“Outside very still. Inside very busy”
– Li, Long Dao
I was recently in Arlington, Texas, home of Jiulong Baguazhang’s headquarters and Shigong John Painter, Jiulong’s senior instructor, and student. He calls the school The Gompa. It is a place of quiet learning. I enjoyed an excellent and personalized intensive workshop with a fellow student/instructor that got me thinking about the following.
My teacher and I stood facing each other in the center of the training room in front of the ancestor place, under the gaze of departed masters and Kuan Yin’s statue. Using all the skill he had taught me, I quickly stepped forward to strike his torso. His powerful arm intercepted mine, but I had more momentum on my side and he was rocked back on his heels.
“Now,” he said, “do it again”. I obliged. Again his arm intercepted mine but this time I was stopped cold by a force moving me backward and up. I lost my balance. “That,” said Shigong Painter, “ is an example of internal power”. I hadn’t seen him do anything different. My eyes flicked to the ancestor place. For an instant, it looked like a fleeting wink had crossed the stern expression in the picture of Li, Long Dao, my teacher’s teacher.
For some in the martial arts, internal power is a kind of mystical Holy Grail, sought after by engaging in mysterious practices often related to ideas about qi or chi. For others, the whole notion of internal power is based on superstitious beliefs and a waste of time to even consider. Personally, my view is different and lies in my interpretation of what I’ve learned as a student of Jiulong Baguazhang, medicine, and psychology. What I’ll be writing is, therefore, more of a hypothesis rather than a claim of truth about internal power.
In Jiulong, it is the emphasis on actively engaging mental processes in a systematic and progressive fashion to enhance performance that makes it, for me, an internal martial art. These mental processes do not require reference to such things as learning to circulate qi. Instead, they are based on two closely related notions.
One is that mental imagery, especially imagery of physical sensation (what something feels like), can be rehearsed repetitively to reinforce neural pathways involved in a physical action. A neural pathway is the path nerve signals take through the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves to the muscles activated by those signals. The other notion is that mentally focusing on the physical sensations involved in an action, while performing that action, adds to the reinforcement of that action more than simple repetition alone.
In simpler terms, imagining the feeling of lifting a weight or throwing a punch can make you stronger or a better puncher respectively. If you concentrate on the feeling of throwing a punch while training or on the feeling in the biceps while doing curls, that will also contribute to making you better at punching and growing bigger biceps.
Although I call them notions, they are really ideas derived from decades of research of the neurophysiology of muscle activation/effort and neurocognitive processes. Among other things, this research has led to widespread adoption of cognitive training/mental rehearsal techniques in the training of athletes. A recent and well-referenced review of the research can be found here:
In their first class, Jiulong students are introduced to a sophisticated program of mental training that begins with learning to relax the mind and body, and focus attention on internal and external sensations. When you see a Jiulong student sitting quietly, standing very still holding a posture, or walking slowly in a circle changing postures repetitively, chances are that student is concentrating on feelings of muscle activation, balance and the forces acting on the body as it applies force.
What is going on in the student’s nervous system is akin to taking a particular path through a forest over and over. At first, there is no path and the traveler may have to cut down brush or get lost or backtrack to get bearings. Eventually, the path becomes clear and smooth under the feet. It becomes so familiar that the traveler can take it swiftly without distraction or interference.
Extending the analogy further, the single traveler represents a particular set of nerve signals but many different sets of nerve signals are needed for even simple actions and they all have to take a path. At first, some will reach the destination before others but as the paths become clearer, their arrival becomes coordinated and their effect thus happens faster and is more powerful.
When Shigong Painter tried and failed to stop my advance, all he did was move his arm to fend me off. His brain signaled to only a limited set of muscles that I could easily brush aside. On the second go, his brain signaled to a much, much larger set of muscles (arguably, his whole body) and those signals sped unencumbered and coordinated down a well-worn set of neural pathways and resulted in almost knocking me off my feet.
When I watched him do the same thing to my fellow instructor, his whole body did in fact move, but almost imperceptibly, and in just the right way to almost knock Shizi Steve Bialon off his feet. Shigong Painter allowed me to put my hand on his torso as he repeated the action and sure enough, I felt muscles quickly contracting and relaxing at just the right moment but his body remained in place with perhaps only a slight weight shift. From the outside, he looked quite still, but on the inside, many things were taking place.
Please remember that I’m referring to a particular method of mental, and by my definition therefore, internal, training for which there is scientific justification. It does not preclude the need to lift weights to gain strength or use drills to improve a movement. It simply says that mindful practice yields better results than mindless repetition because of its additive effect on neural pathways.
When I practice in this way, I can feel physical sensations in my body as I engage with my imaginary opponent(s) in the circle or when sitting on the cushion. It is my brain that produces those sensations and they are based on memories of actual physical engagement. After a great deal of such practice, it feels like all I have to do to perform an action is “think it” and the action just happens as if the intention and the movement occur simultaneously.
Then, if I’m engaging with a real body and I’ve practiced a lot, it again feels like intention and movement are one when I take action to deflect, strike or throw the opponent. In this situation, there is no thinking or planning. I do my best to relax and let training take over and when I can do this well, my opponent and I are often both surprised at how strong and fast my action was even though it felt like I barely did anything.
Another way of putting it, as fondly quoted by Shigong Painter this past weekend, is that one should “train as if you are facing a hundred enemies and fight as if no one is there”. Mentally fuss over every detail while rehearsing but when it’s showtime – just let go.
None of this is easy and it requires a challenging combination of mental and physical effort. There is no doubt that one can become extremely combat effective without going through the kind of mind-body training and guidance that a qualified Jiulong instructor can provide. However, given what scientific research has demonstrated about how mind and body function, this kind of training makes sense in the context of current neuroscience.
More importantly, other students and I have seen and experienced how these methods, as challenging as they are, boost performance reliably and to an amazing degree. For most Jiulong students, I think, that has been one of the most important reasons we keep on practicing being still on the outside and busy on the inside.