Lately, I’ve seen a lot about “Yi” and “intent” in social media and forums discussions about the internal martial arts and Tai Chi. When I started practice tai chi, almost no one spoke about intent. In texts and books, there was the common sayings as “Yi leads Qi” and “To lead movement, use Yi (intent), not Li (strength).” But the last fifteen years “yi” has become a fashion word in IMA, or in the Chinese internal martial arts, Neijiaquan.
Why the term has become so popular I don’t really know. One part of why tai chi practitioners speak so much about it might have to do with cross-training in other arts as Xingyi, bagua and Yiquan. In Xingyi and Yiquan especially, the character has a natural place as it’s a part of the names of the arts. Sometimes, people say that it is Yi as in “intent” that makes a chinese martial art internal or not. This is clearly a mistake, as a trained intent is an integral part of any chinese art, internal or external, and even in other arts except martial arts, as for fine arts as calligraphy and forms of handicraft as cheramics. This is also why I don’t make a great deal of this word. Of course it must be there, but it’s a rather basic concept, just like balance or using the dantian.
The problem of the popularization of the term, or character of “Yi”, as I see it, is not that people regard Yi (as intent) as an important concept, sometimes as the most important concept in IMA. The problem is that you really can’t use “Yi” in the same general way that people tend to do. In the chinese language, a character can be used for many different things depending on context. The fact is that “yi” is sometimes used for “intent”, sometimes for “intention” and sometimes for “focus”. A translator of classical texts on chinese martial arts would need to know an art well and have a very good practical skill to understand what an author exactly meant in what context. A translator who had practiced tai chi for 30 years but not xingyi would not be as good as translate xingyi texts as good as taiji, because terms are sometimes used in different ways and in different contexts in both of the arts. Trying to interprete taiji in a bagua or xingyi manner is also bound to have mistakes.
Intent is not the same as intention. Focus is also something else. Sometimes, even teachers are not really assure with what is meant by Yi, they might confuse terms or mean different things at the same thing. The term that seems most important for various practitioner is what people translate as “intent”. I am not willing to give an answer what the general meaning of intent is. But to give a hint on what it might be, you could call it “thinking energy”, a term that a qigong expert used. What people usually mean is something between thought and doing, like the impulse that makes your arm do something, like reaching out to grab something. This could, according to theory, be developed into a stronger form of intent that could be called “thinking power”. I am not willing to answer more clearly, because it might be understood as a general rule. If you want to get a more clear picture about a general view, What could be understood by “yi” or intent as a general concept, I suggest that you read this article, an excerpt from a book by author Jonathan Bluestein. There are many things that I don’t agree with. But it’s a well written and interesting text with a lot of thought behind.
You must understand that Yi as intent is used differently in different arts and that there is a different focus on intent in different arts. So, before continue with examples, I will just give you the advice to not let other people confuse you. And don’t take what others say too seriously. Follow your own path and take what you find is useful for yourself. Don’t try to copy what someone else does or how someone else explain the term, especially if he cross-train and is influenced by other arts. The chinese martial arts are learned by doing, not by thinking. So don’t let any term make you think too much or intellectualize what you should learn by doing.
In Xingyiquan, xing means shape or form and together with yim the name means that you must have a very strong focus on the five elements and that the intent must be solely on this. I remember that I attended a Wingchun seminar, and I did that only because I was invited to show some xingyi for the same class. In a two man exercise, we were meant to break a punch/deflect flow, and the other one should improvise a response. Because my mind these days was only focused on xingyi, the five elements just happened to be there as an automatical response in the drill. It was an interesting experience and taught me something about how movements can be drilled to form automatical responses. In Xingyi, there are only five simple, basic movements and all of other movements as the twelve animals and every application are regarded as aspects of these elements. There must be a very focused, single minded view on intent in xingyi. It must also be very strong and vitalized throughout the practice.
In Tai Chi, yi is something slightly different. We strive towards emptiness, sometimes explained with “wu” or nothingness, sometimes as “wuxin” or “no heart/mind”. The first expression is derived from the Daoist Wu, “Non-being” and Wuji or non-polarity in Neo-Confucianism, The last expression is the same mind set as the Samurai used and is called Munnin in japanese and has Buddhist origin. Regardless what term, it’s the same, a feeling of emptiness in mind and body. There’s no feeling, no thought. There’s not any place for “animal intent” or any other intent. The body respond accordingly to the opponent and the practitioner gives up his own want and own intent.
“after long experience, even intention does not need to be applied, for the body standards will always be conformed to.”
– Hao Sharu
Even when we practice “Yi”, or “intent”, it’s mostly practiced as “anti-intent”, to place intent on something else or opposing to what we do, sometimes to forget intent and that someone is attacking us. It is said that “Yi leads qi. Qi leads movement”. We use intent, practice it, but we don’t focus on Yi, nor Qi, nor movement. This can be hard to understand and it’s hard to explain. But for example, you can visualize someone holding your arm with one or both hands. Maybe your opponent grabs it as you holdyour arms up in a guard, or when your are ready to strike. When someone holds you with a very strong grip, maybe a monster grip, there’s no point of trying to move the arm or fight yourself from the grip. Now you can only use whole body movement. So what you do is that you root your stance firmly into the ground and lock the angles from the hand to the waist and then use the whole body to move. But you must forget about his grip, trying to relax the whole side, consider it dead. This is a hard thing to do. To be able to relax and move this part, you look away, to another side, maybe to a tree far away, and just let your whole body follow the movement of your eyes. So here, you use your intent to focus on something else so your body can follow without being distracted of someone holding you in a monster grip. This is one example of the use of intent in tai chi. There are other examples, but they are all about not directly being concerned about yi and often about using using yi in quite a creative and different way than people normally do, or compared to most other arts. Therefore, don’t confuse Yi in the art of Taijquan with yi in other arts. One of my teachers said that you must be able to think a bit crazy in order to understand Tai Chi. How true isn’t that?!
What yi means in other arts, I am not the expert to claim enough knowledge on. It is said that in Baguazhang, the intent is on “change”, but I sm not sure that what is meant here is the same as the “general” intent in Bagua. In any art, you need you need to learn what intent is by practice. Personally I don’t like to intellectualize too much. Everything in chinese martial arts is doing. What you think is not important. If you believe that “Yi” is something you need to “think” before doing something, you are on the wrong track. Why? One of the reasons is just because when something happens in a fight, thinking is too slow. When you see a threat or an opening, you must automatically and instantly react. After all, it’s martial arts we are discussing here.