Internal practice

Internal Practice


This is the first of a series of blogs on what I have experienced over the last 20 odd years of seeking internal practice. I hope to be able to clarify some concepts and discuss some things regarding internal practice that are very difficult to talk about. Internal work is difficult to talk about mainly because authentic internal martial practice is 1) Difficult to find, 2) Difficult to practice 3) Very slow to develop as it requires much training and correction from a knowledgeable master, 4) Difficult to interpret while learning, 5) Outside of the realm of normal experience, 6) Not conceptually definable unless experienced in the first person 7) Impossible to demonstrate except in application and testing of movements.

Authentic internal practice is very rare indeed. From my personal experience, which is lengthy and committed, most of what is promoted as internal is quite often either only soft, slow or called something that should be internal but which has lost its contact with the inside due to the difficulty involved, and therefore virtually useless in real life unless strength or physical power is added, which is what usually happens.
Let’s take Tai Chi Chuan for example. There are three main styles being taught publicly today in most parts of the world, outside of China: Yang, Chen and Wu. All three claim to be internal styles. No doubt there are some practitioners and perhaps even some teachers of all three who can and do teach the internal side of these three styles. One thing is certain; the vast majority of what is taught in all three of these styles is no more internal than Shotokan Karate or Sport Judo. That is, for any of these styles to be practiced as they are taught and, what is more significant, for any one of these three styles of Tai Chi to be applied to fighting, as they are taught, physical strength even if soft and fluid, must be applied. This fact immediately disqualifies their being authentic internal practice.
How do I know this?
My initial personal experience comes from over 30 years of practice and teaching of Hung Gar Kung Fu. This style claims to use internal energy for such things as iron shirt, breaking and resistance of sharp objects to the throat and other spectacular feats. Therefore, my awareness of what goes into most kung fu practice involving breathing techniques and control, packing, resistance training of the hands, arms and body, along with theoretical form practice, training and application is first hand. However, all my years of training did not prepare me for my first encounter with a beginning practitioner of internal Yang Tai Chi.
Though I have encountered many people who have practiced Karate, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, many other styles of Kung Fu, and several “internal” styles in my 40+year career in the martial arts, until recently, it was impossible for me to tell if any of them were doing an external martial art or an internal martial art. I do not believe I was alone.
As for the “internal” styles I myself have only studied Yang TCC. Yet it was not until I met my current Sifu that I could do authentic internal training. I had to start from scratch. None of what I had done previously was applicable to doing internal martial arts. For brevity’s sake, I can say that it took me 3 years of daily training to get into the work enough to discover, within my own experience, that it was indeed internal. Much of that time was wasted as I was trying to fit what I thought I already knew into this new set of criteria. I am now almost ten years along and the fact that it is internal now is fully acknowledged though my practice is still in its infancy.
Having come from external hard kung fu, when I first began studying TCC under a well-known master, disciple of a lineage holder, the work was very similar to what I had done previously. The master always said that what we were doing was internal and we believed him. I excelled in that school and moved forward quickly. However, I now understand that those were only words. I don’t know if the master was aware of this or not; whether he believed in what he was telling us or not. Whether or not he knew what we were doing was no more internal than doing judo is not of any current significance. Those who still follow that master truly believe in what they are doing. Belief has nothing to do with whether your martial skill is internal or not. You cannot obtain internal skill by believing. It is not magic or based on conviction or hope.
Internal development, though very subtle and difficult to perceive at the beginning, cannot be a matter of belief. It must work. It must be verifiable, scientific and enable one to develop significant levels of sensitivity, strength and power. What I mean by verifiable, is that someone should be able demonstrate certain abilities that have been acquired through practice that are not products of normal strength training. What is meant by scientific is that the practice should be codified so that it can be replicated and bring the same results in many practitioners over time. A good example of codification is Yang Chen Fu’s Ten Principles. Also, internal practice promotes healing of many physical problems, even chronic, through its regular performance. External TCC also has this merit, but if practiced without certain criteria included (e.g., the Ten Principles), it can often lead to serious injuries of the joints, ligaments and tendons as well as to other possible health conditions.
I will continue this discussion in my next instalment.