The exploration of human movement is as ancient as the human race itself. It is innate to the condition of life to be able to move for that which is not alive does has the condition of not moving. In this way the exploration of movement becomes the exploration of life. Many have explored movement out of physical necessity, such as those attempting to defend themselves or escape danger. While others explored movement to better understand the condition and perhaps the meaning of the life experience itself. These latter explorers discovered moving meditation and chose martial arts as its vehicle in order to kill to birds with one stone. These explorers became known as internal martial artists.
Known as the Nei Jia in China, the internal martial arts were seen as different from their counterparts (the external martial arts) by their focus on internal processes from which movement initially springs forth. External martial arts on the other hand are more concerned with the actual movements and their application to martial situations. The difference between the two, while sharply delineated in the minds of many, is actually nonexistent. One can't really separate movement from the internal processes which cause movement to happen in the first place.
Martial literally means “to be warlike”, and martial arts can be seen as the attempt to make the movements of war and conflict so skilled that they become an art. While modern martial artists such as boxers, grapplers and MMA fighters have taken the skill of the martial arts to new levels, few have consciously explored the inner arts associated with them. This is a huge source of skill and understanding left nearly untouched in modern combat.
In more ancient times, war was a necessity of life and the lives of self and loved ones were on the line. The seriousness of the situation drove ancient combatants to nearly universally combine the internal and external arts in order to maximize skill, strength, mental fortitude and drive. In the east this delineation was made but still the combination of the external and internal martial arts was always trained together. Gung Fu, while mainly an external martial art, still cultivated and practiced forms of internal arts such as Qi Gong.
In the ancient western world the separation was not always acknowledged but the two were seen instead as inseparable. A type of mind-body approach is seen in all ancient Greek, Celtic and Nordic combat arts. It is no mistake that nearly all of the famous Greek philosophers were also warriors and athletes.
Socrates for instance was a veteran of the Peloponnesian Wars, being described by both Xenophon and Plato as a war hero. Ancient Viking warriors were expected to master and utilize internal states of primal ecstasy and ferocity and direct it as the enemy during war. This mental state was known as the beserker state and was widely feared by enemies.
These ancient peoples committed the practice to these internal skills and awareness because they saw them as essential to the maximization of their martial skill. Modern fighters should draw inspiration from our collective forefathers and begin to seriously apply the internal martial arts to modern fighting systems. The potential evolution this will spur in the modern combat arts is something a hope to see manifest in the very near future.
If you're interested in further study of the internal martial arts, check out these books: