Science is often a benchmark that we routinely apply to our lives. We use science to decide what is the truth, or whether one method is better than another. The scientific method is a process of trial and error that improves knowledge. The martial arts also is sometimes referred to as a science, as most arts have evolved from the battlefield where skeptical warriors hold on tested claims of superior art in life and death contests, to produce better techniques and systems. Indeed today many modern schools claim to apply 'science' or 'the scientific method' to their training, arguably though this is true of traditional schools as well.
There are considerable differences in the scientific method applied today in what we call modern science, to that of the ancient east. Historically in science the eastern mind was focused on observation whilst that of the west on the underlying mechanisms governing the universe (or the assumption that these exist). Hence today we have the laws of planetary motion from Kepler and the detailed ancient astronomical charts of the Chinese astronomers. Together they are the yin and yang of science, Kepler without detailed observation of the planets and stars would never have discovered his laws. These differences offer important clues to the development of the martial arts but are not the focus of this article. This article will explore the role of science and particularly physics, as a possible tool to understand more of the martial arts, in particular some explanation of 'internal energy'.
Modern science has been a tremendous tool for martial artists in many ways, for example we now know how to eat properly to prepare us for training and/or competition. We understand the mechanics of how to stretch our muscles properly even if 'proprioneuromuscular facilitation' is still a bit of a mouth full. The secrets of board and concrete block breaking are ours, reassured that the tensile strength of bone is greater that that of that of even concrete. A lowered center of gravity and deep stances gives us power and stability, while a high center and shallow stance provides for mobility. The secrets of Bruce's one inch punch are also ours, well at least we understand that its not 'black magic' but basic mechanics, and achievable by the dedicated martial artist over time.
Basic physiology of the brain and eyes tell us much about seeing, perception and action. Focused, staring eyes perform less well than our 'glazed over' peripheral vision because of the physical location of our receptors in the retina. Here the peripheral receptors are more sensitive to movement (ready to save neanderlithal man from a stalking sabre-tooth tiger). Further, neurophysiology tells us that the expectation of an 'event' (attack) creates higher firing thresholds in our neurons, reducing our ability to perceive (and hence react) to small stimulus. From this we learn that to relax is to perform well, thus improving our freestyle practice and sparing. 'Meditate like a monk' and similar kits, now freely available, are based on brain wave analysis performed on masters. Whilst some of these products may be dubious in their claims, science has revealed much about meditation, so much so that its now better understood and more easily learned. We also understand how muscles (like the biceps and triceps) work in opposition to each other to control our limbs, thus the relaxed arm that only engages one muscle, strikes faster than the tense one. So how do we access this 'science' for ourselves, fortunately we can apply our own scientific process to decide if what we see, hear and do is the truth or not.
This article focuses on explaining how science can be used to explain some aspects of our arts in particular the demonstration and development of 'internal energy'.
'Internal energy' is one of the mysteries touted almost exclusively by the martial arts and related disciplines. Routinely martial artists, particularly in the softer styles, are exposed to 'internal energy' development exercises and practices. It can be difficult to explain, most often we are presented with examples instead. These may include the ability to resist pain using 'keiko', absorb the energy of strikes with an 'iron shirt', be infinitely heavy, move and throw people without touching them, and use the energy meridians within the body for 'vital point' (kyusho) strikes and knockouts blows. 'Internal energy' is something of an all encompassing definition for which no complete western explanation exists, though we can gain important clues from our study of the brain and basic physiology. Our knowledge of anatomy helps explain the conditioning of 'iron shirt', and 'kyusho' techniques are partly explained by the nervous system and its natural defenses (like passing out to conserve blood loss during 'apparent' major trauma).
'Internal energy' is often referred to as Ki, Chi, Prana etc..- I'll use the term 'Ki' generically since this is what I am most familiar with. 'Ki' is something vigorously debated amongst martial artists for some time and probably will be for many years to come, just visit any martial arts internet chat room or list to find scores of material on this. For some arts it's defended with religious like fervor and yet for other artists it's scoffed at over a beer. In offering some explanations for a few examples of 'Ki' development, I hope to accomplish three things:-
1) For the internal energy enthusiast: I hope to offer scientific validation for your training methods, know that in doing this I cannot possibly explain away 'Ki', and can only offer the encouragement that you are pushing the boundaries of what modern science can explain.
2) For the skeptic: Here is some scientific proof that 'Ki' and the training methods to develop it are not just for tofu-loving tree-huggers but can actually help you with your training. Please don't throw out the traditional martial arts in favor of YouKanDo they still have much to offer the serious student. 3) For all: I encourage you to try these simple experiments and decide for yourself if the proffered explanations are useful for your training or helpful in providing insights into your martial arts and/or internal energy training.
A simple training exercise and test for internal energy often used within the softer disciplines of Aikido is the 'unbendable arm'. This example is suitably simple to explain and might yield clues to how other exercises work.