Sunday, 21 April 2013

What’s the difference between internal and external martial arts?
The term internal martial art was first used by Sun Lu Tang (in the early 20th century) to distinguish Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang from other martial arts. Some martial arts such as Aikido, Bajiquan and White Crane Kungfu are often considered as internal-external or soft-hard, as they share some of the principles of the internal martial arts. Most other martial arts, such as Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Boxing, Kungfu, Mauy Thai would be considered as external.   

Figure 1 Sun Lutang
External martial arts tend to focus on martial techniques i.e. punches, kicks, locks or throws and conditioning exercises. Of course internal martial arts also use these techniques, but they usually concentrate more on the cultivation of qi (internal energy), spirit (through meditation), breathing and bio-mechanics (through posture and whole body movement). 

In the internal martial arts power is generated through Chi (or qi) energy with the whole body moving as a singular unit. Practitioners bodies move in a soft, fluid and relaxed manner. Movements are continuous and circular.  In external martial arts power is usually generated through bursts of muscular tension. It’s usually hard, linear and often aggressive. Practicing in this manner may lead to tension, injuries and is difficult to continue into old age. Whereas most internal martial artists continue to improve into old age.

How can internal martial arts be effective if they are soft and slow?

It should be pointed out that it may take a few years of regular practice with an instructor who knows how to apply the movements in order to use the internal martial arts effectively. Unfortunately there are relatively few teachers who are able to do this and many internal martial artists practice for health and relaxation, rather than for fighting. Soft relaxed bodies are able to move quicker than tense hard ones. If a movement has been repeated many times neural pathways will develop allowing it to be performed quickly without conscious thought, this is not related to the speed at which the movement has been practised. Developing bio-mechanically efficient movements and chi (internal energy) can allow the practitioner to generate more power than can be achieved by building big muscles.  

What are the main differences between the three Internal Martial Arts?
Taijiquan is a close range art. Physical contact with the attacker should be maintained in order to ‘listen’ to his intentions (Ting Jin in Chinese) and prevent him from striking. Grappling (in order to catch the opponent off balance) and yielding (following the principles of yin and yang) are important features. These are trained through push hands exercises. Taiji forms vary in length from around 20 movements to over 100.

Figure 2 Sean Barkes Yang style taiji single whip
The foundation of Baguazhang is circle walking. This develops tremendous strength in the legs and waist. It makes it ideal for fighting multiple opponents. Most strikes are performed with the palm or forearm. Bagua usually contains 8 different palm changes, which involve changing directions whilst circle walking.

Figure 3 Paul Cavel Yinfu style Bagua Single Palm change
Xingyiquan is the most yang and aggressive of the three, containing a wide variety of punches and strikes. It is practised faster and is more direct than the other two. Punches often serve as both blocks and strikes.  Xingyi has 5 separate movements (which correspond to the 5 elements wood, water, fire, earth and water), which are usually practice separately.  Plus 8-12 animal forms e.g. horse, eagle, snake, dragon, crocodile, rooster, bear and hawk (these vary between the different styles). Standing postures (santi) are also used to accumulate chi and develop strong legs and waist.

Figure 4 Xingyi Santi posture

Monday, 4 February 2013

Important principles of the internal martial arts and qigong

The term internal martial art can be misleading. With the exception of meditation and standing postures they all involve external movement. It also implies that they don’t require physical effort. Although they appear effortless when performed well, they do in fact require considerable physical effort, particularly from the lower body (mainly the legs, waist and lower back).

Yin and yang
Of course yin generally means negative, internal and passive, while yang means positive external and active. The idea that yin balances yang is central to Taoism and traditional Chinese medicine. How can it be applied to internal martial arts and qigong? Some movements can be classified as yang, especially if they are forward, upward or attacking an opponent and other are more yin i.e. defensive. In any form these two elements should be balanced. Yang will always follow yin and vice versa. Yang movements will occur during exhalations and yin movements during inhalations. If the left hand, foot, arm or leg is yang then and right will be yin.  If your opponent is yang e.g. attacking you must become yin e.g. defend.

Smooth continuous movement
Many external exercises and martial arts are characterized by linear movements with stops and starts. These can create tension and stress. Smooth continuous movements promote relaxation and allow qi (internal energy) to flow.  The whole body should move together in a co-ordinated way. For example a punch shouldn’t just use the arm and shoulder muscles, but should be driven by the movements of the legs, waist and spine, in order to achieve maximum bio-mechanical efficiency.

Body alignments, posture and rooting
Internal martial arts and qigong encourage people to use their bodies the a bio-mechanically efficient way. Ensuring that the foot, knee and hip joints are always correctly aligned dramatically reduces the risk of injuries. Having a straight, balanced spine allows the muscles of the back to relax, as they don’t need to constantly strain to keep the body upright. Poor alignments and posture can mean will create areas of tension, especially in the back and knees. If alignments and posture are good this will enable the body to become rooted to the ground. The weight of the body is transferred evenly down the back, legs and feet into the ground. This will improve balance considerably.

Abdominal breathing
Many people take short, shallow breathes that only utilize the upper part of the lungs. Abdominal breathing involves sinking the ribcage and keeping it relatively still. As the diaphragm moves down during inhalations the abdomen is compressed. During the exhalation it moves up and releases this compression. This creates a constant gentle massage for the liver, spleen, kidneys and intestines. More air goes into the lower part of the lungs making breathing more efficient and slower. 

Weight shifting
During the practice of internal martial arts and some types of qigong the weight is constantly shifting from left to right. If the alignments are correct and the spine is straight this will gently massage the internal organs of the abdomen. It will also promote the movement of qi in the body.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

What is Qigong (Chi Kung)?

The character Qi (sometimes written Chi) has no simple one word equivalent in English.  It has been translated as life energy, lifeforce, or energy flow, but definitions often involve breath, air, gas, or relationship between matter, energy, and spirit. Dr Yang Jwing Ming (Chinese physicist and taiji teacher) defines it as “bio-electromagnetic energy”.

Gong (sometimes written kung) actually means time or effort. In this context skill, mastery or cultivation would be more appropriate translations.

Therefore internal energy cultivation exercises would be the one of the easiest ways to translate the term into English. In China the term can be used to describe a wide variety of exercises ranging from meditation to conditioning exercises for martial artists. It would include all of the Chinese Internal martial arts (Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua). In the west the term is usually used to describe stationary exercises practiced for health and qi development.

There are literally hundreds of different types of qigong so it is difficult to generalize about what they look like. General principles include slow relaxed abdominal breathing combined with yin and yang openings and closing of the body, biomechanically efficient posture (i.e straightening the spine and aligning the joints) and smooth flowing movements. Some qigong involves stretching tendons and ligaments in a way that massages the internal organs.

A brief history of Qigong

The term Qigong didn’t become widespread until the 20th century, before this terms like dao-yin ‘leading the energy’, xing-qi ‘leading the circulation of qi’ or yang-shen ‘nourishing the spirit’ were used. As qigong has been passed down orally and evolved gradually over many generations attempts to plot its history inevitably rely on speculation, guesswork and legends. Qigong like exercises are generally believed to be about 5000 years old. Some claim that qigong evolved from shamanistic animal dances, while others assert that it evolved from yoga like exercises that came from India with Buddhism. 

For much of its history qigong was practiced in Taoist and to lesser extent Buddhist temples, with an emphasis on spiritual development and meditation.
Legend has it that Da Mo (otherwise known Bodhidharma), a Buddhist monk from India arrived at the Shaolin temple in the 6th century, to find the monks in such poor state of health that they found it difficult to meditate for long periods. The story goes that he spent nine years in a cave meditating and developed muscle tendon stretching (yijin jing) and bone marrow washing (xi sui jing) qigong to help the monks. At the time the monastery was frequently attacked by bandits, so this qigong was gradually incorporated their martial arts. 

The successful Chinese army general Yue Fei  1104-1142 is believed to have developed the still widely practiced eight pieces of the brocade (ba duan jin) to keep his troops healthy. He never lost a battle.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that qigong was taught openly in China for its health benefits. This was encouraged by the communist party, because there was a shortage of doctors at this time. Up until this point martial artists and monks only taught relatively small numbers in secret. Today qigong is practiced by millions of people in many different countries.  

Common types of Qigong

Standing postures (Zhan Zhuang)  This was the main form of qigong practiced by my two teachers from mainland China. It builds up leg strength and helps straighten the spine. The lack of movement allows practitioners to scan the body for areas of tension and focus on breathing techniques, posture and relaxation.

Wild goose (Dayan) It originated from the Taoist Kunlun school at the end of the 3rd century. It’s one of the longest qigong sets consisting of over 70 movements. Madam Yang Mei-Jun first began teaching it publically of the late 1980s. She lived to be 106.

8 pieces of the brocade (ba duan jin) This 8 movement set can be learnt relatively quickly and easily. Practiced mainly for health and often attributed to General Yue Fei.

Neigong Means internal work/skill. The term is used to describe a variety of exercises designed the increase internal power. The external movements are relatively simple, but are combined with pulsing cavities, stretching fascia, ligaments and tendons and breathing techniques. Bruce Frantzis is one of the few westerners to write about it and teach it openly. 

Bone marrow washing (Xi sui jing) Supposedly developed at the Shaolin temple by Da Mo, this exercise washes the bone marrow with qi. As we age the bone marrow produces fewer red blood cells. This exercise aims to reverse the effects of aging and increase longevity. Unfortunately it’s not taught publically.

Muscle tendon change classic (Yijin Jing)
Also attributed to Da Mo at the Shaolin temple. This set is thought have similar origins to the ba duan jin. Some versions have 10, 12 or 24 movements. It is relatively intense set that aims to strengthen muscles and tendons and therefore promote balance, co-ordination, flexibility and speed.

Dragon and Tiger medical qigong
A 7 movement set that traces the body’s acupuncture meridians and clears out blocked/stagnant qi. Taught to Bruce Frantzis by Zhang Jia Hua and can be used as a treatment for cancer.

Please note there are many other qigong sets that I haven’t been able to include on this list. Some of these exercises can be viewed on youtube, but really require an experienced teacher to explain the internal content and give feedback on whether the exercises are being performed correctly. 

My teachers

I began studying internal Chinese martial arts (Qigong taiji, Xingyi and Bagua) in 2002 and have been able to see many teachers mainly in England and China, but I have also studied in France, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Scotland and Bahrain.

My main teachers have been:

Sean Barkes (Lincoln, England) I have been studying with Sean since 2003. Sean teaches many types of Qigong, Yang style taiji long form and push hands. His teachers include Yang Jwing Ming (Tiawan) and Willie Lim (Malaysia).   Sean is also an experienced practitioner of tradition Chinese medicine.  Sean’s website

Paul Cavel (London, England)  I have been studying with Paul since 2004. Paul is a senior student of Bruce Kumar Frantzis (see ). He teaches Bagua, Wu style taiji, Taoist meditation and Qigong including Neigong. Mainly in retreats and weekend seminars in England, France and Germany.

Zhou Jingxuan (Tianjin, China) I studied with Master Zhou when I lived in Tianjin from 2007 to 2008. Zhou teaches many northern Chinese martial arts including Xingyi quan, Baji, taiji, Jingang Bashi and pigua zhang. (He taught me Xingyi and Yang style taji.) Zhou is unusual for a Chinese Master, because he had 11 long term teachers and teaches westerners openly.  An article about him by one of his western students.
Shang Wu Zhai- Traditional Chinese Martial Arts – Facebook page

Wang Hongjun (Shenzhen, China) 2009-2011. Unfortunately I know relatively little about Master Wang’s teachers and lineage. Wang’s main teacher was from Ningxia province in the North-west of China. His school is named Bei Xi’an, which is a mythical animal that’s half Lion half Tiger. Wang teaches an unusual Yin Bagua, Xingyi Combination form, Neigong and Taiji. 

Phaiboon T.W Cheng (Hong Kong) 2004 and 2009-2011. Sifu Cheng teaches Yang style taiji in Kowloon Park and introduced me to Wang Hongjun. I studied the 24 Yang short form, the Beijing 42 combination form and the 108 Yang long form with him.

I have seen many other teachers a few times these include Nigel Sutton (Malaysia he taught me Guo style Bagua), Mario Napoli (New York he taught me push hands), Faye Li-Yip (Beijing she taught me Sun style Taiji) Willie Lim (Malaysia he taught ChengManChing Yang style taji) Chris Pei (Taiwan Yang style), Zhu Hwa (Beijing Cheng style Bagua) and Shao-Nian Bates (Bahrain Beijing 42 Taiji and Bagua).