Pushing Hands

There are a lot of ways to do Push Hands that look like push hands but really have nothing to do with the pedagogic purpose of the exercise. This purpose is to provide the conditions in which a person can confront, overcome and replace their reflexive opposition of force with force and the narrowing of awareness that comes with fear and competitiveness.

Frequently the partners pushing hands will have different expectations of what the (often ignored and unstated) social contract should be. If one person keeps to the pedagogic practice and the other person (generally the bigger, stronger often more experienced person) wants to "win", the person who is feeding their ego with "winning" will physically dominate the principled student. It takes a significant amount of "investment in loss" to learn in such situations. This page is about how to push hands in a way that is consistent with overcoming the reflexive opposition of force with force, various forms of self deception and the meaning of "neutralization."

The Social Contract

Pushing Hands is a practice that can benefit both parties. I don't see a good reason to practice it unless I receive a benefit from it. I don't expect another person to practice it with me unless they have a reasonable expectation that they will benefit and that they will not be harmed. This is the essence of the social contract between push hands players who are working at refining their tai chi.

The details of the social contract distinguish it from a sport or a fight. These include at least the following agreements.

  1. Both parties agree to practice for mutual benefit.

    When sawing wood, each player will provide the other with the form of the push that can be rolled back, and the form of the press that that can be warded off. If, for example, the push is done with both hands, or on the wrist-side of the partner, or aiming in a direction other than that which evokes the correct neutralization, the rollback will be the wrong neutralization and neither party will benefit except by the false sense of having "won." The same holds true for the Press phases of the exercise.

    If correct pushes and presses are given, the pusher-presser learns to recognize the feeling of being neutralized and so learns not to continue into an over-extended position after being neutralized. The receiver of the push-press learns to neutralize in response to the actions of the other and to make the neutralization only as large as the push or press warrants, rather than opposing force with force or simply enacting a set of motions, dance-like, that have no power to render the incoming force ineffectual.

    One important aspect of pushing for mutual benefit is the use of an "arrow like" push or press. This kind of push, like an arrow, doesn't change direction in flight and if it is guided by neutralization doesn't have a connection to the attacker that moves the attacker's body. As the Classics say:

      	   	"Store up the chin like drawing a bow.
      		Mobilize the chin like drawing silk from a cocoon.
    		Release the chin like releasing the arrow.
    		To fa-chin [discharge energy], sink, relax completely, and aim in one direction!"

  2. Both parties agree on the level of play.

    In most cases pushing hands should begin with "sawing wood" (the formal sequence of correctly executed and correctly meshed push/rollback, press/ward-off, rollback/push and ward-off/press). Sawing wood should make up the the overwhelmingly large part of a person's push hands practice. One should never lose attention while sawing wood since a significant part of the mental side of the practice is cultivating continuous, non-anticipatory awareness. Sawing wood can be contrasted with several higher levels that are more free-form, but these levels should be understood as a means to explore defects in each other's execution of t'ai chi, not as a contest unless that is the explicitly stated purpose of that particular set of participants.

  3. Both parties agree to "investment in loss."

    If you are pushed out one hundred times by your partner, and you focus your attention on remembering the sequence of events, including your emotional reactions, then you will benefit one hundred times more than your partner. Being pushed out, however slightly is a time for reflecting on the moment that the neutralization failed. Without this reflection it will be very hard to learn to recognize the begining of the event and thus will be very hard to learn to control it by neutralizing.

    If push hands partners are of very different levels, the more accomplished student can invest in loss by shortening their stance and by rising to a taller stance.

  4. Both parties agree to practice at a constant slow speed.
  5. Part of the training effect of push hands is moving at the same speed (or slower than) the partner. Anyone, with no skill what so ever, can push or shove suddenly if the other person is paying attention to keeping a slow, continuous movement. If pushing is a slow motion version of real interactions, that can be scaled up in speed to real life speeds, then sudden shoving is moving at a speed that no person can hope to achieve when the speed is scaled up. It always comes from the misuse of the arms. When you examine your practice and that of others, remember Professor Cheng's injunction that "the arms should not straighten excessively."

Clarifying the Form

The Push Hands is the third of the major T'ai Chi practices. It follows 1. standing in postures and 2. the T'ai Chi moving form. Standing postures support building the strength and sensibility of body alignment that are essential to practice. The moving form links these postures, but requires that the same principles of body alignment be kept while in continuous motion. This is obviously a higher skill than keeping aligned while standing still. Pushing hands adds the complexity of keeping the aligned body structure while interacting with another person.

When people push hands they may, depending on the social contract, aim their practice at any of several goals. At the most elementary level the goal is to refine the quality of the form practice. The players can infer from the failure of any part of the fixed form push hands to mesh correctly that there are errors in their form practice. An incomplete list of these errors is given below:

  1. Placing the feet inline rather than at shoulder width
  2. Moving the arms without moving the waist
  3. Closing the shoulder
  4. Exposing the chest
  5. Leaning backward

Pushing hands also reveals new kinds of errors in addition to the errors in static postures and in the path of movement.

  1. Insistence

    This is the stubborn refusal to commit to a push so that you can't be neutralized. Remember the point is to experience and learn from being neutralized.

  2. Moving expediently rather than keeping in the form

    If the opportunities that would be too transient to seize on in a real conflict are seized on in push hands, the real training opportunity of learning to distinguish the real errors in another person's form, is lost. It is correct to move at the same speed as the opponent. Shoving or speeding up thwarts the form-refining benefit of push hands. Expedient push hands generally looks and feels like wrestling, because it is.

Just as there is no difference between the postures when standing in a posture and when moving from posture to posture, there is no difference between the postures and movements of the form and the postures and movements of the push hands. This makes the push hands a perfect tool for correcting the form. Done correctly, both in the positions and the timing of the movements, the push hands partners movements mesh in a way that Professor Cheng described as "having no gaps." This may have been a reference to the Tao Te Ching Chapter 50:

	I hear it said of the sage that when traveling he is never attacked by rhinoceros or tiger, 
	and that when he is among soldiers he does not fear their weapons. 
	The rhinoceros would find no gap in which to place his horn, 
	nor the tiger a place for his claws, 
	nor could soldier find a gap for his sword to wound him.

In addition to providing fine tuning on the timing and positions in the form, Push Hands allows an experienced tai chi practitioner a direct way of judging whether or not the form is being done in the correct state of mind. This is because the effect of the state of mind on the body can be felt in the, for want of a better word, texture of the other student's physical responses.

What is "Neutralization"

In the simplest, mechanical form of Neutralization, the attacker begins in front of the defender, but as the attack progresses the defender rolls onto the side of the attacking limb. This guides the attack into an ineffectual direction while putting the attacker in a vulnerable position. As skill grows the techniques grows subtler and smaller and smaller movements becomes sufficient to rob the impetus from the attack while revealing the attacker's vulnerability.

Good pushes always arrise from the opportunity created by neutralization. You find yourself moving before you know you've been pushed both because they are done without hardness and because while you are being neutralized it feels like the attack is succeeding. This blinds you to the beginning of the push.

The structure of a push hands lesson

Details are important

Sawing Wood and more advanced practice

Push Hands and martial application

Games People Play

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Liam Comerford
October 24, 2011.
All rights reserved.