Last Saturday my husband and I attended a taiji seminar
in Durham with experienced taiji instructor Joe Harte, whom I met and become
acquainted with through my activities with the annual Marfest event last year.
We like to talk about internal and external arts and generally
find our own art categorised into one of these groups without fully
appreciating why or what it really means. I’m well aware that karate is
categorised as an external art yet in karate we talk about (a lot) and practice
(to a lesser extent) breath control, mind-body-spirit unity, altered mind
states such as mushin (empty mind) and zanshin (aware mind). On the surface
these seem like ‘internal’ elements yet karate remains doggedly an external
art! Why? And what, therefore, is an internal art?
These were questions I wanted to answer. Joe had
intrigued me with something he said last year along the lines of “…Master Huang
changed this form so that on the outside it looked exactly the same but on the
inside felt very different….” How can something be changed to look the same on
the outside but be very different in the way it feels?
I knew the only way I was going to gain any insight
into what an internal art really is was to go and experience it for myself. Having
fortuitously met Joe I now had the means and opportunity to do this so I booked
us onto the seminar….
Joe had warned me to dress up warm – several layers,
hat, gloves, scarf etc, and wear flat shoes. “You won’t get sweaty in a taiji
class,” he warned nor could he guarantee the heating would be on. Like many
people I had a mental image of doing forms in a slow, relaxed way. I knew that
more than that must be going on but wasn't quite sure what.
We arrived a bit late due to the adverse weather
conditions- the heavens had decided to drop another 3 inches of snow all over
Britain on Friday night meaning there had been very little time for the
gritters and snow ploughs to get the roads clear. The class was already doing
some gentle warm up exercises so we just quietly got ready and joined in at the
The general etiquette and atmosphere in the class was
much more relaxed and informal than in a karate class – no waiting to catch
sensei’s eye to bow you onto the training area or giving you punishment
press-ups because you are late! In fact, no bowing (or press-ups) at all.
After the warm up exercises Joe explained that we were
going to do Master Huang’s 5 loosening exercises. My interpretation was that these
exercises are partly designed to help you relax your body and muscles properly
and partly to start you on the path to discovering your ‘deep mind’. Joe talked
us through these exercises instructing us on the external movements required
and how we were supposed to be thinking and feeling on the inside, teaching us
how to listen to our internal senses rather than just relying on our external
We are all familiar with our external senses – sight,
hearing, touch, smell and taste but not very familiar at all with our internal
ones, which were defined as temperature, pressure, pain, muscle state and joint
position. The idea seems to be to try and connect with the part of the
unconscious mind that generally controls these senses automatically – the deep
mind or Joe sometimes referred to it as the ‘body’s mind’. So as we went
through the loosening exercises we were encouraged to think about the pressure
experienced on our feet as our weight shifted about or about whether certain
muscles were in a state of contraction or relaxation.
To aid our understanding we broke off to do a partner
exercise in which one partner took the weight of the others outstretched arm
(stretched out horizontally to the side). You then had to gently lift your arm
a fraction from the partners hold by first contracting the shoulder muscle,
then the upper arm muscles to lift the elbow and finally the lower arm muscles
to lift the wrist and hand. Then you had to relax the muscles in the same order
– shoulder, upper arm then lower arm, resting your arm back onto the partners
hold. If you had managed to completely relax the arm it should feel heavy to
the person holding it and if they withdrew their hold then your arm should drop
under its own weight. When I held my partner’s arm in a relaxed state it felt
like a bar of lead. When he held mine and gently withdrew his hold my arm stubbornly
remained in a horizontal position even though I thought I was relaxing it. I'm clearly not in communication with this internal sense!
Joe said it takes years of training to even begin to
get in touch with deep mind and exert some control over it so I shouldn't be
too surprised I couldn't’ do it.
Joe then introduced us to the idea of the ‘vertical
circle’, which is an important concept in taiji. This idea refers to subtle lifting
and sinking of the body as you cycle through a movement. We first met the concept
during one of the loosening exercises and then again when we were doing one of
the forms and then again during a push-hands exercise. Experiencing the
vertical circle seem to involve standing in a fairly relaxed posture with one
foot forward and the weight mainly on the back foot. You then imagined your
mind moving upwards and forwards in an arc resulting in a gentle shifting of
your weight slightly upwards and onto your front foot. You then moved your mind
down below the ground bringing more weight to bear on the front leg. Your mind
then comes up again (still following the arc of the circle), shifting your
weight to your back foot again. It was important to ensure you were ‘opening
your lower back’ to straighten the spine (like in sanchin dache), open up the
hips and drop the shoulder. Your mind then returned to your head bringing you
back to a more neutral stance to complete the circle. I may have got the
details of that a little wrong but that was the gist of it.
This vertical circle seemed a very important technique
to help train the deep mind and to generate internal power. We did another exercise
with a partner in which one partner just stood sideways on to the other with
their arms folded across their chest. The other partner then touched them on
their arm (from the side) with both hands (as if to push) and went through the
movements of the vertical circle before releasing the energy as a push. I seem
to remember the mantra for this being: touch, connect, merge and follow. The ‘pushing
arms’ stay relaxed and the power comes more from the body so that the ‘pushed’
person is not shoved by the use of bicep power. Using the core muscles in this
way should result in a stronger push. Being a karateka I found it hard not to
shove even though I know that’s not the best way to move a heavy object, even
in karate. In fact, this exercise reminded me of the wave form pushing exercise
we do in karate - I’m not brilliant at that either!
We spent a short time on a pushing-hands technique,
designed to increase your sensitivity to your partner’s movements but much of
the rest of the seminar was spent focussing on forms, a short form in the
morning and a fast ‘quick fist’ form in the afternoon. Taiji forms differ immensely
from karate kata in being much longer and more fluid. I found them very
complicated to follow and won’t even pretend that I remember any part of them!
Taiji is not physically demanding in the way karate is
but my word is it mentally demanding. This searching within yourself to find
your deep mind is difficult but fascinating and ultimately deeply relaxing. I’m
starting to understand what is meant by ‘internal’ arts now and it is quite
different to what I expected.
I can see why karate is definitely an external art. Even
the journey to self-improvement of the budoka involves only really improving
the ‘superficial’ or conscious mind through the development of character and
your relationship with the outside world. The internal arts follow a much more
inward journey which requires you to learn to put aside your superficial mind
in order to find your deep mind. It seems that the external and internal
martial artists are on very different paths – probably ones that cannot merge
very easily, if at all.
If you want to find out more about the style of taiji
that I experienced then follow these links: