Motion-Kenpo and "Chi"
by Dr. Ron Chapél
Excerpts from "The Diary of a Mad Kenpo Scientist

"Chi" is a term that is used across the full range of the Chinese Culture and is included in all of its many and diverse sciences. The reason for this is these sciences are all interconnected to, and relate to in some way the human body. This includes of course what Ed Parker and I chose to call “Martial Science.” Additionally, there are forms of medicine, philosophy, art, calligraphy, a sport interpretation, etc. The term has a range of meanings from the mundane to the esoteric depending on the context and the user's intention. But without a true understanding of other than “junk science” the term is not really applicable.

In true Martial Science it is the end result of anatomically correct neuromuscular coordination, major and minor sub-skeletal alignment, in conjunction with mental focus and proper breathing and timing. Or briefly, it is a kind of energy created by the extremes of biomechanical efficiency. Someone who has the knowledge of the particular application you seek to utilize must teach this anatomical efficiency. Research otherwise is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

"Chi" has also been described as an esoteric type of “life force” in Chinese Medicine and in the Chinese Cultural Philosophy. Common descriptions use terms like electricity, or energy flow like it is a fluid. As a fluid you’ll hear phrases like “let it flow.” Expressed in electrical terms, it can be discharged, strong or weak, positive or negative. Often the fluidic and electrical analogies are used in consort with each other. Expressing it this way embodies it with the characteristics of bio-energy that has the qualities of a fluid and some unseen force simultaneously.

Discussions of chi centered on the life force analogy began with Chinese Philosophy. Under Taoist teachings, chi is the moving or animating force of the universe and is everywhere. The earth, heavens, and man are all a part of “the force.” For a man, life and chi are synonymous. No chi no life. When the chi has been drained, disturbed or unbalanced there is illness or a weakness. When it has been completely drained, death ensues. These functions of chi are all governed by natural laws. An ability to utilize this in martial applications here should be fairly obvious and is in fact practiced regularly by the knowledgeable, but in modern time without a human guide, impossible to learn.

Even the some Western Medicine interpretations give this perspective merit. A controversial process called Kirlian photography, has arguably demonstrated that all living things have an “aura” and a “life force” that can be seen and recorded on film. This energy or life force is so strong that the aura it manifests continues to display parts of the anatomy long after they have been removed through injury or accident. An amputation of a limb continues to maintain its “aura” emanating from the main life force, as if this energy supports and perpetuates the whole of the being. The process also demonstrates once an individual has passed away, the life force and its aura cease to exist. It has been further proven that individuals with well developed “chi” are capable of visualizing another’s “chi” through their “aura’ with the naked eye. America’s Central Intelligence Agency has done extensive research in this and its “psychic component.”

Chinese Philosophers classify force of this type as “vitalism.” The Chinese Doctrine of Vitalism suggests the functions of living organism are due to a vital principle, separate and apart from physicochemical forces. In other words, there are processes that are not fully explained by the laws of physics and/or chemistry. Defining "chi" as a kind of biomechanical efficiency is unique to physical activities like interpretive martial arts. When applied properly it does in fact become Martial Science. In any physical discipline “chi” is viewed as a "quality." In competitive physical activities phrases like “He’s on fire,” He’s really feeling it,” or “He’s in the zone,” are common explanations for what cannot be easily explained otherwise.

When used this way, "chi" refers to the end product of proper alignment of the human body and all its parts necessary to perform the function at maximum mind body focus. This results in efficient movement and the optimal and maximal use of what can be sometimes described as an effortless force. In striking situations when executed properly the effects although devastating, seem effortless to the person performing the action. Sometimes so little effort is utilized, many report not even feeling the contact despite the obvious results.

Proper chi is therefore the optimal skeletal alignment and most coordinated use of the muscular system for the purpose of generating the maximum amount of force with the minimal amount of effort, in conjunction with the mind, body focus and breathing. Put more simply, the utilization of maximum force and effect with a minimum amount of effort. Without it, there is no “chi.” Without “chi” there is no efficient biomechanical movement. One cannot exist without the other. They feed off of each other, and the catalyst to begin the process is built around the proper teaching of body mechanics. In western martial “arts” this is lost, (or perhaps never found) knowledge. Ed Parker hinted at it in his writings and not to my surprise, defined "Focus" as the most "…coordinated effort of mind, body, and breath." It is no accident at world class levels of competition, all participants use the same anatomical movement in the same way, albeit some slightly better than others.

This philosophically contradicts the Motion-Kenpo (Karate) Concept of “Economy of Motion.” Just because a motion is economical does not necessarily translate into efficiency on a grand scale. Motion-Kenpo Concepts do not address the internal because by design they favor “motion efficiency over anatomical proficiency.” This favoring of motion has its advantage in that it allows a student to rather quickly learn to use simple motion to overwhelm an opponent.

Motion-Kenpo’s only true stated goal is quickly acquired individual self-defense skills based on efficient “motion.” Therefore, Motion-Kenpo at its greatest depth explores motion in conjunction with its “Mathematical and Alphabetical Re-arrangement Concepts.” Because the possibilities and combinations are endless it can be “explored” forever, but this also can be characterized as “motion constipation” and will never yield advanced knowledge beyond its motion base. Ed Parker was aware of this pairing of terms that created a commercially successful oxymoron, but because it was not representative of the whole of his methods, it was of little concern at the time. Besides this, it serves its purpose quite well and a lifetime study can yield interesting and effective self-discovery.

If one were to examine a true biomechanical model, proper body alignment focuses on some fundamental elements. The use of the complete body as an efficient, integrated unit is absolutely paramount in execution, with no room beyond anatomical tolerances for error. There is no singular part of the human anatomy that once moved, does not have a profound affect on another part of the body. Then, in conjunction with the correct coordination of the relaxation and the contraction of appropriate muscle groups, we finally, add the proper alignment of the sub-skeletal structure to transfer and/or receive external stimuli or force.

Although this rather simplistic analysis of “chi” appears to be expressed in western scientific principles, an examination of 18th and 19th century Tai Chi shows that they discuss and place fundamental emphasis on many of these same essential biomechanical factors. Thus the explanation, although expressed in western terms is definitely Chinese, not western.

Although “chi” or the internal is not represented in Motion-Kenpo, it is represented in the more complete American Kenpo, and what I choose to call Sub-Level Four™ from my own teachings. Ed Parker spoke of “…sub-categories of distance four” in Motion-Kenpo. Sub-Level Four™ falls outside of the definition of the four distances or ranges of motion as defined in his published encyclopedia. In Sub-Level Four™ the relationship between yourself and antagonists is more intimate and specific in applications. This is where all the elements necessary to produce “chi” are greatly expressed, albeit not exclusively. This is where the “whole” of Ed Parker’s genius resides and exists most exclusive of the terms “karate” and dominant “motion” concepts. I personally use the descriptive term “Advanced Concepts™” along with its Sub-Level Four™ component. Although Sub-Level Four™ applies exclusively to my personal “brand’ of American Kenpo, Advanced Concepts™ is a term with a much broader implication and is utilized in various flavors of Martial Arts within the Martial Science University including; Jiu-jitsu, W.A.R., Pentjak, etc. all of which use "advanced concepts" of biomechanical efficiency in the expression of their arts.

Motion-Kenpo teachers have realized their art is incomplete but most have not shared this information with their students. Like parents they answer questions with “because” while omitting the “I said so.” Martial art teachers often use the word "chi" similarly, as a catchall term for any aspect of the martial arts that they themselves don’t understand, or understand only in a vague sense, or find difficult to articulate.
Motion-Kenpo violates some very important rules of the Martial Science learning process. There is an assumption that learning any physically expressive science happens in gradual stages and that each stage is laid on a foundation of what the student has already inculcated. The very nature of Motion-Kenpo instruction routinely gives students information out of order creating massive confusion. I’ve seen Motion-Kenpo Students come away from a lesson more confused than when they started. Some instructors spend all their time discussing the “infinite possibilities” of a theme assault with individuals that have no knowledge base. Therefore they never develop a knowledge base from which to work. But then in Motion-Kenpo, it doesn’t really exist anyway.

In Martial Science study there has to be a very strict order to learning. Oftentimes, however, in Motion-Kenpo the student will ask questions about some aspect of the art that cannot usefully be answered because the student simply does not know enough to place the answer in context. Motion-Kenpo by design must focus on self-defense skills immediately. That is its state goal. Long term benefit normally found in traditional martial art training is eschewed in favor of immediate, albeit in the big picture limited, success.

In the west and particularly in Motion-Kenpo, "chi" is used to describe phenomena that do not lend themselves to verbal articulation. Many aspects of physical arts are not easy to talk about; they are more “subjective feelings.” Thus in sports you hear phrases such as "in the groove," etc." In verbal and written expressive arts you will hear such things as "the words flowed out of me," "my thoughts clicked," or "I found my tempo." These types of expressions reflect very real experiences that are common to people involved in that activity. But the experiences are not easy to articulate in concrete terms. Therefore a metaphor such as “chi” may be used. To someone outside the art the metaphor makes little sense, but to someone who has had the same experience the metaphor is clear.

However, on the less legitimate side, sometimes the term "chi" is used as nothing more than a way to hide the teacher's ignorance. It seems an unfortunate reality that in all times and places martial arts fraud has been prevalent. Not just recently in contemporary America, but in the Japan of Miyamoto Musashi's time, and particularly in pre- World War II Hawaii. Unfortunately a high percentage of all martial arts instructors from all styles do not know or understand their own art in any depth. Thus the use of terms such as "chi" or “ki” (Japanese) provides a convenient cover for their ignorance.

The fact that such a central concept as chi has multiple uses is a result of a number of factors, not the least of which is the reality that fraud, charlatanism, incompetence and ignorance are prevalent in the martial arts. We can take some cold comfort in realizing that the use of "chi" to cover fraud and ignorance is not a recent phenomenon but rather a traditional part of the martial arts of any nation or any time.

The two fundamentally different views of chi owe their existence to factors in Chinese Culture. However, beyond that, there are also factors in Chinese culture that have lead to the multiple and sometimes confused understandings of “chi” in the martial arts as it spread outside of China.

Firstly most of the theory surrounding the Chinese Martial Sciences including the concept of “chi” dates back to pre-modern scientific methods. The martial art were not subjected to modern scientific methods of scrutiny until late in the 20th century. Prior to that Chinese martial art practitioners were long on practical experience, but lacked the type of quantifiable information that is the basis of modern scientific study.

Because of the many wars and conflicts, the availability of human bodies for experimentation and examination for the effects of applications were quite plentiful. It wasn’t difficult to discover what worked, but the quantification of the “why” scientifically was not available. Because of this, it was difficult to distinguish the separate entities inherent in high- level martial science skill and performance. Therefore the Chinese themselves used terms like "chi" vaguely to describe a mix of principles that could not be separated through experimentation. Even in western boxing as well as other modern athletic endeavors, the various scientific approaches to human performance have only recently began to be measured and validated scientifically.

Also China has always had a tradition-bound culture for most of its history. This has manifested itself in a very specific relationship between students and teachers. All arts are regulated strictly. Two basic rules are that teachers do not "explain" to students and students do not question teachers. This tradition extends itself to all student-teacher relationships. If the martial arts teacher says something, the student will never inquire beyond that and the teacher will not explain beyond his own statement. As a result vague and confused ideas are passed on, and that includes "chi."

A third factor is that Chinese language and literary forms, do not lend themselves to specific discussions of martial science. The classical Chinese is purposely vague and overly flowery. “The rising eagle grasping with the invisible talon.” Although great for poets and philosophers, it is poor when it comes to concrete discussions of things such as martial science.

To make sense of martial arts material written in classical Chinese the reader must have a background in martial arts. Even so written material in Chinese, does not lend itself to do much to clarify what “chi” is. Taken together, these three factors are in large part responsible for the different frameworks and nuances of meaning that "chi" has in the modern martial arts.

1) Chi as life force is the most widespread and traditional explanation of the “something” some martial arts are supposed to create in you.

2) Chi as biomechanics is the most provable explanation from a scientific perspective as used in Sub-Level Four.™

3) And, regrettably, ignorance is the most common use of the term in general among those who should know better.