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Difficulties in Learning Internal Martial Arts by Tom Bisio

Learning martial arts, and in particular Internal Martial Arts, is a difficult proposition. There are many pitfalls in training and many aspects of training that are confusing. Partially this is because only so much can actually be taught and transmitted by the teacher, and the rest has to be felt and understood internally on both conscious and subliminal levels. Even if one receives the “full-transmission” (whatever that actually means), this does not guarantee skill or real understanding.

Waiting for the Transmission

Ultimately internal arts cannot really be taught. The teacher is a knowledgeable guide who hopefully is, himself or herself, learning and transforming throughout their life. Some teachers hold back information and much of the information must effectively be “stolen” from them. I am friends with several teachers who themselves learned from famous masters who did not openly show their whole art. My friends told me of various stratagems they had to resort to in order to learn. My favorite being sparring with someone from another school and telling the teacher about being defeated by various techniques. The teacher was then compelled to show my friends what they were doing wrong. One friend recounted an example of this type of episode in a rather humorous exchange right out of a kung fu movie – something like: “you fool, when he does that, of course you do this…”

Other teachers who want students to actually improve and surpass them are constantly transmitting information. However there is no moment when the secrets are suddenly revealed and high-level skill is quickly attained. High-level skill is attained by on-going training, questioning, research, and forcing oneself to look beyond what the teacher transmitted.

                               Gao Zi Ying

This means researching and questioning rather than reciting stories about famous masters and their real or imagined abilities. The famous Ba Gua Master Li Zi Ming said that to master the real skills took years of research with one’s peers, in addition to learning from one’s teacher. One master who researched deeply into the martial arts, and who I find inspirational is Gao Ji Wu’s father, Gao Zi Ying, who originally studied with his father, Gao Wen Chang, who was a disciple of both Yin Fu and Liu De Kuan. Gao Zi Ying went on to  study Ba Gua Zhang with Guo Gu Min, and Da Cheng Chuan with its legendary founder, Wang Xiang Zhai, as well as Xing Yi Quan with Li Cun Yi and Tai Ji Quan under the great Yang Chen Fu. Gao Zi Ying’s Ba Gua Zhang shows influences of all of these great masters. And, if that was not enough, he also exchanged techniques with Li Zi Ming!

My first Xing Yi teacher, Vince Black, never ceased to research the Chinese internal arts and other related martial arts like Kajukenbo and Filipino Martial Arts, while staying true to his roots in Tang Shou Tao Xing Yi from Taiwan. The number of the teachers that Dr. Black studied with is too numerous to list, but they include teachers in multiple styles of Ba Gua Zhang, Xing Yi Quan, Tai Ji Quan, and Liu He Ba Fa.

Teachers like Dr. Black and Master Leo Gaje of Pekiti Tirsia also introduced me to the idea that one should cultivate the ability to pick up techniques and even abilities by watching, even if one was not actually taught these things directly. I regularly saw Master Gaje observe an old Filipino master demonstrate a technique or principle, and the following week that movement or principle would suddenly appear in the curriculum, not merely as an add-on, but fully integrated into the Pekiti-Tirsia skill set.

The Daoist practitioner, Chen Ying Ning, who wrote Lectures on the Book of the Yellow Court and preserved authentic Daoist practices even as imperial China gave way to modernism and transitioned into a new era, has practical and pithy advice for study that be applied to any pursuit:

Focus on research,

Don’t focus on worship,

Focus on practice,

Don’t focus on empty talk.

Lineage & Learning from a Famous Teacher

Zhang Hua Sen and Tom Bisio – Beijing 1994

Famous teachers are usually famous because they have a high level of ability, often as a fighter or performer, and sometimes as a teacher. Having a famous and skilled teacher means that one will likely have the opportunity to see a high-level expression of the art. There is no  guarantee that the famous and skilled master can pass their skill on to a student, or that the student can repeat their accomplishments. Many famous teachers were known for the ability to fight, but at the same time were not skilled at teaching,

There are also many great practitioners who did not learn from a famous teacher and many great fighters who learned from a teacher who was not a great fighter, but who could pass on the requisite skills.

Although I mentioned some famous teachers above, my own experience is that the teacher is often the example one follows, but friends and colleagues from other styles of martial arts also exert a very powerful influence on us, more than we often realize. Interactions with friends and colleagues force one to embrace other points of view, fuel research and development, and provide reality checks on martial flights of fancy. Hopefully these interactions also provide inspiration to practice harder and improve one’s skills.

The inherent myth of the lineage chart so common to many internal styles, is that the chart merely shows that Person A was a disciple of Person B in a particular art. It does not tell you what else Person A studied, who they interacted with, what influences influenced their approach to the art, what other opportunities presented themselves that they took advantage of, etc. It is often far more interesting to hear the real story of someone’s development, assuming they are willing to recount it.

Looking at What is Actually Happening

Talk is helpful and questions are helpful, but all too often students ask many questions without actually listening to the answers, and without matching the words to what is actually happening. Words are important but they can also be dangerous, not only because they tend to fix our ideas, but also because some aspects of internal arts are impossible to describe using words.  The words teachers (myself included) use to describe what they think they are doing, do not always exactly match what they are actually doing. Therefore, students must carefully observe what is actually happening and feel what is actually happening.

Attachment to a past idea or past moment in time is another pitfall. Teachers, students and techniques are constantly evolving. Trying to exactly preserve what a teacher did 10 years ago as a kind of gospel often gets in the way of real learning. First, the teacher probably does not do that movement exactly the same way now, especially if he or she is constantly progressing in the art. Secondly, you are not him or her, and need to take the principles into your body in a way that is correct, but may not be exactly the same. In learning Xing Yi Quan from Song Zhi Yong, I found he was constantly changing over a 20 year period and we had to change with him. Once I mentioned that he had changed something from several years ago, and he coolly replied, “that was then.” The message was clear – why was I still living in the past and not looking at what is happening right now?

The famous Daoist Ge Hong in his Bao Pu Zi repeatedly warns the reader about teachers who will lead one astray. Real teachers – those competent to understand the essentials of the divine process desire nothing of creation; they are not looking for praise from their generation.[1] He goes on to caution the reader against teachers who make great claims to dazzle students, or pretend to have studied with an illustrious immortal on a famous mountaintop.

One of Ge Hong’s most interesting remarks touches on another aspect of learning that is quite important. In the passage below, Ge is paraphrasing a line from the Zhuang Zi (4th century BCE), and in particular the commentaries on the Zhuang Zi written by Guo Xiang (252- 312 CE), who likely was also the compiler of the version of the Zhuang Zi that Ge Hong read.

It has already been shown how the Five Classics[2] and the whole mass of our older books are “straw dogs,” effigies of the past. What we call footprints were of course produced by the feet. In the same way, books are written by the sages, but they are not the sages.[3]

In the Zhuang Zi, this passage is presented as a conversation between Lao Zi and Confucius. Lao Zi says that the classics are the stale traces of former sages. These traces, or tracks (footprints), are created by walking (by the formless naturalness expressed by the sages), but they are not themselves the walking.[4] Treading on the footprints of others can inform us, but we cannot take them as the model for our own True Nature and its spontaneous expression. We must find our own way.

It is important to keep in mind that Ge Hong is not saying that one should not seek knowledge, nor is he saying that one should not read books. Ge Hong collected many books on esoteric knowledge and self-cultivation in his lifetime. Knowledge is necessary in the pursuit of any course one follows. Ge Hong is simply reminding us that the books and words describe things, but are not the things themselves, just as the map is not the terrain it depicts. We can use these things as guides, but ultimately we must follow our own course and flow with life.

On Research

Research requires a delicate balance of sticking to your art even while investigating other arts, without jumping from art to art. This also means taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. This balance can be very difficult.

It is a common mistake for students to simply practice to the middle level of a number of martial arts and remain perpetually a middle-level student who has sampled many dishes but never deeply understood a single art. One must research deeply into things and not jump ahead or go on to other things too quickly. But, at the same time, waiting to master each individual technique or level before forging ahead can also be a problem. It can be useful to move ahead and gain an overview of things and then go back to master the essential elements that create real skill. This also means when an opportunity arises to learn something from a teacher, even if one is not completely ready for it yet, one should take the opportunity, learn the skill, form, or technique, and not forget what you learned even when one returns to practicing the basics.

Sometimes a teacher appears at a certain moment and one has an opportunity that will not return – learning to recognize this and take advantage of such an opportunity, even when inconvenient, is an important aspect of learning.

Yin Yu Zhang, the son of the famous Ba Gua Master Yin Fu addresses some of these issues quite eloquently in his book, A Concise Book Ba Gua Palming Methods:

It says in Military literature: “Expertise is more important that the numbers you deploy.” Boxing masters likewise say: “Skillfulness is more important than the number of techniques you know.” They also say: “Do not be afraid of a thousand techniques coming at you, just be aware of one technique performed skillfully.” These words express very strongly the significance of skill.

Students are fickle, enamored with new things and bored with old things. If a technique has not yet been mastered and the student moves on to working on another one anyway, his skills will end up as a case of quantity over quality, equipped with many techniques but good at none of them. Therefore teachers make use of the sayings above in order to encourage students to restrain their greed for the whole curriculum, urging them to focus on one skill at a time.

However, the author of this book is not entirely of the same opinion. He feels that practicing the art is the same as learning calligraphy. The eight major masters of calligraphy are each distinct, and if you only practice the style of one of them, then you will only be familiar with one style of calligraphy. Unless you spend time imitating all of their styles, how would you know the strengths of each?

The same rings true in martial arts. Regardless of whether the boxing art is from Shaolin, Wudang, Zhao School, or Yue School, what the founders of the art created is always imbued with limitless profundities and powerful subtleties. It is necessary to put in hard training and sincere study, and then after a long time you will be able to grasp the full theory of the art. And if you are able to notice that it was refined by way of a cumulative process building up to a great achievement, then you are sure to realize that the knowledge of many people is better than just one.

And so we really do not need to fret over whether we should master one technique at a time or work on many, for it is surely better to hear many things, see many things, practice many things, and know many things. However, no matter what boxing art you practice, you do have to go through it in detail and master each part. You cannot merely seek to have a superficial understanding. If in your training you end up just wandering casually from one technique to another, you would be better off training for “one technique performed skillfully” after all.[5]


In martial arts one learns forms and patterns. Different styles are essentially different methods that have forms, patterns and different training methodologies. Forms and patterns teach the practitioner the principles of the art, and the rules and methodology of training. So one must study the principles, adhere to the rules of training, and follow the method, but at the same time one must  not be bound and limited by the rules and methods. This is not easy.

The Xing Yi Boxer Li Kui Yuan offers heartfelt  advice for learning Xing Yi Quan that is equally applicable to Ba Gua Zhang and other martial arts:

In Xing Yi Quan training, there are innumerable torturous steps and levels and also many mysteries and great confusion. If not detected, numerous problems will emerge. Therefore, in training the heart must be empty and open, and to harmonize spirit and qi with the waist as the governor, Dantian as the root, San Ti Shi as the foundation, the rules of the eight necessities as a model.[6] and the five elements and twelve forms as the substance of the boxing. As a result, qi that emits and is dispersed can be drawn back to return to the Dantian, refined by respiration, but not through the nose and mouth.[7] One must employ the true breath in Dantian breathing, touching the upper plate with the tongue, the mouth seeming to be open but not open, constantly inhaling and exhaling naturally, without even the slightest bit of effort or force. At the same time, in training Xing Yi Quan remove the three harms – sticking out the chest, lifting the abdomen and angry Qi – [they] will cause great evil and illness.

After long practice, these aspects of the form can be achieved naturally and can be combined with the characteristics of the practitioner. Once the features of a [single] form are understood, the theories of other the twelve forms can also be understood. Consequently, the theories of ten thousand forms can be understood after just by observing and sensing only one movement or a moment of tranquility. If what is felt  coincides with the basic laws inside your body, reproduce and utilize the movements.

Therefore, students of boxing should ask suitable questions modestly and not praise themselves. In the past I was defeated in competition with the spear and in boxing. Even if defeated by the opponent, I borrowed his method of victory to understand the principle of my own training. Therefore the art of boxing is in the principles[8] and principles are the art of boxing. All the myriad things in nature cannot but result from principle. Everyone in the world can be my teacher and friend.

Perhaps the student does not know the rules of the training method, yet feels smooth and natural in the body postures and also in the heart and mind. But, after training for several years, there is no achievement. Those who understand observe that [this problem] is related to indulgence of conventional enforcement.[9] Perhaps when training, the movements in the hands and feet are orderly and the internal and external qi are coordinated and the whole body also looks and feels strong and powerful. Yet, in contending freely with others, when power is employed it does not seem powerful. Those who know say: that one suffers from the evil of restriction and binding. The cause is that the two shoulders and the inside of the two kua [10] do not stretch and extend and that opening internally and closing externally are not understood. If one trains this way for one’s entire life, the body will not be light as a feather or agile and quick.

Additionally, [it can happen that] for a time in training, the body forms seem harmonious and the heart and mind are also comfortable and relaxed. But suddenly, one day, the body forms do not feel correct and inside one does not feel harmonious. Moreover the rising, falling, advancing and retreating actions do not feel right and the heart and mind feel heavy and stuffy. Those who know say: one has arrived at the maze of uncertainty.[11] In fact, the practitioner has really made progress. In this moment, the practitioner should not stop training and not be hindered by millions of doubts. Ask the teacher for a detailed explanation before further training. In a single day everything will be seen in a clear light and all aspects of the boxing skill cannot fail to be understood.

Trying Too Hard

Internal martial arts require that one train night and day to change the internal body and acquire subtle skills. This means pushing the body past preconceived limits and training every day. At the same time, trying too hard, wanting certain expected results too much, and pushing too hard, often has diminishing returns – sometimes it stagnates the energy and the mind so that one actually regresses.

If you try too hard to develop certain skills, you often miss other potentials that are arising in the body and even smother them. Searching for the end result, rather than being attentive to the on-going process, creates an obsessive mind-set that tends to overlook key subtleties. When teaching applications in Ba Gua and Xing Yi I find that students have a tendency to focus only on the end result (the final strike, push or throw), on “getting” the opponent, rather than focusing on the all the moments that got them to the final position. With this mindset, when the technique fails or the opponent deftly counters, one is stuck with nowhere to go. By training for the final result, students miss the unfolding of the technique as it flows from evasion, defense, entry, and penetration, into the final perceived “technique.” Experiencing these elements fully allows one to learn how to adapt and change according to the changing circumstances. When I encourage students to draw out in time all the movements and moments of the interaction, and to take as long as possible to release power, the “technique” often naturally unfolds.

Focusing on power is another pitfall that often creates tension in the body and an obvious intention that the opponent can read. I remember Xing Yi Master Liao Wan Fu telling me that when he was younger he had a platform match with an opponent who had a notoriously powerful punch. This opponent had killed someone with this punch in a previous match. Master Liao told us that this opponent was easy to overcome because Liao knew that the opponent would rely on this punch. He told us he beat the man very badly.

I had a similar (although much less dangerous experience) in a Silat match long ago. My opponent had a very powerful close-range punch. I had seen him practicing it on a sandbag. I closed with him once and caught a bit of the punch, which went right through chest-protector I was wearing. After that I stayed away, and hit him with longer-range strikes and swept him off his feet several times. I was only able to do this because he was fixated on the powerful punch.

I have also been on the other end of this dynamic. In an open full contact tournament in New York City’s Chinatown in the early 80’s, I knocked out my first opponent and ended up paired with Emilio Narvaez, the PKA Light Heavy Weight World Kickboxing Champion, whose cornerman  was Paul Vizzio, also a PKA champion. I knew Paul and should have been more cautious, given his presence, and the fact that no one else had a cornerman. Both Paul and Emilio had both seen my preferred tactic at that time in the previous fight – to get in close and use palm strikes and elbows. Emilio never let me get close and for three rounds pummeled me with long-range punches and kicks. I was not badly hurt but lost every round.

Focusing obsessively on one skill-set to the detriment of others is a common problem in internal arts. The great Xing Yi Boxer Guo Yun Shen addresses this issue succinctly in the following passage:

One must not be stubborn in training boxing skills. If strength is sought on purpose, it can be restricted by strength. If Qi is sought on purpose, it can be restricted by Qi. If heavy ability is sought on purpose, it can be restricted by heavy ability. If light and floating ability is sought on purpose, it can be dispersed by light and floating ability. Therefore, in those with smooth training forms, strength take place naturally. In those with harmony in the interior, qi can generate itself and the spiritual intention can return to the Dan Tian area and the body can be as heavy as Mt. Taishan. In those who could transform the spirit into voidness, their body can be as light as a piece of feather naturally. It is necessary not to seek it on purpose. If something can be obtained by seeking it, it seems to exist but does not exist, and seems to be true, but is false. It is necessary to obtain these things by unhurried and steady steps, without forgetting and assisting them, without thinking and management of them.

Although one is supposed to train every day, taking a day off and doing other things prevents training from becoming stale, and gives the the mind and body space to discover something new. Training every day can also mean connecting internal body principles to daily life, the way you walk, the way you pick something up. Xing Yi and Ba Gua students who practice Tui Na and acupuncture perform their treatments as though doing Xing Yi or Ba Gua. That means all day long they are practicing Xing Yi or Ba Gua at work, in addition to the daily 1 to 2 hours of actual martial arts training. Similarly, a friend of mine who is an actor and teacher of internal arts says that when he is acting the Xing Yi and Ba Gua training subtly comes out in his acting, so effectively he is always practicing these arts. A famous NYC-based Tai Ji teacher told me she felt that her calligraphy and ink painting was an extension of  Tai Ji sword work, so every time she painted she was practicing Tai Ji Quan. Training hard also involves training smart and with attention and intention, and making training part of your everyday life, rather than something that only happens in the training hall.

My Xing Yi school brother Martin likes to make the rather humorous analogy of internal martial arts to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Everything must be not too hot, not too cold, not too hard, and not too soft, but just right – exactly like baby bear’s bed, chair and porridge. I find this a very helpful image not only for internal martial arts, but also in the realm of Chinese Medicine. and the childlike imagery helps keep one humble.

External Validation

One of the aspects of internal martial arts that can be discouraging to students is the lack of external validation. Meaning you are not winning matches, not passing a belt rank test, not “achieving” in the normal everyday Western idea of garnering an external reward. Add to this that you are not cultivating a washboard stomach or big muscles, and that no one (except those you train with) has much appreciation for why someone would spend so much time training and mastering an art with so little to show for it (externally at least). Western culture does not have much  support or validation for the pursuit of something that changes one internally, and that cultivates a richness hidden inside. Of course, one can enter tournaments and win matches and forms competitions, but from the perspective of the old Masters I have met in China, all of this is an external add-on to an internal art, which is about learning  practical self-defense skills, improving one’s character and True Self,  and improving and preserving health.

Self-validation is difficult, and does not necessarily help one with being accepted by others or “fitting in.” This can be very difficult for students of internal arts – friends, family and society in effect discourage the pursuit of internal arts. And even when you have achieved something, it is just a moment in time that marks a transition, not an accolade to rest on.

After training with Song Shi Yong for more than 20 years, one day in China at the end of training on the final day of the trip, I was expecting another set of corrections. Instead he gave me one of his very rare looks of approval and said: “There is nothing more I can teach you about Xing Yi Quan.” Inside it felt like a thunderbolt hit me. “What was I going to do now?” I immediately realized that while I had achieved something, I now had to step up and be responsible for my own development (and that of my students) without leaning on Master Song’s shoulders. It was initially not a pleasant feeling at all. It did not mean we would not train together anymore, but that there was a subtle change in our relationship, and in my personal relationship to the art of Xing Yi Quan. This internal change of heart and mind was significant, but there was nothing externally to show for it, and that was, and is, a good thing.

Daoist principles that have become part of internal martial arts theory and training are very influential with respect to ideas about non-striving, internal emptiness, and rejection of external validation, as the quote below from the Chuang Tzu illustrates.

Do not be a corpse for fame, Do not be a storehouse of schemes;
Do not be responsible for affairs, Do not be a proprietor of knowledge.
Thoroughly embody unendingness and wander in nonbeginning. Thoroughly experience what you receive from heaven but do not reveal what you attain. Just be empty, that’s all. The mind of the ultimate man functions like a mirror. It neither sends off nor welcomes; it responds but does not retain. Therefore, he can triumph over things without injury.  [12]


[1] Alchemy, Medicine and Religion in the China of AD 320: The Nei Pien of Ko Hung. James R. Ware (trans and ed). p. 320.

[2] The five Confucian Classics

[3] Alchemy, Medicine and Religion in the China of AD 320: The Nei Pien of Ko Hung. James R. Ware (trans and ed). p. 328.

[4] The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang. Brook Ziporyn. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003) pp. 31-32.

[5] A Coincise Book on Ba Gua Palming, Yin Yuzhang, edited by Wang Qintang (January 1932) translated by Paul Brennan (

[6] This refers to eight necessities and eight words – that summarize the rules of practice for Xing Yi Quan.

[7] This refers to the breath moving internally as in Daoist alchemy rather than normal breathing through the nose and mouth.

[8] 道理 Dao (path; way) Li (principle; theory)

[9] Influenced too much by convention: ie: just following the rules without sensing inside the body.

[10] The text references the shoulders and the hips (kua) as the root ( gen) of the upper and lower limb

[11] 疑團Yi Tuan literally means “doubt ball or doubt lump,” but also translated as “maze of doubts” or “maze of uncertainty.”

[12] Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales Aand Parables Of Chuang Tzu, Victor H. Mair –Translation  and Commentary (A Bantam Book: 1994) p. 56.