Leading and Following

Leading and Following

By Lee Wedlake

I was reading The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi by Wayne and Fuerst recently, a chapter on push hands. The author made a point that my teacher, Tom Baeli, had mentioned to me many years ago; personality is reflected in the performance of the art.

The author says that some people have trouble with not being in control and others have difficulty being leaders. I have found this to be true in my dealing with and observing people while teaching in the martial arts and aviation industry along with my experience in the military structure.

The practice of push hands, as he points out, often brings out these facets of character. The leader wants to control the pushing while the follower does not want to act as the leader. This leads us to great lessons about ourselves. Those of us who are more aggressive may tend to speed up or muscle the push and tend to let our ego intrude. The meeker partner may allow that to happen and even let that other person run us over, not taking advantage of openings that their aggressive move may offer.

Tom had told me that those who tend to lean forward in their stance are planners, they tend to think ahead. Those who sit back he described as the people who live in the past. Tai chi being a here-and-now practice requires being in the moment and the correct stance and upper body position keep us from planning the next moves or dwelling on what just happened.

In karate we like to say that if you’re thinking about what you’re going to do next, that’s when you get hit. You’re preoccupied to a degree with the components of the interaction and that slows you down because that incoming punch or kick forces you to switch gears and it’s usually too late. In fighting and push hands we are on the razor’s edge of now, a now which is always changing.

There are times in the push hands where you lead and others you then follow. It is the yin and yang. You balance them. Be too aggressive or too passive and you lose the balance. The practice of push hands is done slowly and one reason why is to give you some insight into what type you are. You may be surprised to find that you are not what you thought you are or that you confirm what you thought. The next step is to determine what, if anything, should be done about that.

I have experienced the big, strong man thinking he could run me over, only to be taken down time and again. Frustration or even anger may follow and this often results in more of the same. The thinking person takes this lesson and considers options. To follow the path of tai chi, one would alter their behavior. As you know, this can be a difficult path and discouraging at times. However, what we learn and the process of making positive change reaps benefits, and not just in being better at push hands.

Transference of knowledge is critical to learning and integrating that knowledge into our lives. When we learn how to control our center with changes in momentum and become better balanced we reduce the risk of falling and therefore, the possibility of injury. If we transfer that introspection and realization regarding our aggressiveness or passivity and channel it into jobs and relationships, our lives can improve. This is how the practice of the physical martial art affects us as a whole, not just as a fighter.

Until next time,

Lee