Push Hands

What is push hands and what is it used for? Why do we practice push hands?

Push hands Tai Chi is a sport like any other sport event.  In fact most of the sport events are in their own way self defence techniques not to say Judo, Karate or Taekwando. Just as any other martial arts Tai Chi self defence techniques are enjoyed as sports in the modern day life.

People observe that Tai Chi Chuan is practiced so slowly and without force, effortless and serene, calm and relaxed. So they come to the conclusion that Tai Chi Chuan cannot be used for self defence. The surprising truth is that Tai Chi Chuan, when correctly trained, is one of the best forms of self defence. It can be a very friendly sport and it can be an unfriendly self defence system.

When we talk about self defence people come to think of combat. Yes, it is a very friendly free hands martial arts system, but what is more important is its real values (see values of Tai chi Chuan page). In the past Martial arts are trained and applied to defend oneself as well as for health and leisure, but today with the invention and use of modern weaponry it will be tragic to believe that martial arts can defeat the explosive power of the modern weapons. The Boxer rebellion of China is a good reminder to martial arts experts of the tragic fallacy of those beliefs. It is therefore a good principle to practice push hands as a sport and for health and leisure, but when called upon it can bring surprises.

Push hands practice helps us to have a deeper understanding of when, why, and how, the principles of the forms are practiced.  To be good at push hands we need the principles and application of the forms as well as the five essentials of ‘Ting jin’ / sensing energy; ‘tung jin’ / understand energy; ‘jieh jin’ / receive energy; ‘hua jin’ / absorb or redirect energy; and ‘fa jin’ / application of power.

Ting Jin / Sense energy

One of the trainings in Push hands in Tai Chi Chuan is the ability to sense (Ting). Ting in direct translation is ‘to listen’. But what is there to listen when an attack comes in towards you? It is to listen to the opponent’s attack meaning to sense an attack. It is to ‘listen’, to sense the opponent’s force (energy) and not to oppose it. To sense a force is to contact and read the partner’s movements; make use of his/her movements to unbalance each other while maintaining one’s own stability and balance. It is fun to have your partner out sensed and also to be out sensed yourself. So sensitive is the sensing that people used to say ‘not even a feather is allowed to land and not a fly can settle’ without putting it in motion.

To be able to sense properly you need to be calm and relaxed. Without relaxation, Qi or internal energy cannot flow well and thus the sensing will not be as advanced. High level sensing involves relaxation, calmness, proper posture and all the essentials of the taiji form practice.

Many push hands learners become disillusioned with the constant practice of sensing and think that they are not improving themselves but when they meet new learners they realise how much they have improved. Sometimes, they will accidentally realise that they were able to get away from accidental oncoming force without intentionally or purposely defending themselves. This ability to be spontaneous in a response instead of having to think of what response is needed surprises many a practitioner! They come back to tell stories of what happened and how an oncoming force was accidentally dissipated! Ting jin is therefore the most essential element of push hands practice.

Against practitioners of push hands one has to be well versed with the ability to ‘ting jin’; ‘tung jin’, ‘jieh jin’, ‘huah jin’, and ‘fa jin’.

Dong Jin / Understanding energy

Once a learner has achieved the ability to sense he/she has achieved the understanding of ‘Ting Jin’, that is listening /sensing force/energy/power. At ’ting jin’ level he/she will will be able to ‘dung jin’ or understand what is ‘power/energy’; when that energy is coming, where that energy is coming from, that is, the direction of the energy .  It is with the ability to ‘Dung Jin’and ‘Ting Jin’ that the Yin-Yang principle of Tai Chi Chuan can be applied. When you sense the force is coming from the right you make use of that force to attack the left; when you sense an attack from the left you attack the right! When you are pushed from the left you push the right and vice versa.

Jie Jin / Receive energy

Understand energy or ‘tung jin’ enables you to ‘jieh jin’ or receive ‘power/energy’. When you are able to sense and understand what, when, how, where the energy is, then you can train to receive energy. You will not be able to receive energy if you cannot sense energy. To receive energy needs the timing and so sensing and understanding the how, when, where, is necessary.  In receiving energy or ‘Jie Jin’, the principles of the Tai Chi Chuan forms are put into application. Proper relaxation, posture and calmness comes into play.

Hua Jin / Absorb or Redirect energy

After one is able to ‘Jieh’ receive energy he/she is beginning to train to ‘Hua jin’ or absorb/direct energy/power. Jie and Hua is very close to each other in the sense that once you can receive you need to divert, absorb or redirect the force. Again it is the ability to sense that enables you to understand, receive and absorb Jin. Push hands training until this stage is interesting for health and for fun, as a hobby and leisure. Once you have achieved this stage you can continue to the next stage of ‘fa jin’.

Fa Jin / Application of power

‘Ting’, ‘Tung’, ‘Jieh’, ‘ hua’, are the necessities before the learning of ‘fa’. This is because of the progression of development of the values of Tai Chi Chuan. The sensitivity, understanding, receiving, and directing of forces trains one to develop  what are called inner abilities. It has to come from the body, mind, and spirit (takes volumes to explain). Then comes the understanding and training of ‘fa jin’ or ‘application of power/energy’. In ‘fa jn’ the partner/opponent can be uprooted and thrown away in any direction depending to the situation.

The abilities described above cannot be achieved with words alone but with correct training and explanation together with much practice.

The training above guides the enthusiast to the proper application of the principles trained in the forms without which he/she will not be able to achieve the abilities to receive, and apply energy. A learner, therefore, needs to practice the forms with correct principles to be really good in push hands. So, the forms are a necessity to enable good push hands and in doing so they benefit each other. Some people treat push hands as a quality check on the forms. In this sense the values of Tai Chi Chuan form practice is enhanced with the practice of push hands.

Push Hands can therefore be enjoyed as a friendly sport and when needed can be used for bare hand self defence. Whether it can be applied for defence against certain types of weapons depends greatly on the amount of effort put into the training against certain types of weapons BUT it will be greater if we can apply Yin Yang principles to an aggression (of which Tai Chi Chuan trains us to do!), than to physically defend oneself, (Please refer to values page) It involves proper mind focus in a relaxed way, deeper kinds of emotional control and personal insight leading to real spiritual growth. Tai Chi push hands does in fact train our body and mind with the appropriate responses to basic attacks and threatening situations. Tai Chi Chuan’s values from the practice of self protection and competition fighting, to improvement in health and  personal well being and self realisation is massive.

• Is Push hands Tai Chi suitable for female practitioners?  Am I too old to learn push hands?  Would you encourage all Tai Chi practitioners to practice push hands?  Is push hands only for those who are well built?

While most of the sport events are more suitable for the young and well built, Tai Chi push hands is suitable for all, the strong and the weak, young and old, regardless of gender. You do not need a muscular body. We do not need big muscles to do push hands. So, female practitioners retain their feminine beauty while building their internal power, health, relaxation and spirit.

Push hands can be gentle when practiced with friendly partners and at the same time allows partners to out sense each other. That is the fun. When A cannot sense B’s on-coming force, A will find it difficult to divert the force. When A knows where B’s force is coming from then he/she will find it easier to outbalance his partner. So it can just be a very friendly outbalancing and trying to uproot or take away the partner’s stability. It tests each other’s skill in the ability to sense the partner’s movements and energies. So once you have learnt the principles in the forms you can start to apply them in push hands.

It is this application of the principles in push hands that in return, helps you to have a better understanding of the how and the why of the principles trained in the forms. So even if you are practicing Tai Chi Chuan for health and leisure it is much encouraged that you practice push hands for greater understanding and fun. Once you have greater understanding of the forms and its practice you will have greater benefit from it health wise and leisure wise. It can be slow or fast. It allows both parties to distinguish the partner’s ability to apply principles practiced in the forms.  This brings us to the next question:

• Can I just start with push hands and not do the Tai Chi Chuan forms?

Yes, one can start practicing push hands without doing the forms BUT it will be a slower process and a strain to understand and learn the principles and how the principles work on the body. Once the learner is used to the use of force, then push hands will be like any other martial art; using force, stiffness, and not using internal abilities. This is not what a Tai Chi Chuan push hands class should be training towards. We do not want to progress to just an ordinary level of push hands. We want an advanced and refined level, using less energy and force so that even when you grow old you still can apply them. So usually push hands is not encouraged to people who do not do the forms. All the principles done in the forms and the training towards the ability to apply the principles to the forms are necessary for a practitioner to be really good in push hands.

Tai Chi Chuan is like the orchestra producing music. The instruments are like the principles;  the skill of musicians is  like the quality of forms, the combination of music of the orchestra is like the combination of form, principles and sensing; and finally the music produced with that combination is like the achievements in relaxation, security, health, sports, defence. Without proper/complete instruments, good musicians, good combination, there is still music produced but not as pleasant as it could or should have been.

• Can push hands be used for defence from an attack in any form?

Yes, practiced correctly, Tai Chi Chuan is one of the best forms of self defence against any type of attack. Tai Chi Chuan is just like any martial art. The practice of push hands and the correct application of its principles make it different from other martial arts. Once Push hands is trained and practiced correctly it becomes an automatic defence and attack system. Although push hands and the 2 man San Sou are practiced with 2 people constantly in contact, any non-contact attacks can be defended by applying the same principles as in the contact push hands practice. Although Tai Chi Chuan is practiced in a slow manner it can be as fast as any attacker.  The saying: ‘Ni bu dong Wo bu dong, Ni i dong wo xien dong’ applies to Tai Chi Chuan. It literally means ‘You don’t move I don’t move, once you move I move first’.  So, the notion that Tai Chi Chuan push hands is just for pushing hands with contacts and that once there is no contact Tai Chi Chuan cannot be used, is incorrect.

Thirteen postures/essentials, are said to be of great importance in push hands. They are:

  1. Peng Ward off
  2. Li Withdraw
  3. Chi Press
  4. Aun Push
  5. Ts’ai Pull
  6. Lieh Split
  7. Chou Elbow
  8. Kao Shoulder
  9. Chin Advance
  10. Tui Retreat
  11. Zhou Ku Look left
  12. Yu Pan Look right
  13. Zhong Ding Central equilibrium

These essentials are all trained when we do the Da Li and sensing practices together with the forms.