XinYi: (Mind Intention) in Taiji Quan.
There is a saying in the Chinese ‘Internal‘ boxing arts like Taiji Quan; ‘Use the mind not force’.(Yong Yi Bu Yong Li) This is a foundational concept in the ‘Internal’ martial arts and is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp and even harder to achieve.
The idea that Yi (Generally translated as intention) should take precedence over force (Li) contradicts the natural ‘fight’ response we are more familiar with where muscle power, speed and an instinctive physiological and cognitive response that focuses on ‘fight or flight’ takes control. As a defining concept it also determines the manner, order and strategies of training. (More on this another time) Wether you are training form, pushing hands, applications or sparring, wether it is for therapeutic (Qi Gong/Dao Yin) or martial training, the idea that ‘force’ (dominance of muscle) must be subjugated and led by ‘intention’ (Yi) is challenging to say the least.
In the traditional ‘internal’ boxing arts Yi is most prominantly encapsulated in the theory and principles of Liu He (Six harmonies/integrations). Liu He comprises three ‘external’ body integrations/harmonies and three ‘internal’ body integrations/harmonies. The Three External Integrations are, shoulder and hip, elbow and knee, hand and foot. The three ‘internal’ Integrations are mind (Shen/Xin) and intention (Yi), intention and breath (Yi/Qi), breath and trained force (Qi/Jin). Whilst the first three refer to what might be termed ‘external’ relationships, the second three integrations are more abstract and harder to grasp and constitute the ‘internal’ relationships.
The ‘internal’ qualities are traditionally prioritised in any training program of ‘internal’ boxing. You might say that they are far more important for instance than the abilities of speed, strength, striking/kicking/and grappling skills that are the core training of many martial arts. Of course such conventional martial skills must also be trained and learned by a Taiji boxer but they must be trained in accordance with the principle of ‘Mind/Intention’ leading. This is because the …’Bu Yong Yi’ (Tr: ‘Do not use force’) part of the saying is both a strategy for fighting in Taiji ( ie. in cultivating ‘no resistance’ and ‘listening/sticking/following/responsive skills) and a strategy for training and developing a particular body/energetic quality that is pliant and fully integrated rather than strong and rigid. The training methods of Taiji Quan for instance teach us to become ‘yin’ (give up force for structure, flexibility and energetic awareness/accumulation) before ‘yang’ energy emerges (powerful unified whole body/coherent force developed from integration of Xin/Yi/Qi/Jin training). InTaiji Quan the type of ‘yang’ force we want can only emerges if you build it through proper training after Yin has been achieved and the dominance of Xin/Yi firmly established. This takes a significant amount of time and this is the primary reason why ‘Internal’ boxing skills take a long time to develop. Flipping the ‘internal’ switch to mind domination rather than power/muscle/mechanical domination requires firstly a big leap of faith and secondly a long time spent repatterning the body/mind connection. It is very challenging.
The three ‘internal’ integrations (San Nei He) describe an order of top down command and mutual support within the Taiji body. Yi comes high in the chain of command and functions as the initiating formulation of conscious awareness/perception (Xin/Shen) which we can call a ‘thought’ or ‘idea’ or a ‘command/intention’. Yi has a very naunced meaning. That initial ‘thought/idea’ then manifests as a concentrated/focussed awareness/instruction/response and that is interpreted via the medium of Qi and in turn is realised as Jin (the trained force supported by the qi of the body delivered in accordance with the initiating thought/response to the circumstance) manifesting an action in a calibrated way. Some schools use the word ‘Li’ here denoting just force. Li is the force associated with mucle power alone. it is sometimes tagged on to Jin because evidently you can’t move without muscle force and although Jin requires muscle force, muscles ‘force’ is not the key component. As a trained and coherent force Jin is more closely associated with fascia/ligament/tendons.
It is important to note here that the Xin/Yi axis does not require when trained any time lag between perception/awareness then thought then execution of response. It is an immediate yet callibrated and corresponding/appropriate response to a circumstance that is moderated by speed and pressure as read from the oponent. It is also believed that the long training required builds a ‘body’ intelligence that responds in the same way a Cat might leap up if surprised by a snake (If you know what I mean?) At this level of training Yi has become a quality that results from the complete integration of Xin/Yi, Yi/Qi and Qi/JIn and so there is no real conscious intervention as such but a response that is measured directly in accordance with external and imposed conditions. Obviously all ‘Liu He’ must be fully trained and integrated to creat a high level of body/ mind coherence to achieve this.
Just to expand on this idea since it is relevant to martial usage, the Yi can also be used not only to respond to attack as explained above, but can also be used in directing the point and location and indeed the relative power and distance of attack. With regard to our discussion this means that as a cultivated quality Yi is both used internally as a mental construction and skills, but it can also be used as a means of focussing Jin externally as if to determine outcome by intention. Like taking aim with a gun. This starts looking a bit mysterious when achieved by a high level practitioner since no identifiable application can be discerned more a kind of fluid adjustment that can redirect an opponent with varying velocity.
Since Mind (Shen/Xin) sits at the top of the three internal harmonies it is necessary to look briefly at how that might affect Yi to which it is intimately linked. Mind is variously translated as Shen or Xin and it is often used interchangeably. Xin however is more common in martial arts and Shen in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qi Gong. Whilst Shen encompases the subtle intelligence, imagination, intellect and the phenomina of consciousness and ‘spirit’, Xin is generally used to connote the more mundane emotive, decision making, empathetic and worldy mundane interactions and feelings. However the heart (Xin) is believed to be the ’house’ of the Shen (TCM theory). Xin therefore also represents It is the material, physical heart and vessels. Therefore its relationship to Qi and blood make it very important especially in martial arts since by damaging it you can defeat an oponent.
The heart also has a close relationship with the mental state and can either adversely or beneficially effect it. This is key to how Yi best functions since ’internal boxing’ requires a stable mind unruffled by emotions. The theory states that a stable calm mind (neutral, not driven by emotions) generates a clear and appropriate awareness/perception that inturn generates clear and appropriate ‘intention’ (Yi) and hence via Qi and Jin an appropriate response. A stable mind is the result of training qualities of ‘stillness’ which according to Taiji theory is the mother of movement. ‘Stillness’ which is understood as an original state, non judgemental, calm unemotive and internally ‘quiet’ allowing hightened perceptive and interpretive awarenes is a crucial context from which ‘yi’ can be realised. Xin therefore as well as Yi must be trained. Since the more refined they are they better they can inform the Taiji Quan.
Yi is also a word used to describe a ‘thought’ as a ‘volitional’ action. It can be fully internalised as in the practice of ‘inside moving, outside still’ a Qi Gong idiom and practice strategy often used by my teacher Master Li Li Qun to express how an idea realised through directed and ‘focussed aiming’ of concentrative powers can produce transformation without any external movements. The various meditative Qi Gong practices used in ‘internal’ boxing training are important in the development of, firstly single-pointed concentration (a crucial and common aim of all meditational practices)and secondly, the ‘how’ to transform that to a volitional mode where an idea is clear and strong enough to generate movement. Solo Form practice incorporates this idea. Later in Pushing hands practice awareness/perception of contact and opponents intention is trained so that response is calibrated and expressed within the frmework of Taiji principles. The opponents action is perceived/interpreted and from that an idea/Yi emerges that expresses itself as a response. This is a crucial point. Yi is a calibrated focussing of awareness that responds to an interpretation of events/context. (More on this when I write something on Qi and Jin and how they evolve in relationship to Xin and Yi)
Returning though to the core theme, a mind in conflict emotionally or through stress or trauma, fear or sickness can not be ‘still’. This causes an energetic systemic incoherence and hence poor awareness/perception and unclear and uncertain ‘intention’. (Yi) This is obviously an impediment to health but in martial context it is seen as an impediment to the use of ‘interpreting intelligence’ in a conflict. It is also seen to retard the ability to cultivate Qi and to develop Jin (being the second two of the San Nei He.
Consequently much training is devoted to calming the mind and stabilising emotions before the intention (Yi) can develop enough to be useful in both a therapeutic and a martial context. If training is thorough and consistent and guided correctly, the elements of the Three Internal Harmonies emerge as linked components. The quality of Yi is predicated on the calmness of the heart/mind and its ability to perceive and be aware and thus react appropriately and effectively. The close relationship between the heart and intention is therefore often written simply as ‘mind intention’ or Xin Yi. The process of realising XinYi and cultivating it is done by training a variety methods and strategies centered around meditational practices (nei gong) that cultivate internal/mental and physical calmness and relaxation as well as mental clarity. Often qi mobilisation/accumulation, will power, stamina, functional efficiency and physical co ordinative abilties are incorporated into these practice to cultivate and harmonise the Xin/Yi with the Yi/Qi with the Qi/Jin. Over a long period of practice (Gong Fu) the elements become integrated/harmonised and Taiji Liu He skills develop.
As far as Yi (Xin Yi) is concerned by erradicating distracting thoughts the mind can begin to exercise a strong effect through repatterning action and response. The ‘stabilised’ and ‘uncluttered’ mind is more naturally aware and perceptive of the self and the surroundings/opponent and is therefore more able to create an appropriate response to emerging conditions. The aim is to increase martial efficiency. In addition though, the stabilised mind is also a key ingredient in the therapeutic and spiritual traditions of China. It is considered a key ingredient to staying physically and mentally healthy. As a strategy for life and for spiritual progress it is a core idea and must be trained as such.
Obviously a program of structured training must reflect the importance of both Xin and Yi in Taiji Quan. That structured training must also have methods to train the other two ‘internal’ harmonies of Qi and Jin either at first as semi independent elements and then as combined elements. There is no doubt that Taiji Quan and other ‘internal’ boxing systems (notably Liu He Ba Fa, Xin Yi and Hsing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Quan etc) have historically at least in their traditional training methods methods (as opposed to the more modern Wu Shu performance methods) placed great emphasis on the Xin/Yi integration as a primary factor in differentiating ‘internal’ from ‘external’ and as a distinctive strategy for training (taiji especially, in accordance with Daoist principles) and giving them a priority placing in qualities required to achieve the Taiji Quan skills.
The developement of the Xin Yi axis in Taiji is crucial to understanding the art and being able to manifest the principles externally in form as well as martial functionality (Yong Fa). Yi must be trained just as the Xin must be stilled and the body subjugated to Xin/Yi dominance. Yi is undobtedly key to understanding and practicing Taiji Quan and so it is important that all sincere students pay attention to it. The lazy, careless or neglectful mind will never achieve the calmness of Xin or the clarity of Yi. Having an awareness of its importance and having a conceptual framework helps in keeping it relevant but the work still has to be done to develop it in your practice and a proper training program must be followed.
19 April 2020