Wudang Martial Arts is a very comprehensive system, offering styles, both internal and external, used to promote a healthier and stronger body, a clearer and more focused mind, and overall a more relaxed state of being. Through the Wudang system we can learn how to 'listen' to our body while maintaining the discipline to achieve our goals.
The two halves taught through the Ways of Wudang can be differentiated into two categories: External Methods and Internal Methods. Much like the Taiji theory of the principles of Yin and Yang, these two methodologies are part of a complementary process of transformation. While each art, whether a fist set, a weapon form, a qigong pattern, or a taijiquan style, has it's own unique qualities and training structure that work to form it's own system, the general attribute that distinguishes one from the other is the emphasis on how that transformation is carried out.
Typically, external systems have a dominant focus on conditioning the body, building strength, gaining flexibility, increasing stamina, and a general cultivation of the "shape" of the body through coordinated drills. This is different from an internal system that emphasizes the alignment of the body, deep sensitivity, awareness of various circulations, and balance between the zangfu (organs and their connecting network of relationships) and other tissues within the body. Another oversimplification, but a common way of separating External and Internal systems, is fast and slow, respectively.
Yang "External" Systems
-martial arts forms
-emphasis on conditioning body
-cultivation of health
Yin "Internal" Systems
-emphasis on internal alchemy
-cultivation of Spirit
However, we should understand these concepts as where their path begins. An external style will have similar goals as an internal one and often they must be trained in unison. Just like the balance of Yin and Yang, as the extreme Yin is manifest, we find the onset of Yang and vice versa. Even learning a so called "internal" system begins with the general shape, correcting coordination, and doing aspects of training that can be viewed as very much "external" in nature. What makes a system internal, is its eventual connection to the internal landscape of the body.
Walking the Way
Instruction in the system of Wudang Martial Arts through the Ways of Wudang is done by first approaching the external pathway and, once a foundation has been built, moving into internal systems. In this way, we lay the foundation work with the external system first. This includes basic training, footwork, flexibility, stances, kicks, and drilling coordination in the various styles of wushu. Alongside this learning process, the internal system is slowly introduced. Many of the fundamental skills in an internal system share details from the external side of training. Even the initial approach to an internal system will be external in nature. Students must apply these external principles of proper body coordination to accomplish techniques and be conditioned enough so that good habits can be maintained.
Another way to understand this process is through the manifestation of energetic capacity. In the external sense this is manifest in power, stamina, and our general physical prowess. Through an internal application, this capacity is arrived at through not just our bodies health and fluidity of movement but also through a focus on deeper levels of energy (Qi), circulation, emotional makeup and our own personal character. External systems develop power from the outside, but an internal system must depend on a deeper origin point within ourselves. Due to this crucial difference in training, it is much easier to formulate a training path from the outside and work our way to the center. If self-cultivation is a puzzle, then the external practices are the edge pieces.
While this external-to-internal system is the preferred method, and herein we will use this distinction to separate certain systems of training from others, it should be noted that this is not necessary in every case. There are inevitably students who are only interested in the internal arts like Taijiquan and Qigong. There are other students who may be physically active in another sport and are looking for something "soft" to complement their current practice. There are others still who may be at risk or be restricted from performing certain activities. In these cases, it is acceptable to begin an internal practice at the onset of training. However, it should be clearly understood that these arts are a complementary practice and there are certain principles that will have to be learned and may require a longer learning period to fully grasp. This is due to the nature of an external practice. An external "hard" training usually encompasses building muscle memory by repetitive drilling of coordination patterns and flexibility exercises. Such practices become natural to the practitioner and bring an "internalization" of the movements and techniques. Without an external practice, the benefits of internal training can still be realized as long as progression is not forced too quickly upon oneself.
One Step At A Time