The Secrets of Daoist Martial Arts: An in depth-look
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
To address the secrets of Daoist Martial Arts we need to first define the terms ‘internal’ and ‘external’ martial arts. We then need to explore how the development of health relates to Daoist Martial Art practice, discuss the methodology behind martial arts such as Tai chi and compare it with Qigong and take an in-depth look at the essence behind the widely recognisable Yin-Yang symbol and how it applies to these practices. Please stay tuned, I guarantee it will be worth it!
What is the difference between 'Internal' and 'External' Martial Arts?
Both types have a lot in common because the basis for both is committing one's body, mind and soul to studies which enable one to learn how to shape and move one's body in such a way as to learn how to transform the movements into graceful tools for self-defence. The main difference between 'internal' and 'external' lies mainly in the methodology and techniques used to obtain Martial Arts results. A lot of the fundamental principles are the same. Let’s take a look at the most common methods used for each type of Martial Art.
External: Methods are based on the building up of the body's physique such as increasing muscle size & strength, endurance & stamina, coordination, speed, power & balance. After a common training session practitioners are sweaty, the muscles are bulging and throbbing and have thoroughly 'worked out'.
Drills could include doing strength training exercises such as push-ups and intensive sparring alternated with bouts of strength and/or cardio vascular exercises. This is the conditioning phase. Other drills are focused on memorising, developing and refining specific body movements and techniques and the practical application of self-defence movements. Students of external martial arts usually learn sparring early on in their training as well as the specific self-defence movements and applications. Examples of 'External' Martial Arts Include Karate, Tao Kwon Do and Jiu Jitsu.
Internal: Internal methods take a completely different route in order to arrive at Martial Arts results. For the purpose of this discussion we will use Taiji Quan (often know as 'Tai chi'. Quan = fist).
Tai chi is often recognised as a set of gentle, flowing exercises designed for elderly or older people to help maintain their health. In fact, Tai chi is quite the opposite because it was not designed for this purpose. Tai chi is flowing, Tai chi is gentle on the body, Tai chi is good for developing one's health, Tai chi is in fact, traditionally a Martial Art.
The reason it is not often recognised as a Martial Art is because it is often taught for the purpose of developing health and the gentle and slow aspects of its methodology are extracted for it to be used as a system for developing health. It just happens that that these features of Tai chi are both beneficial and suitable for elderly people. There is nothing wrong with that, and in fact its widespread use for this purpose is greatly beneficial for those who employ it in their repertoire of tools for health maintenance. This point shows just how versatile Tai chi is in its use and application according to the needs and goals of the individual practitioner. Interestingly, in line with its Taoist roots, the philosophy of internal martial arts are rooted in first needing to develop one's health, both physical and mental, before advancing to the harder and harsher levels where the specific martial arts aspects are revealed. Health is concurrently a pre-requisite, a side-effect and/or the end-goal...depending on your purpose for taking on Tai chi practice.
Why Develop Health if I Want Martial Arts Results?
Tai chi (Taiji) is a Martial Art but because of the extensive range of knowledge that Tai chi draws from its Ancient roots, it is a versatile art and it can also be practiced purely for the health benefits (and even Spiritual) if one does not wish to pursue the Martial Results.
To answer the above question, we can start to look at the fundamental approach of Internal Martial Arts such as Tai chi. In External Martial Arts one develops muscle strength and power. In Internal Martial Arts one develops ENERGY or Qi. More specifically, all of the energetic facets of the body's functions related to Qi or energy activities are developed, strengthened and maximised. This includes:
- The restructuring and optimisation of the body's channel system through which Qi flows
-The increasing of efficiency of Qi flow in the body - Gathering of Qi to fill up the body's Qi reserves (positive Qi) - Cleansing of the body to get rid of negative Qi - Unifiying the body, mind and Qi into a single powerful unity in movement, form and function
Once these first set of fundamental goals are achieved one can then:
- Learn how to use Qi to perform movements that direct powerful forces through the body - Apply these powerful movements in Martial Art specific applications
The first set of fundamental goals are by far not easy to achieve and require years of dedicated practice and careful study. Once this happens, the practitioner can choose to learn the martial art aspects or continue explore the health building and or Spiritual benefits.
Internal Martial Art Methodology
If you observe someone doing Taiji you would not be able to guess that what they are doing is a Martial Art because of two key points:
1. The practitioner is moving slowly 2. The movements are done gently and softly.
There are specific reasons for this and here we can introduce the term 'Inner Work'. Whenever a Martial Arts practitioner is practicing their Martial Art they are doing 'Inner Work' at all times. As mentioned before, the goal of Internal Martial Arts is to learn how to move the body as a powerful unified whole from the Qi level of the body. To learn how to do this, the channels must be open, the channel structure needs to be healthy and there needs to be plentiful Qi to move about the channels and give rise to powerful movements. For this to happen, the practitioner needs to develop their sensitivity by putting their attention inside, thus doing 'Inner Work'.
To do Inner Work is to observe and understand the subtle internal energetic structure of the human body and know how to use it effectively in movement. Observation is not the only aspect, there is also a more active aspect and this is Relaxation. Without Relaxation the channels cannot open, without Relaxation Qi cannot flow properly, without Relaxation Qi cannot be gathered and harnessed or the body's internal structure realigned and repaired and finally, the Martial, let alone the health benefits, cannot be achieved. Relaxation sounds simple but it requires daily dedicated training for many years to learn how to do it properly.
Now we can see why in Taiji there are slow and soft movements: because doing movements in this way gives the practitioner the opportunity to learn how to relax. So then the questions arises: How does one relax? It's like asking "How do I move my leg?". You simply have to work it out, from the inside, doing inner work using the tools that you are given as per your training regimen.
There are also fast and powerful movements that are done in Taiji but these are rarely seen and are more difficult to learn because it is much harder to relax while doing these types of movements. Also, the body tissues and joints need to be ready to handle such rapid movements without being damaged. Additionally, the fast movements done in Taiji are quite costly and an essential part of this type of training is daily Post Standing (A type of 'standing meditation' used to accumulate Qi). Relaxation is just as important in these fast/powerful movements as the slow ones. After practicing these type of movements for some time, the development of Power will appear.
What is the difference between Tai chi and Qigong?
Tai chi and Qigong have many similarities because they are both about harnessing one's internal resources such that the inner structure and qualities of the body are optimised, the channels are opened, Qi flows freely and there is plentiful Qi. The main difference between Tai chi and Qigong is that in Tai chi these changes that are achieved are done for the purpose of transforming the body for self-defense purposes. Tai chi is a Martial Art (but it can also be practiced exclusively for health purposes). Qigong is purely for health and/or Spiritual results. Practicing Tai chi for health purposes is like doing an advanced form of Qigong with a 'martial edge'. This 'martial edge' is not directly manifested as martial art but moreso manifested in the practitioner's spirit and body-energy structure.
Because Qigong and Tai chi have a lot of overlap, they work beautifully together and complement each other. Tai chi is more challenging to learn than Qigong and thus in our School (Daode Qigong) for example, it is a pre-requisite to learn Qigong for some time before learning Tai chi. This is because to begin Tai chi practice one needs to already have a reasonable foundation in Relaxation and working with energy. Doing Qigong before Tai chi practice for example can also greatly enhance Tai chi practice because it helps one to relax deeply.
To put it another way, with Qigong one begins to learn how to relax and to sense Qi and understand how Qi is moving in the body. Taiji practice takes the skills learned from Qigong and applies them to further develop the body's energy system. This is done by using specific energy work principles which are more difficult to learn and apply which are usually not covered in Qigong practice. If you would like to learn Tai chi we highly recommend learning Qigong first or at the very least learning both at the same time. Some Tai chi systems implement Qigong in their methodology.
The meaning of Tai chi: Sometimes Names are much More Than they Seem
Internal Martial Arts such as Tai chi (Taiji) have very meaningful names. Taijiquan - 太極拳 - can be translated as "Great Supreme Fist". Essentially, it refers to a Super Powerful Supreme Punch.....actually no, no it doesn't! The name - Taiji - 'Great Extreme' is referring to Yin-Yang theory and how it relates to the mechanism of the movements performed in Taiji and how it's understanding and application is essential. Other ways to translate Taiji include: 'Grand Ultimate', 'Grand Extremity' or 'Extreme Polarity'. Polarity implies opposites. Polarity implies movement. Movement through a range of one extreme to another and everything in between. Taiji is comprised of Yin-Yang so essentially the Yin-Yang symbol is not actually called the 'Yin-Yang Symbol' it is actually called 'Taiji'. How are the two related? You can say that the Taiji symbol is comprised of Yin-Yang and it represents the mechanism of moving from Wuiji to Taiji.
Now let's take a look at the term 'Wuji' - 無極 - 'Without Ultimate'. This word sheds light on Taiji because it is essentially the opposite of Taiji. Other ways to describe Wuji are: 'No Extremity', 'No Opposition', "No Polarity'. If you want to visualise 'Wuji', you can think of it as a white, empty circle (whereas the Taiji symbol is not empty as it contains Yin-Yang: The black and white halves). Wuji means that there is no movement, there are no extremes. There is no up, there is no down. There is no hard, there is no soft. There is no light, there is no dark. It is a state where there is no differentiation into the multitude of 'things', a state of pure 'Potential'. It is the state of the universe before creation. Relating it in terms of modern scientific understanding, it is the state of the universe before the Big Bang. It is all 'One'.
Now that we have established both Taiji and Wuji, we can start to also relate these terms to Yin-Yang ( 陰陽). When the Universe is in its undifferentiated state (Wuji) and movement starts to occur, the polarity of Heaven and Earth comes into being because Yang Qi moves up (Heaven) and Yin Qi moves down (Earth). From this all of the multitude of extremes are created such as left, right, hard, soft, etc. etc. The 'Ten Thousand Things' are born.
The Universe is now in its differentiated state and there is movement from on extreme to the other. There are opposites but these Yin-Yang formations are mutually dependent and cannot exist without the other. Without 'inside' there is no 'outside'. Without 'sadness' there is no 'happiness', without 'ugliness' there is no 'beauty'. How does the Taiji symbol represent this? If you look at the symbol, you can see that the dark part (Yin) has a small white circle (Yang) and the light part (Yang) has a small dark circle (Yin). This means that Yin has a little bit of Yang inside it and thus it has the ability to transform into Yang and vice versa with the Yang half of the Taiji symbol. There is no absolute Yin or Yang and if that were the case, nothing would happen! This describes how things are related to each other, how they move from one extreme to the other and how Yin becomes Yang and vice versa once each quality reaches its peak. This drives the movements, activities and transformations of the world of manifested phenomena.
In the Diagram below you can see the progression from Wuji (empty circle) to Taiji (Yin-Yang formations), then to the Elements (represented by the Trigrams - solid and broken lines). Then this leads to the '10,000 things' and all there is.
How Does Yin-Yang Relate to Martial Arts such as Tai chi?
Because Internal Martial Arts such as Taiji are based on the principles upon which the functioning of the universe and world around us is observed, these principles also not only apply to the large scale but also to the smaller scale. Namely, the way that our bodies function is another expression of the greater forces guiding the multitude of movements of the '10,000' things' within and without.
Yin-Yang can be used to describe all phenomena of the manifested world. When we do Taiji practice we are:
1. Moving our bodies using specific movement patters 2. We are doing those movements whilst applying 'Inner work' (Looking inside and using specific principles that give the movements special qualities).
For example, in some movements we are moving the arms up whilst bending the knees. This means that the arms are expressing the Yang phase (up) whilst the legs are expressing the Yin phase (down) and when these movements are done, the practitioner needs to sense the Yin-Yang aspects and how they relate to each other, the movement transformations and interactions in their body whilst applying other inner work principles. There is no sense in doing Tai chi (or Qigong) without inner work as otherwise the movements are empty and mechanical like a tape recorder playing back someone's voice. There is no life there.
This is how Yin-Yang relates to Tai chi: embodying fundamental Natural laws through body movements and inner work such that the body's living systems are shaped and sharpened toward martial arts results and/or optimal health.
Daoist Martial Arts and Health practices are profound because the foundation that they are based on is the study of the world of natural phenomena. In harnessing this wisdom, we can also see the versatility of these arts because Tai chi for example, can be practiced to develop health, martial arts results or can be studied for the purposes of spirituality or all at once. There is literally a gold mine of wisdom and practical knowledge waiting to be harnessed if one chooses to learn how to study and apply it. This gold mine is not out there, close your eyes and you may find it.