“Martial arts” is a very broad category, with various aims—some incompatible with each other! Sport martial arts operate under specific rules, and offer excellent recreation and exercise for the reasonably fit. Self-defense is a claim often made, but there is a lot of hype around this; in my opinion, the only appropriate training in this arena involves training intuition and situational awareness, emotional resilience, verbal defusing, escape, and improvised weapons. Military martial arts have no rules and aim to kill or maim. My own interest is in what martial arts offer in terms of skills for feeling and functioning better in everyday life.
In my experience the “internal” martial arts offer the most profound and sophisticated training relevant to this aim. The best known of these include the Chinese arts of Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, Yiquan, and Liou He Ba Fa; Aikido from Japan; and Systema from Russia. The word “internal” in this context means these arts do not just rely on ordinary strength, fitness, and speed, but on subtler “internal” factors like sensitivity, breath awareness, and the use of intention and imagery.
What is special to me about these arts is not the specific movements and martial techniques, but the way they are done. Taijiquan, for instance, is NOT a long sequence of precise motions, but a WAY of moving or acting (and, in its martial aspect, a way of sensing and responding to an aggressor). Qigong teaches these same principles separately from martial application; although what tends to get lost there is the relational aspect, how to relate to someone else using these principles.
So what is this “way of moving”? In the Chinese internal arts it is formulated in terms of using intention(“I”) to direct the “energy” (“qi” (chi)) to move the body (“li”). This is of course problematic from the point of view of the biosciences, which have proven that there is no such thing as “life energy” (Qi), and therefore tend to regard traditional Chinese theory as fantasy. But with the recent increased interest in the neuroscience of interoception, it is easy to translate traditional Chinese theory. As one of my internal martial arts teachers, Peter Ralston, told me:”I don’t believe in Qi. I believe in feeling!” In other words, the traditional Chinese description is phenomenological, a description of one’s interoceptive experience rather than a description of biological mechanisms. The use of I, Qi and Li involve appropriate functioning of certain regions of the brain—roughly speaking, prefrontal, premotor, and motor cortex—and not mysterious quasi-physical energies.
This translation of traditional Chinese theory into neuroscience is not reductive. It simply says that traditional Chinese theory is coherent with modern neuroscience. It seems clear to me that Qigong and the internal martial arts have profound practical insights into effective use of body and mind, for skilled activity, harmonious relationships, and well-being. Unfortunately the previously mentioned difficulties in translation, as well as the traditional Chinese reticence in sharing these ‘secrets’ openly, mean that these profound insights are not widely understood or taught.
This difficulty was recognized by Wang, Xiang-Zhai, one of the greatest Chinese martial arts masters of the early 20th century. He created Yiquan (“Intention Fist”) in an attempt to simplify and make accessible these insights. This training is centered around “Standing like a Tree” (Zhan Zhuang), an apparently simple practice which many great martial artists have credited as the secret to their extraordinary accomplishments. It also makes much use of imagined movement (zhi li, or “testing strength”, also termed “moving without moving”). In the West, medical science and sport science have proven the effectiveness of this kind of practice, and many Western Somatic practices use variants (e.g. Ideokinesis, the Franklin Method, the Alexander Technique, Awareness Through Movement).
Wang Xiang-Zhai said:
“A small movement is better than a large movement;
no movement is better than a small movement.
Stillness is the mother of all movement.”
This apparently mysterious quotation is a compressed description of a specific form of practice.
In the Chinese tradition, the use of interoception and interoceptive imaging of this sort is inseparable from methods aiming at health and positive states of mind. Western psychology has only recently begun to touch on these areas, and in my opinion the traditional Chinese methods offer a vast and largely untapped resource of experience, practice and theory, the exploration of which could hugely accelerate the development of psychology and psychophysiology.
Current neuroscience acknowledges the importance of interoception, posture and movement for physical and psychological health, but has barely begun* to explore the structure of interoception. In other words, what kinds of inner experience are associated with optimized functioning, and what influence does voluntary interoceptive imaging have? Here are some examples of interoceptive experiences seen in the traditional Chinese arts as having critical roles in physical and psychological health:
Correct relation to gravity, through awareness of the line of gravity (or more accurately, the acceleration vector) as the center-line of the body;
Awareness of the center of gravity on the front of the lower lumbar vertebrae;
Awareness of the heart center at the level of the 6th thoracic vertebra;
Awareness of the center of the head at the meeting of the three axes of rotation of the skull;
Spatial kinesthetic awareness of the space below the ground, above the head, and outside the body;
Internal sensing of momentum transfer from ground contact through the bones and fascia (termed “sinews” in Chinese translations).
Again, I want to emphasize that these are seen as essential to optimal emotional and cognitive function, as well as physical; and also, that these apply to the very simplest of activities, including ordinary standing, sitting, and walking, as well as pushing, pulling and lifting. It is not necessary (although it is very enjoyable!) to master feats of acrobatics, balance, and skilled performance, in order to develop optimal everyday functioning; and, these internal principles facilitate the acquisition of these advanced skills.
In my system of Bodymind Training, I have made learning these profound principles as easy as I can, with a minimum of extraneous things to learn—just the meat, no padding!
- But see the ground-breaking research by Amit Abraham into the use of the Franklin Method of interoceptive imaging with Parkinson’s patients; Abraham, A., et al. (2018). “Dynamic Neuro-Cognitive Imagery Improves Mental Imagery Ability, Disease Severity, and Motor and Cognitive Functions in People with Parkinson’s Disease.” Neural plasticity 2018.