Tai Chi luminaries of old are often quoted as saying that without pushing-hands training a student cannot reach a good level of understanding and skill in Tai Chi. While pushing-hands training is an important step in accessing the martial abilities of Tai Chi (the first fundamental step being extensive practise of basic exercises such as Zhanzhuang, Chan si gong and solo Form) it doesn’t have to be overtly martial or competitive in order for one to glean the many benefits potentially on offer.
The partner work of Tai Chi enhances ones perception, awareness and development 100 fold as it gives one an opportunity to realistically investigate and assess just how well structured, stable, balanced and relaxed one really is. Often lumped together with Yoga and Pilates into the category of “alternative health” exercise Tai Chi is in fact incomparable; 99 percent of people practise Tai Chi primarily for health benefits but it is at its root an effective martial art. It is in this sense that the attributes of stability, fluidity, awareness and whole-body or integrated strength can be concretely developed and verifed through good practise. In a nutshell the partner work of Tai Chi systematically tests what basic abilities you have developed through your solo Tai Chi practise and simultaneously offers insight into how one might improve. For many who practise alternative or spiritual arts of some kind or another it is all too easy to imagine that one is centred, connected, aware and able to go with the flow without any feedback that might actually verify such skills. In the reality of day to day life however, qualities that simply exist in our imagination are not much cop. What most people really find useful are basic and visceral grass roots abilities such as being able to relax under pressure, robust physical/mental health and freedom of movement. Good Tai Chi practise thus develops physical/mental stability and fluid strength equally in a way that is tangible and functional and not just a nice idea.
Many people miss out on the learning opportunities pushing-hands can offer because of the way they approach it. Some students are put off because they associate it with fighting and confrontation. Let’s be clear; to begin with all the practises of pushing-hands should be cooperative and smooth in nature. That doesn’t mean that we just float around in some kind of indulgent reverie; we do not want to simply go through the motions, with no clear aim, focus or awareness. On the other hand I do not want to emphasise competitive spirit too much and focus solely upon pushing people around. It’s not that either of these approaches is wrong, it is my feeling that the amount of learning and improvement that takes place is compromised unless we adopt a well-rounded and integrative approach. As an instructor and student, I feel that we can benefit most from pushing-hands when the goal is simply to learn from “feedback” (more on that in a moment). The aim of this article then is to describe how we can approach partner-work in this way and be curious about what we practise and how. I shall not describe any specific exercises here as I will concentrate on the explanation of this principle which can apply to all manner of partner work.
So what do I mean by feedback? In solo practise when you are going through your Tai Chi form, Zhanzhuang (standing meditation) or whatever, you perceive certain things about what you are doing (unless of course you are simply daydreaming the time away) such as your balance, muscle tone, breath, sensations, thoughts and so on. Such observations are what I call feedback and are a result of being aware what you are doing and most importantly, how you are doing it. Over time and through practise our ability to sense and use this improves. It is from this enhanced, proprioceptive and kinaesthetic awareness, that we can gradually adjust how we use our body and mind and thus progress towards developing Tai Chi attributes such as central equilibrium, stability, softness, sensitivity, balance and so on.
While solo practise is essential for progress it is easy to become complacent about what and how you practise because you can gradually get used to the feedback your practise produces. Furthermore, because we live in a world where mental activity seems to take to precedence over real physical perception it is very easy to ‘think’ you are doing one thing when actually you are doing another. Just because you think that your whole body is relaxed doesn’t mean that it is! Pushing hands can offer an excellent antidote to this. It is tactile and experiential. The feedback produced when someone is pushing you (and vice versa) in the myriad variations possible offers a tangible insight into what you are doing and how you are doing it. For example you can get a clear feeling for how relaxed you are, how your body is balanced, the condition of your body structure, your level of concentration, sensitivity, your response under physical/psychological pressure, etc. It is via this feedback that you can become aware of and improve the weak areas of your practise in a way not always accessible through solo practise.
If the focus in pushing hands is to glean feedback and to learn, then whether you are pushed and lose balance or not is inconsequential i.e. it’s all good. Whatever happens is fuel to power your learning. Pushing hands is thus like a laboratory where one is both the experimenter and the subject. From the results of your ‘experiments’, i.e. feedback from practise, you can gradually discover and work towards Tai Chi principles for yourself. If the emphasis is solely upon winning it is like you ignore most of the feedback produced from your ‘experiment’ and the opportunity for learning is diminished.
Here are couple of examples of how through feedback one can get a sense of some simple Tai Chi principles.
Stand in a relaxed upright posture, observe and feel how much strength or effort you are using to remain upright. You should find that you do not have to make any particular effort. It is as if you do not use any strength as the task is accomplished naturally. You do use strength, however, but it is below the level of your awareness. Now ask a friend to press down on your shoulders and again observe how much effort it takes to stay upright. You will feel pressure on your shoulders and perhaps within your body but again you should feel that you do not have to do anything, regardless of how much effort your friend uses. Furthermore, you should feel that your muscles are relaxed and if you try, you can move your hips easily from side to side whilst not affecting your ability to support your weight or your friend’s push.
The help of your friend is essential to allow you to get a sense of how their push is transferred effortlessly through the body structure. In Tai Chi and pushing hands then, we are trying to learn to use this type of strength in the same way for all other directions. This is where the notion of central equilibrium (i.e. being balanced in all directions) comes in. This can be seen in the next example:
Imagine you are standing on a steep hill, with one foot higher than the other and you are supporting a fairly heavy weight sliding at you from above. Suppose that you support it from underneath, with your arms above your head. You would naturally try to let the weight pass through your body into the rear foot, using the front leg to stabilise yourself against the hill. If the weight were to wobble, you would just adjust your arms and body underneath to keep the weight passing to the rear foot and thus remain balanced. It would not require any huge mental effort to do so and unless the wobble took the weight too far from your base, not any extra physical effort. You would perform any adjustments needed automatically, with the body acting in unison.
Now, if we were to tilt the hill so that the ground underneath becomes horizontal and the weight you were supporting is now represented by a push from someone in front of you there would be two likely changes to your behaviour. First, you would have to adjust your posture because it would be as if gravity now acts in a horizontal direction. Second, rather than letting the force pass through your body to the feet you would resist the push by pushing back with the same force. If your adversary started changing the direction of his push, there will be nothing automatic in your response. If you could somehow get your body to act as if the push was a result of a force of gravity, you could relax and let your automatic responses neutralise the push for you effortlessly.
From the above examples we can see that it is from observing how the body responds to pressure, whether that be gravity or a push, that we can learn how to use the body in an effortless way. By feeling the body’s natural ability to accommodate and balance force we can get a sense of what to aim for and encourage in our practise. Without the input from having someone push you it would be very difficult to get a sense of how to do this. Similarly, being preoccupied or fixated on winning one may not even notice how the body can deal with force in this effortless fashion.
Practising pushing-hands can be challenging but essentially is great fun so enjoy! It is important to remember that it is not an end point in itself but comprises just one part of the process being simply another rung on the ladder of learning and enjoying Tai Chi. Happy training!
Join Karel and Eva Koskuba, Sam Moor and Alkin Emirali for a weekend of pushing-hands workshops and free practise by the sea in sunny Bournemouth on July 7/8th.
All the details are at: www.pushhandsbythesea.wordpress.com