If I push you backwards, and you lower at the knees – perhaps tilting forward slightly at hips – then you won’t move backwards, not one inch. This is because you’ve changed your centre of gravity and channelled my forced downwards to the ground. Should you feel any tension, it will be at the shins, because oddly this will be where the direct backwards pressure is channelled.
If I pull you forwards, and again you bend at the knees with a slight tilt at the hip forcing your stomach forwards. Then, guess what, you won’t move either. All my energy, all my exertion, will again be channelled towards the ground. In order to achieve this, it is also worth noting that elbows should be neatly aligned to hips throughout. Rooting the elbows ties the arms to the back’s larger muscles, and from here, the core.
And with these two slightly long-winded examples, we have an introduction to the world of internal martial arts: the unflamboyant, unassuming world of internal manipulation. All practicing martial artists use the internal. All reap its rewards. Harnessing internal energy is central to all South East Asian martial practices, or at least all those I have practiced, but to devote oneself entirely to the internal is to begin a strange journey. It is to enter a world inhabited by figures of all shapes and sizes, whom, as with black holes, seem to generate far more gravity than their proportions suggest.
The perfect example of this is the assistant teacher at the internal Wing Chun class I recently attended. He was almost circular in proportions, not someone that you would immediately point to as a skilled martial artist, but then you would be wrong. He had the skills. Through the internal method, he was able to direct his full sixteen-stone weight to his arms. It has an odd effect. Suddenly your arms are dragged downwards by this seemingly invisible force. He was able to flatten all my technique and from there to manoeuvre my body into a potentially fatally disadvantageous position.
The most impressive thing about the assistant teacher’s use of internal martial arts in Chi Sau was his ability to counter my techniques. As a long time practitioner of external Wing Chun, this wasn’t my first rodeo, but I was impressed by the adjustments he was able to make, as I tried to Huen Sau my way out of it. I had thought my Huen Sau, or circling hand, could evade any downward entrapment: The trick being to rotate the wrist in such a way as to roll around the opponent’s downward force, thus escaping and catching them unawares. It was a chastening experience to learn that this tool could be rendered ineffectual. In manoeuvring his hips in sequence to my motion, he was able to keep my arms solidly pinned.
I was impressed by his skill, but I wonder whether an accompanying step of retreat to my Huen Sau might have succeeded in my evasion. I suspect it would, but it’s difficult to say. It was a very formalised Chi Sau, quite distinct from sparring, so it’s difficult to say with any certainty. The parameters of this Chi Sau were very tight, so a definitive answer is unavailable. If he could match my evasion even with a backward movement, I’d not only be impressed, but also pretty out of ideas!
I am cautiously optimistic on the internal martial arts. It holds that slightly magical ability to project something which appears physics defying. It is true mastery of the body. It focuses on entirely harnessing your own energy, but understanding and responding to that of your opponent. As the old Buddhist saying implies, it seems that truth really might come from within.