The Art of Pushing Hands
by Paul Zabwodski
The Key Essentials of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands Practise
Pushing hands is an important part of understanding the technical basis of the solo form and postures. It is probably true to say that few people make any prolonged attempt to achieve the tactile and strategic skills necessary to accomplish the fundamentals of the push-hands method. Yet it is an essential part of the internal martial arts and extremely useful in terms of emotional health and physical balance.
Most teachers would agree that much time and misunderstanding is generated by the novice. The most common of which among western novices is the notion that Push hands is meant to be a combative test of personal prowess. It isnt. Neither should it be used (exclusively) as colourfully constructed metaphor of life passing by and its relevance to our personal lives. This makes things too understandable, overly visionary, and a little too nicely new age. Nothing comes that easily to hand in martial technique as a rule.
The Push Hands Method requires mental application emotional balance, intuitive understanding of energetic expression coupled with a refined sense of conservation of position and purpose. Changing fluidly through the postures in a meaningful way is paramount. The body, emotion and strength must work with responsive clarity. This can be accomplished by gradual insight, research, friendship and patience.
Breathing and push hand method
If it is possible devote considerable time to acquiring deep four cycle breathing. This is essential for this will exercise the internal musculature and open the lower back (fire gate of the Kidneys -Jing) with each breath. The breath being long promotes stillness which encourages the mind to raise the spirit and sensitise the mind to internal and external perceptions. Hurried, repressive or jagged mental thoughts will disrupt the flow of energetic appreciation and transformation.Be at ease. But not asleep! Do not over react. To breath deeply encourages the will, strength and purpose. Regular practitioners will continually need to address their understanding and exposition of the thirteen postures. Without a good exposition of these key forms one cannot truly say they possess any traditional internal martial skills or push-hands appreciation.
The 13 Postures of peng (ward-off), lu (roll-back), ji (press), an (push), cai (pull-down), lie (split), jou (elbow), kao (shoulder stroke), jin (advance), tui (retreat), gu (look left), pan (look right) and ding (central equilibrium) are well documented.
How do we accomplish strong health technical merit?
Perhaps more than any other activity I have come across, the internal martial arts seem to have devotees who after lengthy practise (5-20years) have accomplished very low level or no real level of exposition skills. In theory one would expect that after but a short time all the physical skills required for the solo form would have been rudimentarily established. Oddly after this stage many people appear to be content with their form. Various agendas are developed and habitualisations and misapprehensions are often unconsciously instilled. At this level of practise some health benefits are possible particularly for those who have a sickly constitution or nervous disposition. However, the marvellous health benefits of the internal arts are well beyond this level. They are within most peoples capabilities if one studies with a broad understanding of the principles and methods.
That is why the "Song of the Thirteen Postures" declares, that if you fail to diligently search for the deeper meanings, you will only waste your effort and sigh from disappointment. So practising the form is enhanced by the explorative development of push-hands usage. In practising push-hands one utilises applications attained from solo form practice, it is therefore essential to the art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan whether in the open hand forms or weapons sets.
What then are the Keys to Success?
The Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) Classic says, "When the opponent is hard, then be soft, this is called zhou or yielding. Here one tactically is following movements that are strong in order to be able to return or re-emerge. If you follow harmoniously and the opponent feels swamped or uncertain this is called adhering. The idea of expressing hard energy implies the notion of attack. it need not be so. Hardness may thwart attack by unbalancing softness. Jamming the others intentions is to shut the door on their expectations. However such hardness is neither forceful or stiff. Take for example the attacking movements of ward-off or press as used in push-hands method. "Soft" has the significance of protecting, guarding or conserving (shou). But this should not be a softness that is weak or limp or technically sloppy (Something of a technical crime!). Each defensive movement although "hard" and "soft" may appear analogous to attack and defence, it is ones mind that makes the situation so. To be mindful is to understand each persons intention and inner meaning as it is uncovered, this is a true relationship to posture. One should avoid the use of stiff, forceful energy to attack or to yield. Perhaps the strangest contradiction one is likely to uncover in pushing hands is the need to developed relaxed, unplanned concentration from above to below. When for example your opposite player (friend) uses ward-off or press to attack and oppress , then use the defensive movements of roll-back and push to neutralise. This kind of movement is called moving away -Zhou.
In following harmoniously one loses stance then the whole self needs to right itself, here we are maintaining stance and then losing stance. To fall is to get up. One can move the centre of gravity and each loss of posture can be turned to advantage in time. This is common place and an invaluable learning method. An example would be to use ward-off or press to attack with the intent to cause the player to lose their stance. However real life situations are rarely so easy! Often one hears the quoted maxim that if the opponent moves with speed one should respond quicker and if the opponent moves slowly, then respond slowly in keeping, but this is extremely high level skill and should not be taken too literally. After all we are all so different in skill and form. Better is to keep alert, adapt and breathe.
How Quick is Swift?
The ability to augment slowness with swiftness and so relate to the transformations of each attack or defence is interdependent but not exclusively so. In following the speed of the attacker one can often respond naturally within ones limits and that is all. To keep the correct mental position and move ones centre is perhaps the most valuable skill in the art of ultimate Tai Chi (Taiji) push-hands skill. One might venture that it is a jewel in the crown of good health!
Reproduced with permission from Masterworks