Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Addendum to Internal versus External

I noticed the previous blog got mentioned in an ongoing discussion on AikiWeb and I'd like to point out that the essays on this blog are pretty much in the "basic knowledge" arena.  I.e., there are aspects of the internal-versus-external discussion that are not contained in these essays and they add content that would seriously affect the discussions on the forum (or other forums)... if anyone was aware of those factors.

The problems I see with a lot of the discussions on various forums like AikiWeb, Rum Soaked Fist, and others, is that too often the commenters unknowingly betray the fact that there are components of the discussion that they're simply unaware of or they wouldn't have made some telling statement in the first place. 

I might take a thread sometime and highlight some posts by would-be "experts" and then explain some of the areas they just revealed that they don't know.  Not to humiliate anyone particularly, but to show that too many of the 'experts', many of whom are also 'teachers' aren't really beyond the amateurish stage. 

One of the big problems I've had over the years is that I consider myself to be an amateur who has spent a number of years trying to find all the details of "internal strength", but I listen to a lot of self-styled western "experts" chatter away, not knowing that they've just told me they know far less than I do.  

If I'm an amateur, how are these people "experts"?  They're experts "with years of experience" to other neophytes, but they'd never be experts in the eyes of real experts.  I know enough about what I know to understand where I'd rank in the eyes of a real expert... I know enough to know that I'd be pretentious to claim the mantle of 'expert'.  Anyone can impress neophytes; few people can impress real experts.  Think about that when you're reading a lot of the popular web-forums and understand that there's a lot of depth and sophistication that is not brought into the conversations because few people have that information.

Monday, January 21, 2013

“Internal versus External”


This is a slightly different approach to a topic on a previous blog about “internal” and bragging rights, but I’ve been thinking about the way terms are used and how confusing it is for a lot of people to decipher the jargon.

I use the phrase “internal strength” a lot because it is the best or most-convenient translation of the word “Neijin” where “nei” is “internal” and “jin” refers to the trained body usage of the forces from the earth and the air.  That’s the original “internal strength”.  My initial interest was in jin skills when I started doing Taiji around 1982; I didn’t really start investigating or thinking much about the dantien until the late 1980’s.  So it was the “jin” in “neijin” (internal strength) that was my primary interest for a long time.

The problem with jin skills, conditioning skills, real dantien involvement, and so on, is that most of the Chinese martial arts have these things to some degree in one way or the other, but those arts are still divided into “external” and “internal”, regardless.  Over the years I’ve learned to trust the idea that an “internal martial-art” tends to use the dantien more than an “external martial-art”, but there can be overlaps.  It’s a good rule of thumb, though.

As I’ve mentioned before (see the blog on Silk-Reeling), it’s a fairly common Chinese martial perspective that the Six-Harmonies view of movement was predominant at an earlier time.  There are still many arts that have “Liu He” (“Six Harmonies”) in their formal names, but the number of arts now actually using those movement skills has decreased greatly as hand-combat has declined in the face of distance-weapons (pistols, etc.).

The Six-Harmonies type of movement depended a lot on the dantian strength, articulation, and connection to the rest of the body.  Why is that important?  It added power.  If you have felt a room shake from, say, someone demonstrating a powerful p’i chuan (not everyone can do this in Xingyi) or a room shake during a standing one-legged shake from a Chen-style expert, you would better understand that this type of power is unusual.  How does that relate to actual martial-application?  That’s something worth investigating and thinking about on your own.  What are the roles of the dantian in Six-Harmonies movement?  More than most people in the West understand, if you read some of the wild comments on current martial web-forums.  It’s all an interesting puzzle.

Can someone not using Six-Harmonies movement be strong through neigongs (internal exercises, usually involving breath, pressure, beating of the body, and other things)?  Of course they can be strong and hit very hard.  But to focus on just strength is to miss the point and the many factors that make Six-Harmonies movement so complex and interesting. 

Is a different type of training “internal” even though it does not depend on dantian-centered movement.  Well, that’s the common confusion: there is a difference between a style that strengthens the internal membranes, tendons, and so on, and a style that truly moves in the manner of one of the “internal martial arts”.   It’s a common debate with no resolution in sight.

The point, though, is that the old famous Six Harmonies type of movement, using the dantian, was considered the peak of martial-movement styles in the old days and that’s why so many of today’s arts, whether “internal” or “external” still quote from the classical admonitions that were attached to Six-Harmonies movement. 

This type of actual movement (as opposed to someone claiming it, but not actually doing it), is probably the easiest distinguishing mark of what would nominally be the “internal martial-arts” as compared to those that are “external”.  It’s tricky to differentiate all the arts into one category or another, but I’d suggest that actual, not superficial or partial, use of Six-Harmonies movements would be one of the best movement-skills to look at to determine what is “internal”.

Is your style “internal”?  Well, it’s pretty easy to spot in the basic movement, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get an opinion from a real expert.  It’s similar to watching much of the bull-like struggles that amateurs often call “push-hands”… a lot of Chinese experts I’ve seen just shrug and say “that’s not Taijiquan”.  It’s fairly easy for an expert to see what is missing, not just in Taijiquan, but in six-harmonies movement; it’s easy for an amateur to not see what he does not know in the first place.  We all go through that as part of the process.

Many very different types of training resulting in very different types of body conditioning are passed off as being “internal strength”.  In other words, there are so many conflicting stories out there that it’s probably wise to do as much investigation as possible before committing yourself to years of study.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Just Relax?

“From Extreme Softness Comes Great Strength/Hardness”

“These Strengths are not Intuitive; They Must be Learned”

In the early blog on this site about Silk Reeling, there was some discussion about how relaxing allowed the entire length of the muscle-tendon channels and connective tissue to be trained as a whole.  In the blog on Jin there was discussion about how local joint usage diluted the strengths from the support of the ground and from gravity; the idea is to relax local tensions in order to let the ground’s support and gravity do most of the work.

The overarching idea is that in order to learn a new form of movement you have to stay relaxed while learning the new movement… otherwise, old movement habits will be retained and you will make no progress.

Overall, in this series of blogs, there has been discussion about re-training/re-patterning the body to use strength in a very different way than the way we’ve done it since babyhood.  The second italicized quote above says it all: “these strengths are not intuitive; they must be trained”.  Trying to train while at the same time maintaining your old strengths and tensions means that you cannot learn to re-pattern the body in the new way.  It’s for this reason that in early training, many old habits must be unlearned and that often means avoiding movements, etc., that only reinforce the old ways of moving.

For instance, weight-lifting using your old form of strength, doing the same old forms and techniques, applications, and so on, will stop progress into a new form of movement because you will confuse your body doing a little bit of the old movement and a little bit of the new movement. 

Learning to use the power of the earth’s support and gravity, using the dantian, using breath, using the body as a connected unit, etc… that’s a new form of movement.  Or it should be, if you’re not just doing an incomplete assimilation of the new skills.

Learning new skills requires relaxation, for the above reasons.  However, many times a distortion, based on misunderstanding, creeps into some peoples’ martial training.  Some people begin to think that if they just relax, somehow the skills of the internal arts will visit their body.   Occasionally I hear of some martial-school where the instructor has encouraged students to work until they’re completely exhausted and then they will learn to move in a ‘relaxed’ way.  The problem is that no matter how exhausted and ‘relaxed’ someone is, there’s still the question of the basic movement skills.  Those skills take knowledge, information, practice, and some years to learn.  Getting exhausted so that you’re ‘relaxed’ is not going to teach you how to move with dantian, jin, kokyu, etc., any more than getting exhausted and relaxed is going to suddenly imbue you with the ability to play the piano or analyze quantum mechanics.

Another point to make is that a person cannot really relax unless they’re conditioned.  I’ve often seen someone who is physically strong brag about the fact that he is “relaxed”.  Sure, he’s relaxed, but he’s strong, and 99.9% of the time he’s still mostly using normal strength, despite any claims to the contrary.  Being “relaxed” can happen in normal strength or in internal strength, but a limited knowledge of a few jin tricks is not going to ever result in the type of relaxation referred to in the old classics about internal strength.

Let’s look at the example of lifting the two arms upward as is done at the beginning of most Taiji forms.  The average person emulating that movement is going to mainly use shoulder muscles.  They’re never trained any other way to lift the arms, so even if they get exhausted and ‘relaxed’, they’re still going to use those shoulder muscles.  They have no concept of any other way to do it.

A knowledgeable Taiji practitioner is going to use jin, the body connectivity, the dantian, and so on, to lift the arms.  It will look the same (usually) as the other way of lifting the arms, but it’s very different.  To lift the arms with dantian, connectivity, jin, etc., takes a long while to learn and it also takes some amount of practice to become proficient and strong in moving that new way.  Only after that new strength has become conditioned can the practitioner really “relax”.  Working to exhaustion is not the same thing at all.

As the body becomes conditioned and patterned to hit or move with the whole-body, dantien, jin, and other factors, its power becomes great and feels very hard when a hit or application is made.  That’s why there’s the old saying about “Great hardness comes from extreme softness”.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Shun and Ni: the Two Opposing Directions of Twist Inherent in the Body


A lot of the old classical Chinese literature describes functions of the body, the body strength, the importance of some body parts, and so on.  In other words, there is an attempt to describe and analyze the way the body and universe work:  these descriptions should not be confused with directions for doing things.  There is an old Taoist diagram of the body that I’ve always liked, although I’m not sure it’s totally accurate:

There are actually references in the above picture to the kidneys, the lungs, the spine as a channel for energy, the dantian, the liver (those trees), and a number of other things.  The point is that the functions of the body were something carefully defined and delineated in terms of health and strength, but descriptions of functions are not how-to’s.

Some other commonly-seen drawings about the body have to do with the way strength is propagated via generally longitudinal “channels” and acupuncture meridians.  Again the dantian is prominent as a player in the function of body movement via the muscle-tendon channels.

The body naturally bends and winds in ways that are dictated by the skeleton and the natural lay of the muscles, tendons, and connective tissues.  The winding of the body is another item that has been categorized and defined at a basic level.  Essentially, there are two opposite ways the body can wind: one way and the other way.  In other words, the discussions of the body’s spiral-like winding is just another of the basic descriptors like “dantian”, “muscle-tendon channels”, bones, and so on.  The fact that the body twists or spirals in two different directions is a component descriptor of the body’s workings, but it is nothing more than an acknowledged part of an analysis of how the body works.

The two opposing windings affect the way the whole body twists, but we can basically describe the windings as something like “come to” or “Shun” and “go against” or “Ni”.  In other words, if you hold your hand palm-inward in front of your face and then push it out away from your face so that it’s palm-outward, the arm just spiraled in a “Ni” manner.  Bringing your hand back, palm-inward, in front of your face will be spiraling in the “Shun” manner. 

Ni uses the back of the ‘suit’ (see blog on Silk-Reeling) and the ground’s support to expand away; “Shun” uses the front of the suit and gravity to close toward the body.  If we do an arm-wave as described in the Silk-Reeling blog, half of the circle you will be doing Ni winding away and half of the time you will be doing Shun winding toward.  These directions are Yang and Yin, respectively: you go from one into the other in the manner of the Taiji change of Open and Close.

It’s common to include a reference to the basic description of the body’s natural windings as part of the logic of the strength/qi borrowed from the Qi of Earth.  In other words, using the solidity of the ground and the weight from gravity, the body will wind in one of two ways.  A lot of old martial arts used to establish their bona fides by mentioning the dantian/hara, the windings, the breath, and so on.  Here are a few illustrations showing the traditional view of windings in the Six-Harmonies (Reeling Silk) type of movement. 

Note: these natural movements of the body are the two possibilities; just because they’re combined into one drawing doesn’t meant that you do them both at the same time:


The description of the Shun and Ni windings also apply to the secondary dantians at the perineum and at the chest-dantian.  Here’s an example of a drawing showing the two potential directions of windings from the perineum (lower) dantian:


Part of the training of the body-connection/’suit’ is done through relaxed stretching and holding of that stretch.  In the martial-arts that use held postures for training, you’ll see this sort of “antagonistic” (sometimes called “contradictory”) training.  Quite often someone without a lot of knowledge or experience will confuse the “contradictory” winding trainings with isometric training.  They’re not the same thing.  A person has to learn to differentiate between contradiction, isometrics, and jin. 

Another point to bear in mind is that there are many possible permutations of winding patterns, so it is impossible to say there is only one way to wind up, down, in or out, except to note that there will generally be a balance along the lines of “if one side is open, the other side is closed”, but that would be true of any balanced system.

Here’s a picture of an old Chen-style posture, one hand in front and one behind, that uses contradictory training in standing practice:


Baguazhang uses a lot of contradictory winding postures, but they do many of them while walking the circle, etc. 


Of course contradiction and stretch can be done without winding, but the discussion of which is jin, isometrics, or contradiction arises again.   There is a big difference in how things are done in those three choices, even though they might look the same to an inexperienced onlooker.  

Contradiction and holding-postures helps train the body connectivity. The main idea has to do with a correctly-trained holding and stretch, whether done linearly or spirally.  The old Taiji discussions about “pulling silk” (chousijin) and “reeling silk” (chansijin) were about linear and spiraling movement.  Since the Yang-style has publicly stated that they also use reeling-silk movement, there is no longer any disagreement in the correct type of movement that is supposed to be used in the neijia arts.