The well-known martial arts author, the late Robert W. Smith, said he thought “pushing hands” should be renamed as “sensing hands”. It makes sense but I don’t think it caught on. Pushing hands is more commonly called push hands. It’s one of the three legs of the tai chi stool, the others being the form and the sword. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the two-person applications done in a flow. One goal is to be able to unbalance a partner with the classic four-ounces of force. The purpose of this article is not to expound on all the aspects of doing push hands. Books have been written on the subject. It’s a basic explanation of what the reason for doing it is.
It’s probably not a good idea to be exposed to push hands right of the bat. One should become very familiar with the basics before moving to this. Traditionally the Oriental arts are taught with many months or even years of basic training before instruction in form or application. The Western society we live in wants results NOW and we tend to spend less time on those basics. This contributes to the frustration many of our students have but many will stick with it and trust their instructor to give them the “good stuff” when the time is right.
Time spent of getting the postures correct will pay off well in the push hands. Get the stance and Six Harmonies (fingers/toes, elbows/knees, shoulder/hip) right and there’s less of a challenge in learning and doing the push hands.
Al this is done “in the air”, meaning there is no physical body before you, no incoming forces to measure and deal with-and no ego other than your own. The story changes when these elements are presented.
The basics you learned in the practice of the form include four components you’ll need to start the drill. They are ward-off, roll-back, press and push. And that’s the order you normally do them in the form, so it’s ingrained. A challenge in the push hands is that the sequence gets changed, along with the side on which you do them. You’re likely used to doing roll-back with the right foot and right arm forward and applying the move. In the push hands you’ll have to do it right foot/left handed. This throws most people off, so don’t be alarmed if it “feels funny” and you’re not getting it right away.
My teacher, Tom Baeli, taught me there was a push hands form in which you practiced it in the same sequence as the applications as I wrote above. It helps. Yet, for many of us, having the body there can facilitate learning the sequences.
Be advised there is etiquette to starting the exercise and that is to allow the senior to choose whether to give or receive. For example, when I approach my teacher he either holds up his ward off, meaning I give with push, or he holds up his push and I receive with ward-off. You set your feet proportionally; front foot parallel to front foot and aligned so the toes are aimed at their rear foot. It makes a kind of box that you work within.
Know also that this is the hardest version to work with because you don’t get to move your feet to escape force. It forces you to deal with what’s there with limited tools and that’s an idea used in many systems. Once you get better at dealing with the movement and the variations to come, then you get to move your feet, as in real combat, and you start the Dance of Death, which what fights were called by some.
The presence of another human being “in your space” changes the context of what you’ve been practicing just to get here. Now you’re faced with handling incoming and outgoing energy, the probability of ego getting involved since some are more aggressive than others in this practice and dealing with the mental aspects of this sensory and emotional input. You will have to work on getting your timing and position right so you can handle the physical energies. You’ll be pushed off-balance often until you get it. That can be frustrating. How others interact with you and your energy is also key. You’ll find that everyone you push with has a different feel to them and that’s a huge value. Being a bit introspective about how you react, or don’t react, to that will teach you about yourself, too. Nobody says it’s easy but the payoff in increased confidence, physical and mental discipline and even more strength and flexibility can be substantial.
What you learn as a beginner in push hands should be done gently, with that “sensing hands” idea in mind. Using strength alone just intimidates, feeds the ego and generally produces poor technique. Competition push hands is a different animal and that’s not what we’re after right now. So hang in there, kid, you’ll be ok.
Until next time,