The Secrets of Taiji Push Hands
Push hands (tui shou 推手) is a measure or test of taiji skill during two-person forms practice. It is also called striking hands (da shou 打手 ).
Taijiquan push hands is the comprehensive application of many techniques of the taijiquan form such as punching, grasping, voiding, shaking, bursting, and releasing. It is the flexible application of what are often described as the five movements and eight methods. The five movements are going forward (entering), going backward (leaving), looking left, looking right and rooting in the center (standing still). The eight methods are peng, lü, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao. In push hands practice, the eight methods (八法) refer to both hand and body techniques. Among these, the four direct (straight) hands (zheng shou 正手 ) are the basic methods; the four indirect (corner) hands (yu shou 隅手) are supplementary methods. Often, these methods are effective at winning. Going forward, going backward, looking left, looking right and rooting in the center must contain the way of moving the body and the way of stepping.
In push hands, peng strength is primary. The so called “peng” strength, which comes from (is obtained by) a long period of practicing taijiquan which includes tui shou practice, is a kind of expressive strength (tan dou jin 弹抖劲)[i] containing hardness and softness. This kind of strength is also called combined strength (hunyuan jin 浑源劲).
The strategy of taijiquan push hands is to overcome moving with stillness (not moving); to rest while the opponent becomes exhausted. When you have the advantage, make full use of it. When you have the advantage, use movement to overcome movement without hesitation or delay. Fa jin (发劲) means to use the internal strength from the dan tian either to throw the opponent out or to upset his balance and cause him to fall down. Therefore, fa jin is the most important technique in push hands. Taiji push hands emphasizes the kind of fa jin that if you don’t strike, that’s fine; if you do, your strike should be accurate and on target. It includes many kinds of grabbing techniques which are used according to whatever is appropriate for the situation.
Two sentences from the taiji classics read:
“Lead the opponent into emptiness, connect, and send the opponent away. When the force is leading or moving in the same direction, four ounces can deflect one thousand pounds.”
These two lines both refer to the use of fa jin. The premise is to “lead the opponent into emptiness” so that his force dissolves, his body is emptied, and his mind is emptied. When he has been emptied, grasp this opportunity to strike and you will succeed. Therefore, during taiji push hands you must pay attention to how to dissolve force; you must dissolve force skillfully. In this way, then, you can use fa jin accurately.
First of all, when you begin practicing push hands, you should practice with your partner continuous bending and stretching using single-hand contact. This kind of practice helps rotate your waist and arms to get rid of stiffness. Second, you need to move on to ward off (peng), pull down (lü), press (ji) and push (an), practicing these four methods (si fa 四法) with a fixed step (ding bu 定步) and with a backward step (tui bu 退步). Third, you need to move on to twist (cai), split (lie), elbow strike (zhou), and shoulder strike (kao), practicing these four methods repeatedly with a moving step (huo bu 后步). In this practice either side can walk freely to feel the opponent’s force; to follow or to strike. You should not lose contact or use too much force; be flexible and at ease with your movements[ii].
In push hands, the whole body must be well coordinated. This means the upper body and the lower body must work together. Every part of the body should well connected. When two people are practicing together, the contact area automatically changes into round shape. The waist leads the whole body. It leads the upper body from the spine to the back, to the elbows and to the hands. It leads the lower body from the hips to the thighs, to the knees and to the feet. So when one part is moving, all parts move.
The techniques of push hands are real gongfu fighting applications developed for winning over the opponent by overcoming. People often use the phrase “brush aside one thousand pounds of force with four ounces of strength” to describe the techniques of taiji push hands. To master these techniques, however, is absolutely not easy. If you want to be able to do it, not only must you know yourself and your opponent fully but you must also have unusual taiji gongfu. When you achieve a high level of gongfu, you will find push hands is an easy and routine part of practice.
Stand with your body very steady, hold your center, defend your border, appear confident and calm, wait in stillness for movement. Gain control by letting the opponent start first; whatever movement the opponent makes, stick to him. Any part of your body touched by the opponent becomes round and every other part can respond. Stick to the opponent, without loosing contact. From beginning to end, be light, flexible and sensitive, weighing accurately the length (short or long), direction, speed and amount (size, extent)[iii] of your opponent’s incoming strength. Then, after sizing up the opponent’s strength, select his back stance, borrow strength according to the posture, “lead the opponent into emptiness, connect, and send the opponent away,” so that you reach a level of being able to send out your hand and have it be effective.
Neither losing contact nor using too much force
Taiji push hands emphasizes first dissolving the opponent’s strength and then striking. Before striking, you should create a situation in which you are in a favorable position and your opponent is in a back stance. Then, when you have created the situation, strike hard in the direction he is going. Practicing not using too much force (bu ding 不顶 ) does not mean that you do not use force or that you allow the opponent to do whatever he wants to do to you. It means that during push hands, you can adapt according to the need, moving forward or backward; attacking or defending. You can use your feelings to listen to the opponent’s way of using strength, then, according to the movement of the opponent, decide to attack or to defend. Not using too much force means when the opponent moves in, you should step back; when the opponent is hard, you become soft. Not losing contact means to follow the opponent’s movement, when he steps back, you move in. Also, these are the steps between dissolving and striking. Although these two actions are opposite in direction and function, if we look at the movement as having a round shape, the opposites become compliments; unbroken, complimentary, and continuous movements.
Not losing contact also means you do not leave the opponent nor do you allow the opponent to leave. Also, this functions to bring the opponent into emptiness. This also functions in sticking to the opponent so that he cannot get loose. Thus, you force the opponent into an unfavorable situation or you force him into an off-balance position, so you can use fa jin to send the opponent away. Although the methods of taiji push hands have many changes, most of them depend on the alternating use of not losing contact and not using too much force.
Strength is disconnected; intent remains connected
During push hands, because one side or the other uses either too much or not enough strength, both people’s hands and arms can suddenly break contact. When this happens, you don’t have to start over. Rather in the situation when both people’s hands lose contact, you should continue with “not losing contact, not stopping, not using too much force, not separating” as imagined[iv] movements, to restore the original shape to both people’s hands and arms. In push hands, because there are many chances for this kind of thing to happen, you must practice conscientiously; you should not quit or give up. If you cannot imagine receiving his strength, you will be controlled by your opponent. Therefore, you should frequently practice keeping the connection in your mind (imagination) when your strength is disconnected. You can also improve your receptive skills and, through imagination, your ability to dissolve an opponent’s attack.
Combine hardness with softness
Taijiquan stresses softness rather than hardness not only for the reason that softness can overcome hardness, but mainly because you want to prevent making mistakes in your fighting techniques — “double mistakes.” Double mistakes means that you know how to use hardness, but not softness; or you know how to use softness, but not hardness. If two people push hands using hard strength, the one with less strength will be controlled by the one with greater strength or both will be defeated, both injured. During tui shou, if you only know retreating and avoiding but you don’t know how to attack, then you cannot follow the principle of using hardness combined with softness and using softness to overcome hardness. Taijiquan movements must follow a curved line. This principle was created to facilitate the changes in movement from hard to soft or soft to hard. When applying this principle, the cycle of hardness and softness has no end; so first, you can use this to avoid unnecessary sacrifice in the conflict and then you can use softness to dissolve the opponent’s force. By using softness to dissolve hardness you can discover whether the opponent’s strength is real or not. Then, according to the advantage you gain, attack immediately. As to walking along a curved line, it may seem slower than walking along a straight line, but movement along a curved line can change at any moment. Sometimes it can be even quicker than walking along a straight line. In internal boxing, the saying: “to start late but arrive first” comes from this. These fighting techniques of using “hardness combined with softness; attack and defense are both okay” are characteristic of internal boxing.
Using small to overcome big
This is the practical application of the law of mechanics as used in taijiquan. During the movement, adding strength or decreasing strength; from having strength to suddenly change into having no strength is called “empty strength” (kong jin 空劲). The purpose is to make the opponent fall into emptiness; to upset the opponent’s center; or by first dissolving then sticking, to force the opponent into an unfavorable position, then strike according to the position. without using hard strikes or using hard force to move forward. At the moment when the opponent’s body center is the least steady, only one strike can easily make the opponent fall down. If the opponent strikes you with strong force, you can gently pull him in the same direction as he is moving to change the incoming force slightly so it changes from a straight line into a slanted line. This can immediately make the opponent’s force fall into emptiness so that it loses its effect. This is how you can use a small force to counter a big force from the opponent.
In taiji push hands “not using your self[v] but following the other person” is a fundamental idea. However, in push hands practice the easiest mistakes you can make are just the opposite of this: using too much force, resisting, sticking out or sinking in. You are using too much force when you use more than what is needed; resisting when you cannot stick to the opponent; sticking out when you are not round, smooth, and continuous; sinking in when your movement can not reach your opponent.
When you begin practicing push hands, you must be guided by a knowledgeable teacher to overcome these mistakes. In practice, you must connect your upper body and lower body, connecting through the whole body. Then you can use combined force and internal strength to move the opponent’s center, add force to the opponent’s force, sometimes use dissolving strength, sometimes use fa jin. All these should be used when the opponent’s center is not steady.
In general, during taiji push hands you should always add your force to your opponent’s force at the appropriate time, and in the same direction as the opponent’s force; using the combined force to increase the effect of the attack on the opponent. This is the method of borrowing the opponent’s force for your purpose. In taijiquan, this is the key to using small to overcome big.
[i] 弹抖劲 tan dou jin – expressive strength – meaning is that kind of expressed, shaking or coiled strength which can be demonstrated by a coiled spring. both the idea of expression and the idea of shaking or vibration are included.
[ii] 灵活自如 linghou ziru – linghou means to be flexible; ziru means freely, here with the connotation to be so experienced with a movement or set of movements that you can relax and perform them easily, without having to think about them.
[iii] 大小 da xiao – literally ‘big small’ refers to the extent or limit of the opponent’s movement. How big or how small is the movement?
[iv] the idea here is to have an image or picture in the mind of the shape of the movement, the position, the pattern, etc. so that even if the opponent is not where he should be at the time (for the exercise) you both continue the pattern. This also applies to more open practice with the idea of staying connected with the opponent even though you may not be in physical contact. visualizing the connection; feeling the connection
[v] not using your own energy but rather borrowing and using the energy from your opponent; not using your own initiative re: initiating movement – the opponent moves first, I arrive first.