Push hands is the study of the seamless and relaxed interaction with a partner. Its martial implications are obvious: it teaches the practitioner how to react effectively to a non-collaborating partner, who is trying to punch, grab, or kick. However, in my humble opinion, that is not the most interesting benefit of practicing push hands. I would like to argue in this post how this is rather a remarkable by-product of a delicate cultivation process.
In the study of push hands, we are teaching ourselves to react correctly against resistance and aggression, all the while keeping our natural body structure and a deep relaxation. The typical metaphor is that of water: it can never be crashed, it always finds a way around the attack, never loosing its quality of supreme softness. All that is fine and beautiful, but how do we get there?
The traditional approach is to start learning push hands routines. These are two-person routines (as seen here, for instance), where partners take turns in pushing and receiving/neutralizing. These patterns start simple, with just one hand and fixed step, then complicate resorting to both hands, exploring different dynamics and eventually adding different stepping patterns. This sort of exercise develops whole-body coordination and sensing abilities (the so-called “listening energy” or tīngjìn 聽勁).
Eventually, the study gets to the point of free play: partners try to get each other, in a controlled environment with rules. This is the sort of exercise we see in push hands competitions, such as this. Most people unaware of the martial tradition of taichi (tàijíquán 太極拳), cringe before the view of such competitions. They usually go something like “but I thought taichi was about relaxation”.
In fact, taichi teaches us to respond to aggression with softness and the softer the practitioner is, the more skillful. However, this kind of “soft” is not just passive and yielding, otherwise it gets run over. It's a kind of “soft” that goes something like “alright, I know you want to do this to me, but I don't feel great about that, so I am going to find a way around this that works for me, all the while staying within the comfortable limits of my posture and my stance”. This is an all-too-wordy, but apt description of what perceptual movement is.
Perceptual movement is the quality that enables the taichi practitioner to apply softness skillfully. In a way, perceptual movement is the Holy Grail of taichi and its subtleties are hard to grasp. The traditional method basically advocates to practice push hands ceaslessly, many different routines with a lot of different people, for a long time, adhering to the principles (whatever that actually means) and eventually you'll get it.
I find this is a very uninviting proposition. We are supposed to get to something very subtle and intricate without really knowing how. Arguably, it just happens. Not surprisingly, most of us get lost along the way, despite the best efforts from our teachers. Typical answers to this problem are: “you don't train hard enough”, “you don't know how to apply the principles”, “your style doesn't work”, etc.
While there may be some truth to those statements, depending on the case, I find it is all too easy to dismiss the problem with such an authoritative mindset. The truth of the matter is that it is very hard to achieve perceptual movement. For starters, we don't even have an intuitive understanding of what kind of movement that is.
To facilitate discussion, let's define perceptual movement with a formula:
Perceptual Movement = Stick-adhere + Being Relaxed
Let us analyze now this formula. On the left, we have the result, which is what we want to achieve: soft reaction to aggression and resistance, while maintaining structural integrity.
On the right, we have two terms that combine. First, is the sticking and adhering (粘黏 zhānnián). This was covered in a recent article. I invite you to re-read it with this new context in mind. In a nutshell, stick-adhere refers to the quality of being connected with the partner, while movement occurs, dynamically adjusting the basic qualities of supporting and resting-in at the point of contact.
The second terms is relaxation. This is the number one thing everybody learns in a taichi class: “be relaxed”. The Chinese term is fàngsōng 放松 and the reason we instructors go sometimes by the Chinese name is not because we pretend to look mystical and interesting (at least that shouldn't be the case!), it's because sometimes there is meaning being lost in translation.
Actually, the words “being relaxed” can actually be misleading, because relaxation is something everybody can relate to but in a sub-optimal way, unless one is thoroughly trained. You take a bunch of students in class and ask them to stand or shift the weight while staying relaxed and they incur into defects that actually tense up their bodies. This is because the idea of what “being relaxed” is, is not actually clear to them. They don't know they could be more relaxed than they really are.
It is precisely this study of how to be relaxed within the own body structure that takes up most of the initial stage of learning taichi. We need to teach ourselves what “being relaxed” really is, overriding years of conditioning.
Therefore, the term “being relaxed” no longer cuts it, so I am going to switch to “being comfortable”, which is what my teacher Sam Masich uses.
Words have power because they convey meaning. Different words have different meanings and similar words have similar but also subtly different meanings. In this case, “being comfortable” means feeling so at ease that it's like you are “at home”, while “being relaxed” is feeling like you can stay for a long time, given the current context, but not necessarily where you feel best.
This subtlety is crucial, because during the study of perceptual movement, we must train ourselves to always find the most comfortable place and not just settle for “being relaxed” in a loose, undefined way.
Therefore, let us rewrite our formula as:
Perceptual Movement = Stick-adhere + Being Comfortable
This means that in order to achieve perceptual movement, we need to dynamically adjust to the point of contact through stick-adhere qualities while at the same time dynamically adjusting our body posture, always seeking the most conformable state. Easier said than done.
Do not dispear though. A key aspect to learning perceptual movement is that, even when our movements present defects, this should not concern us much. We just hardwire our awareness to always be at the point of contact, always seeking the most comfortable place. It actually does not matter how comfortable we end up being, the only thing that matters is that we are always defaulting to this response. We set the intention to move in that manner and live by it, then skill naturally develops and our ability to cope with ever more demanding situations improves, but all the while we are basically just committing wholeheartedly to perceptual movement.
This is a very liberating experience because then the art is no longer an unending collection of highly complex technical requirements, but a way of liberating oneself though the process of perceptual movement. It's a subtle mind shift but one of dramatic consequences.
I argue that to train these subtle qualities it is not enough to go through the push hands curriculum, crossing our fingers hoping that some day, perceptual movement descends on to us as a blessing of the taichi deities. There is a surer way, and it involves deliberately working on this formula, not leaving it to chance or natural talent.
To cultivate stick-adhere, we practice sensing hands (juéshǒu 覺手), the non-competitive interaction between partners, so that we can be consistent with the qualities of supporting and resting-in around a point that changes lively. Then, the lessons we learn can be incorporated into any push hands routine.
To cultivate being comfortable we have a plethora of methods, but it is mostly isolated in simple, repetitive practices such as standing qigong, or nei gong exercises, like the baduanjin of the Yang family. Particularly important here is the study of the hips and legs and what is their natural structure (the so-called “hip-track”). This involves moving within the natural range of motion of these joints without incurring into localized tensions in the ankles and knees. This is where the supervision of a qualified instructor is key, mostly to avoid injuries due to incorrect practice.
There is still a missing link, as we need to work on the plus sign in the formula above. It is totally possible to have decent sticking-adhering qualities and some good command of a relaxed, natural body structure and still lack perceptual movement.
This is because our hard-earned relaxation skills are worthless if they are not applied in relation to the point of contact and the stick-adhere relationship. Our mind must be devoted to the interaction and all our adjustments must be around that interaction and not disconnected from it.
Say you feel pressure on your arm and that loads your hips and ankles. You have trained yourself, during years of dedicated practice, to recognize that tension and to understand what needs to be released in order to let go of that pressure so you do that, but you lost the point of contact for a moment while you were thinking about how to release your ankles and now your shoulders popped out of structure and you are basically on your way to the ground as soon as your partner is playing a bit nasty on you.
It is not enough to release the ankle in some random way, it has to be released in relation to the point of contact with the partner. This is the part of the plus sign in the formula and the integration required to achieve the end result of perceptual movement.
A consequence of this cultivation process is an outstanding basis for developing martial skills which is soft and unrehearsed, as opposed to hard and choreographed, but like I said, this is just a by-product.
The true benefit of devoting oneself sincerely to this study is the inner transformation that it unleashes. At this point in the process, we must have been able to patiently and systematically break down all of our conditionings, our automatic mechanisms that trigger violent, jerky responses as opposed to soft, whole-body actions.
To me, this is more precious than any kind of martial ability that could derive from it. All it takes is patience and a systematic method, no longer crossing our fingers in the hope of someday achieving something we don't even know how to recognize.