There are many teachers of martial arts that like to talk about internal power and chi as something fantastic and mysterious (especially in the west) this is usually the result of misunderstanding (on the part of the teacher) or outright deceit (because it’s good for business).
The term “internal,” as in internal martial arts, is often misunderstood. The term “internal” refers to working with our inherent and inborn strengths under the direction of the mind.
Any higher level martial art, regardless of style, that works with natural strengths and uses mental (internal) energy most efficiently to produce the most effective movement can be considered internal. Human beings are physical beings and are subject to laws of physics: mass, energy, gravity. Our bodies are constructed a certain way, our minds produce energy, and we are under the influence of gravity all the time.
Teachers of internal arts talk about using chi instead of muscle force, that no strength is necessary for one’s power, that power comes from amassed chi. This sounds wonderful and mystical, and the vast majority of people enjoy believing this type of thing, but without the use of muscular force we would not be able to get out of bed in the morning.
The externally observable result of movement (force) is always a result of muscle movement in the body and the key to internal power is “how” the body is moved. Many mistaken ideas about internal power came about because of the misunderstanding of the mind/body connection. Looking back in history, it can be seen that the large majority of famous martial artists came from similar backgrounds. The typical pattern was for individuals to be from a rural farming community, starting martial arts in a Shaolin based or “village” style art, then moving on to an “internal” art.
Typically, practitioners in the United States today grow up in the cities where they have relatively little physically activity, get a job where they sit at a desk all day, and practice martial arts twice a week at a local school. They then wonder why they have a difficult time developing “internal power.” It must be because they haven’t amassed enough Chi. “Internal power” comes from a refinement of trained strength which has been built upon by adhering to principles of natural body structure over a period of time.
One of the problems today is that practitioners are trying to jump straight into the performance of forms which are specifically to refine martial arts skills and polish “trained strength” without having any strength or skill to begin with. This is why it is imperative for a Uechi/Shohei-ryu practitioner to practice Sanchin Kata all the time. This pattern is necessary for obtaining basic strengths and skills as the foundation for the study of forms and exercises, which work to refine those basic skills.
Martial techniques are based on conditioned patterns of movement and the trained sensitivity (both through sight and feel) which allow applying the right technique at the right time. Conditioned patterns of movement are practiced through repeated practice (Kata or Kumite). There is no way to internalize specific patterns without physical practice. The axiom, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect” holds true for any martial skill. The question becomes how does one practice “perfectly,” or at least maximize the time spent in practice?”
The answer, in part, is through the awareness of a unified mind and body, where the mind controls the physical action. This is referred to in the martial classics as “using the intent and not force.” Using the appropriate muscles without excessive tension is the key to efficient movement, regardless of any task. Where does one start to develop efficient movement using the correct muscles and without excessive tension? It starts with adhering to the principles in correct postural alignment.
By beginning with “awareness”(mind) of postural alignment we can maintain a state of balance and relaxation providing feedback to our mind and body in a kinesthetic sense. During motion, the only way to move and consistently monitor and maintain balance and relaxation is to lead the movements of the body with the intent (which is another way of describing the awareness of a unified mind and body). You “will” it done and it is done. This is the source of internal power and movement without effort. Internal power is the result of the body’s natural, intrinsic strengths that can be brought fully into play (things as mechanical advantage, alignment, the natural elasticity of tissue, body mass, stretch reflex, etc).
The whole process is under mental direction. The mind doesn’t “control” as much as “inhibit” incorrect alignment or tension. At higher levels of training, reservoirs of the subconscious may be brought under conscious control. This is the same mental and physical state that produces internal power that is also conducive to good health. It is through the release of stress and relaxing the body and mind that allows the body to function optimally.
Copyright 1997 Joe Bellone