Is ‘internal’ the holy grail of movement?

Is there a single most efficient movement method? What is natural movement? What makes a movement ‘internal’?Screenshot from 2016-03-20 18:50:49

These are all topics I’m going to cover here. You’ll get some answers, though not necessarily ones that you’ll like. You’ll also get more questions, and you may get a little sense of how some of the over simplistic views on this subject irritate me on a bad day, or make me laugh on a good one.

Along the way we’ll touch on Swan Lake, the Easter bunny, craft beer, bees in trees, divisive marketers, what I like about Jake Mace, where to put Chen Yu’s pies and much, much more.

I’m going to start with some of the strange and fluffy ideas around the ‘internal’ of ‘internal’ martial arts. Throughout the article I’m going to keep the quotes around ‘internal’ as a way to acknowledge the lack of agreed understanding as to what it is.

The politics of ‘internal’ martial arts

What is ‘internal’ in the context of martial arts? Broadly speaking there are a number of Chinese martial arts that are referred to as ‘internal martial arts’.  If we look a little more closely at why they are called ‘internal’ we find a range of different historical roots.

The earliest is about politics and nationalism – a 1689 distinction between Daoism and Wudang associated with China and Shaolin, associated with Buddhism and the foreign Manchu dynasty that controlled China. It was basically a subtle snipe and a drawing of lines between us and them, foreign and local. Internal is us, external is them. Plenty of that going on now – it’s one of the universal tools of politicians.

Aspects of this get carried into today’s discussions of ‘internal’ and external. ‘Internal’ arts get lumped together with Daoism regularly. Actually the borders between religious practices in China are not so clearly defined. In China Buddhism and Daoism mutually influenced each other, in a similar way to Christmas being celebrated at the same time as the pagan winter solstice festival, or Easter being named after a Celtic fertility goddess who was associated with the hare.

What seems like exotic Daoist thinking – five elements, eight trigrams, twelve animals, ten heavenly stems and so on are just the way Chinese people explained things. Thinking in these terms in Chinese culture is no more Daoist than checking a horoscope makes you one of the ‘three wise men’ rather than a Christian.

A bunch of mates mixing it up

Later on in 1894 a number of teachers got together to do some exchange and expand their students skills. These teachers were Cheng Tinghua, Li Cunyi, Liu Dekuan and Liu Weixang. All these teachers practised mostly Baguazhang, Xingyiquan and Taijiquan and they described their association as Neijiaquan (inside the house boxing).  Whether they chose this name as a way of saying ‘hey this is our indoor circle of mates mixing it up’ or for some other reason is not really clear. It certainly suggests that they did not call their arts Neijia before the development of the association.

One of Cheng Tinghua’s students also added to the distinction or division and was also extremely influential in the way that we think of Chinese martial arts today. This student, Sun Lutang was originally a practitioner of Xingyiquan and later Taijiquan. Sun Lutang wrote some of the first books that consciously attempted to relate the practise of martial arts to the classical Chinese thinking. He distinguishes internal as placing more emphasis on the use of the mind to direct the force in the body to obtain superior leverage with greater relaxation, which he also related to primarily Daoist forms of internal cultivation.

I think it’s worth mentioning that Sun spent a number of years researching the Yijing (the book of changes) and these methods in the Emei mountains, which suggest that theses associations were not well developed in the training that he had previously received from among the most renowned Xingyiquan and Baguazhang teachers of the era.

So what we do NOT have is any kind of clear historical or cultural distinction between internal and external in Chinese martial arts. Some martial arts clearly put more emphasis on relaxed training methods and others on harder conditioning.

We can use beer as an analogy. These days we have ‘craft beers’ and ‘industrial beers’. A couple of centuries ago we just had beer. It’s probably about the same with Chinese martial arts, once upon a time it was just martial arts…

Remember all of these practices shade into the broader Chinese culture, which mixes aspects of Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism in their explanation of the correct way to do things. From time to time a teacher or commentator will attempt to draw closer links to one of these streams within the larger culture, but they never exist fully in isolation.


What about the movement?

When you look at Chinese martial arts you can see that many different martial arts have more and less similar ‘flavours’ of movement.

You can also trace sequences of movements and their names across styles and in forms. These are part of the way we can see the historical development of styles.

The styles that are grouped together as internal often have a similar flavour to their movement and training processes.

This similarity overlaps considerably with styles that fall outside of the ‘big three’ styles widely considered ‘internal’. Shaolin xinyiba, Bajiquan and some versions of Hequan (Crane boxing) come to mind.

Personalities and groups involved in these arts argue which method is the most ‘internal’ but what they are arguing about is the way the practitioners move, the particular coordinations of the body that are considered the ideal end result of the training.

Of course they also argue about the methods that should be used to develop this movement. The more they argue about this, the more they lose sight of an important bigger picture of martial arts – which is surviving and being good at violence. I will talk about this later.

You may consider it a cop out, but I will not try and explain or define what I consider ‘internal’ movement to be, other than to leave it as a set of coordinations in how the body moves that are used to maintain balance and generate force.

What I will do is take some time knock a few things off the list that I do not consider ‘internal’ in the neijia or Chinese martial arts sense of the word.


Is internal subtle use of small movements and the use of the imagery as a guide to develop this?

I recently read that a teacher defines anything that uses internal imagery and attention as a guide to movement as ‘internal’.

This seems like a meaningless definition to me. It suggests that if I have a stomach ache and I put my attention on the pain and walk carefully so as to avoid shaking the sore area I am doing ‘internal’.

My example is obviously  ludicrous. But there are people who use subtle and sophisticated use of imagery combined with high levels of interoception (the capacity to feel inside the body) as a way to develop movement. could this be ‘internal’?

Let’s look at one such hypothetical person – a Ballerina auditioning for the role of Odette in Swan Lake. For years she has worked on her balance, the subtle articulation of her arms and fingers, the capacity to remain serene as she leaps, the exquisite sense of centre required to perform multiple pirouettes. As she prepares for the audition she imagines a lake in moonlight, swans gliding through the sky, her fingers become feathers and her neck curves with a swan’s long elegance

Is this Odette doing ‘internal’?

Not in any way that a Chinese martial artist would consider ‘internal’. Of course there are parallels – the fine motor control, the ability to guide movement with imagery, and of course strong legs.

But this

is not this

Yes they are both graceful, and highly skilled but there are more differences than just the number of pies that Chen Yu has eaten.

Could Odette use her strength, flexibility, choreographic memory and coordination to learn Taiji more quickly than an ‘average’ person. Yes, but there is also a fair chance she could get fixated on what she knows – choreography, and thus not develop the specific body use that would allow her to do this:

By the way I pick Chen Yu as an example because he has very graceful movement in the most un-ballerina like frame – and not as any kind of endorsement. I could just have easily given you Sun Zhijun to be mesmerised by.

Beautiful but not ballet.

It does not matter if you visualise white light, unicorns, rainbows, trigrams or anything else, visualisation is not the definition of ‘internal’. At best internal imagery and attention is a shared tool towards differing goals.

Don’t forget marketing!

One often forgotten use of internal, and almost a definition is it is a marketing tool. People who do ‘internal’ martial arts almost always refer to what they do as ‘internal’ rather proudly. Nobody advertises what they do as ‘external’. You won’t hear someone say ‘Yes I do EXTERNAL Shaolin/Hung gar/MMA….insert art of choice’.

So ‘internal’ is used as a way to denote a higher quality of sophistication and refinement in some groups of people, or of mystical depth among others.

I’ll admit to using ‘internal’ in a similar way from time to time. It’s usually with the aim of helping people get a better idea of what I do. Baguazhang does not look like most people’s concept of kungfu/martial arts and I optimistically believe the word ‘internal’ sometimes shifts the frame a little.

Now I really think about it, it doesn’t help much though. Usually either the term means absolutely nothing to them, or it reinforces the whole problem of visualisation, qi, magic powers or just for health exercises.

The tricky thing about the movement and sets of coordination associated with ‘internal’

The tricky thing about these coordinations is that they are hard to see.

Consider that many people have an inability to distinguish left from right or tense from relaxed in their own, their ability to see what is going on with someone else is not well developed.

I coach people in the basics of Olympic lifts as part of my work. I would say that to start with at least fifty percent of people are unable to see and duplicate the basic coordination of the power clean (for example).

In the power clean the majority of force comes from an explosive opening of the hips and extension of the legs – followed by a pull with the arms. Here is a power clean if you do not know what one looks like:

Now this coordination is considerably simpler than what you find in Taijiquan, Baguazhang etc so imagine how tricky it is to actually catch all of what is going on when someone like Wang Haijun let’s loose with some ‘internal’ power:

(I quite like this video because he’s wearing  t-shirt and you can see some the coordinations between belly, spine, legs and arms)

You may not be able to see how Wang Haijun does it, but it’s pretty clear that it’s NOT the same thing at all as Jake Mace does below as he exhales into his microphone:

Jake seems to believe it is the same (or he is deliberately misrepresenting with his ‘real Tai Chi’ videos) but it’s really not.

Incidentally much as I think Jake is deluding himself, misleading others, or both I give him props for being pretty strong, flexible, smiley and seemingly healthy – even if I really wish he would stop with his ‘internal’ videos.


From ‘internal’ to ‘natural’ and ‘efficient’

Some people describe ‘internal’ movement as the most ‘natural’ there is, and others describe it as the most ‘efficient’.

I will start with ‘natural’. The real problem with this is that ‘natural’ is a very fuzzy word when it comes to movement. What the hell does it mean anyway?

Rafe Kelly defines ‘natural movement’ as movement in a non-man made environment. I quite like this as a definition because it completely skips the question of how someone moves.

If ‘natural’ is related to ‘instinctive’ rather than learned, or cultural then it may relate to the movements of non human animals.

The thing is there is not a single human that lives outside of a culture and thus at some level has had their movement affected by the cultural norms.

If ‘internal’ movement is ‘natural’ movement then I would expect it to be displayed by people who live to the greatest extent in non-human constructed environments, and who are part of a culture that does not make a qualitative distinction between humans and other species.  ‘Natural’ movement seems more likely among cultures that consider themselves part of a greater family of animals, compared to the post agricultural attitude of ‘humans with souls and reason’ compared to the ‘moving meatbags’ of other species.

If this is the case then this man climbing a tree is a far better example of ‘natural’ and therefore ‘internal’ movement than any of the Chinese gentlemen above. If you put Chen Yu’s pies at the top of that tree you can be pretty sure it’d benefit his waistline.

Consider also hunter gatherer cultures have existed far longer than agrarian ones, often in largely unbroken forms that develop and pass on skills that are perceptual, physical and social in nature.

Meanwhile on another continent UFC legend Anderson Silva tries his skills out in a tribe with a wrestling tradition.

By the rules of the tribe he is easily beaten. With his full BJJ arsenal it is the other way around.

More significantly Anderson describes these men as immensely strong. These are men who are mostly smaller than him, do not have conditioning coaches or nutrition coaches. It must be their ‘natural movement’ … is it ‘internal’?

I’m sure there are people inclined to jump to such conclusions. Some would possibly equally jump to conspiracies like evidence of a trans-pacific cultural bridge, or that space aliens taught ‘internal’ qi technology to earthlings on multiple continents millennia ago….

Whatever. From a Chinese martial arts point of view, neither of the tribal cultures are doing ‘internal’.

and efficient?

Finally we have the question of ‘internal’ movement as the most ‘efficient’. This is also tricky.

What does efficient mean in terms of movement? Does it relate to energy expenditure in Kilojoules for a given amount of work – the ability to walk or run or lift for example?

If this was the case it should be measurable, but as far as I know it has never been measured. It would also be the case that teachers with notable ‘internal’ skills should be able to outrun people without those skills. I have never seen any evidence of this. Have you?

If ‘internal’ movement skills provided a real measurable power boost across movement modalities then you would expect them to be used by strength athletes, or at least by Chinese strength athletes.

Here is Liu Xiaojun, 2012 Olympic under 77kg weightlifting gold medalist:

He represents China, and if the Chinese government thought there would be value in either propaganda or performance by training with traditional Chinese masters then you would expect to see it. Apparently ‘internal’ power does not works so well for lifting 2.5 times body weight overhead.

A get out clause could be that one characteristic of ‘internal’ movement is that it works with the natural spiralling quality of the body, and an Olympic bar is notably straight (great series on the spirals in the body here).

On the other hand these Olympic lifters from Korea have no trouble transferring their lifting technique to jumping.

I don’t see many Taiji people having anything like that vertical lift. Please share if you have clips that can enlighten me.

Alright let’s step away from running, lifting and jumping.  Some people believe that ‘internal’ relates to the ability to produce a maximal force in a very short time and space, usually channeled into a strike.

Again this is something that should be easily measurable – but does not get measured, except occasionally with tiny sample sizes or on sensationalist made for television ‘Ultimate deadly killer warrior’ type programs. These shows are designed around entertainment not accuracy. Its a little frustrating that force output has never been measured in any consistent way across styles, taking into accounts such factors as weight, practise history and so on. We genuinely lack data here, and I’d love to see some.


But it’s complicated…

Of course martial arts are far more complicated than sprinting on flat ground, or lifting a bar of reliable diameter and predictable mass, or jumping or even kicking stationary objects really hard.

Martial arts must address the need to apply appropriate rather than just maximal force to a choice of targets that are being moved in a way that is meant to be inconvenient to the person seeking to apply the force. Thus the ability to hide movement can be as important as the ability to generate it.

But this is relatively testable.

We have competitions in which all the variables are evened out through the use of weight categories and agreed if minimal rule sets that allow a wide variety of strikes and joint locks. Remember a submission in MMA today is a broken joint if the combattants desire and nobody ‘taps’. And bones do get broken regularly in MMA – I’m not going to post it but Vanderlei had a rather nasty leg break (and has come back to fight again).

When the capacity to land, avoid and survive strikes/takedowns becomes as or more important than the ability to focus internal strength then there is little or no evidence of ‘internal’ methods being superior.

If you have the evidence then please show me. Your personal anecdotes are interesting, feel free to share – but don’t expect me to be convinced. MMA pros are practical people, they’ll do whatever they can training wise to gain an edge. So far they are not convinced either. Of course MMA is evolving, and we are seeing more and more techniques from ‘traditional’ arts being applied in tournaments – though not applied by people who use ‘traditional’ training methods.

These days there is even a growing genuine MMA circuit in China for ‘internal’ based fighters to display their power in.

However for now what we see is mostly the same old dog and pony (often) fixed fights between ‘traditional’ styles like this.

The UFC is generally the gold standard of MMA today. It is not without the usual problems that come when fights make millions of dollars. However there are other respected circuits that may be easier to get into with a similar standard of skill.

Until we see ‘internal’ fighters in any of these circuits there will be a big question mark hanging over the training methods of these styles. A question mark that cannot be argued away with ‘these arts are too deadly’ or ‘internal masters are above this kind of thing – not interested in money or publicity’. Too many teachers charge a lot of money to teach, and get involved in televised publicity stunts to show off their powers. See below.


To conclude – what I’m not saying and what I am

I’m not saying that ‘internal’ is not a thing, I believe it is, and that it is not limited to the arts normally defined as ‘internal’.

What I am saying is that ‘internal’ is a very specific method or technology for developing an ‘integrated’ whole body power. It is a method that has fuzzy boundaries, with some movement having more of desired qualities, other movement having less. It also has fuzzy boundaries in terms of whether it is just movement, or training in awareness and meditation, or preservation of cultural tradition.

The methodology for ‘internal’ is not easy to communicate through words (pretty much impossible), and in my experience requires more attention, intelligence and work than most people are willing to dedicate.

Nobody that I know, including the most dedicated researchers claim to have understood or mastered all of ‘internal’. The best teachers have found means to explain ‘internal’ in ways that their students can follow. But it is the nature of any simple explanation that it sacrifices complexity and detail for being accessible. That’s why access to a good teacher is really important to stay ‘on track’. It’s very easy to head off on tangents over time.

There are some martial arts teachers have achieved what they consider a ‘good enough’ understanding of ‘internal’ then dedicate themselves to researching other aspects of martial arts or movement that they care about – like tactics, applications. I respect this.

So another thing I’m not saying ‘internal’ is not martially or otherwise applicable. I believe that it is. Though from a time invested compared to results people who really need to fight regularly against skilled opponents are usually better off placing their efforts on technique, tactics, and getting actual experience in the domain that they need it.

I am saying that movement is too rich and complex for their to be any ultimate ‘one’ way to move. Different movement problems and contexts require different solutions. Each problem may have more than one viable solution.

What I really want to say is that when anyone provides too simplistic an answer to these questions or is militantly dogmatic in their expression of them, beware.
I also want to say that you will need to use your intelligence, your discernment, to pick your goals and teachers with care. Perhaps ‘internal’ is a thing that you genuinely want to research and develop. Perhaps it is irrelevant to your life. Only you can decide this.

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