What Makes it “Internal” Then?
When I talk about certain practices that I get excited about, sooner or later, someone raises the question, what make it “internal”? Well, sometimes they aren’t — I get excited about all kinds of things, not just “internal arts”. Okay, sometimes no one raises that question either. But when someone does, how can we come up with an answer? What is it that actually makes a practice “internal”? Of course what makes a practice “internal” should be arguably that it is able to facilitate a practitioner to (eventually) operate in a way that is consistent with what is “internal”. This goes without saying, but what else?
Like I was saying when attempting to explore what is “internal”, the answer to this question is also, in my experience, again, rather subjective. Depends on who you ask. For example, a gentleman who has done much research into the Chinese “internal martial arts”, shared with me:
In Chinese we say 外練筋骨皮，內練一口氣 “outside practice tendons/muscles, bones and skin — inside practice a mouthful of Qi”. This is actually the classical explanation, thou[gh] of course people would give to “Qi” different meanings…
While I think this is no doubt, a completely valid “classical” take on the matter, again, to answer what makes a practice “internal”, to me, in my (current) opinion, might be worth exploring further. Let’s take an example!
So after years of marveling over how well Alex Kostic (creator of Homo Ludens Systema) moves, I finally had the opportunity recently (thank you Kyl Reber) to attend an introductory workshop by the Alex, exploring his approach. Now I know Systema itself is not considered to be an “internal martial art” in a classical sense, by many. But, I would definitely classify Alex’s practice, his approach and the methodology he shares in exploring movement, physical interactions and power, to be very much “internal”. Why? What makes it “internal”? Let’s keep it relatively simple without getting too crazy about the details, but here is my take.
A few of my teachers, who are highly skilled in various Chinese internal martial arts, some of them operating exclusively within a traditional/classical framework, have shared with me, time and again, what amounts to this:
“Internal arts are arts of the feel”.
Meaning that “internal arts” operate/function based on subjective perceptions of the body (“feel” or “kinesthetic awareness” - perceptual qualities) as experienced by the mind. This is as opposed to the mind, objectifying the body and therefore instructing the body to achieve tasks (perceiving the body as an instrument external to the mind). Alex’s approach is very much the former.
Alex would invite you to explore how, when someone constricts you, how you feel constricted, uncomfortable, threatened and out of space. Then he would show you, by relaxing and releasing tension from the body, how you could become comfortable in that setting, and breathe unobstructed. Then he would guide you to explore this process further, and release tension from the body even more, until you start recognizing space (and the potential for movement), inside that constricted grip. This is exactly the same approach as I’ve been shown in many “internal arts”, where you “release to find emptiness within”. And then he will show you how, if when you expand (your awareness/attention) by releasing tension further, into the newly discovered space/freedom of movement, the constriction/grip would be hard to maintain for the person who is applying the constriction.
This to me is a fundamental aspect of the “internal” approach and Alex’s approach is very consistent with that.
But there is much more. I can probably write a whole book about the consistencies. But let me just take one more fundamental quality into consideration.
In the “internal arts” the concept of the “join” is of paramount importance when (physically) interacting/engaging with others. Some people in the “internal arts” community describes this (in my humble opinion, in a very limited way) as “merging of centers of gravity”. But in my experience, the key phenomenon that takes place in the “join” is that instead of you perceiving the others as external to you (and therefore experiencing the interactions as what others may be doing to you, and what you may be doing to the others), you perceive both yourself and the others as a single entity, with the internal state of this single entity dynamically changing as interactions happen (yet the single entity remains “unified”). Alex makes use of this process, which he explains along the lines of “participatory perception” based on western scientific explorations, as the foundation of (physical) interaction — very much like traditional “internal arts”.
Anyway, you get the picture! All the very best and thank you for exploring.