Xingyiquan is an internal martial arts style based upon the Daoist theory of the five inter-relating elements. It is an ancient system which like Taijiquan uses internal force but has a faster, more direct feel to it.
The core practices of Xinyiquan consist of a single standing posture and five movements. At first glance Xingyiquan can seem relatively simple in comparison to the intricate forms of Taijiquan or Baguazhang but in fact Xingyiquan is equally as long and complex a study as any other internal martial art.
Like Taijiquan or Baguazhang, Xingyiquan relies on being able to develop a strong root, correct bodily alignments and relaxing the muscles. It for this reason that the three main internal arts complement each other and practice of all three can help to develop a rounded approach to martial arts training. All three rely on working primarily with the mind to develop and issue power although the manner in which they do this is quite different.
Taijiquan practitioners seek to develop a strong core which becomes rooted and immoveable upon contact. Xingyiquan practitioners are far more mobile and direct in their approach to combat. Perhaps it can be said that Taijiquan feels far more defensive that Xinyiquan which concerns the study of mercilessly attacking your opponent and driving him into the ground. Both styles complement each other and provide a practitioner with both a Yin and a Yang approach to the internal martial arts.
The key to understanding Xingyiquan is the practice of San Ti or ‘trinity’ posture. This standing posture is practiced in most branches of Xingyiquan and can be compared to the standing post practices of Taijiquan which many people are familiar with.
Standing in San Ti can at first be extremely painful. The back weighted stance is difficult even for experienced martial artists and it can take a long time to relax into the position. At first, the emphasis is on correct bodily alignments and softening the body so that it feels as if your bones are ‘stacked’ one on top of the other. The muscles slowly ‘melt away’ so that they are no longer being used to hold your San Ti in place. This allows your root to begin to drop down and sink into the floor which is the key to developing the internal power which drives Xingyiquan practitioners forward in smooth, unbroken bursts of speed. For every force there is an equal and opposite force. As your root drops down into the floor, a second force can be felt moving up from the ground into your rear leg. Over time this force increases until it feels as if your body is trying to spring forward.
Various parts of the upper body are opened or sunk so that different internal compressions are developed. Your entire torso is turned into a kind of organic spring which is coiled and ready to burst open when required. From the outside, these compressions are virtually undetectable and a skilled Xingyi practitioner will look as if they are simply stood naturally.
The elbows are sunk whilst the tendons of the hand are opened and lengthened to ensure that a Xingyiquan practitioner can maintain a strong bridge when in contact with an opponent. As a rule, it is far easier to develop a feeling of internal force in Xingyiquan than in Taijiquan although it is a very Yang type of power rather than the Yin internal force which is required for manifesting the various Jins of Taijiquan.
Breathing exercises are then introduced into the standing practice of San Ti. Consistent practice helps to open up the various energetic pathways of the body and take out any tensions which may be stored within the muscles and tissues. Xingyiquan power is delivered in a wave which is usually driven from the rear foot (although not always), up through the spine and out to the hands. If there is un-necessary tension then this creates a ‘break’ in the chain of power and so the internal force will be negated.
San Ti standing is a challenging practice which we do not recommend for beginners to the internal arts. Those who engage with it though find it a fascinating practice which quickly enables a person to experience their own internal force.
Prior to my own training in the internal arts I had been learning external martial arts for some time. I was used to using gross physical movements such as large waist turns to put power into my punches. When I came to Taijiquan these waist turns were trained and then shrunk down and internalised so that power was delivered from the Dan Tien area. In Xingyiquan I now had to learn how to use the mind to lead and direct force from the floor, through the body and out into the hands. It feels something like a combination of the two methods mentioned above and yet has a distinct feel of its own at the same time.
The key to delivering power within the five techniques is finding a path of least resistance for the force which wants to drive you forward from the rear foot when you are standing in the San Ti posture. Like water working its way through cracks in a cliff top, the internal force of Xingyiquan is directed through the body in different directions according to your mental intent and the physical shape of whichever technique you are practicing.
The Sister Arts
The three ‘sister’ internal arts styles are generally known as Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang. Sun Lu Tang, a past master, was the first to publicly acknowledge their similarities and from this point in time it has become common for practitioners of the Nei Jia to study all three of these systems together.
Whilst I do acknowledge the linked nature of the principles within the three sister styles I think it is also important that we recognize their distinct differences. They are all classed as internal arts and therefor must follow a certain structural framework when they are being learnt but they also maintain their own flavor which can only be experiences by those able to understand and express the individual characteristics of each system.
As far as similarities go, we have one key goal in mind when we practice any Nei Jia internal style. We must aim to relax and stretch. Note that one should not happen without the other. I have been to Taijiquan schools where relaxation was favored and stretching was ignored and (rather oddly) many Taijiquan schools where the postures were open and stretched but devoid of any sort of relaxation process. Both must occur together in order to build the kind of ‘buoyant’ structure which the Nei Jia are based upon.
The key way in which we learn to develop this structure is through the standing post exercise of Zhan Zhuang. Here we raise our arms in front of us and enter a form of standing meditation where we systematically work through a process of internal work which aims to build a relaxed, rooted and structurally sound body posture. In many cases students will study standing postures through simply holding the correct shape but in fact there is a series of stages which must be moved through. These are (approximately) listed below:
- Postural alignments
- Relaxation of major muscles groups
- Relaxation of deeper, connective tissues
- Re-alignment and micro-adjustments
- Controlled pulsing of tissue segments of the body to drop force down to floor
- Development of root by dropping force down and connecting together structural segments
- Opening of joints to develop spring within tissues
- Alignment and connection of Yin tendon collaterals
- Use of breath and small movements to begin shifting bodily power through structure and down into floor
- Reverse process of bringing force back up and through body to arms
- Advanced stages of increasing depth of release through Qi to Shen
When this has been accomplished you will be left with a powerfully connected inner structure which is relaxed, connected to the floor and surprisingly ‘springy’.
This springy posture becomes the base for all of the internal arts and it is from here that they begin to qualitatively differ. If we actually look at the key positions from each style it is easy to see how they aim to use the internal energy developed through standing.
Classical Taijiquan is almost entirely based around the shape shown (Zhan Zhuang). Through small movements and changes to the arms and legs this posture deviates out into numerous combative postures which we shift through in our forms practice and even pushing hands. This means that throughout all of our practice, the same buoyant and spring feel should be present.
Taijiquan’s key philosophy is that of Yin and Yang. These two forces either absorb (Yin) or release (Yang) as well as interacting with each other through the internal spiraling force of Taiji which is generated by the waist in beginners and the Dan Tien in intermediate practitioners. Advanced exponents move beyond either of these stages and actually work with the connected Taiji of the environment through a skill known as either Dan Yuan or Hun Dun depending upon which style it is.
Xingyiquan takes the Zhan Zhuang posture and changes it so that one side is emphasized over another. Rather than being equally weighted, the power is distributed through the rear leg and project primarily out through the leading limbs. In this way the same postural principles are utilised but in a more assertive manner. The result is that Xingyiquans absorbing qualities are much less than Taijiquan but the projection to be had from the style is great. Whilst Taijiquan relies on returning an aggressors force in order to issue power Xingyiquan simply uses its own.
Compared to Taijiquan, Xingyiquan is much more Yang and aggressive but still we should remember that it is Nei Jia. It should still maintain all of the principles of the internal arts and standing practice should be used to build its effectiveness.
Whilst the Zhan Zhuang posture is relatively easy to see in Taijiquan and a little more tricky in Xingyiquan, Baguazhang hides it very well. It is so well hidden in fact that many practitioners are not even aware that Zhan Zhuang should be within their forms and movements. Baguazhang takes this posture and shifts it into the upper body and then down through the hip joints as we walk. Through twisting the torso it then redirects the pressure which would usually be dropping downwards out into the center of the circle which is being walked by the practitioner.
We could say that Taijiquan absorbs forces, Xingyiquan projects forces and Baguazhang redirects them into the environment.
The redirection of force means that there never has to be any hesitation in the practitioners movements as in the case of Taijiquan which needs to adequately root and drop the incoming power.
That being said, Baguazhang without the ability to absorb to some degree the forces coming in will be weak and unstable. The same forces which are raised and dropped by our breath and muscular connections in Zhan Zhuang and Taijiquan are actually shifted as we step in the circle walking of Baguazhang, These pulses of power then drive the various palm changes which we perform in our sequences.
The Five Seed Methods
Once a person has developed all of the compressions and springs required for Xingyiquan practice from their standing, they may begin to study the five techniques from which the entire of Xingyiquan is derived. These techniques are known as Pi, Zhuan, Beng, Pao and Heng. They are five different directions of internal force which are likened to the five elemental processes which are so important within Chinese Medicine. Rather than being exact techniques which can be applied to combat, they are a training method for developing effective power along five planes of movement. From this base, further techniques and forms show how these five powers are applied to various strikes, kicks, locks and throws but these are considered of secondary importance to the five main movements.
Each technique is studied from the San Ti posture which you will most likely have practiced for some time. Now the initial softening, aligning and rooting procedures are repeated whilst moving. It can be surprisingly frustrating to see how quickly all your long-practiced alignments move out of line when you begin to move forward. In particular the legs tense up which creates an unhealthy ‘jerk’ as you move forward. Xingyiquan relies on a downward force being delivered through the feet which ‘bounces’ back up through the body and creates the striking power of the five elements. If your legs are not soft and correctly aligned then this force will simply not get through your body up to your hands. At first this downward force is dropped down through a relaxed ‘stamp’ but over time this is normally taken out so that the steps look as soft as those of Taijiquan and Baguazhang.
Our Xingyiquan syllabus is taught alongside Baguazhang so essentially the two styles form one study. Students study the standing and basic movements of Xingyiquan alongside circle walking and palm change drills. Once students become competent at the basic seed techniques they branch out into the animal shapes as well as more advanced techniques and eventually the spear.
Xingyiquan is about direct development and issuing of internal force. All other goals are dropped in favour of reshaping the soft tissues of the body and sinking the Qi in order to animate the lower Dan Tien. The strikes become extensions of this power and it is easy to then see how Xingyiquan is a complementary style to Baguazhang.