He gazed at me threw a pair of thick rimmed glasses. He was short, dark haired and carried himself with a familiar unease; unease, because he was a persistently akward chap, and familiar, because he made such an effort to be chummy. I had arrived early and we were engaging in a little pre-class conversation. “So have you learned martial arts before?” He asked.
“I’ve studied Wing Chun for the past three years,” I responded. “I’ve practiced with three teachers over that time.”
“Were you learning Internal or External Wing Chun?” Came the question.
“Internal or External Wing Chun?” I thought, “Is that even a thing?”
There is only one type of Wing Chun practitioner who will ask you whether you are learning internal or external, and that’s the Internal Wing Chun boys. External Wing Chun practitioners are simply “Wing Chun practitioners”. It was not until I attended an Internal Wing Chun class that I became familiar with the distinction, but it appears to be dichotomy of their own creation; surely all Wing Chun is internal?
In many ways, this Internal Wing Chun suits me perfectly. I had become bored with throwing punches and executing kicks. I was looking for something which would reconnect me with the energy aspect of Wing Chun; it was becoming all very MMA and less mindfulness on mountain tops. Internal Wing Chun is focused on energy to the point of obsession. It seeks to subtly manipulate the body to channel and redistribute an opponent’s force. Unlike external Wing Chun they place supreme importance to this, at the possible detriment of much else.
Internal Wing Chun differs from its more popular relation in a variety of ways, but the one I still haven’t quite gotten my head around is its Chi Sau. They perform an unusual form of Chi Sau which exercises pressure. Chi Sau, or Sticking Hands, is a common practice in Wing Chun for developing sensitivity; learning to respond most effectively to an opponent’s movements. I tried this pressure form. I was looking to apply it to Chi Sau as I understood it, getting past an opponent’s guard, but this wasn’t really what it was about. The object is solely to push or pull your opponent with a force they cannot counteract, there is little dexterity involved, only energy.
“Do you ever practice regular Chi Sau?” I asked my partner.
“Regular Chi Sau?” My partner answered quizzically. “We do it sometimes, but without learning the internal, you can’t identify your opponent’s centre. It’s useless really, it’s just moving your arms.”
“That’s what I do,” I responded sardonically. “Just move my arms.”
Internal martial arts are fascinating, but it does feel slightly as though they are operating within a bubble. Impressive though mastery of the internal martial arts looks, it would not do well to accuse a seasoned “external” martial artist of simply moving his arms. Those arms can hurt! A slight tendency towards blinkeredness by its practitioners aside, mastery of the internal martial arts is my new passion. It has an elegance to it. When attained, it looks like a fantastic magical trick, as small men in thick-framed glasses ground the energy of much larger men. I’m a convert; from here on regular Wing Chun will remain firmly “external.”