|Internal work/whole body strength
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There are three levels of skill with internal strength:
Whole-body movement using whole-body strength
Whole-body power using whole-body movement and whole-body strength
Each is more powerful than the previous one. These skills are taught relative to ability.
1. Whole body strength
There are two types of whole-body strength being developed: qigong-based strength and neigong-based strength.
Although qigong does teach some elements of neigong, it only achieves this to a limited degree. The simplistic nature of qigong offers a limited scope for the cultivation of movement-oriented strength.
Since a beginner is not adept with tai chi, they need to do a lot of qigong. It will provide the necessary fitness benefits by serving as a stopgap pending higher level tai chi skill.
The qigong exercises provide a starting point for the kind of strength we are seeking to develop.
Students must commit to a regime of strength-building exercise: qigong, leg stretches, psoas exercises...
An increased degree of whole-body strength is necessary if the student expects to eventually be capable of employing the art in combat.
Tai chi simply will only work if you firstly have strength and secondly can use it in a unified manner.
This Zen story perfectly expresses the situation:
Kung Yi-tsu was famous for his strength.
King Hsuan of Chou went to call on him with full ceremony,
but when he got there, he found that Kung was a weakling.
The king asked, "How strong are you?"
Kung replied, "I can break the waist of a spring insect,
I can bear the wing of an autumn cicada."
The king flushed and said,
"I'm strong enough to tear apart rhinoceros hide and drag nine oxen by the tail
- yet I still lament my weakness.
How can it be that you are so famous for strength?"
Kung replied, "My fame is not for having such strength,
it is for being able to use such strength."
(Zen story/David Schiller)
There is a significant difference between the two qualities Schiller mentions: having and using are not the same thing.
King Hsuan has strength but is not famous for using it. Kung Yi-tsu can use strength but does not have any real strength. The tai chi student must possess strength and be able to use it.
Tai chi involves a balance of external and internal qualities. Understanding this is crucial. Talking about qi won't cut it.
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 student must connect the separate body parts together and start using the body and mind as one unit. This is the real start of your internal strength training.
Faced with the commitment of daily exercise, some students flounder. They did not expect the training to be quite so difficult. Yet, how else can we grow?
The challenges and obstacles we encounter in life are there to help us.
A student will rely upon qigong for strength building until they have acquired skill with the forms in our syllabus.
Lower graded students focus principally upon qigong-based strength.
It is only in the later syllabus that the student has gained sufficient skill with form and neigong to have developed the second kind of strength; neigong-based.
A starting point
Qigong-based strength represents a good starting point; with practice it will be present at all times. This level of training is a necessary first step away from conventional habits of body use.
Remember, though, that qigong is not combat and this type of strength is only a crude introduction to the type of strength we use in combat. For combat you must rely upon movement-based strength.
Better form = less qigong
When the student starts practicing the round form version of the Long Yang form this is the first step towards moving away from qigong-based strength.
This increases the fitness benefits of form; allowing them to spend less time training qigong.
Form trains agility, nimbleness, dodging and evasion... and these skills require a more dynamic way of moving than could be offered by qigong alone.
In order to function beyond the
use of ordinary strength, you must study what seems inconvenient and then work
to make it efficient.
Tai chi without neigong is not 'internal'. Neigong makes your body seem both soft and hard. There is no contracted muscular tension, but you are exceptionally solid and grounded.
The joints are soft and flexible. Movement is unimpeded. Without neigong, you will resort to force. Your muscles will contract and you will be inefficient.
What you feel
You should feel light, agile and soft at all times. Your body should feel to be so relaxed and easy that you cease to be conscious of the body. You simply feel the movement itself.
This is an aspect of 'sung'.
What they feel
A practice partner may find you to be flowing and loose like water, or solid and heavy like a tree. It depends upon the circumstance.
If your partner tries to apply a lock or hold, they may find it hard to hold onto anything. Alternatively, they may find it difficult to even move your limbs at all.
This change in condition is created by mind - by intent - not by tensing-up your muscles.
What is neigong?
Neigong does not involve any form of strenuous, awkward work. Neigong is not an exercise in its own right, although they can be expressed via exercise.
Whole-body strength is about building layer upon layer of sensibilities. You learn how to use the body differently. You add subtle new qualities to your tai chi. They are principles. Qualities. Insights.
By making 50 small changes you transform the entire body. Each neigong is an area of study in its own right and takes time to become ingrained, habitual.
The whole-body strength qualities augment your body in demonstrable, tangible ways.
science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be
useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in
The first series of neigong are physical adjustments that create mild internal (dynamic) tension and strengthen the skeleton.
Dynamic tension enables the body to store and release energy - like drawing a 'bow' in order to fire an arrow... This process involves opening and closing the body with every movement.
It is possible to open and close the body without neigong, but the action will be contrived.
Initially you must practice each neigong consciously. This is an unfortunate necessity. With time, the body remembers and you incorporate the neigong naturally.
Unless each neigong can become part of your everyday movement, it will not occur spontaneously. This requires a lot of deliberate practice.
As you progress, the neigong should be working together in your every movement. Conscious effort is no longer required, and the neigong qualities are not contrived.
18 April 2005
Last updated 16 June 2023