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The Importance of Embracing the “Martial” in Internal Martial Arts by Tom Bisio

A significant percentage of students who take up internal martial arts focus only on the Nei Gong exercises and perceived “health” aspects of these arts while eschewing the martial aspects. This approach stems from misconceptions about martial arts in general and about the health aspects of internal martial arts in particular.

In internal martial arts, the inner Nei Gong and Gong Fu aspects that comprise the foundation of these arts are considered to be the most important focus of these arts. Cultivating Dan Tian and Ming Men and circulating Qi is one of most important steps in building a solid foundation. This connects Yi (Intention), Qi (Energy), and Li (force), so that they can be expressed naturally and instantaneously without thought. In this context, Li can also be thought of not just as power or force, but as movement in general, or the external expression of intention and energy. Without this fundamental training and internal development, the postures, forms, techniques are thought to be empty and useless.

These important ideas about internal training often have the negative effect of leading students to only focus on foundational Nei Gong exercises, Tu Na breathing exercises and Zhan Zhuang standing exercises, while neglecting the practice of forms, practical martial skills, techniques and partner exercises. There are many reasons why this is a mistake and this article will attempt to explain why.

Recently a student wrote me to say that he had been busy for several months with work and family matters that led him to neglect his Xing Yi Quan practice. He had managed to continue doing Qi Gong during this period but expressed the following in his email :

I started practicing only Qi Gong sets… But then I started not to feel the best. My neck, my back, some mucus, etc etc… So I came back to practice my Xing Yi and quickly regained that nice feeling. Sometimes I get confused or bored, like anybody else, but now I confirmed that it makes me feel super energetic and strong.

Qi Gong and Nei Gong alone promote health and proper Qi circulation, but martial arts adds a missing dimension of Qi, Shen, and Yi that goes beyond Qi Gong, a dimension that is that is very important for health and internal development, and a dimension that is to a large degree dependent on engaging with the martial intention inherent in arts like Xing Yi, Ba Gua and Tai Ji.

The famous Xing Yi Boxer Liu Wen Hua in his eloquent discussion of training Qi, says that Qi and power are formless, while the postures and movements have form. [1] Similarly, the Nei Gong Zhen Chuan, the bible of many Song Style Xing Yi practitioners, says that: Real knowledge of Nei Gong requires a through understanding of the channels and collaterals (the conduits of Qi). It goes on to say: after one is familiar with the channels and collaterals, it is necessary to understand that there are certain patterns that pertain to the whole body. If the patterns are not understood, all discussion of the vessels and collaterals is empty talk. [2]

So building up Qi and circulating Qi in the channels is only the first step toward health. The next step is to express these developed energies in the bodily forms and patterns. This is crucial step that allows the Qi to develop and express fully. Without a conduit for expression there can be stagnation and emptiness. I like to use the example of building a powerful car engine. If the engine just sits on blocks in your garage, it may make a loud, impressive noise but it is useless. It needs a form (a car chassis, body and wheels) to express itself and for its spirit, power and abilities to become fully realized. The forms, techniques and movements of internal martial arts are to some degree like the car body and wheels.

Martial techniques and forms develop other attributes that have many ramifications. Intention and spirit are important elements of self-development, social interaction and life in general. Building Qi alone without building Yi (Intention) and Shen (Spirit), can also be an empty enterprise. Qi must express itself in intention and is elevated by the spirit.

Martial techniques and ideas give meaning to movement and test the body’s inner and outer resilience and Qi by putting these aspects of internal development under pressure, so their durability and adaptability to external forces and events can be tested and adjusted accordingly. This strengthens internal connections and energetic alignments in a dynamic way. This dynamic strengthening forges a stronger and more adaptable Qi Dynamic greatly improving, health, mental outlook and internal power.

Understanding why movements are done a certain way hones and harnesses the intention. Understanding the martial applications and possibilities of each movement stimulates the Qi and the Dan Tian while fully engaging the Yi. Understanding the martial implications, and how these implications flow from the body’s internal energies and connected body patterns imbues them with beauty, wisdom and clarity of Mind-Intention. Only with this clarity of Mind-Intention can the body patterns and energies unfold properly and naturally without being stagnant and sluggish.

Ba Gua Master Gao Ji Wu very seriously explained to me that we have to know why we do each movement; that we must know that a particular beautiful movement is actually a vicious throw or joint lock. He then went on to say: but we would never do that to someone! We must however, still know the meaning because without understanding the purpose of each movement and action our practice is empty. Master Gao added that this knowing also develops one’s spirit, and that spirit must be expressed in every action and every technique.

Spirit (Shen) is another important component of health, fitness, and vitality. Even if Qi is replete and the movements and postures are smooth, they will still be empty without Shen.

The Nei Gong Zhen Chuan eloquently discusses the importance of the Spirit being “transported”: Training the form, one becomes firm. Training the essence, one reaches fullness. Training the Qi, one becomes strong. Training the spirit one is capable of “flight.” Then the Jing Shen can soar and change and transform.

Transformation of the inner being and transformation of Jing Qi and Shen is the essence of life and health, of ongoing development rather than internal stagnation.  Martial arts, properly practiced and performed, provide a means of transforming, which occurs at every level of experience – something less easy to achieve with Qi Gong and Nei Gong alone. For actions to be “real” and “true,” they must have “Heart” – in the sense of they flow from one’s innermost being, not a product of external reasoning or raw emotions. The “martial” aspect in internal martial arts aids the the ability to express one’s vibrant inner spirit in one’s every action.

In addition to these more lofty reasons for engaging with the martial aspect of internal martial arts, there is also the idea of fully preserving the art itself, in all its manifold manifestations, so that it can be passed on intact. Engaging with this aspect of the internal martial arts also draws us out of our own personal desires and needs, reconnecting us to the world and people around us. Thus rather than martial arts being a selfish enterprise to gain personal power, we are constantly reminded that our discoveries, triumphs and failures, and our personal journey are connected to those who came before and those that will come after.

[1] Detailed Collection of the Art of Xing Yi Quan by Liu Dian Chen (Liu Wen Hua).

[2] Nei Gong: the Authentic Classic: A Translation of the Nei Gong Zhen Chuan. Tom Bisio, Huang Guo Qi and Joshua Paynter, trans. (Parker, CO: Outskirts Press, 2011).