Transitioning from the External to the Internal

Many Chinese ‘internal’ Masters and students started their martial arts careers in the ‘external’ schools. For example, Master John Ding, official contemporary 6th generation disciple of the Yang family, started off as a child training in the Shaolin styles of Kung Fu. Even the founder of the Yang style Tai Chi, Yang Luchan, is considered to have learnt Shaolin styles in his youth. The Shaolin tradition is usually thought of as ‘external’ and the Taoist traditions as more ‘internal’ in  Chinese martial arts circles.

This makes a lot of sense as young people probably prefer vigorous and fast movements and it is good to build up their strength whilst young. However, they tend to lack the patience for the more sophisticated and slow internal styles, which are usually adopted when more mature in the martial arts. However, all Chinese martial arts have an element of ‘qi’ in them – a mental component. So a Shaolin style or Karate style may have a mixture of say 50% muscle/sinew and 50% qi. Western systems like boxing and kick boxing, in contrast, seem to rely 100% on muscle and strength, as do many Western self defence/combat systems.

It is very common for Tai Chi Masters to have transitioned from the external to a fully internal art like T’ai Chi Ch’uan using two other internal systems – Hsin I Ch’uan (Xingyiquan), or ‘Mind Intent Boxing’, and Pa Kua Ch’ang (Baguazhang), ‘Eight Trigrams Palm’. Xinyi is a fairly straight-forward, linear style sometimes called straight-line boxing, whereas Bagua is a more complex style that uses a lot of circular movement.

My first teacher, Master Liu Hsiu-chi, said Tai Chi integrated the straight line and the circular movements of Bagua and Xinyi and added a third, vertical dimension making it more spherical in its emphasis. Many movements in Yang style Tai Chi look like they have come from these other styles; for example, “Step Up, Deflect Downward, Parry and Punch” is very Xinyi-like, and “Fair Ladies”, very Bagua-like.­ ­So these two ‘other’ internal styles can support entry into the Tai Chi art.

When I was studying with my second teacher Master Chu King-hung, official 5th generation disciple of the Yang family, in the early days he was still studying himself under Xinyi and Bagua Masters. On one occasion his Bagua Master came to London and gave a demonstration in which he threw Master Chu, who we were in awe of, around like a rag doll, and he was in his sixties. At a certain point whilst I was studying with master Chu, his Tai Chi teacher Grandmaster Yang Sau Chung, son of Yang Chengfu, told him to drop training in the other two and concentrate solely on Tai Chi. Master Chu used to say Xinyi and Bagua used 30% sinew and 70% qi, and that only Tai Chi used 100% qi. The simplicity and straight-forwardness of Xinyi makes it probably an attractive choice for someone wanting to transition from an external to an internal style.

In transitioning from external styles to the internal a complete reorientation is necessary - certain things have to be let go of, and certain things developed. Probably the most fundamental one that has to be let go of is reliance on brute, instinct-driven strength.  Master Chu described this as “surrendering awkward strength”. Not surprisingly this is difficult for many people to do, especially men, as it seems counter-intuitive. Also our instincts are to tense up and use adrenalin fuelled strength when threatened.

In fact, many modern combat systems like those taught in military training, actually encourage tapping into these animal instincts, and fighting in a furious animal like frenzy. There is a Chinese classification of martial arts into the animal, the human and the spiritual. The latter two train to overcome instinctive reactions and are the province of the internal styles in particular.

Again it is not surprising that the military, or someone wanting to learn self defence, ‘go’ for the animal approach as it is simple, direct, quick and effective, usually involving some sort of operant, stimulus-response, conditioning. However, these short cut approaches, it has been discovered, come with a cost. Even the training stresses the body through constantly stimulating the glands and nervous system by flooding the system with adrenalin. This can have long-term physical and psychological stress results.

The internal systems believe it is important not to injure the body whilst training for fighting. External systems like Thai Boxing and Karate often toughen certain parts of the body through impact training and produce an injured body down the track, as does Western boxing with its constant blows to the head.

In the internal styles one has to learn that the relaxed body, with conscious intent fused into it, has a very powerful intrinsic strength and power. It is an issue of learning to be soft and connected and letting go of the hard. People are incredibly tense, stiff and usually holding themselves in various parts of the body without realizing it. Part of internal training is to constantly make people aware of this whilst they undertake standing training (zhan zhuang), posture testing, form training and partner work. Eventually they learn to self-monitor the build up of tension and how to release it. This has important health repercussions for everyday living.

Another crucial aspect is to learn whole-body power, connecting the body as a unit from the feet through the legs into the torso and into the hands. When one part moves all parts move and the power of the whole body goes into every application. The external styles tend to be fragmented, over-relying on the use of a single limb such as the arm or leg. Closely related to this is learning to flow with the opponent rather than using stop/start staccato movements.

Partner work like push hands teaches you how to relax under pressure and yield and be soft, using the opponents own energy against them, instead of meeting force with force (collision). Push hands, along with supplementary exercises, help the student learn to overcome instinctive reactions like tensing up and the startle/flinch response – however, it takes a lot of hands on contact. For example, the student learns to block softly and close in and simultaneously counterattack rather than ‘bash’ the attack aside, which opens up the attacker to easy counters. A lot more could be written on this topic. The next article will relate this topic to that of the Three Treasures – transforming jing into qi and qi into shen – sublimating coarse physical energy into more refined psycho-physical energy into spiritual energy.

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