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.

The Taoist subtle body, by Dr Simon Cox

This is a very interesting interview with scholar and practitioner Simon Cox, PhD, whose book on the history of the concept of the subtle body is available on Amazon. Simon lived and trained full time in the Wudang mountains for over five years and has lots to tell…

I’m hoping to have Simon as an upcoming guest on my podcast, so if you can think of any questions you’d like me to ask him about what it’s like training Taoist martial arts in an actual Taoist monastery then put them in the comments. Thanks.

If you’d like to learn more about Simon, see amazing photos from his time in China, and join his mailing list to hear about all the cool stuff he’s offering, check out okanaganvalleywudang.com.

The most successful martial arts movement of the first half of the 20th century, that you’ve probably never heard of

I find I’m getting increasingly fascinated by the concept of ritual, magic, and how it relates to Chinese martial arts. I think I’ve just never been satisfied with the explanation that forms in Chinese martial arts are there for cataloguing techniques. There are many martial arts in the world that do not require forms to catalogue either their techniques or body methods (Shen fa). When something like that so obviously doesn’t add up, I think there has to be something else going on. But what?

It’s been a long time since I’ve linked to Ben Judkins excellent website Kung Fu Tea, but I’m going to recommend that you give this article a read. It’s about the biggest group of 20th century Chinese ‘martial artists’ that you’ve probably never heard of. They were called The Red Spears. And despite having a membership in the millions (millions!) they tend to get wiped from modern historical accounts of Chinese martial arts. Made up of poor, usually illiterate members, they existed away from the cities and the urban areas, where all the well known marital arts groups like the Jingwu Association and the Koushu Association existed. Urban association tended to write books and leave more newspaper articles as evidence for historians. The Red Spears had the numbers, but they were out in the sticks, and out there, less ‘scientific’, ‘outsider’ and ‘western’ ideas pervaded. There we find war magic, rituals and mystical arts.

Yanan China Peoples’ Militia member.

The Red Spears, as effective grassroots organisers in local areas seemed to perform something of the same function as elements of the historical Yakuza in Japan, stepping in when local authorities overstep their mark and being effective at “getting things done”.

And despite the name Red Spears, let’s not forget that these militia groups, like all militia groups, carried rifles. Performing magic rituals and being in a secret society did not mean they rejected all modern technology. 

The article contains a report called “Background and Doings of China’s Red Spears By Norman D. Hanwell (Asia Magazine), The China Weekly Review, August 19, 1939. Page 381” which talks about practices that don’t seem a million miles away from what we would call chi kung these days, if you made it more secular and removed the practices we would call superstitious.  

“Through the customs of the Red School probably differ from locality to locality and naturally the secret part of their program is difficult to confirm, since no outsider is permitted to attend, there are descriptions by Chinese in print. In some sectors members of the Red School “got to school” in a temple each evening. Arriving with their red-tasseled spears. Reaching the School Hall they come before the incense altar common to all Chinese Temples, bare their backs and kneel to listen to one their leaders lecture. Following this, each one breaths deeply and beats his breast, ending with the shouting of the slogan “Chi Kung lai yeh!”—a phrase difficult to translate. Perhaps it might be compared to “The gods be with us!” a short incantation from which strength may be obtained. Out of this process some of the Red Spears are convinced of their invincibility in battle and immunity to death therein.

The Type of Training

Certain persons profess to find in this type of training some scientific basis. For example, the regular evening attendance, the listening to lectures and the sitting in meditation are good training, they claim, for the development of the quality of serenity or tranquility.  The practice of holding the breath and beating the breast is excellent for developing the lungs. The crying out of the slogans is declared to be good training for breath control. Whether we accept any of these “scientific” values or not, we must admit that there are psychological advantages to be obtained from these practices. The peasant convinces himself of his own ability to undertake certain tasks, and his conviction inevitably increases his effectiveness.

A recently made investigation of the White Spear Society of Anhwei Province, an area now under Japanese occupation, reports that the superstitious “Chu kung lai yeh!” has been replaced by slogans more appropriate to present activities. Among these are “Kill the Eastern Sea Devils”—that is, the Japanese—and “Kill the Traitors”—that is, those Chinese cooperating with the Japanese.”

As you can see, the report talks about breath control, tranquility training, hitting the body to strengthen it and gain invincibility (The shouting of the slogan “Chi Kung Lai yeh!” may have some relevance, but who knows…? That may simply have been the historical equivalent of “Let’s do this!”)

I’m increasingly wondering how much of modern Chinese martial arts is built on all this long forgotten training from a different time and setting. It’s interesting to ponder.

I wrote about cults in marital arts yesterday. I think its pretty clear that The Red Spears would fit the definition of a cult, but by modern standards they are way more extreme than anything the Tai Chi world can conjure up today. Forget expensive training camps. They actually led their members into armed conflicts, battles and more! That’s also an interesting topic to consider.

Saanxi province China Peoples’ Militia

Tim, tell me you’re in a cult without telling me you’re in a cult.

Tim, tell me you’re in a cult without telling me you’re in a cult:

A comment from “Tim”:

“I’m disappointed in your entire take on internal power, as indicated by your dismissive way of talking about those who actually do possess some genuine internal power as using “tricks”. To be blunt, you’re just ignorant–that is, you have no personal experience with real practitioners and assume everyone showing such power must be a charlatan. Yes, there are many fakers out there and also many brainless critics who are not truly skeptical but just reactionary and dismissive. You haven’t seen this film but you lump everyone doing demos of internal power into one category of fakers using cheap tricks. I suggest you seek out one of the genuine Tai Chi practitioners who possess such power and experience it for yourself. Otherwise, you don’t represent Tai Chi Chuan as your little blog suggests. You just stand for the Tai Chi meditation approach and teaching form, which is OK but very limited and in denial of the original purposes and uses of Tai Chi Chuan. It’s not that difficult to find those who are the real deal. Start with the Martial Man series and see some who have taught at their “camps”–Adam Mizner, Liang de Hua and many others who are authentic practitioners of internal power approaches. Those people are themselves the former students of even higher-level masters whose powers are phenomenal. Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art that can be practiced for health and well-being, but it remains an extremely effective and powerful self-defense system that includes the use of various forms of “jin”–an energy converted to force that can be issued against any opponent. Take a breath, lose the cheap tricks of your dismissal, and try to seek out some contact with those who can show you what you’re missing.

Let’s just go over a few things from this:

  1. Tim (the owner of an anonymous sounding Yahoo email address) has no idea who I am, has never met me, and has certainly not read much of my material beyond my one post about the film “The Power of Chi”, which has got him so upset. That post contained an excellent video by Rob Poyton (who has appeared on my podcast before) showing how those things are done, and that anybody can do them with a bit of training. It’s well worth a watch.
  2. I can do the “internal power” things he’s talking about.
  3. I’ve done the “internal power” things he’s talking about on a stage in front of people.
  4. They are just demonstrations of ways to use power, not divine miracles done by a guy who needs to be paid thousands of dollars while being treated like a master of the universe.
  5. What I object to is the conflation of these things with real fighting skill, not the things themselves.
  6. Tim, you’re in a cult, and you don’t know you’re in a cult. One day you’ll look back and think, wow I was in a cult!
  7. Namaste.

How do I raise the spirit of vitality?

“Could you tell me if there is a specific exercise to raise the spirit of vitality?
Or could this be just any exercise at all rather than a specific one?
I have been learning tai chi and it talks about Spirit/Shen and its importance,
but I haven’t a clue exactly what it means. I know to feel full of spirit means you feel on top of the world and ready for life- this is what I would like to feel.”

Well, that’s a tricky one to answer. You have to ask what is meant by “spirit”. In the Mongol language, for example, there are a whole plethora of words that in English would translate in “spirit” and they all mean something slightly different. The Chinese word “shen”, I think, could be translated into several different English words depending on context. In English we have to add more words to a sentence containing “spirit” to add context. For example, “spirit of vitality” – this would be the sense of feeling full of energy and ready to face the world that you talk about. But there are other words that we translate as “sprit” that have all sorts of meanings, from the mundane to the profound – and all slightly related. For example to “raise the spirit” can mean something as mundane as keeping the posture upright with the head up, or as profound as the creative realm of the tree of life.

This idea of being upright (physically, mentally and spiritually) is a big thing in Tai Chi – we are told to “let a light and intangible energy raise to the head top” in Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points.

Yang Cheng-Fu

So, to get to the other part of your question – how to do it. There is no specific exercise for raising the spirit of vitality. Rather, it is a part of the postural requirements of Tai Chi, so it should apply in all exercise orientated towards Tai Chi practice. You want to feel as if your head if being pulled up by a thread from the crown point (between the tops of the ears). The result should be that the back of your neck gently lengthens and the chin tucks in. As always, you don’t want to achieve this posture with force, so don’t push your head into it. You should find that if you stand, focus on your breathing, generate that lightweight observation of self that is required in Tai Chi, your head and neck posture should naturally want to assume this posture.

Everything in Tai Chi works together. If you are breathing well, then it will encourage your posture to be upright and strong, which in turn will encourage you to ‘raise the head top’. If you can remove stress and tension from the body then the weight will sink down simultaneously, so you should feel strongly rooted into the ground and drawn up from the crown at the same time. These two pulls in opposite directions provide balance. You are separating yin and yang in the body – again, another part of the Tai Chi process.

I hope that helps.

Did Taoist cultivation exercises really influence Western gymnastics?

I was watching a video recently about the origins of Swedish Gymnastics, the exercise system created (or codified) by Dr. Pehr Henrik Ling in the 18th Century. Swedish Gymnastics was part of the “Physical Culture Movement”, which began in Europe during the 19th century, spreading to England, the United States and can still be found today in the form of Gymnastics, Body Building and modern massage.

(Discussion of Swedish Gymnastics is usual centered around the fact that they contain more of the content of a modern Yoga class than you find in anything from ancient India. This information usually comes as a shock to most people, but postures like Downward Dog or Table Top are straight from Swedish Gymnastics and have little to do with ancient Indian Yogis on a path to enlightenment. You can find out more about that in the book Yoga Body by Dr Mark Singleton, or his Yoga Journal article.)

But today we are not interested in Yoga. We’re interested in the connection between Swedish Gymnastics and Taoist health exercises. It’s always been been assumed that Ling was, at least, inspired, by the Chinese/Taoist breathing, gymnastic and alchemical systems (what we would call Qigong today) when he created his gymnastic system, if not actually copying them, but the following video by Physical Culture Historians makes the case that there was no Chinese connection for Ling’s work at all. Have a watch:

It’s quite a persuasive video. I mean, it doesn’t matter much these days – nobody except cultural historians really practices the old style of Swedish gymnastics anymore, as far as I can see, and millions of people practice yoga and Chinese Qigong, but it did start me thinking about the whole question.

From watching the video it appears that the commonly quoted idea that Ling traveled to China at some point is bogus. Which leaves the idea that he might have been exposed to a book on Taoist gymnastic exercises. Everything traces back to the 1779 article by Jesuit priest Cibot “Notice du Cong-fou [Kung-fu] des Bonzes Tao-see Tao shih” which you could translate as “Kung Fu xercises of the Taoist Priests”. The video above calls these the “old form of the popular Baduanjin exercises” – however, I’m not convinced that’s what they are, but anyway… I agree with the point the video is making, which is that these seated exercises don’t seem to have much in common with Ling’s exercises, which are all done standing.

The video makes no reference to Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, Vol 5, which is the work that, I think for most modern scholars, adds the most credence to the idea that Ling’s exercises were based on Chinese Taoist gymnastics. But Needham is also using Cibot as his source. Needham says:

Our little digression, if such it was, on Chinese calisthenics, has brought us to the time when the Jesuit P. M. Cibot (3) presented Europeans with a short but celebrated paper on the strictly macrobiotic exercises of the physiological alchemists.a His ‘Notice du Cong-fou [Kung-fu] des Bonzes Tao-see [Tao shihJ’ of + 1779 was intended to present the physicists and physicians of Europe with a sketch of a system of medical gymnastics which they might like to adopt-or if they found it at fault they might be stimulated to invent something better. This work has long been regarded as of cardinal importance in the history of physiotherapyb because it almost certainly influenced the Swedish founder of the modem phase of the art, Per Hendrik Ling. Cibot studied at least one Chinese book, but also got much from a Christian neophyte who had become expert in the subject before his conversion. Cibot did not care much for the Taoist philosophy, but believed that kungfu and its medical theory was an ‘estimable system’ which had really worked many cures and relieved many infirmities.

Did this work really influence Ling? Maybe he read it, who can say, but I think the idea that Ling’s exercises are in any way copies of these Taoist exercises seems to be stretching things a bit. In any case, there were already plenty of existing exercises systems in Europe that are the most likely source of Ling’s influence, not to mention that Ling got a lot of his stuff from fencing, which he was very familiar with.

I think we also have to address the issue of whether anybody can truly create something new, or not, as well. Every new Kung Fu style, for instance, is not really new, it’s a blend of things that have come before with some new ideas added.

So, I have to say, it is looking like Needham is wrong here and that Ling wasn’t influenced by Chinese sources, but equally, I don’t think Ling created all these exercises himself out of thin air. Every great innovator stands on the shoulders of giants. Either way, Ling’s system remains a fascinating snapshot of exercise methods that started to sweep Europe, and US, paving the way for the things that would follow.

The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, Episode 14: The Power of Buk Sing Choy Li Fut, with Phil Duffy

In this episode my guest is Phil Duffy, a senior student of Sifu Wan Kei-Ho from Hong Kong, who carries on a lineage of Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Li Fut from the famous masters Ku Yu Chang and Tam Sam.

Buk Sing is a much rarer sub style of Choy Li Fut that involves less long forms and more conditioning and drills, and it’s the same style of Choy Li Fut that I learned in the UK, so when I met Phil back in the 2000s we had a lot to talk about.

We’ve kept in touch over the years so it was good to catch up again for a chat.

Here we get into the differences between the various Choy Li Fut styles, how it’s different training martial arts in Asia compared to the west, and we talk about the key to it all, the ging (or jin)  –  that special type of soft power, that some people call Internal power – that the Chinese martial arts are famous for, and how it’s used in Choy Li Fut. We also talk about the famed Wing Chun / Choy Li Fut rivalry and how Choy Li Fut relates to other styles from the same area of China, like the older Hung Kuen style.

Support The Tai Chi Notebook and join our Patreon:

http://www.patreon.com/taichinotebook

N.B. Patrons get a downloadable version of the podcast MP3 file. (Regular podcast is streaming-only).

Links

Sifu Wan Kei-Ho webpage:

http://www.kungfuwan.com/eng_home.html

Episode link

Getting lost in words like Qi and Yi

Photo by Happy Pixels on Pexels.com

I was observing the usual argument/discussion between two people about ancient Chinese words like Yi and Qi that frequently happen in Tai Chi circles, and it was going down a familiar route..

“Don’t lecture me! I read classic Chinese and Yi means ‘idea’ and Qi means ‘movement’.”

“Really? Wang Yongquan wrote ‘To mobilize Qi, you create an empty space, by Soong and a light Yi to empty the area. The differentiation of yin and yang is what makes Qi flow.”

“Seems quiet different then…”

Confused! Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

And on and on and on…

Recently I had a conversation with a very experienced Chinese martial artist (it will be released as a podcast soon, don’t worry) about how these things are trained in Asia vs how we do it in the West. 

He made the point that in the West we have to understand something intellectually before we will do it. i.e. we have to know we’re not wasting our time, that we will get something out of this. It has to ‘make sense’. And we usually ask loads of questions before even trying it. In contrast, in Asia, there is a lot less questioning and a lot more doing. You just do it. If you’re doing it wrong you hope your teacher will notice and put you on the right track. But generally you just keep doing it secure in the knowledge that eventually you will get it. It’s all in the feel. If you have the feel right, then you are doing it. End of story.

Nowhere is this distinction between the Eastern and Western approach more clearly represented that on discussion forums about Tai Chi that are full of Westerners. We love to argue about what these ancient concept and words like Qi, Yi and Xin really mean. As if one day we will arrive at the ultimate answer. It seems we can’t get enough of it. 

But here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter how you define these words, what concept or theory you use for their implementation, or how well you read Classical Chinese from the Ming Dynasty. What matters is – can you do it? Can you show it to me?

If I said, “Show me your Yi. Let me feel your Jin” Could you do it?

If you can then it doesn’t matter wether you define Yi as “idea”, “mind” or “intent”. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous phrase coined by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who gave a paper in 1931 about physics and mathematics in which he wrote that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.

So, all these online arguments about Qi and Yi, are effectively pointless. They are map, not territory. However, I do think that a little intellectual understanding can be useful. Especially if it stops you asking questions long enough to just practice. Also, there’s always this temptation to think that if I can just understand something perfectly, or write it down in the perfect, most simple way, then eventually everyone will go “Yes! That’s it!”

Anyway, as I was practicing this morning a thought popped into my head which I thought felt right, so I thought I’d write down and share it:

“Yi is the direction you’re sending your mind in, and the Jin follows.”

To me, Yi is always about a direction. And it is directed. It’s the opposite of a vague, warm, fuzzy haze. It has a steadfastness and a focus. There. Did that help? Or did it just make you more confused. Answers in the comments section please. If you have your own pithy phrase to summarise a concept as subtle as Yi that works for you, then feel free to add it below.

I’ve written before about Yi in Tai Chi Chuan. So, you can have a read of that too.

The restorative effects of Tai Chi practice

Sun Lu Tang

I’ve just finished recording my next podcast with the mighty Seymour Yang whose martial arts clothing range goes under the name Meerkatsu. It will be out soon. At one point he asked me how Tai Chi practice fits into my life after I started BJJ and I replied that when you wake up the morning after a hard training session you inevitably feel a bit stiff. I run through my Tai Chi form a few times and pretty soon I feel good again and able to train BJJ later. That’s a great benefit in my view.

Sun Lu Tang put it like this:

“Those of you who are weak, suffering from fatigue, injury or illness, or who have weakened your Qi from practicing other martial arts to the point that you no longer have the strength to train, all of you can practice Tai Ji Quan. With practice, qi will quickly return to a balanced state and become strong, while the spirit returns to a state of wholeness.”

– Sun Lu-Tang, A Study of Taijiquan, 1924

To me that sounds like the same thing, except there’s no need to mention Qi these days. As Notebook reader Richard commented on a recent post:

“When a Chinese traditional teacher answered, How is this done? with the answer, “qi.” He was essentially saying biomechanics, or physics, or motor control, or sports psychology, or some other subject he couldn’t fully explain. Or more specifically, by qi, he was saying, “I can’t explain the details of why, but it falls in the category of qi.”

The Power of Chi, the movie, and a response

A new YouTube video landed a day or so ago that has caused something of a sensation. It’s a trailer for a movie called The Power of Chi and has some well known UFC fighters and professional athletes in it, all experiencing the power of a Tai Chi master’s “chi”. And there’s a voice over by Morgan Freeman. I kid you not! Yes, the Morgan Freeman!

From the trailer, this mysterious chi is presented as a force that can be produced by the master and defies all explanation. To be honest, this tai chi master has been producing very similar YouTube videos for years now, but he’s usually demonstrating on no-name seminar attendees, this time however it’s a big budget production with well known fighters like Fabricio Werdum and Lyoto Machida being demonstrated on.

You can see the trailer here:

Now I haven’t seen the full film, and frankly, I’m not going to pay to download it, but colour me unimpressed with that. It all seems a bit silly to me.

Friend of the Notebook, Rob Poyton (who I recorded a podcast with recently) has produced his own video response to the trailer and I think it’s hard to argue with his conclusions, but feel free to make your own mind up:

I like Rob’s point at the end, that if you’re going to demonstrate things like this, then what are the functional uses of it? That’s what you should be demonstrating.