This is an article, my first, that I wrote after winning the Push Hands Grand Championship at Taste of China in 1994. It appeared in T’ai Chi Magazine Vol.18, No.5 October 1994. I appreciate Marvin Smalheiser, the publisher, letting me reprint it here. Also, ironicly, this issue contained an article on the death of Master Choy Kam Man.
Push Hands Strategies
It was a wonderful experience – being able to spend time with many of the greatest teachers and practitioners in Tai Chi. All of the Masters and teachers were so giving and open. By the time the tournament started, we the contestants, were anxious to practice what we had assimilated during the workshops. The level of co-operation and good sportsmanship made me proud to be a part. I would like to share some of my ideas and reflections about Push Hands and Tai Chi in general.
First and foremost, look to the form. All the skills and abilities needed to be an effective Push Hands player are contained in the form. My first teacher, Master Choy Kam-man, almost never taught Push Hands. In the years I studied with him, I only had one Push Hands class. We worked on traditional Yang style form, drilling the basics over and over. When I started teaching 21 years ago, I followed Master Choy’s example and didn’t work with Push Hands very much, and then it was mostly as a sensitivity training, not a fighting skill. There weren’t Push Hands tournaments until a few years ago, so that was never a goal or training incentive.
I live in an isolated part of the country, The Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. It is difficult to get to places where good Tai Chi teachers are, so most of my skills are self taught. Jou Tsung-hwa tells the story of how Yang Chen-fu didn’t practice much until the age of 20. It was only after his fathers death that he got interested in carrying on the family tradition and basically taught himself. Master Jou gives this as an example of how we can become Masters ourselves, even without teachers, if we are willing to work hard. I train intensively, averaging about three hours a day, six days a week. I work mostly with the Yang form and a system of exercises I have developed to strengthen the body, connect and open the joints, and relax.
I can not stress enough how important rooting and neutralizing are, especially with the rules at A Taste of China, which awarded points for effective neutralizations. Observing many matches, I would say more were won by the pusher losing his balance following a neutralized push then by a good solid push. Flexibility, root, connectedness, and strength are of utmost importance. These are best trained by simple standing exercises and lots of time with the form.
There were two major ways that people dealt with incoming energy. One was keeping the weight mostly on the forward foot and using a strong waist turn to neutralize. The other was keeping most of the weight on the rear foot and using the (slippery) approach, getting the opponent to over extend. As a generalization I would say that smaller and lighter people tend to use the rear foot technique, and the larger people use the forward foot. I found with a strong, aggressive opponent I would tend to hang back and wait for him to make a mistake. With the rear foot players I use what I call the “water” approach. I imagine my arms like water that keeps on flowing towards the opponent’s center no matter what barrier is placed in its way. I relax and flow, bend, twist, and mold to every attempt at neutralizing. In order for this method to work, I have to be very strong, rooted, and comfortable on the forward foot, ever ready to deal with a pull forward by my opponent. This is trained by relaxed standing and also a simple pulling exercise. One person stands in bow stance(weight on forward foot) with arms extended like push. The partner grabs both wrists and pulls back as if to uproot. The pull starts very gently and increases as the person being pulled gets the idea of how to relax the arms and transfer the pull force into the forward foot root. Be very careful not to resist the pull forward with would result in losing one’s balance if the puller lets go. You can work up to being able to deal with sudden pulls and neutralizations.
The difference between the forward foot or rear foot neutralizer might have to do with how one practices forward stepping in the form. There seems to be quite a bit of controversy about whether to shift back, turn out the toe, shift the weight to the forward foot, then step, or keep the weight on the forward foot while turning. The thought I’m working on is that people who retreat first will feel more comfortable and natural on the rear foot, and the people who turn out the toe with the weight on the foot might feel stronger on the forward foot. Think about it. Personally I have worked with this idea of weighted or non-weighted turning by including both in my form. I feel that both are appropriate and useful, so why not do both.
Another area of controversy is the angle of the rear foot to the forward direction. I was very careful to observe the Masters and teachers during their demonstrations and workshops, as well as the tournament players and I can say that almost all used the 45* angle. I have tried various angles from 45 to 90 and feel so much more comfortable and able to root and move from the 45*. The rear foot is there for support of the pelvis and upper body. The incoming energy is absorbed by the arms or body, transferred to the spine, and is rooted into the legs and foot. It is essential that the pelvis face directly toward the opponent. If the pelvis is at an angle to the opponent, the incoming energy will end up not flowing to the foot but will tend to throw the buttocks into the space between the legs resulting in loss of balance. The 45* angle allows the pelvis to face forward. The 80-90* makes it very difficult, if not impossible for most people to feel comfortable facing the pelvis square to the front. Try it yourself. Make sure your pelvis is square and have someone push you straight and see if you can root well into the rear foot. Then try a different angle and see how that works. We are all different with different structures, so what works for me might not work for you. Be sure to feel what you are doing and very importantly, make sure to line up the knee with the toe no matter what the angle of the toe. In pushing with someone who presents you with a shoulder, or narrow stance it is easy to make them lose balance by pushing at a right angle to the forward shoulder. If the shoulder is well forward, push the chest and aim between the two feet. If a person is mostly square to you, set this situation up by pulling on one of his arms to turn him to the side and at the same time push the chest into the area between the two feet. This technique works well for the forward foot types.
The classic teaching that the top of the head should be lifted is also so important in Push Hands. Not only does it allow the body to turn easily on its central axis like a top, but also keeping the head up elevates the spirit which gives the player much vitality. The inner strength is activated. Leaning is a major fault and should be corrected. Many Tai Chi players lean when doing Push Hands because most people use a straight forward push almost exclusively and leaning helps to deal with that by tying up the opponent.. Anytime I am faced with a leaner I use a lot of pulls which is almost impossible for a leaner to deal with. He can’t transfer the pull into the forward foot as the center of gravity is already too far forward. Besides, standing straight and tall is a powerful indication of health and vitality. Master Jou at 77 years old is very straight without being stiff. He is an inspiration for us all.
Lastly remember, you can only push against something. Tension is something. By relaxing you make it much more difficult for someone to push you. Hide your center. Play. Invest in loss. Listen to your opponent and understand where he or she is coming from. And very importantly, make sure you push your opponent’s skeleton. Look to the core and push the bones not the soft tissue. If you push, push. Mean it.
I want to thank Pat Rice and all the other people responsible for making A Taste Of China 1994 a truly wonderful event. It was a humbling experience to be around true Masters and teachers. The more experience I have with Tai Chi the more fun, rewarding, and meaningful it becomes.