When first introduced to pushing hands the student will already have some grasp of the solo form and the all-important principles which underly it. They will be able to keep their head up (as if suspended from above), their coccyx tucked under, their hips open and relaxed, their chest sunk and their shoulders rounded and so on. That is to say they will know that these are the principles that should be adhered to. The basic pushing hands routines will reinforce the students' efforts to realise these principles in their form.

With the help of a partner who provides an actual force which has to be neutralised, the student is faced with a graphic illustration of why the body must be kept straight to provide an axis around which turns may be made. The hips must be kept open and relaxed so that incoming force may be avoided.

At the same time the student sees how correct alignment of the body, achieved through forms practice, provides him or her with the ability to form a firm connection with the ground; a root as it is known to taijiquan exponents.

While practising basic routines the student is urged to use the minimum necessary force to neutralise and deflect the partner's force. As the taijiquan maxim has it, "four ounces must be used to deflect a thousand pounds". The student will be reminded that the figure is four and not zero ounces every time an arm collapses and his or her partner is able to push directly against the body.

The mental intent or 'yi' is also trained as the student learns to concentrate not only on what they are doing but also on what they intend to do. Lapses in such concentration will inevitably result in loss of balance.

Thus basic pushing hands training routines develop and reinforce the positive habits fostered through correct form practice. The next stage is freestyle pushing hands where students learn to stick, connect, adhere and follow the unpredictable free-flowing movements of a partner no longer constrained by set pattems. lt is important to remember, however, that although the pattems may no longer be there the principles must still be adhered to.

Exponents of some approaches to taijiquan do not see the need for freestyle training; indeed they often argue that such training develops bad habits and does little to develop true taijiquan skill. Proponents of this argument prefer instead to place a continued emphasis on training set routines with strict attention to such martial aspects as distancing, positioning and timing.

Arguments in favour of freestyle point out that all of the aspects mentioned above should also be present in freestyle and that the exponent should always bear in mind that pushing hands is a training exercise which serves as a means to an end. The end in this case being the development of taijiquan skill. The argument continues that those who feel set routines alone develop skill, should be able to use their skill in a freestyle format, something which a great many of them seem either reluctant or unable to do. When pushing with a partner who at any time might sweep, throw, elbow, shoulder, push or lock you does much to sharpen concentration and to ensure that both offensive and defensive skills are honed.

What then are the dangers associated with the practise of freestyle pushing hands. First and foremost it can allow the development of bad habits. There is a danger that when paying attention to the root the student becomes too reliant on it, holding positions that in taijiquan terms are untenable since they rely upon overuse of force. This occurs when the partner's force is taken into the ground but the recipient is forced to use a greater degree of resistance than is good for his body. This in turn results in a breakdown of the physical structure required to allow the root to work. This means that the defender has to use even more force to hold his position and so on.

In fact once the exponent has developed the ability to root, this skill should be used primarily when exerting force (fa jing) and not in a defensive role. At the moment that you wish to fa jlng the connect ion to the earth should be made through the foot thus borrowing the strength of the earth'.

To prevent an over-reliance on the root the following maxim should be observed: "if you can neutralise do so; if you can't, defend; if you can't defend, leave".

This means that the initial response to an incoming force should be soft and the root disguised; if this doesn't work then the root may be revealed, and if that doesn't work then you should move.

The second major danger is that freestyle pushing hands becomes a measure of the exponent's taijiquan ability. Pushing the partner over is regarded as winning while being unbalanced is taken as being an indication of loss. With such an attitude the exponent's whole attention becomes focussed on trying to find ways and means of knocking the opponent over. This in itself is not wholly a bad thing for after all taijiquan is a martial art and the defeat of the opponent must be the ultimate aim. But while training the important thing is that the opponent/partner must be unbalanced or knocked over using recognisable taijiquan skills. This then begs the question: what are taijiquan skills?

The taiji philosophy is based on the relationship between two opposing yet complementary forces; yin and yang. At the heart of taijiquan's training method lies the premise that the hard and fast may be developed from the soft and slow. The taijiquan exponent seeks to 'move last and arrive first'; or to put it less poetically to depend upon superior timing rather than greater speed. Furthermore our taijiquan practitioner seeks to use the minimum amount of force necessary to defeat the opponent; the main concem is with conservation rather than expenditure of energy.

In order both to achieve optimum timing and to take advantage of the opponent's momentum and force, the taijiquan exponent must develop superior tactile sensitivity; what in Chinese is referred to as listening (ting) and understanding (dong) energy so that on the slightest contact with the opponent his or her intention and force are discemed, neutralised and effectively turned around. If this sounds too esoteric consider the skills of a competent fencer, wrestler or judoka as both ting and dong jing are very much a part of their repertoire.

So to return to the practice of freestyle pushing hands if it is simply regarded as a competition there is little room for the development of the skills described above. Instead both exponents should endeavour to be not only critical of each other's perfonnance but also of their own. Are they genuinely developing and using taijiquan skill? Is there an overreliance on brute force? And so on.

In order to put pushing hands in perspective as a part of the taijiquan curriculum as a whole the exponent must consider how the skills they are developing may actually be applied. As mentioned earlier the root once developed is predominantly used when issuing power. This the student may test by punching or otherwise striking a pad held by a partner. The partner should provide feedback by describing the force that he or she feels. The power should feel as if it is going right through the pad and into the partner's body.

Ting jing and dong jing may be practised in application whereby the partner attacks and the exponent intercepts their attacking limb applying just enough force so that they can feel where the attacker's balance and centre of gravity lies. Then they may counter. If they have succeeded in finding their opponent's weak point it should be deceptively easy to cause them to lose their balance.

From time to time punches and strikes as well as sweeps, throws and trips should be allowed while practising freestyle pushing hands. This ensures that the exponent keeps a clear awareness of the potential dangers in allowing an opponent in too close. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that the situation does not develop into a free for all where taijiquan skills are completely ignored.

To sum up then pushing hands is a two-person practice which allows the taijiquan practitioner to develop, use and test the skills learnt through solo form practice. These skills may then be refined and applied against a range of attacks in a more freestyle situation thus enabling the exponent to see exactly how the art may best be used.

Nigel Sutton is the author of Applied Tai Chi Chuan (A&C Black 1990) and Tai Chi Chuan Roots and Branches (Tuttle 1996).

 

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