Classical Tai Chi Blog: Martial Intent

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Most people are now learning Tai Chi for reasons other than martial arts applications. So the question is, how much should we emphasize the martial arts aspects of Tai Chi? 

Certainly, Tai Chi Form movements make more sense and are easier to remember if they are corroborated with the martial art origin of the movements. It is why there are these sequences of movements, as well as the body’s positioning and timing.

Besides this aspect, there is a more subtle but powerful reason why the martial arts aspect of Tai Chi is essential. I shall discuss that below:

Tai Chi Form should be practiced with “Yi” (martial art intention). “Yi” is not something complex and elaborate. It is single-minded and somewhat intuitive, wanting to deliver internal power externally through hands, arms, and feet, whatever the movement is. 

If the hand moves forward, the Yi goes to the palm and fingers. If the hand moves laterally in a blocking movement, then the Yi moves to the leading edge on the side of the hand, etc.

Once the practitioner masters the “Yi,” it is no longer a conscious effort. It becomes subconscious and comes naturally whenever the practitioner makes a move. At this stage, when you play the Form, you have both the Internal energy and Qi (nerve signal – a simple-minded definition) are circulating in the torso of your body. 

With the “Yi” as a catalyst, the Qi can flow to your hands and fingers while the internal energy circulates in your torso until you need it for an application. Then, the internal energy will follow the Qi to the arms, hands, and fingers for delivery.

External martial arts such as Karate also practice a solo form called Kata. Kata allows the practitioner to study movements at full power and speed, allowing the student to move with the enemy in mind. So, Tai Chi form and Kata are practiced with “Yi.” But Kata is practiced with a tensed-up arm moving with power and speed, while Tai Chi is practiced with a relaxed arm moving slowly. 

The “Yi” in Tai Chi is therefore purely mental. For some students, “Yi” is fairly easy to develop. It is almost natural to them. For some students, it is pretty challenging to be consistent – other intentions creep in subconsciously occasionally. Students who have studied dancing or are interested in dancing have such problems. The fingers become warm after playing the Form, even in cold weather. 

One of my students who had already achieved good internal movements complained about cold fingers. Upon close examination, she frequently had small flourishes in her hands and fingers. After reducing that flourish, her problem of cold finger improved. 

Extraneous motions, or nerve signals, along the path of Qi, such as shoulder, elbow, and arms, have the same effect of disrupting the flow of Qi between the body and the fingers. People who use their hands intensively, such as dancers, typists, and piano players, could have such problems. They need to keep localized nerve activity dormant and let the Qi from the body take over. 

This is an excellent reason to learn the square form from which the practitioner will get used to movements with steady arms and hands without localized impulses.

The focus here is on the arms and hands, not the legs and feet. The reason is that during form playing, the lower limbs have definite functions to perform and its energyand Qi are already integrated with that of the torso. During form playing, the upper body’s function is abstract, mental, and easily distracted.