I have often been told and read that "real" martial artists think that training to make their forms and postures look aesthetically appealing is a waste of time that could be better spent doing more conditioning exercises or practising combative methods. Conversely, those who prefer the more genteel approach tend to argue that the movements should be beautiful, graceful, and that relaxation, sensitivity and a calm mind are ultimately more important than strength and athletic ability. Finally, those who choose to compete tend to argue that physical prowess and flexibility are at least as important as anything else. Who is correct?
I don't think that there is a simple answer, and an investigation of this issue should start with the concept of expressing the Three Harmonies, also called the Three Co-ordinations, in your movement and postures when doing any internal art. Possession of this quality has two complimentary aspects: the Internal Harmonies refer to the Xin (heart/desire for action) being in accord with the Yi (intent/the will to act), and, in turn, the Yi harmonising with the Qi (internal energy) which transmits that intent, which then harmonises with the Li (power/the actual physical expression of the posture).
The Three External Harmonies are the co-ordinated expression of the Yi in that the hands are co-ordinating with the feet, the elbows with the knees, and the shoulders with the hips. In other words, if you pay attention to each movement and posture of the forms or techniques you are practising, you are co-ordinating the internal with the external, and this is the key aim in any internal training.
To put it more simply, the Three Internal Harmonies are about having a clear purpose in each aspect of your practice and of being truly attentive. The experts would argue that if you have been taught well and are trying to practise well, you will have a constant expression of the Three Harmonies, no matter what the main focus (combative, spiritual, competitive) is in your training. If this happens, the movement of your body and spirit will be attractive from a visual perspective to the casual and the trained observer because you will be harmonious.
Strangely enough, this is also the foundation for effective fighting as you can't defend yourself against a committed and skilful attacker unless your body is balanced, smooth, and harmonious, as well as motivated by a unified spirit and intent. I know, this is a difficult concept to get as common sense might argue that theatrical gymnastics and expansive movements are better suited to competition routines than fighting. And real combative skills have to be harsh and simple to be effective.
To compound the issue, the types of physical skills necessary to do Chinese Opera or compete in a kung-fu/taiji tournament in forms are the foundation of combative training (i.e., you have to be strong, healthy, and co-ordinated to defend yourself). And even the simplest and harshest combative action can be done so well so that it appears magically easy.
However, it is important to remember that such skill does not come automatically just because you can express the Three Harmonies through your solo practice! You cannot learn interactive fighting/pushing skills without practising such methods with a variety of partners under competent supervision. It is also true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you may, perhaps, have to be male to appreciate the beauty in combat between skilled opponents.
There is also the issue of symmetry that relates both to the beauty and martial function. Bagua normally takes the approach that it is essential to practise the forms in a symmetrical manner, as it lessens the chance of overworking and stressing one side of the body. So, each change in the Circular Form and every fighting method will be practised on both sides of the body.
However, as to martial function, it makes more sense, especially in terms of making the most of your practice sessions, to focus on using your dominate side. Human beings, with few exceptions, cannot learn to be equally ambidextrous, and it seems like a waste of time to try to do so. Of course, this does not mean that you ignore your left side if you are right-handed, and vice versa. It only means that you focus on the whole body usage that makes the most of your strong side. Any posture/method from bagua will work against a variety of attacks on the open and the closed sides—if you understand it well enough. Symmetry also implies that quite often both hands and arms will finish holding the same posture even though only one was being used actively at the end of the application. Strangely enough, not only does the posture look wrong to the practised observer if there is not such symmetry, but the application itself will suffer. Don't take my word for it—experiment for yourself.
Anyone, whether beginner or expert, can appreciate the inherent quality of movement and presence when a master does form the way it should always look (and so rarely does). I was telling a colleague of mine recently that the highlights of my three decades of martial arts training have been seeing the occasional example of outstanding skills done by masters like Erle Montaigue, Sam Masich, Tim Cartmell, and others. These inspirational demonstrations of the Three Harmonies in action have periodically reminded me of why I am still doing this marvellous nonsense after so many years of training and teaching.
However, there is no need for us to feel inferior because we cannot necessarily reach such heights, as each of us can strive to demonstrate, each according to his or her ability and interest, that same expression of the Three Harmonies in our own daily practice.
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