Author: Bret Gordon
The deeper I go in my study of Aiki Jujutsu and internal power, the more styles of internal arts I've encountered. Lately, I seem to have gotten myself immersed in the Chinese internal arts community and have even taken up a cursory study of Baguazhang to help expand and refine my develop of aiki. The more I watch and engage with other internal practitioners, however, the more I notice a rather unsettling trend that's not unlike the rest of the martial arts community... The complete abandonment of practical martial application.
I've written countless articles thus far stressing the importance of maintaining practical and intensive training for self protection as a large part of your martial arts study, and the internal martial arts are not exempt from this. Let's not forget that the word "martial" implies a combative context and to ignore that section of the art (which in this context refers to a skill or discipline) is to do a great disservice to those who came before us and the legacy they left behind.
While it's true that most martial arts are descended from combat systems, the internal martial arts have historically held a place of significance in protecting those of high stature. In Japan, the Minamoto and Takeda clans were charged as Imperial guards. They trained in the art of Oshiki Uchi (also known as Gotenjutsu) to protect the Emperor and/or Shogun for over 700 years according to oral tradition, an art that later became Daito Ryu - the root of all Japanese aiki arts. In China, Dong Haichuan was charged with teaching his art of Baguazhang to the guards after winning patronage by the Imperial court. Even Okinawa has its own internal martial arts tradition, Motobu Udundi, that was used for the same purpose. The internal martial arts were chosen for this purpose because of their superiority in allowing the practitioner to counter conventional fighting techniques through the use of structure and respond with devastating results. So how did the elite fighting system of the historical Secret Service equivalent become the laughing stock of the martial arts today, and how do we fix it?
Internal power in Aiki Jujutsu is often taught primarily through sensitivity and connection drills that isolate a particular movement and allow you to perfect the biomechanical principles of internal power generation. Once mastered, these principles are applied against live attacks by becoming infused into traditional techniques, acting like a supercharge. In the video below, I demonstrate some of these applications so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about.
The problem in the internal martial arts community is not as simple as saying more instructors need to teach these applications. They do need to (and the best ones generally do), but not showing the martial application is just a small portion of the larger problem. We're now into an entire generation of instructors who have come up in the internal arts without ever having learned these applications, for one reason or another, and so they have no applications to show. What this has created are highly refined specialists that can demonstrate mind-blowing feats of internal power but most likely can't defend themselves in a dark alley, let alone be charged with the defense of another.
But it gets deeper than that! Most of those who seek out the internal arts have no use or want for learning how to fight and defend themselves. Horikawa Kodo (Daito Ryu Kodokai) was a school teacher, Okamoto Seigo (Daito Ryu Roppokai) an accountant. These two gentleman are often credited with having some of the most highly refined internal power in the aiki community, yet neither focused on martial applications. When you see demonstrations of their respective branches of Daito Ryu, it's all connection drills and balance tricks - great feats in and of themselves, but not something you can trust your life to. Then of course you have the internet chi frauds trying to mimic what they see, and we end up with our own dedicated forum on Bullshido lumped in with the scam artists.
Aikido, the most prominent descendant of Daito Ryu, has become world famous for promoting non-violence and mutual harmony. Now, the study of modern Aikido is devoid of any significant internal power anyway, but that's beside the point. Ueshiba Morihei himself had nearly super-human abilities and was an extremely formidable fighter. I understand his personal enlightenment and wanting to avoid violence at all costs, but it was his understanding of the martial applicability of aiki that made him such a power house - something greatly lacking in his son Kisshomaru, the effects of which can be seen today in the absence of practical training.
But this problem isn't unique to Japanese internal martial arts. Like I said, my newfound experience in the Chinese internal community has revealed the exact same phenomenon, yet the root of which may actually be much deeper. When asked to define an internal art, I've found most instructors will talk about the healing aspects of their practice. Now, the healing arts are definitely tied into the internal martial arts, but they're certainly not meant to be the primary focus of martial study. However, we see yet again the type of student seeking internal training isn't looking to be a fighter (or really have self defense on their list of priorities at all). Thanks to "Tai Chi" specifically being marketed to senior citizens for decades, droves of people come into the internal arts looking solely for those healing aspects and really couldn't care less about anything else. They're developing greater balance and stability, promoting blood flow and improving their general well-being. They're happy, so it's well worth the $10/class with an instructor who got their certification at a weekend course. There's a place for everything, but unfortunately none of them are studying internal martial arts. They're essentially studying a modified form of yoga (with the same hippie clientele), simply trading the Hindu undertones for Taoist ones as they cultivate their "chi." It's as if the internal arts have become as vegan as those who study them, lacking all of the meat and substance.
So what is true internal power, and how do you develop it into something that can be applied for self protection? Simply put (and of course this is the Reader's Digest description), internal power is force that's generated through the use of structure rather than muscular exertion. Techniques are supported and enhanced through the efficient use of biomechanics instead of strength, and the effect to effort ratio is mind blowing. True internal power looks and feels effortless, yet devastating and bone crushing. The key to applying the principles of internal power are the same as applying anything else - it must be practiced under duress! Live sparring against a fully resistant partner is the only way to ensure your techniques won't fail you. How many times have you gone to your "Tai Chi" class with a mouth guard? You need to. Consistent, regular training against numerous body types that not only tests your physical capabilities but your ability to control and overcome the psychological aspects of conflict is the only way for any martial art, internal or external, to be applicable.
But herein lies another problem. Development of internal power takes years of dedicated study to ingrain, let alone learn how to apply. Are the results better? I think so, but I don't know many instructors who can look at the battered woman coming to them because she's being abused at home and say "Well, you're going to be badass in 5-10 years, just keep studying those breathing exercises and eventually you'll get it." How does that help her when she goes home tonight?
Because of that, it's simply not practical to study if you're looking for a short-term solution for self defense. That's why I personally teach Jujutsu first, as is common with most Aiki Jujutsu styles, so that you have a base of techniques you can use (joint locks and throws) to defend yourself with in a relatively short amount of time while you work on your development of aiki. Over time, your techniques will become internal.
At the end of the day, it all comes down the individual's personal goals through the study of martial arts. There is something to offer everyone but if you're in any way, shape or form claiming to teach a martial art, internal or external, there needs to be a martial component to your training. It's just that simple. If there's not, stop lying to yourself and your students about what you offer. Stop feeding them stories of Oriental fighters from generations ago that used their internal art to defeat 36 men in the dead of winter with just his bare hands when no one in your class has ever been hit before. The internal arts are not supposed to be warm and fuzzy. They're supposed to be elite combat systems for both hand-to-hand and armed conflict, kept secret and reserved to give you an edge over your opponent. I have to believe that the warriors who developed these highly specialized arts took it pretty seriously. Maybe we should too.
This article was originally published on the US Association of Martial Arts blog. To view the original article, please click here.