Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Neigong Demystified  

Neigong is difficult to describe and define in a few simple sentences. Much of the information available is vague and romanticised. It’s often made out to be mysterious and esoteric. There are examples of Internal Martial Arts Masters who have used it to deliver and withstand massive blows without using excessive muscular force and tension. Traditionally martial artists were reluctant to reveal their ‘secrets’ (i.e. the bio-mechanics of their neigong exercises) to the general public and only passed them on to a few trusted disciples.  Additionally, often the people translating texts from Chinese or writing articles haven’t practised the material so can’t describe it effectively.  The aim of this article is provide a relatively simple definition of neigong and to introduce and describe some of its key components. It shouldn’t be viewed as a complete or comprehensive guide. 

Wang Shu Jin and Robert W Smith

Translation ( )

The character nei () means internal or inside. Gong () means time/effort or in this context skill. (It’s the same character as in gongfu or qigong.) Therefore ‘Internal work’ or ‘Internal skill’ are the simplest translations. However it’s not clear what this means or refers to. It can mean different things to different people. Often Chinese terms (such as qigong, gongfu) are not used in the same way in English as they are in Chinese, for example ‘Gongfu’ actually means skill not martial arts in Mandarin Chinese. Wikipedia translates it vaguely as “any set of Chinese breathing, meditation and spiritual practice disciplines associated with Daoism”; this definition could encompass a wide variety of exercises and activities. It’s more common to hear the term used to describe specific exercises (resembling qigong) that aim to increase ‘internal strength’.  

What is the difference between neigong and qigong?

I’ve often heard the terms used interchangeably and for many years had no idea how to answer this question. I still don’t have a simple or concise answer. Both terms are somewhat vague, ambiguous, and flexible. Therefore any attempt to answer this question is subjective and involves semantics i.e. the answer depends upon how you choose to define them. I’ve heard a variety of answers to this question these include:
  • They’re basically the same
  • Qigong starts from the outside and works inwards, while neigong starts from the inside and works outwards
  • Neigong is a type of qigong (and even that Qigong is a type of Neigong)
  • Qigong is to improve health, while neigong is to increase internal power
  • Qigong moves of energy using body using body movement while neigong moves energy using the mind
  • Neigong is the alphabet (or building blocks) of all qigong, taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan. 
These can all be considered valid answers. If pushed to give an answer I would be inclined to describe qigong as being energetic exercises mainly practised to improve health. And say that neigong is a type of qigong that focuses more (but not exclusively) on generating ‘whole body strength’. This strength comes from a synergy of precise alignments, internal stretching and a pulsing of joints and cavities rather than through merely building up individual muscles. 

Paul Cavel performing the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’ neigong set

Neigong components versus Neigong sets

I think it’s necessary to differentiate between neigong components and neigong sets. Components refers to training elements, such as abdominal breathing, pulsing joints and cavities, internal stretching of soft tissues etc. Whereas neigong sets are specific exercises, like ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’ or ‘Energy gates’ that are designed to practice these components. These are relatively simple and repetitive in terms of their external movements. Once students are able to perform the components in the neigong sets they can then integrate them gradually into any taijiquan, xingyiquan and baguazhang forms that they practice.  Although it’s possible to integrate components directly into forms it is much more difficult, because their movements are much more complicated than those of the neigong sets.

Few schools teach neigong openly or in public. It’s usually only taught to ‘inside the door’ students who may have to swear an oath of secrecy and not be permitted to teach or disseminate the material they are taught.  Naturally different schools and styles have their own unique systems that they want to protect and promote. So the elements described this article may not be present in all neigong systems. For example although Mantak Chia’s ‘Bone Marrow washing neigong’ contains breathing methods, fascia stretching and stimulation of the lymphatic system, but it uses very different methods to those described in this article.

Bruce Frantzis perhaps the most well-known westerner teaching neigong

My first neigong teacher Paul Cavel has identified two primary streams for the early stages of neigong practice:
·       Gaining conscious control over the soft tissues of the body
·     Developing the ability to pulse (or open and close) the joints and cavities of the body
Both of these streams contain various layers of practice (for example gaining control over soft tissues includes bending, stretching, lengthening, rotating, wrapping etc). The number cavities and amount of soft tissue means that mastering these streams is a formidable task. Although there are other important elements/components of neigong, I believe that these are two of the most beneficial for beginners.    

What is Internal stretching?

Stretching the soft tissue is one of the most important components of neigong. ‘Soft tissue’ can refer to anything in the body that is not bone. It includes tendons, ligaments, fascia, synovial membranes (fluid in joints), muscles, nerves and blood vessels.  Relatively few people know about fascia- the glue that holds everything together. It is a stretchy layer of fibrous tissue that surrounds every muscle, blood vessel and internal organ - an interconnected web that holds all the soft tissues and organs in place. This means certain internal stretches have the potential to gently massage the internal organs (by pulling on the fascia that surrounds them). 

Fascia under magnification. 

The translucent, white, stretchy membrane that we see in meat is fascia.

How can we stretch fascia and tendons?

The easiest way to experience an internal stretch is to gently move the shoulder blades and elbows away from the spine. If you stand up straight and hold your arms out in front of you, and then slowly move your hands away from your body without straightening your elbows; this should generate an internal stretch in the upper torso. This stretch can be amplified by rotating the arms as you move your hands. Ensure the spine remains straight and upright and make sure that the stretches and rotations remain balanced (i.e. don’t stretch one arm more), smooth, and relaxed. More powerful internal stretches can be generated in the lower body using kwa (kua) squats and weight shifting. When the stretches of the upper and lower body are combined with other neigong components such as breathing methods, pulsing (opening and closing) and precise body alignments this can generate a powerful ‘internal pressure’ in the abdomen.  
If the elastic represents the tendons, fascia and muscles, the ball would represent the feet and hands then the bat would be the spine. A shift in body weight that moves the tailbone should initiate the stretch (this was not the case in the exercise I described as the spine did not move).  The movement of the hands is sequentially behind that of the spine. There is a brief lag time between when the spine begins moving and when the hands begin to extending out and when the spine stops moving in one direction the hands should continue moving in that direction for a split second before they are pulled back by the elastic (i.e. the tendons and fascia).     

Opening and closing (also called pulsing)

Openings encourage stretches and closings should be performed as the stretches are released. To begin with the easiest parts of the body to open and close are the 5 bows (the spine, 2 arms and 2 legs). The next phase could be to include larger cavities such as the palms and armpits. Eventually we want to be able to pulse every joint and cavity of the body simultaneously. Of course there are hundreds of these and pulsing smaller cavities and joints, like the spaces between the vertebrae requires a very high level of awareness and control. It’s much easier to develop this in neigong sets such as ‘Circling Hands’ or ‘Marriage of Heaven and Earth’ where the movements are relatively simple, so all the attention can be focussed on the openings and closings. All Chinese internal martial arts forms contain openings in the yang movements and closings in the yin movements. However it’s often made more complicated by the turning and weight shifting. For example as the weight shifts onto the right side that side of the body may close causing the left side to open and vice versa. Increasing the number cavities that you are able to pulse will increase your ability to expand and open when emitting force (fa jin in Mandarin), thus increasing the power of your punches, kicks and pushes. But more useful benefits include releasing tension, removing toxins, stimulating the movement of fluids and improving the functioning of the immune system 

The Lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is a series of vessels throughout the body that drain fluid from tissues. It has a number of functions. It transports bacteria to the lymph nodes where they are attacked by white blood cells (i.e. it fights infections). It absorbs and transports fatty acids from the digestive system. And it helps remove toxins and waste materials from the body by removing interstitial fluid from the tissues.  The lymph system relies on body movement to pump the lymph (a colourless fluid that is similar to blood) around the body.  Pulsing cavities, especially those of the armpits, neck and inguinal groves, which contain lots of lymph nodes, will enhance the movement of fluids and improve the functioning of the lymphatic system. Rhythmic contractions of all the lymphatic vessels and the tissues that surround these will pump the lymph much more effectively than external movements.

Diagram (a) shows the major components of the lymphatic system. Diagram (b) shows how waste material is removed from tissue cells, and diagram (c) is a lymph node.


Correct alignments are a pre-requisite for effective internal stretching and pulsing. The spine should remain as straight as possible. The sacrum (the tailbone at the base of the spine) should be tucked under at all times. If the lower back becomes arched the internal stretching and pulsing in the lower body will be greatly diminished. The shoulders and hips should remain parallel (with each other and the ground). One common mistake is for people to turn the shoulders more than the hips.  The feet, knees and hip joints should remain in line. If these alignments are not correct the student risks damaging joints and ligaments.  Although these alignments seem simple, maintaining them precisely at all times is surprisingly difficult. Even a minor deviation can dramatically reduce the effectiveness of your practice. It is much better to maintain these alignments and only perform very small (external) movements rather than to perform much larger movements that compromise these alignments.

Conclusion and health warning/disclaimer

If your taijiquan, baguazhang or xingyiquan doesn’t contain any neigong elements then it shouldn’t be considered an ’internal martial art’. Unfortunately, as many taijiquan forms have been simplified and proliferated much of the neigong material has been neglected or lost. Synthesizing the neigong components and integrating them into martial arts forms requires a great deal of honesty, patience and awareness. It’s easy to kid yourself and visualise that you’re doing them correctly. Neigong also requires a lot of physical exertion, many people don’t expect this as the external movements are slow, smooth, and relaxed. Studying neigong isn’t easy or without risk. The ‘internal pressure’ needs to be built up gradually. Sometimes traumas (both physical and emotional) can cause blockages deep inside the body. Practising neigong may release these blockages, which may lead to a release of negative emotions. So neigong should only be studied under the careful supervision from experienced teachers. The feats of strength shown in the pictures of of Bruce Frantzis and Wang Shu Jin are the results of years of study under high level teachers followed by diligent daily practise. It should be noted that the potential benefits are much more profound than simply hitting hard or withstanding blows. They include being more consciously aware of what going on inside your body. Energising the immune system, and releasing toxins and tension from the body. 

The definitions provided of the lymphatic system, fascia, soft tissues and interstitial fluids are simplified and incomplete. More information can be found at the links below. 

Further reading and references



Fascia and the Lymphatic system


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Reflections on Practising: Why, When, Where and How

‘The more you put in the more you’ll get out!’

This statement is true for nearly all human endeavours, especially for qigong and the internal martial arts (taijiquan, xingyiquan and baguazhang). Everyone knows that we need to practise a lot to get good at anything. If practised regularly over an extended period of time both qigong and the internal martial arts can bring enormous benefits to physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual health.  However without regular and sustained practice you can only ever hope to achieve a tiny fraction of the potential benefits.

We shouldn’t view practising as a chore that needs to be completed in order to become healthy, calm, strong or whichever benefit you are hoping to achieve. For me it’s the favourite time of my day. A time when I have no worries and my attention is focussed inwards (on movements, alignments, breathing etc.). Practice has become like a drug addiction. If I don’t get my daily fix I’m irritable, tired and prone to illness.  

‘How can I find the time?’

It’s common to hear people say ‘I don’t have any time to practise’, I don’t believe this, perhaps they really mean ‘I’m not motivated enough to find the time’. Martial artists may be highly motivated to practise for hours each day, as they risk serious injury or even death. Of course many of us have work and family commitments that severely restrict time available for practice. My first teacher had a very busy family and work life, so he would get up very early each morning to practise, even though this often meant being severely sleep deprived (he had decided that practising was more important/beneficial to him than sleep). When I was in my early 20s I was able to practise for one and half hours each day after work, but now I have much less free time, so I go to work early to practise (I am more likely to be disturbed or distracted at home). Unfortunately, the periods when we are busy and stressed are also the periods when we need to practise the most (or benefit most from practising). Practising little and often is usually more effective than long drawn out sessions, so it’s possible to find lots of practice time without having to set aside large blocks of time. Varying times and seeking out new opportunities for practise may also increase the chances of hitting ‘windows of opportunity’, these are times when you are ‘in the zone’ and will make the most progress and gain maximum benefits from practice. One way to find extra time is cutting down (or stopping) bad habits, for example TV, smoking, wasting time on YouTube/social networks etc…

There are also some elements, such as breathing, relaxation, posture and alignments that we should try to practise throughout the day. 

Elderly people practising yang style taijiquan in a Chinese park

Where’s the best place and when is the best time of the day to practise?

A lot has been written on this subject. Dawn and dusk are generally regarded as the best times to practise. In China, early morning is the most common time to see people practising. Practising directly after a large meal or ejaculation should be avoided. It is desirable to practise outside near trees and water. However, in reality many people are unable to practise at the perfect time and location. I live in a polluted city that is well over 40C for at least 6 months of the year, so I prefer to practise indoors. My main recommendation is that you should endeavour to practise as much and often as possible, rather than being too picky about finding the perfect time and location. 

Combatting the 'monkey mind’

The 'monkey mind' is a Chinese expression that describes the difficulties (or often inability) most people have when trying concentrate on one task for an extended period of time. Boredom is one of the main issues that can make practising difficult. Practice inevitably involves repetition, especially for beginners who may only know a few movements. Repeating movements many times is essential. It leads to the creation of neural pathways, which allow movements to be performed instinctively without conscious thought, increasing speed and relaxation. The ‘information age’ means there are now many more distractions than there were in the past.  In many ways the biggest challenges that we face are mental rather than physical i.e. to avoid becoming bored or distracted. But there are a few techniques that can make practice more interesting. Although you may often practise the same movements and forms you can vary the internal focus. For example one week you may concentrate on tendon stretching, the next week pulsing joints and cavities, the week after that weight shifting or breathing and so on. It's best to wait until you can perform an element comfortably before moving on to the next component. If you suddenly start try to juggle too many balls you may drop them all.

As you become more experienced and aware you may be able to tailor your practice to the different seasons, your bio-rhythms or any health problems or weaknesses that you have.  For example exercises that benefit the kidneys (which usually involve stretching the lower back) are particularly useful in winter and when you are lethargic or suffering from colds. If you’re having digestive problems you should focus on the earth element, which is linked to the spleen in Chinese medicine.

The importance of finding a good teacher

Practising with others, attending regular classes and teaching others can also help increase our motivation and provide you with much needed feedback. In a perfect world we would be able to see wonderful teachers every day, who could supervise our practice to ensure that we achieve the best possible results. Unfortunately few people have this luxury, so the onus is placed upon the student to decide when and how to practise. Just a few decades ago the only option for someone wanting to study the internal martial arts or qigong was to find a teacher in the Orient. Today there is a plethora of information (such as books, websites and videos) available to us all online. Although these can be very useful resources and help increase awareness amongst the general public, they don’t provide any shortcuts to success or an effective substitute for face to face instruction. Prolonged, regular, mindful practice and expert guidance are still required to achieve mastery (or even the benefits mentioned in the opening paragraph).

Students being taught ‘Pushing hands’ (tui shou in Chinese)

General advice
  •  Find a good teacher
  •  Practise little and often rather than bingeing
  • Gradually build up your practice time and intensity
  • First practise individual components separately before trying to combine  them
  • Set aside specific times each day for practice
  • Look out for new opportunities and places to practice
  • Vary your practice to keep it interesting
  • Try to practice with others whenever possible
  •  Practise to 70% of your maximum to avoid injury and tension