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Animal Push Hands

The Tayra - a powerful and playful animal.

The Tayra – a powerful and playful animal.


When I studied Tai-chi-Chuan with Grandmaster William Chen I was a zoologist. One of my jobs was to import animals from around the world for captive breeding programs. Most of my time was spent working with hundreds of species of animals.

They were often much stronger and quicker than I and were sometimes in a bad mood. I had to learn the dynamics of their movements, attention and their body energy to survive day to day. There was something they all did that took me a while to understand. That dynamic is the basis of what I teach in the Tai-chi exercise of “push hands”. This makes my push hands different from that of other teachers.

We talk about “energy” in Tai-chi. The animals were doing something with that energy. In most push hands interactions you will see each partner trying to keep the other partner away from them. Hands are flying and each tries to impose their force on the other. In some cases a partner may be mechanically well grounded and very fast and so it goes well for him. Their attention is always on counteracting the partner and imposing their will.

The animals were doing something very different. They were extending their energy into me, and allowing my energy to enter them. They were certainly not trying to “keep me away” in the normal push hands sense. Yet they were very powerful and I could do nothing with them – until I learned their method.

When I watch push hands competitions, my main interest is in the “orientation” of the joints of the body. If each joint was an arrow, pointing in the direction of its energy, to which direction would the arrow be pointing? What I see in most push hands is that the orientation is downward into the partner. It is as if each partner is falling onto the other.

When I worked with the animals, the orientation of each of their joints was upwards, in an approximately 45 degree angle. In addition, they seemed to absorb my force, which in turn, was fed back to me. With further study, I found that they were absorbing my force into their ligaments and tendons, which they used like a bowstring. My own force, stored in their bodies, was then released back into me.

My degree in “ethology” (the evolution of animal behavior) came in handy, as I had learned how to study animal behavior in a systematic way. My training in Tai-chi-Chuan, including push hands, gave me another approach to understanding this behavior, that of thinking in terms of energy flow.

I realized that they were manipulating my energy within their bodies, and their energy within my body to control me. We became in essence, a single energetic system and their attention was at the center of that system. Mine was not. It was only on my side. Furthermore, they could place the fulcrum of interaction at any point that was must beneficial for them. The fulcrum in this case, refers to the reference point their joints use to pivot around. For example, I can move my body pivoting around my tai-tien (about an inch and a half below the navel at the center of the body) or around my sternum. Just by placing my concentration at such a point, the joints function with that point as their reference.

As I fought or played with the animal (depending on its disposition), it could constantly change that fulcrum point which confused the heck out of me. Tayras and grisons were my favorite. These Central and South American weasel-like mammals are about eight to fifteen pounds. They are like little wolverines. There were many species of cats, monkeys, honey bears, coati mundis, anteaters, as well as pythons up to thirteen feet, monitor (dragon) lizards up to eight feet long, many birds and others. Each had its own way of using energy and I had to learn them all.

When I practiced push hands with the other students, I would use these methods of using energy, and push hands became more fun than competition. Many of the animals could throw me off just by using their breath and I brought this into class. When I learned something in class, I brought it back to the animals. Eventually, the animals all learned to do push hands with me and their moods were always good.

So now when I teach push hands to my students, I substitute for the animals, using one dynamic in one class and another dynamic another day. When I still had the animal importing set-up, I used to bring the animals themselves into class. Now I just bring in the energy so my students can get a similar experience.

I found dozens of energy dynamics in the many species and integrated them into what Grandmaster Chen taught me. Today my push hands is not so much about how many times a student can push over another student to get points. It is about learning these energy dynamics, which can then be used in everyday life. These dynamics don’t necessarily require physical contact. They can be done even in a verbal interaction, because there are always energy dynamics going on underneath.

My students regularly tell me how they used a particular dynamic in an interaction, often at work. Translating push hands dynamics into everyday life is the greatest benefit of this exercise. It is also humbling to realize that animals are so much smarter in certain ways, than people.

ANCIENT MIND

ALONE

SUNSHINE

PLAY

POWER

HARD AND SOFT

This is the first in a series of nature photos with sayings by Bob Klein.  You can print these as posters or to create a notebook of photos.

LEARNING FROM ANIMALS

The animal importing company was like my second home.  After school and on weekends I took care of monkeys, parrots, anteaters, hedgehogs, pythons, dragon lizards, tarantulas and dozens of other species.  The animals were my family.  Many had been there for so long that they were now fully grown.

These animals were imported from areas that were being destroyed.  They were sold to people or organizations that were studying how to breed them in captivity. 

At the same time, I went to New York City as often as possible to study a form of chi-gung based on animal behavior – a system I now call “Zookinesis”.  The reason I was chosen to receive this teaching is that my mind and spirit had already been formed to a large extent by the animals I worked with.  I spent more time with them than with people.

In this chi-gung system you learn to copy the patterns and qualities of internal energy (chi) of various animals.  By experiencing the large variety of patterns of chi you learn to appreciate the dynamics of chi.  You can then use these dynamics in healing. 

I soon began my own animal importing company and decided to live in the animal compound.  There were always problems and you had to be right there if an animal got loose or was sick.  I soon saw fewer and fewer people and more and more animals.

When I began learning Tai-chi I could relate the movements and qualities to many of the animals I worked with.  When I learned Push Hands and the self defense sparring of Tai-chi I practiced what I had learned in class with the animals.  They enjoyed it and I learned a lot from their response. 

It was important for me to learn Tai-chi sparring.  When I would unpack a shipment of new animals I never knew what to expect. The shippers often included unexpected animals or ones that were larger than what I ordered.  Opening the orders meant getting attacked by many animals that were in a bad mood.  I had to get them into their cages, protect myself and make sure not to hurt them.  I often got the worst of it. 

But as I learned the behavior patterns of each species I could use Tai-chi and Zookinesis principles to control them and calm them down. 

At a certain point I realized that I lived in a different kind of world than most people.  The very make-up of my mind and spirit was the sum of all the animals I worked with as well as the effects of my training.  This made me feel isolated.  So I searched for traditional teachers of other cultures that understood this relationship between the human spirit and the spirit of animals, cultures such as Native American, Celtic and others. 

Through readings I found that the idea of learning from the spirit of animals was widespread in the ancient world.  Ancient people felt they were an intricate part of nature.

Yet I found that in modern forms of chi-gung and Tai-chi, the practice of learning from animals is missing.  The only remnants are in the animal forms or such chi-gung practices as “The Animal Frolics” which are stylized imitations of animal movements.  But this is no substitute for working directly with animals.

There were five other large animal importers at that time in the New York City area.  Most Saturdays I visited one or two of them to see what new species they brought in.  The owners of these animal compounds would discuss their new animals with me.  If I found the animal especially interesting I would get a few in to work with them.  I spent three summers in Central America, canoeing through the rivers to see animals in the wild and visit the remote people who lived deep in the jungle. 

At the end of each trip I felt that I wanted to stay there permanently but my teachers were up in New York and I still had a lot to learn.

After graduating from college I worked as a travelling teacher of ecology around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, bringing some of my collection of animals to each school and discussing the importance of protecting the environment.  I saw how excited the students were, how their eyes lit up at each new animal and how much they wanted to touch and hold them.  There was an innate need to be connected to nature and I provided that to the students of each school at least for one day.  After 20 years, I had presented the programs, called “The Animal Man” to over one and a half million students and teachers.

The yearning of children to connect with animals is the same yearning for each of us to be connected to our own bodies.  We have become strangers to our own bodies.  The body seems to us like some big, awkward thing down there that carries our head around.  With Tai-chi and Zookinesis we learn to feel each part of our bodies and to understand how to use the body properly.  Through these exercises each part of the body feels alive and awake.  You can feel healing taking place as the body becomes more conscious. 

In the sense of the consciousness of the body, we are not as smart as other animals.  It is only our thinking ability that is superior.  But we have sacrificed the consciousness of the body for the thinking process.

Zookinesis teaches you how to balance both forms of consciousness so that they work together.  The “Body-Mind” and the thinking mind are no longer at war. 

My Zookinesis teachers emphasized that, just as there are many forms of consciousness among different kinds of animals, there are many different perspectives in the cultures and thoughts of people.  We need to respect the different ideas and attitudes among people just as we need to respect the consciousness and the very right to live of animals.  If we have the attitude that only our own thoughts are correct then we may become disrespectful and even violent towards other people.  If we feel that we are superior to animals then we may feel justified in destroying their habitats and even entire species.

They emphasized that one reason it is important to spend time with animals is to appreciate that each species is a perfect part of the web of life of nature, that violence to bodies or to consciousness destroys all of nature. 

If we can repair the damage to our own bodies and to our own consciousness, we are actually helping to repair all of nature. 

I knew that it would be impossible to teach Zookinesis if I required my students to spend long months in the wild with animals which is how it was originally taught.  And so I combined Zookinesis training with Tai-chi to create a training system that incorporated all of my experiences into a simple, cohesive training system. 

The way my students most commonly describe their experience of this process is that they realize they have hips or they have a back or some other part of their bodies.  What they mean is that they now actually feel the aliveness of those parts of the body.  They are connected to their own bodies.  Their minds and bodies blend together so that both work at maximum efficiency.  Their behavior is no longer controlled by awkward behavior patterns, by fears, by excess movements or by the racing of the mind.  They are no longer blind to what is going on inside of them. 

When they catch themselves at ridiculous behaviors, they laugh at themselves.  We call that “The Dragon Whips its Tail”.  There is an animal mythology that goes along with Zookinesis that makes it easier to understand.  In this case the laughter helps you to whip away the ridiculous behavior as if you were flicking away a fly.  You realize that you are filled with self destructive behaviors and the laughter keeps you from getting angry or depressed about it.

For example, when we get stressed, we often tense up our shoulders.  Of course this behavior doesn’t help you deal with the stressful behavior.  It only makes you feel worse.  Through Zookinesis, Tai-chi and Tai-chi massage, all these harmful behaviors are exposed and we can more easily let them go. 

Finally our bodies and minds feel free and clear, like a natural animal.  We no longer feel caged by our own tensions and fears.  The vibrancy of nature is felt in every cell of our bodies and we feel how we are connected to the rest of life.