Internal is External

Oh geeze, more Internal crap – but bear with me. If you are not fond of discussions of the “Internal Arts”, you may find this heartening. Likewise, if you are all up in that “Internal” stuff, you might gain a little insight.

I was talking with a Danzan Ryu Jujitsu friend of mine and the topic of “Internal Arts” came up. He does not like the term or the concept that much. I have always tried to keep an open mind on it, having seen my Sifu do things that are difficult to explain. By the same token, I have always tried to analyze the concept in an attempt to provide a more mechanical, if not scientific, way of viewing the subject.

One problem with the “Internal” aspects of an art such as Wing Chun, is the term itself – Internal. To the layperson, or even a somewhat seasoned practitioner, it conjures up concepts of magic, hidden powers. The term forces us to look inside themselves. Our mental focus turns inward. Moreover, by default the term creates its counterpart, “External”. We immediately begin to separate position, movement, and technique as being outside of ourselves. Strength becomes “external”, while a good, relaxed hit requires some of that “internal” magic. The term, “Internal” breaks us apart into separate beings – the external practitioner, and the internal Super Saiyan.

I have begun to think of the Internal Arts along the lines of an open awareness. We cannot separate ourselves from our techniques. Our techniques and actions are responses to external stimuli. If we have trained well, we know which techniques to use in response to a given action by our opponent / partner. Correct that – we should not “know” – it should just happen. That comes from repeated training.

However, there is more to it than that. If we train well, we build up a sense of how we move, where our center of gravity is, where it should be headed, and where our momentum is heading. On a higher level, we can almost instinctively determine where the opponent’s CG and momentum are, and where they are going.

It begins with self-awareness. You know where your nose is, where your hands are, where your knees are, though an inherent system called proprioception. Through this perception, your brain can sense your body and all its parts, as well as their movement through space. We also have the vestibular system, which controls our balance and spatial orientation – are you standing or laying down. Proprioception tells you where your hands are, which includes the condition of your elbows and shoulders, as they would control where your hands are in relation to you. It does not concern itself with up or down in the world itself. Proprioception is your relationship with you.

Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsWhen I discuss this, I often bring up an old Steve Martin movie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where Steve plays an inept with a poor proprioception / kinesthesia coordination. When dining, his forks are capped with corks, because he tends to miss his own mouth a lot. Something most of us do not do. It should be noted, proprioception and kinesthesia are not quite the same. Kinesthesia is learned muscle memory of body position and location, such as eye-hand coordination. Kinesthesia is important in the martial arts. The techniques and drills we learn are Kinesthetic. The more we do them, the faster, and more fluid they become.

The open awareness I am talking about is a combination of Proprioception, Kinesthesia, and environmental awareness. Some might call it The Third Eye, but that throws in all sorts of spiritual concepts. Understanding where our body parts are, and their movement through space, is how we develop our eye-hand coordination. Proprioception leads to Kinesthesia. Repeated practice provides us an awareness of our center of gravity and the momentum we want to produce. At some point, this open awareness extends beyond ourselves. We use our understanding of self to extrapolate the center of gravity and momentum of the opponent. We develop a keen awareness of distance, for one thing.

I recently had students work a series of kicking drills designed to keep an advancing aggressor at bay – to stop their forward movement. There are a host of techniques, push kicks, the Muay Thai “Teep”, sidekicks to the knee, et al, the techniques do not matter. The first goal for the student is to learn when to fire the weapon. They need to develop a sense of their position (proprioception) and their kinesthesia so they know when to begin the technique. To do that, they need to calculate the advancing movement of the opponent through space in relation to themselves so they know when to pull the trigger. Kick too soon and they miss the target altogether. Kick too late and the opponent / partner can overrun the kick – no momentum is delivered. I overheard one partner ask the other, “Are you counting squares?” referring to the tile squares of the matt floor. I had to quickly jump in.

“No. You do not count squares. You do not look at your partner’s feet.” You look at your partner, their place in space, and their movement through it. You learn to hone your sense of perception. When you walk to a door, you know when to reach out for the knob. You do not look at the knob and study it as you move. You know because you have been doing it for most of your life. Unlike Steve Martin, you know where your mouth is. You can go into a restaurant you have never visited before, sit in a chair you have never sat in, at a table you have never sat at before, pick up a fork you have never used before, and safely put it in your mouth without staring at the fork – because of proprioception and kinesthesia. Your position in space – the height of the chair, the height of the tabletop, the weight and length of the fork, the number of tines it has – all are new variables that you quickly account for – intuitively.

I used to skydive, quite a bit. As a jumpmaster, newbs would ask about landing. It is the same thing. You teach the student not to look at the ground. There is an effect skydivers’ call, “ground rush”. If you look down, the ground is not only rushing up toward you, it is also slipping by as you have some forward movement. The ground becomes a blur. It is almost impossible to judge accurately your distance above the ground. Instead, you look out, almost to the horizon, where the movement is less intense. You level your eyes the way you normally do when walking. You will know when the ground is right beneath you, because you see that sight – the horizon at a certain level to you – every single day. Proprioception makes you aware of how tall you are, as well as your movement through space. With a little practice, some kinesthesia kicks in, and you can touch down like stepping from one stair step to another, even though you just fell from ten-thousand feet, and you are traveling a good bit faster than you can walk.

The magic of a deep, relaxed hit comes from these factors:

  • A lot of kinesthesia; Doing a technique so many times, it is as natural as putting a fork in your mouth without stabbing your tongue.
  • Good proprioception; Self-awareness keen and open enough that you can sense the position and location of all of your limbs and joints, such that you can make quick, intuitive adjustments to balance out the whole body – the ability to reach for the doorknob without looking.
  • Environmental awareness; Understanding the ground you stand on, your position in the room, as well as your opponent’s position in it, utilizing the space to make calculations about the opponent’s relationship to you – looking at the horizon, and not the ground.

Realistically, “internal” is not internal at all. It is largely external – your position and movement through space, your opponent’s position and movement, as well as an understanding of your center of gravity and momentum, coupled with an understanding of the opponent’s CG and momentum. That said, there is sort of an internal quality, though it should not be internally focused. Your proprioception is an instinctive understanding of the shape your body is taking, measured through all of the external forces applied. The goal is to generate an open, sort of third eye awareness of everything. To be so aware you can see the world around you, your position in it, and movement through it. Internal is just a part of you and your system, just as you are part of the environment. You can have all the internal you want, but if the external – the kinesthetic and mechanics are lacking – it won’t help you.

If you have been working a martial art for a while, you have seen it. Your instructor or a guest seminar instructor calls up their demo partner. They explain a technique, the partner performs the necessary offensive move, and the instructor performs the technique. The instructor then wants to make a fine point. The demo partner, being human, makes some minor adjustment to the offensive move, and the instructor instinctively preforms a minor variation of the technique they were trying to demonstrate. They had no choice. The energy supplied was different. Their proprioception and kinesthesia forced them to make adjustments based on the environment – not based on something internal so much as external, which demanded minor internal corrections. Nonetheless, the technique is executed smoothly and swiftly, only to be followed by a corrective explanation and a request that the demo partner deliver the proper energy for the technique they are trying to teach.

You have also seen this same scenario result in a rough strike or throw, completely unintentional by the instructor. The change from the instruction plan into a natural flow results in a disgruntled demo partner. The trained kinesthetic flows so naturally, the body movement so relaxed, the instructor’s momentum has nowhere to go except into the partner. This is not some internal power, some magic like Gandalf’s lightning. It is simple mechanics and kinesthetic reflexes honed to high level.

Do you suppose pro tennis players, golfers, and baseball players spend any time debating internal versus external? I have begun to think the internal is external.

(Update 2/5/18: You may want to read a directly related article: External is Internal.)


About Sifu

I teach Wing Chun, both traditional and practical, at KDA Karate Academy. I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager. In addition to being a Martial Arts Instructor, I am an author. My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge".

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