Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Top Ten Internal Martial Arts Training Mistakes

Over my nearly thirty years of training the internal martial art of Tai-chi Chuan, I have made a lot of mistakes in my pursuit of internal strength. Here are my top ten training mistakes. Some of these may sound obvious and others may sound controversial. Hopefully, any one of these will prevent you from falling into the same trap.

1. Not knowing your purpose; not knowing why and what you are training.
I've learned that purpose defines what is and is not "in scope" and helps clarify what questions get asked, like, "So how exactly does this exercise help develop the feeling of internal strength?" and my all time favorite, "How do you know?"
Tip: Know what you want and why you are training what you are training.
2. Not knowing the "connectedness" feeling of internal strength.
When I didn't know the feeling of internal strength, I didn't know what it was I wanted to develop. I believed whatever I was told it was. Some teachers teach mechanics and technique and call this "internal strength" but it is not.
Tip: Do your research. Get a sense of the feeling before committing to a training program.
3. Believing that practicing forms for years will lead to internal strength.
I discovered that forms are too complex to figure out the subtle feelings that are only revealed while standing still or while practicing simple, repetitious patterns like side-to-side.
Tip: Stop practicing forms and only practice zhan zhuang and simple, repetitious patterns like side-to-side.
4. Choosing a teacher based on a well known and respected lineage.
In my experience, the lineage of a teacher is not evidence in and of itself that that teacher actually has any internal strength skills.
Tip: Touch hands with the teacher's students and feel if anyone has skill. Sometimes the "rogue" teacher without a lineage may also have internal skills.
5. Thinking that a Tai-chi, Ba-gua, Xing-yi, Yi-chuan teacher has internal strength skills just because the teacher looks and sounds Chinese.
I've come to learn that a teacher's "Chinese-ness" is no guarantee of possessing internal skills and a teacher lacking "Chinese-ness" should not be dismissed as not having internal skills.
Tip: Don't judge a book by its cover.
6. Not validating my skill with others outside my school or training program.
I used to think that I was making progress when in fact I wasn't, and I didn't even know that I wasn't.
Tip: Find someone outside your school to validate or verify your experience.
I don't mean challenges or competitions. A minute of simple, static point-to-point "push hands" is sufficient to get valuable feedback.
7. Believing I need to train in China to get quality internal skills training.
I think this was more true thirty years ago than it is today. There are now more quality teachers available outside of China than ever before.
Tip: The grass is not always greener on the other side. Discover who is in or traveling to your area or country.
8. Believing that I need to learn Chinese language, culture and philosophy, Chinese Traditional Medicine, the Tai-chi Classics, Qi-gong or any other "energy" or "spiritual" or "Taoist" practice to develop internal strength.
I learned so much of this stuff over the years and NONE OF IT contributed to my developing internal strength.
Tip: A good teacher should be able to show you with several quick postural adjustments how to
elicit "the feeling" in your own body as well as discern "the feeling" in others. If your teacher can't guide you using your local vernacular (in "plain English" for my U.S. readers), then look for another teacher.
9. Thinking that there is only one "style" of zhan zhuang.
The more I practice Wujifa zhan zhuang and the more I view (on-line) how others teach and practice (and see their results), the more I see and understand that practicing zhan zhuang in and of itself may not necessarily lead to internal strength.
Either find a teacher who has internal skills who can guide your zhan zhuang practice and/or seek out true masters from whom you can receive guidance.
10. Believing that internal strength is a physical skill (like learning basketball) that I could add onto my existing structure or way without fundamentally changing who I am.
It's taken me a long time to experience that developing internal strength is about changing my body, body-mind, soma-psychology, neural pathways or whatever you call it, by inviting me to "let go of" and not "add on to".
Tip: Sorry, no tips on this one. I too struggle with letting go of deeper ingrained habitual holding patterns that I'm afraid to let go of.

I'd like to hear from you. What's on your Top Ten List of Internal Martial Arts Training Mistakes? Have you made any of these mistakes in your pursuit of internal strength? From your experience, have you reached the same conclusions or a different conclusion?


  1. This is a great post, particularly re forms practice.

    My own current feeling is that forms are mainly a transmission of the advanced material in most systems - kind of the greatest hits of what a connected body can do at the highest levels.

    There is no question that beginners need simple, repetitive "phrases" to learn shenfa and build IP; the role of a good teacher is to provide appropriate "phrases" and corrections as the students connectivity, range and overall shenfa improve over time.

    In terms of mistakes, I would say that lack of faith in the basics is pretty much at the core of it for me. All complex movements in IMA come from having power in the basic directions. Over and over I'm shown by the practice that complicated movements happen spontaneously and effortlessly as basic movements are continually worked on and refined. Yet doubt can still arise (which is part of the process too, so no worries ultimately)!


  2. My mistake is to practice to avoid the (social)
    reality and to feel good avoiding making decissions.

    I´ve been suffering from social discomfort all my life.

    I´m working on it.

    (I´m 52 years old and practicing Zen, Ki Gong and Zhang Zhuang for 30 years)

    Thank you for your blog.

  3. I have trained for 25 years and i am a black belt in oragami.