I began my study of martial arts at a young age. From the beginning, I was one of those trouble-making students who always asked too many questions. Unfortunately, my early martial arts teachers didn't know the answers to these questions. Worse, they didn't seem to care. I had to look elsewhere. I was most interested in internal power. Was it real? How could it be relevant to throwing a punch or knocking someone down? If internal power really existed, how could I develop it? I sensed that there were deep and powerful secrets to uncover. I was never satisfied with training that was based solely on the physical and that did not incorporate less substantial aspects of energy and subtlety. My search for answers led me to esoteric studies found in the internal Chinese martial arts. First in the U.S. and later in Taiwan and China I sought out teachers who could give instruction in the internal energy arts.
Eventually I found that internal power is real, and has healing and martial applications. In terms of the martial, the skill can be demonstrated when proper physical mechanics are used in conjunction with internal methods, such as that found in taijiquan or baguazhang. This skill represents a special kind of internal force that is unique and distinctly different in appearance and effect from the way the use of force is normally observed and felt. An internal power punch, for example, delivered in a relaxed manner and from a few inches awayactually no more than a tapcan have an effect much greater than suggested by its appearance. However, while it is a unique kind of force, generally appearing light and effortless to observers, it is not unique to the martial arts. It may manifest in any undertaking that requires the merging of human will with intense concentration, spirit and athletic skill. In most cases internal power happens by chance, appearing as athletic gift or naturalness to a lucky individual. However, one may also bring it about through careful training.
Internal power manifests when there is a merging of physical mechanics with what we might term physical-energetic poles. In terms of the internal martial arts, it is the result of a special kind of force brought about by solving the puzzle at the core of the healing and martial arts: how to find the proper relationship between energy and structure. For internal artists, the key to the puzzle is to correctly balance the poles of physical mechanics with sensitive (the so-called soft) energetic methods.
Internal Power in the Martial Arts
In terms of the internal arts, the ideal is to combine physical mechanics with energetic principles from ancient (nei tan) Daoist yogic methods developed by Chinese alchemists long ago.1 These, matched in just the right way, result in the manifestation of a special force. This force is very elusive and may disappear in a moment. It is the result of the merging of human will with trained (or gifted, natural) ways of making the body move efficiently (what I call mechanics). When this happens, the effect sometimes appears as if by magic. The manifestation of this magic represents the merging of human will with physical form and consciousness.
Merging of physical and energetic skills
Internal power manifests in various ways, determined by training, inherent gifts and intent of the practitioner. In some cases its effect appears as a light touch that throws an opponent several feet, or flick of the wrist, elbow or palm which generates an electric-shock effect to an opponent from a strike initiated a few inches away. Although this article examines one area of internal power: the martial; it should be noted that internal power is manifested outside of the martial arts. Most notably it may be focused as healing force which can exponentially increase the effect of herbal prescriptions, needles or traditional massage. However, in almost all martial art examples, the manifestation of internal force represents merging poles of physical and energetic skills.
Symbolically the merging can be compared to the creation of steam, the by-product of the attempt to merge water and fire. This idea has been used as an explanation for internal energy far back into Chinese roots. It is evidenced by the etymology of the Chinese character for qi (chi) being a pictogram of a wisp of steam floating off the essence of freshly cooked grains of rice.
Dominance of a pole
It seems to be the nature of poles to attempt to become dominant. Likewise, there is a tendency for practitioners to fall toward either the energy based or physical mechanics pole in their thinking and practice. Thus, either the pole of mechanics, or the pole of sensitivity and soft methods often becomes dominant. The problem is that dominance of one pole prevents the requisite merging of forces and sadly, the true magic is easily lost. When the poles are balanced and fully utilized there is power; and high level skill can be demonstrated. Short of real combat, this may be one of the only ways to test the validity of the internal as self-defense art.
Below I address the issue of the poles and share some insights that one might use to uncover the keys to the puzzle of internal power for oneself. But first I will digress for just a moment and discuss a way of revealing physical evidence of the presence of internal art skill through demonstration.
Demonstrate your art!
Talk, especially that which includes claims about power and abilities, without demonstration, is less effective than it was even a few years ago. I find the public, unless the speaker backs up claims with some type of demonstration, less impressed and more impatient with theories of internal power abilities. Todays climate is one of ultimate fighting contests and schools of martial arts that emphasize aggressive approaches. This has created an environment in which it is more important than ever for those claiming to teach the internal arts as effective self-defense be willing to illustrate the unique skills developed by their arts.
To an increasingly pragmatic public, demonstration of core principles that make the internal martial arts both internal and martial is essential. However, to do this requires defining and demonstrating a set of key principles, principles that can be demonstrated in a way that allows prospective students to experience the magic for themselves. Do you believe that soft and seemingly gentle arts can be effective in real and seriouseven life and deathencounters? Do you also believe that such an art can be demonstrated with a minimum amount of force or aggression? Many of my colleagues affirm these statements. We feel strongly that we, as instructors of the internal arts as serious self-defense, follow the examples of well-known past masters who were willing to demonstrate their skill, and we must, like them, be willing to demonstrate principles in a way that is safe, non-violent and non-aggressive to anyone. In this vein, I believe that we, just as in the case of the famous master Wang Xiangzhai and others in the early 1900s, should be willing to enter into comparative discussion and demonstration of our art.
Responsibility to the consumer
Demonstrating the effectiveness of ones internal art to the potential student serves three valuable functions. First, it presents a model. It shows how the principles and mechanics of such an art are effective and illustrates the basic concepts that make it so. Second, it allows the prospective student to see what skill might be attainable after a course of study. Finally, it gives the prospect the opportunity to judge the value of the investment first hand before committing to the program.
Our minimal responsibility as instructors, from a provider of services-consumer point of view, is to illustrate how soft principles truly do merge with physical mechanics to create an effective, rare and true internal art, one that is distinctly different from the external. A demonstration like this, presented to the open-minded prospect, gives more than a glimpse into the potential of the internal arts; it occasionally plants a seed that buds as life-long enthusiasm.5
As briefly introduced above, today, in both Asia as well as in the West, too many internal martial art teachers tend to be drawn either to the pole of the physical-mechanical model or the soft-and-sensitive energy model. A practitioner of the first type embraces physical mechanics and structure. Often, while demonstrating muscular control, power, and strength, this type of teacher places minimal attention, if any, to the development of sensitivity methods. While downplaying the mystical aspects of the martial arts, this point of view sees the answer to the puzzle as pure structure, mechanical leverage, alignment and technique. I do not believe that this approach, standing on its own, does justice to the uncanny and elusive nature of soft power arts. This type of power has been well documented in the record of many famous masters of the twentieth century who had the ability to lightly touch and defeat an opponent without recourse to physical tension, nor over reliance on structure and mechanics.
Examples from the other pole, one that emphasizes extreme softness, today dominate the internal arts, especially in taijiquan (tai chi chuan). Those that subscribe to this model often minimize or eliminate solid structure mechanics, and even the importance of self-defense ability in the search for the truth of the inner arts.
It is not difficult to find examples of this approach in the parks in China or taiji new age circles in the West. Practitioners who are under the gravitational influence of this pole tend to eliminate or disavow what they consider the aggressive methods of the more physical and external approaches, which are replaced by soft methods and sensitivity. In some cases practitioners of this type will, in a public forum, criticize a teacher or method that promotes the more physical and practical self-defense side for suggesting that the arts be considered useful for self-defense. When pressed, this type of practitioner will claim that qualities such as lightness (and of course, non-competition), will lead the aspirant to knowledge of self, attainment one day of the ultimate level of self-defense, while perhaps even finding the Dao along the way.
Based on 35 years of experience, I've come to the conclusion that both sides in this argument are rightand wrong. One needs both strong mechanics and good sensitivity to develop real internal power. The best approach is one that accommodates both poles: the physical/ mechanical with the light, sensitive, and even the mystical side. In my experience, the essence of the secret lies in this middle ground where electric soft energy methods merge with the hard reality of physical mechanics. This is the message I find in the perennial Daoist icon of the phenomenon of the universe: that strange, yet fascinating symbol of the primordial co-mingling, the interplay of opposing primal forces of the yin and yang diagram.
A balanced approach that merges the two poles is more than philosophy, it is the application of yogic principles developed by Daoist alchemists long ago. It is based on a fundamental idea that a tremendous energy may be expressed when conditions are right and opposing poles merge. It is the key to the puzzle of internal power that is activated by merging physical mechanics with internal energy. But, before we look at some examples of how and when the poles merge, let us consider aspects of them separately.
Pole I: Principles of physical mechanics
The first pole involves physical mechanics. It applies toward what is real, concrete and mechanical to the internal arts. This aspect involves: 1) learning efficiency and mastering hidden (unseen) leverage, 2) attaining root, the art of optimizing strength and effect by correct alignment in relation to the ground, and 3) learning to release, instead of forcing or pushing power (similar to the way a star pitcher throws a baseballa practice involving a totally interconnected spring-like release). These are all very important, but only one side of training. The other is more obscure and difficult to describe.
Pole II: Sensitivity and soft methods
As I've watched students learn to develop and control their internal energy, in general, those who have been most successful start with the development of sensitivity. First they develop sensitivity to their own internal and external energy field, the movement of energy within their own system, and then they become sensitive to the energy fields of others. Thus, sensitivity is the first step that leads to the ability to use soft and relaxed methods in a real confrontation.
The idea of sensing and manipulating ones internal energy, distinct from a kind of respiratory therapy (one involving the qi of the air that one breathes), first appeared in Chinese culture relatively late. The theoretical construct of a distinct energy, inner qi taken by many today as the most central concept of Chinese yoga, traditional medicine and the internal artswas developed within Daoist internal alchemy traditions in the middle of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). At that time nei qi, literally internal energy, began to be described by some Daoists searching for the secret of immortality as the animator of the mind and bodys interior change. In terms of internal arts, the doctrine of internal qi is most important. It is the basis of how we, in the internal healing and martial arts, think of qi today. It has become the underlying assumption in multitudinous mind-body health disciplines, especially in disciplines of taijiquan, qigong, Daoist meditation and asian traditional healing arts such as acupuncture. All of these involving various methods to get in touch with, develop, or balance internal qi.
However, when the subject of internal energy is broached, one immediately faces the problem of defining it. The search for understanding of this mysterious and enigmatic energie vitale has been one of the most important parts of my martial and healing art practice. In my experience, most students of the internal healing and martial arts will say they experience a subtle energy field which, they believe, courses within and around the body. The crux of the problem of understanding qi is that one cannot explain what it is. It must be experienced for oneself.
What is Qi?
Long before it was adapted into martial arts, the study of internal energy known in Eastern cultures as prana, kundalini, ki or qi, was developed into a mind-body discipline of health, longevity and personal power in select Indian and Chinese yogic arts. As discussed above, it was the organizing principle of traditional medicinefor the alchemists of pre-modern China it became the focus of the arts of healing self and others through its manipulation and balance. Although qi has not yet been proven to exist by western scientific methods, I do not think it is superstitious, irrational or foolish to believe in it, or have a sincere interest in it. Focusing for a moment on the energy and sensitivity pole defined above, I want to write about my own experience. Later I will discuss.
It is an intrinsic organistic energy field flux that is a unitary process, derived from, but superseding the individual energies of the different organs.
I am certain that, in time, qi will be demonstrated to be a fundamental force in scientific biology. It will be shown to exist as part of physical reality that neither depends on, nor challenges, religious beliefs and is just as real and potent as the invisible neuro-electrical signals that keep that regulate the hearts role as a life pump. The question for artists, internal teachers and healers is in deciding whether or not they will work today within the tentative understandings of internal energy and its promises of health and power or wait the ten or twenty years for the phenomena to be accepted by mainstream science.
Perhaps the best way to think of qi is as an energy matrix. A brilliant scientist who had once conducted classified research on the subject suggested this model to me. Qi, this scientist told me, most likely acts as a kind of information-intelligence system operating within the bodys subtle electro-magnetic system. This system, while working within the confines of the subtlest of detectable electro-magnetics, is busily conveying data, the function of which is to organize nervous system, thoughts, and emotions throughout the holistic-unity seeking human body. In this light, the qi energy matrix may be a conveyor of intelligence between the bodys life support, emotional and survival systems that work alongside of, yet independent from, the central nervous system. The researcher used this model to explain a type of internal energy punch he witnessed.9 The strike was delivered to its recipient from a few inches away, with no obvious mechanics or weight behind it, and appearing to be no more than a light tap, had a significant effect on the experimental subject. The demonstration also produced physical evidence in the appearance of an approximately 3-? inch spot on the opposite side of the recipients body. The scientist suggested that this type of punch and its demonstrable effect was most likely not due to direct electro-magnetic or other energy, but was brought about by a subtle information set encoded in the strike.
I first felt qi as a real experience about 22 years ago. My ability to sense and work with internal energy directly in an experiential and tactile way began shortly after I treated Sri Surath, a Bahki yoga master from India. Surathji was suffering from a serious illness, but refused to take any modern Western medication. On one of his trips to the West, a disciple asked me to see if I could help. After an interview and subsequent approval, I was granted the rare privilege of being allowed to treat the Brahman with traditional Chinese bodywork.
It was only a short time after my work with Sri Surath that I began to experience increased and (to me at that time) strange energetic sensations. Later, as I look back on those experiences, I realize that I was beginning to experience aspects of the internal pole. I will not write about my experiences in detail here, except to say that my thinking about human energy changed radicallymoving from the theoretical to the experiential. Whether my working with Surathji had anything to do with it, or whether by chance, coincidence or blessing, I cannot say for certain. However, the way I trained and thought about such things had forever changed. I began to sense subtle bio-energetic life fields both internally and externally to my body. As I became more sensitive to these fields, I was able to achieve greater success in both martial and healing practice. It was very empowering to experience the reality of a subtle bio-energetic field and to find that it was possible for me to sense and control it. Increasingly, I became a believer in the value of personal experience of internal energy as well as an adherent of the dual pole theory: one that placed importance not only on physical mechanics, but that also included developing awareness of, and training for, the internal energy field.
Developing Qi Awareness
Students often ask how they can develop their sensitivity to internal energy. I tell them that the two most important things that encourage personal experience with internal energy are open-mindedness and trust. By trusting that the subtle energy field exists as physical reality, the mind opens to the possibility of increased awareness of the qi energy matrix. On the other hand, when one is overly suspicious of the energetic fields existence as a physical reality, the minds filter works overtime to preserve the status quo or create the world that the unconscious mind has decided is safe and really exists. However, being open minded does not mean abandonment of critical thinking, only becoming aware of the power that ones attitude plays in the perception of the external world (i.e. the perception of reality is personal and subjective). In my own practice, I work on remembering the power of the unconscious mind to oppose changes to the way reality is perceived.10
More on being open
It is easier today, when compared to three decades ago, to be open to ideas about qi and subtle energetic fields. When I was a young student (and we used to walk 20 miles uphill and barefoot in the snow to get to class), even the most basic aspects of energy medicine such as acupuncture were suspect. These days there is enough scientific evidence to allow one to be publicly curious about the human energy field. without being burned at the stake. Consider the pioneering work of respected scientists such as Dr. Robert Becker, who has done research to support the existence of the subtle human bio-energy field or that of Harvards Dr. David Eisenberg,11 currently a premiere investigator involved with placing traditional Chinese and energy medicine into Western scientific understanding. Thus, it is no longer unscientific to consider the physical reality of the bio-energy field. However, training of a human to develop sensitivity to the field still requires faith.
I believe that the act of being open to the existence of the subtle energy matrix as a possibility encourages electrochemical changes in the brain. This in turn encourages sensitivity to, and development of ones own internal energy field. In my experience, most open-minded people, given the right conditions, are able to develop the ability to sense internal energy through and around their body to at least to some degree. This ability seems to be independent of age, education or life experience. The list of those who I have seen train and increase their sensitivity to their internal (and external) energy matrix is quite varied, and includes tenured professors at prominent universities, lawyers, engineers, medical doctors, and, even more challenging, a few medical students. Some out of each of these groups just mentioned have been not only able to sense, but even (given the right conditions) see their own or anothers energy field extending a foot or more outward from their own physical form.12
Evolution and internal energy
I feel strongly that the ability to sense and develop internal energy is related to personal and social evolution13. It is personal since each individual has the potential to sense and develop internal energy and positively influence his or her personal growth and understanding through the process. It pertains to social evolution through its universality and positive potential consequences to society. If it really is the basis of human energy, health, and a higher order mind-body integration this suggests attributes that speak to the underlying codes of the human spirit and potential that go beyond differences in culture or religion.
However, as I can attest, the ability to perceive the bio-energetic field does not mean that one has attained some kind of personal perfection. The activation of latent skills, because of the degree of introspection and sensitivity required, usually indicates evolution in progress, or at least the aspiration toward advancement. This evolution is characterized as the ongoing, transformation and exchange of coarseness for subtlety. In practical terms it requires giving up callousness and tension in form and mind and replacing them with sensitivity. In human terms, it makes one gentler. In internal martial and healing arts it manifests as less need to resort to obvious strength or technique alone, relying instead on lightness of touch. In healing terms, sensitivity like this opens the doorway to being able to medically intuit the cause and cure of pain or disease and assist the patients energy in the healing process.
Blending of the poles I: Loose and connected power
One of the best places to look at the key to the merging of the poles of physicality and internal energy is in the principle of sung or loose and connected power. Sung14 is the merging point between the hard and soft. Its hardness is the manifestation of the power of a spring-steel whip delivered with minimal effort. Its softness is the ability of the whip to adapt, manipulate and express power through its fluid-like, changing medium. There are various techniques used by internal masters to get students to attain this soft yet connected power. They all involve the merging of hardness and softness, of stillness and movement: the blending of the two poles. The principles they use were derived from ancient Daoist naturalistic yogas. Some of the best methods of learning inner connection and alignment can be gleaned from the study of these early roots of the internal arts.
Blending of the Poles II: Internal Energy & Taoist Yoga
The Daoist yogas, or Dao Yin, are among the best ways to merge physical form and internal energy. These exercises originated as attempt to bridge the secrets of life and death and attain physical immortality. The literature of these alchemical traditions, a blending of philosophical Daoism with a declining Yin-Yang school, first appeared in China during the third century CE. The work of the early Daoist yogis led to the creation of the first systematic physiotherapeutic tradition and laid internal energy and physical principle groundwork for what was to become the internal martial arts 1,400 years later. Significantly, the physical training aspects of these arts required Daoist sages to master control and coordination of muscle groups that are not normally under conscious control. This set of knowledge and training method was later to become the basis of the unique physiomuscular mechanics of the internal martial arts. Along with this development came the peculiar internal alchemy terminology and theory such as lien tan (exercising the essential energy) and the melding of the three aspects of internal qi: Shen, Qi, Ching. The development of these was to become the root theory and the central goal of the internal martial and healing art systems as a way of merging of energy and structure. However the nexus where structure, form, mind, will and energy merge is delicate and the process of integrating the knowledge with physical form is one that requires the lightest touch.
Becker, Robert O., MD, The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life. New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1985
Bracy, John and Liu, Xing-Han, Ba Gua: Hidden Knowledge in the Taoist Internal Martial Art, North Atlantic Books, 1999
Eisenberg, David, MD, Encounters with Qi : Exploring Chinese Medicine, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 1995
Krishna, Gopi Kundalini: Empowering Human Evolution; Selected writings of Gopi Krishna. Edited by Gene Kieffer, Paragon House, 1996
Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Volume 5, Cambridge University Press, 1983
Wile, Douglas Lost Tai Chi Classics from the late Ching Dynasty, Albany: State, University of New York Press, 1996
Note: This article is part of a collection of writings by internal martial art professionals to be published as Journeys with the Taoist Warriors: a Quest for truth in the Alchemical Fighting Arts. Edited by Alex Kozma. To be published summer 2002.
1. Nei Tan translates as internal alchemy, (literally, internal elixir of immortality) and refers to the Taoist yogas originally practiced in the search for the secret of physical immortality. According to Douglas Wile and others, the development of internal arts can be traced to the adoption of principles from inner yogic arts to the martial arts during the late Qing (Ching) Dynasty. See Wile, pp 49-51. For a detailed overview of the history of the development of internal energy with the martial arts see Bracy & Liu, pp. 5-20
2. Note exception for very high level practitioners who seem to suspend dependence on physical principles. In this article I am describing principles of physical and energetic merging, not yin-yang polarity within the body that creates and allows the manifestation of internal energy.
3. Wang Xiangzhai, the founder of Yi Quan (Mind-Boxing), gave a series of interviews that were published in 1940 in the Beijing newspapers Shibao and Xinbao. In this highly recommended reading, Master Wang was emphatic regarding the importance of free and open demonstration of skills and advocates open and friendly comparison and tests of realistic self-defense abilities to be essential for the preservation of the art.
4. Following Wang Xiangzhais example, this is most productive when done with sincerity and without attachment to being superior, or even getting a demo right every time. When I demonstrate, I try to keep in mind only the intent to show something of the physical magic in which, we as seniors in the field, have invested so many years of study.
5. The reader will note that I have purposely left out examples of specific demonstrations. How one teacher is able to demonstrate internal power will vary widely from the next. The main point is that 20 or more years in the art should produce objective skill in the practitioner.
6. Cheng Ting-Hua, Sun Lu-Tang, Yang Chen-Fu, Wang Xiangzhai and many other famous boxers.
7. Needham, pp. 64-70
8. Taken from a private letter to the author.
9. Most likely sent through a measurable, but barely detectable bio-electrical signal. This might be compared to a telephone which transmits data through a nearly faint electrical signal that is interpreted a certain way on the receiving end.
10. A good example is our blind spot, and the way our brain fills in the visual gap created by the blind spotthe place where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, thus creating a hole in the visual field. The visual impression of what is filled in by the gap is a fictional coloring of logical background that may, or may not exist. We all have these visual holes that we are not aware of. This illustrates the power of the mind to create the world that it believes exists.
11. Becker, Robert; The Body Electric and Eisenberg, David, Encounters with Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine
12. Dr. Becker suggests that there may be a physiological explanation to account for how some individuals might be able to see the human bio-energy field. See Becker, p.268
13. The thesis of human energy systems as a vehicle for genius and evolution can be found in Gopi Krishnas writings and descriptions of his experiences.
14. Sung is the single most important concept in the internal martial arts. Not easily translated into English, it can be approximately translated as springy-ness or tenacity and can be used to describe the resilience of bamboo. A common use of the word in Chinese language is as an adjective to describe the springy-ness of correctly cooked rice.
Blending of the Poles III: Lightness of touch
By lightness, I am speaking of mental and physical aspects in respect to both healing and martial. Lightness of touch moves energy and Will through physical form in refined ways. The presence of this quality indicates lessening of the influence of the grossly physical in favor of sensitivity and refinement. Sensitivity and refinement of the nervous system indicates the tenuous merging of mind, will and structure. An adept applying this principle manifests skill as a slight touch that has a lot of effect in throwing, off-balancing or demonstrating power. A by-product is a profound effect on the practitioners nervous system, an attribute that speaks to the arts of the yogi and leads to development of a heightened and specialized control of the nervous system. With experience, these skills extend beyond physical boundaries of the practitioner as one becomes increasingly imbued intuitively knowing how to sense and adapt to minute changes in the opponents energy flow, structure, position and even intent.
For internal arts to maintain their relevance and meaning for future generations the true essence of the art must be revealed to the next and the next generation. This is best done with eliminating the tendency to be drawn toward either the pole of physical mechanics or sensitivity and internal energy.
Three ways that might be helpful in blending of the poles are finding the secret of sung, by incorporating Daoist yoga into ones training, and by learning to produce power and effect through lightness of touch. My hope is that the development of internal energy will have social benefits and will contribute to the evolution of mankind.
©Reprinted from Qi Journal, Summer 2002 issue