Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What Internal Strength Means to Me

A reader from Canada sent an email to me at internalgongfu@gmail with a comment and a couple questions. I think these are really good questions and others may have the same questions, maybe even for their own practice, so here's the email and my response...
Hello Mike,

I just wanted to drop you a line to say that I appreciate your dedication to internal arts and really enjoy your blog.

I would also like to commend you on your honesty.

It is not very often that someone will put it out there that they
haven't accomplished what they are writing about.

Candidly and from your perspective...

What measurement or accomplishment would be sufficient for YOU to declare that you have developed at least some internal power. Or put another way, what sign post are you looking for to confirm that you are NOW on the correct path.

* * * * * *

At one time, I would have answered referencing some special mystical Qi process. Now, I have a more functional understanding with radically mundane and ordinary reference points. Here's how I arrived at both perspectives and why I'm convinced I'm on the correct path now.

When I was a little kid (1960s), I got a comic book from my uncle with Disney cartoon characters but written in some other mysterious language. This sparked my interest in China and all things Chinese.

In the 1970s, I was drawn to T.V. shows such as "That's Incredible", "Kung Fu" and what were probably Shaw Brothers movies. I dreamed of wielding these mystical Chinese martial powers.

When I got into Tai Chi in the 1980s (primarily Yang style) , I was expecting to learn a very mystical martial art where I would develop special martial Qi powers. I did all kinds of weird mystical/spiritual stuff both in and out of class and had a range of "Qi experiences". All this re-enforced my beliefs that I was developing the internal Qi strength.

In 1988 I made my first trip to mainland China, to Sichuan, ostensibly to teach English, but in reality I wanted to learn Tai chi in China. While there however, I did not see any Tai chi; lots of gym class style Wushu, but no Tai-chi.

After asking around, my Chinese contacts found a student at the college who had learned Chen Taiji in his hometown. I think he was from Henan province. We arranged to practice push-hands about once a week. My push-hands style was insubstantial compared to the solidity of his style. This was my first experience with Chen style push-hands.

I returned to the U.S. with a rich cross-culture experience and disappointed that I didn't find a real Chinese Taiji master who I could boast I learned from. I continued practicing my forms on my own and sporadically played push-hands with a variety of practitioners. I pushed with another Chen stylist with the same result. I started doubting my skill and years of training.

Ultimately I got involved with a school that was more pragmatic and functionally oriented. My childhood "Qi power" beliefs were shown to be "slight of hand tricks" of proper alignment and knowing how to use the body. And again, my push-hands skills proved to be insubstantial. Now I was really having a training crisis.

I was introduced to Mike Sigman's Neijia List which discussed peng-jin and groundpath in very pragmatic, western terms. I continued learning and attending seminars. I slowly redefined what it means to have internal strength and how Tai chi functions as a martial art.

* * * * * *

"What sign post are you looking for to confirm that you are NOW on the correct path?"
  1. To be able to "sink the weight" into my legs. To be able to distinguish the feeling of carrying my weight in legs vs in my shoulders or upper torso.

  2. To be able to take an incoming push and run that through my structure and fascia system to ground and at the same time be relaxed and able to move around while maintaining that connection.

  3. To be able to express a large amount of power or force in a minimal distance - the zero-inch punch. I think many people think of this as "fa-jing".
* * * * * *

"What measurement or accomplishment would be sufficient for YOU to declare that you have developed at least some internal power?"

The short answer is: When I can feel a clearly identifiable feeling of connection throughout my entire body with a feeling of ease under load, and attain this feeling on my own without set-up adjustments from my instructor, and have my entry-level whole-body connectedness validated by a real master outside the school. This would be a sufficient measurement for me to declare I have developed at least some internal power.

As I continue relaxing and noticing toward this goal, I am discovering areas that are really tense as well areas that are really limp or flaccid. I need to relax the tense areas and charge-up the limp areas. Here are a few areas where I'm currently focusing my effort:
I can feel more weight in my legs but I'm not consistently down "in my legs" all the time. I still have to think about dropping my weight. I would like to be naturally more "in my legs" without having to think about it. That said, there is probably some residual, natural 'drop-ness' from the zhan zhuang training I've done.

I can kind of ground stronger pushes but I'm still taking way too much force into my shoulders and back. I would like to feel more ease of connection through my torso when under load. (I have felt this before but only after receiving many set-up adjustments to my posture and intention. I know the feeling. I haven't figured out how to recreate it on my own.)

I have more control of my kua but still catch myself popping out my kua. I still have to remind myself; "kua in". I would like to release more sacral tension to get more forward femur head rotation so the "kua in" occurs more naturally.
And by the way, I don't practice expressing bursts of power (fa-jing) because 1. I know I won't do it right because I still have tense and limp areas where there is no connection. and 2. I don't want to hurt myself nor develop a bad habit trying to do something before its time.

I hope this answers your questions. And thank you for asking!

Suggested reading at the Wujifa blog site:

How Do You Know When You're Making Progress?

Zhan Zhuang Alignment

Wujifa "Side to Side" Inguinal Crease Basic Training (on Youtube)

Let me leave YOU with this reader's question:

What measurement or accomplishment would be sufficient for YOU to declare that you have developed at least some internal power. Or put another way, what sign post are you looking for to confirm that you are NOW on the correct path.


  1. Hey Mike, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts in this forum!

    Hmm... your question is a good one. "what sign post are you looking for to confirm that you are NOW on the correct path?"

    I'd say for me, it's a sense of freedom and expressiveness in my body as well as solidity, like there is no part of me that is being "ignored" and that all parts are working as a whole... integrated.

    How I can tell is whether external "pressures" cause my structure to "break".. which for me is splitting off, or accumulating tension and stress in some area... or whether I feel like these pressures help me find my center and settle more into myself.

    The awareness of connection that Wujifa stance trains, under pressure, helps me in this process of "feeling, understanding, and being aware"

  2. Hey School Brother,
    It was once again very cool to watch you show us your abilities to take a relaxed connect push with out bracing at the last class at The School of Cultivation and Practice. Also, your fajing or is it fali, either way from what little I can tell you're looking good Mr Mike. Sometimes I think you are very modest about your abilities.

  3. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for all the info and honesty.

    I was wondering if you've come across any of Peter Ralston's stuff (effortless power, etc.) and what you thought of it, as compared to Sigman.


  4. Peter,
    Appreciate your comment!

    I recently read Ralston's "Zen Body-Being". I resonate with a lot of this material. A very good book.

    Ralston compared to Sigman? I like that both their explanations are very grounded in a pragmatic, western, kinesthetic paradigm.

    I've come to appreciate the effort it takes to figure this stuff out and present it in ordinary terms.

  5. Any tips for staying motivated without a teacher? I studied with a ru men disciple from Chen village for 6 years and one day he announced that he just couldn't teach me. I've tried other classes but they all seem to do things differently even though they all claim to be qualified Chen style so now I am just practicing on my own and don't feel like I am really learning anything.

  6. Anonymous,
    Not every student is a match for every teacher.

    Not every teacher is a match for every student.

    There is a saying that a student tests the teacher for three years and then the teacher tests the student for three years. It could take six years to discover if there is a good match or not.

    Did you ask specifically why your teacher said he couldn't teach you anymore? It is only fair that you understand "why" first. It may not have anything to do with you and then again, it may.

    Try to find out the answer to this question so you won't make the same mistake next time by picking a teacher with the same issue. Similarly, you may need to learn how to change your pattern or issue so this doesn't happen again.

    I say this with much compassion as it truly is a hard lesson to understand.

    I have personally studied with many people before finding The School of Cultivation and Practice. I mean, it took many years on the path to understand this myself.

    Regarding practicing on your own, I too have gone for stretches of time without a teacher. These times served me well to reflect on my practice and to re-examine what I really wanted.

    So while I wasn't being spoon-fed any new form, technique or application, nor had readily available practice partners, I was going inside and learning something a little deeper which prepared me for my next level of development.

    I wish you the best and thank you for the comment. I hope my reply is helpful in some way.