Internal Force

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Internal Force is a difficult force to describe, much less acquire, and is rare even in the Orient. Many instructors say or imply that their practice has this quality, but fewer have actually advanced that far. The master practitioner who has developed such skill is able to blend his or her movements with an attacker's strikes and movements so well as to almost seem to disappear momentarily. In addition, he or she can counter-attack with such speed and precision that it is almost impossible for a bystander to perceive. Such a person spontaneously uses body mechanics so well that it seems effortless in comparison to the frenzied speed and muscle of the attacker.

Such practitioners are few and far between in real life. For example, of the many internal experts that I have met in the last decade, only a few are outstanding role models of what it means to internalise one's martial practice. I am sure that there are others out there, outside of my limited experience, but unfortunately the real experts of this calibre are rare.

There are key variables to look for when identifying an instructor or practitioner, who is developing real internal quality to their force.

• He is at least middle-aged and has a great deal of martial and life experience. Beware of 35 year-old Grand Masters, as they are sometimes described on web sites and in American martial arts magazines.

• He is shaped rather like a tree trunk in the sense of not being top-heavy in muscle development. Neither is he built like a weightlifter, nor is he seriously overweight.

• He feels rubbery or springy when you touch him. When moving, he seems boneless like a snake or a cat.

• He seems to stand as still as a mountain, explodes without warning, can change from one state to another with a spontaneity that is both breathtaking and frightening.

• He is usually equally expressive in both solo form and combat skills, and practises at least one of the healing aspects of the internal arts—acupressure, qigong, herbal therapy, massage, etc.

With the exception of No Force, each of the previous categories have some martial value. They often form a natural progression of development for the maturing internal arts practitioner. Many start up the ladder, but get stuck on a particular rung. Aside from having competent instruction at key points along this "ladder of life," the ingredients to a successful climb are patience, perseverance and the ability to admit that you don't know it all and never will, no matter how skilful you become.

As I said before, there is more to bagua and to life than learning how to fight, and there is nothing wrong with confining your study of the martial side of the art to the basic martial exercises. However, please don't assume that competence in these will somehow automatically bring self-defence skills or the ability to generate Internal Force. Done properly, such core exercises teach relaxation under pressure, as well as timing.

However, a strong committed attack of any kind will likely easily penetrate the skills of an average practitioner if he or she is overly defensive and yields passively to someone who doesn't obey the rules. Stiffness combined with lack of commitment is relatively easy to deal with if you can relax even marginally more than your opponent. However, stiffness combined with rage or skill is a different proposition, and one not usually encountered in a classroom setting.

In addition, very few instructors attempt to apply the principles of their art to semi-realistic fighting situations by having their students train, at least some of the time, against vigorous or spontaneous attacks by students who are not being overly cooperative in how they attack. In a fight success comes to those who blend offensive and defensive tactics, and don't just hope to stumble upon a suitable tactic by being totally on the defensive.

The first one or two effective techniques usually decide who is the victim and who is the victor; and, unlike the movies, where fights go on for what seems like hours, real violence tends to start and be over almost before you can analyse what is happening. Kicks are rarely used unless as an element of surprise or to finish someone who has been knocked down.

If you are not used to such events, both psychologically and in terms of being hit, the first contact may injure or shock you enough to leave you open to subsequent blows. Similarly, no one, regardless of their skill level, knows how he or she will react until they are faced with real danger the first time as opposed to sparring with an opponent in a friendly competition or with a fellow student in the safety of training environment.

As part of what the Chinese rather delightfully call "wild history," most students have read or been told stories about the old master who passively allows himself to be beaten by a gang of laughing ruffians. When they leave, he gets up as if nothing had happened, while over the following days the ruffians are all incapacitated by injuries caused by the beating they thought they were giving their victim.

Having had the experience of striking a modern-day expert or two with stiff force when I was a relative beginner, only to have it rebound painfully into my limbs or push me over, I will admit that there may well be something in such old tales. However, most of us are not capable of such marvellous demonstrations of passive resistance.

It is easy to get carried away with a feeling of spiritual or tactical superiority when doing an internal martial art like bagua, when you only ever practise in the safety of your school with people who don't have much relevant martial experience, or who are not trying to hurt you or make you look bad. Sadly, the good guys don't always win in real life, and moral superiority is small consolation for a beating that leaves you or a loved one emotionally or physically maimed.

If you want to maximise your self-defence potential, you have to practise accordingly. In combat, relaxation means not panicing if struck or suddenly forced to fight, being able to work in close contact with the attacker without being immediately grappled or thrown, which implies staying physically balanced and using effective tactics immediately. Remember the advice of a Confederate General from the American Civil War days when asked what his strategy was in battle: "Git thar first, with the most."

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