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Monday, April 23, 2012

Breathing is key to internal arts

By Glenn Gossling
Excerpt from Qi Magazine
Issue 70, January 2003

In the West, the difference between internal and external is also further confused by another complementary pair of terms – hard and soft. A hard art is often seen as one that uses big fast movements and is physically demanding where as a soft art is one that is slow and gentle in as clear cut or as simple as people may think. The answer is that movements do not have to be soft and gentle to be internal and conversely just because a movement is soft and gentle does not automatically make it internal. A slow movement can be tense and if movements are ‘too soft’ they can compromise the posture and structure of the body. It is the principle of have three foundations:

1. Posture
2. Breathing
3. Relaxation

It is not the external appearance that counts but what is going on inside. In Kung Fu you are aiming at an ideal of correct posture, with relaxed breathing and movements throughout. Certainly, this presents a challenge to most people. It is not easy to do a form at full pace, without tension in the muscles and finish with your breathing as relaxed and calm as if you had been sitting meditating, but if you practice enough it is possible.

It is possible because the correct posture allows you to breathe more deeply and use your body’s energy more efficiently. It is possible because a correct use of the body’s structure means that all the body’s movements are interconnected and not dependent on the isolated tensing and relaxing of muscles. In fact this is key to the difference between an internal and an external style. The internal style is not tense. Its movements can be big, fast, hard, and powerful but they are not tense and they do not compromise the internal structure of the body.

Because the muscles are not tense they do not use so much energy or oxygen. Usually tensed muscle sets are working against each other making the movements rigid, which is a double waste of energy and oxygen. This is not what is aimed at in Kung Fu. The movements should be powerful and fluid. The aim is to maximise your energy and oxygen consumption so that your breathing can remain relaxed, because again the act of breathing itself can usea large proportion of the body’s oxygen.

All internal arts have a focus on breathing. This is perhaps because the lungs are one of the easiest of the internal organs to control. It is a lot easier to regulate your breathing than it is to control the secretions of the spleen for instance. The lung is the most ‘external’of the internal organs. Posture and relaxation can be used to affect the breathing and once the breathing is brought under control it will have a beneficial effect on the other internal organs. This is the principle we see in most forms of Qigong. The same is true of Kung Fu with the difference that at the same time it also challenges the physical body.

None of this is easy. To develop the body’s conditioning to a level where ‘hard’ forms can be performed ‘softly’ using large ‘external’movements' with internal energy requires a lot of work. If it didn’tit wouldn’t be called Kung Fu.