I was standing in the park. Waiting for him. I felt confident. After all, I had many years’ experience of push hands and had won several contests.
Then he appeared. He slowly walked across the park towards me. As he approached I immediately noticed the physical differences between us. He was 6 inches shorter and weighed about 20 pounds less than me.
Our meeting was arranged by a mutual friend and I found out he was an experienced Tai Chi teacher, recently arrived from Taiwan.
We greeted each other and had a short conversation about Tai Chi.
Then the contest began. We linked arms and started to push hands, the free style way. It felt different from what I was used to, but I quickly adjusted.
The first few seconds was spent testing each other’s responses. Fifteen minutes later my confidence in my ability dissolved. He had controlled and redirected every one of my moves with ease. I felt like a rag doll in his hands.
I did not know it at the time but I had ‘invested in loss’ in my understanding of push hands. The ‘loss’ was obvious. I had been controlled by a Tai Chi player with superior skills. The ‘investment’ from that experience would come later.
I became very friendly with the Taiwanese gentleman and we pushed hands often, with the same result as in our first encounter. I enjoyed being ‘pushed’ around because I was learning the value and effectiveness of free style push hands.
One day he suggested we start a push hands club. The aim was to create a friendly environment where all Tai Chi players could test their push hands ability. At that time, several of my friends and myself were pushing hands with the Taiwanese gentleman on a regular basis.
So we got together and formed the Melbourne Push Hands Club. Over the next few years we attracted many beginners, experienced Tai Chi players, external martial artists and other interested people. We had the ideal opportunity to test the theory of Tai Chi in a practical way.
The ‘investment’ from those years of experience and the knowledge gained are as follows;
- Free style push hands is easy to do.
- The high stance makes it ideal for those who have difficulty in adopting the lower stance required for traditional push hands.
- It’s a realistic form of training for self defence, because its higher posture is more of a natural stance. Please note: push hands is a training method and not self defence in itself.
- It’s a great leveller for all Tai Chi stylists. Not all Tai Chi players push hands the same way. Free style push hands eliminates the differences because of its simplicity.
- Its simplicity can cause it to be undervalued.
- Beginners may be tempted to avoid traditional push hands and focus on free style push hands, because it is easier and requires less work.
This is a mistake. I strongly recommend beginners learn and practise traditional push hands (stationary and moving). Free style is not meant to be a substitute for traditional push hands. It is a complementary method and natural extension of traditional push hands.
Some of the beginner students with whom I have pushed hands do not practise traditional push hands and it shows. They become good at free style techniques, but do not develop the deeper understanding traditional push hands teaches.
How to Do Free Style Push Hands
- Face your partner, with opposite foot forward.
- Stand upright in a natural stance with the knees slightly flexed.
- Most of the weight should be on the rear leg when you start.
- Both players extend their arms towards each other, about abdomen level.
- Place your left palm and forearm on top of your partner’s right forearm.
- Place your right palm and forearm under his left forearm. This is the neutral position. You may reverse these arm positions if you prefer
- Move the arms around slowly. Make sure you adhere to each others’ arms at all times.
- Now try gently to nudge your partner off balance. Do not use force or over-extend your arms.
- Practise without moving your feet at the start.
- Then practise moving your feet in any direction.
7 Training Tips
1. Make sure the waist leads the arms, i.e. the waist initiates the arm movement
Moving your arms only will disconnect you from your waist. Your Chi will rise to arm level, reducing your ability to transmit power from your body and it will also effect your stability. You will end up arm wrestling instead of pushing hands. To avoid these errors focus on your Tan Tien (just below your belly button).
2. Concentrate on ‘listening’ energy
‘Listening’ energy is the ability to feel your partner’s movements with your arms. With a lot of practice you will sensitise the arms and develop the ability to control and redirect his movements.
3. Avoid patterns
A common fault in both traditional and free style push hands is to get locked into a pattern mentality. This occurs when the mind wanders off and the arms move in a predictable pattern. You end up doing a slow form of calisthenics because your mind no longer initiates the movement. An effective way of avoiding this common problem is occasionally to vary the speed of your push hands. If your arms become disconnected when you do this, then your mind has wandered.
4. Use an observer
It’s a good idea to use an observer when you push hands. The observer can then stop the training if it gets out of control and develops into a wrestling match. A common problem for beginners.
5. Use larger arm circles when you start free style push hands
Larger arm circles will help beginners understand the basic concepts of push hands. Later on you can then focus on smaller circles to make it more realistic.
6. Invest in loss
Remember you are training to develop a skill, not to win a contest. You will learn more by ‘losing’ (being pushed off balance) than trying to win points. Leave the point scoring for contests.
7. Offence versus Defence
Nominate one partner as the offensive player and the other as the defensive player. The offensive player continuously attacks (gently) the defensive player. The defensive player can only respond to the attacks by diverting the force into another direction.
This is an excellent drill to develop concentration. It also emphasises the need to relax when you are under constant pressure.
Have a go at free style push hands and discover how you can ‘invest in loss’ and become a ‘winner’.
First published in Tai Chi – The International Magazine of Tai Chi Chu’an – August 2001
© Chris Bennett