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The Secrets, and Secrecy, of Chinese Internal Martial Arts

Millions of people around the world practice Tai Chi, mainly for health, but neither they nor the handful of people who practice it for its original martial purpose tend to have any knowledge of the deeper benefits of the tradition, either for maximising health and longevity or for combat.

In fact, without a good fifteen years of practice and the help of a top-notch master – of whom there are perhaps half a dozen outside of China – it’s pretty much impossible to come to grips with the real essence of the art. The same goes for the other two main Chinese internal styles, namely Bagua and Xing Yi. Similar problems obtain in the study of almost any ancient Chinese martial art or health practice or spiritual discipline worth pursuing.

But why are these arts so inaccessible? Why do people who have been taught the forms and practiced them for long periods of time never reach anything like the historical combat potential of these arts, which were used professionally by armies, caravan guards and imperial bodyguards in Chinese history?

Well, the short answer is pretty simple really: the form is not the art.

For the long answer, we need to really look at the histories of these arts:

Going back to the beginning, both Tai Chi and Bagua were created from a small set of Taoist moving meditation exercises. In Bagua, this was circle walking and the Single Palm Change. In Tai Chi, it was five postures similar to the opening movements of most of the later forms, movements that embodied specific energies. Over time, these core elements grew into complex systems.

So what about the forms as we know them now? Well, to understand that, we need to understand that the traditional teaching method is not the one we now use in the West. In the West, people have the idea that it’s all about learning the forms. In the real martial lineages, that never happened.

In Chen Village, spiritual home of the original Chen style of Tai Chi (from which the Yang, Wu and other styles developed later), teaching begins by learning to root and stand in proper posture, followed by exhaustive practice of individual movements long before any forms are taught. Since training begins at eight years old, the ten to fifteen years it takes to reach combat potential are not viewed as a burden. In Bagua, real masters teach their students basic circle walking and the single and double palm changes long before they move on to anything more involved. This attitude of mastering the basics pays dividends later, and such people end up vastly far ahead of anyone who has practiced the form from day one.

In the meantime, masters work on teaching the principles underlying the arts and repetitive individual and partner exercises that are used to practice them. Many traditions employ an easy-to-learn external martial art as the first system to teach children before moving to internal styles. The forms, once introduced, are simply a shell, a way to embody and practice the elements of physical and energetic movement that are the essence of the internal arts.

This is the Neigong or “internal power” system, and it covers everything from postural alignment to breathing to power generation. By focusing on these elements one at a time while practicing the form, the practitioner gradually integrates all of them, improving health, fitness and combat potential. In a combat situation, it is these elements having become second nature that make the art formidable. In previous generations, masters used to tailor the forms specifically for the use of an individual student according to their character and aptitude.

By being aware of these dynamics, we can direct our energies more profitably by:

– Using the forms properly as a tool to embody the Neigong system
– Taking time out from the forms for other exercises
– Focusing attention on fully developing the potential of a small number of key principles and movements

Now here’s the part that applies to Chinese traditions generally. There is always an exoteric tradition for the ignorant masses (which includes many so-called masters) and an esoteric tradition for the real practitioners. There are the strains of Traditional Chinese Medicine that seem able to cure just about anything and do amazing things with the human body… and then there are the deviations that have the masses eating body parts of endangered animals rather than changing their lifestyles to improve their health. There are the Tai Chi masters who teach the internal dynamics, and those who teach nothing but the forms. The same goes for most martial arts, and for Qigong, and for Taoism itself. Finding the real thing is always a challenge.

It has to be admitted that the Chinese approach to knowledge is the major obstacle here. Traditionally in China, any sort of practical knowledge from carpentry to fighting was considered primarily a family inheritance, meaning that the “real secrets” got passed down strictly from father to son, or perhaps to one or two privileged people selected to carry on the lineage. Anyone else only had access to a lower level of teaching. It was also assumed that the lineage disciple would be with the master learning from him until he died, and so the custom of “deathbed secrets” came about, along with very, very long timescales for training. This is beginning to change, but unfortunately, much of the damage has already been done.

For a different take on another factor that has limited transmission of the real Tai Chi in China, watch what Chen style master Joseph Chen has to say:


The difficulty in finding the “real thing” applies not only to martial arts, but to any manifestation of Authentic Ancient Traditions, including and especially spiritual teachings and methods. That, however, is a story for another time…

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Book Review: Nei Kung: The Secret Teachings of the Warrior Sages

In his first book, The Magus of Java, Kosta Danaos wrote of his encounter with a Taoist master living on the island of Java.  Nei Kung is the sequel, attempting to amplify the teachings of this particular Taoist lineage in light of Danaos’ knowledge and experiences onto a much broader set of issues related to human spirituality, society and understanding of the world.


It is difficult to adequately convey a unifying impression of Kosta Danaos’ second book; it seems to defy single interpretation, perhaps by design.  It is challenging, diverse, mixing personal experience, concrete technique and informed speculation into something that is less a synthesis than a series of thematically-related inspirational materials.

The book takes a great deal of time explaining Danaos’ speculative views of the spiritual underpinnings of human history, pre-history, evolution, physics and many other subjects, but the real treasures in the book are the fruits of personal experience, some his own and some from those he has encountered along the way.

What really commends Danaos’ book to any spiritual seeker are the personal accounts of spiritual life, almost any one of which would individually have made the book worth reading!  In one passage, Danaos finds himself conversing with the spirits of a mountain in Greece, who ask him to intervene to stop a strip-mining operation.  Accounts of such spirits inherent in the natural world are common to many traditions, including Taoism and both Celtic Druidism and the Celtic Christianity which succeeded it (Celtic saints’ lives are often predominantly accounts of their power in the natural world).  The Eastern Christian mystical tradition is filled with similar phenomena as well.  Consideration and study of these beings, in whatever mode they may exist, is more than timely as we are faced with the damage done to the earth by modern man.

In another account, Danaos meets a man who was literally a week dead and about to be cremated when he returned to his body, having had a profound spiritual encounter.  He woke up with a sudden perfect knowledge of Mandarin, though he had spoken only English before.  These narratives are coupled with a call to meditation and self-cultivation that is earnest and backed by a profundity of experience and conviction.


Danaos’ speculations, while undeniably interesting and occasionally enlightening (particularly those pertaining to spirituality in the distant past), are given in something of a shorthand way, leaving the picture too incomplete for the reader to draw conclusions one way or another.  That said, there are many points on which I feel that Danaos is undeniably correct, such as his observations about the enhanced natural faculties of so-called non-civilized peoples.  I believe he is also correct in his reconciliation of divine love with human suffering on the basis of freedom of choice, although how exactly it fits in with the foregoing discussion of guided evolution is not clear.  These passages are worth reading as part of ongoing discussion of these issues, but not enough of a clear picture emerges to evaluate their merits as theories.

Reading what Danaos had to say on the difference between religion and spirituality was timely, as we’ve just finished the first unit on Spirituality for the Resilient Life Code, which contains a detailed account of the institutionalization process as it affects spiritual traditions.  Danaos perhaps doesn’t have a complete picture of the process as it affects Christianity (nor for that matter a very complete view of the original Christian spiritual tradition, though as a Greek, he is more aware of it than most other authors), but he’s on the right track on many points.  In particular, his characterization of the Emperor Constantine’s character and motives is highly amusing.

Danaos’ views on the nature of (human) spirits struck me as the oddest thing about the whole book.  His account is either incomplete or imprecise.  He identifies the spirit with the unconscious- a lower, yin faculty without the power of active thought or decision, a simple reservoir of whatever impressions it gains in life, and helpless to think, learn or act after death.  He advocates meditation as a means not just of merging the conscious with the subconscious, which it is, but of more firmly imprinting the image of the conscious mind onto the subconscious so that we can maintain a more substantial “selfhood” after death.

I am not certain this view squares even with the experiences he recounts, still less with the broader view of many authentic ancient traditions.  Most traditions would identify the spirit not as the subconscious mind, and definitely not as an impotent lower faculty, but rather as the higher faculty on which we are working through meditation in order to render it clear, to bring it to its true nature.  This being the case, we need not have any doubts of the power of a realized spirit, in the body or out of it.  Not only does the reversal of the classical yin-yang associations of body and spirit strike me as odd, but Danaos’ position on the issue reminds me of the conversation of Odysseus with the shades of his fallen companions at the gates of the underworld.  The shades are portrayed as miserable, lifeless shadows, whose only ambition is to drink the blood of living things sacrificed to them, in order to taste a little of life.  Achilles’ shade even says, “I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.”  And remember, these were the great heroes, entitled to the Elysian Fields, not the common mass of humanity.  This was exactly the kind of existential pessimism that the late Romans began to reject in perhaps one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in history.

Don’t expect to actually encounter an abundance of practical Nei Kung teachings, despite the title.  At most, this book provides a guide to basic energy-cultivation meditation, coupled with a theoretical picture of what the higher levels look like.  As no doubt with many ancient lineages, when it comes to spreading knowledge beyond the traditional master-disciple relationship, this one is still dipping a toe in the water.

I don’t wish to come across as overly critical; this is a marvellous and inspirational book.  Its overall message is sound, even if its speculations are sometimes scattered or incomplete.

Now, if you would like to acquaint yourself with Kosta’s master, “John Chang”, just click on the link below and turn up your speakers:


~Dr. Symeon Rodger

Resilience Tool par excellence?

Bagua Zhang is perhaps the least-known and most intriguing of the Chinese “Internal” martial arts.  It is visually distinguished by a soft, flowing appearance and the fact that many of its forms and exercises involve walking in a circle.  This circle is often represented as the Circle of Changes (ba gua or “eight trigrams”), with eight trigrams from the I Ching around the circumference, as in the diagram below:


Historically, Bagua appears to have been confined to practice by reclusive Taoists living in mountains and distant monasteries until the 19th Century, when it suddenly appeared in mainstream Chinese society thanks to a teacher named Tung Hai Chuan, where it quickly established a tremendous reputation as a fighting art in that unstable and martial arts-saturated environment.  Since that time, Bagua has also gained a reputation as a tremendous tool for health and healing.

“Walking the Circle” as a practice for physical and spiritual health has a long history in Taoist monasticism with or without the martial applications.  It is a form of exercise and of walking meditation.  The spiritual benefits of the practice include cultivating stillness of mind, calm nerves and a sense of inner balance that can withstand even the most rapid and unsettling changes in your outer world- in other words, it can help you cultivate inner resilience.  Outer, physical resilience benefits include:

–       Developing consciousness of good postural alignment throughout the body in a state of movement,

–       Developing a good sense of balance,

–       Developing agility and the ability to change directions quickly,

–       Stretching, compressing, opening and strengthening the body’s soft tissues- muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia,

–       Gently massaging the internal organs,

–       Opening and strengthening the joints.


The initial focus of Bagua is to make the body supple, healthy and strong.

So what does this process look like?  First, Bagua teaches specialized stepping methods with particular energetic implications, which in the first level of teaching are used to walk the circle in alternating clockwise and counter clockwise directions with the arms in particular static positions.  This form of movement is used for the cultivation of inner power under the guidance of an expert.  In the next two stages, the practitioner is introduced to the single and double palm changes, which represent the yang and yin energies of Bagua, the projecting and fluid energies if you will.  In the fourth stage, the student learns the Eight Palms, representing the eight energetic possibilities depicted by the trigrams of the ba gua circle.  Bagua practice is distinguished from other martial arts by the fact that it is done moving at full speed (after a slower introductory period) with rapid changes of direction and circular and spiralling movements.  Here you can watch a basic Bagua routine demonstrated by a master from the Taoist monastery at Wudang:

Bagua operates on the principle of practicing a small number of movements, each of which has a great many layers of content.  An example of this are the single and double palm changes (see video).  Classically, students of Bagua were first taught to walk the circle while performing Nei Gung energy work, the two initial palm changes and very little else, until their internal power had developed to such a degree that any further techniques they learned became extremely powerful.  Even so, it is said that to be able to fully utilize and understand any of the individual palm change movements might take years of practice- and that the abilities in combat of those who focus on a few small movements are far greater than the abilities of those who learn complex combat applications.  The many specialized movements are merely a container for the energies being used.  Here, martial arts master B.K. Frantzis gives you a quick demo to give you the idea of how this all works:

The Bagua approach to developing inner power is the Taoist sixteen-part process of Nei Gung, which you can read about from a number of sources, notably B.K. Frantzis’ books.  Through this process, the student’s energy is made strong and healthy, and can be consciously used for particular purposes.  Blockages in the energy system from traumatic events are removed, and the student can begin to consciously cultivate, use and preserve energy for their own health, and also to heal others.  Finally, the Bagua student can begin to see and experience in real, energetic terms where he or she stands in the energy system of the world and the cosmos.

Bagua makes no bones about the fact that despite the many health, healing and martial applications of its many movements, those movements are useless unless you’ve first cultivated the inner power to make them work for their intended purpose.  Bagua is unique in its reliance on footwork as a form of energy work.  Where other martial arts rely on stances, Bagua relies on stepping methods that are both numerous and subtle.  In martial applications, this means that if you’re sparring with a Bagua person, they’ll end up behind you within a couple of seconds.  These stepping methods also have specific functions in naturally opening the body’s energy channels, and in opening, relaxing and strengthening the joints- in one instance recounted by Frantzis, a man with severe hereditary rheumatism used Bagua practice to keep his condition in check.

That last is an important point, because Bagua confers additional physical benefits from long practice- the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia are relaxed and subjected to constant gentle twisting motions, which are essential to the health and strength of these tissues and of the energy system which travels through them, an aspect of fitness that is only beginning to be recognized in the West.  The joints, another key component of the energy system, also need to be opened and strengthened through gentle movement to stay healthy as the body ages.

Bagua offers a lifelong path to personal resilience in personal health, healing, martial applications, spiritual development and energy work, unique in its comprehensive vision, depth and the concentric layers of simplicity and nuance that one seems to encounter at every turn.

Dr. Symeon Rodger

For a more extensive intro to Bagua, you can check this out:

Resilience Secrets of the Shaolin

If an enemy attacks, peace reigns in my soul, my breath is concentrated, I am courageous and brave.  When thoughts and breath are in peace and steadiness, only then Qi, flourishing and powerful, is born.

-Miao Xing

When it comes to personal resilience, few groups have a reputation to match the Shaolin Temple.  In 1934, the secrets of their training were laid out for the first time in the book “Training Methods of 72 Arts of Shaolin.”

Today, we will look at just a few of these methods, and the principles behind them.  While few of us need to be able to throw a punch with unerring accuracy or stop blades with our skin, we can all use the principles that enabled the Shaolin to achieve these feats.  Beyond this, training for physical and mental resilience is built in to their method and we all need that!

Far more importantly, the essence of their method is to develop inner resilience and stability, Gong-fu, which transcends all techniques.

Let’s take a look at a few of the exercises.

Nephrite Belt

This is a method both of cultivating Qi and of making the body capable of ‘rotating, collecting and holding’ large and heavy objects.  The method is as follows:

Find a tree which you can easily put your arms around.  Put your arms around it as tightly as possible and clench your fingers.  Squat pressing both knees into the tree, and try to stand up.  Do this for a long time every day, and in one to two years, you should be able to uproot the tree.  In this way, by training persistently against a great obstacle, anything less seems effortless.

A famous Indian wrestler used this method in the early 20th century by practicing on a tree in his backyard.  Although he was short and not very heavy, he was well known for tossing around much heavier opponents as if they were rag dolls.  When asked if he ever uprooted that tree, he replied, “No, but compared to that tree, a 300 pound opponent is nothing.”

After the description of this method, there follows an injunction warning that this method ought not to be employed for frivolous reasons, but only to improve self-defence.  This is a reminder of what the Shaolin say about those who use their arts for malice or vanity and do not master their anger.  They will not persist in learning, or if they persist, they will not cultivate Gong-fu and thus will come to a bad end.

Pinching a Flower

This is an exercise for the cultivation of Yin energy and what the Shaolin method calls “soft external” hardening.  Begin by placing the middle and index finger on the thumb.  Maintaining pressure, rub the fingers over the thumb in a circular pattern, alternating the same numbers of clockwise and counter-clockwise repetitions.   Do it every day whenever you have time, and within one year of persistent effort, the strength of the fingers will increase many times over.  Aside from the usefulness of strong fingers in everyday life, the purpose of this technique was to make even the most delicate parts of the body deadly in combat.  Similar techniques for strengthening the fingers include pushing on rocks and trees, lightly at first and then with increasing force, or plucking nails from a board.

Golden Bell

A considerable body of the techniques involve striking the body all over, lightly at first and then with increasing strength, using either the fist or a wooden mallet.  This is the technique that hardens the body and builds Qi for the deflection of weapons, something for which the Shaolin are so well-known.  These exercises are related to the “Iron Shirt” Qi Gong methods, further developed later by the Taoists, that not only keep you safe in combat, but also protect you in case of accidents.  Even better, these exercises have enormous health benefits!

The Hanging Object Exercises

Many of the exercises make use of objects suspended from the ceiling with string.  A cotton ball suspended this way is used to train pinpoint-accurate punching, and hanging stones for accurate kicking.  Swinging objects such as beads are used to train the senses, for instance by swinging one in front of and one behind the head, the object being to pay attention by sight and sound to both and to catch each one with a single movement.  These exercises exemplify the simplicity of the Shaolin techniques – a very simple thing repeated again and again is used to amplify a particular skill.

To get a feel for real Shaolin training, check out this excellent video by National Geographic:


You begin to see the pattern in these methods.  The Shaolin path to mastery is the opposite of what we all learn from a very young age.  Where we tend to learn by doing a lot of things, and adding constantly to what we do, the Shaolin recommend focusing on a very few methods, persisting in them for long periods of time.  Each of these methods is quite simple in and of itself, but that simple exercise plus an investment of time and effort yields a quite disproportionate payoff.  The Yin Fist method, for instance, requires ten years to fully master, punching the air above the water of a well one hundred times per day.  The result, however, is that the practitioner would be able to deliver a punch without touching the target.


These exercises cannot be separated from the cultivation of Gong-fu, that quality of inner pwer and resilience at the core of the martial arts, to which Master Miao Xing alludes above.  When undertaking these methods, “the main point is peace of mind and concentration.  It is necessary to give up extraneous thoughts.”  There are very detailed requirements for the mindset and way of life of the practitioner, without which health benefits and skills will not materialize.   For many people, simply being able to put oneself in this mindset is a needed boost to resilience.  In other words, if you can take on the mindset of someone who would do these exercises daily for several years, you are half-way there.  Chapter 1.9 also outlines how different habits, activities and states of mind can harm the Qi and internal organs, while the following chapters give specific and quite simple methods for maintaining health while training.

72 Arts on Gong-fu

“The aims of training are to improve health, be strong and sturdy, withstand external forces, eliminate inner diseases, protect oneself against attacks…Training should be treated seriously, don’t be in a hurry. Success should be gradually achieved.”

“The pugilistic arts are like fire, while Gong-fu gives a stable ground for shaping a man.”

“They say if you understand that life and death are false illusions, you can distinguish truth from deception and cultivate knowledge within the heart; then deep meditation will break your bondage to emotions and aspirations.  However, it needs resolution and determination – this is the most important.  It is necessary to give oneself to this cause every day, and not at one’s own will.  Equally, one should be aware of life’s lures and not be a slave of desires.”

“When exercising, one must observe five demands: first, be serious; second, be conscientious; third, the Spirit should conform to the Will; fourth, live a moral life; fifth, strictly follow the methods.”

Health Warnings 

“Looking for a long time harms Jing (vitality), listening for a long time harms Shen (Mind), lying for a long time harms Qi (Energy), sitting for a long time harms the vascular system, standing for a long time harms the bones, wild rage harms the liver, meaningless thoughts harm the spleen, deep sorrow harms the vascular system, gluttony harms the stomach, fear harms the kidneys, excessive socializing is harmful to the marrow, chagrin is harmful to the heart, sadness is harmful to the brain, overwork is harmful to strength.”

What We All Can Learn from the Shaolin

If we take the Shaolin training methods as a whole and look for principles we can apply to our own lives, we can come up with some basic recommendations.  Each of these recommendations is incredibly DEEP IN MEANING.  I could happily talk about each on for an hour and illustrate it further, but we have to stop here for today.  So here they are:

  1. Always know exactly the result you wish to see.
  2. Have complete faith that the result is possible.
  3. Find the very simple practices that will inevitably lead to this result and practice them diligently.
  4. Always master the basics.  The person who masters the basics is a hundred times more effective that the person who dabbles in many practices and masters none of them.
  5. Start every practice with what is easily possible, then do what is just a little bit harder and keep improving incrementally.  If you do this, you will eventually do the impossible with complete ease.
  6. Continually build the resilience of the whole person, not just a part – engage the physical being, the mental focus, the breathing, the movement, the will power.

Take a few minutes and think about how you could apply these principles to your own life.  Think about what the educational system would be like today if it taught these principles.  Think about what your life would be like today if you had been taught these principles from an early age.  It will blow your mind!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

The Power of Qi: Using EFT and Qi Gong to Clear Your Energy Patterns

I’m delighted to announce an upcoming live event where you will be able to learn tested and proven tools for mastering your energy, your emotions and your overall health and wellness.  

My dear friend and colleague, Dr. Carol Look, and myself are putting on a joint live event to teach you how to use the 5 top Qi Gong systems ever devised and how to apply the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT – a technique I personally consider to be priceless) to all aspects of your life.  

This event will take place in Jersey City, NJ at the end of February.  You can get all the details and reserve your place here:

Near the bottom of the page there’s an audio link where you can listen as Carol and I take you through the event’s schedule to help you get a clear idea of what you’ll get.  Just in case you miss it, you can also listen to the audio or download it from here:

If you’ve ever wanted to:

  • Develop imperturbable inner peace
  • Learn to eliminate stress and reach deep relaxation on demand
  • Get relief from or entirely eliminate past traumas that are holding you back or making your life miserable
  • Master your emotional responses and finally get free of emotional patterns that run (and ruin) your life
  • Learn the same health Qi Gong methods that the Taoist longevity tradition has used for centuries to get people past their 100th birthdays in great health
  • Transform your daily grind into an extended meditation session producing great health and inner peace
  • Become stronger and more flexible on minutes a day
  • Replace negative emotions harmful to your health with positive emotional content

…then this event could be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

Carol and I will spend 3 full days with you, teaching you, guiding you and helping you become a happier, healthier and more resilient person.  

To check out all the details and reserve your spot, just go to this page:

Energy Medicine and You

As science advances and we learn more about the various energy fields, channels and structures in and around the human body, the one thing that becomes obvious is that working with energy is the most effective means of creating vibrant, long-term health.  

At this workshop, you’ll learn a great deal about the structure of your energy body – the meridians, the extraordinary vessels, the chakras and more.  And you’ll learn about them not just in an academic sense, but how to work with them, and with all the other structures of your body – your muscles, fasciae, connective tissues, bones and marrow, joints, nervous system, blood, major and minor organs, and more.  

Carol and I hope you’ll be able to join us in Jersey City for this fabulous, fun and educational event!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

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