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  • Writer's pictureMartin LaPlatney

How can you call it Internal Art if you do not practice the Internal

It seems to take me forever to write anything for my blog. Some of the reason for that is based on the feeling that no one is probably reading it and the rest on my natural reluctance to write!

That aside, I thought I would say something about what internal art is. This question comes up because people often get into discussions about “internal” vs “external”. Often with the implication that one is “better” than the other. Some people even take the POV that there is really no difference at all and the terms are artificial and only go back to the 19th century . Generally speaking the external arts use training methods that develop the outer muscles of the body to develop power and speed etc. (Just think of all of the training montages in Kung Fu movies like The 36 Chambers of Shaolin). This was very effective and in a relatively short time a good soldier or bodyguard could be developed. (Some of the styles I have practiced in the past fall into this category). These external arts will also often emphasize proper breathing, stretching and movement of energy throughout the body. They are usually practiced in a very vigorous manner and depending on the style, (or mixture of styles as in MMA) can be very effective. Because of these qualities and others they are also very appropriate for sports. In China wushu is the most obvious example of sport martial arts and although Xingyi, Taijie, Bagua and some other Internal arts are demonstrated in wushu they are not done in an internal way by the wushu practitioners and therefore are internal in name only.

Master Li said “how can you call it internal art if you do not practice the internal?” What does that mean? The internal arts (especially in the west) often get caught up in discussions of Qi and you will hear people say that they are “cultivating their Qi” while they practice. Some even believe that they can use their Qi to affect people at a distance! (I have never met anyone who could do this to someone who was not their student). The internal arts also are often associated with the notion of “softness” and “yielding”, many times to the point of practitioners moving like sick cats. They are often soft on the outside and empty on the inside. Master Li also said “the torso of the body has to move but if the inside of the torso does not move than it is empty” this is the same idea as the saying “if only the outside moves it is just the skin of the tiger”. Internal arts focus primarily on the inside of the body, the undeveloped part, the nerves and fascia and smaller muscle groups. Internal training done correctly will “wake up” the interior of the body. For example Master Li talks about the “twisting of the waist” and its importance. The first time I was aware of this was years ago when Song Zhiyong had me place my hand on his waist as he moved. It felt like there was a small animal inside of him, rolling and twisting. This central movement was what drove the four limbs of his body, advancing and retreating, rising and falling, expanding and contracting. If he had not let me feel that and only talked about it I would never have been able to develop it myself. The inside of the human body is naturally elastic but due to our life style etc it is undeveloped. It can be developed to the point that it feels like a firm elastic body within the body that moves and the outer body, which remains supple, follows along. For this reason the internal arts generally did not use heavy weights etc. That kind of training would just create excess firmness in the outer body and the springiness of the internal body would never be made manifest. Now I want to make it clear that I am not talking about no strength and a sort of external sad softness that we so often see. In fact if a person is weak the internal arts will use methods to develop the appropriate external strength. I often point out to students that internal development is not something foreign or outside of yourself. It is natural to the body and over time can be cultivated.

There are of course places where external and internal arts crossover. Many older external artists after a lifetime of training lose a lot of the external strength they once had but their movement remains powerful precisely because they develop more internal movement. Some Internal artists do use weights etc. in their particular styles and they develop a lot of external strength and firmness (if however they have not developed internal softness and elastic flexibility it is not truly internal no matter what it looks like on the outside or what they call it.) Internal and External are also not limited to Chinese arts and aspects of both can be found in martial cultures all over the world.

The debate about which is better often becomes about which is better for fighting ignoring the fact that martial arts can and should be about much more than fighting. Fighting is also much more about the fighter than the style. I know and have met practitioners from both schools who are very good at fighting and many from both schools who are not. No matter internal or external if you want to fight you must practice fighting. Many traditional martial artists in China do not like to practice sparring etc. because they fear losing face thus it is easy to get a false sense of security in your art and to be very surprised when someone hits you in the face. Many techniques in both schools of martial arts are also not useful for sport fighting, some because they were developed to be aesthetically pleasing and some because they were meant for bodyguards and caravan guards (who would always go to a weapon first). For example most Chinese arts traditionally do not have any ground work (ground work can have many internal qualities by the way) because if the other person is armed (and usually people would at least have a knife) it is very dangerous to be on the ground and you don’t want his friends attacking you while you are rolling around with him. Also, much as I hate to say it, rolling on the ground was considered “peasant style”

Without going into too much detail the two schools also differ in power generation with the external school using (generally) segmented power where one part of the body begins before another part. This can give a lot of power. The internal schools always advocate “whole body power” where the whole body begins and ends at the same time, if this is coupled with the elastic body one can generate great vibrating or shock power while not needing to load up. In other words the fist does not need to be pulled back before going out. Both can have advantages. The external styles also (generally) tend to emphasize powerfully blocking the opponent's attack and then striking him. The block itself can injure the opponent. Internal schools tend to favor “suppleness” and “yielding” and creating a place to strike him. Suppleness however can often become limp like a noodle and yielding nothing more than a form of fleeing. If however the suppleness is like a snake and the yielding is actually leading his energy so he follows without knowing he is following it can be very effective.

Both schools have different training methods and different philosophies but one is not superior to the other and it is important that the student finds the right teacher and school for his or her temperament, body and spirit.

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I first traveled to China over twenty six years ago. I traveled there with Tom Bisio and another friend Tom Clifford. Tom Bisio was at the time vice president of North American Tang Shou Tao. Tom C.

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