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.


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.


Push Hands Flow & Change

Six years ago I took some videos with the objective of using them for TaijiKinesis Vol 3 which is on push hands.

I started work on Vol 3 but for certain reasons I did not continue. Now I have started looking into Vol 3 again and dug up the old videos.

For those who have been waiting for Vol 3 I have put up the first video that I shot. This was an unrehearsed run through of some of the techniques we practice at the basic level for the first method of circling.

You would notice that all the techniques are worked off the Grasp Sparrow’s Tail posture. From this posture we could change into different techniques depending on the entry technique and position acquired after entering.

For the purpose of push hands practice we normally use a small frame posture to enable us to be nimble on our feet. We can also keep the pressure of our hands lighter so that we do not engage in strength versus strength competition in which the stronger person would invariably win. From here we can focus on working on our techniques, flow and how to change when given different pressures, angles and speed of attack.


Get It

Some get it.

Some never get it.

But if you have faith and dare to try then you will get it, that is how to use minimal strength in Tai Chi to fajing.

Students keep thinking that to fajing they must develop thigh muscles to fajing but this is a misunderstanding of how physics work. It is also a lack of understanding of strategy especially the part where your opponent will try to hit you back.

I divide fajing into 3 types :-

a) Using localized muscles

b) Using entire body muscles

c) Using muscles still but with minimal exertion


The phrase “use no strength” in Tai Chi principles refer to (c) because your body will collapse if you use no muscles.

The (a) approach is inefficient and will tire you out fairly quickly especially if you are doing vigorous push hands. This is why students find the idea of doing push hands non-stop continuously for an hour because they know that its tiring and they cannot last for more than a few minutes.

Yet, when I was learning from one of my Tai Chi teachers we used to do push hands like that. If you don’t learn not to conserve strength and use your entire body you will tire out fast and end up with sore muscles.

Approach (b) is better but there are implications that will affect your balance and speed. You only have to think carefully about Newton’s three laws of motion to know what they are.

One immediate implication is that if you miss and lose your balance your opponent will have an easy time counter-attacking you.

Approach (c) sounds wimpish and ridiculed by those who misunderstand it. I call it the high heel approach because a woman’s high heel shoes embody efficient use of the physics of power. If you don’t know what it is ask a lady to wear a high heel and “gently” stomp on your foot.

When you use strength intelligently you can play longer because you are not wasting strength. Its common knowledge that a bigger guy will typically beat a smaller guy. This is why we learn martial arts, to learn a way to use what we have, max our strengths versus the weaknesses of our opponent. If we don’t we lose. Its that simple.

Lucky for us, not everyone is good at everything so we have some play. Push hands is where we learn what the plays are. So for example, you can learn how to make your training partner do something without realizing that he is doing it. You also learn how to get a position from which you can easily make him lose his balance with the use of little strength.

All this takes careful learning after you believe its possible to do so. Rome was not built in a day and neither push hands learned in a lesson. You first have to understand the problem and what the solutions are especially the why of a solution. Then you have to learn how to implement the solution, paying attention to all the nuances required to make it work like magic. If not, the technique will fail. The solo form is where we learn the controls necessary to move ourselves in certain manners.

Once you have everything in place you should get it. If not, then maybe Tai Chi is not the art for you and its better to move on to something else.




A, B or C

Being able to instantly respond correctly will help you to master push hands.

Some students take too long to react. When pressure is applied they instinctively resist instead of responding. Their hands are too “kayu” (wooden).

To simplify learning sometimes I take a simple decision mechanism approach. If you have scenario A then you react this way. If scenario B then another way.

So the student must learn to recognize the scenarios right away and respond correctly. However, having two scenarios is too simple and does not train the mind to process input signals faster.

We do this by learning how to handle three scenarios instead, what I would term as A, B or C decision making. Students tend to find the A, B scenario easier to handle since the probability of each occurrence is 50%, thus they either respond one way or the other. But when there are 3 scenarios it is more difficult to react quickly.

This is where the learning trick comes in. To master the ability to react quickly you first learn not to resist but to just listen, in essence you must give yourself up in order to be able to read the other person correctly. Then when you get an input signal you don’t have to decide what to do because your opponent will tell you what to do. If you have to do it then you are not listening to the input and you then have to wait for the signal, interpret it, hopefully not misread it and react accordingly.

In this manner you can change at will and create techniques out of what is offered to you. Otherwise, each time you have to quickly find the right response and if the scenario is slightly different to what you are used to then you may respond incorrectly and instead of prevailing you end up giving away the game.


Push Hands Fun 3

Okay, he’s had his fun. Now I will try giving him some resistance instead. Not too much, just enough to make it hard for him.

Giving him stronger pressure helps to check his structure. If he cannot control his structure it will buckle and crumble.

When this happens the root cause is almost, always the inability to keep the structure linked correctly throughout the playing of a form. Hence, we need slowness to train this type of old ox stubborn power.


Push Hands Fun 2

How to take a breather and do push hands?

Idea – lean on the wall.

Then I can rest and do it at the same time. I can also take out the use of body weight and see what it feels like to be pushed against a wall. Now my student has a better advantage.

Unfortunately, he failed to exploit the advantage. I could see one technique which could prove to be useful against someone backed against a wall. Its rather obvious isn’t it?