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