What is Your Intention?

It is said that you should “practice forms as if facing an enemy and face an enemy as if practicing forms.” The first piece of advice is a safeguard against allowing your solo training to become too abstract to be useful. The second recommendation should enable you to remain reasonably calm in a combat encounter and importantly, help you to perform your fighting techniques accurately instead of resorting to unskillful and panicked movements.

art_ivy1The “3 internal harmonies” of arts such as Taijiquan and Xingyiquan address our ideal mind and body state in some detail. Let’s just deal with the first harmony here which is that a fighter’s xin (heart / emotion) should harmonise with their yi (intention). I see the emotional content as the driving force during a real life dangerous encounter. You would generally be trying to protect yourself or someone else from harm. You would be “fired up,” either with your sense of morality inflamed or your sense of danger on high alert. Hormones would be surging through your body, preparing you to make lightning fast reactions and making you a lot less aware of pain. A martial artist needs to be able to control and channel this emotional content so that it aids rather than hinders her cause, so she may still appear fairly calm on the surface.

Your intention concerns the specific task at hand, which technique you are going to use. But what is your overall intention? What do you see as the desired outcome of the encounter? Are you trying to restrain someone, injure them, or merely prevent them from hitting you? Having a clear idea can help you to optimise your technique, as well as enabling you to fine tune your ability to cause or avoid injury. Performing a smooth firm joint lock might be good for restraining someone, but if you want to cause a disabling injury to the joint, you will need to perform the lock with a sudden sharp burst of force. This is probably not appropriate during routine martial training.

Appropriate Martial Intention

The premise of this article is to divide martial intention into 4 Levels, ranging from Level 1 – least intention to harm, up to Level 4 – active intention to harm. I have used a number of examples, dealing first with martial training and then applying the scale to real life scenarios. All examples given assume a one-on-one encounter, but the idea can be expanded out to include group training or group encounters. I have based the model on Taiji (yin / yang) theory, but the symbolism is fairly inconsequential and merely provides us with a convenient conceptual foundation.

At its simplest, in any physical conflict scenario we can consider:
actively trying not to injure (yin) OR
actively trying to injure (yang)

Here we are assuming that the more gentle yin response reflects a desire to put the interests of an opponent before our own, and the more aggressive yang response is an indication of putting our own interests first. We can elaborate on the scale to add a deeper level of differentiation:

1) actively trying not to injure (greater yin)
2) not trying to injure (lesser yin)
3) not trying not to injure (lesser yang)
4) actively trying to injure (greater yang)

At first glance, the difference between 2) and 3) might seem hard to understand, but 2 is based on a non-aggressive (yin) platform while 3 is based on an aggressive (yang) one. Here are some specific scenarios to demonstrate the differences.

Intention Within Martial Training

A Sparring with boxing gloves on
1) If a teacher is doing some light sparring with a novice student, s/he might tap in the odd jab whenever the student leaves an opening, to encourage the student to maintain an effective boxing guard.

2) Two students engage in light sparring. They are just testing each other and taking advantage of any openings with light punches. They don’t want to hurt each other – only to have some fun and challenge each other a bit for mutual benefit. There is an acceptance that there is a possibility that an injury could occur, but only by accident. Both 1) and 2) show a non-aggressive and essentially non-competitive attitude. In 1) the object is to develop the student’s skill, in 2) both students are sparring with the object of mutual improvement.

3) Competitive point sparring (e.g. sport sparring). Participants are scored on their ability to score permitted strikes, but while uncontrolled or overly aggressive behaviour will be challenged by a referee, the onus on avoiding injury falls chiefly on the defender. A winner is usually determined by a high score, rather than a knockout, but there is an acceptance that injuries are fairly commonplace.

4) Prize fighting – e.g. Western or Thai boxing. Combatants are actively trying to knock their opponent unconscious, put them out of action or soften them up for a finishing blow with every strike. Injuries occur in every bout.

Both 3) and 4) show a fighter who is fighting for personal advancement, rather than shared benefits.

Application / Martial Technique Practice
1) Student A delivers a pre-arranged attack to student B. Student B applies a specific counter technique with a mutually agreed level of intensity. Both students are trying to stop short of causing any injury. They will probably perform many repetitions and swap roles back and forth several times. The purpose of the exercise is firmly on the learning or refinement of the technique.

2) As the students get more experienced, they might deliver their attacks or counter techniques with more velocity and power. They might also allow unrehearsed attacks, responses, variations and follow-ups to take place by mutual arrangement. Both students will probably still be trying not to injure each other, but will be chiefly relying on their partner to counter effectively. However, at this level, if it becomes apparent that either student has failed to defend himself effectively, the technique will be “pulled” where possible to avoid or minimise injury.

3) Here the students are helping each other to deal with attacks delivered at full speed and full (or close to full) power. Some form of protective clothing may be worn to enable participants to fire in attacks that they might normally have to hold back on for safety reasons. The aim of such training is to learn how to cope effectively with real life attackers. Usually considered a more advanced form of training, the onus on effectively defending oneself falls squarely on the defender with each attack, so techniques will not typically be pulled.

4) Not all martial artists practice at this level. This is generally the stuff of the competition / prize fighter. Students go all-out to knock out or defeat their training partner. Some form of protective clothing may be worn by mutual agreement, but other than that, no other precautions will be taken to avoid causing injury.

Civilian Life – Reasonable Force
At this stage in the article, I’d like to start applying the scale to possible real life encounters in the interests of comparison. In British law, civilians are told that they are allowed to use “reasonable force” in the process of defending themselves, but the term is nowhere legally defined. Rather, it is left to the discretion of legal professionals to ascertain, on a case by case basis, whether a civilian has behaved in an reasonable manner during a physical conflict.

A big, strong householder awakes in the night to discover a smaller, weaker, teenage burglar in their home. They might: 1) Try to persuade the burglar to give themselves up, or try to wrestle them to the floor until the police arrive (assuming that a partner / someone else is on hand to call the police.) Due to the difference in size and strength, the resident knows he should be able to overpower the burglar reasonably easily, providing he does not put up too much of a struggle.

2) Perform a firm arm lock and take-down in the process of subduing the burglar. The householder’s intention is still on restraint rather than injury, but is aware that the burglar might be injured if he struggles.

3) Put on an agonising wrist lock as fast and strong as possible, and stamp on the side of the intruder’s knee to take them to the floor. The householder will do whatever it takes to force the burglar to the floor, with little concern for their safety.

4) Pick up a heavy object and try to knock the burglar unconscious with it.

In the above example, the jump from Level 2 to Level 3 is very apparent, as this is the stage at which the householder ceases to be concerned with the avoidance of injury to the intruder. Level 4 might only be seen as reasonable within the eyes of the law if the burglar had pulled out a potentially lethal weapon, or if the resident was smaller and weaker than the intruder.

It is worth noting that the actual outcome of a violent action, even when performed as a genuine act of self-defence, can seriously affect the legal implications. The law will always assume that a civilian should cause no more injury than absolutely necessary to another person, whatever the circumstances.

In the above encounter, if the intruder was seriously injured or even killed, the court system would try to firmly ascertain the intentions of the householder and how much danger he could have reasonably felt himself to be in at the time of the incident. If the intruder fled out into the street and the householder pursued him, any further violence committed against the intruder would almost certainly be seen as retribution, for which the householder could get into serious trouble.

Reasonable force in the line of police duty
Note: here the levels related to a police officer are intended for illustration only. They do not correspond to actual police training methodology.

A police officer is making an arrest on a thief who has broken into a warehouse: 1) The policeman tries to persuade the thief to come along quietly. If the criminal is not compliant, the policeman might try to restrain him, handcuff him, and force him into a police vehicle in the process of making an arrest. Both of these instances are within the remit of Level 1 – trying not to injure.

2) If the criminal becomes actively aggressive and starts throwing punches, the policeman might need to step things up to Level 2 – not intending to injure, but accepting that injury to the criminal might occur in the process of subduing him. A blow or two might be used to wind the thief, followed by a forceful arm lock – a joint or impact injury might result.

3) If the criminal pulled a knife, the policeman might need to step up to Level 3. He might need to perform a weapon disarm with little regard for the health of the criminal, and may use a truncheon / baton / stun gun / CS gas spray as necessary.

4) Level 4 – actively trying to injure, might apply in the case of a criminal who was presenting a serious danger to others, e.g. a gunman who had refused to drop their firearm on command. A police marksman might shoot to injure in this instance.

Sliding Scales
An important point to raise here is that in a real life situation, hostilities can escalate or reduce. In the EXAMPLE C above, if the intruder suddenly pulled a knife, then the householder could quite legitimately raise their aggression by a level or two, to restore an appropriate balance. In EXAMPLE D, a policeman would always be trying to reduce the hostility level from level 3 or 4 back down to Level 2 or even 1 as soon as a violent situation was under control.

Such a “sliding scale” approach would not be acceptable during martial training where everyone really needs to understand the rules of engagement before contact or combat commences.

Effective martial training
Now that we have explored the concept of intention in some detail, I’d like to look at some of the ways we can train for combat effectively, but at the same time safely.

1) Specific techniques / applications with a partner
Obviously our intentions need to be tempered during our average martial arts class. A technique that could be used to seriously injure (or potentially even kill) an attacker could not be used in the same way on a fellow student. Either we have to alter the technique in some way or perform the correct technique, but differently. As we will resort in battle to the methods we have trained, I strongly advise taking the latter approach for most application work. Correct distance and accurate targeting are paramount.

This then presents us with a problem – if we perform a technique accurately, at the correct distance and to the correct target, we have to move slower and / or perhaps with less follow-through, so as to avoid injury. We may need to use long (pushing) power, instead of short (shocking) power. Here is where a change of intention can really come in to play. We know that we would execute a certain technique in a real fight with a sudden burst of explosive force. When training with a partner, we can practice the exact same body mechanics, but with a push instead of a punch.

For training dangerous attacks such as fingertip strikes to the throat with another person, I recommend touching the target lightly but not continuing with the movement beyond that point, at least, not with any kind of speed. If you train at an accurately close distance, you should be aware that versus a real assailant you would continue turning your body into the strike while extending your arm to drive through the target and out of the other side. During partner training, if you are going to stop a blow short of its finished position, you must ensure that your whole body stops short. I’ve often seen inexperienced students start to get into the habit of continuing to turn their body and shift their weight towards the target but then allowing the structure of their arm to collapse, so as not to hurt their training partner. Such bad habits should be ironed out as early as possible.

Now if we only ever trained in this slower and more deliberate way, we would find it impossible to develop our reflexes and quick-twitch muscle fibres to be effective in real combat. So we must supplement our training with additional full speed and full power training.

2) Solo work
We must train our bodies to also be able to perform our techniques rapidly (where appropriate), either by:
a) practicing fast solo forms against imaginary opponents, or
b) using training equipment such as focus pads or heavy bags.

As well as the obvious punches and palm strikes, techniques such as fingertip strikes can be practiced on focus pads or hanging bags, but take care to build up the strength of your fingers gradually, and remember to keep your nails short. Another good tip for practicing fingertip strikes with speed and power is to perform them on a sheet of newspaper hanging down from the ceiling. If you hit the paper with enough explosive force, you’ll puncture the paper. Hit it too slowly and the paper will just swing away.

For targeting practice, you can also dangle a loop of stiff string (such as parcel string) and practice firing your fingers or whole hand through it without touching the string. This method is also good for sword thrusts, especially if you practice “cutting” the string first (with a blunt blade) so that you then have to thrust the sword through a moving loop. Work towards being able to cut and thrust in this way first try, every time.

3) Actual Sparring
Sparring training can be useful for training the combat skills you can’t practice so easily during specific technique or application practice, especially when boxing gloves and or other protective clothing is worn to enable unhampered and unconstrained movements. Such training enables you to develop distancing, timing and (crucially) rapid fire movements performed with power, without causing un-necessary injuries. It is always a great irony, if the process of learning fighting skills to protect yourself and others from harm results in debilitating injuries.

The basic rule that I tell students in all forms of training is to make things challenging for their partner, but not impossible. This basic rule is fairly self-regulating. As skill levels improve, it takes more to challenge a fellow student, so everything should raise in intensity reasonably naturally.

While this discussion might seem
a little rudimentary to many teachers, it has been my experience that many martial arts classes, without any discussion at all, settle in to some rather uncomfortable and highly variable training cultures. While some students might be prone to being overly tentative, others can sometimes get away with being quite reckless. The student who can reliably knock things in a bit harder than their peers might come across as more skillful, but it might just be that they are training at a slightly higher intensity than their fellows, which in a worst case scenario can be tantamount to bullying. There is certainly a lot to be said for many people toughening up a bit and desensitising themselves emotionally with regard to taking a few knocks, but the teacher should be aware if some of their students are overstepping the mark.

Use of reasonable force should be as applicable in the training room as it is outside of it. Martial training puts us in control of how much or how little damage we can inflict on another being. If we are to truly master this art, we need to start seriously considering the intention of every action we make. We should seek to be masters of the application of force and learn to apply it or withhold it with precision, care and deep mindfulness.



Before her passing, Joanna Zorya, ranked as a Grade A instructor in the UK, was the head teacher of the Martial Tai Chi Association.  Her web site is http://www.martialtaichi.co.uk/contacts.html. Her several series of VCDs and DVDs,are all available through Plum:
Joanna’s Instructional DVDs