The Art and Spirit of Push Hands

When Pushing Hands, the gravitational pull of the earth combines with the magnetism of another live, warm body, creating an energetic vortex of the mind/body/spirit.

The T’ai Chi method of sparring known as Push Hands utilizes the awareness, root, balance, and leg strength developed from practicing a T’ai Chi form. The movements in the forms are all strikes to vital points, joint locks and throws. When expressed as pushes, training partners can attack, defend and counter-attack with each other continuously without incurring insult or injury on either side.  The constant contact allows opponents to find each others’ vulnerable areas for off-balancing as well as intercept attacks as they are being surmounted, before they are fully realized.

Push hands helps the practitioner learn to redirect force, and not tense up in close quarters. When responding to an attack, by moving with a cohesive postural framework known as Peng, the opponent can be moved with the smallest effort for the greatest effect.

T’ai Chi forms adhere to the laws of physics and human nature. The postures are relaxed, stable, and connected to earth, freeing up the mind and nerves to sense and experience force. Over time and with experience, the T’ai Chi devotee is able to feel increasingly subtle levels of energy, thought and force.

Very deliberately, the mind moves the body in space while energy moves within the body frame. The slow pace gives the mind’s eye time to synchronize many small details, from the top of the head to the bottoms of the feet. Inner strength and awareness is developed slowly but surely – and safely.

“True life is lived when tiny changes occur.” (Leo Tolstoy)

Push Hands has various structured drills that stimulate internal energy and can evolve into spontaneous style or natural boxing. Players learn how to relax and lower their center of gravity, to meet hard (Yang) with soft (Yin), and to image an opponent during solo form practice. When based on the actual experience of doing forms with a training partner, imagination and memory are both engaged.

The more receptive and relaxed you are, the more you move with the force being delivered, and the harder it is for your partner to find your center. This is because you are responding to her or his searching rather than initiating. Push Hands helps you to become more centered and relaxed, one who stays calm, aware and patient, no matter how great the stress.

T’ai Chi develops sensitivity; the ability to listen to energy. Listening energy trains the ability to feel force as it materializes, which is the first step towards being able to neutralize that force. Before it is fully realized, by sticking (constant adhering) to the ground-swell, force can be received within ones frame and effortlessly recycled back at the giver of that force.

The mind should be empty and the body in a state of non-rigid readiness. This is no different from most sports — except that the poised, aware state is the entire modus operandi of T’ai Chi and Push Hands. A lapse in awareness, a moment of distraction will be felt by the more alert player, and is an opportunity for a gentle push, pull or combination of the two.

Practicing T’ai Chi over time results in the ability to move incoming force and stay calm and balanced. The appearance of effortlessness comes from sinking into gravity and aligning the top of ones head with the sky so the back is straight.  At the risk of sounding puesdo-spiritual, higher thought (as opposed to lower thought, lower than the crown point, coming from the reptilian brain, which might sound something like — Oh-oh! This person is trying to push me over. I better knock him/her down first!) enters the crown point (bawei), travels down the spine and reaches the hands and feet. Energy/though travels faster through an open channel — hence — Relax!

Moving low and slow in T’ai Chi form produces the tremendous leg strength for coiling and uncoiling into gravity. By staying relaxed and aware, one can receive force through the body and into the floor, and then use it to load up the legs and waist, so the arms can return it like a coiled spring.

Sports have long been considered a wholesome outlet for competitive, warlike instincts. The playing field in team sports represents the battle for turf. With T’ai Chi Push Hands, the playing field is within the boundaries of your own body frame, and even deeper, into your unconscious mind.

When another person is in your face or too close for comfort, tension rises. When you Push Hands, you must stay relaxed, but aware while in constant, close contact with another individual. With experience, you can feel the opponent’s whole posture from a light touch.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” (C.G. Jung)

When in contact with superior, spontaneous players who are my teachers, I have crumbled to the floor harmlessly from a well-placed touch. Anyone who pushes me successfully at any moment is my teacher at that moment, teaching me about my own lapses in awareness and flawed posture.

The more expanded awareness of the successful pusher will spread into the less cohesive energy field of the student getting off balanced. Like a hall of mirrors that reflect the reflection, side A can feel side B, feeling side A, feeling side B, feeling side A, ad infinitum.

Students can develop and compare roots, relaxation and understanding of form by pushing each other. When both are equally relaxed and rooted, whoever can keep receiving force without tightening up will win. This is opposite of our previously held notions about winning in which the most forceful person prevails.

“Real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.” (J. Krishnamurti)

It works in T’ai Chi movements with a partner and it works in life with people and events. It is so obvious that it sounds redundant. Life is a constant flow of changes. Flowing with those changes, without resisting or trying to control, is a rare feat and a huge ability.

With T’ai Chi skill, this constant flow of changes occurs within a stable muscular/skeletal structure that changes to accommodate force, no more and no less than necessary. The applier of that force is moved with his or her own movement. The attacker feels contained within a higher circle of awareness in which the more skilled player chooses how much and where to deliver force. The attacker feels disarmed — as if when pulling the trigger, finds the gun empty.

When we do T’ai Chi, our mind and body strive for correct body mechanics. With the integrity of the proper structure, we simultaneously engage the imagination in a limitless flow. Like the inner dialogue of the artist — the interaction of the brain’s hemispheres between technique and imagination — we integrate layers of information to develop a coherent whole.

This wholeness is developed by separating the mind from the body, so that they may reconvene on a higher level.

“In order to see, we must step out of the picture.” (Sri Aurobindo)

When I was in my teens and twenties, after sparring with Shaolin, Karate or other external-style practitioners — a smack here, bruise there, shake hands and make friends, but I felt as if nothing much was learned, despite my intense external training. But to my frustration, whenever I pushed hands with those harmless looking, mellow T’ai Chi people, I would be tipped off-balance.

Some years later when in my thirties, I began practicing T’ai Chi quite seriously, rather than just reading about the theories and dabbling. I had been practicing T’ai Chi Push Hands drills known as Shao Lu and Da Lu quite a lot.  A Tae Kwon Do practitioner saw me practicing my forms in the park and asked to spar. She was a strong kicker. I only remember holding her wrist gently as she fell and pulling her up to her feet before she hit the ground. Although unharmed, she walked away, sat down on the park bench and cried. Such is the power and magnanimity of T’ai Chi.

With T’ai Chi you can choose to use minimum effort and not injure or be injured. The notion common to all spiritual texts, that rightness pervades over events, is reaffirmed by the physical laws governing T’ai Chi. If you can relax while holding your ground and not react mechanically, what happens to the force that was issued?

Encountering no resistance, it dissipates. It dissolves into the void, released from the chain of events by the superior individual. It exhausts itself with repeated attempts to find somewhere to bang against, dissolving in tears of frustration, or peals of laughter.

“He who knows himself is wise. He who knows others is enlightened.” (Lao Tze)

The receptive force can change to aggressive in an instant and disrupt the opponent’s structure, so no force can be sent back. T’ai Chi training makes you responsive instead of reactionary in that you are relaxed enough to go with force instead of stiffening against it, and just enough to dissipate and return it.

Countering well-timed force from a good root requires skill and sensitivity. My students and many kind, patient, champion T’ai Chi pushers have been my teachers. They have shown me the higher levels of skill to which I humbly aspire.

“To lead a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” (Joseph Chilton Pierce)

A dancer who prepares at the barre with perfect form, but can’t move freely when the music plays, a musician who can only play others’ compositions, or an artist who can only illustrate and copy are analogous to the T’ai Chi player who has beautiful form but tenses up in combat. T’ai Chi forms will teach you how to fight if you “play” with them.

“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” (John Holt)

Push Hands is very different from sparring. Often, disciplined athletes are unable to feel the subtler energies in T’ai Chi and are most easily off-balanced despite their superior strength and reflexes. The distance between the opponents is close, so close you can feel every move at its source. You can feel your opponents’ breath and hear them think.

This is one of the aspects of Push Hands that is so fascinating — the process of thought manifesting into action, the sensation of the ethereal becoming matter.

“The world of reality has its limits, the imagination is boundless.” (Jean Jacques Rousseau)

You begin by touching lightly. The contact is constant and light. Even the weight of a small bird would cause the whole position to shift. (T’ai Chi Classics) The pushes are relaxed, loaded into the hip and waist and screwed up and out of the ground and into the opponent’s structure.

Like driving a car on an icy road, when you go really slowly, nothing too bad can happen. New drivers (and new players) often steer the force mechanically to one side. This results in turning mechanically to the other side rather than finding a more efficient energy pathway. When these paths are discovered, it feels like power steering — just a touch moves the opponent. Then the moves in the form are re-discovered.

The pusher looks for imbalances in the opponent’s energy and structure, fills the empties and redirects the fulls, like Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture and shiatsu, which look at the body for deficiency and excess. Sensitivity is the key here, the ability to listen. Like a therapist listening to a patient’s issues before prescribing treatment, the energy must be listened to while a response is chosen.

When a position is held rigidly, unchanging with the flow of force, it becomes (like a technique) a predictable, moveable object. The untrained instinct is to try to hold a position with strength, to tense up with fear of loss. Pride goeth before a fall is an appropriate saying for this scenario.

When you feel your center of mass (what rhymes with mass!?) go over your heels, you are off-balanced, unless you retreat by stepping back before you are knocked over. Stepping back need not represent defeat or loss if you maintain your posture during your retreat.

When stuck on a position (like during an argument) one can feel threatened and become emotionally upset, tense, and fearful. When the position is poised to flow with the changes, there is no chain reaction of anger. The redirecting of force is not confrontational or painful. Muscle and bone do not clash. Rather, energy moves energy.

Training with a partner helps the student find the flaws in his or her own structure. Then solo form training becomes more infused with awareness. Practicing Push Hands makes the movements in the form acquire deeper relevance.

Like creative musicians who really swing, as opposed to classically trained musicians who must read to play, the best pushers are not always the best performers of complex, classic forms.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” (Miles Davis)

Appearances are deceptive. Some T’ai Chi practitioners train that aspect almost exclusively and have taken Push Hands to extreme levels of proficiency. Their forms might look funny, focusing on feelings over aesthetics, but you don’t want to tease them too much! There is a beauty in their simplicity, sincerity and inner focus. Their T’ai Chi skills are very real.

The sensation of getting pushed feels like when you lean too far back in a chair or think there is another step when climbing the stairs. There is no bruising or bleeding, as in sparring, and you only risk injury if you stiffen up.

Every time there is loss (something I have experienced often), there is one consistent factor — a break in the energy flow, a lapse in concentration. The other player caught you thinking instead of responding. Or set up a series of automatic reactions to which he or she had a conclusion.

Just like the form, relaxing and sinking into the earth is the way to push and avoid being pushed. To do this simultaneously, or have it done to you is the most mysterious feeling of all. When it is done to you, it feels like a breeze passing over you or a wave in the ocean — like the force of the planet coming over you that can do nothing about. When you do it to someone else, it feels like they did it to themselves and you did nothing!

“The job of the artist is to always deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon).

When a push is well countered, the reaction is most likely mystification. “How did you do that?! Because there was no force and I just went flying across the room?!” A good teacher can show you exactly how this was done and even which move in the T’ai Chi form did it.

The most basic human instinct – self-preservation – in the skilled T’ai Chi player has reformatted more efficiently. The notion of compassion, and universal sister/brotherhood – the realization that ones own survival is intricately connected with the preservation of all life prevalent in every spiritual teaching – is expressed in T’ai Chi Push Hands, but on a physical plane. Exchanging energies, with respect and without malice, helps us to accumulate extraordinary energy reserves for ourselves, and to share with others. This heightened, refined, energetic experience unique to T’ai Chi Push Hands is one of the rich rewards for sincere and diligent practice.

One Response to The Art and Spirit of Push Hands

  1. Robert says:

    Lovely essay!

    Quick note: the Lao Tzu quote is reversed.

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