Check out the latest info and research from Coach Chris' explorations in the Subject of Internal Power.
Many of the mechanics of the internal arts are predicated on our ability to release or address tension. As we have discussed in previous articles on speed, connection, and heaviness, without the correct levels of relaxation, much of what makes these efficient will not be there. The tense practitioner will constantly be ‘breaking’ their expression of power as it travels through sports of tension or tight tissue.
One of the ways in which we address this is through a combination of extension, release, mind, and breath. These methods when compared to some of the ‘hard’ training methods of other arts like weight training or callisthenics would be considered soft and this, in my opinion, is where the definition originates. The techniques are varied but the majority are either very slow or static in nature and the practitioner hardly appears to be doing anything. Inside however, there is often a deep focus paid on progressively releasing and relaxing.
Extension and breath.
Typically, softness as we mean it in the internal arts is focused on the muscle tissue as this is the most common tissue for tension to be present in. However, there is another issue present in the body that can hold larger scale tension, especially spanning larger areas than a single muscle. This is ‘tightness’ in the fascia, the connective tissues that run throughout the body. As mentioned in previous articles there are several types of Fascia, and specifically here we are concerned with the tissues that wrap the muscles, connect tissues to each other and separate layers of tissue from one another. Tightness here can be more problematic than that in muscle tissue, which can often be resolved with methods like massage and targeted stretching. Tension in the fascia can often be noticed in limited range of motion and impaired mobility, but also in how well we move in the morning or the general level of ‘stiffness’ we feel in the body as we age.
The internal arts have a very specific approach to this issue. It is an approach that can be used to heal damaged tissues as much as it can be used to resolve tension. It is the method of extending parts of the body away from a central point without tensing the muscles and then using the ‘out’ phase of breath the deepen the relaxation over many breaths.
As discussed in earlier articles, the process of breathing out is one of the keys we can use to help us relax. We are pre-programmed to relax more deeply when we breath out. However, this is usually accompanied by a releasing of extension as the whole body enters a relaxed state. By maintaining the extension and looking for release within this extension the body will begin to re-format the fascia over time. This type of release and extension is similar to that which is found in some yogic traditions and is distinct from the methods found in more standard strength and conditioning regimens.
Below is an expert from the Fascial Fitness paper by dr R. Schleip, D.G. Muller which highlights how this type of extension differs from weighted work, which will mainly work on fascia in series with muscle fibres.
On the other hand, classic Hatha yoga stretches, in which the extended muscle fibres are relaxed, will show little effect on those fascial tissues, which are arranged in series with the muscle fibres. The reason is that since the relaxed myofibers are much softer than their serially arranged tendinous extensions, they will ‘swallow’ most of the elongation (Jami, 1992). However, such slow and melting stretching promises to provide good stimulation for fascial tissues, which are hardly reached by classic muscle training, such as the extramuscular fasciae and the intramuscular fasciae oriented in parallel to the myofibers.
Linking the breathing cycle with extension can have a remarkable effect if maintained. In a matter of weeks, the practitioner will notice a difference in their general state of relaxation and this process goes ever deeper with more and more practice.
Opening the joints for healing
Our ability to connect the body together correctly, to align our joints in harmony with one another and for us to develop ‘whole body power’ all hinge on the type of softness that this extension training can provide. But outside of the performance benefits these training methods have another very clear and profound utility related to healing.
When we extend, the limbs using the various methods found in the internal arts and utilise the breathing to soften and release the tissues, we actually begin to create a process called ‘Opening the joints’.
This is the idea that the extension and consequential relaxation of that tissues that wrap and support the joints will relieve habitual tension/pressure placed on them. As pressure is released on the joint the various fluids of the joint can perform their role more effectively and regeneration of joint tissue can begin to happen. I myself cured a badly damaged elbow using extension and breathing as a core component of my regimen.
This idea is supported in clinical research by orthopedic surgeon John M Kirsch. Dr Kirsch utilises another method of opening the joints to release and resolve shoulder pain with amazing success, hanging and brachiation.
Dr Kirsch has his patients hang from a bar or tree branch, opening the shoulders, and releasing postural and habitual pressures. This process is a little more dramatic than the soft methods of extension found in the internal arts, but the concept is the same. We open and extend the limb, release bound tissues, and allow the joints to open. Then natural healing can begin to occur.
Extension is perhaps one of the main things that I see missing from common ‘Health’ versions of well-known arts like Tai chi. It is well worth exploring for both its health and its combative benefit.
Methods which utilize extension permeate the internal arts. The idea of extension is different to idea of ‘stretching’ however the two are often confused. When extension is used we actually lead entire chains of tissue out from the body in order to create an elastic like tautness, in stretching we are more focused on elongating a specific muscle or limited muscle group.
Extension plays several roles in internal work. Firstly it is a great way to identify what are often called, blockages or bindings in the body. We may extend our arms out to the side and notice an ache in the elbow or the upper back and this is indicative of the tissue in these areas 'resisting' the extension.
Switching gears away from intent training, but in a related vein, in this post we will be exploring how different types of movement can create opportunities and effects in a Martial Exchange.
The study of the mechanics found in the combat arts is, at its core, the search for efficiency in dealing with forces. These could be forces acting upon us, or forces that we produce to act on others. Forces as we mean them here encompass all possible martial tactics and motions, be that the forces produced from Grappling with a partner or the concussive forces created through striking or impact.
How we move, and using which principle, will have wildly different implications for the interaction with the partner or opponent. The situation dictates the type of motion that is appropriate but it is fair to say that our aim is almost always to maximize the how our force is perceived by the opponent. Here we will explore some of the ways in which forces can be created or applied in general terms, the types of power we see in the fighting arts and their utility to the various combative fields.
Following on from the previous post we are now going to dig into the relevance of specific lines for internal arts movement, power and methods and we will start with perhaps the most important of all the lines the Axis.
The Axis can describe several things in the internal arts, from the conceptual ‘center line’, to the spine itself, to the tissues of the central channel of the body. All of these definitions have their place and purpose, however much of the time we see them intermingled or used in conjunction with each other. The process of producing the spine wave for instance is not solely a spine related endeavor, instead needing the action of the deep tissues of the torso in order to create the action. Rotation of the torso to equalize incoming forces does not only related to the turning of the body around a conceptual center line but also how the spine flexes and how the tissues twist during the demand.
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