Shortest Distance

In Wing Chun it is said that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

However, in Tai Chi the shortest distance between two points is a curve.

Why do we say this?

If you regularly practice the use of strikes in push hands or sticking hands you may notice that it is difficult to strike your opponent unless you disengage your arm from his arm that is in contact with you. There are two ways to do this.

The first one is to disengage by the arm that is in contact and trying to strike over the opponent’s arm. I tend to see this a lot in Youtube videos of Wing Chun practitioners doing sticking hands. Why they do this is an interesting topic.

The second way is to use your other arm to parry or grab the opponent’s arm to momentarily detain it, freeing your arm to strike.

It does not matter if you are practicing Tai Chi, Wing Chun or some other styles. As long as you practice a contact platform these are the two common ways to do it.

The first way can work well if your opponent is slow to react. I saw this in a Facebook clip of a Yiquan master doing push hands. When he deliberately lost contact and moved in it was like watching a truck running down a person.

The only thing I would caution against doing it this way is that if your partner uses strong forward force you may find his hand suddenly shooting forward to hit you the moment you lose the contact. Of course, you can move your body out of the way just before you do it but its a calculated risk.

The second way does not always work because not everyone that play hands using a contact platform will keep their arms close enough for you to use the other hand to parry or grab. I found this out when I played hands with Tai Chi people when I was learning Wing Chun.

So what do you do then if you want to do a strike and both ways are not workable?

This is when understanding that a curve is the shortest distance between two points when arms are in contact is useful. What does this mean exactly?

LogoClick here to learn how to use a curve to move quickly between two points when playing push hands.

 

From Form to Push Hands

You don’t really know how to play your form properly until you know how to apply the techniques in push hands.

Likewise, you won’t go beyond shoving and wrestling until you understand your form.

The learning of form and push hands complement each other. The form is a reference textbook containing techniques with various obvious usage. Go deeper and you will discover hidden and derived applications.

Learning how to play push hands begins by taking the technique from the form and understanding why it is performed the way it is, how it fits into the game of physical chess of conquering position and seizing space. We also examine the thinking of the opponent, how to make him give you what you want.

After you have learned about the technique then you can try to use it when playing push hands freely. This means your training partner will act in a compliant manner. He may tone down his resistance to give you a fighting chance but he will not give in easily. In this way you can simulate what works and what does not within a controlled learning environment rather than resist for the sake of it.

What you see in the video above is a reader of TaijiKinesis Vol 2 learning push hands after learning form. He has known Tai Chi for two decades. You can see the good foundation in the way he moved. What is not obvious is his softness and power.

In the last part of the video we just played a bit; I did not say he cannot resist or use strength. I just let him react how he liked to and we just let the play take its course so that we can get a better feedback on how the techniques worked out given different levels of resistance; all part of the learning journey.

Sometimes with regular students we do play fast, hard and rougher. It depends on what we are working on. Better train to be prepared particularly with the unexpected than to get a rude shock. By pushing and expanding the scope we get to understand better the techniques in our form, whether we are doing them properly or need to be changed, always keeping in mind the principles.

LogoDo you use what you learned in your form in push hands? If no, why not? If you want to learn how to do so click here.

A Plan to Win

I hate repeating myself. But its a necessary evil if I am to drum what I want to teach into my student’s head.

I learned that he is going to meet his buddy again for push hands. He is not optimistic that he will be able to do well since his bud has learned longer, taller, bigger and more skilful. He expects to be able to perform better than previously that is before learning from me. But not expecting earth shattering results.

Its my opinion that if you do not believe that you can do something you will never be able to do it. A first step to being able to do something better is to know what you are doing.

Once I had brought this question up – how to be better and start winning at push hands. I think my student has forgotten what I said. At that point in time previously and this time again I asked him the same question “so what’s the plan to win?” and he still cannot answer.

Note – we use push hands as a training tool so mostly the winning is not the most important thing. Actually, you can learn more by losing. However, at a certain time you must learn how to win too. This is because if you ever have to use it for real your push hands training can be an asset but only if you train it properly in the first place. Of course, it goes without saying that in a real situation you don’t want to be on the losing side.

Coming back to the topic on another occasion I had explained to my student a plan to win at push hands. That he still cannot answer means that my explanation had gone in one ear and out the next. Which was good because now I can have some fun showing him what I meant, all over again.

So yeah, Game 1. Then Game 2. And he resisted and tried to push back. But his less than stellar grasp of the basics and absence of a game plan meant that he could not control his position and he ended up like a boat rocked by a wave. Like I told him a game is needed if you want to come out tops.

He tried to fight against my Game 1 and ended up in a place where I could use Game 2. Like a ping pong game I moved between Game 1 and Game 2 until in trying to defend against them he created the opportunity for me to use Game 3. This is what I meant by having a game plan.

You cannot win if you cannot think and move at least 3 steps ahead. And you can’t do this if you don’t know your own movements well enough. Knowing them well means you must know what to do even before you can think about what to do. You need to train to the point where true intention manifests in the form of no intention. Its like a computer program that can predict what you want to do next before you even thought of what you want to do.

The inability to move when playing hands is what some of my teachers referred to as a stunted hand. This is why in the days of yore a lot of our training was on doing the form again and again, so that we understand the nature of change and in time change becomes us. Then we can start learning how to win.

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Would you like some clarity as to where you are going in your Tai Chi journey? Click here to begin your enlightenment.

 

Stepping Precision

Worked with my student on a few movements today, amongst them “Step back to ride the tiger”.

I like this movement because it conceals an interesting step, what one of my teachers called the 9-Palace Step. The name may not mean much to outsiders but most who see it will recognize it as similar to the circle walk of Baguazhang. The only difference is we do not walk the circle to train the ability to walk the circle.

Turn, place, position.

No, no. My student’s position is off. To be able to use the 9-Palace Step in push hands a degree of precision is required. If you get it right you will find yourself automatically walking in a circle. Otherwise, you will be stuck and be vulnerable to the opponent’s follow up attacks.

The beauty of precision is that once you get it you will be able to get behind your opponent with the 9-Palace Step before he even realizes that you are here now and suddenly gone. It takes some practice but not impossible to master. Just pay attention to the details and never lose sight of them.

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The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step here.

Control the Board

When we practice push hands the ability to control the “chess” board is important. This is because even as you are trying to find means to push your training partner out he is also trying to do the same to you.

Controlling the mental board is one way we can give ourselves an edge. First you have to fix the chessboard parameters in your mind.

Next you need to learn some example of “chess” moves ala Tai Chi. Then work them until you know the strengths and weaknesses of each move. Learn to interchange the moves.

Last night I added one more spice to the mix by having one more layer of control. We worked through how to seize the battlefield area. When the opponent is strong we worked on how to influence him to give us what we want.

We used free flowing push hands to learn the board strategies. We flowed whilst moving, probing constantly for an opening, baiting when there’s none to create our own opportunities.

At times we explored examples of games of strategies, example such as feint to the east, attack to the west; simple yet requires ability not to telegraph our intent. This involves a degree of control of pressure and movement.

At the end of many such exploratory games we should gain certain abilities to enable us to have a meaningful game of push hands.

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Relatively Speaking

In terms of skill in Tai Chi it is all relative. This means that the better you can do something than the other person the more you can feel what the other person’s skill is like.

For a long time X’s hands are like the unsettled rooster in Zhuang Tzu’s story of the Fighting Rooster. At the slightest touch X’s hands would resist. It took years of training before he let go of his strength more and become less resisting and more settled enabling him to adhere and listen better.

Now X has reached a level where he said when he felt Y’s hands he could feel it resisting and he could use the resistance against Y. Before when X’s hands were strong and resisting he would not be able to say this because he can only use strength to overcome a weaker person.

With the passage of time he can feel another person’s hands so much better, so much so that relatively speaking the other person, in this case Y, seems to be resisting a lot. This is why in learning Tai Chi time put in leads to the acquiring of kung fu, meaning you can makes theories and debate all day and all night long but without putting in the practice over years the skill won’t grow.

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Learning from Mistakes

Some students have a desire to try out what they know against friends. If I am asked I would tell them whether they are ready to do so.

If they are not as ready as I thought but still want to go ahead I would offer suggestions on what they can try doing based on what they can best achieve competently, that is using the best of the worst.

Sometimes I get to hear of their testing sessions after the fact. I would be curious to hear their feedback, what they thought they were able to achieve, able to apply, observations and so on. This can be used a a gauge from which to move forward.

One latest feedback is a student X trying out against Y whom he has known for a long time. X said that Y was softer than him but he was still able to apply some techniques from the repertoire that he had learned from those times that we touched hands.

X found that using the body method from our Tai Chi he could easily move Y’s hand applying pressure on him. X found one particular technique for neutralizing strikes useful when they added strikes in at a later part of the session.

I asked X questions based on his feedback and from there explained to him what he was still lacking in his understanding of push hands. I can re-summarize and add on to what I told X earlier :-

  1. X’s found that though his use of the high blocking movement prevented Y from hitting him it left his elbow vulnerable to being lifted. I explained that this is a problem that can be fixed by not over moving, keeping the awareness and knowing the options to counter any attempts to lift the elbow. This is where training flow rather than power is important. I demonstrated that Y’s attempt to lift his elbow is actually good as it can be countered by a variety of responses.
  2. Pushing around in circles means waiting for opportunities to apply your technique. It would be better to create the opportunities through a game plan. One of the core principle we use in our push hands techniques is based on the Tian Ji Horse Racing Strategy which is recorded in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. You can read this article to get an idea of how this early example of Game Theory works within the Tian Ji Horse Racing Strategy. The diagram below which is extracted from the article summarizes the principle vividly :- horse
  3. Principled habits must be a natural response if we are to be able to use the techniques from the form. I find that 99% of students still do not train the form enough. They may remember the sequence but this is not enough. To be able to use the lessons from the solo form training we must know why we are training it and what we can get out of it. A simple example is the flying elbow syndrome. The principles of Tai Chi calls for the elbow to be kept lowered but students commonly violate this principle when I apply pressure on their arm. If they are unable to control this untrained reflex they will always have a weakness that can be exploited in push hands. Our required standard of performance is that the elbow must be kept lowered always.
  4. Strength conservation – do not use too much strength if it is not called for. I find that students use too much strength when the task does not require as much. For example, if you want to open up your opponent’s guard using more body strength may not make it easier for you to pry his guard open. Instead, it would be much easier to apply the slot machine handle pulling principle to do so. This would comply with the principles of physics and anatomical considerations, making the task more efficient.
  5. Do not go against the will of heaven – basically do not force your opponent to do what he does not want to. If you try to force your opponent to do something he will fight you tooth and nail, making it difficult to apply your technique. X had limited success using the Faan technique against Y. However, after a while Y found a way to counter it and thereafter X could no longer use it. Faan is a versatile technique that is not so easy to counter unless you have limited understanding of how it works. Y’s defense against Faan can be exploited if X can learn how to flow and keep flowing instead of giving up when a technique does not work. When Y used his elbow to angled Faan off X could work Y’s elbow angle to create a better, bigger opening from which to launch a few continuous Faan strikes that Y cannot stop

 

Everything I pointed out above can be fixed by understanding the 108 form in greater depth and learning how to apply the principles within a proper framework for learning push hands.

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