It's Internal Jim, But Not As We Know It
Sometimes prospective students come to our classes and see something other than their expectations. Upon talking to us they hear very strange words indeed - almost as if we were talking an alien language. But the problem is not so much our talking in another tongue, as the fact that they have been mentally conditioned to expect one and in our classes they get plain English. Not only plain English words, but plain English concepts (with a broad, northern accent to boot) and to many this is unsettling. We do not talk the language of the "internal arts" world.
People come expecting to hear about alien concepts - "qi" or "energy" and "subtle internal" aspects. They expect to learn about "jin" - which only a few will know means nothing more than a release or burst of bio-mechanical power.
They may well expect to learn about "energetic meridians" and special points where the "energy flow" can be disrupted. But "energy flow" cannot be disrupted when there is no energy flow to disrupt - when the whole methodology of energy flow is just a proto-scientific stab in the dark dating back to times when human bodies were not properly understood. The most misinformed will expect and wish to be able to cultivate altered and even spiritual states of consciousness through their combat training. If you wish to talk about tangible physical forces such as the momentum behind a punch, that's fine, but anything mystical is wholly irrelevant.
Some practitioners have at least taken the step of trying to explain how this or that method can produce different manifestations of "energy", such as centimetre jin, inch jin, hot jin, cold jin, shaking jin, reeling sik jin, listening jin and so on and so on. Sadly however, by adhering to the old terminologies at all, to whatever degree, they end up confusing reality with superstition and material fact with immaterial myth.
So-called "centimetre jin" is not "a kind of energy", but simply a way of explaining that a sudden burst of whole-body bio-mechanical power can be released in a very small space. "Inch jin" is not an altogether different kind of supernatural creature, but the same thing as "centimetre jin", expressed on a very slightly larger scale. "Shaking jin" refers to a soft, whippy movement quality that creates a shock wave - it is a kind of release and pull back strike with a rapid decay after the initial attack. It isn't a goblin, a nature spirit, a form of ancestral intervention or a manifestation of "universal life-force energy". It can be used to deliver a higher speed strike that is designed to cause more surface damage with less penetration. To think of it as "a kind of energy" is actually kind of meaningless - it is a physical skill, that's all.
Knowing how your body works in terms of muscular engagement will help you to develop this skill far better than living in an imaginary world, however colourful. "Hot and cold jin" can only be ways of describing an alcoholic drink made of juniper berries (OK - that's gin) - anything else is purely fictitious - body mechanics do not produce heat or cold effects aside from the heat naturally generated by physical movement and you're certainly not going to generate enough of it to harm anyone with. "Reeling silk jin" is a method of engaging the body to move in a constantly twisting manner - again a mundane physical skill. It isn't an easy skill to learn - it is very precise and can be expressed in subtle ways, but it is a physical skill nonetheless. "Listening jin" is not an "energy" you produce either, but refers to your physical sensitivity - your ability to feel and interpret physical sensations (such as where an opponent's centre of balance is at a given moment,) through your nervous system and this is developed through martial training. Hopefully you can see by now that a better term than "energies" for these different phenomena would be "skills".
Out With The Old
To be honest, over the years, I have become disillusioned with the traditional (and I must say erratic) terminology, though this is no reflection on the arts themselves. Taking the Taijiquan 8 methods and 5 steps as an example (something some energy-obsessives even go so far as to call "the 13 energies") we get a funny mixture of directions, body parts and movement qualities. "Peng" we learn is an upwards direction whilst at the same time being omnidirectional or spherical force - a kind of omnipresent evenly distributed strength (called "hunyuan li" in the art of yiquan). Some will argue then that it is not strength as we understand it, but a kind of "energy". The bad news is that it is strength, just like the rest of us mean it, because our bodies are the same whatever your nationality or conceptual framework and bodies are held up and made to move around with muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, end of story. Physical reality doesn't change just because you put it in a silk suit. "Lu" is simply a movement that diverts an oncoming attack slightly off course. While "Ji" is forwards and "An" is downwards movement, some will say that both of these have to be expressed in specific ways that involve the elbows squeezing inwards in the case of "Ji" and pressing first down then upwards and forwards for "An" once a specific response has been elicited to the initial press. "Cai" is a sudden sharp snatching technique, "Lie" can refer either to any sideways movement (the word "Lie" itself means to sweep grain from side to side with a broom) or to spiralling movement or to movement travelling in opposite directions, depending on who you ask. "Zhou" is a body part - the elbow, which is usually used for striking. "Kao" means to lean, though tilting is officially prohibited by the Taiji Classics so it should actually be seen to refer to striking with the torso whilst remaining upright. The "5 steps" refer to advancing, retreating, turning to look to the left or right and maintaining centred stability where you stand. Here, as everywhere, the exact meanings of these ideas is controversial with different styles and specific lineages varying so much as to directly contradict each other.
A bit like Taiji's 8 methods, Bagua employs a framework of 8 palms - sometimes the name refering to a specific shape or orientation, sometimes to a way of expressing movement, sometimes to a direction...
How much more logical then to compartmentalise these systems in a more consistent and coherent manner. How much more useful to rethink these systems and replace them by differentiating between the different kinds of concepts being discussed, so that teacher and student alike can discuss them separately and be clear about what is being discussed. The reason I am so determined on this issue is because I have seen time and again the vagueness inherent within the traditional systems only ever leads to confusion, disagreement and, above all, error. Of course, to the majority, once you change anything at all, you must stop calling your art by its traditional name and should announce a new system. In truth there is no reason at all you should be compelled to go that far, unless you think it useful to do so. Such a suggestion - that what we do should no longer be called Taijiquan or that what we do no longer qualifies as real "internal arts" is simply to misunderstand the purpose of both Taijiquan and so-called internal training. If I teach boxing, albeit in a rather unorthodox fashion, but still manage to produce boxers who can fight well in the ring, perhaps generally much better than the average boxer, no one would suggest that what we were doing was no longer boxing because we don't train in the typical way or talk using typical terms, especially if all we had done is fully translate those terms into another language. In fact, should a boxer be trained in China using classical wushu terminology, providing he fought in the ring by Western boxing rules, using the same kinds of strikes, I'm sure no one would say he wasn't a real boxer.
In With The New
Because of the general lack of clarity within the traditional systems I decided some time ago to replace the Taiji 8 methods and the Bagua 8 palms in my own training, with a single coherent framework. I do still refer back to the traditional models from time to time, not least because many of my existing students are already familiar with them, but they are not my main framework. For the same reason, my traditional style DVDs use the traditional terminology people may be familiar with, but for my more generic DVDs that deal with the stuff that makes it all work - the so-called "internal aspects" that power everything we do (DVDs such as Martial Rotation™ and Martial Power™) I use more generic terminology.
Instead of adhering to the classic Taiji and Bagua models, I chose to start thinking and talking more generally in terms of Purpose, Quality and Direction, with these 3 factors determining any precise finished Shape. With regard to power, I have for some time described such components as rotation (aka twisting / reeling silk), undulation (or whipping power) and momentum - the grounded muscular engagement powering everything. How much each component is emphasised varies according to the purpose of the movement and its desired effect. I have, I suppose to a large extent, created a new system to replace the various supplemental bits and bats of material that accompanied the traditional styles I learned. Nothing has been lost, though it may have been expanded on, clarified and then simplified as much as possible. My new method, which is quite encyclopedic in its full format (if only because the generic principles it contains can be combined and expanded upon almost endlessly,) is called "Universal Martial Training™" and this generic system serves as foundation for assessing and studying the techniques of other styles with. We focus on the techniques of Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, but are not limited to them, also looking comparatively at how Kuntao and Silat styles deal with similar attack scenarios. Actually we can and do assess the whole range of possible human movement and analyse its combative potential, free from style.
I firmly believe that the division into internal and external fighting systems is a misguided and unfounded form of snobbery that assumes that only internal systems have anything as sophisticated as subtle body mechanics and that other styles rely on brute strength. There may be some truth in the idea that some of the Chinese styles that people call internal might go into more detail with regard to body mechanics, but this is by no means guaranteed and very often, such avenues have become so fixated upon that it has been greatly to the detriment of the fighting strategies of the art. A Taiji player might be a dab hand at a friendly push hands match but ask them to deal with a thug intent on taking their life and they may come unstuck. I sincerely hope they don't have to find it out the hard way, but fantasizing about mystical martial powers that will develop over time through meditation practices is nothing more than self delusion.
The crucial thing a new student must remember is that they are not going to miss out on anything by learning with us just because we can explain in plain physical terms what is required. In fact, quite the reverse is true - in more mystical schools, students will, without question, have to stumble around grasping for vague and elusive concepts that they'll be left to "feel" or "intuit" without explanation or correction. The hugest mistake anyone can make is to see mysteriousness and lack of clarity as a virtue. Fighting arts are practical things - if you can't identify and apply what you're mentally grasping for it could cost you your life.
So we won't fill your head with hit or miss pressure points that can allegedly cause unconciousness on some people, unless their "ren and du channels" have become "disconnected" by their not having their tongue where you want it. We won't hoodwink you with nonsense techniques that only work on "true believers" and even then only if they're not wiggling their big toes. We will show you genuinely vulnerable targets that really exist such as the windpipe and the ilio-tibial band.
We won't get you to stand and visualise your hands being pulled up by balloons, or to imagine a feather stroking down your arm. We won't ask you to imagine a sphere of energy rotating in your belly or between your hands. We won't tell you that your body is comprised of 18 energetic spheres... because it isn't.
We won't divert you with talk about how "3 internal alchemy elixir fields" in your body "convert sexual energy into breath and / or bio-electricity and breath and / or bio-electricity into spirit" and proceed to make links between that and the conversion of solid to liquid to gas and then for an encore try to connect it all with certain specific colours, mythical creatures or times of the year. We will show you how to engage your muscles in such a way that connected circular and spiralling movements can be expressed and we will show you how to use this for self defence. We will show you the correct way to deliver continuous power for a throw and by way of contrast the most efficient ways of generating sudden high-impact jolts of striking power that will maximise damage. We will show you where you want to be in relation to one or more opponents to gain the best strategic advantage.
If you want to be clear and stay clear in your martial training, you stand to gain a lot from us, but if you like to be mystified you won't. If you want to invest your time and energy in learning how to defend yourself and others from harm, you'll like what we do. If you'd rather spend your time cultivating a mystical self-image, you won't.
Staying On The Path
That's the top and bottom of it. When I was learning, I always asked myself the vital question "how will this help me hit stuff harder?" It might sound simplistic, but the way to succeed is to set clear goals, ask clear questions, get clear answers and then work hard to put it all into practice. Getting side-tracked down avenues of divination, spirituality, mysticism, symbolism, superstition and myth will only get you lost. Don't stray from the path.