One of the first things I usually ask a new student is what they hope to get out of Tai Chi. The answer is almost always a variation of one of three things:
I want to improve my balance, coordination and flexibility
I want to get some exercise and improve my health
I want to be more relaxed / I am interested in the moving meditation aspect
In spite of the fact that Tai Chi is first and foremost a martial art I almost never hear “I am here to learn to fight.” This is a pity, because the combat part of Tai Chi is often the secret ingredient many teachers miss when trying to help you access any of these other benefits.
If you are here to learn to feel and manipulate Qi, then feeling where the force is applied in an application is the quickest path to understanding how the energy flows in that move. If you are here for a workout then you can kick it up a few gears by adding a healthy element of competition. If you are after focus and meditation then nothing will train you better to focus without rigidity than adding the unpredictable nature of combat. The meditative aspect is also enhanced by learning about the exchange of energy when there is another person manipulating it and trying to gain control of your energy. If you aren’t, like, into the spiritual AF stuff and all, just think of the energy as force or gravity. You can master your own balance and be a total boss when it comes to coordinating your movements and staying flexible, but when you throw someone else and some hand to hand combat into the mix that becomes a totally different challenge.
I spent the last decade or so practicing solo forms, Qigong and exploring different styles of Tai Chi from different teachers. As much as I love Tai Chi I was getting to a point where I found it difficult to find the motivation to learn another form or even find the time to practice the forms I already knew. I was struggling to find a teacher who could challenge me. A teacher can tell you a hundred times to keep your spine straight and your chest down, but when you push hands your body will demonstrate to you why these things are important in a way that no amount of telling can ever convey.
I would by no means consider myself a Tai Chi master, but I do think that for the most part I have mastered myself. I can slip into Wuji on command. I can find my center and root without thinking about it and I can pretty much stand on one leg as long as you have time for. I can feel the flow of my own energy and command it easily. My command of my own mind and body is beyond what many people ever achieve. I understand the principles of Tai Chi on an intellectual level and can apply them to my solo forms. But in spite of all this, I spent my first day at push hands practice getting completely schooled and coming to terms with the fact that in reality I had very little grasp on any of these things.
You see, I can be as zen as I want to when I am in standing meditation, but put me behind the wheel of a car in rush hour traffic and I have zero chill. What good is meditation, balance, relaxation and body mastery if you can’t apply it to the real world?
Tai Chi taught me how to find my center and my root. Push hands taught me how to stay true to that center and to stay rooted and balanced when I am not in complete control and someone else is trying to manipulate my energy.
Tai Chi taught me to focus and move with intention, push hands taught me to be decisive on how to use that intention in a practical way to get real results.
Learning Tai Chi taught me to be like water, to flow and be malleable. Push hands taught me to use that same force to crash against the shore and shape it to my will.
The same lessons that I have had to learn over and over throughout my life I have been learning from my push hands practice.
Don’t let yourself be led into a bad position by letting someone else control you. Make decisions and take charge. Keep your mind calm and connected to your body and listen to its feedback. Learn to recognize an opportunity in time to benefit from it. Know how to best use your strength when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t be afraid to trust your instincts. Allow yourself to learn the lessons that only making a mistake can teach you. Let out that fire, but don’t forget to also be water. Don’t forget everything you learned when things get heated. Control the motion, don’t let the motion control you.
Much like any practice where the goal is self mastery, push hands has brought me face to face with my deepest wounds and insecurities and forced me to confront and examine them and myself.
So what is push hands? Push hands is, arguably, the softest form of fighting you can imagine. Forget about those boxing matches where they punch each other’s lights out and think of the Kung Fu Master trope who refuses to fight back and neutralizes the angry hot head by using the force of his own attack against him. The point of push hands is not to strike so much as to get the opponent to lose their footing. Each opponent is trying to gain control of the other’s center of gravity. Push hands is a really good way to learn to understand the principles and energies of Tai Chi in practice. Peng, Liu, Ji and An might express themselves as intellectual concepts when you learn “Grasp the Bird’s Tail,” but you actually get to use them and understand them in your muscles and bones when you practice push hands.
There are many different styles and forms of push hands and every teacher does it slightly differently. You can find a lot of videos of competitions on YouTube if you want to see it being practiced. There are formal Push Hands drills where you repeat the same motion continuously with a partner and then there is freestyle where you just stick to the agreed upon rules and try to uproot your opponent. There is no one correct way to do it but it is definitely important to try it for the first few times under the guidance of someone who really knows what they are doing. If you join a push hands group it is perfectly acceptable to ask every individual you practice with which rules they want to play by. Some people like to stick or maintain contact between the arms at all times, some people are okay with moving your hands, some don’t like grabbing and others feel that anything goes.
If your goal with practicing Tai Chi is self mastery then Push Hands is how you measure how well you have achieved that. I used to think that I was a master of relaxation until I started measuring myself up in a push hands setting. Staying zen when you are going through a form is so easy a child could do it (no, literally, I used to teach this to kids on the spectrum). Keeping your calm and maintaining your center when you are in physical competition is some next level stuff.
As with everything else that you can learn from Tai Chi (or anything that matters) none of this will happen overnight. You can’t go one time and then come home and nurse your bruised ego and never go back and get any value from the experience. Be humble, be willing to make mistakes and learn from them and keep trying until you get it.
If you are interested in learning push hands please feel free to reach out for more information about retreats, workshops, meetups and more.