image adapted from Smith & Pittman's excellent book


Brian Milani is longtime student of internal martial arts, particularly Tai Chi and Bagua, but also strongly influenced by the standing practices of Yiquan (Mind Fist) and the philosophy of aikido. 


More of my specific martial arts influences are explored further below.  But first I should mention more general influences. Spiritually, I've drawn on the 'in-the-world' practices and perspectives of Taoism, Mevlevi Sufism, Zen, Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, and others.  Philosophical influences have included Karl Marx, Lewis Mumford, Thomas Berry, Christopher Alexander, George Leonard, Sri Aurobindo, Dane Rudhyar, Jacob Needleman, E.F. Schumacher, and Ken Wilber.  Ecologically, politically, and economically, my many influences have included Barry Commoner, Angela Miles, Fred Block, Wayne Roberts, John Todd, Ken Geiser, Paul Sweezy, Murray Bookchin, Hazel Henderson, Genevieve Vaughan, Ed O'Sullivan, David Morris, Maria Mies, Michael Shuman, Paul Hawken, and Delores Hayden. Culturally, people like Abbie Hoffman, Bob Marley, Pee Wee Herman, Bob Dylan, Rev. Billy, Bruce Cockburn, Mel Brooks, Bobby Seale, Little Walter Jacobs, Gilles Arseneault, and the folks at Sunnyvale Trailer Park, have probably had way too much influence on me.  For more information on my political-economic and environmental ideas, see my homepage for some of my essays and the courses I teach:  www.greeneconomics.net  

      A consistent concern of mine has been in exploring the interconnection between individual and social change—especially in a historical and evolutionary context. 

      This webpage is intended to bring together some favourite thoughts, clips and links relating to the "internal martial arts" of Chinese boxing, like taijiquan (tai chi chuan, or "Great Ultimate Fist"), baguazhang ("Eight Trigrams Palm"), and xingyiquan ("Form of Mind Fist").  They are elements of what have been called "transformative martial arts" (mind-body disciplines geared to change—personal, social or both) that can include many martial arts, traditional and otherwise—from capoeira to aikido to escrima and more, depending on how and why they are practiced.  

      I am a former carpenter-builder and social activist who writes and teaches on green political-economy and community development—although officially retired from teaching at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies, OISE/University of Toronto, the Labour Education Centre, and OISE’s Transformative Learning Centre.  I’ve studied Baguazhang since 1999 and Tai Chi Chuan since the late 1970s. 


Writing and thinking somewhat relevant to martial arts


"New Productive Forces and Emerging Human Potentials,"  Chapter 4 of Designing the Green Economy: The postindustrial alternative to corporate globalization, Roman & Littlefield, 2000


"The New Ecology of Politics," Chapter 5 of Designing the Green Economy: The postindustrial alternative to corporate globalization, Roman & Littlefield, 2000


"Transformative Learning and the Tao of History: Spirituality in the Postindustrial Revolution," Into Mountains, Over Streams: International Journal of Qigong & Taiji Culture online; (in 3 parts) May 18, 25 and June 1, 2011; [essay originally written for the OISE TLC, spring, 2001]

               Part 2

               Part 3


Paths Beyond Domination: THE WALK OF LIFE: Centre, Circles, Power & Blending in Bagua and Tai Chi, powerpoint presentation, Transformative Martial Arts seminar, OISE-UT Transformative Learning Centre, July 2, 2008


Principal Martial Arts Teachers








Tchoung Ta Tchen (Sifu T.T. Tchoung)

Yang style Tai Chi Chuan

Vancouver 1980-82





Master Yau-Sun Tong

Yang style Tai Chi Chuan

Nova Scotia 1984-87


early 80s: Master Tong (right)

with his teacher Grandmaster Gu Liu-Xin






Master F.Y. Mai

Yang style Tai Chi Chuan

Toronto 1988-2006






Andy James

with asst. Donna Oliver

Tai Chi Push Hands (1993-2002) &

Baguazhang (1999-2002)









Dr. John Painter (Arlington Texas)

& Toronto group leader Eric Reynolds

Jiulong Baguazhang

Toronto 2001-present



Video Clips: People & styles

Internal Martial Arts (IMA) is a fascinating realm, culturally and intellectually, as well as physically.  Besides my formal teachers, I've been influenced by occasional workshops with other teachers; by fellow students in those many classes and workshops; by the martial arts media and literature; and more recently by the Internet, which has opened up a new world of diverse styles and innovative experimentation.  Here are some clips that cover a few of my interests in internal and/or transformative martial arts. 

Click on the pictures and text links below for the clips.


Chung-Liang Al Huang

Al-Huang.jpgEven before I was able to join a tai chi club, the discovery of the book Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain was a revelation.  It was basically just the transcript of some of Al's workshops at Esalen Institute, but it opened many doors of perception for me about what "the internal" is.  Al represents the best of New Age tai chi—focused on personal and consciousness development, teaching how to attune our bodies and minds to the flow of life.  My only chance to experience him in person was, while injured and on crutches, sitting in on a one-day workshop at Vancouver's Cold Mountain Institute back in 1976, and attending his free-form tai chi performance at the QE Theatre with flutist Paul Horn the next year.  Some Tai Chi Chuan traditionalists and martial types may turn up their noses at Al's 'essence tai chi', but watching this clip verifies that he can reel silk with the best of them.  While by no means preoccupied with self-defence, he does teach how to deal with conflict of all sorts—in ways far more imaginative and effective than simply inflicting damage. His artistic and philosophical distillation of Taoism also resonates with social and environmental changes we need to make today in our communities and across the planet.  Al is founder of the Living Tao Foundation.


Robert Smith and Cheng Man-Ching

RWSmith.jpgAs with so many North American internal martial artists, my introduction tochengmanching_small.jpg the IMAs in the seventies came via the books of Robert Smith, like Asian Fighting Arts, Chinese Boxing, and his books on Tai Chi (taiji), Pa Kua (bagua) and Hsing-I (xingyi), the three main internal systems of kung-fu. A recurring giant figure in Smith's writing was "The Professor"—Master Cheng Man-Ching (Zheng Manqing), who was one of the first Tai Chi masters to teach in North America.  Not incidentally, he was also one of the primary teachers of my teacher Tchoung Ta-Tchen when they were both in Taiwan.  This fascinating clip  features both Smith and Cheng Man-Ching in an excerpt from an interesting but uneven A&E documentary on the martial arts. 


The Essence of Bagua

Jet_TheOne.jpgGood simple clips that convey the basic principles in clear ways are hard to find.  This one features martial arts superstar Jet Li, excerpting segments from one of the only movies that features Bagua, The One.  It also integrates clips from The Avatar animated series which modeled some characters on bagua.  There's not much internal content here, and the choreography combines gymnastic Wushu bagua with Hollywood Shaolin.  But however exaggerated, it does convey the spiral flows that Bagua works with—similar to, but different from tai chi's circularity.  If tai chi is the bouncing ball, bagua is the spinning ball.  If tai chi is the cloud, bagua is the tornado.  If tai chi is based in its stillness of stance, bagua expresses stillness in stepping.


Dr. John Painter:  Doing it from Inside

dp-dr002.pngEnergetic forms are great, but the 'swimming body' of traditional baguazhang is known mainly for a more subtle grace and effortless power.  Power in internal martial arts tends to be expressed in waves and pulses—initiated in the mind, rippling through the body, but tuned in to (and drawing energy from) flows in the surrounding environment.  Visualization is a useful tool in developing sensitivity to, and harmonization with, all these flows.  Dr. Painter's workshops are packed with hints on how to do amazing things without physical effort simply by combining intention, attention, relaxation and alignment.  Jiulong Bagua focuses just as much on exercising the mind—to create patterns in the brain and nervous system called 'engrams'—as training the body. 


Pride's Deadly Fury

MAGICPAL.jpgAn icon of the North American bagua subculture is the Chinese chop-socky flick Pride's Deadly Fury (aka: The Honor of Dongfang Xu), mainly because it's one of the only films to feature bagua.  It has circulated in both dubbed and subtitled versions, but few western bagua players who have seen or heard about the film know much about its background or cast.  In China it was known as Wu Lin Zhi and was one of the most 225px-Li_Junfeng.jpgpopular films of mid-80s China, receiving a Chinese National Award for "Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role" while being selected as the "Motion Picture of the Year" by the Chinese Ministry of Culture in 1983.  It's male lead was Li Jun Feng (left), a real-life teacher of the adolescent Jet Li.  Master Li was Head Coach of the famous Beijing Martial Arts Team and then of China's National Martial Arts Team.  Many of China's most outstanding and influential martial artists also had roles in the film.  As with most chop-socky movies, the fighting is hardly realistic.  But some of the demonstrations and fight scenes do feature the coiling evasive bagua moves, and it's great fun to see dramatic representation of some of bagua's training methods like circle-walking and post training.  The film’s nationalistic plot was reprised in the later Jet Li film, Fearless. 


Ge Chunyan

BaGuaWoman2.JPGOne of the outstanding martial artists in Pride's Deadly Fury (PDF) was Ge Chun Yan, who has been referred to as the female Jet Li.  GeChunyan-3-t.jpgLike Jet (then Li Lianjie), she trained with the Beijing Wushu Team, and along with Jet, represented China as part of the wushu squad that made cultural and diplomatic history by visiting the US in 1974.  The Chinese Wushu team's tour of four US cities was a followup to the 'ping-pong diplomacy' that broke the long (mainly) Cold War between China and the US.  Chunyan eventually became a multiple national women's wushu and bagua champion, eventually becoming Coach of the national team.  She now teaches in Singapore.  Here's another clip from Prides Deadly Fury with Ge Chunyan in the grey jacket.  Also click on the pictures above.


Morihei Ueshiba

The writings and teachings of Aikido have been powerful influences on many of us in Ueshiba.gifinternal martial arts.  It’s not a system of Chinese boxing, but a subtle Japanese art of grappling, throws and locks.  Its founder Morihei Ueshiba is a modern figure who distilled traditional wisdom into a radically nonaggressive but fantastically skilled martial art.   Its non-egoistic philosophy of harmony has influenced many outside the martial arts—e.g. green energy analyst Amory Lovins who has called for an “aikido strategy” of social and economic change: gentle redirection of the system's momentum in a constructive way.  


Yiquan and Standing Meditation

Wang.jpgInternal Stillness is the core of any IMA, and no style of Chinese kung-fu is more known for its uncompromising pursuit of stillness than Yiquan (or I Chuan), meaning ‘Mind Fist’ or Mind Boxing.   It is a radically mental form of Xingyi (or Hsing-I, ‘Form of Mind’ fist—one of the three main internal styles, along with Tai Chi and Bagua).  Yiquan’s founder Wang  Xiangzhai made students spend most of their training time standing still in one place.  As fighters, he and his students were unbeatable for a long stretch of the 30s in Shanghai and later in Beijing.  After the revolution of 1949, standing meditation, or Zhan Zhuang, became an increasingly respected vol_1_cover.jpgform of healing and health building.  It has long been employed in many internal systems, but Yiquan catalyzed a renaissance of the internal—reminding many martial arts of some of their most powerful sources and potentials.  One only needs to experiment with standing for a few weeks to verify the powerful effects it can have on body and mind.  It encourages the use of ‘whole body power’ and tuning into subtle flows one might never otherwise notice.  Despite the simplicity and apparent passivity of its practices, it opens up new worlds of intention and awareness—which are eventually expressed in movement.  Today Yiquan and zhan zhang are growing rapidly in popularity—as forms of both qigong (chi kung) and self-defence.  Many tai chi and bagua practitioners are also spearheading a revival of standing meditation within their own disciplines for martial, health and spiritual purposes.



LIU_HSIN.bmpWhile the Long Form is the central training practice of tai chi, ‘walking the circle’ is the core of baguazhang, the Eight Trigrams Palm—reputedly the martial art most based on the I Ching (Yijing), the Taoist Book of Changes.  As a fighting art, this is because bagua focuses on constant and surprising changes in direction and SHAGUOCH.jpgon getting around behind opponents.  Energetically, it cultivates a certain kind of sensing and attunement to natural flows.  While bagua is known for its practicality, especially for bodyguards who often encounter multiple opponents, some feel bagua's ultimate roots are in the meditative circle-walking of Taoist monks.  Many bagua systems utilize standing meditation, but circle-walking in fixed postures is in itself a powerful form of zhan zhuang with many martial, health and spiritual benefits.  Such walking can tap into similar energies as those of the Whirling Dervishes of Rumi's Mevlevi Sufi order. 


Push Hands

JiulongPushHands.jpgMost of the internal styles of Chinese boxing have their versions of Push Hands, a partner exercise geared to developing sensitivity and flow in relationship.  Often observersPushHandsPrez3.jpg  or new students see only the defensive or competitive side of this relationship.  But such partner work in training is more often utilized as cooperative learning, with the each player acting as a form of biofeedback for the other.  One creates just enough pressure or weight for the partner to feel how to best channel or redirect this pressure with a relaxed whole body unity.  Until one develops some skill in doing this, competition is usually an impediment to learning.  Push hands can be a standing or moving exercise, choreographed or improvisational.  Besides clicking on the pictures, check out these varieties of push hands in tai chi, bagua and yiquan. 

George Leonard: Mastery in an Age of Transformation

GeorgeLeonard1.jpgIn 1974, I stumbled onto Leonard's 1972 book, The Transformation: A Guide to the Inevitable Changes in Humankind, and was stunned with its visionary articulation of the relationship of evolutionary, political-economic and personal change.  Since then, his UltimateAthlete.gifbooks—including The Silent Pulse, Education and Ecstasy, The Ultimate Athlete, The End of Sex, The Way of Aikido and Mastery—have been very influential on my thinking—even when I didn't completely agree with him.  He was rare in combining the macro and micro in a strikingly clear yet subtle way—a way that was also quite lyrical. Far more than an astute observer of our times, he provided practical principles and techniques (many derived from Aikido) for real change.  He was President Emeritus of Esalen Institute and a founder of Aikido of Tamalpais.  Leonard, who passed away in January 2010, was a true renaissance man.  His writings, among other things, leaves a legacy that will continue to inspire many who seek to explore the transformative potential of the martial arts.


The Essence of Martial Arts in the Tao of History

The martial arts need to change—just like so many other disciplines, professions, philosophies, priorities and pastimes in this time of social and environmental crisis.  Every kind of human activity must reconsider its purpose.  On one hand, we live in a possibly terminal era of ecocide and deadly social conflict.  On the other hand, the positive side, we have entered a new “axial” age based in emerging human capacities that can (and must) become even more transformative of human consciousness and organization than past axial revolutions (e.g. 6th century BC).  Patriarchal civilization itself is in question.  Over its (relatively brief, several thousand year) existence, civilization made its contributions to human development—including material accumulation, rational science, historical consciousness, (certain kinds of) technology, bureaucracy, and new forms of individuality and collectivity. But at its core, civilization has been an infrastructure of domination—social, economic, political, ecological—that has not only reinforced elite privilege but also institutionalized a central role for conflict in and between societies.  The martial arts have played a big role in this.  Not only have they had obvious roles in class society’s military and police apparatus, but they’ve also been a means of reproducing civilization’s narrow male mindsets—generating human robots conditioned for work and war in what Mumford called the Megamachine. Sometimes, however, the martial arts have been means of resisting domination (e.g. Okinawan karate and the Boxer Rebellion), as well as pioneering a deeper non-egoistic understanding of conflict, the Self and life itself.


Today, this deeper understanding must become a more central focus of the martial arts if they are to avoid total decadence. The old forms of conflict and domination are incompatible with species survival. Even the most respected martial arts must self-reflect, distill their higher priorities, and weed out egoistic elements—all while preserving the best of tradition, careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Over the past 7000 years, many realms of human development in the civilized era could coexist or even grow alongside patriarchy’s institutional violence and exploitation.  But that is no longer possible. The possibility of nuclear annihilation and ecosystem collapse demonstrate the historical limits of domination of either people or nature.  And relationships of domination are absolutely antithetical to postindustrial productive forces based in human and ecosystem regeneration. 


The new situation in the martial arts does not mean that the “health” dimension now takes precedence over the “martial” dimension.  But it highlights the true higher purpose of martial arts:  how to (harmoniously) deal with conflict. Institutionalized domination must be abolished asap, but conflict on some level will always be around. We need to know how to accept, manage and sometimes transmute it. This is “health” in the most holistic sense, one that doesn’t compromise the essential dimension of relationship so central to the martial arts—something that yoga or qigong, e.g., do not generally provide.  Even the most New Agey martial arts should therefore embrace and redefine the “martial”. What has to go is the preoccupation with dominating others or reproducing (typically male) mentalities and identities obsessed with competition, subservient to authority not based in understanding. The goon mentality of cage-fighting stands in radical contrast to what Rumi called the “internal jihad” of self-mastery, service and holistic individuation—realms that are (almost) intrinsic to the internal martial arts.  Many martial arts, including “external” systems, are potentially transformative in this way, so long as they are shaped by people’s diverse needs for empowerment—which can be very different for women, youth, different cultures, etc.  That said, the internal martial arts of China have much to offer transformative practice through their core emphasis on perception, intention, internal strength and balance.


Women's Martial Arts

In today's world the blocking of human and ecological transformation relies as much on gender role brainwashing as on class and race division.  Back in the seventies when the old John Wayne male identity was taking a beating in Vietnam and white male dominance in the workforce began to erode, Macho culture was revitalized by its racialization: via black macho and the kung-fu boom.  Despite some of its goofy, widely-spoofed expressions, the martial arts craze of the 70s was probably as positive as crazes get. It definitely seemed a step toward democratizing Super-Herodom. But today’s cage-fighting and mixed-up martial arts are a more disturbing phenomenon.  They go hand-in-hand with the goonish cannon fodder mentality of neo-colonial resource wars, anti-environmentalism, and rising authoritarian mentalities. No search for Truth or human development here. The new brutalism (along with obsession with competition in everything from singing to baking) reflects the rise of a new kind of neo-fascism based in toxic individualism and knee-jerk hostility to the common good. Is this a last gasp of the old system threatened by new potentials for sharing, collaboration, care and self-actualization? Or is it the beginning of a far more dispiriting terminal stage of human (d)evolution? For transformative martial arts, a hopeful development is the rise of women's martial arts in the last couple decades, offering glimpses of a new warrior mentality committed to harmony and empowerment rather than domination.  Such a movement dovetails with the rise of athlete activism and indigenous movements that are intent on redefining, and not simply redistributing, personal and political power. 


Internal Arts and Youth Empowerment

The ecological crisis, created by massive waste of the earth’s resources, is inextricably connected to RobertoSharpe.jpgsocial crisis and a parallel waste of human potential.  New urban activists like Van Jones insist that solving our environmental problems necessitates solving our social equity problems—by empowering disenfranchised youth with green job skills.  But male violence based in macho values remains one of the biggest impediments to true community spirit in the cities.  In this context, internal martial arts hold great promise to complement green enterprise creation for youth empowerment.  They can not only provide images of strength based in harmony rather than domination, but they can provide actual skills to deal with conflict constructively.  The diversity of martial arts is more than matched by the diversity of people involved in these arts, and a new breed of martial arts teacher seems to be emerging in many cities.  These clips are of NYC’s Roberto Sharpe.


Internal Strength:  Jin versus Li?

Internal Martial Arts are all about developing “jin” (or internal strength) rather than “li” (physical or muscular strength).  Super-slow movement or standing in place are examples of strategies to cultivate the jin that is sometimes referred to as Whole Body Power.  But are li and jin at odds with each other?  Lifting weights is typically thought of as means for developing physical power, which is healthy but tends to be more fragmented and localized than jin, and can sometimes contribute to energy blockages.  In recent years, however, western health and fitness innovators have increasingly recognized “high-intensity” exercise—including slow-motion weight training—as a “smart” trigger for building and maintaining human health.  While debate continues to rage about whether slow or fast lifting creates greater physical strength and muscle mass, some internal artists have found ways that conscious relaxed slow lifting can help build internal strength in ways similar  to that of Zhan Zhuang standing meditation or super-slow circle walking.  The key is that the stresses created by the weight are absorbed as much as possible by the whole body simultaneously, not simply the arms or legs.  This requires deep relaxed breathing (but not overbreathing) and doing the movement evenly with perfect form.  This is coupled with a bigger role for the mind and intention—aided, for example, through visualizations like spheres, bows, centring, and “expansive strength” used in the internal arts.  While this kind of weight-training cannot fully substitute for Zhan Zhuang, it can, if done properly, be another tool to contribute to jin and li simultaneously.     






Tai Chi Resources, Cecil C.C. Toronto

Jiulong Bagua Toronto

Nine Dragon Baguazhang, Arlington Texas (Dr. John Painter)

Kam To Tai Chi Chuan Assn., Vancouver

Wikipedia on Tchoung Ta-Tchen

Nova Scotia Institute of Kung-fu and Tai Chi (Yau-Sun Tong)

Tai Chi & Meditation Centre, Toronto (Andy James)

www.taiji-dao.com, Toronto (Donna Oliver)

Sam Masich Internal Arts

Xin Qi Shen, Seattle (Andrew Dale)

SYL Wushu Taiji Qigong Institute, Vancouver (Shou-yu Liang)

Pa Kua Chang Journal

Living Tao Foundation (Chung-Liang Al Huang)

Cheng Hsin (Peter Ralston)

Energy Arts (Bruce ‘Kumar’ Frantzis)

Rising Sun School of Taiji, Toronto (Paul McCaughey)

Tai Chi Arts & Science (Robert Chuckrow)

Jarek's Chinese Martial Arts Pages

Canadian Taijiquan Federation

The Pa Kua Chang of Lu Shui-Tien (Park Bok Nam)

Consciousness & the Martial Arts: In conversation with George Leonard

Karel Koskuba, "Yiquan—the Power of Mind"

Karel Koskuba, "Zhan Zhuang—the foundation of Internal Martial Arts"



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