Internal power and the 3 internal harmonies: Going beyond words like Xin, Yi and Qi to direct experience

Almost by accident I watched Onama vs Landwher from UFC: Marlon Vera vs Dominick Cruz this morning and heavens above, that was one hell of a fight! Possibly the fight of the year. I’ve no idea how you’d score it. Landwher won by decision, but it was possibly the MMA fight of the year. Wild exchanges throughout with both fighters being so tired they could hardly stand up, but somehow kept going. It looked like they both had almost beyond the levels of human endurance, going from looking so tired they could barley move to pulling off flashy 3 move combinations.

You could almost see their spirit rising within to propel them on. It reminded me of all the phrases about the internal harmonies (san nei he) that we use in the Internet arts. The Xin (heart) leads the Yi (intention/mind), the Yi leads the Qi (energy to work) and the Qi leads the Li (physical movement). Initially this seems rather simplistic, say if you want to do something like make a cup of tea then you first have a desire to do it (heart) that travels to the brain (yi) that decides and then it ends up in a physical movement (li) and you find your feet moving you towards the kettle.

But that process happens automatically in humans and all animals, so why do we need to make a big deal of it and describe all the parts that build up to making an automatic process happen?

It’s often explained as putting the intention and will (the brains and heart) behind the movement. You can do things with a sense of purpose, or you can do them absent mindedly. In the internal arts, like Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi, your actions need to have a sense of purpose. Your mind needs to be on the job, not half engaged. That’s one reason, but I think there’s more to these internal harmonies than just this.

I remember in BJJ training sometimes being so exhausted it was like my mind left my body and I became somewhat detached from my surroundings. It’s at moments like that that you start to be able to feel your “spirit” or mind as an identifiable thing. Through a sheer act of will you can force your mind to not give up and get back to the job and it can give you the energy you need to carry on fighting. That’s what I saw happening in Obama vs Landwher. A sheer force of will was being used to make them continue – their internal was leading the external.

Frankly, most people training only internal arts without hard sparring pay a lot of lip service to the internal co-ordinations, but do they ever reach an intensity of training where they can actually feel these things as tangible elements?

I’m not saying that you need to get an an MMA cage to experience your internal state under extreme physical stress before you have any idea what it is, but you can experience it in a safer way through things like Jiujitsu. Maybe Systema, too. Just some food for thought, and another reason why I think all Tai Chi instructors who re physically able should try and get a blue belt in BJJ if they are teaching the art beyond the health aspects.

There’s a risk, when reading this that people might think that using your Yi, or Xin in Tai Chi technique simply means to furrow you brow, put on a mean face, stare hard at something, get really tense and act like you really mean it, man. Because that’s not it either. That’s not what using “martial intent” or Yi means in internal arts at all. If I see people practicing internal arts like that I think it’s just bad karate. Not that there’s anything wrong with karate, of course.

Your internal state can be serious, but come from a place of calm. It’s a strange contrast between being expansive, yet laser focused, like the eyes of an eagle who is high up in the sky looking for prey. He’s taking in all his surroundings, but can pinpoint down on a single point when required. That’s using the 3 internal harmonies properly.

I think this is a Kite, not an Eagle, but you get the idea. Photo by Flo Maderebner on Pexels.com

The Tai Chi classics say:

To fajin,
sink,
relax completely,
and aim in one direction!

There it is – the (sung) relaxed body is the first requirements, once you have it you can ‘point your mind’ in the direction you want your power to go, so that the internal movement matches the external movement. When the inner and outer harmonise together, then you have internal power.

What’s better in martial arts – Body Methods or Foundational Movements?

I got asked once by a CMA practitioner what the “Shen fa” (body methods) of Brazilian Jiujitsu were and I drew a blank. The only answer I could come up with was “we don’t have any”. What I think we have instead though are foundational movements. Let me explain.

While Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua all have “Shen Fa”, which are “body methods” that need to be internalised before the practitioner can be considered sufficiently proficient in the art, Brazilian Jiujitsu doesn’t have them in the same way. Instead, it has a series of foundational movements that crop up so often in techniques that they are considered the foundations of the art, and are usually done in class as warmups.

I taught an interesting Jiujitsu class this week. (Well, I thought it was interesting – I think you’d have to ask the students themselves what they thought!) I started with the group practicing the basic Technical Stand Up both forward and reversed (which is doing it backwards, so you go fro standing to sitting down), then with variations like a knee or an elbow on the ground instead of a foot or hand.

Sweaty work – a fun class!

A Technical Stand Up is a way of going from sitting on the ground to standing up that exposes you to the least risk if you’ve got an aggressive person attacking you. It minimises your chances of getting kicked in the head and also affords you the ability to kick back at the attacker’s knee, possibly hyper extending their leg painfully.

How to do a Technical Stand Up

Once everybody in the class could do a Technical Standup well enough we went on to practice applications that utilised it as part of the technique. A good example is a basic X Guard sweep, or a way of returning to base after completing a tripod sweep. (I’ll not explain what those are here, because I don’t want to get lost in the details of these techniques in this post, because that’s not what this is about.)

Foundational movements in Jiujitsu include the aforementioned Technical Stand Up, but also things like a bridging movement, a hip escape (shrimp), a triangle, a forward (and backwards) roll and an inversion. If you can’t perform these basic movements correctly then your chances of doing any technique correctly are going to be severely limited.

In contrast, Chinese martial arts “body methods” include things like dantien rotation, opening and closing the chest and rounding the kua. These body methods are postural observances and ways of moving that need to be kept in place during all movements.

Why one art should have developed body methods, and the other not even have that concept, is worth thinking about, and I think it relates to the role of form in Chinese martial arts. Practicing solo movement in the shape of a form done in isolation from other people allows the possibility of subtle things like body methods to be developed.

Torso Flung Punch by Chen Zhaopi, 1930,

There are no forms in BJJ. Sure there are solo exercises you can practice to warm up or condition the body, but they don’t have the same function as form (tao lu) does in CMA. BJJ is heavily partner orientated. All the drills and sparring need another person physically there to do it with. To practice BJJ we literally have to get together with other people in nice matted areas and throw down. There is no other way.

These body methods in CMA have resulted from forms, but my suspicion is that this was never planned, rather they have grown out of a situation that happens when you are required to practice forms. Why CMA started practicing forms in the first place is a different question – there are some clues as to why that might be in the video I shared the other day by Simon Cox on the Taoist concept of the Subtle Body.

It’s analogous to the situation in China between Shuai Jiao and Kung Fu (Wu Shu). Shuai Jiao has no extended tao lu (forms), like Kung Fu does, but it has an awful lot of solo conditioning exercises with and without weights and belts. I’m not a Shuai Jiao practitioner, but I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Shuai Jiao has Shen Fa in the same way that the various Kung Fu (Wu Shu) styles do.

Is one approach better than the other? I don’t know. They’re just different and personally I enjoy practicing both.

Tai Chi Notebook Podcast Episode 15 – Centre the Dragon: Tai Chi Talk with Ken Gullette and Graham Barlow

In this episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast I’m teaming up with Ken Gullette, to answer the kind of questions that Tai Chi teachers get asked all the time.

YouTube version for people who, er, like YouTube?

Ken is an all-round good guy and owner of the Internal Fighting Arts website where he teaches the arts of Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi at a very reasonable monthly cost. Check him out at www.internalfightingarts.com

Ken is a Chen style guy, and I’m a Yang style guy so it’s no surprise we have slightly different views on a lot of different topics, but that’s part of the fun of it all.

And if you’d like to help out my podcast then you can now become a friend of the Tai Chi Notebook on Patreon. Head over to Patreon.com/taichinotebook and you’ll be able to get a downloadable version of the podcast as well as support my work and get exclusive articles.

If you’ve got any comments on what we say then send them in – we’d love to hear from you!

What started the Kung Fu Boom in the 1970s?

David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine

People often claim that it was Bruce Lee who was the father of the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, but was he really?  Sure, Bruce brought a sense of realism to the genre, but it was Kwai Chang Caine who set the ball rolling.  The other popular TV series Monkey and The Water Margin were also influential, but felt like they were aimed at a younger audience. And for kids like me it wasn’t possible to watch a Bruce Lee movie – they all tended to be rated 18.

I’d go as far as to say that Lee wouldn’t have had the movie success he had, particularly in the west, if it weren’t for the Kung Fu series.

Here’s a good documentary on the making of Kung Fu – I still remember some of these action sequences, particularly the one where he kicks the knife out of the guy’s hand and it sticks in the roof, which is shown in this video. That moment was the start of my lifelong interest in Chinese martial arts.

Chinese martial arts: The place where theatre, religion and fighting meet

One of the ways you can tell genuine history from a ‘made up’ history (in Chinese martial arts, or in anything really), is that the real history is always pretty messy, convoluted and complicated, and a conveniently invented origin myth or history of a style is usually pretty simplistic. Tai Chi Chuan is a good example, I think. Attributing the origin of Tai Chi to one particular Taoist immortal, or one particular remote rural village, is a very neat and simple solution – and probably not the whole truth.

And I think the same thing applies to Chinese martial arts as a whole. The Chinese martial arts, (as we know them today) were not just invented fully formed, hundreds of years ago and have remained unchanged ever since. On this blog I’ve often quoted those who have proposed that kung-fu has a more convoluted pedigree than one might otherwise have expected. Historian Charles Holcombe’s excellent “Theatre of combat” on the subject of kung fu history from 1990 is a good starting point for this line of enquiry. Also check out my first podcast episode with Daniel Mroz.

To quote from Holcombe:

“In China the martial arts are far more than just techniques of hand-to-hand combat, although actual fighting skills are indeed traceable far back into antiquity. In China the martial arts are an aspect of religion, with all of the attendant mystery and miracles. At the same time, the public face of the martial arts has often been that of the entertainer, and the self-image of the martial artist has been thoroughly imbued with motifs drawn from fiction and the theater. The martial arts of today must be understood as a confluence of China’s unique approach to physical combat, Buddho-Taoist religion, and theater.”

Theater of Combat – Charles Holcombe

It’s worth reading that quote a couple of times.

One curious thing I’ve noticed from other martial artists is that they often can’t comprehend this argument at all. They don’t seem able, or unwilling, to hear it properly. Some internal bias seems to prevent it. I’ve had people come back to me a year later saying, “I thought you were saying that all Chinese martial arts comes from dance”. Or theatre. No, that’s really not what I’m saying. I’m saying, it’s complicated. I’ve even gone back to these people and shown them the exact thing I wrote, a year ago, saying exactly the opposite of what they think I said. But for some reason, it doesn’t go in. They hear what they think I’m saying rather than what I’m actually saying.

Real history is always complicated. “Kung Fu came from dance” is just too simplistic to be true.

Incidentally, the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog has written a long, and detailed post addressing Holcombe’s article: “Reevaluating the “Theater of Combat”: A Critical Look at Charles Holcombe, Popular Religion and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts.”

The Tai Chi Notebook podcast Ep 6: Internal Body Mechanics with Ken Gullette

In this episode Tai Chi Notebook podcast my guest is Ken Gullette, a native of Illinois, USA, where he trains in all three of the main internal arts – Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi. Ken also runs a website called internalfightingarts.com where he trains students from around the world in the three internal arts using a combination of recorded and live classes.

Ken is quite famous for his focus on body mechanics, internal power and getting to the root of these arts in a non-mystical and no-nonsense way. In fact, he’s written an excellent book that’s available on Amazon – it’s called ‘Internal body mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi’, and I’d recommend you get a copy.

In this episode we discuss the internal body mechanics of Tai Chi, training with disciples in the Chen family linage and there’s also a few stories of the times Ken has had to use his arts in real situations.

Visit Ken’s website at: www.internalfightingarts.com
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/internalfightingarts
Blog: www.internalfightingartsblog.com

Criticising solo forms – again

In this post I want to ask a question. I’m going to give an answer too, so the question is slightly rhetorical, but I think it needs to be asked.

“Why do internal martial artists spend so much of their time criticising each other’s solo forms?”

Let’s break this down – firstly, is this statement true?

I’ll give you one recent example to act as a poof of the statement:

As somebody who has been involved in discussing internal martial arts on the Internet since around the year 2000 I can attest that this happens all the time. In fact, I would say that it’s the majority of the discussion is of this nature.

You don’t need to watch the whole video. It’s long, boring, petty and doesn’t display a particularly high level of etiquette or skill.

It’s essentially one Chinese martial artist ciricising another Chinese martial artists for the same thing over and over, which is sticking his elbow out a bit too much. I know! The horror!

Ok, he probably has a point, but you could easily turn this around and criticise all the mistakes that the tall skinny guy is making too.

The question I have is why did he make this? Why must internal arts people spend all their time criticising each other’s solo forms?

Look at other martial arts – especially the ones that have a sporting side. They don’t tend to do this. MMA people do not do this,

With internal arts it’s an endless debate on degree of uprightness, too much or not enough opening of the kua, level of relaxation, sinking enough or not enough, degree of the knee flextion, etc. The list goes on…

But ok, here’s my caveat. Internal arts are obsessed over these details because they matter. The amount of opening and closing of your kua dictates the amount of power you can produce, and the quality of your movements. The position of your elbow has a direct connection to whether you can produce whole body power or not.

But nobody has the same set of rules that these things are being judged by. In theory, there should be a standard set of rules, but in reality, different styles do things in different ways, and always will. I’m more inclined to think that obsessing over details of solo forms is a bit of a trait of internal arts and less valuable than seeing what a practitioner can do in application/sparring.

The language of internal arts is also based on the same ideas. People go to their Tai Chi teacher to get corrected. The language itself is kind of negative. Nobody talks like this is in sports. You spend time with a good boxing coach and get improved.

But, what do you think?

Down, but not out? Kung Fu in Hong Kong

There’s a fascinating new interview with Daniel Amos about training Kung Fu in Hong Kong over at the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog. Daniel has been training in the same style of Kung Fu and living in Hong Kong since 1976.

The majority of the interview is about his academic research methods, but the last two questions are of most interest to Kung Fu practitioners and discuss the effects of globalisation that he’s observed on Kung Fu training over the last 45 years. The result seems to be a less “fighty” version of the arts being taught, and the breakup of the complex, interlocking social, cultural and religious weave of forces that made up martial arts in favour of a more easily packaged version that can be taught piecemeal.

The lack of sparring in modern Kung Fu houses is of course a cause for concern, however he says he believes that the knowledge is still there in young practitioners, particularly the children of Kung Fu masters, and could easily be revived in the future.

Have a good read of the answers to questions 6 and 7. Here’s a quote:

“Little sparing was occurring at Hong Kong martial houses in 2019, not only among those who practiced kungfu, but also in martial houses which taught martial arts styles developed in non-Chinese cultures. Students of western Muay Thai, for example, now probably the most popular martial arts practiced in Hong Kong, estimate that only ten percent of fellow learners do contact sparring.  The motivation of most is to get exercise, lose fat and stay in shape. 

During fieldwork between 2017-2019 among martial houses where kungfu was practiced, I witnessed only light, geriatric sparring, that performed by my kungfu brothers and me, all of us in our sixties and seventies, the eldest members of our brotherhood then still practicing.  Members of one of our brother martial houses were reported to be doing some limited sparring, but I did not witness it. In interviews with a variety of kungfu learners many complained that they’d like to do sparring, but it rarely or never happened in their martial house.       

Forty-five years earlier, if someone in Hong Kong wanted to learn one of the various kungfu fighting systems one usually needed to become a devout follower of a master, join his martial house, and enter into a complex socio-cultural system of loyalties and obligations. If one was loyal to the master, respected and followed the commands of more senior kungfu brothers and studied hard, one gained the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills associated with the specific variety of Chinese martial arts taught by the master. To belong meant not only showing up at the martial house five or six times a week for intense practice, but also participating in the brotherhood’s ritual practices and religious observations.  

By 2021, economic globalization and cultural homogenization in Hong Kong has a meant that the corpus of complex Chinese kungfu knowledge and practices of many styles of kungfu have frequently been fractured into separate parts, turned into individual commodities, and sold on the open marketplace.  This has placed the consumer, the potential learner of kungfu skills, in the driver’s seat.  “

Daniel Amos

Read the full interview.