posture, do certain stages allow more “relaxation” than others? Or, does “relaxation” feel like something uniform, independent of limb position?
Does “fajin” feel like a temporary “violation” of the injunction to relax? Or, does it feel like a natural outgrowth of loosening and extending the limbs?
During pivots, do you try to minimize the exertion in the ankle and lift the toes as little as possible? Or, do you just try not to keep the ankle stiff and do not pay attention to how high you lift the toes?
Yes, I pay attention to those details, using energy in Preparation to have my arms slightly rounded at my sides. I use energy in Press to make sure my fingers are extended and slightly separated. In kicks, I extend the knee of the supporting leg to straight-but-not-locked, and bend the kicking leg such that the toes are slightly pointed and the foreleg angles slightly inward. I hadn't really thought about the ankles or toes in the pivots before, but trying it just now, I realize I use enough energy to keep my toes off the ground, but not so much that I can't relax and feel the terrain under my heel.
Energy is used to maintain these small postural details, but not any more than is used to maintain the rest of a relaxed and unified structure. I think I exert more energy in checking these details than I do in making them happen. It's more of a mental effort than a physical one.
However, the points you describe above are areas that I used to feel required more "effort" or "energy" to hold and maintain. They were places where I had constrictions or tightness that prevented proper structure with minimal effort.
One of the places where words get tricky is in the phrase "minimize effort." On the one hand, it could be taken as an under-charged, passive, limpness. On the other hand, it could be read as relaxing to the degree that more energy can flow through the system.
I discovered later that if I relaxed even more, then internal energy would circulate more naturally through me and these things became less difficult. They became easier to the degree that I don't think about my fingertips any more than I think about my elbow or my triceps--they feel like all part of the same extended, curved structure.
There's a difference between "effort" and "effortlessness" with regard to holding the postures. With increased relaxation, those fine details, that at first seem to require more or extra effort, don't require any more effort than the rest of everything else. (I'm not talking about muscle effort--I'm talking about the feeling of effort as measured by the sensation of tightness or strain, whether physical (feeling tight) or mental (the effort required to remind oneself to extend the fingertips).)
When I'm doing the form correctly (as best I know how according to what feels most comfortable and natural to me) then the feeling of relaxation is generally smooth and even. It's as you said, "something uniform, independent of limb position." The "effort" required to do anything doesn't seem like effort at all.
The sensation is that there is energy flowing through me, and I can allow it to extend my extremities, fill me like a balloon. It's like this picture of the effects of static electricity: http://www.sitemason.com/files/dqYN6E/generatoredited.JPG
The girl isn't putting in any effort to make her hair stand on end--other than connecting to the power source. And yet her hair, which is soft, relaxed, and lacks any integral stiffness that would allow it to stand on end, is able to stand in defiance of gravity .
In my current understanding, as result of fang song, the whole body can be charged this way, and stored energy released like an arrow from a bow. Much like a build up of static electricity can be released--only held and released at will. Is this a violation of the admonition to relax? I don't think so. I think that the energy cannot be expressed without the relaxation, and that the tightening and hardness that is exhibited upon impact still retains an element of softness and relaxation within--much the way a fire hose is hard when water is rushing through it, and yet both the hose and the water retain a quality of relaxation and formlessness.
So now that I've said that I find relaxation to be generally uniform and even, even when explosive force is involved, I'm now going to turn around and say that within the relaxation, there are times when it feels more natural to sink and relax...and those places coordinate with exhalation of the breath. There's an ebb and flow to the relaxation--not really increased tension vs. decreased tension, but rather expansion vs. contraction and opening vs. closing.