How does Tai Chi pushing hands work?
Combat and self defence can simply be viewed as a battle of wills as well as the changes and uses of physical forces. In Tai Chi Chuan we have an entire repertoire of exercises designed to train you in the deployment of the Ba Jin (eight powers) for offence and defence. The classics refer to ability in using and defending agains the different types of forces as simply ‘understanding force’.
There are eight different pushing hands exercises. The name pushing hands is a little misleading as the hands, arms and entire body are involved in applying and neutralising the different manifestations of the 8 powers. Each of the styles develops and trains the use of one or more of the Ba Jin. Some of the styles are done in fixed positions and some use and train footwork methods.
A feather cannot be placed,
and a fly cannot alight
on any part of the body.
This phrase from the classics is letting us know that we ought to practice in a way that builds extreme sensitivity to not only changes but also the physical sense of touch with our opponent. Whatever part of our body is in contact with a partner or opponent should be feeding us information, to which we can make a response.
Ting Jin Is what we call ‘listening’. It means to put all your observational capacity into reading an opponent. All senses can be involved theoretically, though in pushing hands we are for the most part working with the sense of feel. I observe many students holding their bodies’ whilst training in a stiff and unreceptive manner. This isn’t how it should be done. Any time you are in contact with an opponent you should have a very soft sense of touch, almost like that of a masseur, who is trying to feel for muscles and knots and so on. We are trying to be similarly receptive to any information the opponents body may be giving us about their intended action. Each of your sense can provide specific types of information about the opponents intention. By developing a highly sensitive sense oft touch we can know the directions and magnitude of the force.
Hua Jin is your ability to neutralise the oncoming force of the opponent. In Tai chi we will analyse this through the lens of the eight powers. The important thing is to initially ‘ting’ the force effectively, then apply the most efficient technique or combination of techniques to neutralise it, with minimal effort and whilst maintain good positioning. We can neutralise an attack by using our arms (or legs) but also using our body. It is generally better to deal with an oncoming force early, so to have our limbs extended as a kind of early warning system, we can listen and neutralise incoming blows and forces at an early stage. Exercises such as foo yang train the body to become sensitive and to neutralise forces at a later stage.
Fa Jin is your ability to discharge force. This can be hard a fast power, like a knockout strike, or a long and slow power such as a push that moves somebody a long distance. There is something called a force velocity curve that can help people to understand the relationship between speed, force and power. But for our purposes you simply want to become adept at issuing force in all three dimensions, fluidly and smoothly, whilst keeping perfect balance and positioning, getting as much from your personal physical attributes as you can, through efficient coordination of your mechanics.
The chin [intrinsic strength] should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers.
You must practice pushing hands drills with an awareness of each of these three aspects, continually refining your sensitivity, spontaneity and body mechanics.
As you practice the pushing hands exercises it is important to play with variances in pressure and force as well as speed and rhythm.
Four directions – Si Zhengfang pushing hands
Empty the left wherever a pressure appears,
and similarly the right.
Start practicing four directions pushing hands by first of all understanding the two extreme stances used. The first is the sitting stance where all the weight is on the back foot with the centre of gravity low. The front leg is straight but not locked, with the toes off the ground, making the heel the pivot point for our rotational movement. Study carefully the optimal alignment of the hip ankle and knee.
The initial beginning practice of four directions trains the use of ji as well as lu. As you move forward into the front stance you apply ji by pushing straight towards your partner. Your partner moves backwards and diverts the attack by using lu. They then return the favour and provide you a ji to the chest which you should therefore neutralise with lu. The hand that doesn’t strike is held slightly away from the body, by the throat’ in a guard.
Smooth movement is important from the initial stage of practice. Make sure balance is perfect as you move through the changes of stance and turn your waist to attack or divert. Ensure that the body is employed as one whole unit.
The other thing to understand is that your hands should control the wrist and also the elbow on every single repetition. This ensures that in chaotic combat situations your body will always instinctively find these advantageous control points.
Once you have mastered the basic lu/ji method of practice you should begin to use peng and an also. To do this make the first attack go in a straight forward line, towards the head or chest of your partner and make the second attack go downwards (An) towards their groin or abdomen. The defender should divert the ji strike with and upwards motion (peng) and the downwards strike with a sideways lu. As you practice continuously the sequence takes on a fluid circular feel.
So you will in the sequence be doing a two strike followed by two diversions, and repeat. This practice can be continued indefinitely though should be done for at least several minutes.
I believe there is a lot of benefit in being highly aware of which of the four forces we are using and developing the best possible body mechanics for each as we practice.
spontaneity and change
The Tai Chi classics tell us that ‘Fundamentally, it is giving up yourself to follow others’. This means that in all of our training methods we should develop this quality and continuously work on the idea of becoming able to immediately change to changes in circumstance.
In the four directions exercise we do this by introducing changes of hand, so that the lead strike rhythm is changed. For example if you lead with the right strike, when you are in the yang position and have performed your strike rather than perform the left strike start to pull back, giving the partner a subtle pull on their arm. This will signal a change. They will then follow you and perform what will be their initial strike, followed by their second strike. Your next strike will be with your left hand which has become your lead strike in the sequence. Either partner can initiate changes as regularly as they wish. Try to become as sensitive and responsive to these changes as you can.
When you have achieved some skill in all the above you can finally add changes of stance. This is accomplished by stepping forwards or backwards as you practice the four directions drill at any time. Again as with the changes of hand, this will help to further develop your ability to be sensitive to and feel changes in what the opponent is doing and also develop the mindset of following changes.
Four directions pushing hands is a good place to practice certain applications, particularly sweeps, throws and locking techniques.
Seven star stepping pushing hands – Qi Xing
Sinking to one side allows movement to flow;
being double-weighted is sluggish.
Seven star step is a fundamental footwork concept in Tai Chi Chuan that allows you to efficiently change your position in a smooth and balanced way. It is often employed as a sidestep to straight line frontal attacks, though the angle of use can be modified to make it a fluid step for retreating and advancing also.
The practice of the pushing hands exercise involves stepping in a zig zagging pattern, forwards seven times and then backwards seven times. To begin with step towards your left at a forty five degree angle. All the weight will be on the left foot. The right foot is weightless, though the ball of the foot may rest in good alignment by the left. Next repeat the same thing with the right leg.
Once you have done seven steps in a forward manner, reverse the movement and practice moving backwards in the same way.
Once you have mastered the footwork its time to add the hand techniques. As you move forward into the initial left step use the whole body and turn of the waist to produce a straight line ji strike. As you step to the right you will do the same thing with your left hand. The hand that doesn’t strike is held slightly away from the body, by the throat’ in a guard.
For the backwards stepping part, you will use both hands in a sweeping defensive motion, which will be diverting your partners attacks to the side using Lu. Stepping to the right will imply a right rotation of the body, stepping left will employ a left turn.
To partner using this exercise the attacker initially steps to the left and moves forward with a ji strike to his partners chest. The defender will move backwards to the right and will apply lu, controlling the wrist and elbow. The attacker then moves to their right, striking with the left, to which the defender responds by moving the same way, intercepting and diverting the strike. Repeat the sequence for at least 5 minutes, but again can be practiced indefinitely.
Seven star step can provide significant cardiovascular conditioning is the speed of movement and adequately deep postures are used.
Don’t lean in any direction;
This advice from the classics is very useful for both the attacker and defender, try to keep the shoulders level and make full use of the rotational capability of the waist in both attacking and defending.
Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and
move like a turning wheel.
Far too many people seem too high and stilted when practicing the stepping exercises. Sink nice and low to lower your centre of gravity and fluidly shift your weight between steps. Work to get to the point where movements feel completely comfortable, smooth and never lose balance.
Bow Down, Look Up – Foo Yang pushing hands
Foo yang trains you to follow an opponents force in a vertical way. It’s a fixed step method that uses the same two stances as the four directions exercise. With the same foot forward you face your partner, moving into a two handed Ji push toward their chest. The partner receiving the push should wait until they feel the pressure of the push and start to bend back, following the motion of the push. At this point the partner who has absorbed the push should control the wrists and start to move them down their own torso. Once you reach a point where you can fold in with the pressure, do so, moving only as far as you need to to render the pressure ineffective. Keep control of the wrists and move the hands down your legs and then off you. The person applying the pushing pressure should not resist their parents attempts to move their hands, they should simply supply pressure into their partners’ body.
As you supply the pressure in towards your partner, keep good mechanical alignment through your entire body.
Pictures Foo yang: Being back, bend down, dodging a punch to the head and stab to the body.
Nine palace step
Nine palace step is a footwork drill that incorporates the use of peng, lu, ji and an. The exercise is based on a diamond pattern of movements, where each of the four steps touches a point of the diamond. Start with your left foot froward and step across yourself towards the right, in a cross stepping manner. The stance will be low and weight predominantly on the front left foot. This is the side point of the diamond. The next step will be with the right foot toward the front point of the diamond, again in a cross step. The third step will be a retreating step with the left foot to a back stance, touch the left most sides of the diamond. The final step will be the right foot stepping back to the rearmost point of the diamond into a back stance.
Next add pushes. So as you take the initial step you will push straight ahead (ji), the second cross step will push downwards (an), the third step will feature a tow handed upwards diversion at the wrist and elbow (peng) and the fourth retreat step will have an accompanying lu diversion to the side.
As one partner steps in to attack the other partner retreats and diverts as shown in the images. The retreating steps should be long, smooth and dynamic, helping you to evade your partners attacks. Like the other tuishou exercises it is best down for a reasonably long duration of 10 or more minutes. As well as technical aspects there are conditioning benefits to be gained.
Adding changes is important in this drill for the same reasons as the others. As you are in the yang position with your first push in a sequence, shift your weight into the yin/back stance position. Your partner should move to the yang positioning take a second yang step. The sequence has now changed and should continue. Let the exercises become highly dynamic with as many changes as possible.
Applications can be added as you move through the sequence, with various sweeps and throws possible.
The remaining Wudang Tai Chi Chuan pushing hands drills are;
Zhoul Lu – Forearm/elbow training
This methods trains the skilful use of the forearm and the elbow
Cai Lang – The uprooting wave pushing hands drill
This methods trains you in the use of spiralling force in all three dimensions as well as conceptual methods of uprooting and immediately countering an opponent.
Chin Si – Reeling silk pushing hands (shown above)
Chin Si is designed to develop fluid spiralling movement in your limbs, whilst sharpening your reflexes and evasive skills. It also helps to train what is known as gyrating arm skill. Following pressure in a spiralling manner and then countering immediately.
Da Lu – Four, cournsers, five steps and eight gates pushing hands.
Da Lu further develops footwork and stepping skills, whilst training spiralling, uprooting elbow and shoulder skill. It is also known as ‘great diversion’
Tai Chi Chuan close range concepts
Tai Chi Chuan provides us with five important concepts to understand and use when training any and all of the close quarter exercises or fighting skills.
Keep revisiting these and remember to use the ideas in practice.
1 Nian: This means to stick with your opponent. Once you have made contact with him or her, train yourself to stick to them almost like glue. If you have contact with them you can feel their intent and respond more quickly. At close quarters your eyes will not be able to be relied upon to feed you enough information so you have to make and keep contact.
2 Lian: Make your movements continuous. Defence should move straight into attack, which should move straight into defence. If one attack is neutralised, you should immediately and continuously change into another, flowing from technique to technique.
The free flower picking drill trains you to do this, continually attacking the gaps that open and close in your partners’ defences. Sensitivity is required to know which of your techniques are successful and when you should change to another movement.
3 Mian: Softness is required to achieve a high level of physical and mental sensitivity. Stiffness is the enemy here and will reduce your ability to feel what your opponent intends to do and will slow your response to it. If you can maintain a soft contact with your opponent you will receive more information about the power and direction of their movements and be able to fluidly respond. It will also help in conservation of energy and help keep the mind more tranquil and therefore able to make better decisions.
4 Sui: Following the opponent has multiple connotations. Firstly you must following the reality of events and what is actually happening rather than what you would like to happen. this means you must follow what the opponent gives you in terms of opportunity and threats and work with this. The situation will continually change so you must continually be hyper aware of all the possibilities and threats. The other important aspect of following is to follow the power of the opponent and divert it, rather than going directly against it.
5 Bu Dio Ding: This is almost like a summing up of the previous points. Never lose contact nor directly oppose the opponent. Keep a soft and continuous contact with the opponent and avoid using strength to oppose the opponent. Using trained force is what we want to do, against the opponents weaknesses. The opponents strengths should not be opposed but led into the void via skilful use of technique and evasion (via the thirteen tactics). By training in this way you will continually improve your skills as a martial artist, rather than rely on any natural physical attributes you may have.
Using the close quarter concepts will add many layers of subtlety to your martial arts practice. The ideas are there to be used in training, not to just be ‘known’.