Mike posted his thoughts on push hands recently on the 6H forum. I really liked what he wrote, so I’ve received permission from him to post it here as a guest blog post. Enjoy!
Thoughts on Push Hands
Push Hands is designed as a way to practice using jin with and against a partner. The four jin directions are Up, Toward the Body, Away from the Body, and Down …. or Peng, Lu, Ji, An, respectively. You first learn to use jin in your own movements by learning forms, traditionally in Chen Village, before you begin learning to use that jin with a partner. Since most people claiming to do Taijiquan can’t really use jin skills while simply moving themselves, it is obvious that most “push hands” is usually more about some vague competition than it is about continuous jin skills. The closest most people get to jin skills is usually a sudden, impulsive tossing away of their opponent.
Beginning push hands involves the persistent use of push-hands patterns so that people can practice long periods of attempting to move while maintaining jin in the four directions of Peng, Lu, Ji, An. That’s why it’s such an eye-roller to hear some tournament rowdy say something like, “Oh, I don’t do patterns … I just do free-style”.
So basically, push hands is about Peng, Lu, Ji, An more than anything. It’s about practicing jin and imbuing jin in your body’s movements at all times. Arm/hand techniques, dramatic uprootings, etc., are nice, but they miss the point of what push-hands is really about.
I asked a teacher of mine (a student of Feng Zhiqiang’s) once “what is the philosophy of Taijiquan as a martial-art?”. Stupid question, but I asked it anyway. He responded to me: “The philosophy of Taijiquan is to crash through to the opponent’s center and kill him”. Of course he meant that half in jest, but it’s still true and it’s also the general philosophy of almost any martial-art. In much of the push-hands we see there is a lot of maneuvering at arms’ distance from the opponent, looking for a way to effect a technique or push on the opponent … you seldom see someone simply slip through the arms and apply a massive Kao to the opponent. That’s considered a “no-no” by many people, but since I see so many people do so many “no-no’s” already, I just get confused. If my partner is not doing good push-hands, adhering to the technical aspects, why should I waste time accommodating his not-so-good push hands? I think more people should think more about “what is push hands really about?”.
There are many things you can focus on while doing push hands: throws, joint-locks, “winning”, and so on. I tend to focus foremost on jin and using jin through all of my movements. I am not fully successful yet, but I keep working on it.
If you are moving your arms, you want to look for areas where you slipped into muscle and try and correct that area back toward good jin. You want to check your movement in terms of Open and Close and whether you are using the dantian to move or whether you suddenly went into an arms-only mode for a second. Moving with the dantian is what reeling-silk is about and that’s why reeling-silk movement is the core/basic of Taijiquan.
You want to not provide any resistance for your partner to push against, if possible … but that’s not always possible, so while I focus on that avoidance of resistance, I also enjoy practicing letting my partner push me. As I’ve said in the past, I often/usually will maintain a peng-jin direction that is upward and in a direction that will off-balance my partner if he pushes me. I don’t necessarily do the up-jin thing all the time, but I do it enough that it is an easily-accessed tool that is sort of second-nature.
Most of all I enjoy a casual interplay (win-some, lose-some is best for everyone, I think) where I make it a game to see if I can apply an effective jin response against any push my partner can manage to slip in. I don’t care if I lose some … the idea is to get better and better, so I “invest in loss”.
It’s a fun game to allow an opponent to push you and see if your jin skills are good enough to turn the tables simply by making his own push defeat himself. I would recommend and suggest that this strategy will get people away from always trying to win while at the same time giving them a true skill-set of actual Taijiquan.
I remember a comment from a Chinese friend of mine who was challenged in a nasty way to do some push hands. He looked at the guy and said, “No, let’s fight. Push-hands is just for exercise”.
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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Push Hands, by Mike Sigman”
In my experience, push hands is a wondrous thing, but most of us, myself included, do much of it wrong – playing king of the hill. the resulting too early speed and ego can kill exploration and skill development at an early stage.
So I agree with Mike’s observations — give and take, exchanging ideas and add another — going slowly enough and repetitively enough for one’s companion and oneself to learn, develop and catch on is more fun and meaningful. Life is too short and practice time too brief to indulge in cheap victories.
Graham, the thought comes to mind that here in the West, the vast majority of people don’t really even know what real Taijiquan is or how to do it. Most people do empty forms of choreography and can’t even display simple jin, much less the full 4 jin directions of peng, lu, ji, an. So, at least from my perspective, I look at most of what westerners do as an exploration of how to do Taiji and how the body mechanics work. It’s an investigation in progress.
In China, Taiji is supposed to be a martial-art, not an area of investigation, so it is more open to challenges. If you are teaching Taijiquan, your people should be learning how to fight.
Since I’ve tended to look at Taiji as simply a mystery worth exploring, I’ve looked at nasty level of challenges as more of an annoying temporary distraction. A lot of people like to use a push hands format because it’s a safe way to be sneaky, mean, and not really get hurt while doing it. I went through a phase of simply upping the level of power and application to answer these louts when I was younger and I even hurt a few people to show them that it doesn’t pay to up the attack-level. But then I lost interest. If I want to get better at actual Taijiquan, it’s a waste of time engaging in these types of contests that are secret status contests.
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