So, you’ve started the lessons and you hear a lot about internal martial arts. What exactly are they? There is a lot of information out there, most of it seemingly mystical and esoteric - none of which are practical in combat. In the classes, you will see that ‘internal martial art’ refers to a technique that will enable you to deliver power with the tendons and your whole body, rather than with just your muscles.
To start with a bit of clarity on terminology. When we talk about internal or external we are talking about means of power generation. When we talk about a style, such as ba gua, hung gar or wing chun, we are talking about the expression/delivery of the power.
External combat systems use either superior body strength or greater speed (or a combination of the two) in an attempt to defeat the opponent. Energy is drawn from muscular strength and twisting. This works, if you can guarantee that your strength or speed is greater than your opponent’s. If you can’t guarantee this, then it is a 50/50 chance as to whether you could win.
Internal martial arts actually falls into two types: for want of an official set of names we can call them Northern Chinese Internal and Southern Chinese Internal systems.
Southern Chinese Internal systems rely on creating an energy chain between the ground and the expression point, the key link being the waist - much as external styles do. Southern also uses a variation of the yin-yang principle (Newtonian terms: every action has an equal and opposite reaction):
The fist that lands has its power augmented by the descent of the second fist. In the styles and strikes you will learn this yin-yang will occur again and again and helps overcome greater strength. Examples of Southern Styles include hung gar (洪家拳) and Wing Chun (詠春拳）
Northern Internal has much in common with Southern Internal but Northern makes use of the dan tian ( 丹田 the body’s centre of gravity - about three finger widths below your belly button) to generate power along with torsion of the tendons. In effect, one learns to create greater inertia which the opponent is unable to overcome. Examples of Northern Styles include ba gua (八卦拳）and Yang Style Tai Ji (楊式太極拳).
This may seem a bit complicated but it will gradually make sense over time. The benefits of internal over external is that strength and speed aren't essential, just an ability to relax. This brings benefits to the older practitioner who no longer wishes to risk injury in high-impact training. It is also possible to retrofit Northern Internal over most external styles. Sifu Leo does this with the Chinese external styles - hung gar, Wing Chun - he teaches.
It has also been argued that internal has more health benefits - part of the training involves standing meditation with the same rewards as seated meditation. One learns to focus and not be affected by outside stimuli. It could also help you de-stress and lower blood pressure.
Beware, external can be learned quickly but is not efficient or as powerful as internal. Internal takes a long time to master but the advantages are that it is more intense and precise in power generation.
Written by Andrew Correia (Senior Student)