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The Art of Pushing Hands
by Paul Zabwodski
Jan 1997
Courtesy of Masterworks
Key Essentials of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands Practise Part II


The Art within Pushing Hands and its personal demands.
In the previous introduction to the Pushing Hands method the ability to interpret anothers movements through the development of movement skills and perspective was hopefully outlined clearly. (Barring the typing errors and the like, mea culpa with apologies.) Anyway no matter. What is perhaps most striking about the pursuit of movement theory and practice in the internal martial arts, -its technology, is the subtlety of contradictions necessary to make progress! The ability to work within the framework of concepts and the principles that Tai Chi Chuan theory extols needs to be primarily experienced rather than immediately understood. Many people like to argue the reverse, but do squirrels live in trees?

Commonly it appears that the personal agendas focused around pursing Tai Chi "technology" can hinder significantly more than help. To struggle forward is not always progress. Internal arts are meant to be savored. Please, be at ease. Enjoy! If inexperience thwarts your progress then understanding is both pre-empted and or simply misinterpreted. Correcting the way one makes an effort to learn can be paramount to adjust both reasoning and sensibilities. This will pay more than technical dividends to the bank of your learning curve. There are few short cuts. The learning of Tai Chi Chuan is complex, however the exposition of the internal martial arts is fundamentally based in simplicity. The expression of the push hands demands dynamic liveliness. The Mind is trained to be freely expressive through pushing hands with the success of each application being a temporary guide to its usefulness.

Natural progress is a big method. A zig zag course.
The best of teachers enable personal interest to at least meet real method despite the limits of time and energy. Motivated effort will lead to personal success if they are rooted in balanced purpose. But personal motivations are often more than oddly cultured. A mix of fantasy, anxiety and issues of self expression seem to dominate the perspectives of many people. However these are issues which although significant may seem too personal. In fact why spend any time on psychological mumbo jumbo. After all I just want to move like that! Effortlessly. Be skilled like that! Gracefully. Well that is great! And what better method than the Internal Arts is there for the average individual whatever age or sex to explore the opportunity and the novelty of expression clumsy or otherwise. Yes, through the pushing hands method we traditionally meet the contradictions found in many of the Taoist classics.

The Contradictions of the Push Hands Method
The Taoists classics are an important part of Chinese martial theory. The philosophy of change is pivotal to the internal martial arts. It is said that for every action there is an equal and balanced reaction. Change is based in this continuity, this interconnectivity. Each player of T'ai Chi Ch'uan must experience change with a clear, unruffled mind. (As a rule) One must emotionally learn to adjust to the contradictions of Pushing Hands. Firstly one must not seek out success. Be prepared to find and learn failure of technique and form. This approach is apparent but no one can uncover its meaning. (without experience) The body is neither B nor weak. Quick or slow. Formed or formless in the exposition of the method.

Major Points of the Method

"The body is like a wheel. The waist is like the axle."

Because the human body is two footed Tai Chi's (Taijiquan) exercise is largely rooted in the opening and closing of the waist. The appropriate use of the waist creates great fluidity of form. This must be a true expression of fluidity not an artistic interpretation of it. Contact improvisation is not in any way the equivalent to pushing hands practise. However, it is a useful stepping stone.

Your body can move like a central pivot. The Explanation of Practice says, "The body is like a wheel; the waist is the axle." Since the body is like a wheel, if there is pressure on the left, turn to the left. If there is pressure on the right, turn to the right. This is natural. But if you want skillful practice, the hands responding as the mind interprets. The interpretation being crucial to competence.

In Taoist fashion it is also said, "Looking up, the player appears even higher. Looking down, they seem even deeper. Advancing, the player is even further away. Retreating, they are even closer." Such advice does appear to be obscured by metaphor. However simplicity is always a good key. The first maxim refers to leading the opposite player's force so that it arrives into emptiness of reaction. So if the energy of an attack is upwards, lead even higher. The second maxim declares if the attacks is downward, lead even lower. Similarly the third maxim asserts if the attack is directly forward lead further in. In each case one may direct ones partner to an empty place. There is in Taoist fashion neither struggle nor opposition but simply change.

To accomplish successful push hands practise it is better to seek out the curve.
Avoid straight advance or straight retreat. "Advancing and retreating require turning the body and changing the steps." The energy of the body is rooted in the stepping. To seek out the curve one must not linearly advance or linearly retreat alone. The corners of ones movements must be accommodated. For instance, in the advancing motions be aware of both left and right. In retreating similarly turn and step towards the left and right as a general rule. All of the advancing and retreating movements are like this. Because turning and changing allow you to use the retreat as an advance therefore it is not a true retreat. A true retreat would mean defeat. The boxing treatises say, "Advancing is advancing. Retreating is also advancing," There is no contradiction here for as the classics say ,

"Every step advances forwards; then you are without peer under heaven."
Lightness
Perhaps most famous of all the metaphors is the reference to lightness, "A feather cannot be added, a fly cannot alight" for in pushing hands one must act with acute sensitivity. Then even if a feather or something as light as a fly falls on the body, it will be felt. This emphasises sensitive nature of T'ai Chi push hands. The ultimate result is the difficulty of interpreting action and reaction. At the highest level one does not allow the opponent to make use of your force whether applying strength to you or "borrowing" strength from you. This is a most important and basic theory of push hands. However, not offering your opposite player some form of resistive dialogue is tantamount to not practising pushing hands. Luckily however few people are that skilled or ungenerous!

What is good Pushing Hands
The experience of meeting a good pushing hands practitioner is often misleading. This quote sums it up rather well "People do not know me. I alone know others." This is the highest level of accomplishment in push hands. Please do not interpret this to mean that one should be seeking to escape contact or be continually retreating, like one seriously serious teacher once said to me "I do not allow anyone to touch me." Dream on! Retreating rapidly is no solution to every situation nor even an appropriate Taoist ideal. In order to apply push hands techniques, it is important to train towards sensitivity. In technical terms this is called ting jing, "listening to energy". Here one uses the hands, especially the tips of the fingers, to feel the path and intention of the opponent's movements. Then in time one can anticipate the opponent no matter where they move. Neither will they have the time to defend by escape.

The Spirit of Pushing Hands
Chen Xin, a writer from Chen Village (Henan Province, Wenxian County), has a clear cut way of describing the Spirit of push-hands. "My spirit allows me to know what is coming. My wisdom allows me to hide the attack." "Spirit" simply means using the totality of the mind-body to feel the posture that the opponent is about to manifest. Thus concealing ones intent one may wisely disrupt/ attack, "People do not know me. I alone know others."

The Error of Weighting the legs.
Posture is an internal event. The mind is everything. Lightness ensures freedom of Change. "If you are single weighted, then you can be responsive. If you are double weighted, then you are stagnant." In the practice of push-hands, it is most important to accomplish energetic skill coupled to easy breathing. You must at all times, in every moment, use your practical experience to really adhere to this idea of change. Some people describe double weighted as both feet touching the ground at the same time or both hands striking at the same time. Interpreting one hand and one foot as meaning single weightedness. This is too physical an explanation and may lead to misunderstanding. Mind is everything! Whether there is an appearance of single weighted or double-weightedness is not a matter of outer appearance but of energetic feeling. Sagging overly bent legs and pressured feet are hardly light.

Tai Chi is Formless
The T'ai Chi Ch'uan exercise is based on the wheel in change. Each change is pivotal when you have sensed your central pivot. When you have found where this pivot is located, then your feeling will become spherical and every place will be integrated towards single weightedness. If you do not feel your innate center of gravity, then your feeling will become stagnant and the body will be in parts and double-weighted right down to the smallest component. Lightness and interconnectivity require an open mind at ease throughout the whole of the body. Quite a lot to appreciate but a joy to practise.

Good Moves. I hope this outline will prove useful.