When you hear that Tai Chi is an internal art, what does that mean? More than twenty years after my first Tai Chi lesson, I had still
not heard a satisfactory explanation from any of the teachers with whom I studied. In the end I
had to forge my own understanding from a wide body of teachings.
Sometimes internal arts are explained by contrasting to external arts like karate, tae kwon do, or "kung fu" (a misnomer for Chinese
martial arts, which are best referred to as kuo shu). This comparison serves as a form of differentiation but satisfies no one, especially
since internal martial arts like bagua and hsing-i have aspects that seem very external, not to mention vicious. Let me help.
You're not likely to hear about it in beginner classes, but Tai Chi movement initiates internally. Properly practiced, after years of training,
all external physical actions result from internal cultivation of the three treasures - qi, jing, and shen (roughly translated as mind, body and
spirit). The circling, spiraling movements of Tai Chi and kuo shu start with spiraling of internal energy, which manifests physically
in the movements you see with your eyes. The more important movements, the internal actions, you cannot see with your eyes; no demonstration
can make them obvious. The more accomplished the practitioner, the less that shows. Large circles become small circles, which become points.
Only your own practice, and the experience of your own internal spiraling energy, can make this apparent to you.
What does it mean to initiate internally? It means that all actions start from within. Think of a sphere in your belly, your tan tien. When it
rotates forward over the top, you may move forward; backward, you may move backward. When it rotates from side to side, as if a planar
circle perpendicular to the ground, it moves you to the left or to the right. When it rotates side to side over the top, perpendicular to the
other directions, it may facilitate aerial acrobatics.
In all cases your internal energy reaches out from the tan tien to the extremities through the middle. This is not a virtue that can be
created through muscular effort. In fact, much of the work is cultivated through static meditation, either standing or sitting. You build
your internal energy by directing it with your mind through various meridians or channels, usually in circular orbits. Tai chi uses all of these
methods, including the ability to orbit while moving, but it goes beyond them until internal energy infuses your entire body, regardless of path.
For more information on this subject I recommend three books, all of which you can find on my Books page:
The Five Levels of Taijiquan, by Chen Xiaowang;
Taijiquan Theory by Dr. Yang Jwing-ming; and
The Dao of Taijiquan, by Jou Tsung Hwa.