Pushing Hands is an intriguing, two-person exercise in which both parties simultaneously go with each other’s flow of force in order to uproot and off-balance one another.
In order to push hands, training partners stand facing each other with arms extended, close enough to touch wrists, with the intention of pushing each other over. Just standing face to face with someone in such close quarters causes tension, even without adding the aspect of the intention to knocking the other off-balance, but with push hands, staying relaxed is a prime factor.
Pushing with someone who is highly skilled is mysterious because she or he can move you at will with absolutely no-force, pain or injury. Often it feels as if you have moved yourself by just thinking about pushing. T’ai Chi represents learning from each successive moment – being present with now as it occurs. The slowness reprograms our primitive reactions to stress — to get angry or fearful when confronted. T’ai Chi trains us to patiently wait for the physical expression of anger to dissipate, or respond with finesse only if there is a real, not imagined, threat to our equanimity.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan push hands is the synthesis of Zen Buddhism and Taoism. The Zen Buddhist precepts of compassion, and of experiencing the now are exemplified by push hands. Within the flash of an instant, the seasoned T’ai Chi player can decide to graciously receive and gently recycle force back to the sender, rather than stiffen up and react with malice.
The Taoist concepts of Yin and Yang (weightless or empty or Yin leg, and weighted or full or Yang leg), and of going with the grain (not resisting, going with the flow) are directly applicable to T’ai Chi body mechanics. The metaphors of water in the Tao Te Ching — be like water, flowing over obstacles, and seeking the lowest level to nourish all things describe T’ai Chi Ch’uan to a T. Even Buddhism comes into the fore with the compassion and gentility felt during push hands that results in gentle pushes rather than invasive or painful punches, throws or kicks.
T’ai Chi push hands requires control and awareness, even moreso than solo T’ai Chi training, and presents a much greater challenge than solo practice. Push hands is best learned while learning the T’ai Chi form to get used to the feeling of contact. Responding to force, relaxing without collapsing, receiving in order to give, going with the flow and relaxing into gravity create a living matrix, a T’ai Chi force-field called “Peng.”
To understand the term Peng, think of a drum-head on a drum. If stretched too tight, it will make a little, high-pitched noise when struck. If not stretched tight enough, it will sound like “thwaba-thwaba” and not be crisp. The head must be just right to vibrate sonorously and rhythmically.
In push hands, instead of it being better to give than to receive, you can’t give until you receive. Of course, in competition where the stakes are high, and with competitive players seeking medals for their schools, there will be lots of feints and light touches as set-ups. Push hands is a controlled method of stepping in, rooting, etc … and should not be thought of as “real fighting.” In other words, anyone can get nailed no matter what or how much he or she practices. There are no perfect masters, and no perfect forms or systems. Any T’ai Chi Ch’uan style practiced with insight and humility will produce results. Finding a teacher, classmates and forms you like, trust and respect is the most important factor. Pushing hands expresses whatever you have developed from your form training. It is a great way to test the whether or not you understand how to use your form for something other than health and meditation. You will learn how to relax with stress, and about how you react under pressure than with just solo T’ai Chi form practice.