Monday Morning Tai Chi Training Tip # 230
Internal or External
Most Tai Chi instructors and players are proud to say Tai Chi is an “Internal Martial Art”, and bad mouth Kung Fu, Karate, etc. referring to them as “External Martial Arts.” What is it that makes an internal art superior to an external one? It is sort of like politics. If you are a Democrat, you think your system is superior, and the Republicans feel that theirs is superior. Both can be true or false depending on many factors. I want to suggest we change the meaning of the term “external” to “surface inward” and “internal” to “center outward.”
After over 50 years of study and teaching Tai Chi Chuan, I can’t tell any difference between internal and external, certainly not any superior qualities. If we rid ourselves of prejudice, and use our thinking mind, I believe we can arrive at a place of understanding.
What is Tai Chi Chuan? It is a martial art (Chuan) based on the philosophy of Yin and Yang (Tai Chi). I just ran into a neighbor who shared with me he had studied Tai Chi some years ago and still practices. I asked him if he would demonstrate his form for me. It turned out to be a sort of 24 or 48 Form. He formed the “holding ball” and moved it around and I asked him what he was doing. He didn’t know, in a martial sense, what application he was using, much less that Tai Chi Chuan was a martial art at all. He was just mimicking movements he had learned, and those movements made him feel better.
So we could say that his form was external, just based on placing the body in certain postures void of the foundation principles of Tai Chi Chuan philosophy and reason. Yet, if I think about this, I arrive at the place where I believe that all movement, no matter what, is internal. If you remember what shape you want the body to assume, and the body obeys, then you are using the mind and that is internal. But this sort of internal is really “surface inward”. The shape of the body determines what goes on inside.
I learned the shapes from Master Choy, but not the intention. When I started teaching I had to figure out what I was really doing. So I was “surface inward”. Now the way I teach I work from finding the center first and then working outward. The intention shapes the body, not the other way around.
The body and mind are one. All parts of the body are connected in some way to the brain/mind via nerves and the mysterious “Chi System”. When the brain/mind is dead, the body is dead. It might be possible for there to be an external controller of the body, some machine that takes over the functions of the brain/mind. If that person were to do Tai Chi, I would then agree that the resulting form is “external”. But short of that, all movement comes from within.
In Tai Chi, we use certain “internal” energies to interact with someone or something. Peng, Lu, Ghee, An, Tsai, Lieh, Jou, Kao are our foundation energies. If something is coming into our energy field that we don’t want, we might use Ward Off (Peng) as a sort of elastic gate, that can be locked, or swing open when we desire. The mind (an accumulation of memories and experiences) makes the decision, and the body issues that internal energy. Practice and experience forms the mind which controls the body.
There is only one way I know that bypasses the thinking mind. That is reflexive action. Example: by mistake you touch something that is very hot, and the hand pulls away before the signal reaches the head/mind. The nerve signal makes it to the spine and the spine immediately signals back to move. Usually, the signal will go from the hand to the spine, up the spine to the brain, which interprets the signal, which then sends a message back down the spine to the appropriate part of the body to react in a trained way.
There are lots of people who would disagree with my ideas on this topic, yet I view that as quite positive. Why? Because to form an opinion you must think about the topic and arrive at some kind of idea for yourself. And that just leads you deeper into what Tai Chi is, why you are studying, what goals do you have for your study. Debates are positive. Arguments are negative. Yin and Yang.