Internal Energy in the Martial Arts and Beyond

The concept of an energizing life force, often described as “internal energy” is one common to many Asian martial arts arising from cultural conceptions of what constitutes the human being. In Chinese this animating force is called qi (pronounced chee), while in Japanese it is referred to as ki and in India it is called Prana. In disciplines such as Chinese Wushu and Qigong (Energy Skill), Japanese Budo and Indian Kalaripayat and Yoga, the respective words for this energy are often synonymous with breath and, indeed the energy is described as being carried on the breath.

Anyone embarking upon serious study of any of the above disciplines soon finds, however, that the term “internal energy” is a misnomer, for this energy is not just internal but also external, in short it is everywhere, pervading everyone and everything.

The above statement is important as it contains a vital clue as to how the concept of personal “internal energy” functions in the practice of martial arts and body arts (such as yoga and qigong).

It is common when one starts the practice of arts that stress this energy and its “cultivation” to fall under the misapprehension that such energy may be developed, stored and utilized in some way for the enhancement of a personal sense of power, strength or health or, in the case of some, for personal gain in the form of wealth, status or prestige.

In my own experience, however, in a number of martial, energetic and meditative disciplines, this is most definitely not the case. In the last few years a number of aging and deluded “masters” of various martial disciplines have suffered a rude awakening and often physical injury at the hands of fighters with real experience while attempting to prove their ability to harness the power of internal energy to fight. Similarly there are those who practice energy arts in search of healing, perhaps misled by teachers who promise that practice alone will cure whatever ailment they suffer from. Here the caveat must be added that energy work can and does have a role to play in healing, alongside medical treatment particularly but there are numerous cases where exponents seeking to gain a personal protective armour or magic pill nevertheless fall ill.

What then is the purpose of training this so-called internal energy and how may this best be done?

First it is important to realise that in the paradigm in which such energy is regarded as a tangible reality that can affect the human being in a range of ways, specifically in the case of the Chinese and Japanese martial arts, this energy is seen as pervading everything. While the individual has their own store, which may be increased or depleted, this energy is found throughout the universe external to the physical human organism. The Japanese healing practice of Reiki (Chinese Lingqi) simply means universal energy in Japanese, with spiritual energy being a translation of the Chinese, and similar practices are found in Chinese qigong; whereby one uses one’s personal store of energy (some of which can be sourced and reinforced using external energy) to heal others both in close proximity and at a distance.

In the martial arts this energy is used to generate seemingly superhuman power, or so its adherents believe. It may also be used defensively to protect the body from the damage that strikes and kicks might otherwise do. In the former example the increase in power is a result of the recognition of the psychophysical nature of the the human being and that, with careful training and coordination of all the components, physical, mental and emotional, superior results may be achieved.

The same applies to the latter case of using internal energy defensively, in that, on closer examination, the training involves a combination of muscle building and strengthening coordinated with specific breathing exercises that activate the body’s core muscles.

The practical value of training internal energy in the Chinese martial arts lies in the increased proprioception, interoception and the increased relaxation and coordination that results. The methodology used is most often a combination of breath, visualization and movement. Arising out of this comes increased tactile sensitivity, balance, and the ability to mobilise the body’s resources instantly and efficiently whether in defensive or offensive action. At the same time that these seemingly, primarily physical skills, are being developed the mind is also being trained to respond with mental equilibrium and relaxation to what otherwise would normally be stressful stimuli.

All of the above relates to training “internal energy” at the foundational and intermediate levels. It is at the more advanced levels, however, that the idea that this energy and its manipulation is at the personal beck and call of the individual becomes problematic. This is precisely because this energy is everywhere both inside and out. While personal training may allow one to harness some aspects this is due to the individual’s level of success at getting their own sense of a physical, mental and spiritual “I” out of the way so that the raw essence can manifest. In Daoist terms, this means the total acceptance of the fact that everything that is regarded as being an individual, separate, human being is in fact made up of and bound by the “laws” of the Dao. The key here lies in acceptance or surrender as it is termed in the Sufi rooted martial arts of Southeast Asia known as Silat. In Sufism the surrender is to the Divine. In Daoism the acceptance is of the Universal Dao and in Mahayana Buddhism of the Universal, omnipresent, and omniscient Buddha Nature. The relevance of these spiritual belief systems lies in the fact that they underpin many if not all the East Asian martial arts thus providing the theoretical and cultural basis for the practices themselves.  In India Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism perform a similar function.

Such acceptance or surrender is vital in allowing the exponent to become a conduit for this energy but it must be stressed that the usage of such power is believed to carry with it responsibilities and consequences should it be misused. In purely practical terms it is glaringly obvious to the objective observer that those who most often claim to be able to demonstrate their seeming ability to harness such superpowers, do not have them. Instead, they rely on trickery or compliant subjects, usually their own students.

Furthermore, the attainment of the requisite level of development of mind and body required to ‘access’ these higher levels of skill necessitate in the individual a level of self-cultivation in the form of hard physical and mental training which leads into the realms of what might be best described as the spiritual. In some systems of taijiquan, for example, the goal is described as “Spiritual Illumination” (nothing less than enlightenment). In Silat Tua (a system of traditional Malay martial arts) the ideal state is referred to as “Absorption in the Divine”!  It should not be surprising that much of the training at this level involves a variety of meditative and inward-turning practices.

As mentioned above, an essential prerequisite for accessing such supranormal power is acceptance or surrender, for any sense of personal ownership or access to this energy serves to hinder or completely block access to it. In Zhengzi taijiquan it is taught that the exponent should give up themselves to follow others, and that the “borrowing” of an opponent’s force is the most efficient way of dealing with an attack. Bruce Lee famously declared his own ideal state of being without a sense of personal agency as “I do not hit, it hits. The exact nature of this “it” is described variously in spiritual and popular language as “Being one with the Dao,” “Letting go and letting God”, or simply “Going with the flow”.

As has been expressed a number of times in this article, this energy, whether called Qi, Ki, Prana, or even Pneuma, is all pervading and might possibly best be described in terms often the exclusive domain of the world of Spirituality and Religion. Thus it is, throughout their history that the tradition of the Warrior Sage is to be found throughout the world and across very different cultures. It seems that the greater the power the more that it must be conjoined to the highest needs of civilization rather than the lowest. Thus, it is that in both Japanese and Chinese martial arts it is taught that the Martial and the Literary or Civil arts must be combined for the betterment of humanity.

Finally, it must be stated that there is a case to be made that such an energy might also be explored and/or understood as being the very stuff of the Divine is not human myth and history littered with the tales of the hubris of those who sought to harness and take on for themselves the attributes or role of the divine and what of Icarus or Prometheus…But that is a discussion for another article written by someone far more knowledgeable, wise, and erudite than myself.

© Nigel Sutton 2023