The Internal Power Training Blog

Check out the latest info and research from Coach Chris' explorations in the Subject of Internal Power.

The utility of the spiral Bookmark

In the internal arts the ‘spiral’ holds a special place in the mind and body of the practitioners. Along with the circle, it is the most commonly targeted shape in the body development methods, but what is it about the spiral that makes it so useful and important to the internal artist?

If you watch the motions of a Ba Gua practitioner or a Taiji Adept, you will notice the clear circularity and ‘twist’ in their motions, it is characteristic of these styles. But there is more to the Spiral in internal training than simply the outward appearance of specific motions.
Before we look at the various utilities of the spiral, we must address is what is actually meant by a ‘spiral’ in the internal arts. When the teacher talks of spirals they are in fact more commonly referencing a type of 3 dimensional spiral sometimes known as a Helix. Most of  the time when a practitioner moves or uses developmental methods a Helix will be formed via either their movement, their intent or the tensioning of their tissues. Quite often a ‘conical helix’ where one end of the spiral is tighter than the other is seen so as to condense or expand the spiral, focusing the twist or motion.

But the term ‘Helix’ is not one that we see too often in the internal arts, instead the practitioners will use the word spiral to describe the many different twists, winds and turns that are demonstrated or used in the training.

Traditionally the spiral is a shape that gives form to many of the classical models of the internal arts. For instance, the Tai Chi (yin Yang) is the initiation of a spiral and if we were to extend the rotation of the two halves around each other, a clear Fermat spiral would form, indeed some of the older representations of the Tai Chi show this spiraling of Yin and Yang.


Here is will describe, in very brief terms, only some of the reasons that the spiral is so important and useful in the internal arts.

Limiting Segmentation & Increasing relative strength

Connection is an important part of the internal artists arsenal. There are many ways in which we can link up the various tissues of the body but one of the most effective is to wind the tissues around each other or create tight twists of tissue around the bones. If we move in spiral or twisting motions we usually recruit more than a single muscle to perform an action.

Think of pointing your finger to a wall, extending your arm in front of you, then rotate your palm until it is at its maximum twist. You will notice the increased muscle engagement in the entire arm in contrast to when the arm was simply extended. This is the most fundamental benefit of spiral practice; it forces us to connect the body together by twisting the tissues in combination.

Twisting tissues has another effect relating to the apparent power of the individual. Fundamentally if you are recruiting more muscles in a connected unified way, the tissues will work as a more cohesive whole rather than as a series of individual lines. Thus the apparent power you are able to produce in a given action is greater, because of the increased recruitment.

This increase in strength through spiraling was highlighted recently when scientists developed some of the most powerful artificial ‘muscles’ ever created using something as simple as fishing wire. As a series of individual strands, the strength of the wire was limited to its breaking strain, but in combination using a spiraling lattice and twisted loop formation the structures became exponentially stronger, several hundred times stronger in fact. (full article linked in footer)

“It's a simple process that goes by an equally simple moniker: "twist insertion." Researchers led by Baughman describe the technique in detail in this week's issue of Science, but the gist is as straightforward as it sounds. One end of a high-strength polymer fiber (like a 50 pound test-line, for example, available at pretty much any sporting goods store) is held fast, while the other is weighted and twisted. Twist a little and the line becomes an artificial "torsional" muscle that exerts energy by spinning.” *

Now obviously the tissues in our bodies are not analogous to fishing wire, however they do reform into a twisted formation over time if the right demands are laid on them. This reforming of the tissue takes time but the adaption and this ultimately means that after a certain period of time we can expect the tissues to be reformed in line with the spiralling demands we place on them. As with the synthetic muscles above the total power will be higher.

Spirals are hard to follow.

Another key component of the Spiral is how hard it is for a human to perceive through touch, a very useful attribute for the martial artist where ‘touch’ is the basis for a huge amount of the work.

Our perception of motion via touch is largely attuned to linear and circular motions. We can very easily feel the direction along a straight trajectory for instance. Regardless of speed, it is possible for the adept to perceive and counter a direct line. If we place out hand on a fist moving from point A to Point B we have no problem matching the movement.

If, however, we begin to move the fist along the 2 planes of motion we create a curve. Again, if this is a consistent curve the movement is relatively easy to track and follow. But, if you think of the movement along either axis happening at a greater rate than the other, a changing curve is produced and the movement becomes immediately harder to follow. So even working with the first two Axis we are producing a movement that is increasingly complex for the partner to follow, stop or counter. I have met some excellent martial artists who utilize this ‘changing’ curve to amazing effect. You feel like you have stopped the strike then it cuts inside your check.

But then comes the really difficult movement to perceive or counter, the spiral or helix, movement on 3 axis simultaneously. A simply mental exercise to explain the complexity of motion in a spiral is this. Imagine a large Spiral helix in front of you rotating slowly, pick a point on this spiral and follow the point up as the spiral rotates, you will imagine that the point travels towards and away, left to right and up. This is relatively easy to follow. But now imagine gripping a point on the spiral, your body would be dragged around and up, again relatively easy to imagine. Now think of this spiral increasing in speed and the entire spiral moving through the space in front of you. Pick a point to stop to spiral, every time you try to perceive a single point on the spiral it has moved position, around, away or towards and up.

This problem compounds when we come back to reality and out of this simple visualization exercise. The spiral force of the body is not large, it is not a perfect Helix and it is not isolated in space. Spirals in the body can be ‘conical’ – condensing as they travel, they can be moved through the planes of motion as they spiral. Methods like Xing Yi’s Drilling fist where the entire structure shoots forward while a spiral is expressed in the bones, tissues and body utilize this concept directly. When you add this all together, merely trying to recognize a start and end point becomes hard for the partner, let along stopping the force in any real or meaningful way, it simply is never where you thought and always leave you a step behind as you try to catch up.

To make things even more difficult we can play with the final factor – Time. Changes in speed and acceleration over time can add a level of complexity that is extremely refined. Watch any high level fighter and you will notice that it is often a manipulation of the perception of timing, rhythm and tempo that can dictate the success of a given action.  When we overlay this concept onto spiral force you end up with a condensing or expanding spiral, moving through the planes of motion, at varied speeds, tempos and rhythms over time. Complex … and hard to stop!

Avoiding direct opposition of force

The internal arts arts famous for their focus on avoiding opposing force directly. Instead we see the arts foster the idea of trying to use the body in clever ways so that we do not need to be as strong as the opponent on their preferred line. In order to do this we work with angles, changes in direction, vectors and changing forces to get around the partner. But one of the higher levels of this skill is for our body to handle these forces naturally due to its trained structure.

In this instance, the adepts body expresses a spiral method and this helps them to transform direct linear forces applied. Imagine that big helix in front of you again, this time horizontally. If you were to shove the spiral hard, and it was able to freely rotate, what would happen to your force and direction? It would be extinguished as you were led around and out of the spiraling corkscrew.

This is a very crude way of describing what happens when someone connected with the arm of the internal arts adept. You try to push straight into the arm but it rotates as it drills forward or back and your force cannot find the clear line into the adepts structure. It is led around in such a way that it is extinguished and the person applying the force is led off of their line, all with minimal energy output and without directly opposition the partners push. When we combine this with an equal opposite spiral then the input will be returned to the partner, but that is for another post.

So this brief overview highlights some of the utility of the spiral shape in the internal arts. As you can see each concept could form a full post (if not a full book!) in itself but i hope this gives a small glimpse into how the spiral is used by the internal artist to develop themselves and deal with the forces found in martial exchange.




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