Push Hands – A Beginners’ Guide

Some students who begin learning tai chi are totally surprised by the introduction of a strange partner practice called pushing hands. They are simply minding their own business, doing everything the teacher says, practising at home every day, learning the moves of the form and feeling quite pleased with the results. They may have been attracted to tai chi in the first place because it is a solo pursuit.  They have no particular desire to interact with others.
Pushing hands, for them, is a total surprise.

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For some students, the surprise turns immediately into pleasure. For others, confusion and embarrassment. To see what some of the factors might be, I’ll make up a little story about Jane and Bill by way of illustration.  Be assured, this is not just mindless fiction. This story is based on compilations from a sampling of hundreds of students.

Jane is fascinated by the pushing hands demonstration her teacher does with one of the advanced students. The teacher explains the mechanics of single pushing hands. Then the class is invited to find partners in order to try it out. Jane looks around eagerly for a partner.  She had been a tom-boy as a girl and loves the idea of trying out this push. She is less excited, however, about the yield , not really understanding what it is.  Bill, on the other hand, hates the idea of pushing or being pushed. He had been bullied as a child in the playground and even the word push  sends shivers up his spine.  Also, he had raced to class on his bike and had worked up a sweat. He was deeply concerned about the state of his arm-pits and passed his nose over his shoulder to check.
The situation could not have been worse.

Yes it could. He saw Jane walking right towards him. He had liked the look of her from the first day of the class but had always managed to stand far away from her, partly so he could see all of her at once, and partly from shyness.

“Would you like to work with me?” Jane asks.
What could he say?  “Sure.”

Bill tried to remember which hand and which foot the teacher had put forward and if the partner had had the same or opposite hands and feet. He began to sweat more but Jane just picked up one of his hands and they seemed to have begun before he could even settle his mind on his own first question. She was forging ahead, deciding if the palm should be out or in, or the touch should be firm or soft, if the push should be able to be felt, or just sort of sensed, and Bill was still trying to dissect the hand-foot arrangement of the demonstrators. He didn’t dare think about his own body at all, or what Jane might be thinking
about him or his body.

Jane did have a few thoughts about Bill, of course.  She thought he could have smelled better.  She thought he wasn’t paying attention. She thought he was preoccupied, nervous and not at all interested in her or in the exercise.  She tried to help him relax and get his mind on what they were doing by talking. She described what they were doing, as they did it. Bill hated this.  Then their wrists lost contact. Bill apologised and Jane said, “No, it was my fault.” and then they started to laugh. Bill noticed that Jane bites her finger nails and he wondered why such a confident and sweet smelling person could have such a nervous habit.  Jane  noticed that she liked the shape of Bill’s knuckles. She knew that he rode a bike to the class and wondered if he wore cycling gloves.  She guessed not. His hands were tough and masculine. Neither of them wore rings and they both noticed this.

You may wonder what kind of a medium I am writing this article for.  It sounds like the first chapter of a romance. Let me assure you right now, it is. All human interactions are a romance of one kind or another because the arena (two people) is the same and the opportunities for projecting are endless. The activities between the two people may differ but the stuff of how humans interact with each other is all the same.

Let’s leave Bill and Jane for a minute.  They’ll be doing whatever it is human beings do.  Learning tai chi, sweating, riding bikes, biting finger nails and drinking beer. They don’t need us hanging around.

We have more serious business to examine. What is the stuff of these interactions– the meaning, the understanding, the answer to the question, “Why would anyone do pushing hands at all, especially someone who isn’t particularly interested in fighting.?” (Confession: this is my favourite question.)

Pushing hands is the reality factor of a tai chi practice, as well as being a metaphor for all human interactions. We can kid ourselves till the cows come home that we are centerd, rooted, relaxed, responsive, soft, yielding in both body and mind, egoless and compassionate.  We are not competitive, controlling or revengeful. Not until, that is, our partner pushes us to the floor and our pride kicks in and we manage to undo and reverse the entire string of attributes listed above.  Well well well. Here’s a whole new ball game and not every player is ready although the game has already begun.  When someone pushes you, you are in the game of pushing, like it or not.

Let’s look at this game, this jewel of a microcosm of events between two people. “I act, you respond.  You act, I respond. ” For beginners in pushing hands, this is the principle we are attempting to internalise.  Later, when we become more expert, we can say what the tai chi classics say, “When my opponent moves, I move first.” That takes a little longer.

I see it like this. Our aim in pushing hands (as in most of life’s interactions) is to act in response to action without creating resistance.  If there is no resistance, then any conflict is automatically neutralised. If we become one with the opposing force, then the force is already powerless. If there is nothing to push against, there is no conflict. I promise you, the understanding of pushing hands is as simple as these few sentences. As long as there are two forces in opposition, there will be conflict. When the two forces are brought into one, the conflict is resolved.  (Don’t miss the life metaphor here. It is because of this basic metaphor that pushing hands is so useful to us as we live our lives.)  It is not that the potential conflict vanishes into thin air.  It is that the neutralised conflict follows the natural way of things.

Enter Taoism. The natural way of things is the way of change.  Fullness dissipates naturally and begins to empty.  Emptiness augments naturally and moves toward fullness.  Our job as artful beings is not to interrupt the natural cycle of change.  In fact, we must join it.  So, pushing hands offers us a chance (not real like life, but real like bodies) to experiment and eventually understand how yin and yang perform their trick of becoming each other.

Let’s look at the cycle of a push. The weight moves forward. The push is in contact with the partner. The perfect forward stance is achieved by the pusher. The other person has moved his or her weight back over the back foot and may be feeling the strain in that leg, but the singley-weighted body is ready to turn easily. Then what happens? Well, if the receiver has managed to draw in and deflect the push, then the maximum power of that push has reached its fullness without making contact with the centre of the receiver and the push begins to dissipate of its own accord. Also, of its own accord, the yielding position begins to grow into the return of a push. The activities of push and yield have turned themselves over without effort.

There is nothing mystical pushing hands. We would all be more skilful in doing it if we were not so loaded up with armouring and tension which block our ability to let go inside our own bodies. The effectiveness of our pushing hands is directly related to our ability to relax inside ourselves.  This shows up in two ways. The first one is that the more we can drop our weight and attention, the more we can collect our energy into one point and let the fullness of that collection release into an expression of power. Some tai chi players call this loading the spring.  The more you can let yourself sink inside, the more the coiled energy will release effortlessly. Years of practise are required to understand the subtleties of this uprooting skill in pushing hands. Timing becomes the art and regular practise with a trusted partner is essential.

The other way relaxation shows up is in the training of listening energy. At least half of the practice of pushing hands is focused on this activity. It sounds kind of vague, “listening energy”.  but it is very specific. Imagine a telephone conversation in which you had only the mouth piece working. You could talk all you liked, but you could never hear what the other person said in response. If you kept on talking you might get further and further away from any real communication with the other person. (Of course, we can recognise this stereotype, the mouth-piece-only sort of person. Not ourselves, of course!)

PHMx-1One more little story before we get back to Bill and Jane.  This story is from a student, Betty, who came on a holiday tai chi course I was teaching in Spain.  I had explained pushing hands, pretty much as I have just written about it here. She practically jumped up, saying  “Yes, I know what you mean.  It is just like my job.”  which she then described.  Her job was to take telephone complaints for a mail order merchandise company.  Her strategy was to listen to the customer and not interrupt.  After enumerating the complaints, the customer would say, “Are you still there?” to which Betty would reply.  “Oh yes, but I wasn’t sure if you had finished yet.  Is there anything else you would like to say?”  The customer would add a few more details and then Betty would say, “Yes, I’m listening.  Is there anything else you’d like to add?”  By this time, the customer was about ready to say something good, like, “Well, at least you sent the right colour. It’s my favourite.”  We all agreed that her job was just like pushing hands. She knew how to stick and listen.

Some courage is required.  It is the courage to stick and believe that change will occur.  The person yielding to a push needs to have faith that the push will not go on forever.  This courage is developed slowly by some students and some already have it.  It depends a lot on what kind of emotional and physical experiences there were in the past.  Remember Bill and Jane?  They each have quite stable backgrounds and even they came to their first pushing hands experience with some baggage.  Imagine if someone had been physically or sexually abused in the past.  The time needed to develop trust might be longer. One of the ways players become more at ease in pushing hands is by gaining confidence in their own stance.  They feel better because they know they can stand their own ground.  Then their bodies begin to relax more, listen more. The support of their fellow students begins to dissolve their fears.  Trust emerges from this goodwill and the pleasure begins.  Soon there is eager willingness to engage with another and wait for the changes to occur. Pushing hands becomes a fascinating model for all interactions.  It’s a powerful teacher you can never fool. The practice either works or it doesn’t. The results are clear.

Do you know the tai chi legend of the two great Masters who have agreed to a pushing hands competition in public? Both had reputations as great fighters, both were thought to be unbeatable. They stood close to each other, touching along the lengths of each other’s arms and didn’t move. They stayed like this a long time while the crowd watched, hardly daring to breathe. Then the two Masters stood back from each other and bowed. The fight was over and only they knew who had won.

Bill and Jane meantime have learned the pattern of single pushing and also double pushing. Bill takes a shower after work and leaves more time to get to class. When they push hands together, Jane has stopped being so quick and bossy because she realises it makes Bill nervous.  She waits for him to choose which hand and foot he wants to use.  Bill has noticed that because his arms are so much longer than Jane’s, he doesn’t have to push as far as she does to create a challenging push.  He came to this understanding by pushing her over, though she was attempting to yield in the correct way by turning her whole body.  She likes the way he adapted to her short arms without being asked.  In fact, what they both have come to like about pushing hands is that they are learning a lot about each other and about themselves without having to speak.  They are usually quiet when they push together, though sometimes they laugh. They would be hard pressed to put into words what it was that was so funny.

Aspects of Tai Chi

Author: Linda Chase Broda

Images: Linda Chase Broda and Ronnie Robinson