Internal martial arts

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Wudang or Shaolin?

People commonly separate Chinese martial arts into the classifications: 'Wudang' or 'Shaolin'. These names supposedly indicate the origin of the martial arts styles and whether they are internal or external.
This form of distinction is seriously flawed e.g. not all internal systems come the Wudang Mountain range in Hubei, China. Tai chi does. Bagua comes from Mount Emei.
Similarly, how many 'external' kung fu styles come from the Shaolin Buddhist Monastery in Henan Province, China? Nobody knows for sure. Wudang and Shaolin are inaccurate generalisms.


The majority of martial arts are 'external':

  1. Aggression

  2. Locked joints

  3. Force against force

  4. Over-contracted muscles

  5. Using the arms independently of the body

  6. Macho attitude

  7. Locks and holds

  8. Striking a balanced, centred body

An external martial art takes the student's existing habits of physical usage and re-shapes the students to suit that particular system. Aggression, tension and machismo are encouraged, not quashed.

Everyone starts externally

New starters in a tai chi class employ external habits. This is all the student is capable of doing. As with any martial art, a great deal of time, effort and practice is necessary in order to shed the old.
External habits are of no use in a tai chi class. They represent a major impediment to progress. Unlearning is necessary. The student must train the body to do things differently.
'Internal' principles of body use are introduced, explained and explored from the very first lesson, but these will take some time to become habit.


Certain styles of fighting are referred to as being 'internal'. Internal martial arts employs insights and principles from the ancient Chinese wisdom of Taoism for fitness and combat.
These arts are very sophisticated and intelligent; relying on subtlety, sensitivity and speed, rather than brute force and aggression. And they can be trained for a lifetime...

To eradicate any erroneous ideas you may have, let us compare both the internal and external types of martial arts.
If we examine the substance and function of the two types, we will see that there is a great deal of difference between them. 

(Robert W Smith)

makes a martial art internal?

Exploring the internal martial arts is not the same as practicing a mainstream/conventional/external martial art.
There are many different considerations:

Conventional martial arts   Internal martial arts
Obvious   Hidden
Confucian, Buddhist    Taoist
Moral code   Principle e.g. yin/yang, change
Hard, brittle, bracing   Soft, fluid, loose
Combat is the main concern   Health and combat equally important
Straightforward   Significantly more detailed and sophisticated
Favour military-style warm-up exercise   Strength is built using unconventional means
Hard on the body   Gentler with the body
Uses existing body habits   Body must be trained to move in a 'natural' manner
Mechanical   Organic, natural
Jerky   Smooth
Typically focuses on striking or grappling, seldom both   Striking and grappling trained together
Force versus force   4 ounces of pressure, stickiness, sensitivity
Favours the younger, stronger student   Age is less of an obstacle
Fighting/competition   Incapacitation is the aim
Aggression/emotion   Composure
Forcing   Allowing, leading, misdirecting
Speed   Spontaneity and timing
Isolated limb use   Whole-body movement
Extended   Close-quarters
Linear   Circular
Planning   Listening, sensitivity, adaptation
Struggling   Flowing
Blocking   Blending
Being in your head thinking about what to do next   Being in the body and sensation-oriented
Denying your vulnerability   Feeling your vulnerability
Contracted, locked musculature   Loose, fluid and relaxed musculature

Works the joints

  Works tendons, ligaments, fascia and muscles

Waits to be told the answer

  Figures things out

Looks outside for answers

  Figures things out

Is it really internal?

Studying tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing) does not make a student an 'internal' martial artist. It all depends on how you train the art.
It is possible (and common) to perform the martial art 'externally'. Also, most tai chi classes are 'tai chi for health' and therefore not an internal martial arts class at all.


A common misconception is that any martial art offers the opportunity to reach an 'internal' level of practice i.e. a karate man can become internal. This is not true.
Internal forms are quite different to external ones. They were designed to be a vehicle for the exploration of a very unique way of moving and using the body.
Movement is initiated by the centre (not by the hips) and entails moving every part of the body as one fluid unit. The joints do very little work.

Different mind

The combat skills and sensibilities of the internal martial arts require a perceptual shift: blending, yielding, listening, stickiness. There is no blocking, struggling or forcing involved.

Eight internal styles

There are only eight known styles of internal martial art:

Tai chi chuan (dynamic balancing boxing)
Baguazhang (8 trigrams palm)
Xingyiquan (form/intention fist)
Liuhebafa (water fist)
Tongbeiquan (spreading power from the back fist)
Ziranmen (natural fist)
Bajiquan (eight extremities fist)
Yiquan (mind fist)/dachengquan (the great accomplishment)

We teach tai chi chuan. We no longer offer baguazhang.

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Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 04 January 2024