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Tai Chi In Your Life Mastersoft Media
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Dale Napier, Writer

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Taiji in Your Life #1
The Power of Intention
(C) 2004 Dale Napier

Life Lessons

A university is a highly transient operation, even more so at the campus where I teach taijiquan-a commuter school with low entrance requirements, making it a way station for students who frequently move on even before graduation.

As a result my challenge as a teacher is to impart as much training as possible in a very brief period of time. This is difficult, given that taiji proficiency can be hurried no more successfully (and far more slowly) than a pregnancy. Increasingly my goal is to provide life lessons that taiji can bring us, along with the physical lessons that students seek.

This article is the first of a new column, "Taiji In Your Life," devoted to discussing lessons that can be taken directly from our practice of taiji. These lessons are no doubt, like the layers of the fabled onion, nearly limitless. The specific topic for the succeeding column will be announced at the end of the current column.

Everyone is invited to submit further examples of her or his own taiji life lessons. They may be based on the announced topic or suggest a future topic.

Make it Real: The Power of Intention

Intention requires complete awareness and mindfulness of the task at hand, and the will to execute it purposefully. It brings every movement, every technique to life-and requires as a consequence that every movement be given full attention.

Intention means everything to success in martial arts. As long as it took me to realize this, it took even longer to realize that success (however you choose to define it) has the requirement of intention, no matter the area of endeavor. To want to do something, and to intend to do it, are very different matters.


In taijiquan nothing can be accomplished without intention. You cannot attack someone or defend yourself unless you really intend to. I discovered this once in a class where my stiff qi, a lack of intention, caused a delayed response, and a resulting fat, bloody lip that never fully healed. If you launch an attack upon someone with intention, and that attack is not intercepted, that attack will occur and injury may accrue accordingly. In much slowed down practice, perhaps one-fourth full speed, injury will not occur, but contact will, such as knuckle to chin, depending on the target and attack.

This is one of the reasons why a feint is so difficult to effect: if not intended to be real, it will not be felt or treated as real. Not having the energy of intent, it will not be felt by the opponent. Unless it is felt to be real, the feint cannot draw the opponent into a vulnerable position. Indeed, the poorly executed feint becomes the vulnerable position through its weakness. One of the reasons I never worry about my students taking a swing at me (usually fearful and half-hearted) is that long before the attack arrives, I can feel their intention and know whether a response is required. Usually it is not; beginners know little of intention.

The importance of intention is emphasized across a broad spectrum of martial arts. Stephen K. Hayes, who introduced ninjutsu to America in the 1970s, devotes an entire chapter to it in his book, Legacy of the Shadow Warrior. In the art he then studied and evolved into what he now calls Toshin-do, students train to be sensitive to intention, to the point of being able to feel an unseen attack. Even today, the sole test for fifth dan in the Bujinkan (the nine-ryu system of Hayes' teacher, Masaaki Hatsumi) is the ability to avoid a sword attack which is unseen and unheard. Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, believed that an attacker was always at a disadvantage because he "disturbed the harmony of the universe." Both Hayes and Ueshiba were, in their own ways, describing something quite familiar to taiji masters: the ability to sense projections of qi (what the Japanese call ki) that accompany an attack circumscribed by true intention.

This is easily demonstrated in attack-and-counter drills, typically of the one-step or three-step variety. If the attacker "attacks" without intention, without spirit, there is no energy in the attack; hence, nothing to defend against. In such drills, the attack is useful only if, when not countered, it will continue to its logical end and strike the defender as intended. Otherwise, there is no energy for the defender to use, no energy to avoid or defend against. Without intention behind the attack, the defender can most likely do nothing at all and remain intact.

In taiji practice this is most obvious when working with a practitioner of what some call "spaghetti taiji." "Spaghetti taiji" is practiced limply rather than relaxedly, with no more purpose than to feel good. It has no intention, no martial arts basis. It is a problem I must often overcome with my beginner students, who are either tense and over reactive, or limp and under reactive. In training exercises, it is difficult or impossible to demonstrate a technique unless intention is behind the attack. In form practice, as discussed in the final section of this article, your form has no life without intention.


In real life our use of intention is closely connected to how serious we are about our life plans. Some people make their dreams happen, while others spend their lives simply dreaming.

My earliest insight into this came more than two decades ago, when I fancied myself as an aspiring writer in the entertainment field. In 1978 I had an idea that I thought would be a good story, probably as a screenplay. One day, after the idea had gestated a bit, I went to a movie and was disturbed to see that three-quarters of my tale had been made into a movie already, leaving me in the dust, a great idea "ruined."

What ruined it? My own lack of intention. Writing at that point in my life, even though I was a degreed writer, was still more of a fanciful notion than a true intention. How could I have made it an intention? By knuckling down and putting my ideas on paper, making it work: exactly the process required to write this article, which itself has been germinating for some time.

Dr. Wayne Dyer spells out this lesson more fully in a recent book, The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way. The publisher's description says it quite well:

Intention is generally viewed as a pit-bull kind of determination propelling one to succeed at all costs by never giving up on an inner picture. In this view, an attitude that combines hard work with an indefatigable drive toward excellence is the way to succeed. However, intention is viewed very differently in this book. Dr. Wayne W. Dyer has researched intention as a force in the universe that allows the act of creation to take place.

I never "intended" to include this reference in the discussion, but the book serendipitously passed before my eyes just as I was contemplating the subject. Without fully reading the book I can not be sure, but I suspect I might take issue a bit with Dr. Dyer's interpretation of intention: whether a force in the universe or not, nothing you want to happen will happen without your intention for it to occur-unless you believe luck is the primary motive force in the universe.

Examine your own life. What do you want or plan to do that you never got around to doing? Not doing the thing is evidence of your lack of intention; some would say it is a mere fantasy. As John Lennon once sang on his Double Fantasy album, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." What is happening in your life, and how does that differ from your plans? Take a lesson from taiji: convert your plans to intentions, and they will start to happen.

Exercises: Extension as Intention

The following exercises are not intended to fully describe the techniques in reference, but to consider certain aspects of the techniques in order to illustrate the required use of intention.
Ward off
Never make the mistake of proving intention through tension-instead use extension. In ward off, do not simply move your arms outward in a limp, lifeless manner-instead have them extend upward and outward from energy gathered, made possible from the intention of your body's movement.

From a left forward-posing stance, pull energy through the K-1 bubble spring point in the sole of each foot, pulling the energy up your legs. Your circling knees, then circling hips and waist, keep your qi rising up to unite at the perineum and continue up your back. As the legs circle and straighten for full extension and discharge, the arms come up, with the left arm leading, the the right hand touching lightly behind the left wrist to create a connected circle enveloping a large taiji ball. At full discharge, the legs are fully straightened and extended, your left heel slightly raised; both feet are connected to the ground through the bubble spring.

At mid-back the energy splits and travels out the arms. Use the energy of the motion to extend fully through the arms, as a line of force travels through each arm and out the palm at the laogong point. In solo form practice a key element is to fully commit your intention through extending fully through your arms and out your palm. The power is manifested in a pliant whipping motion. Executed correctly, it will repel an attacker backward, helpless in all three dimensions. Without intention, your opponent will not only not be repulsed, but will rather penetrate your center to pin or attack you, helpless to further defend yourself.
Palm Strike to Heart
This movement takes place throughout the form-for instance, at the end of "brush knee twist step." Brushing the left knee with the left arm, we move our center forward as the right foot moves in, culminating with a right hand palm strike to the heart, or any number of choice targets.

In this exercise, focus on the left hand, the anchor. Practice it with a partner, who need only stand sideways to you. You move in with the attacking hand to move the person, ideally a "popping" motion.

Full intention of this attack is not manifested unless you extend not only through the palm of the attacking hand, but also through the palm of the anchor, in this case the left hand. In any attack manifested through the arms or hands, energy is discharged through both; both are fully extended through the manifestation of this energy, as it continues out through the laogong.

When explaining to students that in a hand attack, one hand may anchor the other, I use the illustration of a rope.

Imagine that you are trapped on the roof of a building, but you have rope you may use to help you down. You tie one end of the rope at a secure point at the top of the building; you drop the other end to the ground. Now you have a limp rope, just hanging there. There is no energy in this rope. You may climb down this rope, even rappel down with it, but you must do so carefully, and you may fall; all the energy expended will be your own. That rope is one hand attacking without have the other as an anchor.

Or you may have someone on the ground (for this example you are allowed to assume that there is indeed someone on the ground to assist) secure the other end of the rope near the ground. The dynamic tension thus created in the rope makes it possible for you slide down the rope: your only concern being how quickly and forcefully you reach the ground-such is the power of the technique. A rope anchor at each end, those are your hands, attacking hand and anchor working in concert-with intention. Without intention, your arms and hands are limp spaghetti slapping against a wall.

This article was published in the Journal of the American Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan Association, Summer 2004, Vol. 12, No. 1.