The Nature of the Internal Martial Arts By Erle Montaigue: May 2nd 1999
Look at the whole of Chinese philosophy and culture depicted in Chinese art and we see that just about everything is based upon what happens in nature.
The main thing that we notice in Chinese drawing and painting is the balance of yin and yang which is an integral part of becoming a good calligrapher. The whole of Chinese culture, philosophy, medicine, exercise and internal martial arts is based upon balance in just the same way that we have perfect balance in nature. We may not like this perfect balance at times, for instance when we receive violent storms and "bad weather". But like it or not, we have to have bad weather along with the good weather in order for the whole world to remain in balance. When we have an imbalance in yin and yang, whether that it inside of your body or in the whole Universe, things begin to go wrong and if it is in the body, then we become ill and disease is allowed to creep in. The main way that we can remain disease free is to have a perfect balance of yin and yang Qi circulating throughout the body. The internal martial arts helps with this.
Chinese martial arts, especially those of the 'internal' type such as Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyi ch'uan are also based upon what happens in nature. The internal martial arts systems have been founded by people of great genius who knew about the Qi (energy) flows in the human body, acupuncture meridians and balance. So when they devised the various Internal Martial/Healing systems they used this genius to invent exercises that were perfectly balanced. They were not only balanced in the physical things that we perform but also in that they had an even balance of martial and healing. Unfortunately, nowadays when someone mentions Internal Martial Arts, we conjure up pictures of Bruce Lee flying through the air attacking someone or Chuck Norris fighting twelve men using round house and back-spinning kicks! We have lost that balance. Once, in China, if one was a martial artist, that person would be held in high esteem because he or she would be regarded as a person who had risen to a high level of healing ability and martial ability through very hard training internally and externally. Nowadays, I am loath to even say to strangers that I am a 'martial artist' for fear of being laughed at! That's where television and film have brought the internal martial arts down to in the West and it would seem even in China. However, Chinese film still has an element of 'Art' left in the Martial in most of their films. So they still have somewhat of a balance.
The 'New Age' movement did more to harm great internal martial arts systems such as Taijiquan than anything else. When these "New Age Hippies" adopted for instance Taiji as theirs, they threw that internal martial art in particular completely out of balance with nature and thereby almost ruining the whole system forever! We cannot be calm and meditate at all times, we cannot be relaxed all the time, we cannot have peace, love dove, all the time as this is just not the way of nature, it is not balanced. And we cannot have an internal martial arts system that is either all hard or all soft.
Apart from the Taijiquan system that I teach and a couple of others, most Taijiquan now is all slow moving and performed at an even pace throughout the whole execution of the form. This is not balanced. We like to quote stuff like "Taijiquan is like the flowing river" etc. And we conjure up images of a lovely gently flowing stream meandering through a calm valley. But what about the other side of that same stream when it turns into a raging torrent where to even venture forth would invite death! This is the way of nature, rivers can be calm one minute and raging torrents the next. And it's the same with all of nature where there are not many parts of the world that are always temperate. Thank God, that it is the way of nature that for the most part, nature has smaller swings to yin and yang. But often there will be a reason for nature to go into wild swings of beautiful calm and sunny weather, then into wild storms where property and human life is taken. The epitome of this is 'the calm before the storm'. This always happens, it is the law of nature that before a huge violent storm (yin) we have on the opposite end of the scale a very quiet and calm period, (Yang). And it must be exactly the same way in all of our Internal Martial Arts systems. Baguazhang and Xingyi already have yin and yang where they are calm for a few movements, then explode into violence for the next. Fortunately, the new age movement did not get onto these two arts as they were thankfully not as proliferated as Taijiquan. So Taiji copped a bashing until it almost became extinct in its former glory being replaced by a totally useless set of wishy washy movements that did no more that what you could get from a long swim in a heated pool!
The downfall of Taijiquan was really its own fault because it is really quite easy to learn the relatively (to the other two internal martial arts) easy movements at their most basic beginner level. Unfortunately, those who taught in the early days of the West's embrace of this art only ever knew those very basic movements and were never taught, or would not stay long enough with their initial instructor to learn the advanced ways of training. So all they ever got was a bunch of very basic stepping movements with some hand postures thrown in. It was not a balanced set of movements and for the most part went totally against what the old masters dictated to us as to how the movement should be performed. To get around this, many of the great classic saying from the Chinese were translated incorrectly due to certain phrases in Chinese simply being untranslatable! And also to a lack of understanding and experience of the translators, some of whom had only been doing the basic forms for three years or less.
The old masters left us certain rules by which to perform our Taijiquan. But these were written at a time when these masters were very advanced in their own training. So here is the mistake, we took those sayings and rules and tried to place them over the top of very basic forms! So, we eventually lost it completely.
One of the most important things about Taijiquan is that there must be Yin and Yang balance. Now to someone who does not know the more advanced methods of form, this can be translated into something that is very simple, like simply saying that the legs are yang while the upper body is yin. This is true, but what they miss out on by never learning advanced Taijiquan is that the whole body, not just the legs and upper body must also be in a state of balance between yin and yang. So if we take only the hands for instance, how can we have a balance of yin and yang when both hands are pushing and are both in a state of Yang?
In the internal martial arts we are told to be in a state of 'Sung' which has been mistranslated as to 'relax'. So the early instructors did the whole form with even paced movements, slow and calm for the whole form. This is not yin and yang! Sung actually means something like 'moving without the conscious knowledge of movement'. It does not mean to completely relax as we would fall on the ground if we were to do that. However, within this state of sung, there must also be yin and yang balance without losing the 'sung'. So built into the 'Old Yang Style of Yang Lu-ch'an' we have movements that balance each other out by having both yin and yang movements. We will be moving along calmly, slowly and in as a relaxed state as possible, then will come an energy release point in the form where we perform a movement or set of moves that are totally explosive. Not tense, but explosive still retaining that sung ideal. Then we will be back instantly into the calm and flowing movements, just like the great river or nature in general.
And it doesn't stop there. Each balanced organ and portion of the body must also be balanced yin and yang. So fro instance when we are doing a movement like 'push', we never 'push' (which, by the way, is not actually a push at all but a devastating double strike) using both palms at the same time, but firstly use the left palm going yang while the right is going yin. Then in an instant the palms change state to the reverse is happening. This of course happens in an instant and is not seen by an onlooker. And here is one of the main reasons for the demise of Taijiquan. Others would secretly watch some of the old masters performing their forms and would learn the movements from this! I now personally of an old master, now deceased from Hong Kong who used to watch Yang Sau-chung every morning in the park and simply copied his movements. He then put out a film (no video back then) and book on the Yang style! But what he did not see were the minute yin and yang movements of not only the hands but of the whole body because he was not trained to look for these. He did not see that the back was changing from yin to yang, from a 'C' back to a straight back as the energy was gathered and released. He did not see that the backbone was being compressed to allow all of the vertebra to fall on top of each other thus forming a combined capacitor effect that had great power when released. The vertebra of the backbone look and act very much like capacitors, which are electrical devices for storing electricity and then releasing it when short circuited. He did not see that even the feet were continually changing from yin to yang as the old master stepped. He did not see the concave foot as the other foot was convex. He did not notice that the eyes were also continually changing from yin to yang in accordance to what the body was doing. And I am only talking here about the Yang Cheng-fu form let alone the original Yang Lu-ch'an form which was never performed in public because it was considered to be the crown jewels of the Yang Family.
And the 'quiet before the storm'? This is inherent in all forms of Taijiquan and internal martial arts. However you cannot see it of course which is another reason that most have left it out. The quiet always comes in the 'empty' postures just before there is a relative yang movement. This is happening all the time just as in nature, so before a yang movement such as 'push' we will have a relatively yin movement where the whole body is empty or at the bottom end of the 'sine wave' just waiting to begin its move upward again, or when we are at the top of a yang movement just beginning to move down the wave again, these are the empty movements in Taijiquan that balance out the generally attacking movements. These are those times when we must attack an opponent because this is the time when he is the most vulnerable. This is one of the areas we learn about in push hands.
However, just as in nature, there are times in internal martial arts when we must move away from the 'temperate' movements because we are about to build up a storm. So just before one of the many energy release points or fa-jing movements in the Old Yang Style, there is an extreme yin movement where the whole body is so still that you feel like an oak tree just being. Then the fa-jing movement happens extremely explosive because it is balanced with the extreme yin movement. And here lies one of the main areas of using Taijiquan for self-defence. It is very violent! Because we go into this extreme yin or 'quiet' just before an attacking movement, our attacking moves because extreme which is what they have to be in order to defeat an attacker.