The Basis And Methodology Of Internal Martial Arts
By Peter Lim Tian Tek

The internal martial arts have often been shrouded by much mysticism and some have come to consider the theorems contained therein as being superstitious and even superfluous to these martial arts. The effect has been much like throwing the baby out with the bath water and what remains only has the outward semblance of the original art but its essence has been lost.

To understand the underlying theoretical foundations we must first understand the Chinese world view which is at the heart of Chinese culture and its philosophies. The history of Chinese thought is a long one, stretching back thousands of years. Much of it came through empirical observations made by the Chinese people and distilled to its essential logic. Some of it may not be so alien to the West as it may initially seem.

The Philosophical Basis - Understanding The Point Of Perception

The Yin and The Yang

This is probably the most fundamental of the theories that contribute to the Chinese world view. Philosophically speaking this is the theory of duality which is also known in classical western philosophy except that is not used as a basis to explain the nature and composition of the perceived universe. It represents the positive and negative in the perceivable universe. In the martial arts the represent stillness and motion, hardness and softness and other opposites.

The Trigrams And Hexagrams

The 8 trigrams (Ba Gua) and the 64 hexagrams are all derived form the interaction of Yin and Yang. They form the fundamental changes that are possible through these interactions. It was in the Jesuit Priest Father Joachin Bouvet, who did missionary work in China, who showed the sequence of 64 hexagrams to German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, the father of calculus. Leibnitz discovered the binary notation system in the hexagrams by taking 0 for each solid line and 1 for each broken line. This system is the fundamental building block of today's computer systems which all work on the binary system. These computers, through the use of the binary system (aka western Yin-Yang notation) are now able to simulate the real world which lends credence to the Chinese theory that the perceivable universe can be explained using the interaction of Yin and Yang. For martial arts these changes represent the possible situations and counters in a combat situation.

The Five Elements

The five elements derived from the ancient Hou Tu diagram which groups the Yin and Yang interactions into five distinct groups is a representation of the 5 material types which the Chinese were able to classify the perceivable universe. Similar to the Western classification of Animal, Vegetable and Mineral, the Chinese classified them into Metal, Water, Fire, Wood and Earth. The five elements also represent the five motions since the interactions of these elements which forms the cycle of matter in the perceived universe have their innate motions. Their creative and destructive cycles and their motions have lent their principles to the martial arts.

The Internal Approach To Combat

For all martial arts there is a common set of requirements that need to be addressed when it comes to success in combat. They can be broadly classified into 4 catagories:

1. Power
2. Speed
3. Placement
4. Technique

These 4 categories are fundamental combat and the different internal martial arts have different emphasis on each but all strive for efficiency in combat with minimum effort to achieve maximum effect. We will deal with them individually.

In addition, in the case of Taijiquan, there is the requirement for sensitivity. In this modern age, information is power and in the world of Taijiquan it is no different. Information about the opponent is instrumental in being effective in combat against him. As the Art Of War states 'know the opponent as you know yourself, a hundred battles a hundred victories'.

The Internal Training Methodology

The Internal martial arts place their main emphasis on training the internal factors of a person as a means of preparing the body to be effective in combat. The three internal elements trained are Jing (essence), Qi (vital energy - akin to life force) and Shen (spirit). The body needs to be strengthened and healthy before it can engage in combat. The internal methods train the body for the improved generation of Jing (essence) through keeping the body at the optimum stress level for its healthy functioning which means also the removal or dealing with destructive stress. This returns the body to its natural relaxed state which encourages the proper smooth circulation. This forms the basis for a regulated and healthy endocrine system which leads to the improved generation of Jing.

This in turn leads to the improved output of Qi which is a result of the improved metabolism through the abundance of Jing. Qi is derived from the nutrients we eat and the air that we breath. Qi itself flows with the blood and both can be controlled through mental focus. Proper mental focus leads the qi round the body improving vitality through improved blood flow and sufficient supply of nutrients, gaseous exchange and vital energy. The breath is very important in qi generation and deep breathing efficiently utilising the capacity of the lungs is important but never to the point where it becomes unnatural. This leads to an improved tonus in the musculature and ultimately leads to a healthy body.

The mind which leads the qi also benefits from this optimum supply of its nutritional and respirational requirements and allows it to function at its best. Coupled with a destressed body and controlled emotions, it is able to develop a relaxed concentration with deep calm. This is used in mental training which supplements physical training resulting in better results in shorter time. It also improves confidence, increased awareness and deliberateness in dealing with situations as well as greater ability to concentrate and be able to maintain it. The Shen (spirit) which is a manifestation of consciousness is thus trained and is an indispensable part of this cyclic system. The West has only just begun to realise the benefits of mental training as a supplement to physical training.


In martial arts, its not how great the power is but how efficiently it is generated and how appropriately it is used that is the key to success. Great power without control, focus and a clear mind having sufficient information to apply it appropriately is quite useless.

The frame work for power generation is a good root born of a lowered centre of gravity for stability and the efficient structure for force to flow from it to the ground to form a base of resistance for the power generated to push against. Also important is proper body alignment so that the force is efficiently transmitted through the structure. We should note that these two factors do not constitute internal strength and are present in most martial arts, both internal and external.

Internal strength is a result of training the Jing, Qi and Shen and is a combination of efficient physical power (Jing - not the same as essence, its a different Chinese character) generated through muscular tonus, appropriate application through mental focus and stability, and a healthy body capable of handling the stress of combat which forms a basis for both of the former. Mental focus determines how efficient this is since it is the focus that defines whether the the action is efficient or not. The resultant motion is smooth because it does not have any retained power in the form of tension and rounded because of the nature of motion of the joints and their efficient usage. Because of its mode of generation Internal Strength (Nei Jing) can flow even without apparent outwardly visible motion.


The speed striven for is effective speed. In internal martial arts, the faster technique may not be the victorious one. Efficient motion is essential for speed, as is a structure that is conducive to quick motion (i.e. no double weighting). There are two main points on speed when it comes to combat. The first is to get out of the way of the attack, the second is to counter the attack with the minimum speed requirement. The speed trained in the internal martial arts is the speed of the whole body which is a co-ordinated whole. In Taijiquan, the speed of training is mainly slow, this allows one to train the body to move in an efficient fashion with no tension. It also allows obstructions to the flow of movement due to structure or tension to be detected and removed.


The placement and position of the body and body structure in relation to the opponents is very important in martial arts. It allows one to be in the optimum position to counter or to attack with minimum effort with maximum effect and to be difficult for the opponent to counter. This minimises the danger to the exponent whilst giving him a good vantage point to initiate his counter or attack.

Proper placement is a result of knowing the opponent(s) centre and structure. It also requires knowledge of effective attacking angles and inherent flaws in body structures in each type of posture. Placement changes in relation to the opponent and so there is more or less constant change in a combat situation.


The technique of the art is how the body is used effectively in combat. A technique is only good if it is applied appropriately. Each martial art has its own set of techniques to deal with the different combat situations. Each conforming to the principles governing and defining each individual martial art style.

In the internal martial arts, the techniques are grounded in efficient structure and motion. The movements are naturally rounded, this turns aside incoming force from reaching and affecting the centre of mass of the body and the body itself to cause damage. The incoming force is either redirected out of its intended focus or turned against itself or to the attacker's disadvantage. This also entails intimate knowledge of the opponent's centre and structure. Most internal martial arts have a set of core techniques from which the rest of the techniques in the system are derived from. In Taijiquan it is the 13 Postures, in Ba Gua Zhang it is the 8 Mother Palms, in Xing-I it is the Five Element Fists. These fundamental techniques embody the principles on which the art is based. Whilst there are common elements in these techniques in all 3 arts, they are distinct in flavour and their application.

The techniques are taught individually and then usually strung up into a pattern for them to be practiced sequentially, the sequence itself showing the flow techniques in combination. Two man practice refines the technique by putting it into action with a live opponent and bringing all the principles and technique together.


Sensitivity is key to Taijiquan as a martial art. The ability to stick and adhere to the opponent allows the Taijiquan exponent to 'listen' to the opponent's structure and to detect its flaws, to locate and effectively control his centre of mass from which all his body motion ultimately relies on. Sensitivity is trained in the form when it is done slowly. This teaches sensitivity to one's own structure and centre as well as sensitivity to the environment as one does 'push hands' with the air, being so relaxed that it can even react and neutralise air. In push hands, one trains sensitivity with a reactive opponent able to take over the initiative. This is knowledge of self and knowledge of opponent from which victory will come.

Health Benefits

The training of Taijiquan as a martial art complete with its inherent mental focus which is essential to it trains a healthy, strong and efficient body and mind. While one need not train with the intention of going into combat, the combat focus in the art provides a focus for the postures and the internal flow of energy which brings about the full benefits of the art. Without this focus, one will not fully realise the benefits of Taijiquan.

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