We start from the outside and move within when we begin practicing any of the internal martial arts. We learn angles, stepping, and weight shifting. After we have these basics, we learn what tiger’s mouth is in our hand and arm structure as well as the bubbling spring and alignment of our weight. Over time these things become more natural leaving us to experience what’s happening when we have proper alignment and skeletal structure. These externals allow us how the movement feels inside. With guidance the internal feelings are expanded and verified via feedback from the groups we practice with or an instructor. This tuning into the internals is where the internal martial art begins.
With this said, I must share a cautionary note. There are many people who have an innate ability to feel things more than others. Often these are the folks drawn to the internal martial arts in the first place. Within the beginning class, they share how they can feel the movement inside. The caution is this, that feeling is ephemeral and changes as the fundamentals of the form have not taken root. It is extremely important to ground ourselves in the fundamentals of our arts before we start exploring the internal “feels.”
The angles, stepping and weight shifting come first. The mechanics of the form is critical. With the foundation in place, we can then place the girders of bubbling springs and tiger’s mouth. we can then start erecting the walls and ceilings of turning, extension, contraction and lateral movement of the spine after we have the skeletal structure in place on top of our foundation. This external home is where we can then start exploring the internal nature of our forms. This process can take anywhere between 7 and 20 years depending on the individual and some don’t ever get there. Being in a class for a couple of months and feeling internals is like walking through a model home. It’s not until you put forth the resources including time and energy in building the home can one start to live there.
It’s of utmost importance to revisit the foundations If we lessen our practice for whatever reason life brings us. When new instruction comes our way it is up to us to understand how it fits into our home and if it’s appropriate to integrate where ever we may be in our development. Hopefully our guidance and new instructions come from individuals who have a deep understanding of our form and its many different applications.
I once had the chance to work with Master Moy and Dr. Elliot Kravitz who watched an individual perform some Dan-yus for roughly ten minutes in front of a group of instructors. Elliot asked the group what instructions we would give. There were various answers. After feedback was collected, Elliot said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” He went on to say the person was moving appropriately and not damaging anything. Sometimes we simply need to practice a while before we move on to other levels in our forms.
I had a most excellent conversation with a fellow martial artist about balancing our internal and external work. For the last two years, he’s been focused on his job, rebuilding his house after the floods, and dealing with his mother passing away. As he described his focus and use of energy over the last couple years, I got the distinct sense he was putting his life in order externally but not internally. I shared this with him and he agreed. He has practiced both internal and external martial arts and has a good grasp on the intent of both approaches to development.
From a pure practicality perspective, there is no internal or external martial art. We practice both whether we are aware of it or not. We develop in both manners whether we are aware of it or not. Our school or practice may focus on one or the other which helps us understand a cohesive system of development. Of course, maintaining a sole focus on one or the other while exploring the minute details can lead us of the path of balanced development into the proverbial ditch. We can become lost in the nuances and forget the overarching goal. In doing so, we can become obsessed with beating people up and winning in the external forms. We can become lost in letting go of our ego and killing off the external world in our practice of the internal forms. We can lose ourselves in the practice of martial arts, religion and for that matter our careers.
Balance is the key. We have to have compassion for ourselves while developing it for others. We have to not lose site of our own objectives while pursing the objectives of our particular practice. As stated in a Biz of You post from 10Sep15, life is a choice and it’s our responsibility to manage ourselves. The same holds true in our practice of martial arts. External and internal paths are balanced whether we focus on one or the other. Our particular focus is unique to us and it’s up to us to find a school or practice meeting the needs of our personal development.
Master Moy used to say, “Trust the form.” The form is more than the movements, it is a tool we can use to learn without being told what to learn (reference the page: The Form). Trust is composed of character and competence. Our character is made up of our integrity and our intent whereas competence is comprised of our capability and results. Thus to trust the form is to apply our care and openness to honestly practice day after while being truthful in our observations of our posture and movements. It is continually expanding our knowledge, skills and experience while establishing our credibility through not only maintaining but achieving increased levels of health.
Trusting the form does not require external guidance. Rather it requires humility in the recognition of what our capabilities truly are. It requires us to keep our practice simple and aligned with the basic principles of the forms. And, it requires compassion for ourselves so we may find the connections within our own movements. Certainly, feedback from an any instructor can help us along our path, but it is ultimately up to us to find our own direction, internal feedback and align that with the principle of continuous improvement based on factual decisions regarding our physiology and physics.
The bubbling spring is an area on the soles of our feet that connects us with the earth. For my own practice of the Taoist Arts, connecting with the bubbling spring has become a major indicator of whether I’m moving in an integrated manner or not. This is true in our foundation exercises, Tai Chi, Lok Hup, or Hsing-I forms. It is also true when I’m walking around at home or at work.
There are specific sensations when our movements are properly integrated and connected with the bubbling spring points on the soles of our feet. We will feel the weight evenly distributed when we are standing. We will feel the tendons of the foot gently stretched. When we are walking or moving in the forms, we will feel the weight glide throughout the foot depending on our stepping motion. The foot will feel like we are rolling through all of its structures when we walk or do weight shifting movements.
Most of the time we are unaware of this sensations. Here is the key. If we can direct our attention to the bubbling springs as we move, our movements will be more integrated. Out directed attention allows us to connect our movements with our intention which we will talk about later.