“So it’s like having super powers?” the student asked innocently.
Her comment caught me off guard. I was speaking to a Tai Chi class about the concept of internal strength (nèi jìn, 內勁). As usual, I was having trouble describing it. Although I’m known for having internal strength, I’m not known for my ability to explain it.
“Super powers?” I said. “Well, I never thought about it like that before. But yeah, I guess that’s what the legends sound like.”
In the world of martial arts, there are countless legends about past masters and their feats of internal strength. These legends run from the believable (poking a hole through a wall with just a finger), to the eyebrow-raising (killing a horse with a gentle pat on the back), to the hard-to-swallow (striking someone from 30 feet using only Qi). There are endless debates about internal strength. Some people believe in it, some people don’t, and some are on the fence.
If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, then you know that I’m passionate about bringing Qigong and Tai Chi into the 21st century. So if we’re going to be cultivating internal strength in the 21st century, then we need to know what it is we’re cultivating, and why.
What It Sounds Like
Let’s start with terminology. The Chinese term nei jin is pronounced as follows:
- “nay” (as in naysayers)
- “gin” (as in the alcohol)
Sometimes you’ll see it spelled and pronounced “nei jing” rather than “nei jin”. To me, this just confuses the matter. The Nei Jing is a classic Chinese medicine text that forms the basis of acupuncture. It’s a great book, but it’s not what we’re talking about here.
The modern spelling for 勁, as I understand it, should be “jin” not “jing”. Nevertheless, many people still use the spelling “jing”, correct or not.
What It Means
The translation can also get confusing. Typically, you’ll see the term nei jin translated as one of the following:
- internal power
- internal force
- internal strength
I think all three of these are reasonable translations. Honestly, it’s really difficult to translate the concept. None of these translations fully captures the meaning of nei jin, and each one also brings several other connotations. So each translation has its advantages and disadvantages.
Many teachers use the term internal force. I myself used this term for years. But recently, I decided to use the term internal strength instead. Here’s why.
You can’t force internal force. It’s not brute force (otherwise we would call it exactly that). It’s something much softer and more subtle. The concept of nei jin is intimately tied to the concept of sōng (鬆), which means “be loose and soft”. So the word “force” can be problematic in English.
Don’t Use the Force, Luke
There’s also the Star Wars issue. When I use the term “internal force” in class, I see a lot of eyebrows being raised. Look, I love Star Wars too. But as a professional in the field of mind-body medicine, I can assure you that the word “force” is not helping to legitimize these arts.
The word “strength” also has problems, but I think it is less problematic. It can have a physical connotation, but when we put “internal” in front of it, then that makes it clear that we’re talking about something different than normal strength.
I also like the word “strength” because it has positive connotations. You want to be physically, mentally, and emotionally strong, right? I certainly do.
So that’s why I use the term internal strength rather than internal force.
What It Isn’t
Now let’s talk about what internal strength isn’t. This will help us to narrow down the definition. It will also give me time to stall since I’m so bad at defining it.
1. It isn’t mystical or magical. It’s not a super power, despite my earlier joke. Now don’t get me wrong — some feats of internal strength sound downright amazing, but I still believe that they can be explained by natural laws.
2. It isn’t easy. The problem is that developing internal strength requires years of highly specific training. In fact, many masters think it takes 30 years to be able to manifest internal strength. That’s a long time!
3. It isn’t common. Masters in the East typically don’t display their internal strength publicly. Even disciples might have to wait years for a demonstration. In my experience, most (but not all) of the displays of internal strength that you see on YouTube are just tricks. Real displays are incredibly uncommon.
4. It isn’t dependent on age, gender, or size. And this part is pretty awesome, if you ask me. One of the most powerful masters in the history of China was an elderly nun named Ng Mui. Men twice her size and half her age were scared of her. And rightly so. By all accounts, she was a powerhouse.
5. It isn’t a myth. I empathize with martial artists who have given up on the concept of internal strength. After all, it’s so hard to find. But just because something is hard to find doesn’t mean it’s fake. There are plenty of bogus masters out there, and lots of terrible information on the internet. But internal strength is real. (See below for more on that.)
What It Is
So what is it? Here’s where I start to stumble with words. I’ll let you read what some other masters say about internal strength:
Master Waysun Liao describes it as follows:
a high-frequency vibration controlled by the mind and integrated by mind/body coordination into an ultra-fast wave-like unit.
Hm. Because I have internal strength, I understand what he’s talking about. I think. Do you? (Seriously. I’m curious to hear your feedback below.)
Master Bruce Kumar Frantzis describes it as follows:
…a specific form of chi that integrates all the various energies of the body into one unified chi that can manifest physical power.
How do I define it? Here’s my best shot. Let me know if it make sense to you.
Internal strength is a different way of utilizing strength in the human body. After years of practicing specialized exercises, the entire body becomes connected and charged with qi (energy). As a result, regardless of their age, size, or gender, the person can manifest uncommon levels of strength. This power can manifest as a punch, a kick, a throw, or a push. Perhaps more importantly, it can also manifest as mental, emotional, or even spiritual fortitude.
How It Works
You can always count on me to be honest with you when I don’t know the answer to something. And in this case, I honestly don’t know how internal strength works. I have a few theories, but no conclusions yet. If you have any theories, please add them below in the comments.
Strength itself is not fully understood in the world of science. For example, the world record for a dead lift is under 800lbs. And yet, all over the world there are stories of people lifting (and holding) over 1000lbs in order to rescue a child. This is a well-documented phenomenon called hysterical strength.
If you’re thinking adrenaline, you’re only partially right. Yes, hysterical strength involves adrenaline, but that doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. Adrenaline helps, but not that much. And there’s plenty of adrenaline flowing when you’re trying to set an Olympic record.
Modern theories about strength talk a lot about the fascia. Some scientists think that the fascia acts like a pulley in the body. Some modern theories even suggest that everything we think we know about muscles is wrong, and that fascia is the real source of strength in the human body. (Fascia is the connecting tissue that runs in huge sheaths throughout the body, wrapping the muscles and the organs.)
Until science figures out what strength is all about, I don’t think we’re going to fully understand internal strength. I certainly think it’s possible that internal strength does something to enhance the functioning of the fascia. How that works, I’m not sure. But it’s a plausible explanation
Luckily, we don’t need to know how it works to know that it works. If you’ve read this far, then here’s a treat for you. This video shows me, along with a bunch of my colleagues, breaking bricks using internal strength.
The goal was to break only the bottom of 2 bricks, but as you’ll see, even when my colleagues “missed”, they still did some impressive breaks. We may not be like the masters of old, but clearly there’s something uncommon going on in this video. Give us another 20 years of training, and it will be interesting to see what we can do!
If the subject of internal strength interests you, then I’ll write another article. I can give examples of internal strength — some that I’ve experienced, and some that I’ve only heard of. I can talk about the training methods. I can also talk about some of the mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations of internal strength (a subject that I personally am interested in.)
So what say ye, dear readers? Shall we talk more about internal strength in the near future? Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.