Understanding External and Internal Martial Arts 

It is very likely that the Chinese martial arts did not incorporate internal Qigong training until 527 A.D., when Da Mo came to China to preach Buddhism. Da Mo passed down the two Qigong classics, Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Changing) and Xi Sui Jing (Marrow/Brain Washing). Since then, Chinese martial arts society has divided into external styles and internal styles. External styles train from external to internal, and internal styles are from internal to external.

External styles normally start with the Wai Dan (external elixir) Qigong practices based on the Yi Jin Jing theory and training routines. At the beginning, a practitioner will learn how to use his concentrated mind to excite the local Qi (bioelectric energy) in the limbs, to energize the muscles and tendons to a more powerful level. After a period of training, the muscles and tendons will be strengthened and built up. Endurance and a higher level of power manifestation are the goals of this kind of training. After practice, the Qi built up in the local areas will flow inward to the center of the body to nourish the internal organs. However, it was discovered over time that when the local physical body is over-trained in a short period of time, the Qi level can become overly abundant, and make the physical body too Yang. When this hyper-Yang Qi flows into the organs, it can make the Qi level circulating in the internal organs too Yang and therefore bring harm to the physical body. In addition, due to over training and stimulation of the physical body, when a practitioner stops training or gets old, the muscles and tendons can degenerate very quickly. The consequence of this over-development can be swift degeneration of the physical body, high blood pressure, or injury to the joint areas. In Chinese martial arts society, this phenomenon is called San Gong (energy dispersion). San Gong can also be seen in people who train very hard and then suddenly stop training.

In Chinese external martial arts society, in order to remedy this problem a practitioner will slowly change from hard training into softer Qigong practice, and at the same time enter the practice of Nei Dan (internal elixir) Small Circulation. There are two goals in Small Circulation practice. The first is learning how to build up an abundant Qi supply in the Lower Dan Tian (lower elixir field or energy center)  and the second is learning how to use the mind to lead the Qi circulation in the two major vessels, the Conception and Governing Vessels (up the back and down the front of the body). According to Chinese medicine, it is known that these two vessels regulate the Qi level of the 12 primary Qi channels. Through practice, the problem of energy dispersion can be avoided. Moreover, since the amount of Qi which can be built up and stored in the Lower Dan Tian is much more significant than that of local Qi, leading the Qi from the Lower Dan Tian to the limbs to energize the muscles and tendons results in a higher level of power. This is the Grand Circulation. In order to make the Qi circulate smoothly and freely in the body, the body must be relaxed. All of the movements become soft and the training changes from hard to soft, and from external into internal.

The internal styles started Nei Dan (internal elixir) training, based on the Xi Sui Jing theory and training routines, which concentrates on building up the Qi to an abundant level in the Lower Dan Tian. Practitioners learn how to breathe correctly and use the mind to lead the Qi to the Lower Dan Tian, protecting and storing it there. At the same time, they also learn Soft Qigong movements to loosen the joints and condition the ligaments and tendons. Relaxation becomes the most important physical training. The reason for this is that in order to lead the Qi to the limbs for fighting, the joints must be relaxed and loose. This will result in relaxation of the muscles, allowing the Qi to circulate smoothly and freely. The first stage of this training is Small Circulation, in which a practitioner learns how to build up the Qi in the Lower Dan Tian and to circulate it in the Conception and Governing Vessels. Only after a long period of cultivation will they learn how to lead the Qi to the limbs to energize the muscular power to its maximum. Again, this is the Grand Circulation. Therefore, internal styles train from internal to external.

In Nei Dan training, practitioners also learn how to expand the Qi outward along the Girdle Vessel (around the waist). This vessel is the only vessel in the body which is horizontal and parallel to the ground; all seven of the other vessels are perpendicular to the ground. The purpose of the Girdle Vessel is to help your balance. If the Qi on the Girdle Vessel is strong, the feeling of balance will be stronger. This balance training is very important for a martial artist. When there is balance, there is a center; when there is a center, there is a root; when there is a root, the fighting spirit can be strong.

In addition, in order to develop a firm root, the Qi level in the Yang and Yin Heel Vessels and Linking Vessels on the legs must also be built up. Therefore, the sexual energy, which supports the Qi in the legs, must be stimulated, and the Horse Stance must be trained. Through a long period of correct training, the root can then be built up and made firm.   

    In both external and internal martial arts, “Breathing is a strategy”. Coordination of your breathing allows you to regulate your body and lead your Qi efficiently. In Normal Abdominal Breathing, when you inhale the abdomen expands, and when you exhale the abdomen withdraws. However, in Reverse Abdominal Breathing, the abdomen withdraws when you inhale, and expands when you exhale. It is usually easier to keep your body relaxed and comfortable with Normal Abdominal Breathing. This is why it is commonly used mainly for relaxation. According to past experience, when you use normal breathing, the major Qi flow circulates following the primary Qi channels (i.e. along the limbs), while a small amount of Qi expands both outward to the skin surface and inward to the bone marrow. However, if you use reverse breathing, the situation is completely reversed. The major Qi flow is directed to the skin surface and the marrow, while the secondary Qi flow goes to the limbs, the fingers and the toes. This implies that normal breathing enhances relaxation, while reverse breathing can make you more tense and excited, since the Qi is lead to the muscles to energize them. Through deep, slow, slender and relaxed abdominal breathing, oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange in the lungs will be more efficient.  

In order to lead the Qi strongly to the skin and muscles, Reverse Abdominal Breathing is necessary. Many people today falsely believe that the reverse breathing technique is against the Dao, or nature’s path. This is not true. It is simply used for different purposes. If you observe your breathing carefully, you will realize that we use reverse breathing in two types of situations. First, when we have an emotional disturbance, we often use reverse breathing. For example, when you are happy and laugh with the sound “Ha, Ha, Ha” The second occasion in which we use reverse breathing is when we have intention.    

If a martial arts practitioner is able to reach a high level of training, then the last stage is the cultivation of the spirit. A practitioner must learn how to lead the Qi from the Lower Dan Tian through the Thrusting Vessel (i.e. spinal cord) to the brain in order to nourish the brain cells to a more energized state. This can result in the raising of the spirit. The spiritual goal of the arts is to build a more peaceful and enlightened mind, which can lead to a deeper level of spiritual understanding. One of the Taiji songs says: 

No shape, no shadow.

Entire body transparent and empty.

Forget your surroundings and be natural.

Like a stone chime suspended from the Western Mountain.

Tigers roaring, monkeys screeching.

Clear fountain, peaceful water.

Turbulent river, stormy ocean.

With your whole being, develop your life. 

Ponder this song to discover the real meaning of Chinese martial arts. 

    From the martial arts perspective, if you are a good martial artist, you should be an expert in both Hard and Soft Jin (expressing power). Only then can you position your fighting strategy and techniques in the most effective and efficient way.

From the point of view of health, you must have a healthy strong physical body (Yang) as well as abundant and smooth Qi circulation in the body (Yin). Only by balancing this Yin and Yang can you maintain the healthy condition of your entire self. Your martial arts training should cover both the Yang and Yin sides of this balance. Be aware that too much external training is not good for your health, in the same way that an over-abundance Qi combined with a weak physical body can be unhealthy.

You should understand that the final goal of Chinese martial arts training is looking for the meaning of life. In order to reach this goal, you must find the origin of life, Wuji (no extremity). From Yin and Yang balance and harmonious interaction, you can lead yourself toward your own spiritual center, and finally reach Wuji.