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Taiji Quan: Internal vs. External

The Truth About Internal and External Arts: There is a saying among Gongfu practitioners that goes, "External arts begin from the external but proceed to the internal. Internal arts begin from the internal but proceed to the external. The beginnings are different but the ends are the same." In practice, this difference plays out in the following manner. An external practitioner will begin by exercising to develop strength, flexibility and agility. At the same time, he will begin learning fighting techniques that he will use against others. As he progresses, with good instruction and experience, he will gain qualities of grace, suppleness, sensitivity and balance (internal qualities) that he will use against his opponents to win, thus proceeding from external to internal. Finally, the Waigong (external) Qigong used in the beginning of his practice, which is easier to grasp initially, will give way to Neigong (internal), the more subtle Qigong practices, as he becomes more acquainted with Qigong in general.

The internal style practitioner reverses this process. Internal style practitioners learn the more difficult internal Qigong practices first. At the same time, they learn exercises to teach relaxation, suppleness, balance, sensitivity, grace and endurance. Once a fundamental grasp of these qualities is achieved, fighting techniques are taught, but in a way that controls the manner of execution to ensure that the internal qualities are preserved. Then the student is allowed to use his fighting techniques against an opponent in a combative manner, like the external style fighter, but with attention paid always to the internal qualities present in the execution of fighting technique. Finally, external Qigong is taught to further prepare the internal style fighter for combat.

It can be clearly be seen, then, that to focus solely on the exercises that develop grace, endurance, relaxation and suppleness (the forms, both solo and partner), Qigong (relaxation and energy development), and push hands (balance and sensitivity), is to only stand at the door to Taiji and to never truly enter into the art. One in such a pursuit never learns half the art, even for performance, never moves in the natural cycle from internal to external in Qigong, and never becomes able to use his developed qualities for more than a noncombative contest of balance.

Hard vs. Soft - A question of degree (and marketing): Many Taiji practitioners are fond of saying that internal arts are soft (does not require strength) and that external arts are hard (do require strength). Actually, both internal arts and external arts have soft and hard techniques. It is the manner and use of the techniques that differ. (But it is great marketing for internal styles.)

How did we get here - A question of history (and marketing): In the past, internal and external fighters met regularly to test their skills. Occasionally there were injuries that were severe, but overall these were very rare. In those days, the true nature of external and internal as differing paths that arrived at the same goals was well known. Over time, teachers of both sides fought less and less, because to lose a match was to lose students as a defeated teacher (economics). As this happened, external teachers told their students that if they did the paired and single sets, did their external body conditioning exercises, and practiced hard, they would be able to beat anyone. They rarely, if ever, tested this statement, having faith in their teacher (marketing). On the internal side, they told their students that the internal energy they were developing was so powerful that if they did the single- and two-person exercises and the internal exercises that they alone possessed (marketing), they would be unbeatable (sound familiar?). Today, this situation has resulted in external schools believing that they can fight because they can do forms, and internal schools believing that their internal energy is so great that it would kill an opponent. Neither is telling the truth.

Strength vs. "Internal Energy" - A question of degree and language: Internal practitioners are fond of saying that their techniques use more Qi (internal energy), and that external practitioners use more muscle. Like most things, this needs more explanation than a sound bite allows. "Li" is muscular strength, like one would to use to push a car. It is contrasted by "Jin," the energy one sees when a sitting cat flashes out a paw to slap a bothersome dog. In the case of Li, there is usually a drawing back of the arm and a tensing of muscular strength as it shoves out with whatever force resides in the muscles. Jin, on the other hand, snaps out without preparation, completely relaxed and impacting with greater force because it moves faster than Li, like being hit with a fastball.

Taiji practitioners often describe their strikes as using Qi and claim that external practitioners do not use Qi, only Li. This could not be true for many reasons. The limb possesses Qi regardless of whether Li or Jin is being used; Qi keeps the limb alive. The internal style fighter, with a greater reliance upon Jin, is undeniably able to flow their Qi through their striking limbs to a greater degree due to the relaxed nature of Jin, but they are not hitting with their Qi. Instead, the focus on Qi flow facilitates the relaxed state essential for Jin. Discussions about relying upon Qi in striking in Taiji texts are largely a matter of semantics. The contrast is actually that of Jin and Li. (Though there is much to be said on "Soft Jin" and "Hard Jin" beyond the scope of this brief introduction).

At a very advanced level, both internal and external kung fu practitioners are reported to be able to damage the health of the person they hit through the use of their own Qi (Jin) in striking, a skill commonly called Dim Mak, or point hitting. This would not be possible unless fighters of both internal and external schools developed their Qi and Jin to a very high level. At the beginning, external fighters do use more Li than internal fighters, and it is true that, at the beginning, external fighters hit a great deal harder than internal fighters because Li is easier to use than Jin. If both groups continue to their advanced levels, where internal and external reach a balance for both styles, both are very capable, and neither is superior. They are simply different paths to the same destination.

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