How to Use Intent in Your Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua Movements
May 28, 2015
I am currently updating my instructional videos for the Chen Tai Chi form Laojia Yilu, replacing video shot between 2008 and 2010. As I was shooting instruction on Sunday for the second movement of the form -- Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar -- the concept of "intent" came to mind as something a lot of people misunderstand.
A lot of Tai Chi instructors talk about "intent," but too many students are left with the impression that intent is somehow connected to "cultivating chi" or other mystical, healing energy nonsense.
Let's cut out the noise, eliminate the middleman, and cut to the chase.
"Intent" means exactly what it implies. What is the intent of the movement? What are you intending to do with this movement?
The answer is almost always a self-defense application.
Tai Chi was created as a martial art. Every movement in the form is a self-defense movement.
When you perform Tai Chi movements with the intent of self-defense, it informs how your "energy" should be used, how you focus your body mechanics, and where you put your arms and legs. You feel completely different when you move if you are thinking about self-defense rather than becoming One with the universe or trying to be healed by some mystical, cosmic force.
Let me show an example of how the intent of a movement impacts the move. There is one movement that almost always comes second in a Chen Tai Chi form. It is called "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar."
In the first part of the movement -- which contains several parts -- you raise the arms at an angle on the left side of your body. In the top photo, you have just finished the Opening movement. In the second photo, you have raised your arms to the left side. But your arms are angled to the left.
Many beginners go too far to the left, until their arms are pointing sideways.
If you go too far to the left, you violate the "intent" of the movement, which is primarily to grab an incoming punch, get your hands on your opponent's punching arm, and either break it or control it some other way, such as an armbar takedown.
Let me show you. In the third photo, if a punch comes in and I move my hands up to the left side too far, I get a bloody nose. And believe me, my nose is hard to miss.
The last photo shows where my hands need to rise to intercept and grab the incoming arm. I deflect and grab the wrist with my left hand and bring my right hand to his elbow.
This can be a strike, holding his wrist in place and striking his elbow with the right palm. Elbows break very easily. If the situation does not call for that level of violence, you can do an armbar instead. This is where your hands should be at this point in the movement -- at an angle, not too far to the side. Why? Because it doesn't make sense from a martial perspective to take them too far.
And so, your body, arms, hands, legs, etc. are more likely to be in the proper place if you are able to execute a self-defense application while using your energy in the most efficient internal way.
All of the other principles of Tai Chi are still in play here -- the internal and external harmonies, the body mechanics, the "energies," etc. But the intent of the movement drives it all, and the intent is the application.
If you are not practicing the fighting applications of Tai Chi, there is no way you are going to understand the true intent of the movements. No way. End of story. No matter what your teacher tells you while he is urging you to cultivate chi.
And here is another dirty little secret. As long as you are thinking about cultivating chi and you do not learn the fighting application, you will never have a clear idea on how to properly perform Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar or any other movement in the internal arts.
Here is another little secret. If chi actually does exist (and you know how I feel about that), it will be flowing and cultivating if you do the movement properly and if you are practicing the fighting application in a way that uses proper body mechanics. It is much easier to "feel" the "chi flow" when you perform an application and understand "Oh, THIS is the way I close into the kua and use whole body movement to knock this guy over my knee!" Those lightbulb moments will illuminate the "secrets" of Tai Chi for you a lot faster than pondering abstract, flowery descriptions in the Tai Chi Classics.
On my online videos and my DVDs, fighting applications are as essential as the body mechanics of the movements. In fact, the body mechanics of the movements are often understood much more clearly by showing how they work in a self-defense situation. The entire feeling of a movement changes when you work it in a self-defense scenario. That is why I teach applications as I teach the movement -- in person, on my website, and in most of my DVDs. In fact, if you want a really good understanding of Chen Tai Chi applications, many of them also adaptable to Hsing-I and Bagua, check out my 3-disc DVD series on Tai Chi Fighting Applications.
The concept of "intent" is a simple one. The real art, and the real complexity, comes when you try to apply internal body mechanics properly in both movement and self-defense.