An interesting thing about internal martial artists is that often if you tell them to pull up their heads to improve their posture they are not very satisfied.

However if you tell them to pull up their heads so that their qi can flow through the jade pillow pass at the base of the head then they are much happier.

Anatomically the end result is much the same though.

It is true that the jade pillow analogy is more poetic, and that sometimes imagery and metaphor have a greater transforming effect on movement than simple anatomical instruction.

I admit that Chinese alchemical imagery is attractively exotic, and attraction to the exotic is a valuable human trait. It can add motivation to study, and perspective to the habitual.

It can also be extremely and deliberately confusing. Many alchemical writings acted as a mnemonic to certain initiated people, but were meant to hide knowledge from everyone else.

Chinese martial arts literature borrows some terms from Chinese alchemical writings. It tends to be simpler and more direct in its instruction, but still tries to hide knowledge as much as explain it. So it is often confusing if not explained in terms that we can link to our everyday physical experience.

The six harmonies (liu he) are a good example of this. They are guidelines for movement found in many Chinese martial arts, Shaolin, Taiji, Xingyi, Tanglang (Praying mantis), Bagua and probably many others.

The six harmonies consist of three external harmonies and three internal harmonies, but they are not instantly accessible to many people. Ideally they need demonstration, or at the least simple explanation.

The three external harmonies are:

the feet harmonize with the hands
the knees harmonize with the elbows
the hips harmonize with the shoulders

The three internal harmonies are:

the heart harmonizes with the intent
the intent harmonizes with the qi
the qi harmonizes with the strength

Let’s start with the three external harmonies. When you keep the external harmonies it is easier to maintain  a strong structure. They are a simple a description of how the joints of the body can coordinate efficiently to maintain mechanical integrity. But what does this mean?

It refers to how the joints align and move in relation to each other.  Essentially the feet and hands tend to point in the same direction just as the knees and elbows do,  while the hips and shoulders remain in a single plane.

I say ‘tend to’ because there are exceptions, however it is through these simple correspondences that it is possible to understand the basics of the three external harmonies.

This picture of a woman doing a front squat is a lovely example of keeping the three external harmonies. You can see her square upright torso, the elbows over the knees and the hands over the feet.

The photo is also useful because she is in a very compressed/contracted posture. (I also chose it because it does not come from an internal arts context).

The three external harmonies are not just about a static posture, but relate to how the body expands and contracts. You can get  sense of how if she were to let go of the bar she could expand up from this posture with the elbows moving away from the knees and the hands from the feet as the as her hips-shoulders, knees-elbows open.

What I have described is a linear expansion. The limbs can also rotate. This is another part of the three external harmonies. As a knee presses or rotates to the outside, the corresponding elbow also tends to move in the same direction. This creates a coordinate winding and unwinding.

The three external harmonies can be kept along a side of the body, right foot, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, hand. They can also be kept across the body Right foot, knee, hip, left shoulder elbow, hand.

The crossover from up to down and left to right is mediated by the complex of muscles and connective tissue that criss-cross the hips and lower spine. It is the physical aspect of the ‘dan tien’, tanden or hara. The non physical aspect is the subjective sensation of what this area feels like and how attention to it affects emotional state and mental clarity.

In the typical Bagua walking posture the elbows and knees are both squeezed a little towards each other, the hands both push the same way, while the feet both point the same way. The hips and shoulders stay aligned above each other. It is not a standard, simple square posture as in the front squat above, but it maintains relationships between the respective joints.

The three internal harmonies describe a state of mind-body unity and also of trained reaction/movement.

In Chinese heart and mind are often synonymous. Heart and intent coordinating essentially means focusing on what you want to do – so not thinking about sex, money or health while you move.

In the second of the three internal harmonies intent and qi combine. Qi confuses a lot of people, because it can refer to a lot of different phenomenon, breath, combustibility, nerve transmissions, sensations and a lot more.

In this case we can usefully consider qi a feeling-sensation of the body in movement, and also the trained ability of the body to move (a sequence of nerves firing in a way that produces a particular action).

Finally the qi combines with strength. *

This means that the muscular force is guided by both the trained sequence of nerves firing (these sequences  are strongly related to experience) and the feeling sensation of the body. You can also add the breath in here – it is very natural to inhale or exhale at different phases of a physical movement.

So putting the three internal harmonies together you pay attention and feel the movements that you do as fully and deeply as possible. (This is the opposite to working out while watching MTV as many gyms encourage). The end result is that your body can act rapidly with awareness to changes in situations.

The three internal harmonies improve physical performance; there are plenty of sports science studies that show attention to the body does this. The three internal harmonies also develops a meditative state.

This effect is even more powerful and pleasant when combined with the three external harmonies. The external unify body movement, the internal unifies mind and body. Together movement get delicious.

*Empty force wannabes please read this again. The qi does not shoot through the ether to zap the opponent, it combines with the strength! You know strength like muscles attached to bones. The muscles that you use to get up off the toilet and brush your teeth or lift your lips to smile at cuties. If you think you can do all these things without your muscles beautify your anal sphincter with a little botox injection then keep your pants clean by qi power. Do not visit me until the effects have worn off.