Sensing / Pushing Hands

For many Tai Chi enthusiasts Pushing Hands or Tui-shou is not a formal part of the Tai Chi curriculum. Nevertheless there is general consensus that it is very important as a way of acquiring and testing Tai Chi skills. These skills are what we call jin, refined power, as opposed to li, cruder muscular force.

One Yang-style tradition has it that their are either twenty-four or twenty-five jins - the various methods of applying refined energy. It all depends upon whether the first of these is to be considered as number one, or merely as a prerequisite. But there is no dispute about its importance because zhan-nian jin is absolutely essential to Tai Chi skill. What we see in the photograph above is right peng-jin in a cross-hands (as opposed to in-line) application. But the position of the left hands indicates that this is occurring in a flow of movement in which Sifu Jill Heath and I are demonstrating zhan-nian skills.

Zhan and nian mean to 'stick' and to 'adhere'. Along with lian ('connect') and sui ('follow') these are the four 'do's' of correct Tai Chi practice. When we push hands in the Yang style, these form the basis of our engagement. The other elements necessary include such aspects stepping (as needed), rooting, posture etc. These are what empower the rest of the energies.

The fourth document of the Yang and Wu families' forty reads:

Sticking means to lift upwards, to draw the opponent higher. Adhering means to remain tenaciously attached. Connecting means to give up your own intention so as to avoid separating from your opponent. Following means to respond to the opponent's every movement. In order to know the opponent's intention, one must understand sticking, adhering, connecting and following. These skills are extremely exacting. (pg. 26, Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, trans. Doug Woolidge. ISBN: 0-9780499-0-X)

Both Jill and I are student's of Sifu Sam Masich. Sam teaches Sensing / Pushing as employing four techniques: rolling, pivoting, transferring and exchanging. The first three can be practiced using in-line engagement; the final one employs cross-hands.

In this video we are primarily using rolling-out method. I am pushing into Jill's structure. She uses this method to neutralize my push:

In this next video we are also using rolling methods, but this time we are rolling-in, at least for the first twelve seconds:

Our movement then changes to a form called Two Fishes which is found throughout the Chen and Old Yang styles. The earlier neutralizations were frontal, but now the neutralization is a deflection to the side. This is achieved by one hand rolling-out and the other rolling-in.

The final video puts it all together:

Here we are engaged in something more free-style which is employing rolling, pivoting, transferring and exchanging.

Several points should be made about this kind of training.

First of all, in this there is no winner and no loser. The interaction is neither compliant nor combative. It is not compliant in that the force applied and the neutralization are real; they do not depend for effect on the partner's cooperation. In addition, neither of us is trying to win, to beat the other. Training of this order is an intimate exercise that relies upon skill and trust. Introducing an element of combativeness or competitiveness violates the process of skills-development. This is why some of us believe that tournament Pushing Hands is, in terms of skill-development, a race to the bottom for many.

Secondly, these exercises are Fixed Step. Moving Step Tui-shou (Pushing Hands) employs rapid movement, trips, throws etc. and can be similar to Judo and Sumo; It can be an excellent combat-sport. But Fixed Step requires greater mobilization of the spine and waist since one does not have the option of stepping out of the opponent's way. It is also an essential building block in the attainment of self-defense skills as it develops one's body, refines one's skills, and imparts the ability to handle and exploit an opponent's force. These skills relate directly to forceful self-defence.

Thirdly, the skills of Tui-shou extend to the the purely social realm. I have conducted workshops for Revenue auditors and Workers Compensation personnel designed to employ these essential skills in conflict resolution and the maintenance of a healthy workplace.

Finally, Tui-shou can be a spiritual activity. In the second document of the Yang and Wu families' Forty we read:

First one must realize how awareness of movement arises. Only then will one develop an understanding of Jin energy. After understanding Jin energy, one naturally begins to attain spiritual illumination. ( pg. 26, Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan)

This in part is because training in this way requires a surrender of egoistic motivation and the development of absorptive concentration, the first stage of meditation.

As a teacher I find it frustrating that so many Tai Chi practitioners are just not interested in Tui-shou. At the same time I can understand this. It is very easy to have a bad experience. I myself suffered a serious injury at the hands of an unstable individual whose orientation was towards tournament competition. I have also been exposed to many interactions where men, whose skills were more limited than those of their female partners, sought to assert dominance and authority through the application of physical force. Tui-shou in some cases seems to bring out the least attractive aspects of some people's characters!

This is why I prefer to refer to 'Sensing / Pushing Hands' as opposed to just 'Pushing'. There is a deep side to this exercise, a beautiful side forever hidden from those who are not ready for it.

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