In modern times, when people speak of Qi Gong, (chee gung; also, ch’i gong, qigong) they are nearly always referring to the health side. Last article The Power of Chi Kung (Qigong) I focused on the health side and discussed the seemingly miraculous results of strong-minded individuals “curing” themselves of everything from high blood pressure to terminal cancer. In this article, my focus is on the greatly neglected side of Chinese martial arts: Martial Qi Gong – the real secret to the awesome power and mind-body control of the ancient masters.
In ancient times, living a long healthy life went far beyond just taking good care of yourself with a good diet and exercise.
China is a very big country. Policing it has proven to be futile throughout history. The people themselves were very much involved with their own protection or local bullies and nomadic bandits would take what they wanted and do as they pleased. “Farmer style” martial arts cropped up throughout China out of necessity. These were most likely very crude self protection systems. Some were fortunate enough to come across the occasional true master martial artist who might part with some useful knowledge to help increase the usefulness of their methods. However, in most cases they would most likely focus on the physical side or the “techniques”.
There must be a difference between the bare-bones technique oriented martial arts and the internal martial arts such as Ba Gua Zhang (other examples would be Tai Ji Quan, or “T’ai Chi”, and Xing Yi Quan).
The Missing Link?
What I believe is the real difference from today’s high level practitioners and those of the past is in the realization of how much of a difference the inclusion of Qi Gong makes.
We’ve all heard of the mother who lifted a car to free her child. How could this be true? Well, according to science, we humans generally can use only about 20-30% of our available muscle fibers. Even the highest level powerlifters are estimated to use only up to 50%. There are a few ways to increase this use. One way to become stronger is through focus.
In an emergency situation, such as the mother lifting the car, a person can have such a high degree of concentration – the decision that something MUST be done – that extraordinary feats can be accomplished. Complete focus, in the moment, directed by the will.
When all of your mind is focused on what you are doing, and there are no distractions, all of your effort and energy can be directed on one goal. The body simply follows.
The Mind Leads the Qi
Wherever you focus is where the energy goes. Stronger focus sends more energy. This increased energy will energize and fill the muscles you are using. This is similar to electricity bringing an electric motor to life. Increase the amount of electricity going to the motor and the motor will speed up, or work harder.
This increase in energy to the muscles also increases their elasticity and makes them feel more dense and even inflated, more capable of resisting an attack or generating more power. This has been proven in science where it is known that concentration causes a chemical reaction in the muscles that results in greater strength.
The more focused and disciplined your mind, the more you can literally control Qi. You can then send more energy to increase your strength as needed. This results in more power with less effort.
Relaxation is a key component to what is called “internal power”. The reason is simple: you cannot send near as much energy to the muscles if they are tense. Tension becomes like a blockage for the energy to flow.
Power that is generated from the waist and rooted in the ground (from good balance) cannot pass through kinks and corners created by improper body mechanics. The more obstacles you give the energy to travel through the less force can be emitted into your strike.
In Ba Gua Zhang, the force coils through the body much like that of a whip once all the proper mechanics are in place. That is why we refer to the power in Ba Gua Zhang as “whipping power”. An actual whip has no muscles, joints, tendons, bones, etc. to get in the way. It is one smooth piece of material such as leather. But the handle still needs to be properly manipulated for the striking end to have any power.
From the tendons?
There is a theory that the way this force is moved through the body, with so little tension, is because it comes from the ends of the muscles – the tendons. When the mind can better control the Qi to energize the muscles, more power can be generated with less muscular tension. Therefore, you are more relaxed and the energy can flow more easily. As the main bulk of the muscles relax, the tendons are more relied on to control the movement and the power. It takes great control and concentration to be able to use primarily the ends of the muscles to connect the energy flow and keep it going where you want it to.
Total Body Awareness
Most people do not naturally feel every part of their body. There are areas throughout, due simply to the lack of need, that are not easily felt or controlled. There are also times when you move that you use extra muscles that don’t need to be used for the movement. If we are talking about using force to strike with, it is common to use more muscle and tension than necessary which destroys the ability to use whipping power.
This can occur even in a trained individual in a real life-or-death situation because of what is commonly known as an “adrenal dump” into the system from fear and the natural “fight-or-flight” survival response results in a loss of coordination and fine motor skills.
Ba Gua Qi Gong training can change this. Initially, you practice simple individual movements, such as a Single Palm exercise, so slow that you can easily begin to feel precisely what is involved in the mechanics. The mind goes into a meditative state and you are fully engaged in the moment and the movement. Repetition over time will begin to teach you how to move most efficiently, relax even more unnecessary tension, and even show you how your focus, breath, and movement can and does control the energy circulation. The pathways where the energy travels become more pronounced, just as one can carve deeper into a piece of wood by repeatedly going over the same lines.
The slow practice allows you to focus and feel deeper energy circulation. You will then be able to fill the Dan Tian (area between the lower abdomen and lower back) and coordinate it with your movement and your breath to fill the rest of the body and to direct the energy to where you want or need.
Imagine a hose connected to a sprinkler. If you turn on the valve and the hose is empty, it will take a few moments for the water to reach the sprinkler. However, if the hose is already full of water, and the valve is turned on, the sprinkler will immediately work. Through the practice of Ba Gua Qi Gong, this is essentially how you can control the energy in your body. You are able to keep the full feeling of energy because it becomes natural for you, like a habit.
The challenge to the practical use of this ability comes when you are threatened in some way. The fight-or-flight response will take over if you are unable to control your mind and breath. I believe this response can be controlled by the deep and frequent practice of meditation. Just as many have survived great sufferings or ignored immense pain, the mind is capable of disengaging from the senses and to be fully engaged in the moment. If in the moment, how can there be any fear or worry? The solution is all that matters, not what might happen but what is happening. The rest is piled atop the situation by a distracted mind which gets in the way of finding a solution. This is no different in your normal day-to-day activities: when you have a problem, focus on what you can do and do it! Anything else is just a waste of time and energy.
The more you practice meditation and Qi Gong, the more your body and mind become used to that state of being. Then it is much easier to get there even when under stress or a threat.
If you have developed the ability to drop into a meditative state at will, then in any situation you can quickly get there, be fully focused and in the moment. This state of mind will allow you to see the situation clearly and respond as necessary. Any doubt, ego, or fear will negate the response and freeze you up. When you are fully in the moment there is only your response to the situation and nothing else.
If you are able to maintain this level of focus during a threat or attack, you will then be able to relax enough to allow the Qi to flow smoothly. This allows you to move as needed for defense and, just like the hose example, your body will be energized and much more capable of utilizing a substantial counter-attack at the very moment an opportunity becomes available. I think of the old Mohammed Ali phrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Thing is, if you don’t train properly and develop your mind, breath and Qi control, you will, “Float like a brick, and hit like a butterfly!”
Without Root You Have Nothing
In Ba Gua Qi Gong, one of the components to focus on is to imagine that your feet and lower legs are actually stuck in the ground. This develops a solid root from which all martial techniques – attack or defense – stabilize. Without this root, what you have is empty and useless. Imagine trying to push a car out of the mud if you are standing on a skateboard. You cannot defend yourself if you have no root. Nor can you possibly generate significant power to stop an aggressor from further attacking without a sense of center, balance, and root.
Rhythm in Self Defense
One of the main principles of nature is rhythm. The wind changes speeds and directions and the temperature fluctuates throughout the day. Sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes it’s raining. Ba Gua Zhang uses this concept for self defense as well as health. Staying calm in a dangerous or threatening situation can be the difference between life or death, depending on the severity of the threat. But let’s just look at a sparring situation to make it easier to understand:
How long can you run at full speed before you burn out and drop? Five or ten seconds maybe? Then what? Full speed cannot be maintained, so it is essential to learn how to save and hold on until the right moment. The right moment is when your defense combined with the movement of your partner places you in an optimal position to attack from. The right target can end a fight quickly. Conserve until the right moment, then explode into action. Otherwise, your endurance will be short and your partner will always have the upper hand.
Fear puts a real monkey wrench into this – fear of getting hurt; fear of looking bad; fear of losing; etc. These are all distractions from the immediate task. Focus! Get out of your own way and let what you’ve practiced flow.
Rhythm must also be applied to your practice schedule. You cannot only practice the hard, fast, and physical fighting side and expect your body to be able to keep up.
There are many great martial artists who neglected the internal side only to suffer when they got older and their body gave out.
The great Mas Oyama was so powerful that he could break the skull of a bull with his fist. When older, his hands were so damaged that he held his grandchild with his forearms.
The great Bill “Superfoot” Wallace had to have his hips replaced after throwing so many kicks in his prime that the joints just plain wore out.
These results are not uncommon among serious martial arts practitioners. Their training lacked the required balance and it hurt them.
Qi Gong can change all this. It can be said that for every hour of physical training you should practice two hours of Qi Gong. This is not a science and it does vary from person to person, but the basic concept shows how important it is to balance the fast physical training with the slow, relaxed, internal side of the martial arts.
In 1991 I was fortunate enough to not only meet, but recognize the opportunity to learn from one of the “old time masters”. At the age of sixty-one as of this writing, Master Bok-Nam Park still moves like a man half his age. He is still more than capable of amazing me with his skill. And he has none of these wear and tear training injuries.
Sure, there are fighting systems out there that can get a person relatively up to speed rather quickly. Their whole focus is on fighting and they believe that they are utilizing the best possible ways to achieve their goal in the shortest amount of time. They see no use for Qi Gong for anything other than a nice way to relax for health reasons (if they ever give it any thought at all).
In my opinion, the reason that so few can understand the use of Qi Gong in self defense is because so few have put in the time and effort to experience the effects and how much of a difference it can make. In addition to patience, perseverance, and the will to practice hard, sometimes you’ve just got to have faith. Faith that the highest level martial artists of the past needed sitting and moving meditation to reach beyond the physical. They used Qi Gong to complete the art.
Article originally published November 2003