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Episode 5:What Kind of Martial Art is Tai chi?

Granted, to many people, tai chi is not a martial art. But when it is, what kind is it?

Episode 5:
What kind of martial art is Tai chi?


What kind of martial art is Taichi? There are there are thousands of different martial arts around the world, many different styles and sub styles and different categories. Each martial art is based in a culture, a philosophy, and a history. Each art is modified by each practitioner according to their own personal experiences, abilities, limitations, needs, and circumstances. So, where they grow up, when they learn the martial art, the political situation, the cultural situation. All of these influence how a martial art develops, why it is practiced, who practices it, and what sort of tools that they use. Not just weapons but training tools and pedagogy. These things are all determined by location and by individual preference. Yet there are so many similarities between the different martial arts of the world, which is to be expected since they all rely in some way on the capacity and the limitations of the human mind and body. What is fascinating to me is just how the various styles develop ways to capitalize on the advantages and disadvantages of being human. Martial arts demonstrate the ingenuity with which people can develop amazing abilities while learning how not only to take advantage of their strengths and compensate for their own weaknesses, but how they manage to take advantage of their own weaknesses and recognize the threats posed by their own strengths. An assignment that I like to give to my students is to see how their own strengths can be used against them and how their own weaknesses can be an asset.

It is amazing how very vastly different cultures can come up with very similar solutions. The styles of the the naturalist schools in China, that developed in mountains and either in isolation or within bureaucracies, have some remarkable similarities to some of the indigenous martial arts of North America. But I’ll get into that in another conversation. But the differences in the ways that each style conditions and uses the body and mind can sometimes be quite obvious, often very subtle, and sometimes incredibly profound. 

Now, if you have studied martial arts then you might know about the different categories that have been assigned officially and unofficially over the years in China. There are Shaolin martial arts from the Shaolin Temple , Wudang martial arts from the Wudang mountains, and Omei styles from the Omei mountains. There some martial arts get categorized as northern styles or southern styles, internal styles and external styles, soft circular styles and hard linear styles, long range kicking styles, long range hand styles, short range styles, animal styles, imitation styles, and weapon styles. These include long weapons, short weapons, flexible weapons, and projectile weapons.

Now, sometimes martial arts will be categorized according to their predominant type of technique. So, you have stand-up martial arts that emphasize either kicking or punching. You have throwing and mid-range grappling styles that emphasize throws, takedowns, joint controls, and what we call projections. There are ground-fighting styles which emphasize wrestling. And there are weapon styles.

Some styles start with weapons and then develop empty-handed techniques and other styles start with empty handed techniques and then add weapons later. Then there are long weapons, short weapon, throwing weapons and flexible weapons. Now, as far as Taiji goes there have been some proponents who have been famous strikers. Some have been famous wrestlers. Some have been famous for their pressure points and joint control. Some have been swordsmen and some (especially earlier on) were famous for their spear techniques. Nowadays, it seems that many Tai Chi players are known for what we call mid-range stand-up grappling or close-range striking and some weapons training. But it should be clear that you cannot know what a person’s preferred techniques are going to be just by determining that they do Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not defined by its techniques. There are lots of techniques within the forms. We do punches, kicks, throws, takedowns, and joint locks. There is some grappling in some schools. Some schools avoid it. Some schools like to do grappling and like to do ground fighting. For others, there students are mostly seniors and are afraid if they go to the ground they might not get up again. So, they train really hard to not fall down. But these are individual preferences for individual students and individual schools and so on. Also sometimes you have to admit that with ground fighting, one of your main weapons is being young and fit. Endurance is a major weapon in the ground. With ground fighting…the problem with ground fighting is that the ground has very good endurance. I myself like to train a lot in mid-range skills. So, mid-range striking, kicking, grappling, and so on, because.. well… for one reason, I find most people are uncomfortable in that range.

So,  it really is a it feels like a very dangerous place for people to be.

So, I like training there because, if I can get comfortable there, then I have an advantage where most people don’t feel they have advantage. But it is also a great way to get good at transitioning from close range to long range and back again. But mid range skills, and the the training that is necessary for mid range skills, is also an effective way for safely developing very subtle and profound skills that can be applied in any range.

The skills that you develop and mid range can be applied in long range and even with long weapons ideas. Even projectile weapons can apply the skills that you learn when you’re doing mid-range sparring. Now, students who come to train with me often come with superior knowledge and ability in other martial arts. Some come with superior knowledge and ability in in my martial arts. They are boxers, grapplers, strikers, and come from martial arts from all over the world. It is always a very rewarding and educational exchange and we learn a lot about how universally the Tai Chi principles can be applied… not only in techniques but also in tactics and strategy. 

It is very interesting when I get to work with ground fighters and they start to apply Tai Chi principles in the ground fighting. There was a time when I didn’t think that was really possible, except for a few limited situations. But some of the very good grapplers really take to the Tai Chi principles and are really good at making them work in what they do. That could be a testament to the universal application application of Tai Chi or it could be a testament to their skill in the ground fighting. But either way it is an interesting study. And there is a lot of crossover, if not skills then certainly language and vocabulary. 

Now, Tai Chi is often called an “internal style.” When we talk about internal styles, there are three words that come up. One is Neijia. Neijia means “internal family”, or “internal style” or “internal school” It is probably best translated as “internal school of thought.” So, it is a way thinking about the internal. So that is the way that I think of it when we talk about Neijia. Some people will say “internal family” meaning it belongs to a particular lineage. I don’t see it that way. But that’s because I choose not to.

So, neijia refers to internal styles.

“Nei Jing” is “internal power” and that’s neijin or neijing. Whether you put a “G” on the end of it or not it’s only slightly changes the meaning a little. But it means “internal power” or the “strength of the internal.”

And then there is the word,  Neigong, which is “internal practice” or “internal mastery”  Neigong is an ancient practice. But it’s also become a sort of a brand name for internal martial arts exercises that are designed to strengthen the internal organs. The internal organs we’re talking about here is not just the organs in the modern Western sense of the individual organs. It is a more inclusive word that refers to the different processes in the body. So, when you talk about the internal organs you’re basically talking about everything in the body. Neijia is “internal style” or “internal way of thinking.” Neijing is “internal power” and Neigong is the practice of developing internal energy.

“Internal” has been used in various ways over the years.

So, in one respect it means that it is a method-based rather than technique-based.

So, when you talk about an internal martial art it’s not about what you do so much as how you do it. It is sort of like when you learn mathematics and you are told that the important thing is to understand what you are doing rather than to get the right answer. 

And that is true in my school. When you are practicing Tai Chi and when you are doing any kind of two-person training the important thing is to be aware of what is happening. When you’re training I don’t care if you win. I care if you know how you lost. That is far more important. I would prefer that my students lose and know how it happened than win and not have a clue. In a real fight the opposite is true. In a real fight I’d rather they win and have no idea what happened. But of course the hope is that victory will follow understanding. And you want to understand what you’re doing so that you will be victorious. If you understand how the mathematics works you’re more likely to get the right answer, and more likely to be able to figure out new ways of getting the right answer. 

So, if you understand Tai Chi principles and if you understand it properly, then you are not just learning by rote. You’re not just learning techniques that you can try to apply. You’re understanding how they work. And then you can come up with your own solutions on the fly. When you need to,

you can create your own style. You create your own art. You find your own techniques and your own way of dealing with a situation that is not limited by an order of operations. You can create and invent your own math. Now you might be surprised to know that another meaning of the word internal can refer to “secret” or “esoteric.” Internal can refer to these advanced martial art principles that were traditionally only taught to indoor students. That is a person who became an indoor student by mastering certain fundamentals and developing their art and their experience to the point where they could understand the advanced concepts. So, basically you’re allowed to get into the indoor training when you’re at the point where you’ve basically started to figure it out yourself.  This happens a lot in martial arts. It happens a lot in other arts, too. It happens in music. You don’t really get to hang out with the with the big guys until you can actually do it. There is this point you get to where you all have the same vocabulary.

The knowledge was not taught to outsiders outside the elite group because it was assumed that the beginners just wouldn’t be able to understand it.  To try to teach normal people… normal students… the advanced stuff would just cause a lot of confusion.  This is the same reason why you don’t teach differential calculus to students who have not mastered algebra. Indoor students also tend to develop a vocabulary that would be confusing to beginners and would really only cause trouble if you published it made it available for the general public.

Most people would read it and think that makes absolutely no sense at all.  Why can’t they just do stuff the normal way.? That makes no sense.”

Because common sense sometimes is wrong. But imagine you’re learning about physics and you think that you understand the basic concept of… postmodern string theory. But then someone starts talking about a Lagrangian field mapping the world sheet of the strings into the ambient space time and the pull back metric from the ambient space time to the world sheet of the string and …blah blah blah…

You get lost if you haven’t learned the vocabulary. If you have not gone through the process with somebody already, you don’t know what they’re saying. You might know what the individual words mean.

But those words get put together in a way that makes no sense to normal people.

Tai Chi teachers are like that. You might know what the individual words mean. But they make no sense in the context of martial arts, unless you are familiar with that particular teacher and their colloquialisms and their way of expressing ideas that do not have a universal expression yet.

I did not think my teacher had an accent until I was away for a few years and then I heard him do an interview on TV. Then I understood what people mean  when they say he has an accent. Now I can hear it. But when I was there over the course of 14 years, I figured his English is as good as anybody’s. His grammar and vocabulary are better than a lot of native speakers. Accent? What accent?

Let’s pretend that you are snowboarding. You could go to the chalet and say that you had “experienced extreme trepidation before this extraordinary exhilaration of landing this really high jump!”…Or…

Or, you could say “I was mass sketched. But that was some burly fat air, dude!”

Both sentences say the same thing. But the latter comment is “internal snowboarding.” It is the language of insiders. It is how the insiders speak. At least, maybe on Mount Baker in 1995. I don’t know. If you understood the second comment but not the first, you might find yourself thinking, “Man, I gots to learn some me some long-hair lingo, Daddy-O.

Okay. So, that is one meaning of internal martial arts. It is the stuff that is only understood by insiders.

But a much more common way that people define internal martial arts is to say that they are those martial arts that use internal power.

“Internal power!” Oooo. Doesn’t that sound special. In fact, this definition is fairly ubiquitous. But to me it is…well, it is not a mistake… but it is a little incomplete, because depending on your definition of internal power, that could include just about every traditional martial art in the world. The difference between internal power and external power is difficult to delineate.

Different teachers describe it differently. To many, internal and external exist on a spectrum. To others,  external power is subsumed within internal power. This means that internal power contains external power… but external power does not contain internal power.

How much internal power or external power you use often depends less on the style and more on the individual teacher or the practitioner even. I’ve known teachers of so-called external styles like karate or Shaolin or boxing, who have demonstrated much better internal power than teachers of the so-called internal styles like tai chi or xinyiquan or baguazhang. I’ve also known people who do internal styles who practice exercises that they swear are neigong and internal power training exercises, but which other schools would insist are really part of external training… or they practice internal power training exercises but they do them externally. I mean, they ignore the internal elements of the exercise. They have the form there. But they don’t have the meaning. 

Sometimes we describe internal power as a particular kind of biomechanics. In Tai Chi we use the body to form lots of different machines. We get all the basic simple machinery like levers and springs and screws and wedges and pulleys and inclined planes and wheels and and even Galilean cannons. To some people, internal power is the force generated by the machine. To others, internal power is what controls the machine. It is the control mechanism. To others, internal power is the energy that drives the machine itself. To some people, internal styles are those that have a particular preference for certain types of machines over others. To some, internal power is about muscle trains and myofascial connection and alignment. To some people, it is about bioenergetics and the cellular chemistry of transforming energy. We use words like “qi” because the our predecessors did not have a word for adenosine triphosphate. To some people, internal power is about bio-electromagnetism. To some, it is about using the lower abdominal muscles as the foundation for transmitting power to the extremities through between 6 and 12 other individual muscle groups. So, it is a way of connecting the actual physical structure or the aligning and coordinating the muscles. To some, internal power is about the proprioception that allows us to subtly manipulate every mental, physical, and energetic process. To some, it is about the afferent as opposed to the efferent or the harmony of the inward and the outward.

What do I think? Well, who knows? I don’t know what I think. Do you know what I think? Well how would I know what I think? But you can think about internal power as what goes on inside. It is not about what happens to your opponent. It is about what happens to you.

There are times, however, when I like to think that one of the unique qualities of Tai Chi is not the location of the power but its direction. Internal power has a unique emphasis on inward vectors. But that is another video. 

For now, let us say that an internal martial art contains internal power but internal power is not necessarily the only thing that defines an internal martial art. External styles also have internal power. If they didn’t those styles would not have lasted as long as they did.

One of my teachers once warned us about this. He said, “Yes. Internal power includes external power and external power does not include internal power. This is true. But if you go to another school where they teach external martial arts, and you criticize them then you’ll get in trouble. If you say. ‘Oh! We do internal martial arts and you do external martial arts. We have internal power internal power contains external power. External power does not contain internal power. Therefore, we are better than you.’ You say that. I think maybe they will kill you.”

So, we don’t say that.

So, if internal power alone does not define internal martial arts, what does? Well, I am no fan of attachment to style. So, I say, “Don’t worry about it.” Let each student define it for themselves. I figure that if a person achieves a high enough level of skill and artistry then they will make the style their own and it won’t matter what they call it behind closed doors. Then it will be an internal art. However…. however…

However, the great master, Sun Lutang 孫祿堂, did actually define internal martial arts. In fact, he may have coined the phrase… or thought he coined the phrase. He did not know that there was already at least one other martial art called “Neijia quan” when he coined the phrase “Neijiaquan.”

At some point, either as early as the late 19th century or as late as the early 20th century, the great master, Sun Lutang 孫祿堂, who was a master of taijiquan, xingyiquan, and baguazhang  (what we call three sister arts) he identified three main criteria that would identify what he called Neijiaquan. People translated this as “internal family boxing” or “inside the house boxing.”

My favourite translation is “internalist boxing” or “internal school of thought boxing.” I would rather emphasize the universal principles more than the lineage. Yet another reason why some people find me to be rather annoying. But, anyway..

Sun Lutang identified internal martial arts as those that use the mind to coordinate the leverage and other mechanisms of a relaxed and properly aligned body. So, the body must be aligned. You use levers in a particular way. And you used your mind to coordinate those things. That is one characteristic.

Another was cultivation of qi to power those machines. So, all of those mechanisms, which are controlled by the mind are powered by qi.

The third characteristic is that internal martial arts include the practice of

Neigong (or qigong or internal exercises) to cultivate that qi, and to strengthen the mind, and to coordinate the mind and the body.

So, those are the three. An internal martial art uses the mind to coordinate leverage of the body and cultivates qi using neigong. That is more or less the definition of internal styles.

Qi and neigong involve a lot of metaphysical terminology and metaphysical terminology can cause a lot of confusion. So, I have a rule in my school. If you want to master the metaphysics you first must master the physics. You cannot do the former without doing the latter.  To try to do the metaphysics without mastering the physics that are available today, is to waste a lot of time. If you think metaphysics is cool, or if you think magic is cool, wait until you try physics. I mean, really. 

In my next few videos I will address the basic machinery of Taichi that are at the core of the internal martial arts and my system in particular.

Very good. Now, more practice.

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