Three views of yi (intent) in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan)

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I’m writing this as a kind of follow up to my previous article on 3 views of qi in Tai Chi. That article contained the 3 different things I think people really meant when they talk about qi in Tai Chi. This article aims to do the same thing with yi. I don’t consider myself an authority on either matter, but I have had some skin in the Tai Chi game for a while now, and I’ve read enough of other people’s writings to come to some conclusions about what I think they’re talking about. Hopefully you’ll find these definitions helpful, and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Yi gets a few mentions in the Tai Chi Classics, and is usually translated into English as “intent”, or “mind-intent”, a translation which I think can be problematic because there are at least 3 different things that people mean when they say “intent” in Tai Chi, and while the three are obviously related, they’re also quite distinct from each other.

Before we get into the definitions, let’s have a look at what the Tai Chi Classics have to say about yi:

The most quoted line regarding Yi is in the Tai Chi Classic: “All movements are motivated by yi, not external form”, which can also be translated as “use the mind, not force”. In no.6 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 important points he says:

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use I [mind-intent] and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

So, here the emphasis is on relaxing and not using “force”, but why? And What does that mean? I will explain later.

Interestingly, right after that line, the Tai Chi Classic then goes on to say:

“If there is up, there is down;
when advancing, have regard for withdrawing;
when striking left, pay attention to t
he right.

If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward. “

Definition 1: Martial intent

Given the lines quoted in the Tai Chi classics above I find it strange that the most common interpretation of yi in Tai Chi is as a kind of martial intent. Here intent is “your intent to do something”, and in Tai Chi people generally mean a martial intention that needs to be contained within every particular posture or movement. So, for example, when you do the ward off movement, you need to have the intention of deflecting a blow away. If you movement lacks that intention, it is said to be empty.

Now this may all be true, and not knowing the martial applications of a movement inevitably leads to it becoming too abstract and unfocused, but this understanding of ‘intent’ is clearly not what is being talked about in the Tai Chi Classics when it admonishes us to “use the mind, not force”. If all it meant was to have a martial intention behind the movements, then it’s impossible to see how that can match up with lines from the classics like:

“If the yi wants to move upward,
it must simultaneously have intent downward.”

What has that got to do with martial intent?

Clearly this is talking about something else. Yes, a martial spirit is obviously important for Tai Chi, and some Chinese teachers refer to an “eye spirit” which his making sure you are focused and looking in the right place in form performance, and you look like your actions are martially proficient, but I don’t really think this is what is specifically meant by yi in the Tai Chi classics.

Definition 2: A line of intent from the ground up

The second way that people refer to intent in Tai Chi is as a line of force, usually from the ground to the point of contact with the opponent. The idea in Tai Chi is to bring the solidity of the ground to your point of contact with the opponent. How do you do this? Well, firstly by relaxing, so that your body can function as a whole, connected, unit, and then by feeling a line of connection from the point where you contact your opponent (in push hands that would be your palm or wrist) directly to your foot (the part of you that is closest to the ground). By imagining the force of your opponent going straight down to the ground in a straight line from your palm to your foot then you can make use of jin – which is a force obtained from bringing the solidity of the ground to the point of contact with your opponent. This jin force stands in contrast to the normal force of the body produced by exerting your muscles, which the Chinese call li. Of course, muscles are involved in generating jin (otherwise you’d collapse not he ground), but they kept as neutral and relaxed as possible, so that excess force is avoided.

If you send force from the ground to your point of contact with your opponent, using jin, you can bounce them back off you.

Of course, you cannot be thinking of the ground if you want to project somebody away from you. Your work in creating the path to the ground is already done – in the bow analogy this is the drawing of the bow. All that remains now is to fix a direction and release the arrow:

As it says in the classics:

Release the chin like releasing the arrow.

To fajin [discharge energy],
sink,
relax completely,
and aim in one direction!”

This use of Jin fits in better with the lines in the classic that say

“If the yi wants to move upward (i.e. bounce your opponent back)
it must simultaneously have intent downward. (i.e. you imagine a line of force to the ground).

(N.B. this straight line of force obviously goes through empty space, so it’s not the actual line any force from the ground will take, but it’s a case of your mind having the overall goal in mind, and your body filling in the details on a kind of subconscious level.)

Definition 3: A part of the mind

This definition is about yi being a part of your mind and the hardest to put into words. Obviously, definitions 1 and 2 also involve using the mind, so you can see how all 3 definitions are kind of wrapped up in each other.

In everyday life when you want to do something, like say pick up a pen or bring a cup of tea to your lips, the idea to do it appears in your head before the physical action takes place.

In internal arts the 6 harmonies get a lot of press. Of these 3 relate to the physical body, and 3 relate to the internal make up of the person. In the West we tend to have one word “mind” to relate to all the different and distinct parts that the Chinese have words for, like xin, shen and yi, but the three internal harmonies (san nei he) are:

1) The heart (Xin) harmonises with the intention (yi).

2) The intention (yi) harmonises with the chi.

3) The chi harmonises with the movement (li).

The heart mind (Xin) is related to our desire to do something, the yi (intent-mind) is the part of our mind that makes things happen on a subconscious level. When you pick up the cup to bring it to your lips you don’t think “hand move to cup, fingers wrap around handle”, etc.. It just happens because your intent-mind is taking over, based on what you desired to happen. The intent-mind is therefore a kind of subconscious process.

Now, going along with the idea that there are these different parts of our mind that exist as separate entities comes the idea that we can train these separate entities in isolation to gain a deeper ability with them. So, for example, by repeated practice of a Tai Chi form (or Zhan Zhuang standing practice), in which we are trying to access the subconscious intent-mind, rather than brute force, to perform action we might, in fact, get better at it and develop some ability that ‘normal’ people who lack this cultivation don’t have. It’s an interesting idea!

A good starting point for developing this intent-mind is Zhan Zhuang standing practice. One common practice is to stand in the ‘hugging a tree’ posture and try and get the mental sense that your hands are expanding outwards, yet without physically moving them. You are cultivating your intent-mind when you do this. This is starting with just one direction, but in standing practice people often talk about training 6 directions at once.

When performing a Tai Chi form it’s obvious that you are dealing with moving energy (in a physical sense) in different directions. If you can utilise your mind to “think” in these directions then you can start to train your yi, and it can start to feel like your movements are generated by yi and not by physical force.

Conclusions

It’s not easy to talk about what is meant by yi in Tai Chi, but hopefully I’ve provided you with some good starting points and ideas. I’ll repeat again my assertion that the three definitions I’ve given are all important parts of the practice that makes up Tai Chi Chuan and all inter-related. And while yi may be tricky to describe, it is of utmost importance to all the internal arts. There is a line from the Xing Yi classics that goes:

“There is nothing but structures and nothing by qi”

On hearing this line I remember my Tai Chi teacher saying “Oh, that’s good, I like that, but I’d change it to:

There is nothing but structures and nothing by yi”.

Structure and intent. When it comes right down to it, that’s all the internal arts are made up of. That’s how important yi is.

5 thoughts on “Three views of yi (intent) in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan)

  1. Pingback: Three views of yi (intent) in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) – Rosalina Health

  2. Thanks for your thoughts and kind words. Here are some responses to clarify the thoughts you shared. I’ve put them in reverse order though.

    3.) ” …if we think of yi as your “focused awareness” – then you cannot be focused on all of your body at once.”

    Correct. I mentioned that “focused awareness” was only a start. With practice, control must transfer from the conscious mind and cognitive brain into the reflexive part of our subconscious mind into the motor cortices of the brain where we can multi-task.

    This is one the reasons why complex activities like the bicycle riding and the archery analogies were apt. One cannot think of balancing, steering, leaning into turns, and peddling in the conscious mind all at the same time, nor drawing, positioning the body, targeting, and releasing the arrow simultaneously. We shuck off most of that into the motor control centers of the brain where we do not need to consciously think about them. However, again, when learning, we tend to need to focus on one skill at a time until we don’t need to think about it anymore.

    2.) I agree that yi is required to store potential energy, and yi is required to release the energy, which I usually call “trigger force” or just “a trigger.” Why would separating yin and yang not also be a use of yi? It is often a method to store potential energy. It is something that requires the mind to learn to do, and after being well trained, the subconscious mind has to engage the body to do it, even if it no longer requires conscious thought.

    This is why I say the yi that is being discussed is context driven. The taiji classics are always talking about a “taiji” yi, but they are not always talking about the same yi. In your quote, “If the yi wants to move upward [yang], it must simultaneously have intent downward [yin.]” the author is clearly talking about the yi of separation of yin and yang. Somewhere else an author might be talking about the yi of the trigger force. There are lots of different taiji yi, and a particularly skillful author may be talking about principles that apply to several yi. An author may even be talking generally about the role of yi in the process of applying taijiquan. Such is the nature of Classical Chinese writings.

    1.) “… not all human movement involves dealing with an incoming force from another person.” That is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that most persons who are dealing with incoming force from another person use yi both to generate a countering force and direct incoming force on a path through the body into the ground. This is a natural reflex to keep from getting pushed over. But, grounding the force subconsciously isn’t the only thing that one can do with it. Alternatives depend on the other yi that one has trained and can apply.

    I hope that helps.

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  3. Thanks for the excellent post Richard. Just a couple of thoughts it sparked off the top of my head:

    1. On definition 2 – not all human movement involves dealing with an incoming force from another person, which was what I was mainly referring to.

    2. I think separating yin and yang in your body is super important to Tai Chi, however I don’t think it necessarily is a function of yi. To me yi is more about dealing with forces in our out. Sure, separating yin and yang is part of that, but yi is more like the thing that can generate the release of power – like letting go of the arrow on a fully drawn bow (the yin and yang separation is the part that draws the bow).

    3. To support this idea – if we think of yi as your “focused awareness” – (nice term you use) then you cannot be focused on all of your body at once – instead you use a more general type of awareness to be aware of the yin yang separation all over. Yi is where you focus this awareness in on our point, using your awarenes, not your concentration.Again, I find I’m back to a firing a bow anaology.

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  4. Yi is important, beyond debate. Like your qi blog, I think you have pulled these definitions from the popular-knowledge database rather than your own knowledge and experience. So, no definition quite hits the nail on the head.

    I am going to belabor an analogy, riding a bicycle, to illustrate how each of these definitions falls short.

    Definition 1: Marital intent – This is like saying riding a bike is about traveling forward. Yes, but there is a lot more to it. It is also unfortunate that yi gets translated as “intent”, because it then often gets mistranslated as “intention”, which you aptly dismiss.

    Definition 2: A line of intent from the ground up. This is like saying to ride a bike you must put your feet on the pedals and grip the handle bars. Well, that is mostly correct, however that is just one small part.

    Further, virtually every human activity performed on one’s feet forms a line of “subconscious connection” from the ground up to the action. We can measure it as Ground Reaction Force, and we can track it as the Kinetic Chain. So, yi must be something(s) a little bit different.

    Definition 3: Part of the mind. What activity doesn’t involve part of the mind? You suggest, “…the yi (intent-mind) is the part of our mind that makes things happen on a subconscious level.” Again, this like saying we use our mind when we ride a bike. Yes, but that definition is missing a lot.

    Unfortunately, if one misfires on yi’s definition, yi’s role in the Six Harmonies will be misconstrued.

    Let’s tweak your statement in Definition 3 that I quoted.

    Yi is the thoughts of our mind, usually non-verbal, that make specific taiji or other skills happen. This mental training starts out as focused awareness, but with practice, it internalizes to become as reflexive and subconscious as balancing or peddling while riding a bike.

    Yi determines how we move. In anatomical terms, yi determines the firing sequences of the neuromuscular system. Sport psychology, motor control, and Chinese martial arts are all agreed that what we think influences how we move and perform. After that, tenets and methodologies diverge widely, but they all agree on this.

    For example, your quote from the Taijiquan Classics was, “If the yi wants to move upward [yang], it must simultaneously have intent downward [yin].” An important use of yi in taijiquan is to separate yin and yang. This is not just pushing down with the foot while the head or hand goes up. It is using the mind to split the body or parts of the body or both. As yin and yang separate, the body simply moves.

    My comments on your qi blog a few weeks ago mentioned separation of yin and yang manifests qi, so we are already closer understanding the Six Harmonies.

    There are as many ways in which to use yi as there are skills. Riding a bike takes skill, does it use yi? Yes, and this is where martial skills and martial intent play a role. Balancing, steering, and peddling a bike might be related to some taijiquan skills, but they are not taijiquan skills. The yi we are developing in taijiquan are specific to the art, and this hardly skims the surface. There is much more to this topic.

    Yi has been identified as a difference between Chinese martial arts and other martial arts and activities, between taijiquan and taiji exercise. It’s not that these other things don’t use yi, the mind. They don’t use the quan (Chinese martial) yi, in general, and taijiquan yi, in particular, nor convey how those yi are used. So, learning correct yi to develop skills correctly is paramount.

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  5. Interesting article. Thanks.

    Among the things I am working on with my form practice right now is that gap between when I intend to move and the movement itself.

    Take for example, the opening movement, Raise Hands. There is a space between when I form the intention to raise my hands and when I engage my mind and muscles to do so. If I can abide in that space, my hands raise (seemingly) on their own.

    I’ve been trying to stay in that space throughout the whole repetition of the form. I don’t have to trace each individual movement of my arms through space; they move on their own.

    It’s a very interesting study.

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