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Musings on External vs Internal

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  • Musings on External vs Internal

    Hey all,

    I would like to make a new topic about the concept external vs internal / wudang vs shaolin. Just my understandings and experiences on this topic.
    And to clear up the misunderstandings surrounding the concept.

    Please feel free to add whatever input you would like.

    To add-on to my rambling on post #16 from this topic

    Sun Lu Tang is the one who made the first distinction between external and internal (as far as I know), in his books, and the first one to write books on the subject
    (or books on Chinese martial arts in general for that matter).

    The reason Sun Lu Tang classified them, as far as I know from my research, is because Sun Lu Tang saw underlying similarities, in the three styles he was trained in;
    xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan. Then people took this out of context and later made a full distinction between shaolin vs wudang/ external vs internal.

    I got the spark from reading the fragments on the amazon website in this book (giving props where due) :

    This is most probably common knowledge, but regardless.
    I've been able to train the three styles in the same matter, (with the same underlying principles). Hence it sparks my interest, and I'd like to talk about it.
    I find it really fascinating, and this is what a forum is for, right?

    I have also been caught up in the same nonsense, the differentiation between the internal vs external 'styles', wich is also a reason I'd like to get deeper into this.

    I have experience with Chuo Jiao, (a style connected to Yue Fei, who is also credited for xingyiquan; so the two styles obviously have a connection);
    and honestly, the training of ChuoJiao, in my opinion, in the past was also in a circle type of walking, (at least a part of it), but then with the emphasis on the feet/ kicks.
    Baguazhang, obviously, has a very strong connection with the feet, yet they put the emphasis on the hands. Yet they share/ train the same whole body connection.
    For me bagua, has strong roots in Chuojiao, and Tantui; same 'mechanics'. Xingyiquan, just the same. One example is in one of the animal versions of xingyiquan (think jumping ).

    The reason I say all this, is because chuojiao and tantui are regarded as external styles.

    Most probably, Dong Haichuan, was influenced and trained by daoists who used a meditative state of circle walking as cultivation for their daoist cultivation.
    Hence, the emphasis on circle walking and daoist principles.

    For me, having trained bagua under Sifu, and things more or less went there own 'way'; the 'mechanics' of bagua are extremely similar to the 'mechanics' of chuojiao.
    Ofcourse, all of this is just semantics, transmission is the key, but the details are pretty interesting indeed.
    Chuo Jiao and Bagua, or Tantui, they are most definitly connected, the inner mechanics, and most definitly share a connection. Heck I could even prove it if you'd like.

    So it's very very interesting, when dividing styles into internal or external, or shaolin vs wudang, and looking how it all went into shape by misunderstanding.

    We can even go deeper and make a whole list, and be able to trace down connection to a whole lot of styles in it's full.

    So, I'd be really interested in how other's see this. Some of my brothers and sisters have been trained in the three harmony style of taijiquan from Sifu, it would be great to hear your input.

    An interesting thing I would like to add about Sun Lu Tang; he wrote a book (or a text?) about xingyiquan and the five elements overcoming each other.

    He is known to have admitted in his later years that he did this on purpose, to mislead people, because he didn't want the arts to fall in the wrong hands.
    Or so I have read. I can't find the source, but I'm sure I read it, and it does makes sense.
    His teacher Guo Yunshen just needed one pattern to overcome everybody, regardless of any elements, haha.

    It's pretty funny if you think about it, but still, he felt bad about it, as the art basically died out.

    Im sorry if I offended anybody with my post, for whatever reason. Some is rambling, I know. It's just, I'm pretty fanatic about it, as I love these arts.
    Who doesn't in the Kwoon, right

    My humble regards,

  • #2
    Hey everybody,

    I'm sorry for my kinda random topic and thoughts.

    Everybody in our school obviously knows very well our kungfu is internal.

    In a clear way what I tried to make across,
    is that it's just fascinating how different styles use different ways of internal development and usage.

    And how some of the styles have common grounds.



    • #3
      Rambling through my martial life story

      Hey there, Tim! Glad to see some more discussion on the forum and glad to hear from you. It's been six years, how have the circles and spirals been?

      No worries to apologize about rambling. Anyone who's interested in these arts will quite naturally want to explore and discuss more about them, though as ever, the practical results are the important matter. That said, I am rambling royalty and I am in a rambling mood right now. :P I can't speak for Sun Lutang's purposeful misdirection in his writings (though the kung fu sets that bear his name definitely misdirect and deceive casual observers as to their application in both combat and force training), so I'll have to stick to what I do know and can share. This information might be useful for folks who have never trained outside of Shaolin Wahnam (I've met plenty of folks who "grew up" in Shaolin Wahnam and never set foot outside of our "gate") and may serve as a reminder and some justification as to why I've stuck primarily to Shaolin Wahnam as opposed to leaving formally to go to another school.

      You may want to heat up some tea and take a trip to the restroom, this is going to be a little long and cement my position as the King of Rambling.

      Introduction & Summary

      The generalization of "External Shaolin, Internal Wudang" is certainly just that, a generalization. Kung fu is, interestingly, very similar with its general forms. Stances, the flexibility and agility required to perform even basic movements, footwork methods, and the general idea of how to explode force from the stance and whatever other root of power (such as the dan tian, shoulder, elbow, wrist, or what have you) exists in virtually every style of kung fu. That said, almost everything else, from how to develop power, how to best manifest power, and fighting tactics seem to differ. I've some experience in a few different schools and lineages (I've had a rather ridiulous time running into and sparring and learning from teachers of different schools) which I thought I could share.

      The summary to the truly ridiculous wall of text below is essentially this: you can find schools of "external" styles that practice purely external force training and mechanics, external styles that have "stolen" internal methods to supplement their training, "internal" styles that retain their internal root, and internal styles that have borrowed or deviated from their internal roots. Whatever is the "correct" way of training is ultimately going to depend on the art in which you spend the bulk of your time on. Practitioners of Karate, Muai Thai, and other kung fu schools have told me to my face that my practice is useless, for example. They stopped talking to me after I beat them in sparring (occasionally in front of their friends). Make of that what you will. On a side note, if anyone has any questions about dealing with the curious nature of the "wulin" (the martial arts community) and safely interacting with practitioners of other schools, I can talk about that another time.

      What makes Shaolin Wahnam force so special?
      Shaolin Wahnam is in an interesting position, especially regarding the styles and sets that Sifu has learnt directly from his own masters and colleagues, the ones he has recreated from classical material, and others that he has devised himself for the sake of his students' learning (such as the basic Shaolin and Taijiquan combat sequence sets, the Tantui combat sequences, and so forth). Sifu has been rather up front about some of the most important sources for the internal force of our school; the energy flow inspired by his experience with Self Manifested Chi Flow in Soaring Crane qigong, the advice from a Daoist master to a student of Sifu's to 'not use muscles to move, but to have a gentle thought of moving and to let qi move the form,' and how the internal force of Sifu's Dragon Strength permeating all of the qigong (especially the martial qigong) in Shaolin Wahnam.

      The "fuel" that powers all internal force in our school is energy flow, and the "engine" is Shaolin kung fu, especially that of Dragon Strength and Shaolin Cosmos Chi Kung. Certain aspects are common throughout all authentic kung fu, especially those derived from Shaolin, especially the external forms of particular stances, starting from the rear leg, rotating the waist, ending at the hands, and the like. Then there are the various specialties and separate skills that appear in different styles, such as Xingyiquan developing force at the shoulders, Eagle Claw and Hung Gar emphasizing gripping force, Dragon Form and Dragon Strength training dim mak as well as Dragon force and speed, etc.

      It's a very interesting thing, the fact that Shaolin Cosmos Chi Kung and Dragon Strength inform the kung fu of Shaolin Wahnam; it's one of the things that enables us to "cross train" so effectively inside of our own school. Being well versed in Dragon Kung Fu, for example, enables us to also be good at the Flower Set, as we experienced at the recent Glory of Shaolin Kung Fu course. In other schools which lack this common root, or at least a close enough connection to parental Shaolin kung fu, that may not be the case, especially other schools that have to practice specific exercises for specific results (Eagle Claw kung fu practitioners who grip jars and tree bark may have strong finger gripping strength, but may not necessarily be developing force at their dan tian or legs, for example, and may not be able to transfer their Eagle Claw gripping force into palm striking force if they use Taijiquan techniques, for example; they have to almost start over because certain principles of Eagle Claw may not apply to Taijiquan and vice versa, at least as they are classically trained).

      Every school that I have been to that believed in internal force was quite firm on the idea of energy flow, not muscles or bones, being the key ingredient for internal force, a power that does not rely on tension for effectiveness. The way to developing enough internal force to be meaningful, and to utilize internal force in a manner to be effective, however, varied in each school. I'll give a summary of some of the kung fu schools in which I've trained and my experience with the sifu's there (I rarely had many classmates and often had one on one lessons with these masters because they tended to keep to themselves and not have large schools, so I was privileged to encounter them at their most open and honest, for whatever reason, be it karma, fate, or the dumb luck of having free time to meet with these masters when other people did not).

      Reverse Breathing for Taijiquan
      My first internal kung fu sifu, was a Yang style Taijiquan master who believed that stances were only good for developing correct posture, and that the only way to build and use internal force was through Reverse Breathing. His methods developed a lot of power, and his body mechanics were quite good, but there was nothing in his training that connected the practitioner to the ground with a solid, rooted stance. It was almost as though his dan tian (the source of his strength and the root of all of his movement) merely floated around a few feet above the ground and transmitted power to his palms and fingers. As a strange ending note to my learning from that sifu, he emphatically believed that "Taijiquan was useless for fighting." That about ended my learning relationship with him. There was nothing martial in the way he trained Taijiquan; it was purely a vehicle for his qigong.

      As an aside, almost ten years later, I met another practitioner of Yang style Taijiquan (he called it the "Old Yang" Taijiquan practiced by Yang Lu Chan) and he was very much able to use his Yang Taijiquan techniques for free sparring and fighting. He was quite easily able to deliver a Nail Kick up at the underside of my elbow in a manner very similar to that described in Sifu's The Complete Book of Shaolin in the discussion of strength, techniques, force, speed, and the marvelous. Our first interaction was also along the lines of, "I've heard you practice internal kung fu, very good! Go ahead and hit me as hard as you can." That's how I learnt that he had a very powerful Golden Bell.

      External Strength for Internal Kung Fu?
      An interesting contrast to him was my first Baguazhang sifu, who was a lineage holder in Yin Fu style Baguazhang as well as Cheng Gao style Baguazhang, though my main training from him was in Yin Fu style. Like my Yang Taijiquan sifu, he did not believe in stances to build internal force (on my first day, he told me that, "Stances are only good for building strong legs!"). He believed very much in the strength of correct body structure and alignment, however, and encouraged that his students engage their muscles and tendons in a way to pull the body into his school's version of correct posture in order to be able to use the body's full external strength in a relaxed manner. This is what he called the "natural" strength of the body, and he believed that energy flow and internal force was simply due to correct posture removing the "brakes" that interrupted the line of force from feet to hands, almost using the muscles and tendons like a bullwhip. The manner in which I move nowadays is heavily influenced by this sifu.

      The sifu himself had a lot of internal force (his arms were like very powerful pieces of wood, and he himself had spent many years in zhan zhuang from undergoing his own traditional training in his student days). He was quite powerful (shorter than me, but able to easily fling me about four feet up into the air), but to him, energy flow wasn't related to feats of martial power. His students were not taught zhan zhuang to build internal force; in fact, none of his students had any internal force despite having all of the tools necessary to develop it; they merely lacked the manner in which their exercises should have been trained, besides lacking clear direction of what they should have been spending their time on (too much time spent on Pushing Hands and sets, too little time spent on zhan zhuang, footwork, repeated pattern drilling, and all the other "the boring stuff").

      As a curious aside, one particular lineage of Cheng style Baguazhang which is well established in the United States stated in their literature that Sun Lu Tang's Baguazhang force training was rooted in his original Xingyiquan Santi zhan zhuang, and later his Circle Walking. In order to supplement these exercises, according to this lineage, Sun Lu Tang practiced a form of Iron Palm. The story goes that he struck his palms on some decommissioned cannons along the Beijing city walls until he could make the cannons shake, rattle, and be moved aside with every strike. Sadly, I'm all out of cannons.

      An interesting example of a so-called internal style of kung fu practiced in an external manner. I'm not too ashamed to admit that I "stole" his internal force training methods (which again, his school trained using external methods and hence only got external results) and applied the Wahnam methodology to them and got a lot of good results from them. Funny how that worked out.

      The Wudang Trinity and dividing skill
      Another master that I met and trained with only briefly was a lineage holder in a variety of systems, including the "Wudang trinity" of Baguazhang, Taijiquan, and Xingyiquan, besides a variety of other internal systems such as I-Chuan and some other martial arts styles, plus having attained a variety of specialized force and skills, such as Iron Vest as well as Golden Bell, the Silk Reeling force of Chen style Taijiquan, the Ox Tongue Palm of Yin Fu Baguazhang, and others. He was the first master who I'd met who could very competently and clearly demonstrate the results of his specific arts; he could say, "This is the ink-dotting force I learnt from my Chen Taijiquan sifu" and demonstrate just that, and a moment later say, "This is the Silk Reeling energy" and demonstrate force that felt completely different (and in line with Silk Reeling), "This is the Yin Fu Ox Tongue Palm," and so forth.

      This master had himself learnt from many different masters and found, through his own experimentation, that the underlying energy that gave him internal power was the same; it was a matter of just expressing the force in different ways. It took him some decades to reach that point, however, and he still had to spend some years on each individual training method (so many years on Silk Reeling, so many years on Iron Vest, so many ears on Ox Tongue Palm, etc.) to get the result. He is the only master I have met outside of Shaolin Wahnam that had that insight. A few people have remarked on my ability to manifest the specific results of this-or-that art (for example, manifesting specifically Golden Bridge force, Three Circle Stance force, Lifting Water force, etc.); I was inspired to practice that sort of thing because of this sifu, and because I had a lot of free time during a particular summer and was kind of bored one day. :P

      Train the way you fight?
      A little bit after that, I was invited to learn from a master of Yellow Dragon Kung Fu who was a curious fellow. He believed in "internal breathing for external kung fu." This school practiced a variety of meditation and visualization methods to build and circulate internal force, several "tension sets" in order to develop muscular strength, and then use primarily external force in their sparring and combat. They never actually directly used internal force at all other than a last-ditch attempt to have a spare power supply when their muscular endurance was completely depleted. It was very interesting seeing how their sifu had all the hallmarks of someone who possessed internal force while simply standing, talking, and walking around, but in free sparring or even training drills, it went right back to muscular tension. To be honest, I didn't spend much time in this school and I threw away pretty much everything I learnt from this sifu because some of his practices seemed high risk for little result.

      "Hnnnng! Ssssshhhh...Shhhk! Yaaaaaaah"
      Fast forward a few years from that and I learnt from a master of a particular lineage of Lam family Hung Gar. These guys were a prime example of what we might call deviated training which is prevalent throughout the Southern Shaolin community. Their main training (after zhan zhuang) to build force was Double Stability of Golden Bridge with an incredible amount of muscular tension held in the arms, back, and chest. Their belief was that by tensing the muscles in those areas, they "locked" their qi in those areas in order to develop skills such as Iron Arm, Iron Vest, and so forth. When they trained Triple Stretch of Pearl Bridge at the beginning of their sets while standing upright, they would purposefully tense their muscles to prevent energy from flowing down their legs so that more of their energy would be "locked" in their upper body. Watching them train, you would think that every member of the school had chronic constipation and hernias. Interestingly enough, a high proportion of students at this admittedly small school still developed a little internal force and sensitivity to energy flow using these methods. Granted, some times it was difficult to tell by looking at them if the tingling they were feeling at their fingers was due to energy flow or to compressed nerves. My running hypothesis was that they used tension so much that they eventually exhausted their muscles enough to let at least some energy flow through their exhausted and slackened muscles, but who knows.

      Funnily enough, at higher levels in that school, the sifu emphasized rather strongly that it was the act of being relaxed and allowing energy to flow that would lead to higher levels of internal force, and that sifu himself had amazing amounts of internal force as well as external strength. A curious case of students being trained in what we might call deviated methods, but intermediate and higher level students learning completely opposite, but "more correct" methods. I had an interesting time in that school. I also had a hilarious time bouncing people away during Three Star Hitting with "just" the force developed from my Baguazhang training. It was one of the most solid confirmations for me that even soft, flowing internal force can be more solid and powerful than muscular strength that has been trained for a similar period of time, or more. Not exactly at the level of Sifu's One Finger Shooting Zen force bouncing away an Iron Arm master, but something on a smaller, Fred-sized scale.

      Regardless, remember your girdle
      I've only had a very bare exposure to a so-called "purely external" style, namely a brief foray into the Northern Shaolin of Gu Ruzhang as seen through the eyes of masters Wing Lam and Yang Jwing-ming. Masters Wing Lam and Yang Jwing-ming have very firm divisions between their internal and external styles; you can see it everywhere, from the "divisions" of their bookstore ("External Shaolin! Internal Wudang!"), the curricula and syllabi of their schools on their websites and online stores, and even their personal comments about their styles (one interview by master Yang Jwing-ming had him mention that, starting from about the age of 55 or so, he felt like he could not properly perform Long Fist anymore because of how demanding it was, so he was spending more time on his Taijiquan instead, for example). In fact, my first Taijiquan sifu, who I remarked upon above, was a student of master Yang Jwing-ming back in the 1980's when master Yang was attending my own undergraduate institution to pursue his Ph.D. in engineering (that is where master Yang's doctorate title comes from).

      The manner in which Gu Ruzhang's Northern Shaolin is trained through these two lineages is very much an external art. Commentary such as having very deep stances, zhan zhuang as an endurance exercise, tightening the leg muscles to enhance the solidity of one's stance, whipping the hips in order to explode force, it's very definitively external training. In fact, both of these masters, in their earlier books, recommended that practitioners wear sashes or girdles to support the abdomen while training their version of fajing; otherwise, there was a risk of their own force inadvertently "vibrating" and damaging internal organs during fajing.

      Internal force in these schools was either an accidental develop of "external training becoming internal over time" with no systematic rhyme or reason, or with specific exercises after becoming an indoor disciple (such as a Golden Bell force training set said to be passed down from Gu Ruzhang). Some students will "cross train" on their own (for example, taking a Taijiquan class to learn Reverse Breathing to build internal power that they then try to use in their "external" kung fu sets), but that is not exactly "company policy" because those schools believe that "external kung fu uses this engine and this fuel for power, and internal kung fu uses that other engine and that other fuel for power." Harsh divisions there.

      The End of rambling, for now
      Anyhow, that's my experience with a variety of kung fu schools. I'll have to leave my experience with non kung fu schools for another time. I must say that despite having thrown away the vast majority of what I've learnt from other schools, I did get several critical insights from them that contributed greatly to my skills and knowledge. That said, there's a reason I stick to Shaolin Wahnam (and why probably 90% of my internet browsing history is to, this forum, and the Shaolin Wahnam Vimeo page). Time to let someone else talk now.
      I like making silly videos (including kung fu ones!) every so often on YouTube and taking pictures of weird things on Instagram.


      • #4
        Thanks for rambling both. :-) I do appreciate the effort it takes to write such a long and thoughtful post.

        Since it would take me too long to type during workdays (plus i contemplate for too long sometimes), and with several threads of thoughts running, i'll just pick one that jumps out at me more:

        Originally posted by Frederick_Chu
        On a side note, if anyone has any questions about dealing with the curious nature of the "wulin" (the martial arts community) and safely interacting with practitioners of other schools, I can talk about that another time.
        Could you talk more about it? Would love to hear more on your experiences.
        Especially the safely interacting part lol. It would be nice to make friends with them and spar more often :-)