Confusing internal & external training methods

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In terms of something else

It can be difficult to perceive something new on its own terms. The temptation is always to see it in terms of what you already know. Yet, this approach closes your mind to the new.


Tai chi cannot be seen in terms of the conventional, external martial arts. Yes, we require similar results:

  1. Success in combat

  2. The ability to perform a variety of skills against a range of opponents

  3. Appropriateness

But the means by which we accomplish and manifest these skills is quite different to mainstream combat systems.
Tai chi avoids military style warm-ups in favour of milder stretching, leg stretches, standing and moving qigong. Fitness without forcing.

If every time you decide to do a punch, kick or throw during form or sparring, you tense up, lock up, or make a certain type of scream, all of this creates a certain mindset that constantly trains your body to tense.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Exaggeration is bad

Beginners often treat tai chi like an external system and rely upon deeply bent knees and exaggerated stances for power. Their seeming root is accomplished through forcing.
Instead of forcing a squat, relax the muscles and allow the action to take place.


Yang Cheng Fu said "Use mind not force" and this one statement holds the key to understanding the difference between internal and external. Intention requires considerable presence and awareness.
The student must have a calm, clear mind; focussed on the here and now. Instead of forcing an outcome, observe, blend, be wily, conserve energy, be smart...


The mind is used to create direct the nervous system within the body. For example: a student seeks to 'sink' and 'root'.
A student may accomplish this by dropping deep into the hips, bending the knees and bearing the weight down. Such a method would be fine in most martial arts, but is it internal?
There must be physical action (external) of course, however, it needs to be paired with muscular action that takes place within the body (internal) and intention (internal).


The physical action needs to avoid extremes. No exertion. No bearing down. No strain. Do what is necessary physically, and then use your mind as well. External and internal must be balanced.

Tai chi for health/performance art

In 1956 the
24 step tai chi form was created. This new set of movements broke from the martial tradition of tai chi; enabling more people to practice the art.
Stripped of its combat significance, the 24 step employed elongated, yoga-like stances and postures that no martial artist would ever practice.
Since then, many new competition/performance forms have been created.

Forcing an outcome

Do not force, tense up or hold - just quietly do the exercises thoroughly and well. Without exertion or strain. Strength will follow.

Indications of the external

External bad habits:

  1. Force against force

  2. More than 4 ounces of pressure exerted by you or expressed by you

  3. Localised arm and shoulder movement

  4. Extreme, deep, long or wide stances

  5. Fixed legs - disconnected upper & lower

  6. Tensed muscles

  7. Over-emphasis of the hips

  8. Incorrect use of the pelvis and hips

  9. Pushing upon impact

  10. Aggression

These will all perpetuate an external approach to tai chi.

Tai chi fighting method

very movement made by the human body begins in the mind... nerves activate muscles and muscles move the bones. There is nothing special about this; it is the normal process.
Tai chi simply reconsiders the Way in which the movement is generated; it explores the how. It also considers the manner in which the generated strength is employed in combat.

You may know two hundred different martial arts but what is the quality of your movements? It's still just movement, it doesn't matter how many forms you know.

People with wisdom will use a tool properly, but a person with lower knowledge will recognise only one function of the tool. In the same manner, internal martial arts can be used for many functions because you use the same tool. This training method is only one tool, but it has many different uses.

You need to use one form for practice and include everything in it - mind, structure, movement and qi. If you can easily do all of these within each motion, that is the internal martial arts.

(Luo De Xiu)

Internal skill

Internal skill is subtle. It takes decades of time, understanding and training to cultivate: this is why so many people go astray.
The visible outward signs can be made small. Most of the work can take place within the body. The movements can be smaller, less obvious.


As the student's skill improves, the physicality of the tai chi diminishes. The frame serves to supplement the mind. A more subtle physical expression is now possible.
Partner drills and form application teach the student how to minimalise their movements.
Balance, timing, structure, softness and mind combine to create the desired outcome: a twitch instead of a large arc.


Internal way

he internal way of using
strength has some basic considerations:

  1. Never employ force against force; always yield to strength

  2. No more than 4 ounces of pressure should be exerted upon your body or expressed by you

  3. Each movement should be a whole-body movement

  4. Unite internally using neigong yet remain soft, pliable and yielding

  5. You can transmit strength via groundpath

  6. Intention can unite mind and body into one focussed unit

People read these points and feel dissatisfied, as though some crucial part was missing. You must remain calm and composed, relaxed and easy.

Confusion about yielding

If Taoism is the art of adjusting to life, then tai chi is the art of adjusting to the opponent. This process of adjustment is what yielding is about. Balancing, sensitivity, change.
Yielding is concerned with not opposing force, making space... and then counter-attacking.

Having yielded, attack!

Having made space, you must incapacitate your attacker. Yielding is only half of the requirement. Unless you neutralise the attacker, they will continue to assault you.
Step-in decisively and finish-off the attacker.

Energy transmission

Tai chi was designed to make your body an effective conduit for the use of kinetic energy. If your body is stiff and tense, you will not be able to utilise jing.
It is necessary to be soft and loose, sensitive and open. This does not mean flaccid. The groundpath must be present constantly, otherwise you cannot transfer kinetic energy from your body to another.

If you are stiff and unyielding, disconnected or flaccid - this transmission will be unsuccessful.


What matters in a martial art is the effect of your movements. If you claim to be expressing force yet your partner is physically unmoved by your action, you are expressing nothing.
Your opponent's experience of the kinetic energy you manifest is known as 'jing'. This is not to be confused with 'li' - hard, skeletal, muscular force.

Small circle

By balancing frame size, relationship with the opponent and intent, a student can ensure that they employ the optimal framework. Every movement produces a more significant effect.
The external movement decreases as the internal work increases. Neigong and intent enable greater effect with markedly less effort.


Instead of sweeping arcs, the student uses twisting, coiling, spiralling action to generate internal pressure in the soft tissues of the body. These are movements-within-movements.
Smooth, fluid, small, hidden, unnoticed.

Less effort, more effect

Every student must work to reduce the size of their circle. It is martially imperative for your movements to be small. You must move without alerting the attacker's nervous system.
Like a shadow. Like a thought.


It can be easy to fall into external habits of overdoing. i.e. physically dropping the body... instead of mentally dropping, and making a lesser physical action.
Train large during qigong and form. Employ small during pushing hands, martial sets, applications combat.


A common habit is the degree of arm extension. 70% maximum reach must be considered at all times. Exaggeration occurs when the student fails to relax the sternum, rear knee and elbows.
Long stances look exotic on magazine covers, but the human body gains also its power vertically, not just horizontally.

When you do tai chi, you shouldn't sweat.
Sweating is a sign that energy is being dissipated.
It comes from tension and it's as if you are depleting your bank account.
Doing tai chi, you want to accumulate energy, not spend it.
So, if you sweat, you should stop and rest.

(Cheng Man Ching)

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023