Nèijiā (Chinese: 內家; literally: "internal school") is a term in Chinese martial arts, grouping those styles that practice nèijìng (Chinese: 內勁; literally: "internal strength"), usually translated as internal martial arts, occupied with spiritual, mental or qi-related aspects, as opposed to an "external" (Chinese: 外; pinyin: wài) approach focused on physiological aspects. The distinction dates to the 17th century, but its modern application is due to publications by Sun Lutang, dating to the period of 1915 to 1928. Nèijìng is developed by using "nèigōng" (內功), or "internal exercises," as opposed to "wàigōng" (外功), "external exercises."
Wǔdāngquán is a more specific grouping of internal martial arts named for their association with the Taoist monasteries of Wudangshan range, Hubei Province in Chinese popular legend. These styles were enumerated by Sun Lutang as Tàijíquán, Xíngyìquán and Bāguàzhǎng, but most also include Bājíquán and the legendary Wudang Sword.
Some other Chinese arts, not in the Wudangquan group, such as Qigong (Chikung), Liuhebafa, Bak Mei Pai, Zi Ran Men (Nature Boxing), Bok Foo Pai and Yiquan are frequently classified (or classify themselves) as "internal".
The reason for the label "internal", according to most schools, is that there is a focus on the internal aspects earlier in the training, once these internal relationships are apprehended (the theory goes) they are then applied to the external applications of the styles in question.
Sun Lutang identified the following as the criteria that distinguish an internal martial art:
- An emphasis on the use of the mind to coordinate the leverage of the relaxed body as opposed to the use of strength.
- The internal development, circulation, and expression of qì, the "vital energy" of classical Chinese philosophy.
- The application of Taoist dǎoyǐn, qigong , and nèigōng (內功) principles of external movement.
Sun Lutang's eponymous style of t'ai chi ch'uan fuses principles from all three arts he named as neijia. Similarities applying classical principles between taiji, xingyi, and baquazhang include: Loosening (song) the soft tissue, opening shoulder and hip gates or gua, cultivating qi or intrinsic energy, issuing various jin or compounded energies. Taijiquan is characterized by an ever present peng jin (掤勁) or expanding energy. Xingyiquan is characterized by its solely forward moving pressing ji jin (斤勁) or Axing energy. Baguazhang is characterized by its “dragon body” circular movements. Some Chinese martial arts other than the ones Sun named also teach what are termed internal practices, despite being generally classified as external (e.g. Wing Chun that also is internal). Some non-Chinese martial arts also claim to be internal. e.g. Aikido, I Liq Chuan, and Kito Ryu. Many martial artists, especially outside of China, disregard the distinction entirely. Some neijia schools refer to their arts as "soft style" martial arts.
External styles (外家, pinyin: wàijiā; literally "external family") are characterized by fast and explosive movements and a focus on physical strength and agility. External styles include both the traditional styles focusing on application and fighting, as well as the modern styles adapted for competition and exercise. Examples of external styles are Shaolinquan, with its direct explosive attacks and many Wushu forms that have spectacular aerial techniques. External styles begin with a training focus on muscular power, speed and application, and generally integrate their qigong aspects in advanced training, after their desired "hard" physical level has been reached.
Some say that there is no differentiation between the so-called internal and external systems of the Chinese martial arts, while other well known teachers have expressed differing opinions.
Internal styles focus on awareness of the spirit, mind, qi ("energy") and the use of relaxed (sōng 鬆) leverage rather than muscular tension. Pushing hands is a training method commonly used in neijia arts to develop sensitivity and softness.
Much time may nevertheless be spent on basic physical training, such as stance training (zhan zhuang ), stretching and strengthening of muscles, as well as on empty hand and weapon forms which can be quite demanding.
Some forms in internal styles are performed slowly, although some include sudden outbursts of explosive movements (Fā Jìn, 發勁), such as those the Chen style of Taijiquan is famous for teaching earlier than some other styles (Some techniques as Silk Reeling) e.g. Yang and Wu. The reason for the generally slow pace is to improve coordination and balance by increasing the work load, and to require the student to pay minute attention to their whole body and its weight as they perform a technique. At an advanced level, and in actual fighting, internal styles are performed quickly, but the goal is to learn to involve the entire body in every motion, to stay relaxed, with deep, controlled breathing, and to coordinate the motions of the body and the breathing accurately according to the dictates of the forms while maintaining perfect balance.
Many internal schools teach forms that are practised for health benefits only. Thus, T'ai chi ch'uan in spite of its roots in martial arts has become similar in scope to Chikung, the purely meditative practice based on notions of circulation of Chi. With purely a health emphasis, T'ai chi classes have become popular in hospitals, clinics, community and senior centers in the last twenty years or so, as baby boomers age and the art's reputation as a low stress training for seniors became better known.
Traditionalists feel that a school not teaching martial aspects somewhere in their syllabus cannot be said to be actually teaching the art itself, that they have accredited themselves prematurely. Traditional teachers also believe that understanding the core theoretical principles of neijia and the ability to apply them are a necessary gateway to health benefits.
The "Song" Key Edit
The key to unlock and nurture Neijing is said to be the practice of ‘song’ (Traditional Chinese: 鬆 ). The term ‘song’ can function as a verb which means to keep one’s mind and body loose resilient and expanding like the consistency of cotton or clouds or relaxed yet concentrated like the sharp alertness of cats immediately before attack. The term can also be used as an adjective which has the same meaning as described above. The greater the extent one can achieve ‘song’ and minimize the use of Li, the greater the release of Neijing force.
Neijing trainees are often reminded to refrain from using the Li force, because the energy of Neijing will be locked and blocked whenever the Li force is applied. So, Neijing and Li are said to be mutually exclusive.
The Taijiquan master Yang Chengfu used the concept of ‘song’ as a benchmark in his daily teaching. It was his daily routine to keep reminding his disciples to ‘song’ thoroughly more than 10 times when he inspected them.