Today’s Tai Chi tip is all about how to get better at push hands simply by adjusting your posture.
Push hands should really be an exercise in which we get to test our ability to absorb Jin from an opponent and project it into an opponent as required, to uproot them.
It shouldn’t devolve into a pushing and shoving match to see who can ‘win’. Once it turns into that then I don’t think anybody is learning anything anymore. There are far superior methods of grappling and I think you’d be better off spending your time learning those if your goal is simply to win a grappling exchange.
But before we can focus on using Jin we have to get our body in a position where it conforms to the Tai Chi principles of posture, where we’re not fighting it all the time, and it’s working to our advantage instead.
It is said, “Jin does not flow through tense muscles”
So, we need to get our body into a structural position where we can be as relaxed as possible, without collapsing, yet still maintain our connection to the ground. In Chinese terms you would call this a posture where your “qi is strong”, but you are not tensing muscles more than they need to be.
Of course, this optimum qi structure is one of the first things to go out of the window once we start push hands. In push hands we get to test our Tai Chi under a limited amount of pressure. Faults that lie dormant in the form rise to the surface like bubbles.
Here we’re going to go over a few.
1. Head position and leaning
Head position in the form goes hand in hand with the issue of leaning. Some styles of Tai Chi, like Wu style and Yang Cheng-Fu’s Yang style, opt for a slight angling forward of the torso in forward-weighted bow stances. Other styles like Sun style, Chen style and Cheng Man-Ching style all keep an upright posture as often as they can, even in front-weighted stances. (See pictures below)
But the thing is, all styles are upright in their back stances (or should be). And even styles that maintain an upright stance, have to lean forward to do throwing techniques that take the person to the ground like Needle at Sea Bottom or Punch to the ground, for example.
Here are some examples of different Tai Chi practitioners:
Chen Xiaowang, upright and stable.
Cheng Man-Ching, very upright.
Sun Lu Tang, no leaning.
A variety of postures from Wu Jian Quan, showing sometimes leaning, sometimes not.
Yang Cheng-Fu showing sometimes a slight leaning, sometimes not.
I think it’s time to get to the point of all this:
It’s not the lean itself that matters.
It’s maintaining an unbroken spinal alignment that is the key issue!
All these practitioners have one thing in common, they are not letting their heads droop, and they are not looking at the floor when they don’t need to.
For example, when even a practitioner who is famous for his upright posture does Needle at Sea Bottom, he or she bends forward, she just doesn’t break the alignment of the spine.
Needle at Sea Bottom
The Tai Chi classics talk a lot of carrying the head as if “suspended from above”. If you let your head droop you break the spinal alignment. You are easy to off-balance in push hands because your posture is broken. But if you hinge properly from the hips then you can still keep this spinal alignment even when you bend forward.
Think of the spine as including the neck (which anatomically, it does of course). If the neck goes offline in relation to the spine then the weight of the head has to be compensated by muscles elsewhere in the body. And this extra tensing of muscles results in a less efficient transfer of Jin from (or too) the ground.
Because we are quite used to this happening while standing or sitting, we don’t really feel our head being off centre so much. Switch to working on the ground, in a yoga posture for example, and you can instantly feel the difference your head position makes.
On a technical level, if you are using Jin you should be able to let the solidity of the ground be apparent at the point of contact with the opponent. If you have to use too much muscle then your pure Jin starts to turn into “Muscle Jin”. Muscle jin, isn’t as adaptable to change as pure jin. You can’t easily change direction, for instance. It also just doesn’t feel as it should. It might help you win a push hands competition, but you’ll find it lacking when it comes to martial technique.
And when it comes to the thorny issue of leaning, I’d recommend trying to stay upright in push hands. As I said before, the leans you tend to see in Tai Chi forms are to do with the application of a technique. Sure, you can lean to apply power according to a technique (just make sure you keep your spine aligned) but for the usual back and forth of push hands I’d recommend trying to keep as upright as possible. You’ll find it gives you more freedom of movement in the horizontal axis.
If you watch this clip of Wang Hai Jun doing some push hands with applications in it, you’ll notice that he’s staying upright during the push hands, but he’ll lean to apply a technique:
2. Shoulder usage
I posted before about learning how to sink in Tai Chi Chuan. One of the benefits of sinking is that you can be powerful yet relaxed at the same time. Again, this is a body requirement for the use of Jin. I don’t really care about relaxing the legs so much (although see point 3 later on) they key thing is making sure that all the tension of the upper body is dissolved down into the lower body.
You want to feel like your upper body is empty, while your lower body is full. “Hands like clouds, legs like mountains”, is a phrase that springs to mind.
The big stumbling block here is always the shoulder. Either we use our shoulder too much, and the movement becomes local and isolated from the rest of the body, or we don’t relax it sufficiently, and it becomes a blockage to the smooth flow of power from the ground that you’re looking for.
One really effective way of bypassing the shoulder in push hands, and relying more on sinking and the power of the ground, is to imagine a tube that runs from your hand, all the way up your arm, and down your back to the foot and the ground. Imagine another tube for the other side of the body. Now, when you want to move your arm, you have to move the whole tube. Start your power at the foot.
Over time, once you get the hang of it, it will become intuitive to start to direct your ‘tube movement’ from the waist area, and ‘moving from the dantien’ starts to become your preferred method of movement.
3. Using the back leg as a brace
Another trap people fall into is using the back leg like a brace, held stiff against the ground. Again, this leads to muscle Jin, not the relaxed release of power we are looking for. If you engage in the push and shove type of push hands you typically see at push hands tournaments then this is a great way to win. Unfortunately, ‘winning’ makes no difference if your goal is to get better at Tai Chi Chuan.
Don’t get me wrong, a little physical scrap like this is good for you now and again, and it’s good fun to push yourself physically! But these days I tend to let BJJ rolling get that all out of my system, so I can focus more on developing push hands skill in the right way when I’m engaged in push hands practice. .
So that’s a bunch of stuff you shouldn’t be doing. But what should you be doing?
I’d put forward the following 3 suggestions. This is just my personal opinion, of course.
1. Posture, posture, posture.
As you push hands keep your focus on your posture. Mentally note when you lean forward, note when you feel unbalanced sideways. Stop looking at the floor. Look at the horizon, through your opponent. Note when your feet aren’t flat on the ground. Where is your breathing? Low down or up in the chest? I count breathing as a posture consideration since it will affect your posture.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Sinking is the key to changing from using Li to learning to use Jin. Learn to relax the upper body completely and drop your weight into your lower body, then use that to power your movements.
Once you are relaxed and able to sink your weight (Sung in Chinese) you should start to ‘listen’ – Ting Jin in Chinese. This enables you to detect where your partner is weak in their structure. How just a little push here or there will send them off balance. That’s where you need to start experimenting in your attacks.