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What is an Internal Art? by Tom Bisio

Nei Jia

Nei Jia 內家 literally means “inner family or inner school.” It is a term used to refer to styles of martial arts that in English we call “internal,” particularly if we add the character for “fist” resulting in the term 內家拳 – Nei Jia Quan. Today these styles are considered to include Tai Ji Quan, Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, Tong Bei Quan, Yi Quan (Da Cheng Quan) and Liu Ho Ba Fa. Other styles are sometimes called internal, including the Japanese art of Aikido. However, as the term Nei Jia is a Chinese concept, we must examine define and examine the arts called Nei Jia in the context of Chinese martial arts. In fact, many teachers never really say what an internal art is. This is because the nature of something internal is that it is sensed and experienced internally rather than perceived externally. Hence words are poor conveyers of what the concept of internal actually means.


In this discussion, the idea of triads – groups of three – will be used to help understand the concept of ‘internal’. Triads are an important concept in Chinese thought. The most basic triad in Chinese philosophy is that of Heaven, Earth and Human Beings. This is often depicted with Heaven above, Earth below and Human Beings in the center. This Triad is the basis of San Ti Shi, the “Trinity” posture, or ‘Three Body Pattern’ in Xing Yi Quan (Form-Intention or Form-Image Boxing). From this fundamental triad, many other triads can be developed to explain internal arts and internal training. Heaven’s energy (yang qi) flows downward and is received by Earth. Earth’s energy (yin) flows upward. The two interact and co-mingle in living things. Earth manifests and upholds physical forms in response to Heaven’s movement and image. There is an interaction of form and intention, images and manifestations, qi and substance.



Internal and External Martial Arts

At first glance, the primary difference between internal and external martial arts seems to be one of method. Speaking generally, the focus of internal arts is on principles rather than specific techniques. Internal arts have techniques, but from the very beginning it is understood that techniques are merely expression of the principles and that the ultimate goal is to create techniques in the moment out of the interaction of one’s energy and intention with the opponent’s energy and intention. Secondly, while generally speaking the external arts focus their training methods on developing muscular strength, speed and athletic prowess, the internal arts stress relaxation, mind-intention, stillness and natural movement. Lastly, the internal arts use alignment, breath and structural dynamics to actualize the movement of the vital force through the channels and collaterals (Jing Luo) or meridians. This is said to cultivate “whole body power”, which does not rely on muscular strength, speed and athleticism. This idea has considerable overlap with the idea of body mechanics – bio-mechanical principles of movement that increase efficiency. However, as we shall see, the two concepts are not identical.

Relaxation; Mind-Intention
Alignment; Breath; Structure; Qi



Muscular Strength; Speed; Athleticism
Body Mechanics; Bio-Mechanics




One interesting way to look at these differentiations is by examining the concept of the “Three Harms” in the practice of Nei Gong (Internal Exercise). The Three Harms provide an excellent differentiation between “internal” exercise and “external” exercise.

The Three Harms are:

1. Forced Breathing

Can cause a stuffy, distended feeling in the chest and diaphragm. Forced breathing can also damages the lung qi. Breathing should be free, natural and unrestrained.

2. Labored Use of Strength

Holding tension or power in a single part of the body in order to exert force. Not only does this break the feeling of connected, whole body movement, but it can lead to stagnation of qi and blood in local areas.

3. Throwing Out the Chest & Sucking In the Abdomen

Causes stasis of qi in the chest, so that the qi fails to descend to Dantian. The energy is blocked and cannot flow through the whole body. The qi floats upward so that the balance of the body is thrown off.

It is easy to see that the forced breath, panting and chest breathing that are a result of forcing the heart to work harder – as in aerobics and calisthenics – is the opposite of the breathing in Nei Gong exercises, in which the breathing occurs deep in the diaphragm (“Kidney Breathing”) and is slow, soft, long and even. Weight exercises and calisthenics which isolate muscle groups so that they can be worked to the maximum, or even to “failure”, involve the labored use of strength – as opposed to the whole body, connected movement favored in internal exercise. Lastly, the over-developed chest and shoulders and washboard-like, flat stomach favored by athletes and proponents of external exercise is the antithesis of the relaxed chest and shoulders and rounded belly that result from performing internal exercises.

The Six Harmonies

Another pair of triads, fundamental to internal martial arts, which help to differentiate internal from external, are the Six Harmonies – three internal and three external. The Six Harmonies discuss principles that are fundamental to internal exercise and internal martial arts.

Three External Harmonies

  • Harmony between Shoulder and Hip
  • Harmony between Elbow and Knee
  • Harmony between Hand and Foot

Three Internal Harmonies

  • Harmony between Mind and Intention (Yi)
  • Harmony between Intention (Yi) and Qi
  • Harmony between Qi and Power/Force (Jin/Fa Jin; Li/ Fa Li)

In the three external harmonies, the shoulder and hip move together and support each other, as do elbow and knee, and hand and foot. This means that these joints are linked and line up for efficient structure and power delivery. The shoulder is also considered to be the root of the arm, the elbow is the middle and the hand is the tip. Similarly, in the leg, the hip is the root, the knee is the middle and the foot is the tip. Power and force come from the root and are transmitted to the tip. In substance this is the same – or should be – in both internal and external exercise and martial arts. To some degree this is just a question of correct body mechanics.

The Internal Harmonies are a different matter. They seamlessly link with the three external harmonies in an organic way. The mind-intention (or Yi) guides the qi,which in turn actualizes force and power, which are themselves emanations and expressions of the mind and intention. This is not as simple as deciding to do something with force and then doing it. Zhan Zhuang or “stake standing” is a good example. Standing or holding fixed postures is one of the fundamental exercises in internal martial arts. In holding the embrace posture for example, the body relaxes, the joints are aligned (external harmonies), and with the intention one guides the qi to the tips of the body so that qi fills the entire body. At the same time, there are oppositional forces operating in every direction, which are a product of the intention (rather than being a product of bone, muscle and sinew): 1) The head and upper back erect upward while the tail sinks down, producing oppositional forces that pull the spine in opposite directions. 2) The arms feel like they are supporting and embracing inward while at the same time the arms are pulling apart. 3) Simultaneously throughout the body there is twisting and spiraling, wrapping inward and outward, extending and stretching, retracting, embracing, pulling apart and pushing together. These forces are manifestations of yin and yang, positive and negative – they are oppositional but also complimentary. All of this is a product of internal intention and internal “movement”, occurring without visible muscle tension or visible movement.

Additionally, in holding postures or body patterns, whether they are Zhan Zhuang, San Ti Shi in Xing Yi or Ding Shi in Ba Gua Zhang, there is an internal sensing going on. The oppositional and yet complimentary forces allow one to sense the stillness within movement and the movement within stillness. Two equal and opposing forces produce no visible movement – they allow one to sense stillness. Yet with in this stillness the forces are still operating – there is movement inside. As the body relaxes into the postures, one feels comfortable, at ease. The bones seem to support the body, while the muscles slacken and relax. Within this relaxation, this slackening, there is still force and strength, the product of the oppositional forces and within there strength there is relaxation and flexibility. The body is not committed in any one direction, It is moving in all directions at the same time. Even though one feels and appears to be still, the faint stirring of movement is constantly in the process of being actualized.

The Concept of Qi

Qi is a concept integral to the internal harmonies and to the oppositional forces discussed above. But what is qi? There is no single word in the English language that adequately expresses the concept of qi. It can be translated to mean a gas or a vapor, or understood as electromagnetic waves or fields of force. The famous Chinese scholar Joseph Needham felt that the term: “Matter-Energy” might most appropriately express the idea of qi 1. For simplicity, qi is often erroneously usually referred to as “Energy” or “Vital-Energy” in medical discussions. Webster’s Dictionary defines “Energy” as follows:

  • Vitality or affective force
  • The capacity of acting, operating or producing a an effect
  • Inherent power
  • Vigorousness
  • Activity and the product or effect of activity
  • The capacity for doing work or the equivalent as in a coiled spring (potential energy) or a speeding train.
  • Having existence independent of matter (as light or X rays traversing a vacuum)

Qi is both, all and none of all of these things. To understand the concept of qi more clearly it is helpful to study the ideogram itself and to look at how the Chinese have conceptualized qi throughout the centuries. The Chinese character for Qi depicts vapors, curling and rising from the ground to form clouds above. The ancient oracle bone, bronze or seal form of the character depicts this very clearly:


Later the ideogram was expressed showing vapors rising to form a layer of clouds. This is also part of the character for steam:

Qi 气

The modern form of the character adds grain by using the character mi (rice) which is depicted as: 米. This creates an image of steam or vapor rising from cooking rice.

气 + 米 = 氣 Qi

Various interpretations may be made. It may depict the nurturing energies of rice reduced to their smallest component, a vapor, or, as Needham indicated, the changing states of energy and matter.

In early Chinese Texts, qi is used to refer to various phenomena:

  • Air
  • Mists and Fog
  • Moving Clouds
  • Aromas
  • Vapors
  • Smoke
  • Breathing – Inhalation and Exhalation

In common usage, qi can refer to air, gases and vapors, smells, spirit, vigor; morale, attitude, the emotions (particularly anger), as well as tone, atmospheric changes, the weather, breath and respiration. In the body qi is often discerned by its actions, the balanced and orderly vitalities, partly derived from the air we breathe, that cause physical changes and maintain life3. We say that someone is healthy because the functioning of the their body (the manifestation of the their qi) is orderly and without dysfunction. Every movement, every thought and emotion, our metabolism, every movement of life and consciousness, is in some measure a manifestation of qi.

Benjamin Swartz adds an important element to the definition of qi when he says:

[cudazi_quote source=’Benjamin Swartz’]It is also clear, however that qi comes to embrace properties which we would call psychic, emotional, spiritual, numinous and even “mystical. It is precisely at this point that Western definitions of “matter” and the physical which systemically exclude these properties from their definition do not at all correspond to qi4.[/cudazi_quote]

To sum up, qi is something that can be felt, internally sensed and understood, but it cannot be seen, measured or quantified. For example, in the “stake standing” discussed above, we are sensing qi and we can observe its manifestations and effects, but we cannot easily define it, so words often confuse the issue. This is why is why many teachers in the internal arts do not say much about qi. However, one should keep in mind that reluctance to talk about qi, rather than negating its importance, underscores it.

The Purpose of Internal Martial Arts

Teachers of internal martial arts repeatedly say that the internal arts are not just for fighting or for self-defense and that approaching these arts with only this purpose in mind will lead to disappointment. Internal martial arts have three purposes which are expressed in the following triad:


This requires a balanced approach to training:

  • Breathing Methods (Tu Na)
  • Health Exercises and Nei gong
  • Martial techniques
  • Form and technique as an expression of principles
  • Training in harmony with seasons
  • Weapons as an extension of hand methods
  • Meditation –stillness within movement and movement within stillness

Fundamental Forces: Water and Fire

On the most basic level, internal martial arts and internal exercises focus on engaging with the two fundamental forces in the body, water and fire, the archetypal expressions of Heaven (yang) Earth (yin) which move within human beings. These forces have a relationship with the kidneys (water) and the heart (fire).

Kan & Li: Water & Fire

The fire of the heart communicates with the “moving qi between the kidneys”, the Mingmen fire, the original fire that drives the human organism. The trigram Kan, which is associated with the water element in Chinese cosmology and the kidneys in Chinese medicine, is often used to represent the kidneys and Mingmen. Kan consists of two broken (yin) lines enclosing a single (yang) solid line. This yang line is Mingmen, the “moving qi” between the two kidneys, or the “hidden fire within water,” the hidden yang within yin. Fire is yang. It is associated with the heart and represented by the Li trigram which contains two yang (solid) lines with one yin (broken) line in the middle. This is the hidden yin within yang, the hidden water within fire.

Fire is balanced by Water. Water has a tendency to sink downward and Fire has a tendency to flare upward. In order for heart and kidneys to communicate, water and fire must co-mingle and inter-transform. The hidden Water within Fire and hidden Fire within Water return to their places. This aids the interaction of Jing (essence) with the spirit of the heart, which manifests visibly in the light of consciousness that shines out of a person’s eyes. The ultimate goal in Daoist meditation is a return to the internal unity of the pre-heaven state, represented by the hexagram Tai (below) in which Heaven (yang) is under Earth (yin) symbolizing the unification of these two forces within the practitioner.

Kan & Li

How does one aid the this circulation and inter-transformation of Li-Fire and Kan-Water? In the internal arts, one of the functions of the Nei Gong postures and forms is to facilitate the interaction of Kan and Li. The trigrams are useful images in Nei Gong because they elucidate the relationship between the chest and the lower abdomen. Kan has a solid yang line in the middle, so the lower abdomen (Dan Tian) is said to be “full” (of qi, breath, force) relative to the chest. Li has a broken line in the middle, so the chest is thought to be “empty” relative to the Dan Tian. These qualities attributed to Kan and Li are encapsulated in the following two statements which are used as a kind of mnemonic:

1) Solid (substantial; full) abdomen, unimpeded chest. (Shi Fu Chang Xiong)

2) Contain the chest (like something held in one’s mouth) and draw up the back. (Han Xiong Ba Bei )

This is to some degree a function of “Kidney Breathing” (deep abdominal breathing) that is essential to the practice of Nei Gong. When the heart and chest are relatively empty, the spirit is calm and stable. When the lower abdomen is full, qi is stored and Jing is replenished. When the spirit is calm and stable and the lower abdomen is full, there is stillness inside – even as the body moves and changes. Physiologically, if the chest is too full and tense, the organs are suspended unnaturally and the lungs cannot work to full capacity. As a result, there is a sense of ti xin dao dan, a lifted gallbladder and heart and a feeling of zhi fei jian gan – “roasted lung and fried liver. The organs are “scorched and dry”, manifesting in a feelings of anxiousness, worry, and vexation5. Imaging the trigrams in the body, particularly focusing in an internal sense of fullness in the lower abdomen, is therefore an important aspect of the internal alignments used in Nei Jia.

The Nei Gong Triad

In internal martial arts, in order to achieve what has talked about so far, it is necessary to engage with the Nei Gong triad:

Nei gong Triad

Teachers of Nei Gong and the internal martial arts often say that to really understand these practices one has to understand Chinese medicine. Further they emphasize three key points that are critical to learning Nei Gong and internal martial arts correctly.

  1. It is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the Jing-Luo (channels and collateral – ie: the meridians)in order to practice Nei Gong correctly
  2. It is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the postures and forms, the internal and external body alignments and the methods of moving and changing.
  3. The mind must be tranquil and calm. The mind-intention (Yi) permeates all postures and movements.

In training and application, these three elements, the three points of the triangle above operate as an organic and indivisible whole. Interestingly, these points are echoed repeatedly in passages from Nei Gong Zhen Chuan (Authentic Classic of Nei Gong):

1. Real knowledge of Nei Gong requires a thorough understanding of the vessels and collaterals.6

2. Once the vessels and collaterals are understood you must observe the patterns. 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 channels and collaterals is empty talk7.

3. Once Zhenqi (True Qi) is sufficient in the interior, its external expression will manifest. Although it is hidden inside and unmoving, numinous brilliance is expressed outwardly through the face so that people cannot look at it directly. The qi stirs from the form, while form follows the qi. The mind is the master of the spirit and the spirit is the master of the qi. Therefore, when the Shenqi takes residence, the form will no longer be a burden and one will be like a dragon soaring in the clouds, a bird flying in the emptiness of the sky, coming suddenly and going.8

The base of the triangle above consists of the Jing-Luo and the body patterns or forms. The channels and collaterals are the pathways of the qi. They are like rivers, lakes, canals and irrigation ditches that spread qi blood and fluids throughout the body. The Ren Mai (Conception Vessel) and Du Mai (Governing Vessel), which run up along the midline of the body in the front and back respectively, are the most important vessels to cultivate, open and unblock in inner alchemy, internal martial arts and Nei Gong. In front is the Ren and in back is the Du . Between these two the qi turns constantly9. Once these vessels open, it is said that “the hundred meridians will open.” When the meridians are open and unblocked, one can connect with the primordial consciousness and the authentic self.

Qi does not move easily through tense or blocked areas. The body patterns (Shi) not only set up specific alignments which allow qi to circulate unobstructed, but also augment and amplify this circulation. What is meant by body patterns? Ding Shi (定 式) or Fixed Pattern circle walking is perhaps the key foundational practice in Ba Gua Zhang. Ding means “fixed” or “definite,” and at the same time it conveys a sense of calm stability. Shi means posture or pattern. Similarly in Xing Yi Quan, San Ti Shi (the “three body posture”) is the key Nei Gong practice, which forms the foundation from which all other movements and techniques manifest. San Ti Shi and Ding Shi are patterns of interconnected and interacting body alignments, pertaining to the whole body. They are similar to those discussed in stake standing above. Because they encompass internal movement and oppositional forces within external stillness, they are akin to the warp and weave of a rug rather than mere external postures. In San Ti Shi the Ren and Du channels are powerfully opened. In Ding Shi, the eight postures are said to variously open the Eight Extra Channels and Twelve Primary Meridians. Therefore, the “Patterns” in the context of the practice of Xing Yi, Ba Gua and Nei Gong include an interweaving of the body alignments, internal movement, simulation of the Jing Luo, intention, qi and jin (劲) (vigor, power, strength).

The opening of the meridians in conjunction with the body patterns calms and stabilizes the spirit, thereby transforming consciousness. But this can only take place when the spirit is in turn is calm and stable. Therefore, each element of this triad simultaneously acts on and is acted upon by the other two elements. In this way, internal training exists as an organic, inter-connected living whole – understanding in one area of training necessarily facilitating understanding in every other area.

To learn internal arts is also to learn strategy. Not just strategy in the sense of combat or military endeavor, but strategy for engaging with life, for understanding the natural order of the world around us – with its myriad manifestations and constant changes – so that one can blend and align oneself with the dynamism of life. This not only allows one to take advantage of opportunities as they arise but to live as a fully engaged human being.

Internal martial arts and internal exercises are not a series of levels or steps of procedures. They cannot be understood or effectively engaged with by following the numbers or by going from A to B to C to D…. etc. Rather, they are by their nature circular, intertwined and interwoven methods of mastery, that are self-iterating. Each aspect of an internal art has a fractal self-similarity; each acts as a recursive process because it references and contains each the other aspect. The result is much like mirrors reflecting into each other, creating infinite images. When we interact with one facet, we interact with all facets on all levels simultaneously. Therefore, internal arts and internal exercises offer many ways to enter into and engage with the process of learning and mastery.

An interesting way to look at Ba Gua Zhang is to view the Eight Gua (diagrams) of the Yi Jing as eight doors, eight aspects – or eight possible points of entry. It is possible to enter and engage with the art from any door and interacting with any one aspect is to interact on some level with all aspects. If something is understood implicitly in one aspect it can be understood in the others as well.

Xing Yi Quan – Form Intention Boxing, is inextricably linked with Ba Gua Zhang. They are expressions of each other. Xing Yi Quan therefore simultaneously manifests and is a manifestation of the “Eight Doors” above. The Five Forms or Five Elements, are the heart of Xing Yi. They are directly experienced and understood though the practice Xing Yi’s Five Fists. Originally these shapes and movements were viewed not as forms or fists, but as five dynamic an interacting forces (Wu De) that are themselves expressions of the constantly oscillating yin and yang polarities that manifest both within us and in the macrocosm of the world around us. The diagram below generates an expression of the Five Powers and their relationship to the Eight Trigrams and Eight Doors pictured above, that in turn can produce infinite manifestations and possibilities for growth.

Five elements & eight Trigrams


[1] The Shorter Science & Civilization in China: Vol 1,  Joseph Needham, Cambridge University Press, 1978. p.239.

[3] Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China: Science, Medicine and Technology in East Asia  Vol. 2,  by Nathan Sivin Ann Arbor : Center for Chinese Studies University of Michigan, 1987. pp. 46-7.

[4] The World of Thought in Ancient China by Benjamin I. Schwartz, Cambridge Mass: The Belknap press of Harvard University Press, 1985. p.181.

[5] The Science of Internal Strength Training by Zhang Nai Qi (1933). Translated by Marcus Brinkman., 2005, ppp.18-19.

[6] Nei Gong: The Authentic Classic – A Translation of the Nei Gong Zhen Chuan, translated by Tom Bisio, Huang Guo-Qi and Joshua Paynter. Outskirts Press Inc, 2011, p. 3.

[7] Ibid, p. 7.

[8] Ibid, p. 23.

[9] Ibid, p. 3.