One of the greatest learning tragedy in Tai Chi is learning a dead form. This means you learned and memorized the choreograph but when doing push hands you are unable to apply the techniques, much less use the principles embedded in the form to solve problems.
This is why we stress the learning of a live form over a dead form. A live form is not about learning and remembering the sequence of movements. This will be missing the point of learning the form in the first place. If such were the case you might as well not learn the form in the first place. To do so is to waste your time and cram your mind with useless movements.
When we learn push hands we study the application of principles and techniques together. One without the other is like a gun without a bullet and vice versa. If you do not know your form really well, like inside out, backwards and forward, left and right, then you have not even begin your understanding of what is in it.
Sometimes it is easier to teach a student to do drills or techniques. But this will cause them to be locked into a particular mindset, a particular way of responding, and worse of all to be stuck, stumped and end up resisting the moment the attack does not go the way they are expecting it.
Techniques born of the form are better because they are not fixed into any particular way. Instead, such techniques are but natural responses born of a frame of no-mind; allowing you to flow within the construct of the principles. It is certainly not easy to learn this way. How should I put it – it is like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that is basically a black square (below is a picture of a jigsaw puzzle known as Black Torture).
Knowing the principles allow you to respond without having to think too hard about it. You can also respond with a better technique rather than just reacting because you need to resist the attack. When we do push hands we explore many different ways of playing the game. Some are common, some are not.
One example – you push with your right hand, your opponent neutralizes and comes in with Wild Horse Parts Mane (left hand leading). One second you are attacking, the next you body is trapped and you are sent off-balance to your rear.
Quick – how do you counter this?
Were you able to answer or you had to think about it?
My student basically froze and took a trip.
Never mind, let’s do it again. So the next time he is able to react because he now knows what to expect. He saw my leftt hand coming and he intercepted it with his left hand. Good response except like what I always said – your opponent is not stupid – so when he grabbed my left hand I readjusted the attack angle and continued with the attack. Reacting without understanding or applying the principles is recipe for failure.
We try again. And again. Moving faster, moving stronger. Not always a surefire recipe for success unless you have the principles working for you.
I got him to try it on me. One time he was too slow or maybe I am faster in my reaction. I stopped his attack before it came in halfway and got spun off to my right. But this was not what I wanted to show him.
Instead, I wanted to show him how he could appeared to be under control and ready to be sent flying but at the last minute he could come up with a save. This required him to have a good grasp of timing, patience and split second decisive reaction to pull it off because we will allow the attacking hand to come through, intrude into our space and begin to apply pressure.
At this crucial moment is when our trap must be sprung, not a second earlier and not a second later. Were he to move earlier an attacker could readjust the attacking angle and still send him off balance. If moving too late then the attack will go through.
It took him a few tries to get it. The first part was not difficult as he only had to slow down the attacking hand. Next he had to subtly let the attacking arm come through enough before inserting a fulcrum point. Then as the attacking force comes he has to borrow it and use it against the attacker. He has to do all the three parts in one smooth flowing process and to do it while appearing to be losing his balance.
It reads easier than actually doing it. However, it is not difficult to catch because the principles underlying the counter to Wild Horse Parts Mane is actually taught within the entire sequence of Wild Horse Parts Mane in the form! One part is movement, one part is inaction and the third part is the use of intent.
The movement and principles are flexible enough to be used as counter against other techniques. To this end, you are not learning one response to one attack. Instead, you are learning to find formlessness within form. In this way, you become flexible in your response like how flowing water always seeks the path of least resistance.