In the fullness of time, I expect this to be the most life changing seminar I’ve ever attended with respect to my martial arts. It was a 2 day seminar on 21st/22nd July 2018, covering a lot of material, which for a newbie, stretched the mind as well as the body. As such, this is review is my initial impressions and I do not pretend to be an expert or have all the answers. This post is just to share my own personal experiences on this seminar, nothing more.
Now first of all, I want to address the “Internal Power” bit. This was not the usual, use your chi approach that many readers will be familiar with. This is a scientifically based approach which, as I understand it, primarily uses the networks of myofascial fabric, (sometimes called fascial meridians or anatomy trains), that runs throughout the body. There are several of these networks of fascial fabric, some of which span the whole body from head to foot. Don’t worry, you don’t need to learn them all in order to learn Internal Power any more than you need to know how electricity works to turn on a light!
The fascial fabric is what used to be called sinew, the gristly material that envelopes muscle and connects muscle to bone. The myofascial networks are explained better in the following video:-
Force is transmitted from muscle to muscle via this fascial fabric. So if this fabric forms networks throughout the entire body and they transmit force; then by learning to engage these networks, force can be transmitted throughout the whole body in an extremely effectively and coordinated manner well in excess of what we can do by focusing on our external muscles (which is what we normally do)! Learning to engage these networks is not easy as we don’t have direct control over fascial tissue the way we do our muscles.
What Dan Harden teaches in his seminars is basically a progressive set of exercises that stretches out the myofascial networks, taking out the slack and making them taut. One of the easiest analogies is that of a yawn; you stretch, yet your muscles are taut – not tense and this creates an amazingly strong structure. An irony of using this system, is that you require a high degree of relaxation to stretch out and engage these myofascial networks. Muscular contraction shortens the muscles, hence the fascial fabric is not stretched out and will not transfer force to other muscles (or the rest of it’s network) as efficiently.
Some exercises simply stretch the myofascial fabric along the length of the limbs and spine; whilst others involve “spiralling”. Spiralling involves rotating the arms and legs using the bones like an axis, which is especially difficult at first with the legs. This spiralling creates a muscular torque, which is a rotational stretch. Again, this rotating of the limbs stretches out the myofascial networks in the limbs taking out the slack. Most of these exercises are done slowly, as stretching is not as effective when done quickly.
As you rotate the limbs the limbs inward to their limits, you rotate the head of the femur/humerus in hip/shoulder sockets. This is what the Chinese refer to as the kua’s. It’s a feeling of closing the hip and shoulder joint, though this is not actually the aim of the exercise. Rotate the other way, and you open the kuas (shoulder and hip joints). Having done some Tai Chi myself in the past, I was told to open the kua’s, but this was mainly done by spreading the knees wide to open up the inguinal crease (crease of the groin). There was no explanation of spiralling the muscles around the bone in order to open the kua. The spreading of the knees creates an open stance with a firm base, but does not engage any internal elements of the body.
The spiralling of the arms will be familiar to many martial artists as in Karate/TKD/TSD and many styles of Kung Fu the forearm is rotated at the end of most basic techniques. However, I’d never heard this before being explained in terms of engaging the myofascial networks. Take an outside block for example (where the block comes from the outside to the inside. When the blocking arm is pulled back just put in a bit more rotation at the shoulder socket (opening the kua) and them as the arm is brought rapidly forward and inward, add a little bit more rotation the other way in the shoulder socket (close the kua).
Use of spiralling with the legs is something that is not so obvious. I’m used to spiralling with my rear leg as I prepare to punch/strike, opening up the hip joint, then closing it as I release the spiralled real leg muscle. But it never occurred to me before to do the same with the front leg. That too can be spiralled outward, opening up the front hip joint on the preparation and spiralled the opposite way on release of the punch/strike and closing that hip joint as well. That way, you can engage both legs in the generation of power, along with the internal fascial fabric. Easier said then done, it’ll take a lot of practice!
There are many many levels above this and these examples are just the very basic stages. These exercises are not geared up to any particular martial art, but they can be applied to any one of them. They are designed to change the body from the inside, by maximising the efficiency of the myofascial networks, which in turn creates a very high degree of connectedness of the whole body. When this super- connectedness of the body is achieved, a simple movement can engage almost your entire body mass behind it in a very unprecedented manner. At one point when Dan was demonstrating on me, he gave a small sharp tug which I wasn’t expecting. It was only a short distance; but the force of it whip-lashed my neck in a way I’d never felt before. I felt like a rag doll.
With many of the exercises, there is a test which can demonstrate its effects. We are however, reminded not to get too caught up in looking at these tests; they are just there to demonstrate the effect and are not the end result in themselves. One such test is to stand upright and have your partner gently push you on your chest (without you pushing back). It takes very little pressure from them to move you. Then try again, but this time soften your knees and lower your waist whilst at the same time pushing up through the crown of your head so that you stretch out the spine. This time when your partner pushes, you should have a greater resistance to that push, even though you are not pushing back. Have your partner push, then release the push suddenly. If you are pushing back then you should topple in that direction when your partners push is suddenly released. Have your partner push in several place (front, back, sides, diagonally) and the result should be the same from each direction.
This is a very simplistic explanation and there are many different levels to this exercise. As one progresses there are more and more layers to add so that over time and with a lot of training, you can make yourself almost immovable. By immovable, I mean in terms of human to human interaction before anybody makes the suggestion that they can move us by running into us with their car or whatever! This immovability comes from a special kind of internal balancing. When you move, you maintain this internal balance, hence the “immovable” structure that goes with you as you move. Some people call it a “retained balance” as you retain this internal balance throughout the movement. It’s a bit like the exercise where you sink, your partner pushes you but your don’t actually push back. Insteadyou focus on your own structure! So when you punch, strike or kick; rather than thinking of transferring your power into the opponent, you think more in terms of putting your “immovable structure”, into the space that the opponent occupies. You just do this very rapidly!
The above is just one small and basic example; there is so much more to it and I’ve just scratched the surface. That said, there a number of areas that I can see applying directly to Karate and similar arts with very little adaption. For example, we’re always told to “sink” into our stance at the end of our step. We’re not told to push up with our crown at the same time to include the internal work.
With most Karate/TKD/TSD hand techniques, we rotate the forearm at the end of the technique, this fits in the spiralling mentioned above. There’s a bit more to it than just that, but that could be for another post! The main point is with some very small adaptions, we can start to incorporate some of the very basic principles of Internal Power. Other parts of the seminar will probably take months or even years of training to incorporate.
We start with mainly static solo work as it’s not easy to do. The more advanced students do partner work and moving exercises and incorporate visualisations to assist them. As we had people from different martial arts and the exercises themselves do not directly resemble any art, I asked Dan if he had any advice on how to include this work into our individual arts. His answer was to compare it to weight training. When we lift weights we get stronger, and being stronger is always good for a martial artist. Doing these exercises will change us internally, which will automatically benefit any martial art.
Throughout the seminar, Dan keeps reminding us to look at the work, not at him. He has no ego, does not want to be called Sensei, Sir or any similar such title and teaches with a great sense of humour which helps to keep you going. He teaches some very senior martial artist and a number of them are restructuring they way they train and teach their associations.
Some of Dan’s exercises are very similar to some chi gong exercises and I can start to appreciate what the chi gong is trying to achieve now. As Dan says, some chi gong is for health (moving chi along meridians), some chi gong is for martial application (Internal Power). So now maybe we can look at Chinese internal martial arts such as Tai Chi in a new light, as originally they were using these principles of slow relaxed movements to stretch out the myofascial networks as they go. But as with most other arts, the finer points have in the most part been lost along the way.
Gichin Funakoshi, (considered the father of modern Karate) wrote that he spent his first 10 years of training learning the the 3 Tikki/Naihanchi katas. I doubt it took 10 years because he was a slow learner. It was probably because he was leaning to apply those katas with Internal Power. He most certainly learnt them at a depth that most of us have never come close to!
With most martial arts today, most of us are practising just part of the original system. Practising the movements, making the shapes; but without that internal work that gives it the legendary power that we hear of in the stories of the old masters. Today people look at the movements of the kata/forms/patterns and debate how they might be used in a practical real world combat manner. But it would seem (and I never thought that I would be saying this) that some of those movements are simply for stretching out the myofascial networks and trying to find practical applications to every single movement might, in some cases, be a redundant!
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