Monday, June 1, 2009

The Language of Internal Strength

This post describes my experience (so far) with the language referencing the internal strength for which the martial arts of Tai-chi chuan, Ba-gua Chuan and Xing-yi Chuan are known.

During a typical Wujifa class, the instructor makes hands-on physical adjustments to my Zhan Zhuang stance. The following conversation typically ensues:

Instructor: "How's that?" or "How does that feel?"
Student: It's different.
Instructor: "Different how?"
Student: Uh... Well.... Not the same as before the adjustment.
Instructor: OK. What do you mean?
Student: Uh... Well... I don't know. It's... Like.... Before the adjustment is a “1” and now this is a “2”.

When I started FEELING the kinesthetic feeling from which internal strength develops, I realized that I do not have words in my English lexicon to describe these new kinesthetic feelings. I soon discovered that there is no vocabulary unique to describing the internal kinesthetic feelings as the body mind develops its "internal strength" perception/kinesthetic paradigm from its customary and habitual "external strength" perception/kinesthetic paradigm.

In traditional Chinese martial arts, the word Qi or Chi and Qi flow or Chi flow are used. The problem, as a “westerner” not growing up in Chinese culture, is that I have no cultural context for these concepts. The best I could do was ascribe a kind of second-hand, intellectual understanding to these words/concepts based on reading about and attending workshops on Qi, Qi-gong, and internal martial arts.

This approach led to developing an imaginary notion of what Qi feels like and my trying to create the feeling intellectually. In this way, Qi and qi flow became “loaded” words/concepts with no foundation in nor relation to my kinesthetic reality. This road led me to a dead-end.

I had to jettison all mental constructs, all my data (which was a long, arduous process) and focus on developing my own internal kinesthetic FEEL. Later I developed the ability to FEEL the distinction between the “before adjustment” and “after adjustment”.

For me, the process of developing internal strength has been one of slowly noticing subtle kinesthetic feelings until these became obvious, then noticing more subtle feelings until these became obvious and on and on…

In my most recent class, I was able to articulate that yes, the kinesthetic feeling that I am now feeling could be labeled “open” or “stretch” however, the kinesthetic feeling underlying these words/concepts is completely different than the feeling underlying these words as they are typically used in an "external strength", kinesthetic paradigm. I’m borrowing "western" words grounded in a different experience to describe a different experience.

This then opens up the problem of using words such as “stretch” and “open” to describe the feeling of developing internal strength. For example, if I say, “The feeling of developing internal strength feels like stretch or open.” and if you read this and haven’t yet experienced the kinesthetic experience that I’m referencing, then you may think, "Oh, I need to stretch more to develop internal strength." Nothing could be further from the truth.

I appreciate the Wujifa approach because the focus is on developing the kinesthetic FEELING and avoiding the use of loaded words like Qi and Qi flow. Western words like connection, or fascial connection, or open, or gaps, or sticky points, or blocks, or blockages, are used instead. However, these western words also present a koan: What is the feeling of fascial connection? What is the feeling of loading or distributing a chin-na force throughout the fascial system? How do you create the feeling of open between all your joints?

After I felt something that could be described as open, stretch, connection, then I saw the problem of how to talk about the internal aspect of the internal martial arts. Our words can communicate and guide us in a shared experience or our words may unintentionally mislead when there is no common experience.


  1. This is Rick from the
    Wujifa is a pretty cool practice, I agree that that practice is so very helpful! I really enjoyed this posting and your new blogspot. Looking forward to reading your insights... as I sure many others will as well.

  2. Mike, this is the other Rick. VERY nice blog! I'll be a regular visitor.

  3. Yes, good way of putting what you can in to words, heheheh. The word is not the feeling. I see what you mean by the intellect creating an abstract representation as opposed to the feeling. I can see in myself how the mind creates and calls things feelings, sure it feels something, but it is limited to what it is representing, and displaying to the body. Its as if the mind puts it out there saying, 'i didnt create that, its reality'. This seems to be the same story every time, a process of inventing, mechanically, ideas that are based on thought, as opposed to passive awareness, which is something new. This reminds me of the saying, that the cup must be empty in order for it to be filled. But then again, are we able to just cut a hole in the bottom instead of holding onto the known continually as if it is 'our precious'? like beginning again anew right?

  4. Hi Mike,

    I enjoyed your Wujifa posts, and I enjoyed this one best! I can hear "the questions" now.

    Answer, ask, empty the cup.


    Twenty Twenty

  5. I can tell you, as a person growing up in a Chinese culture, the term Qi is also mostly misunderstood. So it's not a "westerner" problem. It's a global problem... even in China. You are not alone. :)

    In fact, we get it worse because we get exposed to much more theatrics about Qi through movies where we can walk on water, and push a person 10 feet away without even touching him!