External to internal

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New starters

A new starter is always 'external'. They use what they bring to class with them:

  1. Aggression

  2. Locked joints

  3. Force against force

  4. Over-contracted muscles

  5. Using the arms independently of the body

These habits are of no use in a tai chi class. They represent a major impediment to progress.
Unlearning is necessary. 'Internal' principles of body use are introduced, explained and explored from the very first lesson, but these will take a long time to become habit.
Daily home practice will significantly speed up the process of change.

I was admitted to a select special research program in karate... here the innermost secrets of karate are introduced to future teachers. After a few months, it became obvious that many of the most 'secret' techniques were ones I had already learned in my first 2 years of basic training in the internal arts.

Many karate people had to wait 5-20 years before being taught the same material. 

(Bruce Frantzis)

Monkey mind

New starters do not possess the necessary degree of 'presence' to use their mind fully. Their thoughts are awry. They worry, plan, extrapolate, have opinions, chitchat and space out.
As a consequence, they cannot exactly use the mind instead of force. The training methods must reflect this.

The clouded mind sees nothing

In order to increase the mind component of the tai chi, a student must undertake 'brain work'.
Brain work includes: meditation, awareness, clarity, composure, metacognition, constructive reading, memory and rest.
Working the brain is the real key to success. A strong, pliable, flexible, adaptive brain is required for learning this art.

Physical habits

The external habits practiced by a new starter must be dropped. In their place new external habits must be acquired. These are purely physical concerns. Gross, obvious and simple.
Physicality is the first obstacle to address: shedding the old habits and acquiring new ones.

Start externally

Most training methods for tai chi students are blatantly 'external' until they reach an expert level of practice. Why?
This is all the student is capable of doing. As with any martial art, a great deal of time, effort and practice is necessary.

Slow down

Training at speed stresses the nervous system and perpetuates bad habits. Slow down. Give yourself time to get used to new ways of doing things, new habits.
It takes as long as it takes...

Cultivate change

Do things differently. Embrace the unfamiliar. If it feels weird... good. You are doing something new. This is called 'learning'.

The single most important fighting skill in internal martial arts is waiting. You wait until your opponent gives you an opening as a gift. Look at joint locks, which are hard to do in full-speed fighting, particularly if you go for them aggressively. Some martial arts like jujitsu and aikido make joint locks look deceptively easy and make them out to be a perfectly reasonable fighting strategy applicable to a majority of situations. In their training practices one partner willingly lets the other grab his arm, usually with a decent grip, deliberately making himself vulnerable. This is a foolish and potentially suicidal strategy in real-life confrontation with a well-trained opponent.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Impatience is stupid

Change can be encouraged but not forced. Rushing to gain skill is counterproductive; it will not work. You will simply carry on doing what you did on your first lesson.
No progress is made. Your tai chi vocabulary of jargon words may have increased but you not possess the skills those words are referring to.

Tai chi fighting method

Internal principles of body use must be trained thoroughly and mindfully. A verbal understanding is inadequate.
Tangible, functional application in your everyday life is the only way to truly understand the art.

Form is external

The process of learning form is external. A student is concerned with the movements and directions, not the internal biomechanics.
A form will remain external unless a student works diligently through the 8 stages and begins the process of internalisation. This takes time.
Extensive, considered practice is inevitable, along with ongoing corrections and refinement. There are no shortcuts

8 stages of form

The importance of the 8 stages cannot be overstated. Many tai chi people never get past stage 1 and therefore remain almost entirely external.
Each stage is necessary. The different levels represent milestones on the journey from external to internal.
Cumulative skills build upon preceding material and understanding, taking the student from beginner to expert and finally; to a
higher level of skill.


A significant amount of time must be spent practicing the basics:

  1. Standing qigong

  2. Moving qigong

  3. Form

  4. Reeling silk exercises

  5. Leg stretches

  6. Partnered drills

A beginner who trains the fundamentals every day and attends as many lessons as possible will make good progress long-term.
Neglecting the basics means a weak foundation and the tai chi will most likely remain external, and incorrect.

Internal & external

For a very long time much of your tai chi will be external. This is unavoidable. As you gain skill the external will diminish and the internal will predominate.

100% internal?

There will never be a point where the art is 100% internal. The yin/yang diagram illustrates this. Each colour contains a dot of the opposite colour.

Square on the inside, round on the outside

You need to be externally and internally strong, and that requires hard work. In actual combat application, the external strength is subsumed within the internal principles of usage.


The first level is primarily concerned with external body use. Beginners are usually very external in their attitudes and body use.
Rare moments of increased physical awareness may emerge as their practice continues.
But no beginner can claim to possess any real sense of what 'internal' means at this introductory stage of their learning.

Lower grades

In order to apply applications against a non-cooperative opponent, the student must now begin to use their whole body rather than just their arms. This will be a challenging new level of practice.

Barry was telling us a story about the woman who always cut the end of the ham and somebody asked her why she did it. She said, "Well I don't know, my mother always did it that way." And they asked her mother and she said, "I don't know, my mother always did it." And they asked grandma, and she said, "Well, I did it because otherwise it wouldn't fit into my biggest pot."

(Chungliang Al Huang)


To train with skill requires the student to show a developing degree of internal progress. New forms are learned, along with applications and more in-depth principles.
Neigong is now explored deliberately and consciously. The student is still somewhat external at this stage but is making notable inroads towards the internal


An expert must work through very challenging material with the aim of internalising their tai chi. This difficult grade requires an immense amount of practice.
Eventually the student passes the essential
10,000 hours of practice threshold. 10,000 hours of continued improvement, insight and development...but are they an expert?

Are they an expert?

Not necessarily.
10,000 hours spent doing the same thing doesn't lead to expertise because the individual is still within their comfort zone.
For more detailed insights and information regarding 'deliberate practice' we encourage you to read Dr Anders Ericsson's book Peak.


Higher level practice signifies the completion of the external to internal journey, but not the end of the training itself. The tai chi now looks far less obvious. Everything is subtle and understated.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 10 November 2023