Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The three essentials of internal martial art - No 1: Isometric contraction and relaxation

Master Wang Xiangzai is one of the most important (if not the most important) contributor to internal martial arts in the modern era after the Qing Dynasty. Master Wang's contribution goes beyond his style of YiQuan (意拳) or Da Chengquan (大成拳). In the later years of his life, he focused his teaching on healing. In Chinese, healing is always primarily physical or medical in nature, with psychological healing plays a second fiddler. I am going to write about the three essentials of his advanced contribution (beyond his contribution to standard zhan zhuang) as emphasized differently by his three important students.

In this article, I shall talk about Master Wang's first essential as presented by his student, the late Master Yu YongNian 于永年 who passed away a few months ago in Beijing. Master Yu became famous in the West mainly through the teaching of his student (or grand-student) Master Lam Kam Chuen who now resides in UK and has established an internal martial art academy there (teaching tai chi is included, as most Westerners know tai chi more than any other styles of Chinese internal martial art. It makes good business to teach on tai chi, irrespective of anything!) Master Lam has also written a number of good books on zhan zhuang and related topics on internal martial arts. Interested readers will have no problem Googling his books on internet.

Master Yu's contribution had mainly been in the area of healing. He had written only one book on the subject (though printed in two different versions in China. An interesting phenomenon in China's publishing industry, which is highly boisterous, is that many published books there come and go quickly, a new version with different name but the same materials sometimes appear with a new publisher a few years later. The reasons behind such phenomenon I shall not deal with here.) In one chapter of his book, he wrote about his method of advanced zhan zhuang, a subject most authors hardly touched upon, and if mentioned at all, nobody pays much attention anyway. Stories of touch (or even no contact) and throw, though unrealistic, are more interesting than advanced workout methods.

In his book Master Yu focused on presenting different kinds of stationery zhan zhuang, tailored made for patients with different problems. He was not a professional chi kung healer, and he did not impress me with his clinical skills as presented in his book (which contribution came from another student of Master Wang Madam Zhuang whom I shall write about in the second post on the topic). His main contribution is his system of widely applicable stationery forms, together with his advanced techniques for the more eager students.

His advanced technique, in the briefest sense, is to use isometric contraction and relaxation during zhan zhuang, preferable using combat stance. In the beginning, two nearby points/joints will be selected, for example, left hand and left shoulder. While in zhan zhuang, a student focuses on these two points and does isometric contraction and relaxation. All muscles will contract at the same time between the two points and then relax. From then on, different points and different parts of the body will be engaged for isometric contraction and relaxation. In the limiting case, the muscles of a student's whole body will contract and then relax together. A special manifestation of muscles-as-one. In demonstration, a student's calf can be felt, by a touching hand, as contracting and relaxing rhythmically. Finally in the most advanced form, one point will be fixed outside a practitioner's body.

While the concept of martial art as Zen is a not uncommon among Master Wang's students, Master Yu interpreted his practice as expressed by Lao Zi's Tao Te Ching. In particular, in his healing system, a patient is to search for the thing (物) inside his body. And the thing is the manifestation of Tao in our body according to Tao Te Ching. It is called Searching for the thing (求物). Interestingly this thing was interpreted to be falling within the philosophy of materialism of the Chinese Communist Party. Whether this is a genuine thought or an idea loaded with political expediency I will not venture to speculate.

Anyway, what Master Yu worked on is a system of healing practice that focuses on finding the correct internal sensation inside a patient or student's body. And his advanced technique of isometric contraction and relaxation is a means to find and magnify this internal feeling: the thing in Tao Te Ching.

His approach makes good sense for any student or patient who are interested in using internal martial art for healing. The definitive guideline for a student is to find the thing inside his body and to cultivate this thing. It is not something mythical. It is something one can feel internally. And by the method of contracting and relaxing one's muscles isometrically, this thing can grow. The existence, growth and management of this thing together is the healing method par excellence.

Master Yu had certainly made a good contribution in the art of healing.

The second essential can be read HERE.


  1. Very well written in a so short space. Just an update: Master Lam lives now in Oakland California for the last two years. He still travels during the year to UK to support the group there along with other European students. The last translations I think from the Chinese version of Professor Yu's book is this one - , it's in Spanish but regarding the other translations that I know - one in English and other in French it adds an interview with Professor Yu regarding the early stages of the use of Zhan Zhuang in hospitals. Also it adds more drawings with postures and a chapter with clinical applications regarding some common western disease. All the best.

  2. Thanks for your invaluable inputs, Lourenco.


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