There are thousands of different styles of martial art around the world. Each is based in a culture, a philosophy, and a history. And each art is in some way modified by each person according to their own personal experiences, abilities, needs and circumstances.
There are 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 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 to not only take advantage of their own strengths, and compensate for their own weaknesses, but to take advantage of one’s own weaknesses and recognize the threats posed by one’s own strengths.
An assignment I like to give my students is to see how their own strengths can be used against them, and how their own weaknesses can be an asset.
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.
If you have studied martial arts, you might know about the different categories that have been officially assigned over the years.
In China , there are Shaolin, Wudang, and Omei styles,
or Northern styles and 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 and imitation styles
Weapon styles including long weapons, short weapons, flexible weapons, and projectile weapons.
Sometimes, martial arts will be categorized according to their predominant types of techniques.
So you have:
• “stand-up” martial arts, that emphasize either kicking or punching.
• Throwing and mid-range grappling styles that emphasize throws, joint control, and projections.
• ground-fighting styles which emphasize wrestling
• Weapon styles, some of which start with weapons and add empty hand techniques, and others that start with empty hand and add weapons later.
* long weapons, short weapons, throwing weapons, flexible weapons,
As far as Taiji goes, there have been some proponents who have been famous strikers, some have been wrestlers, some have been famous for pressure point and joint locks. Some have been swordsmen, and some have been famous for their spear techniques. Nowadays, it seem that many taiji players are known for their mid-range stand-up grappling, close-range striking, and some weapon training.
But it should be clear that you cannot know what a person’s preferred technique is just by determining that they do taiji.
Taijiquan is not about techniques. It is about method, and this method can be applied to a wide range of techniques. I like mid-range skills because most of my opponents are particularly uncomfortable in that range, and developing mid-range skill makes it easier for me to transition from grappling to long range and back again. But mid-range is also an effective way to safely develop subtle skills that can be applied in all ranges.
Students who come to train with me, often come with superior knowledge and ability in other martial arts. They are boxers, grapplers, and strikers, from all different styles. It is always a very rewarding exchange, and we learn a lot about how universally taiji principles can be applied, not only in techniques, but also in tactics and strategy.
Taiji is often called an “internal style.”
內勁 nèijìn or nèijìng : “Internal Power”
内功 : nèigōng : Exercises to benefit the internal organs. (Not organs in the modern medical sense)
內家 nèijiā : internal : school of thought
Internal has been used in various ways over the years.
In one respect, it means that it is method based rather than technique based. What you do is not as important as how you do it. It is sort of like when you learn math and are told the important thing is to understand the mechanisms rather than to get the right answer. That is true in my school. When you are practising, I would rather my students lose and know how it happened than to win and not have a clue. In a real fight, however, the opposite is true. I would rather they win and have no idea how they did it. Of course, the hope is for victory to follow understanding.
You might be surprised to learn that another meaning of the word “internal” is “Secret.”
“Internal” can refer to advanced martial art principles that were traditionally only taught to “indoor students.” A person 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.
The knowledge was not taught outside of the elite group because it was assumed that beginners just wouldn’t be able to understand it, and to try to teach to normal students would just cause a lot of confusion. This is the same reason you don’t teach differential calculus to students who haven’t mastered algebra.
Indoor students also tended to develop a vocabulary that would be confusing to beginners and would only cause confusion amongst the general public, if the indoor secrets were published.
Imagine you are learning about physics, and think you understand the concept of post-modern 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 you get lost if you haven’t learned the vocabulary. 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 the teacher. I didn’t think my teacher had an accent, until I was a way for a few years and heard him do an interview on TV.
Let’s say the you are snowboarding. You could get back to the chalet and say that you had “experienced extreme trepidation before the extraordinary exhilaration of landing a really high jump.” 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 like “Internal Snowboarding.” It is how the insiders speak. If you you understood the second comment, but not the first, you might say, “Man, I gotsta learn me some longhair lingo, Daddy-O.”
So, that is one meaning of “Internal Martial Art.” It is the stuff for insiders.
But a much more common way that people define Internal Martial Arts, is to say that they are those that uses internal power. This definition is nearly ubiquitous. But to me, it is a mistake. Because, depending on your definition of internal power, that could include just about every traditional martial art. 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 necessarily include internal power.
How much internal or external power you use often depends less on the style than it does on the individual teachers. I’ve known teachers of external styles who demonstrate better internal power than teachers of so-called internal styles like tai chi.
I also know many who practice exercises that they insist are neijing (internal power) but which other schools insist are part of external training.
Or, the neijing they practise emphasize the external elements and ignore the internal elements.
Sometimes we describe internal power as a particular type of biomechanics.
In taiji we use the body to form\ levers, springs, screws, wedges, pullies, inclined planes, wheels, and Galilean cannons.
To some people, “internal power is the force generated by the machine. To others, internal power is what controls the machine, and to others internal power is the energy that drives the machine itself.
To some, internal power is a particular preference for certain types of machines over others. .
To some, internal power is about muscle trains and myofascial connection.
To some, it is about bioenergetics, the cellular chemistry of transforming energy.
To some, it is about bioelectromagnetism.
To some it is about using the lower abdominal muscles, and 6-12 other muscle groups to transmit power to the extremities.
To some it is all 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 afferent and the efferent.
So 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 of the unique quality of tai chi as being, 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’s 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 survived as long as they have.
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 Shaolin, or another school where they teach external martial arts, and you criticize them, you will get in trouble. If you say, ‘We do internal martial arts, and internal power contains external power. You do external martial arts, and external power does not contain internal power. So, we are better than you.’ If you say that, I think, maybe they will kill you.'”
So, if internal power alone does not define “internal martial art”, what does?
Well, I am no fan of attachment to styles. 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, their style will be their own, and it won’t matter what they call it….behind closed doors. Then it will be an internal art.
However, the great master, Sun Lutang, did give us a definition of Internal Martial Arts. In fact, he may have thought he coined the term, not knowing that there were other styles using that monicker.
At some point in time, either as early as the late 19th century, or as late as the early 20th century, Sun Lutang, a master of three martial arts called: Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang, identified three main criteria of what he called “Neijiaquan.” People translate 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 whey some people may find me to be rather annoying.
Sun Lutang’s identified internal martial arts as those that
1. Uses the mind to coordinate the leverage and other mechanisms of a relaxed and properly alignment of the body.
2. Cultivation of qi to power those mechanisms.
3. The practice of neigong and to cultivate that qi.
As I mentioned in a previous video, “qi” and “neigong” involve a lot of metaphysical terminology, which can lead to a lot of confusion.
So, I have a rule in my school:
• If you want to master metaphysics, you must first strive to master physics. You can’t do the former without doing the latter.
In my next few episodes, I will address the basic machinery of tai chi, that are at the core of internal martial arts, and my system in particular.