Posts Tagged ‘Internal Martial Art


What is natural?

Within martial art community today, there’s a lot of talk about certain martial art style being the best because it uses “natural” movements.  But what do we mean by “natural”? There are so many issues here, let’s try to sorting them out:

First, what is natural?
What people usually mean by that is what we can do without learning. You touch a hot surface of stove, you instinctively withdraw your hand. Something flies toward your eye, you immediately close it. No one needs to teach you that. Commonly we define sources of behavior in two ways: nature vs nurture. Most of what animals can do, no matter how incredible (swim thousands of miles to a location they’ve never been before to spawn) are hardwired in their DNA. Much of what we do is not.

Recovering original nature
Given the structure of the human body, there are certain ways of moving it that are more efficient than others. Not all types of golf swings produce the same result right? One issue is that, man’s level of existence has always been largely defined by his tools. Until industrial revolution, those tools are very primitive, and most of the power needed to do any task is generated by the human body. Today, for most of us, machines provide most of that. So most of us are not very physical, not in touch with how to move in the most effective, efficient manner. In that sense, yes, there are natural ways of moving (using the whole body instead of just the right hand/arm) that are far better.

In that case then, we still need training to recover that original nature right?

This leads to the other issue – how did we lose that original nature? The answer is habit. If you repeat something often enough, each time training your neuro pathway to react in the same manner to the same stimulant, eventually, you can do that without much conscious thought. This is what we mean by ‘second nature’ right? So if in some typical situation, a heavy weight needs to be lifted, the response of a person living in a primitive society is to just go directly at it himself, whereas one living in modern society is to reach some button. So much so that person in modern society have to be reminded, if he were to attempt it himself, he needs to ‘lift with the legs, not with the back”. Lots of things we do today are learned instead of instinctive. We only have problem separating them because we learned from a very young age.

Behavior under emergency
The whole issue of habit – reinforcement, leads to what’s mentioned in a post above, about how when you are in a real fight, the only thing that can come out is what is natural to you at that moment. It’s really “the only thing that can come out is what you can do without thinking”, because there’s not much time for conscious thought. If you just learned a new skill the day before, no matter how simple, most likely you cannot do at that moment. But a skill, even if it is highly sophisticated, if you have been practicing that for ten years, to a point when that is your default reaction to a punch, you can do as if you are born with it.

Is anything truly, 100% natural?
Within this whole fighting issue is another issue about psychology of fighting. Anyone who has played sports even in high school level can tell you competing in an actual game, in front of thousands of people cheering for or against you, is very different from practicing. General Cheng Chongdou (contemporary of Qi Jiguang) said in battle, with the emotions running so high, most people can only utilize a small fraction of what they know. Most people fall back to just the most basic skills they know. That “if you can use 50% of what you know, you will be invincible”. Does that means we should just practice the most basic things? No, this is the same reason we practice high kicks – we want to elevate what we’re capable of doing, so our 50% is so much higher than other people’s 50%.

We can never really separate the mind and the body. The truth is, most of our moments are learned (even walking, which involves over 200 muscles), and even if we have done them all our lives, those movements can be inhibited by the mind. We see gymnasts, skaters fall all the time during competition right? Those movements they practiced tens, if not hundreds of thousands of times, so why do they fail? Because the mind rules all. If fighting/sports is really something completely natural, something we can do without any thought, then no one, certainly elite athletes, would ever ‘choke’ in a game right?

Does natural = best?
Also implicit in this whole argument is that natural is perfect, natural is the best. Any attempt to alter it give us suboptimal results. Earlier we have demonstrated that even if this is the case, learning is still necessary to achieve it. Even Tiger Woods is not born with perfect swing, in fact he practices that harder than anyone else. Otherwise, no one needs to practice, ever.

Now we need to examine that assertion, is what is natural the best response/behavior for all situations?

What is your natural reaction when you find yourself seconds away from ramming into the back of another car? You break right? What if you are the other driver, you speed up right? But in professional auto racing, you do the opposite. Drafting results in dramatic energy efficiency for both cars. What is your natural reaction to bodily fluids? Fear, disgust, discomfort? If you see someone with horrible skin disease, do you go close to them, or away from them?…

The examples are endless. In many cases, doing something truly high level involves suppressing what is natural and doing the opposite: when a fast punch to the face comes, our eyes remain open and look at the fist instead of blinking; instead of contracting, tightening up, we open and relax; instead of moving away from it, we greet it; instead of holding our breath, breath shallowly, or hyperventilate, as we naturally do under stress, we breath in strong, deep, even, long, smooth breath; instead of struggling directly at the point of impact, we move another part of the body…

Internal training
In the examples above, we can see that mental training is a big part of what makes new reactions possible. This involves overriding your instinctive emotional reaction (xin: big force coming toward me – do not want), and the natural sequence of responses that follows (mental – yi: move away from the big force, physical – qi, li: activate stress response, tighten up, run away, etc). So that’s part of reason we call it internal martial art right? To make the type of physical skills we’re seeking possible, we need to change our mental reactions and states in radical, important ways. It doesn’t matter how good our hand-eye coordination is, if we’re afraid to get close to other cars traveling at 200 mph, we cannot be good race car drivers.

External and internal martial art’s approach toward “natural”
Here we have one of the biggest difference between training approach of external and internal martial art. People say “external martial art reinforces natural abilities, internal martial art changes it”. Our natural behavior is try to beat the other person using superior speed and power. So in external martial art training, we try to make people stronger, faster. Look at Baji and Thai Boxing, the two most aggressive styles within that. Basically, their approach is, I don’t care what you do, I’ll make myself so strong, so hard, my blows will destroy whatever stands in my way. This is why conditioning is so paramount in external martial art right, it’s a crucial part of what makes it work. Look at what happens when even elite boxers get a little slower, little weaker as they reach mid-30’s, like Roy Jones, or Mike Tyson, all of sudden they start to lose nobodies all the time right?

In internal martial art we train to increase power and speed to, those attributes are still important, but they are not the only things that make our skills work. We also look at other aspects (we call them internal) of force, manipulating them to our advantage. So that even if we are a little bit slower and weaker, we still have chance to beat them. As mentioned under previous bullet, instead of just reacting instinctively, only with bigger speed and power, we want to react in a totally different way. And with sufficient training, we want replace our default behavior (natural, instinctive response) with a set of new ones (new nature).


What is Kungfu/Gongfu?

“I know Kungfu.”   – Neo from The Matrix

Most people in the West thinks the word “kungfu” means martial art in Chinese.  Actually kungfu is the Cantonese pronunciation of the word gongfu (功夫).  Perhaps the usage is different in the south, but for rest of China, gongfu doesn’t really mean martial art.  In modern Chinese, the term for martial art is wushuWu (武) means martial, and shu (术) means skill, technique, method, tactic.

So what does kungfu/gongfu mean?  Amazingly, there does not seem to be a perfect one-to-one match in English.  Gongfu in Chinese means level of execution.  Since level of execution is directly related to amount of effort spent practicing it, it also means effort.  As a generic term, you can talk about gongfu in anything, it’s not exclusive to martial art.

The important distinction here is that gongfu is a separate concept from skill. You can have high level execution of a low level skill, just as you can have high level execution of a high level skill.

For example, say there is a need to move a 500 pound weight. Person A decides to approach it using the most direct way possible – he tries to move it with his bare hands.  At first he couldn’t do it. So he practiced and practiced, until he become so strong that he can move that stone by his own muscle alone.

Person B decides to study principle of movement in nature.  And after years of studying, he figure out a way to use levers, pulleys, and wheels to move the same object, albeit with much less physical exertion.

In Chinese we say Person A used a low level skill, but its execution is very high level.  Whereas Person B exemplifies the usage of a high(er) level skill.  Here we cannot say what the first person did was not difficult. It was.   But compared to what the second person did, the principles involved are much simpler, lower level.  For Person B, after achieving the necessary awareness, understandings, and implementing that knowledge and understanding in the form of a machine, the physical work the second person has to do to operate the machine to move the same stone is easy. But the nature of the work, the operating principles of this approach, the effort involved to arrive at this state, are said to be complex.

Another important reason we say the first approach, one that anyone can readily understand and instinctively gravitate to, is low level, is that there is a very low upper limit on what can be accomplished using that approach. You can never go to the moon that way; whereas with the second approach, the upper limit of things you can achieve with that is much higher.

In terms of martial art, if the effectiveness (“can I win?”) of our art relies mostly on speed and strength, that even a tiny drop-off means we will lose to all our peers (eg. see Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. in boxing), then the limit of our art is we cannot beat anyone stronger, faster (younger) than us.  On the other hand, if the effectiveness of the skill does not depend as much on pure conditioning, but rather on things like sensitivity and clever manipulation of force, then we can beat someone who is stronger (within same order of magnitude).

If our art is all about unleashing the maximum amount of force possible to destroy any obstacle in the way (we don’t care what they are), then the limit is we may not last very long on the real battlefield. However, if one of the central tenants of our art is to avoiding any unnecessary expenditure of energy, then we can last longer, perhaps survive encounters with multiple opponents.

It is important to point out that in martial art at least, “high level” deosn’t mean our training is not physical.  In the end the design goal of every martial art is to make a person the best fighter he can be.  In some arts the approach is to make his movement as strong as possible.  In more advanced arts more emphasis is put on using the high level skill possible.

Ideally we want both:  physically we want our body to come as close to their theoretical limitations as possible; and in usage, be able to accomplish as much as possible utilizing its resources in the most skillful manner possible.

Here skill is the force multiplier: if you designed optimal lever-pulley-wheel mechanism for the specific task at hand, and you built you developed your body to its limit, now that same 500 pound push can move a 5,000 pound object. This is the ideal state we all want to achieve – high level execution of high level skill.

In real life applications, we cannot really separate skill from gongfu.  They are combined to form what we can call ability. In Chinese, when we talk about someone’s overall martial ability/prowese, we use the term wugong (武功).  So ability is a product of skill and gonfu.

This then means even if you’re studying a high level skill, if your gongfu is not good enough, you can be less effective than someone studying a lower level skill, but has very good gongfu in it.  For example, if Person P’s art is pistol shooting, but he’s a lousy shot, out of shape, and can’t even hit the target well in stationary situations, and Person K is the world’s fastest, best knife thrower, and a hardened combat veteran.  In this case Person P can easily lose to Person K in real life situations.

Another example is:  if Team A devotes much of time to advanced ball control skills, but neglect conditioning, and it meets up with Team B, though not as skilled, but can run faster and longer.  So that Team B can always get the ball before Team A.  Team A cannot win because it never gets a chance to apply its skills in the first place.

In today’s traditional martial art community at least, we have two common problems: on one hand people who practice higher level type skills don’t practice enough, and therefore don’t do well in real fights.  And on the other hand there are groups of people who train really hard, the type of skill they practice are very simple, but they can win in real competitions.

Most people, unless they are students of martial art, and used to think critically about it, will not realize what they are seeing is high level execution of low level skill beating low level execution of high level skill. This can cause them to doubt if high level skills ever worked (“can you really fight with Taiji?”), or confusing high level gongfu in low level skill with high level execution of high level skill (“I want to study internal martial art because it has the most powerful fa jins”).

We need to care about these distinctions because to reach our goal, we need to know what we’re doing:

If our goal is to get to Los Angeles from New York by car, we have to know where LA is, where we are, know how to read a map, know how the road system works, how to drive, etc.  Any lack of clarity on these things can prevent us from reaching the destination.   We cannot think “if I just put my foot on gas as long and hard as I can, I will automatically get there”.

Internal martial art training is very complex, there’s a lot to understand. If we’re not clear on what we’re doing, the harder we step on the gas (“bigger fajin, bigger than any opponent”), the further we may end up from our real goal (“how to use the least amount of necessary force to do everything”). We need to understanding what that high level execution of high level skill should be like, what type of skill and gongfu are involved in that, the training methods for acquiring those, and finally, “putting down a lot of gongfu” (effort), both physical and mental.

April 2019
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