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


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