Neigong 內功: the martial and the religious

Neigong 內功 also known as ‘internal work’ will be a difficult topic to discuss in detail as some people have different reasons to practice Taijiquan and that there are many variables and understandings per person. Also neigong is an umbrella term as many traditions do it differently and have different takes. Neigong teacher, Nathan Brine compares it to the word ‘sport’. If you say “I likes sports”, that could mean a lot of things. Some sports hit the ball with a bat, some hit a ball with a club, others kick the ball with their feet. Same goes with neigong. Some have just different ways of doing it.

Neigong is becoming a buzz word. I even heard it on a SUV car commercial . While I was in acupuncture college, a classmate brought up the topic in criticism that I wasn’t “activating my xiatian” when doing my Taijiquan. It sparked my interest to dig deeper. It has become apparently clear how religious or Taoist neigong has infiltrated the taijiquan world and I’ve come to the conclusion it may actually not be a bad thing. We just need to be clear on various terms, the right information, and context.

The information of today on neigong is much better than 30 years ago, but some of those same things were still taught and around back then. Mainly working with lower dan tien breathing, understanding the 3 treasures of Jing, Qi, and Shen (conversion of jing to qi, qi to shen, shen to void), working with healing sounds that address each organ, Kan and Li (reversal of the fire and water to make cauldron) principle, the micorcosmic orbit, and finally the central channel, aka chong mai or the “Taiji pole” that aligns the 3 dantien. Those have been around for a long time. Recently there has also been good information on qi sickness and mistakes in neigong and how to remedy them as well.

In the past some of the first lessons from my teachers were to do lower dan tien breathing. That there was a lower cavity we should be breathing at and that there was an expansive ball inside that expands and contracts with the belly in 6 directions: front, back, up, down, outward and inward. This is lower dan tien area and can be normal “fetal” breathing where belly expands and inhale and contracts on exhale, and “reverse” breathing, contracts on inhale, and expands on exhale. Basically nothing new under the sun to almost all enthusiastic Taijiquan players.

However in recent research and training in exploring Dragon Gate (Longmen Pai) of Wang Liping, and through other neigong experts and friends there is a bit more detail earlier teachers never discussed or talked about. First is the lower dan tien breathing is actually called “Xiao fu” 小腹 breathing or lower cavity breathing. While the xiatian 下田 is the actual lower field and much more refined energy center within.

Why is this such a big deal and why does this Xiatian have to be activated? Well, in the guided practices which lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, there is a big difference when you spend time there. The opening and shift really takes place after around 15 minutes. Mind has to be free of distractions, you have to be totally still, and use (new word coming) your yinian 意念  aka intention. That is correct folks, conscious effort. Of course in a natural non-forced way. So yes, new vocabulary words are now getting around.

Ming men fire and Dan tien
Chinese medicine view on health via the mingmen fire

Coming from a Yang Taijiquan lineage, the neigong was more emphasized in other ways. One of my favorite is that neigong is already in the form. For instance, if you know the long form, the prescription is to do the long form 3 or more times and you’ll be sure to get plenty of neigong work done! Martial artists are not really looking inward to cultivate neidan 內丹 (internal alchemy) and jindan 金丹  (golden elixir). Those things will be bi-products of the hard work, if a taijiquan player chooses to take that road that includes Taoist methods. You have to remember that in Taijiquan, it is a martial art and much of the intention is on how the movements and postures function in an application level. No amount of xiatian breathing is going to help you deal with real pressure from an aggressive thug.

Yang Chengfu on Kan and Li

In the book, “Yang Taiji is one family across the straits”, there is a great emphasis on neigong. Neigong as the real ingrediant to good Taijiquan, otherwise it’s just hollow. It was mentioned that one of the masters to get the neigong was Zhang Qilin who got some of the lessons from Yang Chengfu for defeating a opponent wanting to fight the Yang family. Yang Chengfu taught him some neigong. In addition, Zhang traveled to learn Taoist neigong from Jinshan Pai (Gold mountain Taoist sect) master Tso Laipeng. Is this method pure Yang Taijiquan neigong? I do not think so as it is influenced by Taoist neigong. However some important features is that it does acknowledge the xiatian, they use both fetal and reverse breathing, recommended to sit 2 times a day for 30 minutes, training in kan and li, and microcosmic orbit. zhan zhuang, and form play. There are some other Taoist features such as practice on important days on the 24 nodes of the year, and changing breathing according to the seasons.

Picture of Yang Chengfu with Zhang Qilin

Yang chengfu and Zhang Qilin

Another Yang family member, Tian Zhaolin was also reported to get some neigong from Yang Jianhou, however it is disputed that the movement exercise of the Yang Baduanjin is not actually a super secret neigong, but rather and entry level training to help students corrdinate breathing and movement. Yang Banhou was known for his Heng-ha reverese breathing method. The Yang Baduanjin uses this method. Another master Cai Songfeng wrote in Tai Chi magazine that wuji standing was the real secret of the Yang family. Story goes, on the death bed, Yang Jianhou commanded Yang Chengfu to do increase wuji standing and so after, Yang Chengfu’s Taijiquan improved when including that method along with his partner training.

Yang Jianhou, sample of the Baduanjin, and Tian Zhaolin.

Near the end before he died, Master Yang Chengfu asked disciple Zhang Qilin to teach some of Zhang’s kung fu brothers including Cheng Man Ching some of the neigong. Cheng Man Ching’s last disciple Wu Kou-Chung revealed some of it in his book, “Tao Tai Chi Health”. Some sitting, and standing methods were shared. However the recommend time was short, like 10 minutes total with emphasis that too much standing may cause stiffness.

3 pictures: Classic Neigong from Taoist Temple Neijia Tu, Yang Cheng Fu in Wu Ji. 预 备 Prepare and 起式 begin Taijiquan, last: Jing Qi Shen picture.

How can the martial artist benefit from the Taoist neigong information? Here is a brief synopsis, but what I will want to do is make my recommendations at the end. This chart is general and tried to get most of the important terms and comparison:

The Taoist neigong is more about sitting to develop the neidan and at minimal 4 hours is needed daily to do this (2 hours in morning, 2 hours in evening). This is quite impossible for those with daily chores and job, but not unresonable for those who may be single, ability to go on retreat, good at time management, or be a monk. Both martial artist and Taoist use qigong 氣功 (energy work) in specific Tao Yin 導引 and Tu-na 吐纳 breathing methods. Taijiquan is a dynamic type of martial qigong. Do martial artist use Yi 意 the same way? No. Martial artist may adhere to “harmonize inner and outer” principle, but they address the martial moves to deal with an opponent. The Taoist has transcended the martial and opponent and will be working on forgetting self rather than protecting the self in defense. Shen 神 or spirit is used by both. While the spirit of the Taoist may be more inner gazing, the martial artist will be using the spirit of the eyes to look not only within, but at the opponent and field of battle. “Look left, gaze right” is often interpreted that way, look at the opponent, but gaze at the field of battle. Shen gong  神功  is the advance method Taoist use to deal with the upper dantien at 3rd eye area and other advanced practices like the central channel or Chong mai. In Taijiquan we use the Taiji pole or the axis of the body that runs from the top of head to the perineum down to the feet.

Both systems use fetal and reverse breathing mentioned earlier, and address kan and li, the bringing of the fire low in the body to warm the water in the cauldron. The martial artist is less concerned with the actual sitting and doing this unless specified in the tradition for example Michuan Yangjia (Zhang Qilin’s branch of Yang Taijiquan) that has Taoist overtones and does have neigong sitting. It really depends on what your teacher will teach you, but many taijiquan masters will suggest more time on form and less time on supplementary things like various sets that have some kind of Taiji attribute.

Opening of the microcosmic orbit, the connection of the Du mai and Ren mai vessels in neigong is important. The 10 principles of Taijiquan by Yang Chengfu does address this. We are told to sink the qi to dan tien, sink chest, round shoulders, raise head from above. There are two methods I’ve been taught in regards to this practice. One is slowly going to all the points each at a time and wait until it opens, example the hui yin, the ming men, the bai hui. Second is the practice of inhale up the back Du mai, and exhale down the front Ren mai for 9, 18, 36, or 72 times. Taijiquan people are less concerned with doing this, as some teachers feel why force it. Just practice the form and allow the jin 勁  (internal force) do it’s thing. It can however be a very powerful practice for the Taoist and sincere neigong adept.

Zhan zhuang 站樁 or ‘Post standing” is common in both and often used for 30 minutes to an hour to even 2 hours based on the tradition. It is common to hear of the Grand-circulation or opening the 8 extraordinary practices in both martial and Taoist groups. In the microcosmic orbit, 2 are open Du and Ren, in the Grand-circulation, Belt channel, Chong mai, Yang and Yin qiao channels are addressed. I’ve seen this in both Martial and Taoist systems. The martial artist is even taught other methods like bone breathing.

Neigong is often seen as a set of movement exercies similiar to a qigong set. Some examples are from Dan Miller and Tim Cartmell’s “Xingyi Neigong book” with a set of 18 or so exercises and then standing in San ti or other postures. Feng Zhiqiang “Hunyuan gong” considered a neigong was influenced by Hu Yaozhen who was once a student of Zhang Qilin and Chen Fake. It contains approxiametly 30 exercises.

Wuwei 無為 and Youwei 有為 are opposites, Wu wei being the not doing, while youwei takes effort to do. Both Taijiquan martial artist and Taoist seem to embrace these issues but use them quite differently. The idea of Wuwei is actually a good one which allows the person to relax some and not be so dogmatic and methodological in approach. It is a ‘go with the flow‘ attitude and not one to force or press the issue.

Taoist will place great emphasis on 修道 cultivation of Tao, developing the elixir, and obtain immortality. The idea of being a great sage and scholar is important. The martial artist may have those ambitions as well, but the training is there to be a taiji boxer and less for health and spirit.

So how do you create the right balance of martial and spiritual, or just have a good practice? Time, remember kung fu 功夫is time you put more quality time into something. For the average person with less time, I’d recommend finding a quiet and dark place early morning, find total stillness in sitting for 15 minutes of fetal lower dan tien breathing, 15 minutes of reverse breathing with emphasis on xiatian. Time will pass more quickly than you realize. Then work into some standing, and then do your Taijiquan form work. You may notice a great change. I really think a lot of time does need to be in the lower dan tien.

For the person who can spend more time, I recommend 1 to 1.5 hours of neigong, both sitting and standing total. 45 to 60 minutes sitting and 30 minutes standing. This person might be able to work more on Kan and Li methods, Microcosmic orbit, and opening the 8 gates, however lots of Taijiquan form work still needs to be done after. You are a taijiquan person after all, right?

Concerning form work, the expert and veteran needs to go deep. The Taijiquan forms need to be repeated not slowed down. The great masters have said that jin 勁 (internal force) is like silk and has a specific rate to extract the silk, too slow the silk will not come out, to fast will severe the silk jin. Long form is recommended to be approximately 20 minutes. 4 hours minimum daily. 1 hour neigong and 1 hour form work twice a day.

Sample of Neigong’s trained and general outline

Conclusion: Incorporation Neigong into your Taijiquan practice will be your own decision. There are many types of neigong out there from sitting practices, to standing practices, to sets of exercises. Be cautions who you are learning from and what they teach. Hermeticism, Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and other yogic practices should be practiced away and separate from your neigong session. You should have a teacher guide you in these practices. A retreat setting is important. Only a teacher who has accomplished the stages can take you there. There are negative results when trying to do some of these on your own like Qi sickness, mania, or nervous disorders. Some even say you can be opening spiritual doors that need not be opened if you are not ready or moral.


“Yang Taiji is One Family : Across the Straits” by Prof. Qu Shijing (“楊氏太極 兩岸一家” 瞿世鏡),

“The Biography of Zhang Yaoxi” by Ye Dami (“張耀西傳“ 葉大密)

Master Cheng’s 13 chapters on Tai Chi chuan, by Cheng Man Ching

The Tao of Meditation and The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan by Jou, Tsung Hwa.

Yangjia Michaun Taijiquan Vol. 1, by Wang Yen-Nien

The fundamentals of Pakuachang Vol. 1, by Park Bok Nam and Dan Miller.

Xingyi nei gong, Dan Miller and Tim Cartmell.

China from Inside,

Bagua- A means to an End, by Mike Patterson.

Tai Chi magazine. Article on Cai Songfeng.

Nathan Brine. Dragon Gate neigong of Wang Liping.

Master Jeffery James, Longmen Pai.

Wilson Pitts of Taoist Experience Foundation.

Mike Basvandanos of Dancing Mountain school of Taijiquan,

Last but not least: Danny Emerick, Cheng Man Ching Taijiquan.

5 thoughts on “Neigong 內功: the martial and the religious

  1. I relate to that statement. Bagua has offered more neigong than taiji or xingyi. To unpack that some, bagua has such twisted movements that body awareness arrives even while practicing as well as over time. Then, for Sun style at least, Sun stressed the 8 Mother palms off the conceptuality of each bagua trigram. Together forming such neigong yea?


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