Internal practice 2

The point of Practice

My beginning students often ask me how to practice at home. They want to know if they should memorise the long form or the short Foundation Form our school uses to teach the basic principles. I say, no, because that takes a while to learn. I also mention that the learning by rote memorisation is harmful and will not give them much to work on in and of itself. Some might learn the form in a few months. Most need at least one calendar year or even a little more for the twenty or so movements. Some students take years. The length of time is not important.
Nevertheless, the form without the Chi Kung is little more than just movement and of no real practical use. That is why I always give my keen beginner students a very basic single movement using my Sifu’s Chi Kung opening and closing positions requiring only one movement and no knee bending. I let them know that doing chi kung is a very deep form of stretching and that if they learn to relax in that first position they will be doing basically three things which will take them forward in their practice. The first is to find a space in their life for their practice. This can be just five minutes each session and two or three days a week other than their regular lesson with me. Second, they will begin to centralise their energy by standing still for three to five minutes at a time. Standing energy cultivation is the most efficient form of internal energy cultivation. Third, the body will begin to relax and sink down, while the top of the head rises up as if suspended from a string. I say to them that they need to picture themselves like a suit of clothes hung up by a hanger. I explain that this is practicing the very first principle in Yang Chen Fu’s list. It also includes Principle 2 and then 3.
Anyone who wants to achieve internal power must take the first five years of their learning and try to practice every day, even just a little bit. That will then give a suitable foundation for progress. Some days, I don't have the time I would like to have to practice. Maybe I have a lot of work to do, or an appointment, or I get up late. Why is not important. What is important is that I get to practice. That's the point. Practice has to become something like eating or breathing. At least, that is how it seems to me. Doing tai chi is a way of taking in nourishment that I will use in my life. It provides me with energy, balance, relaxation and wellbeing. Then when my practice is particularly effective, it allows me to store just another little bit of internal energy in my body, which will then translate into smoother, softer, more effective Tai Chi Chuan in practice or application and to achieve those all-important breakthroughs that keep us moving forward.
When studying internal martial art, regular practice is the only way to build the knowledge and skill base necessary to achieve any breakthroughs leading to development of internal power that is applicable to self-defence or to your everyday life. Most of us do not have to defend ourselves to get through the day. Those of us who do, will usually find more expedient and modern means to do so.
Today, I did not have time to practice in the morning. Nonetheless, I feel good and know that the work I have done this last week will be sufficient to take me through tomorrow, when hopefully, I will have time. For me, this is more than acceptable as my practice has been regular for the better part of 10 years since I met my Sifu. Even before meeting him I was practicing tai chi nearly every day. However, since that tai chi as it was taught by my former master included no internal principles, my practice, which was not properly corrected or guided, only brought me sore knees and some short-lived wellbeing. I, like many of my fellow students were, was convinced that what we were doing was real internal tai chi. The master told us it was many times. He once used Yang Chen Fu as an example and said that the more we practiced the long form the more power we would build up.
The only problem with that claim was that it was false. You can practice any form you want for many, many years and achieve nothing, no matter how much you are convinced that what you are doing is real. The only way to achieve real internal power is to learn from someone who can demonstrate that they themselves have achieved it. Then they must be willing and able to guide you toward it because unlike external power exercise, just doing the work will not necessarily bring any results. For example, if you are learning Judo and you want to compete, you must go to lessons and learn from someone more skilled than you are. Then you should verify your learning by competing with people who are better than you are. If you do this, you will achieve some success. You may not win a lot, if you don’t work very hard and you don’t understand the finer points, but you will progress basically in the same proportion of your input. A golfer who goes to the driving range regularly and plays once or twice a week for several years will improve their game.
This is very different in internal martial art. When doing tai chi, you must first learn to not be a goal seeker. You need to practice, even mechanically at times, just to get the feel of what you are doing. Then you go for correction. If you are lucky, you will pick up the points that the teacher gives you and you will notice a slight but definite change. Then you must practice, practice and practice some more until that change becomes reality. You cannot force it to happen. You cannot make it happen by will, desire or belief. You must let it happen. Once this idea is clear in internal practice and you have a method that teaches you how to use principles and you have a teacher who is willing to correct and guide you, you will improve. However, this occurs only if you practice, practice and practice some more. Mere memorisation and mechanical practice of forms will not cut it when it comes to developing internal practice. You must learn to let it happen through cultivation. It is very similar to growing a tree. You might buy a seedling and plant it properly and water it diligently, with not too much or too little. But there is no guarantee that the tree will grow big and strong. Children are also like this. There are no guarantees. You have to do the best you can each day and let nature take its course.

Achievement in internal martial art is a natural process that occurs only if and when the time and conditions will permit it to happen. That is why any great teacher will have just a few achieved students. Beware of teachers with lots of disciples. What they are teaching is of little impact except for the value they give it with their promises of secret teachings and internal power just as long as you pay and pay and pay.

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.