Move with purpose, not just the surface.
– The Theory of Taijiquan by Zhang Sanfeng
1. Every movement should be done deliberately with awareness and purpose behind it. Nothing should superficial or done for the sake of appearance or repetition.
2. Every principle and movement has a reason for existing. You must understand why it exists and what it is used for.
3. Move with Yi.
The most common translation of this passage is “Move with Yi (intention), not externally.” or some variation.
It is correct, but it can easily mislead beginners.
意 (yi) means different things depending on the context. It can mean purpose, significance or meaning, as I’ve interpreted it in parts 1 & 2 above.
However, in martial arts it often means a very trained and focused thought or intent. It is a sensation that can be felt and manipulated to great effect, similar to Qi.
Many arts use this. Internal, external, fine arts and most athletes. They may talk about it as focus or being in the zone.
For example, Xingyiquan puts a lot of time into training a very powerful and focused Yi that leads every action and cuts through the opponent. When a Xingyiquan practitioner stares at you from across a room you should feel their gaze cutting through you.
This meaning of Yi is often focused on and students will work to put it into every movement of their Tai Chi.
However, Tai Chi strategy is about disappearing & being inscrutable to an opponent.
A highly focused intent is something even an untrained opponent can sense. This becomes a form of telegraphing that will prevent you from using Tai Chi’s most fundamental strategy.
Tai Chi trains the Yi, it can focus the Yi, but it almost never uses a focused Yi.
Training the Yi
It’s much easier and faster to train something you can feel.
A focused Yi is much easier to feel than an unfocused one.
Tai Chi prefers an unfocused Yi for that very reason.
As a beginner we must use a focused Yi for a bit but always keep in mind that this is a crutch we are using to jump start the process. Don’t let it become a bad habit you must spend time untraining.
Yi (Intention) drill
Use your warm ups to get the Qi flowing then stand in a neutral posture.
Bring all your focus to one hand.
Slowly begin your Tai Chi set. Keep all of your attention focused only on your hand. Feel every centimeter of your hand. Experience every millimeter of movement.
If the rest of your body looks like garbage, ignore it. Bring the focus back to your hand so that you don’t even know what the rest of your body is doing.
As you do this the Qi sensation should get stronger in your hand and with practice you will get a sense of what the focused Yi feels like.
Once you get the hang of this, expand your focus to both hands.
Then do a set where the focus includes your entire arms.
Then focus only on the legs, then the entire torso.
Then do a set where the focus is on the entire body.
Then do a set where the focus includes a 3 foot radius around you.
Yi Leads the Movement
Go back to focusing on a single hand.
Instead of following the hand with your Yi, let the Yi get slightly ahead of your hand and let your hand be drawn to it.
Once you get comfortable with this, repeat all the stages of the previous exercise with the Yi now leading your movement.
Just an exercise
This exercise is meant to help you feel and build your yi.
Make sure that at each stage your Yi fills the entire area. If you find your mind darting around within the area of focus then you need to focus on filling a smaller area.
Shen follows the Yi
Remember that while you are working this exercise you are violating Rule #3 Draw the Spirit Inwards because the Spirit is drawn to where you focus your Yi.
That’s ok for now. Building a strong Yi is essential and this work will make manipulating Spirit that much easier and more effective later.