Internal Martial Arts Nei-Gong Instructions to Improve Your Martial Arts
This article is the first chapter of my book, Internal Martial Arts Nei-gong.
Recently I had lunch with a man widely considered one of the top martial artists in China. He’s a drunken sword master who now teaches Kung Fu on Wudang Mountain, considered the birthplace of Taoist martial arts like Tai Chi.
I asked him, “What are all the martial artists who failed to match your skill missing? What did you do that they did not do? Obviously, everyone who dedicates his life to martial arts trains religiously, so it cannot just be that you practiced more than they did.”
He then went into an eye-opening hour long explanation of what really made him the drunken sword master in China, and explained why in recent years there has been a great decline in Kung Fu for modern martial artists.
He said the main reason martial artists fail to develop true skill, power and ability is because they approach martial arts like athletes. They just focus on developing the external physical skills and athletic abilities, such as stronger or faster muscles, similar to how you would train in a competitive sport. They never focus on inner energy.
The problem is, the high level martial arts, especially in China, are NOT founded on purely physical skill. When he was young he reasoned, “How will I ever differentiate myself from this great crowd of highly talented and extremely athletic martial artists? If martial arts are based simply on the athletics of physical movements, then where is my chance to stand out?” Early on in his training he therefore made the decision to cultivate his inner chi energy, and to therefore practice nei-gong as the foundation of his art. This involved hiding some of his practice from the prying eyes of Communist officials who forbid this type of internal cultivation practice within the martial arts schools. Nevertheless, he was lucky enough that his own teacher was able to help train him by teaching him the basics.
His approach to nei-gong included sitting meditation, Zhan zhuang or “post-standing” for hours at a time (a type of standing meditation), along with breathing exercises. He credited his great skill as a martial artist directly to focusing on meditation, breathing exercises and internal cultivation. He didn’t just focus on the athletics of martial arts, but on his internal chi cultivation which many today approach through breath cultivation. Cultivating your breath, such as through special breathing exercises or pranayama, is the simplest (and lowest) way to enter into this.
The reason for this book on martial arts and inner gong-fu, also known as inner energies and inner power, is because most martial artists don't know anything about how to cultivate their inner energies past a superficial stage, and there are many deep levels possible to cultivating this inner energy. This is what the traditional path of martial arts entails, and if you cultivate these energies you can do incredible things past what people even consider as the normal level of martial arts.
Unfortunately, there is no clear explanation about how martial artists can do some of the amazing, almost supernatural feats that you read about in ancient books and see represented in the movies, such as seeming to fly through the air, so I wanted to discuss why they become possible after you cultivate your energies to that deep level, and how you can cultivate those abilities yourself.
In martial arts, which are called wushu in Chinese, people usually start upon the path of perfecting various external forms of movement, and various postures and stances, through external exercises. This is called wai-gong, meaning the external martial arts. It has to do with mastering the exterior form of the body with its positions, motions and movements such as strikes, chokes and blocks. You are trying to develop body mechanics and coordination.
As people start practicing wai-gong they also learn how to stand motionless as well as stretch their bodies and move them in various ways, and they learn how to think in terms of strategies for attack and defense such as moving this or that way, or the positioning of the body for a certain strike or angle. The initial emphasis is on mechanics, and optimization or peak performance goals such as how to be stronger, move faster, last longer and the like.
Eventually, however, no matter how well you practice external martial arts to perfect your form, and no matter how amazing are the things you can end up doing, people usually reach some plateau for their level of skills and get stuck with this type of approach, and thus their progress eventually reaches a standstill.
To break through the plateau, many martial artists turn to breathing exercises that often deal with superficial energy streams in the body, and this type of practice is at first called qi-gong.
Qi-gong encompasses several different things. Primarily, qi-gong exercises are basically the pranayama breathing practices of India and don’t extend to your internal cultivation. This is why they don’t take you very far. The truest or best from of qi-gong practice is when you start to actually feel the chi (qi) in your body because of your martial arts practice, perhaps in your palms, soles of your feet, skin, or even tendons and bones. This then eventually becomes internal chi cultivation, or nei-gong. Prior to cultivating these internal energies, but just cultivating your external respiration with its ins and outs, this is qi-gong.
Many martial artists who reach a physical plateau start practicing yoga pranayama breathing exercises in order to try to open more energy channels in their body, and learn how to match the movements of this chi energy with their muscles to reach a higher skill level. Since they are trying to use the external breath to eventually cultivate internal chi that is matched with the muscles, this is going from the practice of qi-gong to nei-gong. The point is that breathing exercises can help your martial arts practice to an incredible degree.
There are endless varieties of qi-gong, and traditionally these qi-gong exercises were kept separate from the external martial arts forms and movements, and never integrated into the standard practice routines and training regimens. However, many high level martial arts experts, from their own experiments, learned how to eventually graft a qi-gong method onto their physical practice to activate inner energies and thus become an internal practice, but these findings were very rarely passed down in many traditions.
When you reach this stage of practicing qi-gong methods along with your external martial arts, you will not only begin to feel the chi of your body but sometimes you will start developing many amazing special abilities. What they turn out to be depends on the individual’s natural dispositions and what he or she chooses to cultivate. Usually you are just opening up minor chi meridians in a superficial way but when you learn how to control the chi energies within your body, you can direct it to help you perform many special physical feats. When practicing the particular breathing styles of Southern Shaolin or Fukien White Crane, for instance, you must try to link certain types of chi movement with your muscular movements.
With the best level of qi-gong you are still at the level of the superficial sensations of chi and the superficial chi flows throughout the body, and this isn’t the “real chi” of the body called “kundalini” or “yang chi” which you read about in spiritual texts that truly opens up your chi channels and chakras at a deep level. This level of practice is called “wind chi” because it is rather superficial, and not the deep life force itself. To activate this level of internal energy, which taps into the basic force behind life itself, you have to go even deeper in terms of true internal energy practice, which is called nei-gong.
The key principle of chi cultivation techniques are that your chi and consciousness are linked, so as you cultivate your chi you will develop changes in your state of consciousness. This is a scientific principle, and so many people cultivate their chi to calm their minds, or cultivate their minds (consciousness and thoughts) to calm their chi. It works both ways.
Cultivating your chi is tied to cultivating the purity (emptiness) of your mind.
Cultivating your mind (learning how to empty thoughts) is tied to cultivating both the purity and smooth circulatory flow of your chi.
If your chi and its circulation can become more purified and smoother, then your consciousness can become more purified by becoming emptier (by having less thoughts).
If your consciousness becomes emptier (has fewer thoughts and/or thought attachments), then your chi can further purify (because more chi channels will open, more channel obstructions will clear, and your chi flow will become more even, smooth, harmonious and regular).
The application of breathing exercises to martial arts is because they can affect your inner chi directly, and so they are a way to help you cultivate the chi of your body which, because this is connected with your muscles and physical form, can help you reach a new level of martial arts excellence. If you cultivate your chi you can experience the results of qi-gong, and then nei-gong in time.
When you start cultivating your body’s inner energies at the level of nei-gong, which is the deeper step of chi practice, this finally unlocks the ability to start achieving those miraculous martial arts feats such as flying through the air and so forth which you read about in martial arts novels. This is a level where you really go deep into it and start cultivating the deepest internal energies of the body – life force itself - having used martial arts as the entry way into this, because otherwise you would never have gotten this far. You can only achieve these capabilities through a high level of internal energy cultivation.
This small book is all about entering into the cultivation of nei-gong, or the internal martial arts, as an entryway into those special abilities, and the pathway of cultivating (purifying) your mind because of the connection between chi and consciousness. Specifically, when you reach a point in your nei-gong practice that you open up the body’s central energy channel meridian, called the sushumna in India and zhong mai in Chinese, and then afterwards open up the River Chariot rotation called the microcosmic circulation in Taoism, then afterwards all the body’s internal energy meridians will start to open up and you can begin to enter the sphere of supernormal martial arts capabilities. Mental attachments will dissolve so that your mind becomes empty, and free of attachments to wandering thoughts, you will be able to achieve much quicker response times for your strategies and movements.
Opening up the sushumna central channel and other chi meridians within your body is the engine enabling this to all happen. After this accomplishment you can start inventing all sorts of special martial arts techniques and unusual abilities on your own, but only after the microcosmic and macrocosmic and other circulations have all opened. Their opening, at the level of nei-gong, is the minimum foundation necessary for these types of achievements. You can practice martial arts exercises to open the front and back channels of the body, but only image-free emptiness meditation can open up the sushumna central channel.
It would take countless books to go into this in detail, so our only goal in this book is to just introduce the topic in brief since you will find very little else in print. When you read stories of martial artists who can fly and walk through walls and move at incredible speeds - all the things that you usually see in Japanese Manga and Chinese martial arts films - that's all a product of nei-gong which I hope you work to achieve.
As stated, in order to do that, and get that far, there are certain things you have to cultivate and a certain level you have to reach as to the mastery of your internal energy cultivation. The practice of martial arts is an entryway to achieving this level of mastery and expertise over your internal energies, or nei-gong. And then once you get your internal energies to a certain stage of purification from your cultivation, nei-gong martial artists soon realize that there's a stage yet higher called Tao-gong, which is basically cultivating the Tao.
Tao-gong is totally spiritual and has to do with cultivating pure, pristine awareness without a body, unattached to chi. You slowly discover this because your mind gets progressively emptier and more pure on this path of nei-gong cultivation, whereupon you start to recognize that only awareness or pure consciousness is operating. A pure bodiless awareness, or pure consciousness, is the real you, and you start to get an understanding of this after you proceed sufficiently at nei-gong.
When you start to cultivate that as your goal, which is to experience your true nature or true Self, that’s called “cultivating the Tao,” or Tao-gong. And when you succeed at Tao-gong, you turn around again and complete the cultivation of the physical body to a yet higher stage than could be reached through the practice of nei-gong alone and its cultivation of internal energies for purely physical reasons. In Buddhism, the accomplishment of realizing the Tao is called attaining the dharmakaya, and then turning around to finish the transformation of your body and its chi is called cultivating the sambhogakaya, or Reward body of your practice.
This whole path from wai-gong to qi-gong to nei-gong to Tao-gong is actually the complete path of the real martial arts. It doesn't stay at the level where someone is just cultivating their body with external exercises, after which they can break through twenty bricks or ten boards or knock out a lot of people. You start with the external exercises, or wai-gong, and then you eventually start feeling your chi, qi, or prana. Sometimes this happens because of your physical practice, and sometimes because you start cultivating your breath, or breathing, in special ways. Science says your chi doesn’t exist, but you soon prove it to yourself by feeling it, and then you can enter into the stage of chi cultivation with firm belief.
If you start combining breathing practices with your martial arts practice, that’s qi-gong, and you can start cultivating your internal energies in a non-superficial way from there. You start feeling those chi energies and combining them with your muscular movements, which is at the level of cultivating nei-gong. Eventually you proceed to cultivating just those internal energies alone while ignoring the body, and hence we then have the higher forms of nei-gong which also involve cultivating pristine mental awareness without thoughts.
At the apex of martial arts, at its highest echelon, one goes from nei-gong to Tao-gong. The people who get that far, reaching these two levels, are the ones who can do all those miraculous things that you read about that are at a level above exceptional physical skill that can be cultivated, as usually seen in TV documentaries. Yes, it is possible to do those supernormal things. Yes, you can train to achieve them but you have to get to the level of nei-gong which requires a certain mindset, an understanding of some basic principles, and certain exercises we’re about to supply.
In order to do that, in order to have those unusual super power abilities arise - and we'll get into the ways that people cultivate for that specifically - you have to, number one, open up the energy meridians in the body, known as the chi channels of the body, and totally transform your body’s chi. That transformation is actually a detoxification of the physical body, as coarse and subtle poisons are expelled, and a refinement and purification of your chi. From there the emphasis moves almost entirely to a focus on further purifying the mind, although you are also cultivating your chi and body as well.
* Want to read more? Pick up a copy of my book Internal Martial Arts Nei-gong.