Neurons & Intent

A common obstacle facing Tai Chi students is differentiating intent from body movement.

When most students perform the form their intent is not clearly delineated from their physical action. This leads to the inability to use intent over reliance on strength alone.

Why is it difficult to separate intent from movement?

Reading The Body Builders : Inside the Science of the Engineered Human has given me the answer. When you think of doing something the neurons in the processing areas of the motor cortex fires and triggers the desired movement.

However, these neurons fire so fast that for most of us it is difficult to detect that length of time between the neurons firing and the corresponding limb moving. The time between neurons firing and movement beginning is but milliseconds so you can imagine how short a time this is.

Given this is the case how then can Tai Chi players train intent?

This is where the specialized intent training of Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s Yang style Tai Chi comes in. The conceptual models for training intent allows us to experience a time lag, at least long enough to feel when intent begins and when movement triggered by intent comes in.

In this way we can truly separate mind and body. Incidentally, this fulfils the principle of using intent rather than strength and explains clearly why Tai Chi is boxing of the mind.

It would be interesting to one day use science to study this neglected aspect of Tai Chi. Who knows what we may discover that can not only improve our Tai Chi skills but be applicable to other fields such as medicine.


This is a demo of ………… I’ll have to view back the longer clip in our SKD FB learning group to see what topic we were talking about here.

Anyway, the background is that our use of high stances gave Stanley’s Hung Gar buddy the impression that our method is so-so.

So here was an excellent opportunity to let Stanley acquaint himself with one side of the argument. It would be good if he were to go check out his pal’s stance work for comparison.

I would call this method the stance of no-stance. You can see Stanley taking a look at how I was standing as he couldn’t believe it that I wasn’t standing in a low stance, or even in a stance.

I didn’t tell Stanley to cooperate by not pushing hard so that I can look good. I just let him push however he sees fit. You can see how he changed his position towards the end.

This outwardly rootless method is a result of training the bell body method of Grandmaster Wei Shuren. I present a simplified way of doing it in this post here.


Of Small Chi Sphere

Yesterday I wrote about Large Chi Sphere. Today I will write about Small Chi Sphere.

If you have read TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan Form you will find under 5.6.1 Palm on page 46 a beginner’s introduction to this topic.

In some Tai Chi styles / schools you may be required to be a disciple or be willing to cough up the big bucks to learn about such secret principles. However, I teach this from Day 1 because it is part and parcel of what makes Yang style works.

Mind you, knowing about a principle and being able to make it work are two different things. You need a lot of practice to assimilate the Small Chi Sphere principle into your movements.

Beginners tend to keep losing the sphere in the early years of their practice. This is expected. You just have to keep at it until you get it.

To keep the learning simple we just have to keep plugging away at three steps, day in, day out, until it sticks. This means that everytime you use a palm in the long form you must abide by the following :-

i) Step 1 – round the tiger mouth

ii) Step 2 – round the Palmar region to activate the Laogong (劳宫) acupuncture point

iii) Step 3 – round the fingers’s structure

Holding a palm this way when playing the form can intensify the power of your strikes and I’m not just referring to palm strikes here.

This is particularly when students undertake the learning of the Kai-He form because by this stage they would have spent a lot of time cultivating the Small Chi Sphere palm structure.

The Small Chi Sphere is part of a process of training power generation in Tai Chi. It is not the only process but it is one method that can pay dividends if you take the time to cultivate it.


Energetically Yours

There are numerous fajing models in Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s book on the 22-form. You can say that its practically raining fajing in the chapter entitled Internal Work, Force Methods (内功劲法).

My favorite fajing model is the Large Chi Sphere method which is shown below :-


I feel that the Large Chi Sphere fajing model is the easiest for beginners to pick up. The best part of the news is that they do not even have to learn Grandmaster Wei’s technically super difficult 22-form to get this skill.

So far I have taught this model to my current students who are learning the Yang Chengfu 108 form. The Large Chi Sphere model is not even gender bias – both ladies and gentlemen can do the fajing as long as they remember the step-by-step procedures.

Below is a photo of a student applying the Large Chi Sphere model in Ward-Off posture from the 108 form :-


Can you see it? No?

Let’s add in the Large Chi Sphere into the picture and see what we get…….


Clearer now?

Such intent models used to be kept secret and taught only to sons or close blood relations. In order to keep the art of Tai Chi vibrant and relevant today I am passing such information on.

Learning the model is but the first step. Assimilating it into your movements and learning to use it naturally and instinctively are hurdles to overcome to master Tai Chi.

As I say mastery of Tai Chi is not impossible. You just have to know what Tai Chi is about and it begins by asking the relevant questions to move your learning and understanding along.


Fifth Lesson – Games of Strategies

In the book on the 22-form there is a chapter entitled 拆架拆手 (Dismantle Frame, Dismantle Hand). This chapter offers examples on how to apply the strokes (招中术) and force methods of the 22-form.

The 21 examples can be considered as step-by-step studies on the use of intention force against an opponent who provides resisting pressure but not necessarily actively resisting.

The 21 studies of the strokes of the techniques are useful to spark off your journey to learn the use of intent in your push hands. As you make progress you will need to practice against opponents who resist more actively, who will vary the amount of resisting pressure and who will try to counter your fajing attempts with their techniques.

In other words, not a dummy partner who will allow you to get away with anything. You certainly do not need to have a compliant training partner who at your slightest touch (or perhaps a non-contact dismissive wave of your hand) jump like a grasshopper.

Your progress is only as good as the way you train. When you have more realistic resistance from your training partner you will understand why the use of techniques and power go hand-in-hand. This information is captured in the way a good form is organized.

Sometimes the information is obvious but many times it is not. We can only speculate why this should be so. If you ask me it is to prevent someone, perhaps an interloper who is peeking through a hole in the wall, who managed to see the form being played from figuring out how to use the techniques easily. In other words, you can steal the movements but you cannot steal the applications.

The movements of the form are not cast in stone. They have obvious, hidden, derived and situational applications. Many times a demonstration of fajing can be good but totally suck at being a proper combat application. When you play push hands against a less cooperative training partner, someone who will push you back or strike you, then you will understand this point better.

Though the form does not always tell you the strategy being employed explicitly it does not mean it is not present. As long as your opponent is not a dummy he will not allow your attacks to go through so easily. You will have to intelligently use your wits, techniques and power to make your technique work.

In the beginning you will find that even though you can visualize the workings of the force models in the various strokes, however, you are unable to use them freely. In fact, most of the time during push hands the timing to apply a technique is very short making it next to impossible to get your strokes together.

Until and unless you can do the various requirements in a split second you will never be able to use the force models. This is why you need to internalize the requirements by constantly working on your 22-form. There is no shortcut to mastery here.

Keep to your daily practice. The goal of using the force models within the strokes of the form is not impossible. It just takes persistence and intelligence to master them.

So what are the games of strategies you can learn from the 22-form? Let us take a brief look at one example. You might have seen this drawing at the beginning of this site :-


This fajing model is the last model presented in the chapter 内功勁法 (Internal Power Strength Method). The full name of this model is 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method). I like the use of this model because it is simple yet comprehensive. Since the topic here is about strategy rather than force models I won’t discuss how it works in the context of power. Instead, I will just write about its use as a strategy in a broad context.

I have heard Tai Chi practitioners describe how their body needs to be rounded so that they can be like a fully inflated ball that can rebound an opponent. This is a nice analogy though it is rare to see a practitioner or master actually use it. Master Cheng Man Ching’s Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on Tai Chi Chuan has a chapter entitled Strength and Physics that discusses how a sphere can be used for attack and defense.

I have read it a long time ago and always wondered how to actually apply the information. I tried out ways to make the sphere work for me but I could never truly make it work in a manner that is consistent to what is written in the Tai Chi Classics, at least not until I have learned and practiced the method of 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) for some years.

I won’t describe in detail how to cultivate the 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) as it is outside the scope of topic here. What I would like to say is that you need to use the fundamentals to build the necessary intent to bring forth the Big Sphere until it is for all intent and purpose, feels real to your opponent.

When you arrive at this stage your can use the Big Sphere to carry out the ways of neutralizing and attack that Cheng Man Ching describe in his book. However, this is still only the basic stage of usage. From my experience there are at least two more stages that you can go through, that can expand and refine your ability to use the Big Sphere.

To put it in a nutshell, the 大氣球澎脹法 (Big Chi Sphere Inflated Method) allows us to use the following games of strategies in a game of push hands :-

a) Go with the flow, harmony and outflank

b) Rotate and re-channel

c) Load and release like shooting an arrow


The above is also an example of the strategic use of strength guided by intent that is built on the six fundamental energies of Ward-off, Push, Press, Pluck, Split, Rollback (掤按擠采列捋) which is augmented by the two more powerful energies of Elbow and Shoulder (肘靠).

This is a different approach from that taken by other Tai Chi styles which normally group the eight energies of  Ward-off, Rollback, Press, Push, Pluck, Split, Elbow, Shoulder (掤捋擠按采列肘靠) together.

The reason for grouping the energies as six plus two is that in doing so we can use opt to the energies in a singular or plural manner depending on the application scenario. This is known as Mixed Together Energy Method (混合勁法).

Examples of energies grouping :-

1) Push style containing Ward-off inner strength (按式含掤內勁)

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2) Rollback style containing Pluck inner strength (捋式含采內勁)

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3) Stamping Push mixed together inner strength (踏按混合內勁)

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When energies are used in this manner for attacking it makes it more difficult for the opponent to defend against. This is because the human body has an innate problem responding to forces coming from more than one direction at the same time.

Below is an example of using energies within the application of Needle at Sea Bottom Dismantle Hand (海底针拆手) :-

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Picture 1 – Grandmaster Wei Shuren’s hands are detained by his “opponent”.

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Picture 2 – from the preceeding movement, Grandmaster Wei initiates the technique of Needle at Sea Bottom. This required for him to step forward with his left leg and ended with the tip of the forefoot touching the ground (heel off the ground).

As Grandmaster Wei stepped forward both his arms performed Pluck with the right arm moving to the front of his right Kua. At the same time as the left arm moved downwards it exerted Peng energy to raise the opponent’s right arm.

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Picture 3 – to generate power Grandmaster Wei placed his left foot fully on the ground as he inclined his body downwards while allowing the force to be issued out from his arms via the Strength Source (勁源). Grandmaster Wei’s left arm generated Stamping Push (踏按) internal force whilst his right arm faced forward to bounce opponent off his posture.

Conclusion – in Tai Chi the use of techniques is not just a matter of moving the arms, legs and body; it is also about the use of intent. When both are used together you get to expand your application possibilities. This is the interesting and wonderful part about the use of Tai Chi principles in combat.


Second Lesson – Quanfa

Tai Chi is a method of Quanfa (拳法) using the intent () to develop one’s combat skills. Instead of physically doing repetitions of a technique, the learning of the Tai Chi of Grandmaster Wei Shuren calls for us to exercise our grey cells ahead of our physical movements, i.e. every movement shall be preceded by an intent.

Is not wanting to throw a punch an intent? Is thinking of where to step an intent? Is turning your body as you are thinking of turning it an intent?

Yes, yes and yes. They are all intent.

However, the intent in Tai Chi is a lot more specific and specialized than that. For example, when you throw a punch where is your intent? When did it start moving? What are you thinking of when your punch is moving through space?

Let’s examine an example. This is part of the Fair Lady Threads Shuttles (玉女穿梭) technique from the 22-form.


Without the benefit of an explanation and relying on the two pictures alone it would seem as if Grandmaster Wei is lowering his right hand from shoulder height to about waist height.

Now if you were asked to do this movement without being told about the need to use specific intent how would you lower your right hand? Do you :-

a) Just lower it?

b) Think first about lowering your right hand before doing it?

c) Ensure that your right hand lowering is guided by your body / dantian movement in conformance with good biomechanics?

Now if you were told that this movement is called “Mountain Splitting (the) Five Peaks (or Summits)” would it alter the way you do the movement?

Close you eyes and let your imagination roam. Mountain splitting five peaks. What does it mean? How does a mountain split five peaks? It does not make much sense, does it? Most people would have given up and think the name is just for reference; basically saying they do not know and just want to shelve the matter.

But what if the name of the movement is important? Would we not miss out on a possibly important part of training? Knowing what the name means, how it relates to the training of Tai Chi force is a distinguishing feature of our Quanfa.

The name is there not because some bored Taoist monk decided to jazz the name up. There is a reason for it, an important rationale behind it and everything points back to the training of the intent.

Consider – what if we were to write out “Mountain Splitting Five Peaks” in Chinese? This is how it is written :-


Would this make a difference? I guess to most readers and practitioners their mind would still register a blank and its alright. This is where I jump in and say that a knowledge of China is helpful. The name in English does not tell me much either but once I say the name in Chinese this is what comes to mind :-

山-劈-五-岳 (how most people see it)

山-劈-五岳(how I see it)

Can you see the difference now?

You can either read it as a mountain-chopping down-five-peaks (i.e. five different peaks). Or you can read it as mountain-chopping down-Five Peaks (name).

The former tells me a mountain is cutting down five mountains, possibly one after another. The latter tells me that a mountain is cutting down Five Peaks (五岳)!

If you know something about the geography of China you would realize that Five Peaks (五岳) is referring to The Five Great Mountains in Chinese history. Emperors in the past would make pilgrimage to these mountains. The Five Great Mountains are Tai Shan (Shandong), Hua Shan (Shanxi), Heng Shan (Hunan), Heng Shan (Shanxi) and Song Shan (Henan).

The Five Peaks are sacred and their association with the pilgrimage of Emperors bestow on them an aura of majestic might. A mountain that is powerful enough to cleave the Five Peaks is mighty indeed! By association, the technique of Mountain Splits Five Peaks should be a powerful stroke!

Note of interest – Tongbeiquan, a very old powerful northern style of Chinese martial arts, has a vertical palm strike called 劈山 so I guess Tai Chi players are not the only ones fond of chopping down mountains.

Below is how the image of a mountain cleaving five mountains lined up in a row comes to my mind :-


But how do we perform the technique of Mountain Splits Five Peaks with intent to develop our power?

This is how we can do this technique in a nutshell :-

Step 1 – imagine you are holding a Chinese spear in your hands. Behind you stands a mountain.

Step 2 – as the mountain behind you bows forward to cleave the five great mountains imagine your spear is also cutting down.


If you practice this for a sufficient period of time your arms can develop a powerful downward force without appearing to use obvious biomechanics. You can use this force in push hands to sink your opponent’s bridge arm or you can use it to power a downward chopping strike.

In order to arrive at a level where you can use this power freely you need to reach the level of “true intent” (真意). Ironically, at the stage of “true intent” (真意) is when you should have “no intent” (无意). This is consistent with what I mentioned in the First Lesson as 从繁到空.

And that dear readers is what the Quanfa (拳法) of our Yang style Tai Chi Chuan that is descended from Grandmaster Wei Shuren is about.


First Lesson – The Most Beautiful of Theories

The theories of Tai Chi as recorded in the body of writings known as the Tai Chi Classics are not just that.

If anything, they are beautifully written theories containing workable principles. That they are widely quoted, even borrowed by other styles to explain their art testifies to their wide applicability.

I once had a surrealistic experience listening to veteran Wing Chun masters, first generation masters who learned from Grandmaster Ip Man, attempting to explain sticking hands using the principles of Tai Chi! This was in the 90s during a Wing Chun tea party in Hong Kong hosted by Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin.

Whence the Tai Chi theories / principles come I have no idea. However, my teacher said that they are written experiences of Tai Chi masters of the past. That many practitioners do not understand them or can apply them in their Tai Chi do not make the theories / principles any less true.

If we walk the path of past masters through the valid transmission of a recognized lineage and style we should have no problem understanding the theories / principles and using them. My own learning experience shows that the secrets of Tai Chi are within the principles as understood in the mind and realized in the body. This verifies what my teacher told me to be true.

What makes the theories / principles of Tai Chi beautiful?

Let us explore a simple example from the Play Pipa posture of the 22-form which calls for :-

静 中 求 动
周 身 一 家

The above can be translated to read :-

Within stillness, seek movement

Entire body, one family


If you try to do what this principle calls for you will find that it is not easy to do so. Why is this so?

The reason is because the first sentence is a paradox in that within stillness, which many Tai Chi players will interpret to mean not moving, one must seek movement. You can try to achieve this within the practice of zhanzhuang in that by standing still you try to seek movement.

This begs the following questions :-

a) What movement is the principle referring to? If you stand still then the only movement is that of your mind. This leads to the second question below.

b) What is the practicality of only your mind moving? Obviously, there is no practical use unless you can apply it in a practical context through a technique. This then leads to the third question.

c) Can you when moving to apply a technique still achieve movement within stillness?

The principle above is commonly found in many Tai Chi texts. Despite it being prevalent and well known it is the rare master who can actually demonstrate what it means in the context of fajing and application of a technique.

The reason is because the principle as commonly found lacks something. This something is the intent component and this is where the beauty of Tai Chi manifests itself. As transmitted by Grandmaster Wei Shuren this principle in full, at least in our Yang style variant, should be written as :-



Within stillness, seek movement

Entire body, one family

Vertical upright, three passes

Relax abdomen, chi rounded

Considered together the four sentences provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for the use of intent to govern the physical body to actualize the requirements of the principle in the following manner :-

a) Sentence 1 (intent) ——> Sentence 2 (physical actualization)

b) Sentence 3 (intent) ——> Sentence 4 (physical actualization)


The easiest way to learn and master this principle is by playing your form many, many times while paying close attention to the requirements for performing the form. There is no room for practicing blindly, what we call waving the hands in the air, with no clear cut idea as to what we are trying to practice and achieve.

This is why if you attempt to understand them by blindly practicing you will not get anywhere. In the book on the 22-form Grandmaster Wei Shuren wrote “开始就讲明拳架理法” which calls for the beginning student to learn the logic of the principles alongside the learning of movements.

From here we understand why Grandmaster stressed “Yi Zai Xian” which can be translated to mean “Intention Comes First”. The phrase “Intention Comes First” can mean one or both of the following :-

a) In whatever you do in Tai Chi you must first know what you are doing

b) Every movement must be preceded by a deliberate intent

By exercising our intent when we play the 22-form over the years we slowly but surely learn to control our body in a different manner; in ways that allow us to grasp and finally master the principles elucidated in the body of writings known as the Tai Chi Classics.

As outlined by Grandmaster Wei your progress will be from external to internal as follows :-


From none to have

From have to many

From many to emptiness


The three sentences lay out what you will experience as you make progress. It points the way to master Tai Chi. When your physical skills reach the level of the third sentence you will understand what  (emptiness) in this context means, particularly its critical role in allowing you to express the range of force models explained in Grandmaster Wei’s book on the 22-form.

To learn Tai Chi is not difficult. To bridge the gap between not grasping the intricate nature of the art as outlined in its theories / principles and mastering Tai Chi is the key challenge.

When one day you get there you will look back on your journey and be amazed at how the ancient masters managed to configure this wonderful art that utilizes the intention to enable you to master physical skills of combat.

For now, commit yourself to practice and be ready to discover this wonderful and beautiful art of human expression.