Awareness, Intention, Intelligence: the role of the Mind in Taoist martial arts

In the past, I’ve talked about four phases of internal development: structure, relaxation/softness, coordination, and intention. While there is a sequential aspect to developing each of these skills, they are more like threads in a cord, each one woven in with the others, strengthening each other, and developing along side each other. While the more physical skills of structure, softness, and coordination are essential, one aspect is more crucial (you could call it the key ingredient): the role of the Mind.

When I described the four phases, I talked about “intention,” but that’s only half of the story. All things in Taoist martial arts follow the Taiji principle: harmonization of opposites. Structure harmonizes with softness; coordination is the harmonizing of opposing forces and vectors of motion, and the role of the mind is the harmonization of intention and awareness. Put simply, if intention is the mind’s output, then awareness is its input. The two work in a constant cycle with each other. Through internal sensitivity, the mind gathers an enormous amount of data about your body-state, assessing your energetic pathways and your ability to transfer energy through them. This constant influx of information guides your intention as it leads your internal energy through your body to manifest as fluid, whole-body movement, or cansijin (silk-reeling power).

There is a saying in the Tai Chi Classics (a collection of writing from ancient Taoist martial arts masters). The saying goes: The yi (intention) moves the qi (energy) and the qi moves the body. While it does take some time to reach the point at which your body is completely relaxed and you feel that your mind moves your body rather than your muscles, this is not something you need to wait to magically appear after decades of practice: you can start working on this skill from day one. It begins with awareness. Most people spend most of their lives focusing their awareness externally. They focus on their careers, their homes, and their image; and spend very little time looking inward. They drive their bodies around like used cars with very little concern for the wear and tear they put on themselves. The result is a gap in the connection between their minds and their bodies, and the accumulation of repeated stress injuries attributed to “getting older.” By taking a few minutes each day to stand quietly and focus your attention inward, you can begin to deepen your sensitivity in your body. With patience and guidance, this increase in sensitivity will lead to improvements in alignment and a softer, more relaxed body-state. In short, you let go of tension and replace it with awareness and your body starts to fix itself.

As you become more sensitive, your Attention, becomes Intention, and you’ll begin to feel your internal energy. Though you may still be working on getting rid of some areas of weak alignment and habitual tension, if you are focused on moving your body with your mind and not your muscles from the beginning, the transformation from external movement to internal movement will be well underway. What’s more, you can begin to feel this in your first class. When taking this approach, the other aspects of development: structure, softness, and coordination, will develop almost automatically. When practicing taijiquan (or any other internal martial art) with as much Mind as possible, in each and every moment, the result is the development of body-intelligence. Intelligence is the manifestation of highly developed awareness and intention, and a body that is structured and soft enough to carry out the mind’s intent. When awareness and intention work together in tight enough cycles that you no longer can identify them as separate, and harmonious actions and responses manifest from you spontaneously in accordance with the circumstances of the moment, that is intelligence – the role of the Mind in Taoist martial arts.

Spirals as a means to generate force and adjust to change

One of the key features of Taoist martial arts is chan si jin: a method of coordinating legs, torso, and arms using spiraling movements.  Through the use of spirals, the Taoist martial artist can simultaneously deflect blows, generate power for striking and joint-locking, or throw his opponent to the ground.  What’s even more impressive is that spirals allow one to do all these things with a minimum of muscular effort.

Spirals play another key role in Taoist martial arts.  They allow the practitioner to adjust to forces used against him while maintaining his centeredness: a quality I call “changeability.”  Maintaining centeredness, a state of total mental and physical harmonious integration, can be said to be a Taoist’s primary goal.  Sophisticated spiral movement allows the Taoist martial artist to do this by simultaneously projecting (yang) and absorbing (yin) force around the “central-lines” of the body.  “Central-lines” is a term for the imaginary central-axis of the torso and limbs.  By rotating the mass of his torso and limbs while simultaneously drawing in and down or extending up and out, the Taoist martial artist creates spiraling force through his entire body.  While spiraling like this, incoming force – say from a push or grab – will be deflected off or pulled down and around the practitioner’s center.  By remaining sensitive and responsive to the slightest changes in direction of his opponent’s force, the Taoist will twist and spiral, remaining unaffected, and turning his opponent’s force against him.

Even though he generates great power and moves dynamically to adjust to external forces, his center remains calm, like the eye of a tornado.

As one last image for the effectiveness of spirals, imagine a drill.  A drill consists of two spirals: the blade (yang) and the groove (yin).  As the blade pushes its way into the intended material, dust moves its way back up the groove.  This illustrates how spirals can move opposing forces simultaneously along the same central-line without crashing the forces together.

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Attaining Center in Martial Arts and Life

You begin practice by setting your feet apart, directly under your shoulders, and parallel.  You take a deep but gentle breath in, setting your posture as straight as you can from the top of your head to the center of your feet.  Then you exhale and settle in, relaxing your arms by your sides.  Now the internal work begins.

You start by focusing your attention on your breath – seeing that your inhale and exhale are even and smooth.  You let go of any external concerns and allow yourself to be fully present, consuming your awareness in the task of feeling the subtle sensations of your inner body.  Then you begin to breathe with your lower torso, relaxing your low abdomen, waist, and lower back, and allow the whole area to gently expand on your inhale and relax on your exhale.

Then you mentally extend an energetic thread from the center of your pelvic floor and straight up through the core of your torso, neck, head, and a few feet beyond, anchoring it into space above you.  Now your entire body can begin to relax, remaining upright while suspended by this thread.

You begin by relaxing down through your scalp, and on through your neck and shoulders.  This feeling of letting go is like warm water washing over and through your skin, muscles, and bones.  You continue on, feeling the weight of your arms sink through your elbows, wrists, and fingertips.  You soften your chest and upper back and all down through your ribs and spine, as the warm water of relaxation seeps into your inner torso, washing down and through, all the way to your hips and pelvis.

As you relax below your ribs, you softly bend your hips and knees to accommodate the lengthening of your torso.  You guide your sinking energy down through the core of your legs, straight through the center of your hips, knees, and ankle joints.  Finally, you sink down through the centers of your feet, directly midway between your heels and the balls of your feet.

As you feel your energy emptying into the earth, carrying all tension down with it, you turn your attention to the support of the floor beneath your feet, pressing upward.  You allow this force to rise up through the centers of your feet and the core of your legs.  You bring it to culminate at the center of your pelvis and extend up the central thread of your torso, all the way to the top of your head.  You pause a moment, basking in the sensation of neutral, effortless balance in your body, as you hang supported from below, your energy simultaneously sinks and rises internally.

The entire process may have taken you two to three minutes – you plan to stand for thirty.  As the minutes pass, you continue to bring relaxation and awareness to any points in your body that block the downward flow or supportive rise of your energy.  Layer by layer you let go more and more, feeling simultaneously more grounded and increasingly weightless.  Though you are outwardly still, your body is filled with a growing readiness for any and all possibilities.

You are centered.

The standing, meditative practice described above is Zhan Zhuang (translated as “standing post”), an important part of Taoist internal martial arts, but to someone just learning about this practice, it can seem strange and impractical.  On the one hand, you may ask: how can standing in place for long periods of time help someone become better at fighting?  On the other hand, one might ask: how can you meditate standing up?  These are both very reasonable questions, and they lead to answers that strike at the heart of the Taoist philosophy and its applications to martial arts and life.

Taoist philosophy follows the Taiji principle: harmonization of opposites in order to maintain balance.  Martially, this means that a Taoist does not try to oppose his opponent’s strength with his own.  Rather, a Taoist focuses on maintaining his own center, and adjusts to his opponent’s force accordingly.  For example, if my opponent pulls me by my wrist, I won’t pull back in the opposite direction, but instead I will follow the direction of his pull while maintaining my balance and then change the direction of his force to my advantage.  In this way, I add his strength to mine and apply my strength where he is weak.  If he pushes against my chest, I don’t push back; instead I turn, and allow his force to fall past me.  As he loses balance, I touch him on the back and send him tumbling away.  Neither of these responses would be possible if I was not centered.  By remaining at the most neutral point of balance in my body, and being willing to yield to force and staying unbiased in my actions, I am able to adjust to the changes my opponent tries to impose upon me.  By changing with him while staying centered, I cause him to unbalance himself.  Then victory is easy to achieve.  If I do not stand post, how will I know my center?  If I do not know my center, how can I adjust to change?

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Breathing in Wuji

Breath is an aspect of posture.  Posture is an aspect of breath.  In a single word: relax.

When we breathe, particularly if we breathe properly, our entire structure shifts.  Our spine bends, our sacrum tucks, our ribs expand, our belly and waist expand, the muscles in our throat and pelvic floor contract, and even our hips and shoulders may make minor shifts.

On the other side of the coin, misalignments and chronic patterns of tension and weakness in our body structure may inhibit breath participation in certain areas of the body and permit too much expansion in other areas.  Therefore, proper postural alignment plays a key role in efficient breathing.

As a whole, with a couple of key points on posture, the way to proper alignment and efficient breathing is relaxation.  Relaxing – with a continuously deepening awareness of your inner body – generates a gradual process of “letting go” of chronic tension, both in postural and breathing muscles.  This “letting go” also begins to shift the way your structure distributes weight, allowing tense/tight muscles to begin to naturally lengthen and encourages weaker/underused muscles to take on more of the work.  In essence, a more even and efficient distribution of weight is achieved, and the body begins to work as it is designed: an architectural wonder for neutralizing gravity’s pull.

As this occurs, “letting go” also allows the body structure to shift slightly – as it should – as our breath creates gentle, internal changes in pressure.  Furthermore, gentle, focused breathing along with “letting go” (both physically and mentally) brings more blood flow to the muscles and nerves (especially to chronically tight areas beginning to loosen up).  This oxygenates the muscles and nerves and helps the body and mind to further relax.

Applying Taoist concepts for internal development

The goal and purpose of tai chi (also taiji) practice is to develop a body and mind that functions by the tai chi principle. That principle is the harmonization of opposites so that perfect balance is maintained. There are three key concepts to understand before you can begin to apply this principle effectively: Wuji, Yin-Yang, and Taiji.


Wuji literally translates as “without ridgepole, or without extreme.”  (A ridgepole is the beam that separates the two halves of a roof in common Chinese architecture.) The meaning conveyed is that wuji is a non-polar state, or a state of non-separation – total oneness.

Yin and Yang represent opposites that are mutually dependent. Examples include day and night, hard and soft, north and south, and so on. In terms of integrating the yin-yang concept with wuji, think of yin and yang as the two polar opposites which wuji can be divided into.

Taiji literally translates as “great extreme or great ridgepole,” which is to convey that taiji is a polar state in which opposing extremes are present. Taiji is the state in which yin and yang are harmonized into a single dynamic system of balanced forces.

Plugging our understanding of these three terms back into our definition of the tai chi principle, we can say:

The tai chi principle is the harmonization of yin and yang so that wuji can be maintained.

Using this definition of the tai chi principle, we can begin to discuss the process of personal development of tai chi skill. There are essentially two aspects to the practice of tai chi: the mental and physical development aspect for health and wellness, and the martial art aspect.

1. Structure: Structure is based upon the wuji concept of no extremes, or neutrality.  In terms of personal alignment, this is done through vertical stacking of the skeletal structure.  This vertical stacking is facilitated through balanced muscle tone throughout the body (meaning that muscles and soft connective tissues are not too tight or overstretched, causing imbalanced forces on joints and misalignment in skeletal structure).  In terms of relationship to others (martially), this wuji neutrality is found in reference to central relationship (an imaginary line that connects your center to another person’s).  At all times during contact, the limbs are aligned to create maximal connection between your center and your opponent’s center with no energetic leaks or blocks, and therefore minimal muscular effort or stress.


2. Relaxation/Softness:  To some degree, this phase of development both depends upon and happens as a byproduct of structure.  In terms of personal development, relaxation is about having a permeable body state.  This means that there is no excess tension in the body, and that there is enough strength and flexibility of the muscles and connective tissues so that the body can transfer force through its structure without leaks or blocks.  This is the other side of the coin from structure.  In terms of relationship (martially), softness refers to our general response to force, namely that we don’t resist force with force.  We yield to it.  This is the first step to making adjustments to maintain your wuji.  It’s also important to understand that wuji means energetic independence.  It’s our center (our balance point) and the reference point for all our adjustments to change.

3.  Coordination:  Both structure and relaxation refers to semi-passive, neutral states.  They refer to the attainment of a wuji body.  Coordination is the skill of movement (specifically of adjusting to change) that maintains wuji at all times.  This means that yin and yang are at play.  Keeping yin and yang in harmony within one’s own movements is Taiji-gongfu.  The skill of Taiji (yin-yang harmony) is acquired through long hours of focused effort.  In terms of martial relationship, this skill means adjusting to changes of space and force so that you can maintain your vertical alignment and soft body state (personal wuji) and your neutral alignment to central relationship (relational wuji).  Coordination with your opponent is the art of harmonious adjustment so that you can maintain your wuji.

4.  Intent:  This is the stage of infusing the body with mind.  In truth, this is happening throughout the previous phases of your training.  It is the culmination of structure, softness, and coordination, and it is the letting go of all three.  At this point, Taiji is the way you think, act, and move.  That said, there is a stage of development at which the way you generate power shifts from physical action to mental intention.  In terms of martial relationship, this is spontaneous, correct action. Correct because it is in perfect harmony with the forces acting on you.  Your awareness grasps (or is already grasping) the process of change and your mind and body make adjustments automatically.  This “automatic” adjustment relies upon your development in the first three stages, and then your “body-mind” becomes a sort of computing system for adjusting to change, with the tai chi principle as its soft-wear.

In stillness, yin and yang integrate into one: wuji. In motion, yin and yang separate: taiji. Both are states of balance. If we establish wuji, and focus on maintaining it in motion, the inevitable result is taiji.


How the Kung fu spirit can help you achieve your New Year’s resolutions

The title of this blog isn’t necessarily suggesting that you should set a goal to study Chinese martial arts (although it is a fun and practical way to improve your health and fitness); it’s suggesting that you put in the time and effort necessary to achieve the positive transformations you desire in the New Year.

photo by Tomasz Gudzowaty

photo by Tomasz Gudzowaty

The term kung fu (or Gong fu) is a compound of two words: kung/gong (which means “work” or “achievement”) and fu (which means “effort over time”).  Taken together, kung fu refers to any skill achieved through hard work over a long period of time.  Kung fu’s association with Chinese martial arts is largely due to a Western misunderstanding of the term’s use in martial arts films.  To say someone “has good kung fu” is to say that he has put in the time and effort necessary to achieve a high level of skill.  The term can equally apply to martial arts, cooking, playing an instrument, or sports.

So how does kung fu apply to your New Year’s resolutions?

An attitude has been growing in popularity that New Year’s resolutions are a joke, because no one keeps them anyway, and so the popular resolution is not to make one.  It’s sad when we resign to wishing but never reaching, because the reality of our goals seems so far away.  This is where kung fu comes in.  Kung fu focuses on the process, not the result.  It encourages us to keep our eyes on the path and put in some time and effort every day.

As 21st century Westerners, we’ve come to expect immediate results with minimal effort.  This expectation can often discourage us when we realize that the physical and spiritual improvements we desire won’t manifest after a single dose of effort.  However, if we can embrace the attitude of kung fu and expect that our goals for transformation and growth are meant to be achieved in small increments over long periods of time, one day we will look up and realize our goal has been achieved, having forgotten it long ago, when the work needed to accomplish it became a habit.

Dharmic Awareness

Most of us are familiar with the concept of karma – the idea that our actions begin a cycle of cause and effect that eventually gets back to us.  So, if you do good deeds, the positive waves of change you create will eventually come back to you as positive experiences.  If you do bad deeds, eventually negative experiences will be your reward.  Based on this simple explanation of the Law of Karma, it seems easy enough to have a stress-free, joyous life: just be a decent human being.  But it rains on the good and bad alike, so maybe the whole idea of karma is wrong…or maybe it’s just not that simple.

It’s a part of being a living, breathing human being that we will run into challenges and hard times.  Nobody, no matter how “good,” escapes such times.  The subtlety of karma is that it has to do with the way you respond to changing circumstances in order to maintain spiritual balance, or equanimity.

At any given moment, on any given day, there is a right course of action for you so that you maintain spiritual balance and continue to grow.  That course of action is your dharma – a way of behaving that is in accord with the natural order of the universe and your place in it.  There is a time for speech and a time for silence, a time to advance and a time to remain still – and it isn’t the same for anyone.  Every situation is unique and every individual is one of a kind, so to an extent, what’s right for you today may change a bit tomorrow.  I’m not talking about the big things; I’m talking about subtleties of decision-making and interactions with others.

So if the right course of action is always changing, how do you know what to do?  The answer is dharmic awareness, and the good news is we all have it.

Dharmic awareness is that feeling you sometimes get when you know you’re about to say the wrong things, or you realize the best thing you can do for someone at that moment is listen.  Dharmic awareness is knowing the right thing to do in any given moment of your life.  It may also reveal to you the right thing to do with the rest of your life.  So if we all have dharmic awareness, why don’t we always know what the right thing to do is?  In a word – ego.  Not the ego of individual identity; not the ego of self-confidence.  Knowing who you are and feeling good about yourself is great.  The ego I’m talking about is the one that is driven by fears, desires, anxieties, and ambitions.  It’s the part of you that says “the heck with anyone else, this is what I want – or this is what I absolutely won’t stand for.”  It’s the part of you that drowns out awareness with the noise of how you want things to be.

To quiet your ego and reconnect to your dharmic awareness, you must meditate.  If sitting quietly just doesn’t work for you, moving meditations like tai chi and yoga can work just as well.  The key is to breathe and actively open your awareness.  Stay inwardly quiet and outwardly gentle and patient.  Cultivate the skill of observing your own inner processes of thought and emotion.  Be more conscious of what you do and say in your interactions with others and sensitize yourself to the effect your actions have.  Learn to see everything as waves of cause and effect rippling out from you to others and back again.  Aim to keep these ripples calm and nurturing.  Be quick to compliment and express love or appreciation, and be slow to criticize or judge.  Soon you’ll notice yourself begin to develop a sense for your right course of action that will guide you through each moment of every day.


Internal Martial Arts, External Martial Arts, Hard Style, and Soft Style – What does it all mean?

We hear these terms so often, to describe so many different kinds of martial arts, that they begin to lose all meaning.

After many years of studying martial arts, I’ve formed specific definitions of my own. In the spirit of making terms precise enough for everyday use, I offer them to you.

I’ll start with hard style and soft style:

Darsana Martial - Hard & Soft StyleThe terms hard and soft, when relating to the martial arts, imply a way of dealing with your opponent’s force. In essence, hard styles meet their opponent’s force with force, using solid blocks, strong postures, and powerful attacks fueled by strength, mass, and speed. Soft styles on the other hand attempt to blend with their opponent’s force, using fluid movements and timing to avoid, deflect, and redirect their opponent’s attacks.

Think of hard and soft as two extremes at either end of a continuum, with hard style being a complete force meets force head-on approach, and soft style being a complete blending of forces in total harmony approach. Most styles of martial arts fall somewhere in between.

Aren’t external martial arts and internal martial arts the same as hard style and soft style? Not exactly….

External & Internal Martial Arts - Darsana

Internal martial arts, as the name implies, is focused on what’s happening inside of you: inside your body and inside your mind. An internal martial artist spends a lot of time turning his awareness inward, and cultivating sensitivity to the balance of relaxation and tension in his body. While keeping his joints aligned and his muscles relaxed, he can use his intention, his willpower, to transfer energy through his body. By energy, I mean force. Not “The Force” (as in “Use the Force, Luke”), but actual, physical force.  When this internal force is projected out, say through a palm strike, it’s called Fa jin, or explosive force.

External Martial Arts - DarsanaExternal martial arts on the other hand, focus on posture, position, technique, tactics and other…external stuff. To an external practitioner, the most important thing is how he moves in relation to his opponent. All the aspects of a system of martial arts that answer the question: “What do I do if my opponent does this?” are external aspects.

And this means…?

It means a martial artist can be an external practitioner of a soft style, an internal practitioner of a hard style, or any other combination. Personally, I think a combination of all of the above makes for the best martial arts. The hard approach breaks down against a bigger, stronger opponent. The soft approach will require some of the hard to get the job done. Internal development without external skill has no outlet, and external skill is limited to athletic ability without internal development.

The trick is to understand how each aspect compliments the others. There are a few good schools out there that strike that balance. This is one of them. Wherever you choose to train, evaluate your own practices. Ask yourself if you can enhance what you already do by adding in some aspect of the other approaches. Broaden your horizons and never stop learning.

“I have not invented a ‘new style,’ composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from ‘this’ method or ‘that’ method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.” – Bruce Lee

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What is “Martial Arts”?

If we put aside style or system, if we forget about ancient or modern, east or west, and instead simply focus on the nature of human movement, the nature of fighting, and the nature of mental, physical, and spiritual development – what is the result? The result is a process of training through which an individual can realize their greatest potential. That is what martial arts means to me.

This is not to say that there is nothing to learn from a specific style, or that one should discard traditional martial arts for modern methods. My point is to seek the universal, underlying truths which bind all martial arts together.

When I study and when I teach, I approach martial arts from the point of view of principles. Through this lens, the dividing lines that separate particular styles or techniques melt away and reveal that they are all variations on the same set of principles that underlay the function of all human actions. When you see martial arts through this lens the validity of every style or system becomes readily apparent, and each can offer valuable insight into your own pursuit of skill.

yinyangIn my own search for martial truth, I have come to see all things reduce down to one simple principle: the Taiji principle. Many people will recognize the yin-yang symbol.

That symbol is actually the Taiji symbol. The black and white halves represent yin and yang in harmony. The circle which contains them is wuji, or “no extremes.” A way to think about this principle is as the perfect harmony of complementary opposites. That is what Taiji means. In literal translation it means “supreme ultimate” and “supreme ultimate-less.” That is to say, it is the supreme ultimate principle that encompasses all things in the universe, yet is not limited by them.

Now, the question may be asked: how does this idea translate into a practical guide to action?

It starts by breaking everything up into complementary pairs: closed and open, resistance and give, present and absent, push and pull, and so on, and then work to harmonize those complementary pairs.Push and pull, for example, are employed together to create circular forces used in takedowns. The push-pull forces applied in the double leg takedown are essentially the same as those used in sumi gaeshi, only from reversed positions. One may even be used as a counter to the other, depending on who is more in control of their center, and has better timing and sensitivity.

Take Down - Darsana

Harmony of absence and presence can be seen in evade and counter tactics. Both the Wing Chun counter-kick and the slip and counter punch utilize this same principle. The opponent is striking at space. If you are absent from that space, you will not be hit. Furthermore, the opponent’s commitment to attack has fixed his position, making him unable to be absent from your counter attack. In other words, his targets are present for you to strike.


Another example is harmony of closed and open. The Escrimador uses a parry to deflect his opponent’s thrusting blade closing one line of attack and opening another for his own cut. The same harmony is employed by the JKD practitioner using a punch to simultaneously close the line his opponent is punching down as he opens a new line for a punch of his own.


We can see harmony of opposites in close quarter combat as well. Both chi sao practitioners and grapplers use sensitivity to identify where their opponent is resisting strongly and where his structure gives in order to slip through the gaps in his posture and apply their own force where the opponent is weakest. They harmonize with their opponent rather than struggle with him.


Most of us can think of a moment where something we did seemed to be just barely successful, yet we did it automatically and with full confidence, as though we were in tune with all the forces at work around us and within us – total harmony. If you haven’t experienced that feeling, you’ve probably seen it while watching sports. An athlete, in the zone, did everything right just at the right moment. When this happens it seems effortless and obvious, but it takes incredible effort to develop a level of skill that makes the extraordinary seem simple and ordinary. In other words, gong fu.

In actual training, the taiji principle is expanded upon and many sub-principles are used to describe and guide actions for particular effects and circumstances. The principle does not replace the need to practice technique. It acts as a beacon to guide that practice and draw all your techniques into a single mental and physical state.

The purpose of this blog is simply to share whatever insights I may have gained during my study and practice in the martial arts. They are one man’s thoughts. That is all. I am happy if they aid you in your pursuit of skill.

“We have two hands and two legs. The important thing is: how can we use them to the maximum?” – Bruce Lee