This creates an emotional tension. You don’t want your partner getting into your space to push you, yet you want to move into his space to push him. The unique Tai-chi resolution to this tension shows the genius of Tai-chi’s creators and also explains many of our society’s modern problems.
Some push hands players will tighten up and spend most of their energy keeping you out. They are not really paying attention to you (your balance, movements and state of attention) but just to their own mental strategies. When they push, the movement of the push is disconnected from the flow of movements that came before. This reflects their internal state, that of the thinking mind ordering the body around but keeping the body at “arms length” from their own thinking mind. It is similar to the politics of isolating people according to their differences and setting them against each other.
The Tai-chi approach to push hands is to consider the partner’s actions and your responses as one single unit. You allow the partner to make the decisions of movement and you stay connected with them, but offering little resistance. Whatever position they put you into, you are happy to be in that position, but you concentrate on being properly aligned and centered in that position. Part of that alignment is that you are in a good position to push the partner off balance. You use his movements to set up your body in proper alignment, rather than trying to take control and force his body to move according to your will.
The forceful, disconnected approach gives you the feeling you are strong and in control. But if you are partnering with a good push hands player, your own feeling of strength and control always leads you to being in a weak position. The good push hands player fills the spaces within your power, preventing you from functioning. Yet he does this lightly.
When two good push hands players are partnered, each tries to bring the forces within his own body. When his partner pushes, he absorbs the force, distributes that force among all his joints and into his root to empower his own response. In this way, the forcefulness of the partner is experienced as “raw material” you can use to add to your own power and return the combination back to your partner.
Push hands then becomes an attempt to connect to, and transform forces rather than to build barriers to those forces. You become part of the flow of forces rather than a blockage to that flow.
We are living in an increasingly “external” culture, in which we see each other as isolated physical objects battling against each other. We see the natural world around us as a store, providing products on its shelves, rather than as a living system that we are part of.
When I practice push hands with most people and softly merge into their “space”, they harden up and resist, desperately trying to maintain their isolation and to them, Push Hands is a game of maintaining your isolation and feeling physically strong (tight).
If the two partners can both merge, then Push Hands becomes a game of integration balanced with the attempt to push. It is a balance of merging and being an individual, a skill needed in any kind of relationship. Push Hands used to teach people that skill, but in a world of increasing isolation, this game too often reflects its host culture.
If we can embody that skill in our everyday lives, then we can begin to heal the rift between the body and mind, allowing them to merge, which brings us internal peace.
Remember the “Principles of Tai-chi Forms with Applications to Push Hands” workshop on Sunday April 17th 2016. Call (631) 744-5999 for more information. At the Tai-chi-Chuan School in Sound Beach, Long Island, N. Y.