An Introduction to Internal Martial Arts
Internal martial arts, also known as 'soft' martial arts, or Nei Kung in Chinese are those which concentrate on cultivating and using the power of the internal energy called 'chi' rather than the conventional muscular power of so called external or hard styles.
The most widely known Nei Kung system in the west is Tai Chi, but other examples include Bagua Zhang, Xing Yi Quan, Dacheng Quan and Liuhe Bafa Quan. In addition to this most styles of Chinese kung fu have some kind of internal element, even though they are primarily external. An example of a kung fu style with a particularly strong internal aspect is Shaolin White Crane style kung fu.
Some people would tell you that all Chinese combat styles and schools are both internal and external. According to this view internal styles like Tai Chi begin with studying and cultivating chi and then move on to manifesting this as external muscular strength at the advanced levels, whereas external kung fu systems like Wing Chun kung fu begin by learning the external physical forms and using them with external muscular power, and then move on to learning about chi at the advanced level. In the end they would both find a balance of internal and external.
The whole concept of chi can be difficult to understand, but when you practice internal martial arts you gain an awareness of chi through experiencing it, rather than through an intellectual understanding. Basically chi is described as the vital life force, somewhat like the Prana of Indian yoga. Some modern practitioners describe chi as being a magnetic phenomenon, similar to the descriptions of the 'astral light' of the soul given by western esoteric philosophers like Mesmer and Levi.
Internal martial arts are built upon the foundation of chi kung (or qi gong), which can trace its origins back to the early history of the Shaolin temple and the teachings of the Boddhidharma. Chi Kung is composed of a set of exercises designed to teach you to cultivate and direct chi energy, and to use it to strengthen the body, improve health and increase vitality, heal illnesses, and extremely to attain enlightenment. Chi kung is used to completely rebuild the body, and the most well known traditional text is the Sinew Metamorphosis and Bone Marrow Washing Classic.
Internal martial arts combine chi kung with martial arts forms. Because of this internal martial arts can be used for both self-defense and for improving health and vitality, healing diseases, and so on. Both chi kung and inner martial arts are approached as a dynamic, moving form of meditation.
The main difference that a practitioner would notice between the forms and practices in an internal martial arts class and those of an external system of fighting would be that internal martial arts emphasize the need to keep the body relaxed and 'soft' and to make the movements flowing and harmonious. A relaxed body allows the chi to flow through the limbs. Nei Kung schools also emphasize the control of the breathing, and the coordination of breath and movement so that the whole of the body and its functions are working in harmony and you are there before able to draw on a greater amount of effortless power for your techniques.
Nei Kung arts also incorporate aspects of traditional Chinese medicine and other Chinese philosophies such as Taoism. Xing Yi Quan, for example, makes great use of the five elements theory, whereas Bagua Zhang emphasizes the eight trigrams of the I Ching philosophy. To truly master an internal martial art you must be a philosopher as well as a fighter, and should cultivate you mind and your moral strength as well as your physical strength and skill.