Internal – A Personal Journey

…So, I wanted to continue my thoughts from the last post, that there is no Internal Standard, that there is no real definition about what is “Internal.”… But I also want to give you more of my own personal point of view.

The thing is that already when you want to look at an art, a style or a school, or even a specific method, as “Internal”, you do quite a sever mistake. Something outside of you can not be internal. And an external method can not make you “internal” from the outside.” Just practicing a certain style or a method is not enough to make someone understand the “internal”. Instead, “Internal” is much more about the individual person, his or her’s own journey and personal discoveries.

“Internal principle” of the Internal Arts is a process. It’s your own process. You can not escape this process and you are not internal until you have been in this process for a while.

I look at people who practice Tai Chi and other so called internal arts, even other styles as Wing Chun who claim what they do is Internal. Some of them have only practiced “Internal methods” for a couple or a few years. They perform movements, try to follow principles and they call what they do “internal”. Some people believe that “sinking the qi” is important to be internal, so they do something, often a clear visible external movement. And they believe that what they do is internal. Some others have practiced Tai Chi for a couple of decades, maybe more. But what they still is external  movements only. They lead their movements with their limbs, their balance is bad. They don’t know how to sink. As soon as they try to use their Tai Chi in free partner exercises, free push hands and similar they become stiff, hard and seem to forget everything.

This is because they don’t “own it”. They are not inside of the process. Maybe they have started their journey and “try” to become “internal”. But the “Internal” is a process that takes time. And it should take time. Sadly, some people don’t understand this at all, they never understand to travel this road. What they do never become something Internal. Maybe it stays as an idea in their mind, but never becomes a process that they are a part of.

I remember my own process. First when I had practiced a couple of years I started to understand what Tai Chi was about, I started to understand it because I started to verbalize the art for myself with my own words, in my own way. I believe it took yet another year before turning the art into something of my own, before I really started to own it. I remember the following years, those years about thirty years ago, how I struggled to make the process of my own practice more internal. I always tried to become better to initiate movements from the root and from the core (my Dantian). What I did was certainly “Internal”. But still I did a lot of mistakes many years ahead.

I don’t remember when I had become really comfortable in my Tai Chi. But after quite a few years of practice I started to have more confidence. I probably needed more than ten years of practice before I completely stopped cheating and stopped compensating because my own flaws and lack of faith. But when I had gained enough confidence in my art, I soon found that my breath was always deep and full. I could “sink” at an instant and I could feel my own Dantian (lower Dantian of course) whenever I wanted. Just “being me” and “being inside of the process” had blurred together. Nowadays when people ask about my Tai Chi, how I practice and how often, I find it difficult to answer. The truth is that I always bring my art with me. It is always in my heart and almost never leave my mind. The process of learning the Internal, learning to understand it, eventually turned into something else…

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Is There Any Internal Standard?

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Again and again, in forums, chats and discussion groups, I see questions asking about if there is something general, common or universal in the so called “Internal Arts” where Tai Chi belong. There will probably always be questions about an “internal standard.”

There are a few things that are always mentioned. “Qi” and breath, intent or “yi”, whole body movement, ground force, shen or spirit etc. What makes an art “internal”? The obvious answer for most people would be “Qi” and “Yi”. But the thing is that these very vague concepts are very common. All Chinese martial arts speak about qi in one way or another. Every art speak about yi, intent and using mind. These concepts are not a denominator for internal arts. Not even the the focus on neigong, or internal skills practice, is a common denominator. Some explicit hard styles have a great focus on neigong.

Some people say that hard styles focus on hard methods first and soft later, Internal arts focus on soft and internal first and moves toward the external and add hard method later. This is absolutely not true for many schools usually getting a label of hard, external or soft and internal. Some soft arts starts quite hard. Some hard styles are in their nature quite internal. And I would not even say that everything called Tai Chi today is “internal”.

Other people say that Shaolin is a hard style, but there are many different things called Shaolin. Some of these arts and methods are very soft and internal, just as internal as any other “internal art”.

So is there any kind of standard or common denominator? I would not try to answer that question myself. The reality of Chinese martial arts is complex and varied. Mostly, what people see and get are quite simplified versions of more original traditions. Some of the more modern “traditions” could be generalised. But not the old, general tradition. People didn’t practice the same way as in newer times. There were no real fixed styles four hundred of years ago. People practiced methods, forms or “daolu” practice had individual names. There were sets with labels and different kind of neigong and waigong practice. People ususally practiced what they found, took parts here and there, what they found and focused on what they liked. The very fixed way we think about “style” didn’t exist. So there were internal and external methods, but not really fixed styles.

So we can speak about internal practice and internal practice, but arts usually have both internal and external practice. What is internal and how depends on the specific method or exercise. But there are no real way to define internal practice in a more general sense and there is no way to define “internal arts”, especially how people use it to day. As the term “Neijia”, or “Internal Family”, which was invented probably more than four hundred years ago, we can define what it was originally meant. But then a whole lot of things called internal today falls out of that definition. (I wrote a post recently about this, defining what belongs to”neijiaquan.”)

If people ask me, I usually just say that if the focus of practice is on internal aspects, it’s internal practice. If the practice focus on external aspects, it’s external practice. Maybe I could also say that focusing on developing internal awareness is a must in order for anything to be called internal practice. My question to you now is: Do you believe that learning Tai Chi movements, a form, to memorize movements and practice them in a learned sequence is enough to be called an internal practice? Think about it. What in your own practice is specifically internal and how do you deepen the internal focus in your own practice?

The Art of Keeping Things Simple

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The more simple something is, the harder it is to do. At least if you strive towards perfection. Not only is simplicity an art, but not overdoing is an art as well. Most things, or rather the vast majority of things, you see in demonstrations in the different videos you can find all over the internet, is very easy to replicate. The demonstrations can look very impressive, people flying everywhere without effort. Or teachers demonstrating great balance through withstanding pushes. The teachers speak about using “Yi” or “sinking Qi” and sending Qi out. For most of what you see, what they talk about has very little with what actually is being done. The mechanics behind what you see is often very simple, and again, it’s all very easy to replicate or copy.

I remember the first classes I attended, how my teacher showed me how to do certain things, simple things like pushing and following. I remember how surprised I was by how simple things felt. What I did was very simple to do and when I got it right it felt like nothing. And doing felt very different from what I had thought it would be. There is certainly a glitch between thinking and doing. Doing is always different than thinking because doing is not about thinking, it’s something you are experiencing in the Now.

This might sound very simple and obvious, but the relationship between thinking and doing is not always so easy to understand. This relationship is why so many people cannot draw. Instead of drawing the lines of what they see, they tend to draw according to their idea of something, how they were taught or believe that something should be drawn. This is very much the same when people do in Tai Chi as well. Instead of exactly following instructions, they follow their own ideas. Some teachers are very much aware of this glitch between idea, thinking and doing, and they use their knowledge about this to prevent their students from developing. Good teachers on the other hand will teach their students to over-bridge this glitch, how to overcome their fixed ideas and how to make them actually “do” instead of “think”.

The hard and difficult part in Tai Chi is not really about developing extraordinary powers. What is hard in Tai Chi lies in the present. It is to do things good, or even adequate, as you need to fine-tune your movements, doing things exact and precise. Replicating things is easy, often more easy than most teachers would admit. But doing things unrehearsed and with spontaneity demands practice. As well as practicing with a certain amount of precision of execution.

I don’t look at Tai Chi foremost as a way to explore or develop Yi or Qi. I look at Tai Chi as a method of self-reflection and self-awareness. The road to success in the Art is very much directed towards simplification. A simplification of both mind and movement is necessary. Only if your mind is set to always do things as simple as possible and always to not do anything unnecessary, you will understand how to overcome the interference of your own learned habits and preset ideas.

More on Internal vs External Martial Arts

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It’s somewhat wrong to call Tai Chi Chuan an “internal” art. Tai Chi focus on internal aspects and is commonly understood as Neijiaquan, this is true. But still, the concept of internal arts is a bit misleading. The discussion on nei (internal)  vs wai (external)  is actually a bit confused. A common question amongst practitioners of Chinese Martial Arts is about if there are internal and external arts. This is a false dichotomy, still, the term “Neijiaquan” is still a valid concept. Bagua, Xingyi, Yiquan, Liuhebafa and a few more arts are indeed related to Taijiquan, but they are related in a very special way. They share a history together and have often been practiced together. So what is the confusion? I have written about this problem before, but wanted to add some thoughts as I promised in this post about the same subject.  Are there internal arts or not? What is the false dichotomy about? Well, let’s see… First,

the question:

“Are martial arts either internal or external?”

is not the same as:

“Is this an internal martial art?”

There’s a difference here and they should be responded differently. A martial art can belong to the tradition of Neijiaquan (, the Internal Arts Family of Pugilism, commonly abbreviated as IMA,) but a martial art is not external art or an internal.

Martial arts are not divided into internal or external, all Chinese martial arts are both internal and external in various degrees. Much of modern wushu practice, as pure sanda practice, is mostly only external, but all traditional martial arts are both. So martial arts are not internal or external. But there is a special tradition in Chinese martial arts and certain styles that are born from this tradition, a family of styles.

Internal Martial arts, or Neijiaquan, is a definition on Chinese Martial arts that

  • Are based, and have a strong focus, on Neigong (internal skills practice), internal practice mostly developed from Daoist practice.
  • Have a terminology based on Daoism and Neidan.
  • Focus more on internal aspects than external.
  • Blend health practice, meditation and martial arts practice together.

They also tend to:

  •  Use whole body connection and whole body movement to generate strength rather than from isolated limbs and isolated muscle strength.
  • Generate strength from softness and from emptiness.
  • Approach the attacker not directly strength against strength, but rather from an angle and the distance is carefully cared about.
  • Trying to hide the body mechanics and attack from a neutral posture.

There are a few misconceptions about “internal arts”. One is that Internal martial arts goes from soft to hard and external ones from external to internal. This is partially wrong. So called external, non Neijiaquan arts can have a very strong focus on internal concepts right from the beginning. And certain schools and lineages of IMA starts off with external, apparent expression as well as focusing on hard conditioning. They don’t necessarily go towards hardness. Traditional Tai Chi does not go from soft to hard, it teaches how to generate hardness from softness and teaches how to fight while maintaining stillness.

The common denominators often used to distinguish IMA as Qi, Yi or internal practice are also not enough to distinguish “internal” from “external.” All Chinese martial arts are concerned with Qi, on a deeper or more shallow level. Yi, or intent, as well as shen and Yanshen are all very common concepts in both traditional and modern Chinese Gongfu. But in IMA, or Neijiaquan, we have a certain view on Qi and Yi that is slightly different from other martial arts as we interpret these concepts not in a general manner or in the way they are understood in Traditional Chinese Medicin, or in modern Qigong, but rather in an older way, the way these concepts are understood in Daoist practice as Neidan and Daoyin. We don’t really aim for developing or circulating Qi in general, instead the arts of IMA has an aim to develop, use and refine Post Heavenly Qi, or Xiantian Qi. It’s rather difficult to describe this briefly, but you can find more about it in this post. And more about Neidan in this post.

So, not all arts that claim to be “internal” can be completely compared to an art as Taijiquan. Southern Styles, even though some schools are very soft and have their own take on internal concepts, are not Neijiaquan as they do not share enough of the history and tradition. Some Wing Chun schools claim to be internal. They can continue to do so. But still, they do not belong to Neijiaquan. Aikido also have claims on being internal. It does share a whole lot with IMA, but is not a member of this family. So again, when people speak about an art is internal, they might have valid reasons for doing so, but this still doesn’t mean the art belong to Neijiaquan.

On How To Make It Work (…IRL)

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How to make things work for real? Now, I am speaking about practical applications, not Qi or magic, just practical Tai Chi application as qinna (like a lock or similar), a take-down, a simple punch or a more complex technique. How to make things work in different situations is a difficult thing to answer because of the complex nature of reality.

I had a teacher that would show and teach many different techniques and many variations on the same method and theme. He was very honest about what he did and said that you should practice applications against as many people as possible, because then you will understand that sometimes some things work and other things won’t. And often you won’t even understand why something works or not. So what you need to do is to figure out what methods and techniques suite you the most, what techniques you like and try to understand what you can make work in different situations.

So a good reason for trying out many different techniques and methods is not really to learn how to make everything work, but a reason to try things out on different people and try to understand your own prerequisites, your own limitations. And try to be very honest about your own lack of understanding and about your own level. This is also the reason why I don’t like grades and belts. Someone else should not tell you at what level you are, what you can do or not. You must understand it all by yourself and it’s very important that you do understand by yourself. We are dealing with the Martial Arts world here, a complex world, that often cross the lines between “reality” and “abstractions”, that teach things through friendly matches and practice, but at the same time wants to teach something else, how to handle yourself and protect yourself outside the school environment. Which means that you need to have an extremely realistic approach towards yourself. Tai Chi is not about paying for diplomas and belts to have something to show up to your friends so you can nurture your vanity. Instead Tai Chi is all about self-knowledge.

So when you try to analyse yourself and your skills, you need to be most brutal to yourself, try understand your own limitations, what you can do and not. You must also understand the nature of Tai Chi combat methods and applications, that different things will work on different people. And that you need to adjust your whole strategy and game-plan according to who you meet and in what circumstances.

Master Li Yaxuan expressed this very well. He said that you need to approach fighting and push hands like you were a medical doctor treating patients. Every patient needs a different treatment depending on the nature of decease or problem. Some people might need medication others might need a physical therapist. Some people just need rest while still others might need surgery. A doctor deals with a great range of methods and strategies. Every single meeting with a patient is different and everyone needs to be treated differently. This is something to keep in mind and work from, even when you practice with different partners inside the school environment and with friends. There is no “one size fits all” type of technique, method or approach. This is also why competing might teach you a false sense of security. Just because you can control the situation when competing it doesn’t mean that the same skill sets you have developed there and can make work there would work on anyone else outside the same arena.

So when you encounter a situation, to make things work in that specific time and place, is to first get rid of any preconceived ideas of what you should or can do and treat every encounter as a new and unique experience. Fighting, even on a friendly basis, demands all attention and focus and great timing. There is no skill that will make every opponent you meet to bounce away just upon touching your arm. There is no method or skill that can make combat easy. It will always be hard and difficult. And there is nothing that can secure a certain outcome. But being very realistic about your own limitations could at least save you from doing stupid things. It might even save your life.