Archive for the ‘Concepts & Principles’ Category

Methods of forms practice

While the merits of forms training are debated, the point of this post is to discuss methods of practicing forms, their purpose, what you can get out of them , and how.

Forms practice is one of many training tools. A tool is only of value if used correctly. If you are silly enough to think that after 20 years of practicing your forms alone you will magically be able to fight you are an idiot.

The only way to be good at fighting is to fight a lot. There are many drills (forms training is one of those) that can help you develop skills to work up to that eventuality, but again the only way to be good at fighting is to fight. Once you have some experience you can discover what skills you need to develop. However let’s talk about what you can gain by practicing forms.

In general in traditional arts forms consist of a catalog of techniques. Each system has a set of principles at it’s core. Practicing these forms with the correct instruction allows you to better understand and ingrain those principles and the fundamentals of the system. Many systems teach the forms with a basic footwork, then other footwork patterns to teach other principles and skills. Some systems have an out door version of the forms done on a line but an indoor student is taught that different techniques have unique footwork and positioning on the opponent that are needed for the technique to actually work. You will see people practice forms in different methods such as very slow and flowing and that same person do the same form Fast with explosive power. Both methods are used to develop different aspects of your art. This is a good training method as everything has Yin and Yang.

There can be a difference in the approach of external and internal practitioners. Some external stylist focus their training more on timing, distance, positioning, and their opponents structural alignments more than on their own internal structure. Internal stylists tend to focus more on their own structural alignments and movement. They tend to spend less time on positioning, distance, and timing. Both visualize imaginary opponents as they train the principles and concepts embedded in their techniques/forms.

I constantly hear external stylist explain how their training eventually becomes internal. In my opinion that isn’t exactly true. I had at one time believed it was when I was purely an external stylist. Martial arts is all about physics. While both methods of training can cultivate energy and health, I believe their are principles and skills in internal martial arts that have to be taught. Things like using reeling silk energy,the six harmonies, the thirteen postures.

Forms training should not be a choreographed dance or acrobatic routine. If you are training forms and that is where you are at with them I suggest you seek out a qualified instructor to help you get more value from your training. If forms training isn’t part of your routine perhaps you may want to consider adding some to enhance your training.

Michael W Murphy

Categories: Concepts & Principles

All Martial Arts begin as Mixed Martial Arts

June 26, 2013 Leave a comment

When I say ” All martial arts begin as mixed martial arts” I don’t mean that all martial arts begin as the modern sport of mixed martial arts. I mean that the current sport is a modern expression of an age old concept. As a general rule the founder of any system whether traditional or eclectic first mastered several martial arts. They then took what they felt to be useful from each and combined them into their new system.

In systems created before the 20th century when guns became prevalent it was common for empty hand systems to be derived and developed from weapons systems. Men fight with weapons, empty hand fighting is for when you have lost your weapon, you are in a place where weapons are not allowed, or when you are looking to subdue and capture an opponent. Examples of this would be Xingyi which is said to be developed from spear fighting, Jiu Kung which is developed from sword fighting, Escrima and Kali still teach weapons first and then show the empty hand method of applying the same techniques/concepts. I would also suggest that the equal push/pull action of the striking and retracting hands in Karate may have originated with handling a staff or spear.

Each system is derived from the systems the creator of the art knows. Each has a different breadth of arts and understanding. For example in Japan there were over 700 distinct styles of jujitsu. Jujitsu was developed by the samurai for use on the battle field if they lost their weapon, or had to capture someone. When the systems were created it would be assumed the student learned or was learning weapons. With that in mind the focus was on grappling, throwing, locking and striking the opponent. Ground techniques could be used when capturing an opponent, or to escape being captured if your opponent was trying to capture you. However going to the ground in combat with fighting all around you normally meant your death. The most popular martial sport today derived from jujitsu is Judo created by Jigoro Kano. Kano first trained in Tenjin Shin Yo Ryu which is derived from Yoshin Ryu and Shin no Shindo Ryu. He trained with many masters through his life time. He experimented with sumo techniques and even added the fireman’s carry from western wrestling to his art because it worked. Kano believed that to be truly superior you had to combine the best methods of several ryu (schools).

An approach many have taken was to get a black belt (or equivalent) in a grappling system, a striking system, and a weapons system to be well rounded. There are many arts to choose from to fit each category. I would recommend earning your black belt in one system before adding the next. It is the way my teachers told me to approach it.

Chen style is an example of an art that developed over centuries. Chen Bu is accredited with originating this art about 1374 AD. His descendant Chen Wangting (1580-1660) is credited with incorporating theories from 16 different martial arts systems described in the classic text Ji Xiao Xin Shu. Chen Wangting is also accredited with being the originator of internal martial arts.

More modern examples would include the arts such as Jeet kun Do created by Bruce Lee, or any of the Kempo systems in America. These systems certainly took and still take today things they like from any other system they discover, and discard things the don’t find useful.

The current sport of MMA is the most recent sport oriented expression of this mind set. Reality Based Martial Arts are the newest expression of this mind set for those focused on street self defense. Each system and approach to the arts has to be viewed and stands on it’s own merit.

Mike Murphy

Categories: Concepts & Principles

Closed Door and Open Door Systems

January 12, 2013 Leave a comment

There are two approaches to teaching martial arts systems. The “Closed Door” approach and the “Open Door” approach. “Open Door” meaning it is open to everyone to see. “Closed Door” meaning they are hiding something behind closed doors from everyone. Most systems through the centuries started out as “Closed Door” systems to some extent. This was for very practical reasons up until the spread of modern firearms. After all the defense of your life, family, and property realistically depended on your ability to defeat attackers in a life or death hand-to-hand situations. With that in mind, knowing how to fight, and your opponent having no idea what you knew or how you fought gave you a distinct advantage.  These fighting methods could be kept closed to specific groups using various criteria such as family, village, or students accepted into a school with its own criteria.

The spread of modern weapons like the gun is a major reason for the disappearance of many great martial arts systems. There were great martial arts systems, and schools all over the globe at one time. European countries had many schools (fencing schools are an example)and methods of martial arts at one time, but are lost today. I believe this to be because guns became prevalent there first. Once firearms are available the practical need for hand-to-hand skills becomes greatly diminished.  This eventually spread all over the globe. The orient was the last place that guns became widely available and used.

A major reason that most systems of what is commonly thought of as martial arts today come from the orient is that it was that last area of the globe where guns became prevalent. Another major reason is that some martial artists living during the transitional phase in their societies, from no firearms to widespread use of firearms sought to preserve their arts.
To preserve the martial arts “Open Door” systems spread. Some new systems were created at this time based on various martial arts to enable the concept of a martial way to develop. If you see a system that ends in “Do” or “Tao” it means “Way”. This implies that it isn’t a martial art, but is based on martial arts. The goals are more lofty then a martial art. They are trying to spread the virtues developed by serious training in the arts. Things like building character, improving health. These arts tend to focus on techniques and training methods where you can engage in sport without seriously maiming or killing each other.

Categories: Concepts & Principles

Tzu Men forms

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment
Categories: Concepts & Principles

Answering Questions About Tai Chi

November 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Paul Brennan has another great translation that if you haven’t seen I want to bring to you attention. If you have ever wondered about how an internal stylist approaches things compared to an external stylist, this is a must read.

Categories: Concepts & Principles

How Martial Arts became catagorized as Internal and External

March 11, 2012 Leave a comment

The distinction between Internal and External Martial Arts first appeared in 1669 in the Epitaph for “Wang Zhengnan” written by Huang Zhongxi. The original meaning of internal and external martial arts referred to external being arts associated with Buddhism, Shaolin, and having a foreign origin. Internal arts were associated with Taoism and were indigenous to China. Stanley Henning has written extensively on this.

Today many people consider internal martial arts to mean they start with internal development such as building chi and principles for strengthening from the core out, while external arts are thought to be the opposite strengthening the external muscles eventually building internal strength.

Originally Neijia Quan (Internal Fist) was a specific martial art taught by Wang Zhengnan . Neijia Ch’uan fa was first written about in 1676 by Huang Baijia, in the manual he wrote based on the teachings of his teacher Wang Zhengnan. Huang Baijia was the son of Huang Zhongxi.  Neijia Quan implied that it had something more then the common martial arts of its day. It had some unique principles, and concepts. This system has been lost to time. Today internal (Neijia, or Neijia Quan) is commonly used to describe martial arts such as Bagua, Hsing-Yi, and Tai Chi. These three are sometimes referred to as the “Three Sisters”.

Yang Lu-Chan was a prominent martial artist of his day (1799-1872). He was the first outsider to learn Chen style martial arts in Chen Village, from Chen Changxing the 14th generation Chen family martial arts master.  His nickname was “Invincible Yang” because, he was undefeated as a fighter.  When Yang first started teaching in Yung Nien, his art was referred to as “Cotton Fist” or “Neutralizing Fist”. Many watched his matches, it was the scholar Ong Tong who on observing Yang fight thought he manifested the principles of “Tai Chi” in his techniques. From that day on his art was referred to as Tai Chi.

Chen Bu (late 1360’s forward) is the first person credited with founding Chen family martial arts. It was his 9th generation successor Chen Wangting (1600-1680) that was credited with creating the martial art we call Tai Chi today. Chen Wangting developed the martial art from several contemporary martial arts of his day. As well as Chinese medicine and Taoist philosophy. Chen Fake the 17th generation master of the system moved to Beijing in 1928 and began teaching. He did not call his art Tai Chi when he moved to Beijing, it was the martial arts community there that classified Chen as Tai Chi.

The origins of Xingyiquan are clouded in mystery. Though legend has it that the creator was Yue Fei in the Song Dynasty, it seems very improbable that he created the system. The first written accounts of the system appear about 1750 AD. Some believe it was created by Dai Longbang (1732-1801).

Bagua is the newest of what is commonly referred to as the internal systems (the three sisters). It was created after 1850 by Dang Haichuan. He combined his earlier martial arts training with Taoist circle walking to create this system.

In the 1890’s many masters of various arts came to Beijing and trained together. In many cases these masters would have their students cross train in another art with a master they respected. It was not uncommon for Bagua, Hsing-Yi, and Tai Chi practitioners to cross train in one or both of the other arts.

Starting in 1914 Sun Lutang, Yang Shou-hou, Yang Cheng Fu, and Wu Chien-ch’uan began teaching Tai Chi to the public at the Beijing Physical Education Research Institute. In 1915 Sun Lutang began publishing martial arts texts, that would later be used as the basis for distinguishing an internal art from an external art.

In 1928 several KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) generals organized a national martial arts tournament to screen the best martial artists. This was in order to build a new Central Martial Arts Academy.  For this tournament they divided the participants into two groups Wudang, and Shaolin.  Wudang was considered to have internal skills and was represented by Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-Yi. All others where categorized as Shaolin and by definition external.

The following ideas written about by Sun Lutang were used to distinguish the internal martial arts.

1. The emphasis on using the mind to coordinate the leverage of the relaxed body, not using strength.

2. The internal development chi and chi circulation.

3. The application of Taoist Daoyin, Chi Kung, Nei Kung, and external movement.

This method of categorization is still in use today.

Mike Murphy

Categories: Concepts & Principles

Sho Tung Kwok

March 3, 2012 Leave a comment

This is an old video with an explanation on some of the hand movements on Honsuki (should have edited better). However the main form shown here is Sho Tong Kwok, which I understand was created by Fred Villari. This was a second degree Black Belt form you needed before testing to 3rd Degree Black Belt.

Categories: Concepts & Principles


February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

This is the black belt form for Shaolin Kempo. I believe it is the last of the forms done By William and descendants until Fred Villari created many new forms.

Categories: Concepts & Principles

How to distinguish an Internal system from an External system for beginners

July 22, 2011 4 comments

Today Martial Arts are classified as either an Internal or External system. Many people think of the three sisters (Xingyi, Bagua, Taiji) as the only internal systems. This is not the case, they are just the most commonly known today. My goal here is to give you some insights into the differences that may help you find the right approach for you. Both External and Internal approaches can be very effective when you learn a valid system under a qualified teacher. Here are some differences to help you distinguish between the two approaches when observing or choosing a specific system.


There is a wide variety of external systems and they have a wide variety of approaches. In external systems you see much less time devoted to learning basic stances and fundamentals. You don’t see the emphasis on relaxation. You do see more emphasis on developing physical strength, endurance, and flexibility in the early stages. Straight line force tends to be used for blocking and striking, though large circular force is sometimes used. Very little time if any is spent on developing feeling to interpret attacks. Attack and defense rely on quick reflexes. This means you reach your peak quickly and at a young age. Often force is used against force. Lots of one step and two step sparring is a regular part of training. Techniques rely on external strength, though later internal power may be emphasized. They may practice Chi Kung exercises to develop this power. They often isolate body parts like arms or legs to strike, using muscles inefficiently. For example they might develop a solid stance but, only use the waist and the arm to generate force for a strike.  They may only use the arm by itself to generate a strike. The force produced is very rigid, and can be likened to hitting something with a hammer.


Focus is much more on structure, balance, relaxation, and proper alignment. Internal systems focus more on training the nervous system to move your body in an integrated/unified method. Small subtle circular movements are used. Sensitivity, relaxation, sticking, and following the opponents power are emphasized. By doing this it is possible to continue to develop skills well into old age. The opponents force is used against them. They tend to use longer two man fighting forms, and sensitivity drills to develop flow and fighting skills. Development of internal power is a primary goal. Chi Kung/Nei Kung is practiced for health as well as power. Taoist breathing and meditation techniques along with Traditional Chinese Medical theory are used to develop power, and fighting movements. Integrated body movement is used to generate power. You will often hear that an internal stylist hits with his feet. Power comes from the ground through your root (normally your foot), and is directed by the waist. With the whole body integrated the power generation resembles putting a chisel on what you want to hit, then striking the chisel with a hammer.

Things to keep in mind:

One thing to keep in mind is that you must keep in accordance with the correct principles of any system to be truly practicing that system.  It is possible to practice an external system with internal principles, and an internal system with external principles. After all when you first learn any form as a beginner it is purely external movement. Once you have the form you can begin working on the principles of the system.

While I believe it is possible for someone to have learned an external system, then later learned an internal system, I don’t believe you can maintain a high level of skill in both approaches. Learning an internal art may help augment your external martial arts but, you will not be able to develop high levels of skill in an internal martial art while training in an external style. The approaches are contradictory. Eventually you must choose one or the other approach to advance to the higher levels.

If you go to a school that primarily focuses on external systems like a karate school and they teach Taiji, you need to watch to see if they are teaching taiji in accordance to taiji principles. The school may have different teachers for the different systems, but may have one teacher teaching all the systems at the school. If their taiji looks like a karate guy doing a taiji form, it isn’t taiji, regardless of what form they are mimicking. You would be wasting your time learning taiji from them, though their karate may be very good.

You may also run into an Internal school where they teach an external style either as a gateway system, or for children. It is normally a system that the teacher learned prior to studying internal martial arts. While I have seen many people start out training external systems, and later move to internal systems, I’ve never seen someone go the other way. While the teacher may explain the system in the context of an external art to his students, if you watch him actually move you’ll most likely see the same internal principles now in the external system that are in his internal system. What you need to be aware of is that the teacher doesn’t practice this system any more then he has to to teach students, because it can interfere with the development of his internal martial arts.

This is not to imply that one approach or the other is better. They are both great choices, you need to pick the one that best fits you. The approach that is best for you today may not be the best approach for you in the future.

Mike Murphy

Categories: Concepts & Principles

The Value of Forms Training

July 2, 2011 2 comments

An instructor from another school asked me the other day, “How do you answer when someone asks why we practice forms?”.  While I think there are stock answers that most give to the question, the truth of those answers may vary with the system and how you use the forms as part of your training.

There are many that are of the opinion that training forms is a waste of time. I know that I myself had at one time believed the same thing. It was after years of training and learning multiple systems that I came to value forms as part of training.

Some people focus on drills or working techniques with a partner as part of their training, along with sparring. I would suggest that working set techniques with a partner is a type of two man forms training. After all they are working a specific attack and defense to that attack. When a boxer is shadow boxing he is practicing set techniques or combinations of those techniques against an imaginary opponent.  Again I say that is forms practice. After all you are supposed to be doing that when you are practicing your forms.

Perhaps it is more of a word play then anything else? I think the idea is that traditionally forms such as you see in Karate, Tai Kwon Do, Taiji are what most think of when they think of forms practice. Maybe the concept should be broadened?

Something I want to point out is that not all forms are created equal. These days many people create forms for open competitions. These forms are designed to be flashy and win plastic metal trophies. They highlight things like gymnastic, and acting abilities.  You constantly see people stopping to pose while making the most creative faces as they do very long and creative Kia’s. You see people standing holding one leg high above their head as they do multiple kicks at the ceiling. You see people doing forms to music. You see people creating weapons forms and doing self defense techniques with them they made up, that demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of how those weapons were really used. Often times trying to actually use a weapon in the manner demonstrated in their forms would get them killed. If there is value in this type of forms training it would be equal to that derived from taking dance classes, or gymnastics.

Traditional martial arts forms on the other hand serve a different purposes. You need to spend a lot of time on jiben gong which is foundational training. Once you have warmed up practicing your jiben gong exercises, practicing your forms are a more advanced way to train solid fundamentals. Depending on the complexity of the fundamentals of a system, having a method to slow things down and work through forms with proper feeling can be a must to reach the higher levels. Many systems require physical changes to occur to be able to fully employee the fundamentals/ principles of a system. These physical changes take years and happen gradually. The only way to get there is through fundamentals and forms training.

Traditional forms are also a catalog of techniques as well as principles for a system. One thing to keep in mind is that the training method may not be the same as the fighting method. For example some systems may practice their forms with weight distribution between their feet done differently then would be in a fight. A reason for that could be they are also working the principles of lightness and sensitivity while practicing their forms. Another example is that systems that appear to have the waist excessively turned, perhaps doing techniques from a side horse. Some would look at these forms and think them impractical. Others might think they are hiding the techniques. The techniques might in reality be done facing the opponent head on not from a side stance. The reason you would train this way is to stretch the joints, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue. It also increases muscular strength for a particular movement. When we exert strength in any movement we are strongest in the middle of our range of motion.  We are weakest at the extreme end of any stretch/movement. By training in this method we increase stretch and range of our power curve in our technique. One more misunderstood thing done in internal forms is that they flow, and sometimes you can’t see strikes. The reason for this is due to a fundamental difference in internal and external arts. External artists are most powerful on guard and at the end of their strike, but go missing in between. Internal stylists don’t they are equally powerful throughout the whole movement and can issue power in any direction with any part of their body at any point. A reason to practice this flow is so they don’t condition themselves to be like the external stylist, only powerful at each end of the movement.

Often these days you see people practicing forms but, not really understand how the applications are to be drawn from the form. Due to the way point fighting/sparring has evolved it is common for the sparring method to no longer resemble the original techniques from the forms which are design for the street. Perhaps systems focused on sport in this manner derive limited benefit from forms? If the bunkai (analysis) of the forms is lost, perhaps forms are no longer of much value in those systems. If they train the forms, take them apart and work bunkai constantly, then forms training is of great value.

Having available training partners everyday to train with can be problematic.  Forms training is a good method of solo training.

I consider forms training to be an extremely important part of daily training.

Mike Murphy

Categories: Concepts & Principles