Begin to Learn Push Hands

I took 4 videos for my student to study. The videos are taken by putting a smartphone on a stack of chairs hence it is not framed properly.

This is not the first time I touched hands with him but it is the first time I explained the process of how to learn push hands from scratch.

The videos were taken after the explanation of theory was over. In the first video we are just working on a simple idea – how to control space using a horizontal circle – hence the slower pace in moving to allow him to feel and maintain proper pressure.

The other thing we worked on here is the use of the 5-Count in application. A more detailed explanation can be found in TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan Form.



Energy Management, What?

Commonsense seems to be missing nowadays. There is a paradox at work here. The more popular a system is the more commonsense flies out the window.

I said to a student that push hands is for learning combat and he said that he thought it was for energy management. I wouldn’t say that he is totally wrong.

Energy management could be a sub-objective of doing push hands. However, I would not say that push hands is entirely about energy management. Consider the following train of thought :-

What is Tai Chi CHUAN? A health exercise? Fitness exercise? Combat art?

What is the purpose of learning Tai Chi CHUAN? Exercise? Fitness? Combat?

If the answer to both questions above is either exercise or fitness then you can stop reading at this point.

If the answer is combat then you can read on.

If we want to train Tai Chi CHUAN as a combat art then how do we do it?

Consider the first question – what exactly is Tai Chi as an art of combat? Is it a wrestling art? Hand striking art? Kicking art? Locking art? Bit of everything?

How do we train the combat part of Tai Chi? By pushing each other around? What is the purpose? Oh, OK, energy management.

So how does managing the energy help us to survive an attack? By pushing the opponent back? By pushing him so hard that he does not want to be pushed any more?

Unless you managed to push an opponent to hit a wall so hard that it knocks him out I don’t quite see the point. More so, if you happen to be fighting in a big space where the nearest wall is 50 feet away.

So all that pushing up and down doesn’t really make much sense. Not unless you are training to put your opponent off balance by using a pushing motion to control him. If so, then why do we need to push opponent so hard when a lesser push is what we need to put him in a disadvantaged position momentarily for us to set up our technique?

To me push hands is a method for training the various factors that are relevant to combat. What are they?

For starters you can train proper distancing. I realized that even students who have learned for over 10 years have poor distance management. If you go too close you may not be able to apply your power, not to mention technique properly. There is a distance at which a technique will work, one at which it will work ineffectively and one in which the technique will not work.

The form trains us to maintain the proper distance in our mind. However, due to our over-excited nature we still need to use push hands to train ourselves to rein in our instinct to rush in as close as we can.

Another thing that push hands trains us is to keep calm. You don’t have to over-react to every movement and if you do react you should learn to react with a good response rather than just push back with a knee jerk reaction that can be used against you.

Learning to be calm can help you to counter fast strikes. If you only ever play with other Tai Chi players who only push you back then this is not a useful skill. But if you do touch hands with styles that may hit you and throw you fast missiles then this will come in handy.

There are so many more areas I could touch on but this should give you an idea why push hands is not just a single objective method of training. It is so much more than that. So don’t restrict yourself. Be critical in your thinking of answers you are given. Otherwise, you will be the one who miss out.


Stop a Crack!

How do you “stop a crack by rounding it off”?

This is a question raised in this tweet :-

What is its implications for push hands?

a) To answer the first question – a crack can increase if the tip of the crack is sharp.

To slow down the crack, a hole can be drilled into the material to make the crack less sharp.

This distributes the stresses over a larger area and over more directions, hence slowing the original crack from lengthening.

b) To answer the second question :-

i) Push hands attack strategy – find a way to create a crack in the opponent’s defense. Once you managed to create that crack do not allow your opponent to round his defense.

If you can achieve this then you will be able to increase the crack and break his defense wide open.

ii) Push hands defense strategy – when under attack keep your defense rounded and your opponent will not be able to wedge open your guard.

If he manages to insert the tip of his attack then instantly respond by moving in a spherical manner to a different direction and his attacking wedge will be deprived of a crack to widen.

Now you know why Tai Chi principles call for our structure and response to be rounded.

I realized all this sounds theoretical but they have practical applications. Its one of those things that you should keep applying after learning it and it will become second nature.

At that point and from thereon all will make sense.


Three New Problems

The worth of the style you learn lies in the usefulness of the form and attendant techniques to enable you to solve problems.

So three new questions from my student :-

Problem A – How does he solve the problem of not being able to overcome his training partner’s control of the centerline

Problem B – How can be attack his training partner after controlling his arm?

Problem C – How to stop his training partner from using his elbow to collapse his (my student) arm, go over it and hit him in the face?

Let’s see……

Firstly, its not just about the technique. We should also consider the principle. So here’s what I said to solve the problems :-

Problem A – stop trying to go around your training partner’s arm. He is controlling the centerline and running around it means you are taking a longer way. So ergo, you won’t get anywhere.

The trick is to borrow our method of holding the straight sword to grasp and cuff his wrist, open up his door and voila! you are in.

My student tried it but initially had some difficulty. OK, one key is missing – go with the flow, turn back, reach in and grasp his wrist. Problem solved.

Problem B – this is a strange problem. My student got the control but he can’t let go of his training partner’s hand so he cannot attack.

Clearly, my student is not thinking straight because he has learned the solution before. It is a common problem – the way he grips is the main culprit. Basically, he has locked himself down. Bad. He needs to be able to let go without losing control. This is the first part of the solution.

The second part of the solution is what I would call the hold the door open and enter principle. This comes from Brush Knee, Twist Step. As shown to my student when applied properly he could not react fast enough to get hit.

Problem C – this is a problem of what to do when your training partner uses a bong-sau like response to your attack. Not a new problem. Its something I have taught before but it seems my student has forgotten.

It is quite straightforward. You attack, your opponent deflects and tries to apply a gwai jang on your arm. The answer is to flow with his bong-sau and stick lightly to a jumping point. Whether he wants to apply a gwai jang or not is not important.

The key is that you are in a good position. Whatever response he tries you are now in a position to react proactively. So the moment he tries to go over the top you apply the principle of he goes high, you go higher. When you do so he cannot go over your arm and ends up losing his balance.


Fajing Intent

Fajing in Tai Chi Chuan can be taught as a mechanical process. However, this would make it no different from fajing in other styles.

Fajing as a manifestation of intent is more difficult to master but not to teach. By following a simply checklist of three intent anyone can do it, even someone who has learned it on the first lesson. The only caveat is that a beginner would have a problem holding on to the skill or applying it freely.

Broadly speaking, the three intent are :-

i) Neutralize

ii) Angle

iii) Movement

When you read the three words you might have an inkling of the process and think its the same as what you do. It might be and it might not be. Without a comparison we can’t say for sure.

Beginners are introduced to the three intent when they learn how the movements of the form are used. It is not so much for the purpose of making our Tai Chi special but for illustrating how the use of specific principles can optimize one’s response by making it work more efficiently.

A reason why beginners have a problem hanging on to what they learn or to use it freely is because they have not mastered the requisite habits of awareness and mindfulness. These habits are necessary for them to control their body’s response when placed under pressure.

In particular, the natural instinct to fight back, to resist mindlessly must be placed under control, allowing them to react properly. We use the form to teach our mind to control our body.

After sufficient control is gained, the student will find it easier to begin the learning of fajing in an internal manner. At this point the teacher will work with the student to teach him how to use his intent to respond to an attack.

This will teach him to receive the pressure properly so that it can be neutralized with lesser effort and in the next instant borrow and return the power. A student will work at it from various levels of familiarity until he can begin to apply it more freely.


A New Beginning

I have not written about Tai Chi for a while as I’ve been having fun sharing information and tips on the practice of the basics of Pok Khek Kuen at the BojiLite Study Group on Facebook.

Most online groups tend to be top heavy with lurkers but on our group we weed out the lurkers. So those who remain are members who sincerely and actually want to learn something instead of just taking part in gossips and meaningless arguments. Our group may be small but we have meaningful participation.

I think for me the rewarding part of the BojiLite Study Group is see members actually make progress in their learning. It may be slow but it is sure. The basics look easy but members know after they try that it is not easy. There is more to it and the knowledge will reveal itself as they soldier on in their practice.

That the BojiLite Study Group is making progress makes me wonder if such an approach will work for Tai Chi as well. I am thinking of making a condensed training program based on the form outlined in my eBook TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan Form.

Anyway, just an idea for now………..


Live Form Vs Dead Form

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.