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Internal and External
What's the difference?
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Martial artists divide martial arts into many categories--much as this site categorizes different styles. Besides simple alphabetical sorting, you can divide martial arts along a number of axes: Chinese vs. Japanese vs. Korean, Asian vs. European vs. American, striking vs. grappling, hard vs. soft, or internal vs. external. Most of these distinctions are self-explanatory--an art might have started in the Shaolin Temple of China, or in the mountains of Korea, or in the streets of Brazil. An art includes striking techniques, or it doesn't--in which case it probably is made up of seizing, grasping, manipulating, and throwing moves. Some distinctions are harder to see at first glance.

One such distinction is that between internal and external martial arts. External martial arts refer to those that rely on the body's external attributes, such as muscular strength and rigidity, skin and bone toughness, or technique speed and power to be effective. Most striking arts, including karate, muay thai, or tae kwon do, lie within the "external" category. Karate practitioners used to toughen their knuckles by striking a makiwara, or striking post, until heavy calluses formed on their hands. Tae kwon do stylists pride themselves on breaking boards, tiles, and bricks with forceful kicks. Muay thai fighters often lack feeling in their shins, the result of using their lower legs as clubs against their opponents.

External martial artists use force against force--a shotokan karate outside block, for example, is more an attack against the opponent's limb than a means to avoid the attack. When performing the block, shotokan practitioners are told to tense the arm muscles at the point of impact to better absorb the shock and transfer damage to the opponent. Contrast this with a kung fu open-hand parry, which follows the line of an incoming punch, catches up in speed, then actually speeds up the attacking fist, except in a direction away from the kung fu stylist. In order to perform this "block", the kung fu practitioner must be relaxed and loose--definitely not tense.

Internal martial arts focus on the martial artist's internal attributes, such as focus, timing, awareness, and precision of technique. The slow movement of a tai chi master's forms might seem inadequate for combat--however, when needed, the master can speed up his movements to match that of his opponent, blending with the attacks and using the attacker's body weight and momentum against himself. Aikido, with its emphasis on blending with the attacker's movement and guiding him or her into the technique, is a classic example of an internal martial art. The following table describes some attributes of both categories:

Internal vs. External
Internal External
Blending with an attack Stopping an attack
Yielding Struggling
Power comes from within Power comes from outside
Relaxed Tense
Fluid Defined
Slow forms Fast kata
Finesse Power
Indirect Direct
Circular Linear
Accepting what is Fighting against it
Acknowledging the limitations of the self Denying any vulnerabilities
Winning without fighting is best Destroying your opponent

This list can go on and on, but the distinctions are clear. Neither type of martial art is "better" than the other--both can be equally effective in the same situations.

No discussion of internal martial arts is complete without the notion of chi. The pinnacle of internal martial arts is the cultivation of chi, the mystical "Force" that powers all things in the universe. Although the discussion of chi (or ki, or qi) takes an entire article, let it suffice to say that this mystical energy is the focus and center of many martial arts. Whether it truly exists or not is still debatable, but as the foundation for many martial arts styles and practices of medicine, its perceived effects are profound.

I postulate that all martial artists evolve from external to internal, regardless of the art they study. People who study arts commonly accepted as "internal", such as aikido or tai chi, start out merely understanding the techniques as body motions--ways to have their muscles move their limbs--an external understanding. In time, they learn the centering, balance, and awareness of the arts' internal natures. People who are dedicated students of classically "external" martial arts, like karate or tae kwon do, gain an awareness of maai (distance and time) that evolves their art into a more internal one over years of study.

What, in the art that you study, can help you evolve as a martial artist? Regardless of your chosen art, you can find elements in it that will help you advance and progress as a martial artist. Seek out these things; you will grow and be further along your way.

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