How to use the mind in Tai Chi

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All movements are motivated by Yi, not external form”,

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about things to do with the body in Tai Chi, but I’ve not really said much about the mind before. That’s because it’s a lot harder to talk about, since, as you’ll discover, the requirement for correct use of the mind in Tai Chi has nothing to do with “thinking”, which makes it especially hard to talk about because as soon as you verbalize or write down your thoughts you are, in effect, thinking about it. See the problem?

The classics use three words to describe the mind in Tai Chi:  Shen, Xin and Yi.

We’ll leave Shen and Xin off the table for now, but the important point is that different words are being used to describe different aspects of the mind.

Let’s look at the big one: Yi.  The Tai Chi classics are pretty unequivocal about the importance of Yi to Tai Chi:

All movements are motivated by Yi,

not external form.”

But what is meant by Yi? The English translation given is usually “intention”. However, I think this is cause of more confusion about Tai Chi than anything else. People take it literally and think it’s the intention you have when performing the movements of Tai Chi – like the intention to grab and arm, or the intention to fight, or the intention to break a wrist, etc..

When people try to demonstrate this correct intention they simply pull a mean face and try to look a bit stern and aggressive while punching or doing something dramatic. That’s not it.

The word “intention” is definitely related to what Yi really is, but it’s not what is meant by Yi, not by a long way.

If you look at the face of somebody good performing Tai Chi they never look like they’re straining, aggressive or mean. Instead, they look like they are full of awareness, absorbed in what they’re doing, but open to their environment at the same time.

Yi has nothing to do with thinking, in the conventional sense at all. If you look at somebody doing Tai Chi who is thinking at the same time their movements look a bit empty, their eyes fidget all over the place, they are absorbed in themselves but not really ‘in’ their bodies. The mind and body have become separated.

In Tai Chi you want to achieve a unity of mind and body, so that there’s effectively no difference. You are just one unit doing the work, or rather, letting the work be done through you. You are present, but simultaneously aware.

I like to call Yi “directed mind”. It’s all about directions. When I’m performing the opening movement of Tai Chi for example, I am performing an opening of the body as the hands raise and a closing of the body as the hands fall. My mind is performing the directions up, in, down and forward in that order.  I am directing where the body is going with my mind and eyes. Your eyes have to be working in harmony with the whole process, not distracted, or looking in the wrong direction for the movement you’re doing. Don’t look at your hands, look through them. When you do press for example you are pressing towards the horizon, not just at your imagined opponent.

All of this direction thinking – the quality of using the mind this way – is impossible if you are thinking thoughts. As soon as you notice you are thinking thoughts you’ve lost it.

When attempting this type of training my Tai Chi teacher would advise me to stop the form altogether if I noticed my mind had wandered off and go back to the start. After repeatedly doing this, your mind kind of gets the message that you’re not kidding. You really want it to stay with the body and what you’re doing for the next 5 minutes, and it quietens down and takes a back seat, allowing your awareness to come to the fore.

“Focussed awareness” is another good phrase to use to describe Yi.

Hopefully this post has helped you understand what is meant by the phrase, All movements are motivated by Yi, not external form”, a little better. As you can see, it’s tricky to talk about. The only way to ‘get it’ is by practice. What I’m describing is a quality that isn’t a physical object or movement, so it’s hard to grasp, but with repeated practice over time it will become as real as the very device you’re reading this on.