Archived entries for Nature of Internal Martial Arts

Change And The Aging Athlete Pt2

Congratulations! You have realized you aren’t as young as you were but you have decided you aren’t ready to give up. So what’s next?
See a doctor and make sure your body can do this.Then, don’t try to do what you used to do 25 years ago, start small, embarrassingly small. One push up, or one push up on your knees. Go for a walk. Join a gym, and work small. The most important bit of advice I can give is to not be controlled by your ego. The ego will lead you down the path of trying to be 25 again and get you hurt, which leads to continued immobility. Take up golf, tai chi, yoga, and don’t be swayed by others who don’t recognize these as legitimate forms of exercise, worthy of their effort. I have had many athletes attempt tai chi, only to discover it was much harder than most things they ever attempted.
Be the best version of you possible. I have a friend who just joined Crossfit at 60 years old, and another who is doing his first obstacle course race at 69 years. There will be plenty of time to sit still when you’re dead.

Change And The Aging Athlete Pt. 1

Change And The Aging Athlete

It happens slowly, without much fanfare, and we largely ignore it. It starts in the late 20’s and we chalk it up to not having time to work out, but our performance drops. Family, career, and comfort push exercise from the forefront to some forgotten fashion statement from the 80’s like shoulder pads and popped collars, but in our minds we tell ourselves we haven’t slipped that much. Until you try to move like you used to and come face to face with the hard, brutal reality: You’re getting old.
This is the moment of truth, the time where you decide if you are content basking in your glory days or deciding to wring as much life as possible out of this existence. If you choose the former, it means taking the Blue Pill, deluding yourself that time has not passed, that it doesn’t matter, that you have in no way diminished. It is accepting a false view of reality. If you choose the latter, taking the Red Pill, it means accepting the truth. You have slipped a long way and starting back up is going to be a slower process than you believe, the things like push ups and pull ups that you took for granted are going to seem daunting, the shedding of extra pounds is going to seem excruciatingly, frustratingly slow. Perhaps the hardest of all is the realization that you will probably never regain those past levels of speed and strength. In other words, your body, your muscles, your joints, even your mind, have changed. This is your moment of truth; do you sit back on the couch or do you tackle the challenge and become the best you can be? Not the 25 year old version of you, that’s over, but rather a better, smarter, seasoned version.
We see it every day, young guys at work moving at 90 miles per hour, boundless energy and impressive production, yet they turn and look, with a puzzled expression, at the seasoned veteran who has his work done, and has exerted himself less. Once, that veteran was the youthful powerhouse but grew into the wizened tradesman. He accepted change; rather than continuing the same thing, the same way, year after year, he adapted.
The reality of the Red Pill is that getting off the couch and starting up that hill is going to be hard work. Probably much harder than you had to work when you were younger. You may not be able to do the same activities as you used to, and that finding new activities is not a cop-out, it’s a transition. It’s an act of courage, stepping out of your comfort zone, putting aside youthful arrogance, and looking into things that once seemed beneath you and your young, athletic incarnation. Moving from an attitude of striving to attain peaks of achievement, to one of longevity.
The truth is that you and your body have changed. It doesn’t mean you’re less, it doesn’t mean you’re over “THE” hill, it means you’ve passed over many hills and have more to conquer. Change is inevitable, so embrace it, accept it, adapt to it and use it to get off the couch and take the challenge.
Swallow the Red Pill.

A teacher by any other name…

karate ed The world of martial arts can be egotistical, pretentious and disingenuous. In America we judge according to styles, rank, or association yet often we ignore some of the most important inspirations that have added to our journey. It is too easy to dismiss the skill and knowledge that can be afforded us from unlikely sources. Many skilled martial artists have been laid out by a brawler with some good fighting sense and ability to absorb and deliver punishment. Sometimes we learn more from applying our skills against a realistic adversary than we can in the controlled environment of a school.
Growing up in my home wasn’t exactly stable and, at times volatile. We were imparted with ideas of strength, tenacity, accountability and responsibility, but family structure habitual discipline were lacking. My parents gradually grew apart, and once we hit our adolescent years, the environment had become toxic. Of the four brothers, my older brother Ed and I were the youngest and as things deteriorated it affected us and as we got older we both turned to very different martial arts.
We had all lifted weights, and did sports to some degree, although I was the least interested and committed. My brother Ed, always had a clear set of principles, a code, and drove his training by channeling his anger and frustrations that he felt due to insults or injustices. This proved to be quite effective. At 6’1″ and 225 lbs, he was lean, very strong, and a very aggressive fighter. Combining training of boxing, Tang Soo Do and his extensive knowledge of wrestling, he became a formidable adversary. Over the years he would become a martial arts gypsy, studying for a couple years in traditional Korean styles, American Goju, Nisei Goju, and Aikido, sometimes leaving a school due to geography, scheduling or curiosity into another discipline. In my more than three decades of martial arts training, I have rarely encountered many fighters with the ability, reflexes, power and ferocity my brother has shown. It was my experiences training and sparring with him that drove me to keep looking deeper and deeper into martial arts study. Through some brutal practice I found there had to be something more. he had a substantial physical advantage over me, in speed, strength, reflex and aggression, and I knew if I continued in that path I would always be limited to what my body was capable of, no matter how hard I pushed it. Over the years we had opportunities to train and spar with many friends and colleagues, and not once did Ed fail to gain the respect of those we trained with. More importantly the intensity with which he trained left an indelible mark. Once you worked out with him, you knew the meaning of hard.
In all these years he still trains with the same ferocity, whether in weight lifting, martial arts or studying nutrition. I am lucky to have someone who has been such a driving force in my training and he is always a wellspring of knowledge when I need insight on diet, injury rehabilitation, conditioning or weight lifting. I would not be where I am without this influence. He is truly a rock that I smashed against to make myself stronger. In the end we realize that very few of us will be remembered in our history and before long, just become an obscure footnote in someone else’s personal journey. History is cold and uncaring, so we must focus on the moment, and appreciate the teachers that come in all forms. My brother Ed has been my teacher every bit as much as Sifu Wilson and Master Ting, despite not being accredited to those levels. While many martial artists bask in the glory of a hard earned rank, in the end it dies with us, and we must realize that many of the greatest were not recognized in life and have passed into antiquity with little fanfare. Take the time to appreciate the sources of knowledge you have. Do not disregard those who contribute in less than typical ways. My brother hasn’t carried a grandiose rank or a Ph.D in weight lifting or nutrition but he has accumulated vast knowledge that he has been willing to share. We all have those who have taught us and therefore are our Sifu, Sensei, Sa Bum Nim, and should be recognized in our hearts. I hope everyone is as lucky to have teachers like Sifu Wilson, Master Ting, and my brother Ed.

Measuring The Immeasurable

A good friend once observed about Tai Chi training that it is like walking toward a wall and each step you take is half the length of the previous step. Will you ever reach the wall? When we look at the art, done correctly (according to the rules laid out in the Classics), the subtlety and complexity seem overwhelming and makes it hard to measure growth. This leads to frustration, despair and some times abandoning the practice, which is tragic since we know the benefits it gives us in all aspects of life.
So how do we advise practitioners on the correct way to train? How do we recognize that the way they see the effort given is likely not the way anyone else sees it and is unique? Teaching is not enough and sometimes we need to coach and lay out a method for practice.
The first step is the form, on this everything depends. We must first check the choreography of our form and make certain it follows the structure laid out in the Tai Chi Classics, not because of devotion to the text, but because when applied, one feels the correctness of posture. The form that does not follow these rules becomes arbitrary and disorganized and ultimately, ineffective. Once we have established the integrity of our form, a student copies the movement, we explain the principles behind the movement, and we show examples of why it is correct through contact and pressure.
As the student gains more autonomy, we must encourage thinking, and understanding. We use this process as we teach, but we must also encourage the student to apply this themselves. When performing each movement, the practitioner must ask themselves where the movement starts, and what it moves in turn, and what effect it has within the greater structure. For example, feel the connection to the ground, the pull of the feet, the lifting of the ankle and knee and the opening of the kwa. The tailbone sinking, head lifting, spine elongating and shoulders opening. As we guide them through the process, make it clear that they must have two voices within their minds, a teacher’s voice and the students voice, because ultimately we all teach ourselves and realize our Sifu is but a guide. The student must ask themselves “Why am I doing this movement? What initiates it and what results from it?” By examining the question, they will find the teaching voice inside their mind and answer their own questions. If a student is fortunate enough to be able to train with junior students, they will see this play out more obviously, but even so, they must be reminded to advise themselves just as they would advise others.
Once this level of understanding has been achieved, assign movements of the form and have the student analyze it and explain to you where it starts, what it affects and what results from it, then move on to the next posture until you have gone through the entire form.
This is a guide from a teacher to fellow teachers to help students achieve the results they want, but be mindful that one does not need to have a roomful of students to be a teacher. One pupil is enough and you can find that student in any mirror. Use the teaching process to teach yourself and you will find you have an excellent teacher who truly understands you. This is how you measure your growth and make what seems impossible suddenly within reach.

Tai Chi, Yoga and the Quick Fix

Lately I have been receiving more calls from people asking what the difference is between Tai Chi and Yoga since many of the health benefits received from both disciplines seem to share so much in common. My experience with Yoga is very limited, having only participated in one semester in college many years ago and some practice from the on demand channels. I have, however, read several studies on the benefits achieved from yoga since they often study tai chi as well. We can first look at the common features between the two, slow, deliberate movements, calm mind and relaxed body, energy flow and harmonization with natural forces. The main differences lie in the purpose each was created for.
The history of yoga is complex and uncertain in origin, but it is used to cultivate concentration and relaxation, allow energy to flow freely through the body and achieving higher states of consciousness. It is very much focused on the individuals spiritual journey but what we most often see is that it is used for the physical conditioning and stress reduction. In this way it is much like modern tai chi, in that the original purpose is largely ignored in favor of the more tangible results.
Tai chi on the other hand was developed specifically as a martial art, meaning the precision and detail of each movement is done that way in order to properly deal with the threat posed by incoming force. Many who teach “tai chi” are not aware of or feel the martial aspects are unimportant for people to experience the benefit of practicing the art. While it is true that something is better than nothing, tai chi without its martial roots is just like calling yoga a stretching routine; over simplified and watered down for the easy consumption of a public in love with a quick fix.
Just as the complete study of yoga is more than twisting and stretching the body, tai chi is much more than moving meditation. All tai chi is based on ancient Taoist principles and these are outlined in readily available copies of the tai chi classics, the first written around 1200, yet despite the easy access to the definitive source, many do not refer to it. As a result what many practice may be described as “tai chi-like” but not exactly tai chi, just as a glass of water with a lemon slice cannot be called lemon juice, despite the fact they have the same basic ingredients. This is not meant to insult tai chi practitioners, rather a suggestion that one should cross reference their practice with the principles and concepts outlined in the classics to infuse your practice with greater effect and richness.
Once one understands the reasons why movements need to be performed a certain way, maintaining proper alignment, openness of joints, correct balance and relaxed, fluid movement, the execution of the postures makes clear sense and will forever change the way you view postures, form and practice. I highly recommend that anyone currently training or thinking of beginning training should check out a copy at the library or purchase a copy themselves, although, be aware the translation is sometimes tricky and is often read literally when elements are actually intended to refer to the authors intentions of the actions and not the actions themselves.
Either activity is extremely fulfilling and can benefit anyone willing to make the attempt. A healthier, more fit body improves all aspects of our lives and helps us get the most out of the time we have. Be the best you can be, and be an example to those you love.

What Comes First?

What Comes First?
Recently I was asked what I felt was the correct sequence of training to produce effective results. In order to answer this question we need to first ask what most practitioners do and why they are not satisfied with those results. Typical training follows a regimen of observing technique and attempting to replicate it and then repeating it numerous times until it is ingrained into a muscle memory. The result is often that the technique will not perform as it is designed, but the problem is actually that the technique has been committed to memory incorrectly and each time reinforced that way, otherwise it would perform as intended. The core is not the technique, since there is such similarity among martial arts techniques if you doubt this go from style to style and observe just how similar blocking and striking movements are.

In my studies of history and martial arts history in particular, I compared modern training to training methods used in ancient times. Fundamentally we see similarity in drilling and repetitive movement, but there is a large difference in detail. Martial arts have roots in military training but achieved their highest levels in monasteries where the training was overseen  by highly educated monks so the detail impressed upon students was much more precise, and only then did they commit the technique to muscle memory. We routinely test this principle in class by applying force to a given technique, observing how it feels, making adjustments until it clearly feels correct, go over what factors make it correct and then drill it repetitively.

Once the core is firm we add a partner to the mix which completely changes the dynamic again. The initial contact is often so distracting, we neglect the precision we worked so diligently at and must grow accustom to this added component. At this point we start to understand working with energy and how to adjust accordingly and we begin using tools like sensitivity games to teach us about the diversity of energy and the similarity of it. At this point the key is to recognize that the “games” used to teach us to feel the opponent and the energy are actually combat, and we are trying to use the contact our opponent gives us to utilize that same feeling. Then “sparring” can take place. So to summarize, understand the body, understand the dynamics of energy, learn to move and maintain those principles, partner training, then sparring.
This way of training can seem slow and monotonous but in the end it takes less time and is more thorough.

The non mysticism of martial arts

We are all familiar with martial techniques and we can understand leverage and the generation of power but inevitably there will be a reference to Chi and some eyes will roll and some will widen in blind acceptance of some mystical secret. Unless you speak to someone who actually has an understanding of such concepts and they will look at you like you’re insane if you refer to this as some form of irrational magic, because to those who understand it is very physical and very attainable. In fact, the thing that prevents people from seeing it is merely a result of not understanding their own body and their own mind.


Lets examine the premise which makes us assume that this is magic. If we cannot perceive it through our five senses it must not exist. Or you will get someone making reference to some sort of ‘sixth sense’. What is our mind? Our mind is a tool that processes information collected by our senses. But we need to question the nature of our senses, and the information that is gathered by our mind. We have all smelled something so strong we can taste it, as well as tasted something so strong we can smell it. Our hearing is based on feeling sound waves on our eardrum, and much like when a car drives by playing its radio too loud with too much bass, we feel the vibration in our chests. The idea being that taste and smell are closely related and hearing and touch are closely related. Lets also examine other things we feel and receive information about but don’t directly attribute it to our senses. We constantly receive information like differences in air pressure, some people get headaches around high tension lines, around microwaves etc. And what about when we feel someone staring at us and we look across the room and see someone actually looking at us. We have all walked into a public restroom with no one in sight and feel like someone is in there with us and then hear a cough in a stall. So we recognize that we gather information that doesn’t seem directly related to our view of our senses. My assertion is that we have too narrow a view of our senses and the areas where the information we have gathered falls into those areas between the definitive lines of our senses. Like peripheral vision, just because we aren’t focused on it does not mean haven’t seen it. We have our mind which logically reasons information which is gathered through our senses, it deciphers information into our perception of the world. Our definition depends on the amount of information we have to base our perception on.  If we can only see the left side of a car we have to assume the right side is symmetrical based only on the expectation of symmetry. If you take a stick and place one end on a wall, you are feeling the wall, through the stick. Anyone who has ever had an exposed nerve quickly realizes the nerve feels sensation through the flesh, just as you feel the wall through the stick. The stick is matter and energy, molecules of air are matter and energy, so are you feeling the wall across the room since you are touching the air which is touching the wall? So when a person practices these arts what they are really doing is using their minds ability to take more available information and process it into a usage.


One of the most common problems is the expectation that one cannot feel the wall, and therefore will not feel the wall. This is the same issue people experience with parts of their bodies when they lack the motor control to make subtle adjustment. They frequently say that they see it can be done, but their bodies do not work that way, which is true to an extent but the statement would only be true if they say their bodies do not work that way yet.  The mind is the same way and the more we learn we are able to perceive the more we see it as very normal and not the mystical mystery we once believed.


Think about the way our minds change over time. Children cannot control their emotions but, hopefully, learn to.  We get in a tub of hot water but control our urge to jump out if we are determined to enjoy the bath. We learn to overcome our fear of heights, of water, of darkness and all of these things seemed impossible at one point but the mind is able to overcome it. This is the same. We say we cannot feel where our balance shifts, until we develop awareness of our balance. Once developed, we see how unbalanced we were. We say we cannot feel the opponent’s intention until our awareness increases and then we are able to see how we felt it all along, but were not paying attention to the details that told us. After one learns to quiet the mind, you can feel the energy between your hands, then traveling through the body then expanding outward.  Once you experience this you will find it to be a very physical manifestation and not mystical in any way but you must question your perception.
The mind starts to become aware that such information was present all along but hadn’t noticed it because we didn’t look closely enough. We discover there is no ‘sixth sense’ rather under utilized five senses, and a mind that wasn’t using all the information gathered. Feeling isn’t limited to just what we are touching directly, it is insubstantial to the beginner, subtle to the more experienced practioner, and obvious to the master. In order to achieve this awareness one must absolutely question and challenge their perceptions, the premise upon which they define their view of what is and isn’t. We must recognize the mind is finite and cannot catalog the infinite, but this doesn’t mean we cannot function effectively. Like a mathematical equation, we needn’t memorize each numerical combination, merely the formula necessary to find the correct answer.
Relaxation is the key to the gathering of the information. We are trying to feel energy and energy travels through a relaxed body but is blocked by tension. We never see a golfer swing his club with tension, a baseball batter swing with tension, a gymnast move stiffly, as they are utilizing the same principle whether they know it or not. Like a mechanic who can feel the proper vibration of a finely tuned motor, or a musician feeling the music through their instrument, so should the Tai Chi practitioner relax to feel the energy in the body. To begin, one must practice standing, feeling in what portion of the foot they feel the weight most pronounced, then seek to adjust and balance it through the entirety of the foot while maintaining the openness of the bubbling well cavity and the slight grasp of the toes. Next feeling for tension and then consciously dissipating it. Tension is like loud music, in that sometimes you must walk outside before you realize how noisy it was inside. Just as one cannot hear silence, we cannot feel relaxation, we only become aware of these things. Recognizing tension may stem from perceived necessity or incorrect alignment, proper study must be done to eliminate poor posture, and then the mind can eliminate the added tension. Once the posture is achieved and the body relaxed, you will become aware of the energy flowing, sometimes feeling warm, sometimes tingly, sometimes puffy, etc and then once we are aware that we feel it, we will start to notice where else it is and has been, but was unnoticed. Then we feel the energy around us, and through us, and eventually how the mind can lead it. Again, not magic, as the mind sends energy continuously though the body in the form of bioelectric signals, therefore affecting energy is really not such a foreign concept after all, once you accept just how amazing the mind truly is. Finally once you realize this, you become aware, not of the limits of the mind, but rather remove your self imposed barriers and begin to see that you may never find the actual limit in your allotted lifetime.

So, like, what exactly is an internal martial art?

Lets forget about the mystical depiction of internal martial arts where people defy gravity and kill with a glance.  In fact, lets take away the labels internal and external, and discuss how we view the body. If we look at the body through purely athletic terms, we see that although a group of people are performing the same action, say swinging a golf club, their levels of success are quite different.  A golf swing is clearly recognizable, yet the ball will tell the differences in each players swing. To the layman it appears that the action is exactly the same yet upon closer examination, we can see subtle differences that produce vastly different results. The body is an amazing piece of machinery, and like most machines, people generally fail to use them to their full potential. More importantly is the tendency to think that things operate under separate rules rather than a unifying principle. For example, a right handed person that loses the ability to write with their right hand can learn how to use their left, yet no one questions the body’s ability to do so, yet we speak of training other parts that ordinarily work without conscious thought, it is often dismissed as impossible. In order to explain the internal quality of movement I must ask you to suspend your perception and belief in how the body works and look at the equation with an open mind and free of preconception.

What separates a champion athlete from an average one? What exactly are the ambiguous “physical gifts” that allow some to rise to the very top of their field while others fall short? Science is just starting to be able to glance inside the body and explore exactly what happens within a given movement and as a result many are reluctant to accept an answer that was not produced by a detailed MRI report. We have to accept that there is more than one way to perform an action, meaning engaging different muscles, engaging muscles in proper sequence and optimal positioning. Recently I was discussing this idea of adjusting the body and I was met with an incredulous inquiry of how one can go about adjusting the position of bones. What need to realize is that we reposition the bones all the time. The muscular system is what determines the position of the structure so if we adjust the way and the order in which muscles flex, we therefore adjust the bone structure. This proves difficult because the large muscle groups tend to flex and tense and then do not allow the bones to be adjusted.  it’s a simple concept, relax the large muscles and engage the synergist muscles yet it extremely difficult to do.

So why do you need to know this?
On the surface martial arts techniques are remarkably similar, because they all work with the same human body. Techniques are a good starting point, but when we start to look at the variables we see some problems. A side kick is a side kick, a block is a block, a punch is a punch, so a small change shouldn’t make much difference, right? Yet if we ask a golfer if moisture on the ball, the length of the grass, or even the exact spot the club face meets the ball, they will tell you these factors have a definitive effect. Often students will say they just don’t do certain techniques well, that they have some physical limitation that prevents that technique from succeeding. Generally speaking many see the cure to these problems as to just use more strength. If your golf swing is off do you just swing harder?  This is where the “internal” study comes in. Thinking of what is going on inside the body as well as the external result. This is why there is no internal or external form, because to be complete all systems must include an understanding of both. A common assertion from perceived “external” systems is that “internal” systems think too much. Think how insulting that is to both schools of thought. Does that mean the external stylist doesn’t think? Does it suggest the internal stylist spends no time working the body? Is there anyone that would argue that a more thorough understanding of an action or technique would be a bad thing?

So how do you know if you’re doing it right?
Martial arts techniques have one common factor: Energy. Every kick, punch, grab, block or deflection contains energy. Energy only knows resistance and will find the path with the least amount, like water in a bucket will find the hole. How do you know if your bucket leaks? Fill it with water. How do you know if your technique is structurally sound? Apply some energy to it. If you feel a great deal of muscular strain, your structure is off.

That is the basic idea of studying internal aspects of techniques. Correcting structure through posture to allow greater relaxation and greater efficiency. Only after a thorough understanding of body structure has been attained can a student start to study other aspects of internal training such as meditation and energy flow. So the next time someone tells you their style is external, remember inside their bodies there are bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles that all need to be adjusted correctly, so whether they realize it or not, the external style has internal qualities as well.

Its really not as mysterious as it sounds.

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