Approaching Push Hands
The interactive taijiquan practice is called tui shou, which literally means push hands. This can make you think that it is about pushing your partner with your hands, but that is misleading. The push hands that we practice is based on taiji principles that emphasize softness, and hands that stick to, listen to, and follow the partner’s movements, transmitting energy to uproot them.
The taiji push is not about muscular strength, and as such, it requires a sort of repatterning of one’s instinctual reactions to incoming force. We are instructed to relax and meet the incoming force, join with it, then transform it to “discharge” your partner. It is not taiji sparring!
To generate taiji “strength,” the body must be in a shape conducive to openness and elasticity. The mind must be calm so it can detect subtle changes in oneself and one’s partner, which provides information about how to proceed through the interaction. Sometimes, the interaction results in one person being propelled away -- it is a result of the interaction, not the goal.
Our approach is to work on the skills necessary to interact in taiji ways. We discourage shoving one another in order to succeed in pushing or bracing in order to resist being pushed; these are known as errors of “butting.” We also work to overcome errors of “falling short,” such as disconnecting or retreating. It is a demanding practice, but it’s a lot of fun once you stop caring about pushing and being pushed!
You are in close contact -- be respectful!
Be careful! No one should get hurt.
Take care with personal hygiene, garlic consumption, appropriate clothing.
Quality of touch is very important -- take a chance on softness!
Push hands can be frustrating! If you sense your partner getting frustrated, back off a little and give them time to relax; if you are getting frustrated, ask your partner to back off a little. And remember, it’s always ok to stop pushing and sit down until you’re more relaxed.
Be aware of the power dynamic that often arises between men and women, and between novices and those who have more experience (especially those who assist and teach). Beware using size, strength, and “teaching” as a substitute for skill!
We are lucky to be a school with many women who participate in push hands; this provides both opportunities and challenges for everyone. We encourage you to go outside your comfort zone and learn from one other. We do our best to ensure that interactions are safe, and expect that you all will too.
The closeness of this practice poses challenges to safety from inappropriate touching and behavior. Especially in this #metoo era, be extra mindful.
As a school, we are strongly against any interactions, whether between students or between instructors and students, that are inappropriate and put anyone at risk of sexual misconduct. We work to create a space where we can practice intensely with each other without having to deal with these issues. And we have a zero-tolerance policy towards any violations.
If you feel your partner is being inappropriate, or if you’re becoming uncomfortable in the interaction, you can:
Calmly say that you’re uncomfortable with the way the two of you are interacting and ask them to stop or change what they’re doing.
Take a break and walk away from the interaction.
Tell one of us that there is an issue. We will work to resolve it.
Arrange it so that you don’t push with that person again; you can always politely decline.
Recognize that this is a martial art, and stuff can happen in the hustle-bustle of the moment that is unintentional and may not be personally directed; try to differentiate that from inappropriate behavior.
It can take a while to learn to relax when in close physical contact with others. Give yourself permission to feel some discomfort with the closeness as you get accustomed to the practice, without immediately assuming your partner is doing something inappropriate to cause the discomfort.
Develop taiji skill
Our emphasis is on using push hands to develop our taiji skills. It is possible to overpower your partner and push them over without using taiji skills. Equally, it is possible to use force to successfully brace against an incoming push without using taiji skills. This is particularly a challenge for men who may not realize the degree to which they rely on size and unconscious use of strength. Focus on skills, not results!
Embody taiji shapes
Try to relax into taiji shapes -- that’s how you’ll develop skills.
“Invest in loss”
Pushing your partner and being unpushable are not the goals. Redirect your energy toward doing your best taiji; your ability to push and not be easily uprooted will develop within that framework.
Notice when you are struggling -- either to push or to avoid being pushed -- and change your approach. Struggle is a sign that you are forcing the situation; you won’t develop the necessary skills if you persist in struggling.
Cooperative during exercises
We work on specific exercises to develop specific skills; during the first 5 minutes of the interaction, work on the exercise. If you are more experienced, it is up to you to try to make the exercise work.
If you both agree to open up the interaction more freely in the second five minutes, try to bring the lessons of the exercise to the free pushing.
Run your own side of the interaction
It’s ok to give a few helpful cues to a beginner, but trying to micromanage the interaction is not helpful! If your partner is overwhelming you with information, it is ok to ask them to to stop. And if you notice that you’re talking and instructing continuously, quiet down.
Everyone needs time to just pay attention to what’s happening and work things out on their own. Take care of your own side of the interaction, don’t try to run both sides.
Resist the desire to teach your partner; talk less, do more. You may not know as much as you think you do, and your partner may know more than you think!
Take the whole person into account
Your classmates are not punching bags; they are each real people with real strengths and weaknesses.
At the other extreme, don’t treat your partner as overly fragile. No one is helped by holding back from authentic engagement.
Treat each other gently, and try to assess the appropriate level of intensity for each interaction. You will work with each other again next week!