The Paradox of the Esoteric Martial Arts

Flickr - Martial Arts - Camera Eye PhotographyJess O’Brien, Guest Writer
Waking Times

All societies have had to grapple with the harsher side of human nature. Unacknowledged violence within will smolder, and conflict left unresolved will in time explode.

The martial arts developed for facing these raw emotions directly, forging and tempering their energy into useful and beautiful shapes. Frustrations are expressed openly, resolved, and transformed. Before lashing out against others, the martial artist has an outlet, a method of restoring peace.

Paradoxically, the practice of the fighting arts leads to a peaceful individual. Feelings of inferiority, fear, and insecurity result in violence, hatred and even prejudice. The individual with a sense of strength within, sure of herself, is capable of acting sensibly under fire, despite fear or anger.

The practice of martial arts is an ongoing investigation of the nature of violence. Not from a sociological, theoretical viewpoint, but by using the human body and mind as a laboratory. Utilizing training as a tool, we pry open the secrets within our bodies, experiencing and perfecting movement skills, and ultimately revealing our hearts. Bravery in the face of danger is an experience that martial arts provide, in a safe environment.

Out of this experience comes knowledge about your true self and about your fellow humans. Speculation and intellectual inquiry have no place here. All philosophy flows from the body’s own experience. It is a means of taking a look at oneself, a mirror reflecting our best and worst qualities.

Martial arts in and of itself provides nothing but a framework, a tool for this examination process. The work of transforming into what you seek is left solely to your own heart and discipline.

  • Although there are only so many ways to punch or kick or attack somebody, an amazing diversity of methods has grown over the centuries. Specific to region, climate, topography, body type, even religious belief, it is no wonder that thousands of methods have arisen. Some arts were developed for military use on the battlefield, others for close-quarters urban combat. Some were used by rebellious slaves, others by their overlords. Bodyguards had schools to protect the rich and their possessions, and traditions have sprung up from the bandits that robbed them. Monks trained to defend their monasteries, and farm families trained their sons and daughters out in the fields before dawn. Whether for offense or defense, armed or unarmed, for sport or for war, martial art practice is inseparable from its cultural context and purpose.

    Training the Mind First

    The esoteric martial arts refer almost exclusively to certain traditional Asian martial arts, the best known of which originate in northern China. Hundreds of martial arts exist in China that could be considered esoteric, including extreme forms that channel immortal beings to gain fighting power and ritualistic arts that incorporate sacrifice and ceremonial use of powerful medicinal mixtures. This article will look at the most widespread and accessible variety, known as Nei Jia Quan (sometimes spelled Qi Gong or Chi Gung), the internal martial arts.

    Highly sophisticated body movement skills have been developing in China for many centuries. These reached a peak in the mid-1800s in Northern China when martial arts experts of extremely refined ability were heavily influenced by the research and development of traditional Chinese medicine, also reaching a zenith at that time. By combining their martial arts skills with the medical knowledge of energy meridians, acupuncture points, anatomy, body tissue manipulation, and powerful mental concentration ability, these experts were able to take their skills to a new level. As these martial artists gathered to combine their knowledge, the term Nei Jia Quan, Internal Martial Art, was coined to refer to these arts as distinct from the older martial arts from which they were developed.

    The three best-known internal martial arts are Taijiquan (T’ai Chi Ch’uan), Xingyiquan (Hsing-I Chuan), and Baguazhang (Pa Kua Chang), translated as Ultimate Fist, Heart and Mind Fist, and Eight Diagram Palm.

    What makes the esoteric martial arts styles special is their emphasis on training the mind first. In all of these arts, the mind is seen as the primary mover, the source of the speed, force, and timing of one’s fighting technique. Standing meditation may be first on the practice list, ahead of pushups, punching bag, and sparring. Although one does not gain self-defense skill quickly, what is gained is permanent. Muscle can atrophy, but mental strength is not so easily lost. Slowly the concentration is built, awareness is cultivated, one observes the functioning of the insides of one’s body. Slowly, this internal knowledge extends outward to understanding the movement of others, even before they are aware of their own intentions. This steadiness and clarity of mind allows the expert to find the gaps and breaks in opponents’ movements, so that they are neutralized seemingly from nowhere. This is what gives rise to the legends about the masters of Taijiquan who can defeat their foes without even moving. It is the training of the consciousness that forms the basis for internal martial arts practice. When this level of mental strength is combined with a capable and skilled body, the results can be quite substantial.

    Strength-based martial arts like kickboxing or judo build their personal power to push through and overcome all obstacles, using willpower and force. The esoteric martial arts take a backdoor track, seeking to unify heart and mind before all else. Building up the mind, concentration and calmness is a prerequisite to movement. If the goal of all martial arts is to resolve conflict, the internal martial arts seek to resolve conflict within first, while the external styles seek to build up outward defenses before turning within.

    Intrinsic Energy

    Training of the body’s intrinsic energy (“qi” or “chi”) is the method of enhancing health and fighting ability for internal martial arts practitioners. Chinese medical theory postulates an inherent energy in all living things, the animating force that differentiates a living being and its molecular structure from a corpse. The corpse is composed of the same number of atoms in the same arrangement, yet there is a substantial difference in quality.

    Qi is more of a description of this life-giving energy than a solid scientific object. It is a qualitative, definitive term that is more useful for describing sensory, experiential phenomena than for measuring with scientific devices.

    Chinese medicine locates where and how this life force moves through the body, allowing one to enhance its free flow and encourage its “pulse” within oneself. From the very start of their training, esoteric martial arts practitioners are instructed in various meditative methods to feel the flow of this qi. Practices include standing or sitting meditation, relaxation drills, concentration exercises, and slow motion sets of movements.

    As this internal awareness expands, the practitioner is drilled in methods of shaping and moving the qi in the body, feeling and experimenting with the various sensations and emotions that different energy patterns give rise to. The ultimate goal is a sense of calm, smooth, robust, full energy filling the body throughout, every nook and cranny alive with awareness and sensation. Our sense of what’s going on within our bodies is dulled through the demands of everyday life, robbing us of some of the richest experiences. Finding, defining, experiencing, and refining the energy that moves through us uncovers vast potential for sensitivity, awareness, and strength, no longer blocked by unconscious tensions and physical, emotional, or mental blockages. For the martial artist, the slightest gains in reaction time, spatial awareness, and balance can make a tremendous difference in fighting skill.

    Taijiquan, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, is the most popular of the internal martial arts. Practitioners are often seen in parks early in the morning moving ever so slowly through postures. Widely regarded for its healing benefits, the practice involves examination of fundamental body movements. The focus of the art is the slow-motion practice of a set of movements strung together. Softness, relaxation, and lightness are emphasized in the training. Postural and movement guidelines are strictly adhered to. Slowly, the body is transformed, stiffness is softened and energy flow in the body is improved. Health benefits are gained by analysis and improvement of one’s movement patterns, relaxation of habitually held tensions in the body, heightened concentration ability, increased energy, and strengthening of muscle groups through the demanding process of slow-motion training. Fighting skills are improved as awareness is developed through concentration. Sensitivity to one’s opponent is enhanced through gentle, yielding, two-person practices. Tense, tiring punches are replaced by fast, effortless, strikes. Body weight is used rather than muscular force. Taijiquan’s practice is characterized by moving freely over a grid. The practitioner is able to move and apply force in any of the eight directions.

    Xingyiquan, Hsing-I Chuan, is the most direct and overtly combative of the internal martial arts, shorter and much simpler in composition than the Taijiquan form. Translated as Mind-Intention Fist (or Boxing), its movements are characterized by constant forward motion. The Xingyiquan practitioner never retreats, but climbs over her opponent like a speeding freight train, hammering blows home with the whole body’s force of momentum. The primary practice of the art employs five basic movement patterns, each focused on a different force vector. One learns instinctivly to apply the correct vector to the vulnerable place of the opponent, allowing a smaller person to succeed by fighting against the opponent’s weaknesses. Strikes of great force and speed are delivered at optimal angles. Alongside the examination of angles and directions of force, the martial artist’s power and health are trained in a series of static postures with detailed alignment instructions. The primary posture is known as San Ti, or Trinity Posture. The body’s tendons are stretched, and the mind is focused on one point at a time. Slowly the body’s weight and energy trickle downward, filling the feet and legs with a heaviness and strength. By holding this standing posture for long periods of time the whole body is trained to relax while maintaining its integrity of structure, giving the practitioner an instant fall-back position in times of disorientation. With this basis, the whole body’s power can be harnessed for application within the kinetic motions. Ultimately, one’s mind is trained to the point that the intention instantly results in the necessary action, with no obvious thought necessary. Xingyiquan practice is characterized by short, staccatto movements powered by brisk, forceful forward steps

    Baguazhang, Pa Kua Chang, is translated as Eight Diagrams Palm. The primary training in Baguazhang practice is walking around in a precise circle, alternating between agonizingly slow and lightning fast, in larger or smaller circles. Again, this practice includes detailed body structure requirements and visualizations. These help develop leg strength, smoothness and springiness in stepping, highly-focused concentration, erect posture, lengthened and interconnected muscles, and a body/mind connection that moves all parts at once. Through the circle-walking practice one learns about subtleties of weight-shifting and balance. Fighting skill is developed in the practice of the palm changes, a short series of movements around the circle which usually end with a reversal of one’s walking direction. These movements train the body in coiling, twisting, bending, and other skills that allow one to make agile changes of direction, and to hit with unpredictable attacks while continuing to move swiftly in any direction. The circularity and fluidity of the moves, coupled with the mental focus on softness, looseness, and lightness builds the ability to blend and merge with an attacker’s force ‹ all the while moving into an advantageous position for a counter-attack fueled by the opponent’s own momentum. The concepts of Baguazhang training are said to be the most difficult to master and the most mentally demanding. The freedom of movement and skillful grace achieved by Baguazhang are truly fulfilling and inexhaustible. Baguazhang practice is characterized by smooth, interconnected arm and body rotations always stepping around the perimeter of a circle.

    There are many further aspects to be uncovered and explored in training the internal martial arts. Practitioners find both frustration and delight in this exploration, as the potential for the development of the art is unlimited. The more one discovers, the more one sees how far away their goals truly are. Delight and whole-hearted enjoyment comes in discovering more about yourself than you thought possible through these rich and deep arts.

    Ultimately, all these methods lead to a study of the self and its unlimited potential. Using martial arts as a tool, one slowly unlocks a doorway within, only to find that each door leads to many, many more rooms. Thus the study of martial arts, like the study of any artistic method, goes far beyond learning to fight (the functionality of this art) to the discovery and development of one’s whole, true self. Truly it is a study of how to be a human being.

    About the Author

    Jess O’Brien has been a student of BK Frantzis since 1999 and is the author of Nei Jia Quan: Internal Martial Arts. He also trains with Luo De Xiu of Taiwan and has trained with numerous other martial arts instructors since he was a teenager.  For more about Jess O’Brien visit his website:


    Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body by BK Frantzis

    Xing Yi Quan Xue by Sun Lu Tang

    Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan by Benjamin Lo

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