“Why do you like Shaolin so much? It’s just a lot of moving around.”
Internal and external (or inner and outer forms) are a way of defining two main branches of Kung Fu systems. The terms can also mean forms that are innately Chinese as opposed to originating outside of China’s boundaries. Shaolin is considered external, which could refer to either its dynamic, explosive, expansive movements, or the fact that it came from outside of China, and calling T’ai Chi an internal system could refer to the fact that it looks sedate and self-contained, or that it evolved within China. Consistent with the Chinese world-view of the individual as a microcosmic representation of the macro-cosmic world, internal forms are those that take place within a person’s frame — within the boundaries of ones skin.
No matter how external and internal kung fu is defined, there are measurable, qualitative differences between the external forms (waija), and the internal forms (nei gong or neija). The former stresses relaxation, breath, energy and reflection, while the latter, emphasizes power, speed, exertion and agility. External forms could be considered more superficial, while internal forms, more deep. All kung fu systems have inner forms associated with them (for example, Shaolin forms and Yi Gun Gin) even if they are external systems, so you can only go deeper and deeper as you progress.
Internal forms often coordinate breath with movement, with a watchful minds-eye, while external forms concentrate solely on dynamic movements with the intention of doing them with more and more power and strength. One need only look at Cung Li in action to see the levels of coordinated strength that is within the human potential. Grandmaster Peter Kwok once said to me, “Why do you like Shaolin so much? It’s just a lot of moving around.” I was in my twenties at the time, and he in his fifties. The fact that I had been under Sifu Kuo for five years and learned only two and a half forms probably accounted for a lot of that. Learning so many advanced Northern Shaolin forms was a treat after five years of all the repetitous drilling of so few forms under Kuo.
I would not have gravitated (no pun intended) towards T’ai Chi Ch’uan without diminishing returns from Shaolin. Over the decades, my efforts were resulting in fatique and injuries. Northern Shaolin was always exhilarating and never perfected, but it was just time to stop “just moving around” and get serious with T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Does it increase energy and longevity? I guess I won’t know the latter for a while, but I find the former to be entirely true. T’ai Chi practice gives you energy; for work, play or just feeling good.
No kung fu exercise or prayer or meditation has ever overcome the inevitable end of life. This having been said, faith, positive thought, connection to each other and belief in good outcomes are crucial to health, energy, and right action. T’ai Chi Ch’uan Push Hands offers a glimpse into the invisible. When confronted with a skilled player, there does seem to be something mystical afoot. I have dropped to the floor from a light touch, and felt mystified. When I do that to others, I explain what I did after wards, but I realize that it is the result of years of daily practice rather than a specific technique. The notions have been internalized.