Thoughts on Push Hands, by Mike Sigman

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Mike posted his thoughts on push hands recently on the 6H forum. I really liked what he wrote, so I’ve received permission from him to post it here as a guest blog post. Enjoy!

Thoughts on Push Hands
-M. Sigman.

Push Hands is designed as a way to practice using jin with and against a partner. The four jin directions are Up, Toward the Body, Away from the Body, and Down …. or Peng, Lu, Ji, An, respectively. You first learn to use jin in your own movements by learning forms, traditionally in Chen Village, before you begin learning to use that jin with a partner. Since most people claiming to do Taijiquan can’t really use jin skills while simply moving themselves, it is obvious that most “push hands” is usually more about some vague competition than it is about continuous jin skills. The closest most people get to jin skills is usually a sudden, impulsive tossing away of their opponent.

Beginning push hands involves the persistent use of push-hands patterns so that people can practice long periods of attempting to move while maintaining jin in the four directions of Peng, Lu, Ji, An. That’s why it’s such an eye-roller to hear some tournament rowdy say something like, “Oh, I don’t do patterns … I just do free-style”.

So basically, push hands is about Peng, Lu, Ji, An more than anything. It’s about practicing jin and imbuing jin in your body’s movements at all times. Arm/hand techniques, dramatic uprootings, etc., are nice, but they miss the point of what push-hands is really about.

I asked a teacher of mine (a student of Feng Zhiqiang’s) once “what is the philosophy of Taijiquan as a martial-art?”. Stupid question, but I asked it anyway. He responded to me: “The philosophy of Taijiquan is to crash through to the opponent’s center and kill him”. Of course he meant that half in jest, but it’s still true and it’s also the general philosophy of almost any martial-art. In much of the push-hands we see there is a lot of maneuvering at arms’ distance from the opponent, looking for a way to effect a technique or push on the opponent … you seldom see someone simply slip through the arms and apply a massive Kao to the opponent. That’s considered a “no-no” by many people, but since I see so many people do so many “no-no’s” already, I just get confused. If my partner is not doing good push-hands, adhering to the technical aspects, why should I waste time accommodating his not-so-good push hands? I think more people should think more about “what is push hands really about?”.

There are many things you can focus on while doing push hands: throws, joint-locks, “winning”, and so on. I tend to focus foremost on jin and using jin through all of my movements. I am not fully successful yet, but I keep working on it.

If you are moving your arms, you want to look for areas where you slipped into muscle and try and correct that area back toward good jin. You want to check your movement in terms of Open and Close and whether you are using the dantian to move or whether you suddenly went into an arms-only mode for a second. Moving with the dantian is what reeling-silk is about and that’s why reeling-silk movement is the core/basic of Taijiquan.

You want to not provide any resistance for your partner to push against, if possible … but that’s not always possible, so while I focus on that avoidance of resistance, I also enjoy practicing letting my partner push me. As I’ve said in the past, I often/usually will maintain a peng-jin direction that is upward and in a direction that will off-balance my partner if he pushes me. I don’t necessarily do the up-jin thing all the time, but I do it enough that it is an easily-accessed tool that is sort of second-nature.

Most of all I enjoy a casual interplay (win-some, lose-some is best for everyone, I think) where I make it a game to see if I can apply an effective jin response against any push my partner can manage to slip in. I don’t care if I lose some … the idea is to get better and better, so I “invest in loss”.

It’s a fun game to allow an opponent to push you and see if your jin skills are good enough to turn the tables simply by making his own push defeat himself. I would recommend and suggest that this strategy will get people away from always trying to win while at the same time giving them a true skill-set of actual Taijiquan.

I remember a comment from a Chinese friend of mine who was challenged in a nasty way to do some push hands. He looked at the guy and said, “No, let’s fight. Push-hands is just for exercise”.

 

If you liked this post you might also like:

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Defining Tai Chi Chuan

How to practice effectively for just about anything

All martial arts tend to be big on repeating movements over and over – BJJ-ers practice hip escapes and triangles, Wing Chun-ers practice Su Lim Tao, Tai Chi-ers practice form movements over and over. We intuitively recognise the benefits that repeating a sequence of movements gives us – we become more fluid and after a while it feel like these moves could be something we could actually pull-off under pressure. Well, it turns out there is a science behind repetition, and this TED video explains what it is:

Life Hack: Brush your teeth in a Horse Stance

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We brush our teeth twice a day, morning and night. It’s a ritual that we don’t really think about, we just do it. But how about this for a little life hack? Stand in a Horse stance while you brush your teeth.

If you brush your teeth for 2 minutes a session, then switching to a Horse Stance will mean that’s 4 minutes of Horse Stance a day you’re now doing. That’s 28 minutes a week, 112 minutes a month and 1,460 minutes (or over a whole day) of standing in Horse stance a year.

So, why do this?

Firstly, why not? It’s dead time that you aren’t doing anything else, so you might as well get a bit of training in.

Secondly, training a Horse stance is really good for your health. It makes your legs stronger. I’ve heard it said that the Chinese believe we die from the ground up. If you look at old men they generally have skinny legs. By working the muscles in your legs in a Horse stance you stop them withering away. It’s a bit like the benefits you get from squats, but more evenly distributed over all of the muscles in the legs, not just the big ones in your thighs. Having well muscles legs helps your heart pump blood around your body – the calf muscle (specifically the Gastrocnemius/Soleus) is often described as a ‘second heart‘ because it helps to return blood from the lower leg.

And for the more superficial amongst us, you’re also working your butt muscles 😉

Thirdly, as your muscles complain and tighten you need to consciously relax them, smile through the pain and after a while it starts to feel enjoyable. You might not be able to do a full 2 minutes to start with, but after a few days, you will. You can feel the gains you make very quickly.

This ability to relax through the tension is essential for any sport or martial activity. You’re programming your responses to change from their habitual reaction of tensing to relaxing.

How to do a Horse stance.

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All you need is an old Chinese master to help you.

There are many varied and contrasting opinions on what a Horse Stance is, but I’m going to show you how to do the one I do, which I feel is the most doable, and has the added bonus of being mechanically sound.

  1. Stand with your feet one and a half times your shoulder width distance apart.
  2. Keep the outside edges of your feet parallel with each other.
  3. Sink down until your thighs are at 45 degrees.
  4. The weight is evenly distributed between right and left feet.

That’s it! If you look down you should see your big toe on the inside of your knee. If you can’t then you might be letting your knees collapse inwards, so just gently push them out a bit.

To stand in this position you keep your lower back relaxed (watch out for tension here) and keep your shoulders aligned vertically over the top of your hips (no leaning forward!) Keep your head aligned as if pulled up by a thread from the crown point (your neck should lengthen at the back and your chin tucks in slightly). The spine is lengthening upwards. Remember, don’t lean forwards. Stay upright so you can work with gravity, not against it.

If you do need to bend forward to pick up your toothbrush, etc, then try and hinge your body from your hips. Keep your spine lengthened and your head in the same alignment with your neck and shoulders. N.B. Don’t curve your spine to reach forward – keep it extended.

There are more extreme versions of the horse stance with the thighs parallel with the ground. Leave that for the young and foolish for now.

Here are some pictures of Tai Chi masters showing the type of Horse Stance I’m talking about:

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Sun Lu Tang

 

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Chen Xiaowang

 

And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest that demonstrates the technicalities:

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and another:

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Taking it further. 

You don’t have to stop at just brushing your teeth in a Horse Stance. I like to also wash my face in the stance as well. I would shave there too, but I can’t see myself in my bathroom mirror when I sink down into a Horse stance, so that’s currently a no go for me. Perhaps I’ll get myself a second shaving mirror…