Internal Vs. External: Which Is More Important?


Dr Paul Lam
It’s like the chicken and the egg. Internal. External. Which comes first? What is the priority?
Internal Vs. External: Which Is More Important?

It’s like the chicken and the egg. Internal. External. Which comes first? What is the priority?

Let me answer that right away. They need each other, and you, as a tai chi practitioner, need them both. But sometimes, they can get out of balance. Say you focus heavily on the internal aspects and your external attributes are not there, then, no matter how much you try, you won’t be able to reach a high standard in tai chi. For example, if your body isn’t upright, if there’s no strength at all, and if you’re looking downward, then your level of tai chi suffers, even though you’re concentrating and working well on the internal component. On the other hand, if you have an externally correct upright posture, your stances are lower, and you’re performing very athletic movements, without the internal component you won’t be doing high level tai chi either. The internal components, shen (spirit), yi (mind) and qi (life energy) take time to grow. (See my other articles “What is Internal:” “Yi and Quan” and “Qi and Quan“) Good tai chi is a result of making the internal and the external work together and bringing out the best of each other. In other words, integrate the internal and the external.

Starting from the basics, to integrate you must be able to recognize the internal and the external. Visualize yourself performing a tai chi movement with your body upright and your eyes straight ahead. Now check yourself using a mirror or video. Were you really upright? Really looking straight ahead? If not, then you’re not on the road to integration. So spend time checking the basic postures and movements, and then correlate them into all your forms and feel the difference in your internal power!. (The basics are the most difficult and time consuming to correct but well worth the effort in the long run.)

Once these are done, you need to focus your mind on tranquillity, and notice how it correlates with your movements. If your movements are jerky, chances are your mind is not tranquil. Train yourself from both approaches-steady your movements and tranquilize your mind. This is part of mastering the yi (mind) directing the body.

Next, become aware of your qi (vital energy) and its correlation to the body. When your joints and muscles are loose and relaxed, your qi flows better, and when your qi sinks to the dan-tian, your body is supple and strong. Mentally watch and feel your qi. “Loosen” the body to bring out more qi.

Naturally everyone has qi circulating in one’s body (qi comes with birth and leave the body at death), and once trained in tai chi, you will the ability to feel your qi. The more correctly you execute your tai chi, the more you are enhancing your qi. Better posture, tranquility and mind power improve qi. Feel and circulate the qi to bring about the correct posture of the body. This is part of yi driving the qi.

When a practitioner starts working on integrating the internal and the external, he focuses on the essential principles and the bigger issues. He becomes less concerned about minor things such as where his little finger should be pointing at any one time. Minor variations between the styles are not important as long as the external appearance complements and works well with the internal. Those are the “core values” we need to concentrate on.

What if while you’re practising, your mind is full of “should do’s,” for example, body straight, shoulder joints loose, coordinate body with breathing? There are numerous things to be aware of with one single movement and that can be distracting, causing the body to lose focus and balance. The way to overcome all this is to, first, practise only one or two aspects for a period of time until they becomes integrated in your body. Then move on to the next aspect. For example spend one month to ensure your body being upright and the next month at looking eyes level. Be sure to check yourself with your instructor, friend, mirror or video camera.

Integrating the external and internal probably sounds daunting to you, and it does take time. But keep in mind that every step forward in your efforts will improve your tai chi and make you feel great. The depth of tai chi is based on integrating internal and external, and is the reason why I find tai chi so fascinating.