Why Push Hands?

(This article was originally published in the T’ai Chi Foundation’s Teaching Forum)

At different points during our study and training various apprentices and students have posed the question of why we practice push hands. There are as many answers to that question as there are benefits to the study of Tai Chi itself. We learn to accept ourselves, without sadness or judgement through conscious awareness of our body. We ground our emotions, especially anger, and learn to accept real connection with everyone. We cleanse ourselves of fear. We learn and share balance.

These are the ultimate benefits available from complete immersion in this study. Still, it doesn’t answer in detail why we spend time learning to recognize and interpret energy in others across this scenario of potential conflict. At least, not until we realize that what we perceive in our partners is really just a reflection of ourselves. When we approach this process as one of acceptance we discover that the understanding we touch is how to be grounded, open and connected and to share that with everyone we contact.

The ultimate reason for developing the skill of interpreting energy goes far beyond the ability to knock someone over. Instead it gives us the ability to help people discover their balance. As you perceive an imbalance with your PH partner it will appear as an excess or a deficiency. Your choice in that moment is to demonstrate this imbalance with your awake presence.

The biggest pitfall we encounter is to either give away our space or to over-defend it. A dichotomous over-reaction. Finding the middle ground and our body’s natural ’roundness’ grows from an internal awareness of root and a free mobility of our body as a whole, moving from its center. To establish that quality, in my experience, requires an easy-going attitude and an unapologetic ownership of our space and our connection to our partner. To find this we get to reclaim our space. It is ok for us to be. Here. Now. To be in control of the space around us. This happens in the spirit of helpfulness. Teaching.

Understanding that we are developing the push-hands skill set in order to be helpful is key. Armed with this sense of purpose we set a clear context for accepting ourselves and being in service to others as we go.

The mechanics of establishing a mobile root are the steps we go through to train our bodies and instincts to be in a state of readiness for connection.

  • The first key principle is to develop an internal awareness of our body’s physical/energetic center, the dantian.
    • What starts as a concept becomes a feeling.
    • We learn to allow our awareness to radiate from the center and encompass our entire body.
  • Then we learn to move from that center, letting our torso and limbs remain in a state of relaxation.
    • We rest in a state of lively emptiness.
    • We allow free movement in our hips and work with an alignment of the body which minimizes the distractions of gravity.
    • We feel our connection with the Earth.
  • We then learn to let our limbs respond to the direction of the center rather than to forcefully coordinate their actions with the whole.
    • This goes with a clear intention in our movements (potential application) and a continuous awareness of the state of our body (dantian awareness).
  • Once this becomes established in our solo practice we share this study with a partner, learning from each other across an open bond of physical connection.
    • We open our hearts across a sense of caring for each other with love.
    • We are grounded and then free to make light contact without imposing our imbalance on each other.
    • We learn to follow each other without losing contact.
    • We allow any pressure to pass through us into our root without collapse, while being free moving enough to roll and deflect or return any force directed at us.
  • Resting in that awake conscious state, being responsible for our own balance, we are free from competition and able to serve with Love.
    • We are free of the sadness of judgement.
    • Free of the anger of disconnection.
    • Free of the fear of loss.
  • We respond and move in complete harmony with our partner.
  • Our balanced awake presence provides feedback on our partner’s forcefulness or lack of balance without us needing to impose our own.
    • We don’t push with force. We move with our whole selves while in contact. This becomes gentle feedback, demonstrating where balance is missing. Our presence of contact does the job.
    • There is no striking, because we are already in contact.
    • We are not fighting each other. We work together to grow.
    • Without competition and animosity we discover balance and harmony.

This is why our school has always tied our advanced push hands study with the process of teaching. To establish within ourselves the clear intention of sharing this knowledge for the benefit of all, free of the dialectic of competition. This is the meaning of ‘investment in loss’. We don’t lose when we all learn. Grounding ourselves in our essential unity is the key to success and clears the way to full embodiment of the teaching of Tai Chi, the Supreme Ultimate, inside this art. The chuan is the vehicle for understanding the possibilities of harmony. The true function of the Tai Chi Warrior is to bring peace.

Greg Woodson

September 2014


June 2015 Interview on Push Hands

The following text is an interview with Greg Woodson with questions from Kate Mansfield, also a T’ai Chi Foundation teacher.

Kate:  The way you’re teaching Push Hands (PH) lately seems to be very different to what we’ve had in the school in the past. Where has this come from and why do you feel this shift is important in the progression of our school?
Greg:  The simple answer is that we know more now. Having a deeper embodiment of the principles involved inspires a change in presentation. The teachings have been consistent, but our (my) understanding of them has shifted to a state where I can demonstrate them instead of just talk about them. Importantly, this also includes when I stumble or revert to fearful or forceful reactions, because those moments become a part of my demonstration that others can relate to as well. Accepting myself as a teacher allows me to feel comfortable showing what I know rather than just delivering a curriculum. I want this for all of us!
Kate:  The significant theme seems to be dantien awareness. I love the article by Margaret Olmsted on the T’ai Chi Foundation Teaching Forum where she asked senior teachers about their experience of being in the dantien. If I’m honest, I’m most in my dantien when I’m teaching. In my practice I dip in and out of being there and being in my head. But lately I’ve come to realize that everything must be ‘felt’ from the tan tien. Not just allowing the movement to come from there but allowing the awareness of everything from my feet to my fingertips to be felt from my centre. Can you say a bit about this in the context of PH?
Greg:  Interestingly, I have experienced that my embodiment is enhanced by being in the function of teaching. It is giving. I’ve come to realize lately that I can also give that to myself in my practice and daily life. This is huge! For a more “technical” answer: when my dantian awareness incorporates where I am in space relative to my root, then every point of contact with my partners has a direct relationship to that root. The awareness is key. Then the root comes from letting my weight pour through me to the ground. My response then depends upon my ability to remain in a state of ease, allowing free movement in my hips.
Kate:  Do you have any tips for practicing dantien awareness (in form practice, everyday life, etc.)?
Greg:  Just do it. Or better said, let it happen.
Kate:  It seems to me that when I truly practice my form with dantien awareness it has a much more dynamic quality to it, I become one. Before that I was disconnected, therefore in PH I was disconnected. This came from striving to get the postures ‘right’ even if there was a little twisting, reaching, straining. With relaxation and openness (particularly in the hips) I achieve more with less. How can we teach this to our students whilst maintaining the ‘clarity’ of the form postures?
Greg:  Our ability to demonstrate that dynamic quality is what delivers the message – that it is possible for anyone. The state of being is the essential component. The directions within the form often serve to remind us of how open we can become. It serves our teaching better to demonstrate a quality of oneness, openness that we manifest in that moment while pointing out the possibilities for growth. Contorting ourselves to demonstrate the “correct” position delivers a very different message. We all are challenged to avoid the pitfall of promoting the dialectic of right v. wrong.
Kate:  Listening to and moving with my PH partner requires a quality of contact which often eludes me. I’m either too hard (allowing tension to build up whilst I’m ‘working out what to do’) or too soft (collapsing and not ‘owning my space’). What is needed for good listening contact?
Greg:  Listening contact in this context is a function of open hearted compassion. That is constantly challenged by our ego reactions. Establishing awareness, root and easy mobility sets up the security many of us need to open our hearts. The example in your question clearly points to two of the big three types of ego responses we all experience in our PH practice and life.
Kate:  How can I overcome barriers such as ‘I’m not doing it right’, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘he’s pushing me’ and other ego stuff that comes up?
Greg:  Remembering that you have an alternative to (over)reaction is key. Returning to the state of dantian awareness is the practice. We can allow our thinking mind to remind us of our non-thinking mind. This is a positive use for thought, rather than self-judgement.
Kate:  Sometimes I find that I just want to ‘give up’ and be pushed or revert to the security of the ‘routine’. I’m also conscious that despite not wanting to push, the trying to make something happen manifests as force. Help?
Greg:  It is essential to remember that as human beings we have all that is needed to embody Tai Chi (the universal principle). Being present allows us to physically respond to our partner’s action without making something happen ourselves. You’ve captured it when you notice that “trying to make something happen manifests as force.” An almost identical motion, even if ‘successful’, has a different effect. An ego action/reaction feels different than a response from principle. Beware of falling into routine in PH as it often becomes sleep. The sequence of moves in the ZMQ PH we practice is there to practice possibilities, not take the place of an actual alive response in the moment to what is actually happening. Dancing is fun. Do it elsewhere.
Kate:  How can I shift my approach to PH so its not about winning and losing?
Greg:  The real win is when both partners deepen their appreciation of their ability to work in principle by helping each other. When practicing with this spirit, the result is clear feedback based in shared intention to relax.
Kate:  I recognize that my issues with PH reflect back at me my ‘tendencies’ in life. How can I use PH to work through these issues and how can other work on these areas help my PH?
Greg:  You’ve nailed it here. When you become aware of your reactionary tendencies in PH you start to see the same mechanisms operate in other types of interactions in daily life. Your ability to relax and respond is your guide. Meditative work brings perspective on the relative (un)importance of our ego reactions. This is a hugely useful quality to invite into our lives. In depth meditative-based work on recognizing ego mechanisms as offered by the Arica School® has been a key part of my growth in this.
Kate:  In our school we learn ‘techniques’ at different stages of the PH curriculum. How important are these?
Greg:  All of the ‘techniques’ that we use are meant as demonstrations of how principle works. They point to something deeper, without having great importance themselves.
Kate:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Perhaps to those who feel ‘uncomfortable’ with PH or feel stuck?
Greg:  Be good to yourself. Find where you can relax and work from there. Ego reduction is the grand challenge of life. Embracing PH practice in this light transforms the angst of ego reaction into an enlightening shared process that brings happiness. When we listen to the little negative voices it sucks all the fun right out of it. We get to choose.

My understanding of tai chi comes from the shining example of Zheng Manqing via the transmission of his students with whom I’ve worked. The deeper sense of understanding tai chi’s usefulness as a tool for ego reduction and transmission of Love I attribute to my studies with the Arica School®, founded by Oscar Ichazo.

© 2015 Blue Tiger Way.
Arica School® is a registered trademark of Oscar Ichazo. Used with permission.