Interview with Chris Li about “Internal Power” training in Martial Arts

Hey folks! What follows below is an interview with Chris Li, a martial artist who has primarily trained in Aikido. He’s a great resource within the Aikido community regarding the history of the art and a very approachable guy. He also trains in “internal power”, which is something that never made sense to me, even when I trained Aikido. At best, it seemed like an overly complicated explanation of biomechanics. At worst, it looks like straight up woo-woo.

So rather than continue to flame online, I decided to ask someone in the know, and Chris was gracious enough to take some time and attempt to explain it to me. Perhaps I’m just a bad interviewer, but I’m still not sure I get it. What do you all think? Is there something to Internal Power training? Is it useful for martial artists?


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Chris Li

Chris Li (CL) has been training in Aikido since 1981, and has also trained in Judo with a former coach of the Japanese and US Olympic teams and in Shito-ryu Karate, as well as several lineages of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. He spent some 15 years living, training, and teaching in Japan. He has been training with Dan Harden, in his Sangenkai organization, since 2010.


Nick Porter (NP): Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about this. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of “internal power” but the actual practice vs preach seemed a difficult sell to me. To start, so that we’re on the same page can you define what you mean when you say “Internal Power?”

CL: Sam Chin once said to me “the thing about internal power is that… it’s power. ” And he’s right, the division between internal and external methods is a largely artificial way of classifying generally different methods of body usage. But they’re all power, they all involve the mind, the body and all the rest. On the other hand, playing the violin and power lifting are also both purely physical tasks that involve the same body and the same musculature but end up in very different places, so there are things that can be very different and yet involve some or all of the same elements. All sports use both strength and endurance, but of course we often divide physical conditioning into areas such as endurance exercises and strength building as a matter of convenience. So the internal / external dichotomy is artificial, of course, but it’s also convenient. 

When I talk about internal methods I am talking about methods that, generally speaking are referring what is happening within the frame of my own body (rather than, say, a technique that is defined by what happens relative to another person’s body). Further, the methods I’m talking about are largely intent driven. Of course, everything’s intent driven, but the emphasis on intent in internal methods is often that you’re attempting to use or condition your musculature in a way that is generally different from the that you normally use it. 

NP: Do you feel there’s a disconnect between the way Internal Power is explained (vs, say, the mechanics of tai chi or yoga) and the way it’s practiced such that more people don’t see a reason to begin training it?

CL: The descriptions are often difficult because they don’t make much sense without hands on. So yes, that can be a problem. IMO, it’s one of those things that has to be felt. People who join us and end up staying usually do so because we’re doing what they were looking for in the first place. In other words, they’d done the research on their own and had an idea of what to expect. But it may be that the difficulty of this type of training precludes, in part, an easily understood short description. Further, there’s no common frame of reference with most folks the way there is if I were talking about, say, baseball. 

NP: I actually had a great discussion with some IP folks yesterday about that– how “it had to be felt” and “it just can’t be understood” are tough sells in the modern world. Is there a way you think IP could make itself more understandable?

Additionally, my other question for them (and now for you) is: how do you sort out someone who knows what they’re doing from a woowoo artist? All I’ve heard is

  1. A real IP master is exceedingly, overwhelmingly rare
  2. I definitely know one, though.

So in a system that’s very subjective (“you just have to feel it”), how can you know what you’re feeling is actual “power” instead of the power of suggestion?

CL: If you can think of a way to make it more understandable then I’m open to suggestions! I suppose that we really need an “elevator speech”, but part of the difficulty is that these things really are quite different. And that brings in the frame of reference problem that I mentioned above. 

How do you tell? Well, that’s difficult too. 

Experience with multiple folks certainly helps, so does intellectual honesty. In the end, I guess that you have to make your best judgement and take your chances.

Traditionally, I guess that you’d challenge an instructor and see what happens, but those kinds of things don’t always turn out well…

I’d also have to say that defeating or not defeating a particular person doesn’t necessarily say much about the method or theory. Everybody wins and loses when you roll.

NP: I think IP could take a few things from yoga. The way I see it, movement is movement and at its core, efficient movement is simple movement. This video of Kyuzo Mifune illustrates that point. I understand that his partners are giving him some respect. Even with that in mind, and with the understanding that I know nothing about Judo, I can understand and respect how he’s moving because how he’s moving seems logical, simple, and efficient. I contrast that with a lot of the  IP videos I watch: where an uke grabs for their life, gets twisted around, then gets chucked across the room as everyone looks on in amazement. At its best, it seems like suggestion and a very compliant partner. At its worst, it starts looking like the no-touch KO people.

The thing I hate about the “it has to be felt” argument is that it’s self-fulfilling and, too often, the uke is blamed for anything that goes wrong (“You just have to relax more”, etc). You discussed the method and the theory. What, exactly, is that method/theory? What do you feel “Internal Power” offer specifically that other forms of martial arts/body organization do not? If its primary benefit is efficient movement, can’t you refine efficient movement through other means? If the goal is to increase martial efficacy, why, frankly, are a lot of the IP guys lousy fighters?

CL: There are a bunch of big issues in that question, but I’ll try to break out a few. 

Efficient movement is one of those things that sounds good, but doesn’t really mean that much. Kyuzo Mifune was very efficient, but so was Mike Tyson – and they moved very differently and had different types of bodies. It’s a little like saying “delicious food”, what that means varies.  Of course there are many ways to develop efficient movement, and there are many ways to become an efficient fighter. A particular method may be better or worse for a given situation, but no method is really better or worse in and of itself. 

IP won’t make you a fighter, any more than strength training will. But most coaches would recommend that you do some kind of strength training because it will help you to be a better fighter – and most people doing strength training are probably pretty poor fighters. They’re different, but often complementary, activities. IP training can help you to organize your body to generate power, sometimes a lot of power, in a very efficient manner that has a lot of longevity. But it does take a while and not everybody will be interested in it. Are there other ways? Sure there are. 

IP methods aren’t monolithic, so talking about theory is going to vary – but in addition what I mentioned above I would add that most internal arts are trying to develop whole body power that rely more on movement within the frame of one’s body than the momentum of the weight of that frame moving forward as a whole, and this usually involves some degree of “softness” in order to facilitate the maximum usage of the body frame. 

A lot of demonstrations are bad, that’s true. Similar things happen in Aikido – you’re engaged in a cooperative training method to learn a certain skill, and like all rulesets folks learn how to game that ruleset in order to look “good” while forgetting that the ruleset, especially in uke-nage based training methods, is completely artificial. That doesn’t mean that it’s a poor training method, just there are pitfalls. 

The “it has to be felt” thing is all about that common frame of reference from above. I’m not sure what you mean by blaming uke in this case – it’s just about feeling it for yourself. 

NP: Starting from the top: It’s true that Mifune and Tyson both moved efficiently while moving very differently, but the difference between that and what I see with a lot of IP people is that the fruits of an athlete’s labors are a bit more obvious– the person gets thrown or hit when they don’t want to be.  I guess I also don’t understand the semantic differences between how an IP person would move and how Mifune or Tyson would move. As I understand it, even for different ends, efficient movement is efficient movement. A judoka and a violin player are both using gross and fine motor movements– the difference is that a boxer or violin player or yoga instructor can explain, generally in very simple terms, how they are doing what they are doing. IP people have, in my experience, a very complex vernacular that seems to shut off any understanding of the movements until you’ve already invested.  

The “It has to be felt” line gets me because, I can look at any athlete, in any discipline (be it ballet or boxing) and while I can’t replicate their movements, I can understand that they are moving efficiently and correctly just by watching them. I don’t necessarily see that in IP demonstrations, where someone wiggles a hip and their partner flies across the room. That’s where you get people comparing IP people to the no-touch people– a fundamental disconnect between what is normally needed to move another person that way (kuzushi, etc) and what they see in the IP demonstration (none of that). What are they missing?

Regarding fighting: I appreciate your saying that IP won’t make you a fighter, but could you pass that along to the rest of the IP community? There seems to be a disconnect– where on the one hand, IP is touted by some as a health/wellness exercise and on the other hand you see people in martial arts uniforms looking incredulously at their IP master as he/she manipulates someone’s balance or throws them or whatever, and these students then swear that their instructor is “too deadly for the ring” or whatever other cliche you want to use. 

Is there an intersection at any point between IP and fighting? If so, why isn’t there a better track record for IP people fighting? If not, do you feel the community would be better served by disconnecting from the idea that fighting skill is a goal/sequela of these exercises? Furthermore (and I know I’ve posed a lot of questions here), how would you, as an IP practitioner yourself, convince someone who’s only done internal training that maybe they are NOT as fearsome a fighter as they may believe themselves to be? 

CL: A lot of people would call Mifune an IP person, I’m not sure that I would. In any case, yes, it’s hard to see – that’s a large part of why getting direct hands on is usually more reliable. It’s also one factor among many. So two folks hitting may be using different methods of body organization with little visual distinction. But sorting the whole thing out can get complex. 

The terms seem to be complex because of that lack of a common frame of reference that I mentioned above, and because folks are trying to describe things that are happening inside the body – I’ve seen some biomechanical descriptions of golf from the internal body structures that are equally opaque to me. Like anything else, once you get some experience with it those things get easier. 

Yes, you can describe a lot of what is happening in biomechanical terms (and we do), but part of the difficulty is that knowing the exact biomechanics doesn’t really help that much in execution. For those things, imagery and visualization – intent based approaches work better. That’s the classical method, and actually visualization and imagery is now commonly used among professional athletes. If I ask you to wiggle your ears, which is a purely physical task, describing the exact biomechanics involved is unlikely to actually help you wiggle your ears. But visualization and imagery can often help you access those actions where intellectual description runs into difficulties. 

Chris Davis at Martial Body actually has quite a good collection of clear material and explanations, FWIW: https://www.martialbody.com/

For the IP community – there isn’t one, really. There are a lot of folks doing a lot of things, some of them questionable, with no general agreement of who’s even in the community. It’s a lot like the Aikido world. 

For fighters, if we’re talking about modern sports fighters, I don’t think that IP has a quick enough return on investment, generally speaking. Mike Tyson went from zero to Olympic gold in three or four years, retooling your body usage just takes too long to compete with that. Even if you invest the time it’s as I said, one factor among many in fighting. Does long distance running make you a better fighter? Probably, but that doesn’t mean that long distance runners are fighters. When you’re talking about IP as a stand alone, it’s just that – a kind of conditioning and body usage. If you’re talking about it as attached to one tactical martial system or another then you have a lot of other factors in play as well. 

NP: Tyson never made it to the Olympics but I think I understand what you mean.

I won’t keep you much longer, so in closing: what do you think people outside of IP fundamentally misunderstand about it? What do you think people inside of IP fundamentally misunderstand about it? If you had to make that “elevator pitch” to try and convince IP skeptics that what you’re doing has value beyond a basic conditioning workout, what would you tell them?

CL: As I said earlier, it’s a method of conditioning and usage. That usage can be very useful in martial applications – but that’s best experienced hands on, and that’s basically what I tell folks.  Most of all, it’s interesting, much more interesting than your basic conventional physical training, at least to me. 

People outside of IP may tend to think that it’s woo woo – but it isn’t, it’s entirely physical and logical (it has to be, really). People inside – well these things are hardly monolithic, but perhaps it’s true that they overestimate how much weight those skills get them in a fight when they may lack other skills or experiences. 

NP: Being interesting (and something you’d come back to consistently) is generally what keeps people training more than anything else. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. 

22 thoughts on “Interview with Chris Li about “Internal Power” training in Martial Arts

  1. IP is “not” a fighting art. Having develop IP alone does not make anyone a good or great fighter. Some “great” IP people can’t even fight themselves out of a paper bag because that is all they know, they never learn any fighting physical technique (fighting style) To think of IP as a fighter martial art by itself like IP vis karate or IP vis BJJ etc. is totally a misunderstanding of IP. Having said that, then, what the hell is IP? IP is an integral part of any style of martial art. The Chinese Ku Fu has a saying…. (translate from Chinese)….. “learning the fist (the fighting style) without practicing IP is a waste of time.” In a very simplified term, IP teaches one how to generate power using your entire body as a power source vs just muscle power like just using your arm muscle or leg muscle. like CL said ….. “what is happening within the frame of my own body…..” and because of that, you cannot see it but you will feel the difference if you are punched by IP power vis muscle power. If punch by IP, you will feel as if the punch went right THRU you. The black and blue is not where at the spot where you are punched, the black and blue spot is on the other side of the body where you were punched. (think CL had that happened to him too) The unfortunate part of IP is that in this modern day world, we have this “right now” mentality especially young people. IP takes a lot of patience just to understand let alone to develop. Most martial arts school would not teach that (even if they know how). Why? not a money making enterprise and they have to make money for the art to survive. True Aikido is based on IP (I use IP in a broad sense). Unfortunately, it is deleted by Hombu (supposed to be HQ fo Aikido) O’sensei is so powerful not because he is muscular (that too) for a small guy but his real power is not so much his technique (that too) but his IP. CL told me that some rich people at one time paid “big bucks” to O’sensei to show them the secrets of Aikido. O’sensei just demonstrated only 3 techniques and walked out. Why? one reason, I think, is the same reason the author Mr. Rick Porter wrote this article.

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    1. So I don’t necessarily agree with the “right now” mentality statement. People my age (darned Millennials) still study martial arts. They still dedicate years and years and thousands of hours to its study. If anything, they just want to know “right now” what the benefits are, which can be nebulous and ill defined in IP training.

      I can’t say what “True Aikido” is, or what it’s supposed to look like because it seems impossible to define. Fortunately, I also know better than to assume I can buy my way to mastery of a martial art. Even if I didn’t, I’m too broke to try, so it all works out.

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  2. “CL: As I said earlier, it’s a method of conditioning and usage. That usage can be very useful in martial applications – but that’s best experienced hands on, and that’s basically what I tell folks. Most of all, it’s interesting, much more interesting than your basic conventional physical training, at least to me.”
    And the whole interview could be summarized by this paragraph + “I don’t know what we could really do with it and how”. Because that’s what it’s all about.

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    1. Sure. But if I don’t understand something, and I’m not in a place to travel thousands of miles to study at the foot of a master who has a skill they can’t really explain, the ability to elucidate exactly what’s going on would be helpful. That’s what I was hoping to learn by talking to Mr. Li.

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      1. Dan Harden has been to Atlanta a bunch of times, all you had to do was drive across town. 🙂

        If you’re interested, try it out, if not, then don’t. I don’t criticize restaurants that serve unusual dishes because I can’t imagine how they must taste, I go try it for myself or I don’t. If the restaurant’s too far away, well, too bad for me.

        Chris

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      2. Dan Harden’s been to Atlanta a bunch of times – all that you had to do was drive across town. 🙂

        I don’t criticize or doubt a restaurant that serves unusual dishes because I can’t imagine how they taste, I go try it out or I don’t. If the restaurant’s too far then I give it up until a chance comes along.

        Chris

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      3. The Katori story is long, but he goes directly back to Otake and Relnick. $100.00 isn’t that much these days considering the amount of contact time you get relative to other seminars, but that’s all relative, of course.

        Chris

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    2. I know exactly what it does and how. It creates outgoing force, and handles incoming force, in a non-conventional manner. That makes it harder for folks to deal with. Whether it’s better or worse than any other method depends on the context and your gkals, but like many physical arts it’s best to get hands on. In the early days of Aikido there were a group of folks in the US who learned Aikido entirely from Koichi Tohei’s books and films because there was no teacher nearby. But what they came up with was nothing like what he was doing, unsurprisingly, as they eventually discovered.

      Chris

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  3. I really appreciate the author asking tough questions. I think one of the biggest problems in the IP world is that they are not asked the hard questions. When that happens it comes down to a faith-based martial art. And that is coming from a person who has been doing tai chi for almost 20 years.

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    1. I guess that’s always been my biggest source of skepticism– the definition of IP, who has it, etc is all very nebulous.

      Tai chi is super fun! Always wished I could have gotten into it more. It was very relaxing.

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    2. No offense, but have you followed the online discussions over the last 20 years? It’s gotten extremely tough many times. I appreciated that this interview was softer and more reasonable.

      Chris

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  4. Nick (and others still kicking tires regarding internal power years after the heyday of the online “aiki wars”),
    Please consider the following excerpt from “Function and Usage of the kua, Q & A with Chen Zhonghua” (easy to find the full article, and various commentary on it, via a web search): “On the surface, people view Tai Chi exercise in terms of the waist. Waist is what you see, but the work is done by the kua. Consider the waist area from the kua, the crease in the two legs, (inguinal crease), from that portion all the way up to your arm pits. This whole body trunk, this one piece must be expressed, exercised as one piece. Think of this one piece as a round cylinder sitting on top of two legs. It is the function of the kua to coordinate the two legs directing this one cylinder. . . . Leg movement causes the kua to move, thus causing the adjustment of the trunk.”
    Has use of kua — as just one among many important tenets of “internal” body movement — been explained to you before, such as by your taiji instructor? If so, have you taken ukemi for someone demonstrating use of kua with dantian/tanden who could put you on your butt without using their arms or taking a step, vs. simply discussing kua as an academic concept? Are kua emphasized, or even present in the training model, in boxing, ballet, judo, or any of the other exemplars of physical activity discussed in the interview?
    Kua is an example of the “very complex vernacular” used by IP practitioners, which in reality is the same common vocabulary used in many popular internal martial arts such as taiji. Teachers like CZH, Dan Harden, Sam Chin and Mike Sigman are simply practicing and teaching internal martial arts while being more forthcoming than past generations of teachers regarding how to properly train and use the body.
    This is a rare time in the history of the martial arts given unprecedented access in the west to such teachers and precious knowledge worthy of being learned and preserved. Take advantage!. And when you’re there, take ukemi from folks like those above who are well vetted: don’t just go and observe, or be content to pair up with other attendees who are still figuring things out. When you get back, feel free to try to explain how it works to those who haven’t yet gotten hands-on training. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Back when I trained Aikido I was pretty active on Aikiweb, but I stayed out of any flame wars.

      We’ve discussed things similar to “kua” at great length in my Katori Shinto Ryu training, though the focus was always on execution– if the concepts don’t lead to improved movement, they’re conjecture at best. This sort of efficient movement was emphasized in my boxing training as well. To think that IP people have a monopoly on training efficient movement is flawed thinking at best.

      Like I said, if I’m free (and have the money to burn) when Dan Harden comes back to my neck of the woods I may drop by, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to commit right now.

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      1. Hi Nick.

        If you meet and train with Dan in Atlanta, definitely ask him about apparent similarities between IP body movement and what is conventionally done in KSR and boxing, and ask him to demo the differences. The particular sublime efficiency IP adherents spout on and on about will also be apparent if, for example, you take ukemi for Dan in aikido waza (feel free to let him know that you want to apply some resistance to the technique so you can compare that against the standard cooperative aikido training model) or a friendly BJJ roll. Enjoy, and look forward to your thoughts afterward.

        You could also reach out to the folks at Aikido South and see if they’re open to non-students giving what they do a try. After all, most martial arts schools let people bow in for free or a small mat fee. Remember Henry Sim’s admonition regarding “right now”. Millenial, Baby Boomer, Gen X’er or whatever, proper intellectual understanding of just the basics is iterative over many years for most people, and the number of days needed to achieve the necessary physical characteristics of connectivity and softness that lead to noteworthy efficiency and power are literally more like P9000X than P90X. But check them out and see if how they move and execute techniques differs from what you’re accustomed to in aikido.

        Then when you meet Dan you can compare and contrast between people who are learning and someone who’s been doing this for multiple decades and reached a worldwide recognized level of skill.

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