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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.

HOW TAI-CHI CAN SAVE THE WORLD

Demonstration of Chen Style Tai-chi

How can the ancient Chinese exercise of Tai-chi save the world? It transforms individuals, improving their health, eliminating stress, helps them let go of self destructive behaviors and feel more connected to their community. By transforming individual people in this way, the world can be transformed.

HEALTH

Tai-chi strengthens each cell of the body. The movements promote the movement of intercellular fluid, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the cells and removes their waste. Without the type of intricate movement you get with Tai-chi, the cells receive little nutrients and oxygen, food is stored as fat and cellular waste is not removed. The cells metabolize poorly and degenerate quickly, which leads to early aging. Tai-chi prevents these problems.

Tai-chi keeps the connective tissue flexible. This tissue surrounds all the organs, muscles body cavities and bones and forms ligaments and tendons. It tends to shrink and lose elasticity with age, which condenses the body. It is as if each part of the body is slowly being crushed. Tai-chi movements keep you young by keeping you flexible and maintaining full range of motion of the joints. You are also able to breathe more easily.

The National Institutes of Health lists many research papers showing that Tai-chi helps with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and other conditions as well as improving balance. If we can be healthier as a society, then we will need less medical intervention and the cost of health care will be less. Our productivity will increase because we will be more energized and spend less time being sick.

COMMUNITY

Our lives are becoming more disconnected. We interact through our cell phones and computers and less through face-to-face interaction. We don’t see our food being grown but purchase prepared, chemically enhanced, nutrient poor food, and just warm it up. We need body skills less and less, except for our thumbs for texting and so we live in our minds, considering our bodies to be “down there”. Our floors and streets are perfectly flat so we don’t even need to be mindful of how our feet interact with the ground.

Tai-chi works by first connecting our minds and bodies. We become aware of how every muscle and joint works in an intricate and beautiful harmony. Our awareness is in every part of our bodies, not just in our heads. When we step, or breathe or smile, it is with full awareness and full participation of every part of us, connected and alive. When we speak with another person, we learn how to really listen, rather than just argue. The Push Hands exercise teaches us to be completely aware of what is going on inside of another person so that we understand their behavior. This allows us to be comfortable with them and appreciate their individual spirit. Can you imagine if everyone felt like this?

We learn to move slowly and smoothly so that our attention flows like water. Rather than our minds ordering our bodies what to do, both mind and body flow together and work together. The mind doesn’t sit on its throne in the head. Each part of the body becomes conscious and consciously participates in the movements. This eliminates the master/slave relationship of the mind and body. It is said that the relationship between the mind and body is the basis of our relationships with other people. Isn’t it the mind, sitting on its throne, which argues that my way is right and yours is wrong?

Yet that very mind has been filled with attitudes and behaviors from outside influences, with their own agendas. What we take to be our identity is to a large extent, pushed into us. It is as if we were forced to wear a suicide vest as we go through life. When we practice Push Hands we have to let go of these attitudes and programmed behaviors, because that is what our Push Hands partner uses to push us off balance. Instead, we have to resort to our creativity and sharpness of attention. We learn that many of our patterns of tension just set us up to get pushed and so we learn to let them go. Letting go is a large part of the training. We even let go of fear itself by examining what fear feels like and understanding that it is just a pattern of tension.

What would the world be like if everyone could let go of self destructive behaviors? What if our identity was no longer based on our intellectual differences and fears but on realizing that the consciousness that flows inside of me is the same energy as that which flows inside of you? We may each be creative with that energy in a different way, but we are all “swimming in the same water” of consciousness. We learn this in Tai-chi.

ENDING CONFLICT

We even learn this lesson in Tai-chi-Chuan (the fighting training of this art). At the beginning we may see sparring as two opponents each trying to win. But the result of proper training in this martial art is to flow with the “opponent” so that there is only one flow. While there is action, your goal is to take control of the interaction so there is no opposition. You are always in a position of power but with no anger. This allows you to feel confident, yet not aggressive, not only in sparring, but in any interaction in everyday life. You are no longer battling your way through life as if you were always on the outside of it. Creativity takes the place of battling.

We say that we cannot take control of the sparring partner’s body – only his mind. If your mind is free and creative, as it is through Tai-chi training, it can never be trapped. As an example, if someone is grabbed, they usually tense up. This just makes it easier for the grabber to control his victim. But if you are loose you can easily slip out of the grab. And so sparring teaches you how to avoid getting trapped in life.

While most people do not learn the martial aspect of Tai-chi training, each part of the training teaches all the principles. You can learn slow forms (movements), aerobic forms, chi-gung (simple exercises), Push Hands – just learning as much as you like. You can also learn healing (Tai-chi Body-work). There is something for everyone in this system of exercise and healing.

HEALING

There are several types of healing that are connected with Tai-chi practice such as acupuncture, acupressure, Tai-chi Bodywork, herbal medicine and more. This type of healing is based on the idea that the body is an ecological community of many types of cells and organs that work best when kept in balance. There is a biological energy that flows through the body called “chi”. When chi flows evenly through every cell and organ of the body, the body is in the best health.

The healing principle “The inside and outside reflect each other” means that we are part of the ecology of the planet. When we heal ourselves we are healing part of the planet. Since each part of the planet is connected to each other part, healing our self really helps to heal the whole living planet.

Tai-chi helps to heal the “chi” that flows through all of us and through all living things, heals the relationships among people and heals us as individuals. What would happen if everyone did Tai-chi?

JOY

When we were little we found joy in movement, singing and in other simple things. We don’t do much of that anymore. Tai-chi reminds us how simple movements can bring the feeling of joy back into our lives. Some types of chi-gung are based on the movements of animals and are great fun (“Zookinesis” is one such series of animal exercises).

By eliminating habits of tension and worry and making each part of the body more aware and sensitive, Tai chi allows us to experience more joy. We can feel the beautiful things around us – art, nature and the human spirit – more intensely. The movements of Tai-chi are an art that weaves the beauty of our biological nature and human spirit into a life of joy that can be shared.

We learn to become connected to the earth, to other people, to our own spirit and body and to a great history of teachers who passed this training down through thousands of years. While originating in China, Tai-chi is not just about one kind of people or one religion or one political party. It is about how we are all part of the same consciousness and the same system of nature. It is about becoming healthy and comfortable with the great variety of life. It is about letting go of the fear that holds us back from joy.

What would it be like if everyone did Tai-chi?

FIGHTING YOUR SHADOW

Tai-chi-Chuan Sparring #3

Tai-chi-Chuan Sparring #1

Tai-chi-Chuan Sparring #2

Tai-chi-Chuan is a strange mix of health exercises, meditation and fighting. While most people practice Tai-chi strictly for health and exercise, the “Chuan” in the name reminds you that it is a martial art. Yet there is no blocking and the movements are relaxed and fluid.

The basic principle of Tai-chi-Chuan is to shadow your opponent. Where he strikes, you move away from his strike but into an unprotected area of his body. Where he moves away, you follow him so that you are like wet clothes he is trying to get off. You exhaust him and undermine his power.

You don’t allow him one second to recover from his series of strikes. We train to sustain our attention so that we don’t need that second to evaluate the effect of our actions. We act and perceive at the same time so that at every moment we can change and adapt. If our strike is blocked, the arm just circles around and still comes in. Since the power doesn’t come from the arm, but from the whole body, the strike still has power. We remain calm and centered throughout the sparring due to our training in forms, chi-gung and push hands.

This training of sustaining the attention, adapting at every moment, being aware of the effects of our actions as they happen and the ability to remain calm and centered in the midst of being attacked, helps us in our everyday lives. It teaches us that we can’t control the actions of others or the circumstances of the world we live in, but we can control how we react to all that.

The principle is that we let the attacker move as he wants to. We don’t interfere with his actions. But we control the relationship between us. If he wants to strike our head, we move our head and go to a spot he is not protecting with our own strike. He does what he wants; we do what we want and we are both happy (except that he gets hit).

We become his shadow and our strikes come out from his actions. Which gets me to another subject – Monsanto. This company is copyrighting patents on genetically engineered food and getting the large “factory farms” to use their seeds. Since they own the seeds the farmers are not allowed to keep seeds to replant. They have to buy their seeds from Monsanto every year. The attempt is to copyright organisms and own them.

Many people think this is outrageous. If a farmer is using natural seeds and Monsanto pollen enters his fields through the wind, then Monsanto automatically owns the rights to his crops and he can no longer save his seeds to plant.

This is why I think that we all need to become farmers. Even if we just plant a few tomatoes or peas in a plant pot we are helping prevent a company from owning life itself. We also are assured of healthy, tasty tomatoes and peas.

I see Monsanto’s “ownership” of life as a sort of strike against humanity. They are trying to become God. While we certainly need to fight against that through legislation, simply planting food plants is a way of undermining Monsanto. It is a shadow form of farming that makes them less powerful. Let they try to investigate everyone who has peas growing in a pot in their window to see if it is one of their copyrighted peas. Let them exhaust themselves. Let them fight the shadow farming.

Remember to save some peas or tomato seeds for next year. Keep them dry and in a dark place. Use paper envelopes – not plastic bags – to store them.

My garden is so prolific that I weed hundreds of tomato plants each year. The tomatoes fall on the ground and the next year they grow like grass. I compost with kitchen waste, grass clippings, dead leaves (not oak!) and ashes from my wood stove. If you have a rabbit or hamsters (or a horse or cow of course), you can use their waste in the compost as well.

Let’s all be shadow fighters in the fight for the right to grow our food. It is one of the most fundamental rights of humanity.

ALIGNING BODY, MIND AND BREATH

Push Hands Practice

At the recent push hands workshop in Connecticut the greatest problem the students had was energizing their bodies from the ground up. Since most of their attention was in their heads, their energy tended to start from there and go downward.

Teaching them to “even out their attention” had a great effect, not only on their push hands, but also on their most basic feelings and attitudes. In the “evening out” exercise I point out to them where their attention is weak in terms of in front, back, at the top, bottom, to the right and left of their bodies. Then I get more specific and point out more minute areas of unevenness.

Each time I point these things out, the students can clearly sense the unevenness and fairly easily rebalance their attention. But before it was pointed out to them, they didn’t notice the differences.

When you are trying to “uproot” your partner in push hands to throw him off balance, your energy must come from the ground up as you breathe in. You use your whole body and your breath, while the arms and hands just serve to connect your body to the partner. You don’t actually push with your arms.

Push hands trains you in the basic principles of Tai-chi-Chuan as a martial art. It also teaches you how to use your body properly in everyday life. Even more importantly, it teaches you how your body and mind may be twisted up in knots and how that affects your ability to enjoy your life and interact with other people.

My approach to teaching push hands is not technique oriented. I show people what they are presently doing and ask if that makes sense in terms of what they are trying to do. Usually it doesn’t. Then I explain how the body and mind were designed to be able to perform difficult tasks with ease. If you use your body and mind as they were designed your life will be easy.

It is a process of unraveling the twisted knots of body and mind to arrive at the simplest solution. One of my students said that the reason that there are no shortcuts in Tai-chi-Chuan is that the proper action is already the shortest action.

A push hands player may have his hand right on the body of his partner and be in a perfect position to push. But if his mind is somewhere else, he will feel he is a mile away. We learn to align the body, the processes of the mind and align the body with the mind so that everything works together, at the same time and for the same goal in the simplest, shortest way.

If you can learn to send your energy upwards and forwards from the legs and hips into the partner, not allowing the energy to escape towards the chest and head, and use the in-breath as the basis of your push, you will begin to align your actions properly. And that action will begin to transform the alignment of your body, energy and mind properly.

You can think of your belly as a floodlight covered by upper and lower flaps. When they open, the light floods out and forward as you breathe in. As you breathe out, they close. As you breathe in, widen your eyes and when you breathe out relax your eyes. You can use this as a meditation.

TRADITIONAL MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING

One of the discussions going around in the world of martial arts is whether there is a value in traditional martial arts. Lately the “systems” of Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting have become very popular. Students don’t want to go through the long process of traditional learning but would rather start fighting right away.

There are also discussions in the field of education about traditional or “classical” education vs. vocational training (just learning to do a job). On another front, students who are used to texting are having trouble being able to write essays in school or even letters.

In each case there is a devaluing of developing a student as a whole human being. It is a fulfillment of the trend begun in the industrial revolution of turning people into parts of the machine. It seems strange to me that just as we have unparalleled access to information and educational opportunities and as teachers of many styles of martial arts, exercise and healing make their training easily available, we are moving more towards a dumbing down society. The goal is just to make the money or knock out an opponent.

Traditional martial arts training teaches you to live in peace with other people and to feel part of all living things. It teaches you to consider all life to be sacred including the life within your own body so you would strive for a healthy lifestyle.

It teaches you to understand the underlying philosophy of the training and to appreciate education in all its forms. Most importantly, you learn to understand your own behavior and put it in perspective so you can grow as a human being.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t practice fighting. You certainly learn to defend yourself. You also spar as exercise and sport.

Many people recently have asked me to open new martial arts classes, but when they realize that I teach traditionally and expect a well rounded martial arts education, they are less enthusiastic.

I wonder, what is it about this particular time in our society that has changed what people have come to expect of the martial arts or of education in general.

TRAINING WITH GRANDMASTER WILLIAM C. C. CHEN IN THE 1970s

I have been asked to recount my experiences of studying with Tai-chi-Chuan Grandmaster William C. C. Chen in the 1970’s. When I first saw his form, its fluidity and lightness amazed me and I knew I would continue studying this art for the rest of my life.
He began each class doing the entire form once through. I remember one particular time when he was moving so beautifully that I had to stop and step to the side to give him my full attention. I noticed that none of the other students saw anything unusual in Master Chen’s movements. In fact, the other students never really watched him doing the form. They were always in their own world.
Master Chen peeked around at the students at one point and saw me watching him and he laughed under his breath. I asked him later what he was doing differently but he said he was just doing the form as usual.
In another case he was trying to get me to relax when he kicked me in the gut. I couldn’t relax and always tensed up. At the end of the class we were all in a tight circle listening to Master Chen and he said, “When you kick, you have to kick like this” and he kicked me right in the gut. Of course, I wasn’t expecting it so I was relaxed. He turned to me and said, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you standing there”.
At this time I owned an animal importing company and tried out what I learned with the animals. Then I took what I learned from the animals and tried it out in the class. From time to time I brought in an animal to show Master Chen. When I brought in a tarantula, I put it right onto his arm to see what his reaction would be. He just calmly watched it walk around on his arm and said it was “cute”.
On my first day of fighting class, he had me punch him in the face to get the feeling of punching (I was wearing boxing gloves). I was hesitant to punch him in the face as his only protection was little pieces of paper towels curled up into his nostrils. He insisted that I continue punching him and urged me to hit harder. After about 30 punches, I stopped and he asked me why I stopped. I explained that my wrists and arms were hurting.
My interest was not to learn fighting but to learn for health purposes. But Master Chen insisted that I take at least two months of fighting classes. At the end of the two months, Ed Scott (one of his instructors) punched me into a corner and kept punching. I hid under my arms and peeked out hoping to get Master Chen’s attention to deal with this situation. Master Chen was watching us but he was laughing. My only hope was to wildly try to punch back and then Ed backed off (not that he really had to. My punching wasn’t very good at that time). But something snapped in me and from that moment on I loved sparring. I continued going to sparring class.
The emphasis of his training was on allowing force to flow through the body while using minimal movement. He brought in a simple hygrometer – a bowl half filled with water, with a sheet of rubber stretched out on the top. A hollow glass tube pierced the rubber sheet and went into the bowl. When he pressed down on the rubber sheet, the water shot up the tube. He explained that when you step down you should feel as if you are stepping on a rubber ball. The compression of the ball creates an energy which shoots up through you. It is as if you are the hollow tube.
Before fighting, he would tell us a story which seemed to be leading to a lesson. It was hard to understand him at that time as his accent was thicker than now. So we strained to understand him. Then when he got to the conclusion, his “lesson” seemed to have nothing to do with the story. He immediately paired us off to spar. But our heads (at least mine) was spinning with confusion as to what he was getting at with the story. As I sparred, my mind was all bound up and I found I could spar much better. Did he confuse us on purpose? I don’t know.
He always told us to ask him questions, but in all the years I went to his classes I don’t remember anyone asking him anything. I always came in prepared with at least one question. It made me have to analyze what he had taught us. Most of his students were from the city and didn’t have cars. I came in from Long Island. So I drove him home after the classes. There I could ask him lots of questions. He once told me about the time he tried to get into a parking space. Another car tied to swerve in to get the space. Master Chen and the other guy got out of their cars. There was an argument. Master Chen knocked the other guy down, who then ran back to his car and drove away.
I asked Master Chen, “Isn’t Tai-chi supposed to be peaceful? And now you’re telling me you knocked that guy down!” He replied, “It was peaceful after I knocked him down.”
His studio at that time was on 23rd Street, near 7th Avenue. The floors were marble and the air conditioning didn’t work. There were no windows. It must have been 120 degrees in the class during the summer. After fighting class I felt the punches to my head for a full day, as if someone were still punching me. We always started sparring by punching each other in the head a few times to warm up. I remember that when “Big Bob” and Ed Scott (both over 6 feet tall and around 250 pounds) punched each other in the head to “warm up” it lasted about 10 minutes. They would pound each other without protecting themselves to get used to being hit. (In those days we didn’t wear headgear). The sound of their poundings were so loud that you couldn’t hold a conversation until they finished.
The walls of the studio were covered with quarter inch paneling (no sheetrock). If you were thrown against the wall during push hands, you hoped you would land between the studs, in which case the paneling bowed in, rather than directly onto the stud.
Priscilla had her Amway storehouse in a little room off the entrance hall and would keep the students supplied with soap and other products. Right after that room was a little counter and behind that Master Chen’s office. At a certain point (I think in the early 1980’s) I stopped attending class. I had moved further out on Long Island, so the trip was difficult and had taken on other responsibilities such as writing my books. After a few years, I visited Master Chen. I walked into the studio and up to the counter where he was looking down at his paperwork. He looked up and just started talking to me as if we had been in the middle of a conversation.
Nothing ever surprised or upset him. When we went to the movies one day Priscilla got upset about someone in front of us talking too loud. She was going to complain but Master Chen said, “Take it easy. Relax.”
His fighting was very quick and evasive. At a certain point I realized that if I aimed for where he was I would never hit him. So I learned to strike to where I thought he would move to and was much more successful in getting my strikes in.
His form always seemed to me to be like dripping water. He almost moved into position and then relaxed to move into the next position. Yet you could see that his energy completely finished the move even if his body “understated” the move. If you could divide your mind into two parts – one following the body’s movements, and the other to the natural completion of the momentum, you could understand the way Master Chen “blended” the two in various ways.
That is what taught me the most. I analyzed the components of his form both on a body mechanics level and an energetic level. That allowed me to understand what he was saying when he tried to explain the principles. So when I practiced push hands in class for example, I tried to extend the “mind” into the part of the partner’s body which had the least awareness or the least fluidity and then let the mechanics of my body create momentum to move along the pathway that my intention laid down, leading to that vulnerable part of the partner’s body. The expansion of my breath then caused the push itself.
I think that you cannot just take what Master Chen says and try to duplicate that within yourself. You have to see him, analyze the role of body mechanics, mind and energy and apply it in innovative ways so that it works for you. I think that is what he expects of you. He used to say that he is just interested in body mechanics, but I notice on the workshop dvd that he is now talking more about mind and energy.
I don’t think you can separate mind and energy dynamics and only work on body mechanics and hope to gain the kind of skill that Master Chen has. He also seems to concentrate on a different aspect of Tai-chi-Chuan in each decade. You need to know the whole range of his teaching from the beginning when I studied to now, to get an appreciation of the whole. I wish he had done a workshop dvd each decade so we could see the evolution of his approach to teaching.
I should also mention that I originally studied with one of his students, Herb Ray, who also had this analytical approach, taking apart every nut and bolt of the training in excruciating detail. The emphasis on how I teach now is identifying and letting go of all unnecessary behavior patterns so that there is no excess of movement – that the goal is accomplished with the movement of energy and the minimum movement of the body. I think this is the essence of Master Chen’s training.
He once wrote me a saying in Chinese (which I still have) that Master Chen, Man Ching taught him. “Tai-chi means not moving arms. If it is moving arms, it is not Tai-chi”. This means of course, not moving arms by themselves. At least that’s what he told me it means. I don’t speak or read Chinese.
These are some of my recollections and I have devoted my life to promote what I learned from Master Chen and from my other teachers. One thing I personally feel very strongly about, and this comes from my other teachers. Without really understanding Taoist alchemy and the teaching of the elements, it is very hard to progress in Tai-chi. You just get to a certain point and you can’t seem to get any further. Just thought I would throw that in, now that I have your attention. I would also suggest getting involved in acupressure massage as this really gives you an understanding of how the flow of energy in many people has become so entangled in a mess. It helps to understand that when you do push hands. If you can perceive the dynamics of the partner’s attention and energy flow, then push hands becomes very easy to do. (Or I should say that it becomes very clear what you need to do. “Easy” is probably not the proper word.)

PUSH HANDS CLASS

Take a look at clips from one of our push hands classes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsXq_S9WIAU

EMPTINESS IN THE MARTIAL ARTS

Internal of “soft” styles of martial arts require a radically different use of the attention than do external or “hard” styles.   In hard styles (e.g. Karate, TaeKwonDo and many Shaolin styles) your attention is drawn to the power of the opponent. You meet their incoming force with the force of your block.  Whoever is more powerful, wins.

In internal styles (Tai-chi-Chuan, Pakua (Bagua) and Hsing-I), your attention is drawn to the empty spaces where the opponent is not concentrating his force.  You (very quickly) melt away from their force and move towards an empty space next to him to deliver your own force.

In order to train to not have your attention captured by an opponent’s force, you must first learn not to have your attention captured by your own habits.  These habits were programmed into you or were just repetitive behaviors that you fell into.  They are the opponent of your creativity.

The slow forms teach you how to make your attention more liquid so that it cannot easily be grabbed.  You learn to connect your attention to the ground by starting each movement from your “root” so that your attention is not easily pulled out and controlled.

Push Hands teaches you to be creative with your attention and use it in a dynamic way in relation to another person. You learn that force is not “his” or “yours” but lies in the relationship between you.  If his fist is moving towards your head and you move your head slightly away, then there is no force, at least none of consequence to you.

Once you are empty of your own habits, including the habit of letting your attention be grabbed by other people, then you are free to be creative in your fighting and in your life.  You pay more attention to the empty space in which you can move.  You pay more attention to the moving a relationship in positive ways, rather than butting heads.

Emptiness becomes the central focus of your “internal” martial arts training.  The tighter you are and the angrier you are, the less “space” there is.  Without this kind of space, you are forced to fight in a robotic way, becoming tighter and angrier.  If you can give up your inefficient habits, let go of anger and spar in a relaxed way, then the martial arts can be very enjoyable and you will be very effective.

While you are “empty” of habits, you are full of life and vitality

HOW TO AVOID ATTACK

Tai-chi-Chuan teaches you how to avoid attack on the street and to make it difficult for a sparring partner to defeat you in class.  Even if you are not strong or are not used to fighting, there are ways you can thwart the attacker’s efforts.

A mugger is looking for an easy attack on someone who won’t or can’t fight back.  He mugs for a living and doesn’t want to get hurt “on the job”, just like anyone else.  The mugger must assess the physical abilities of his victim as well as the victim’s state of awareness. 

There are three qualities you can develop to lessen the chances of becoming a victim.  The first is the alignment of the body.  If your body is not aligned properly you are probably not involved in any physical activity that requires coordination.  The mugger can sense this.  Any training, such as Tai-chi, Zookinesis, Yoga or Pilates can teach you the proper alignment of the body.  Even the use of such physical therapy aids as the foam roller will improve your posture.  This will also improve your overall health.

The second quality is the fluidity of the body.  If your body is stiff and tight, you probably can’t move very well and certainly can’t run after the attacker.  A person who walks fluidly and is well connected to the ground may offer the mugger trouble.  If your body seems bouncy and alive you may have the energy to run after him.  The training methods mentioned above as well as such activities as trampoline work will bring that fluidity to the body.  Trampoline, Zookinesis and the animal forms of the martial arts are especially good at adding that bounciness to the body.

The third quality a mugger looks out for is awareness.  If you are aware of what is going on around you, you can prepare for an attack.  Strong awareness also shows that you have had some training, as the awareness of most people is very dead.   All of the above training helps with awareness, especially the Push Hands exercise of Tai-chi, sparring in general and the Zookinesis exercises.

In a classroom situation there are ways to thwart the sparring partner as well.  Most fighters concentrate on the opponent’s fists and feet and sometimes elbows and knees as well.  But they don’t concentrate on the space between the sparring partners.  Proper Tai-chi training teaches you to move into the open spaces so that the opponent is jammed.  You should be more interested in the spaces between you than in the strikes of the partner.  Let his strikes trigger you to move into the open spaces where you can easily deliver your own strikes. 

This requires that you don’t keep moving forward and back as with most styles of fighting.  You stay in and don’t allow the partner space to move or even time to relax and catch his breath.

Another way to quickly tire out the partner is to make his attention move rapidly.  Most people have very weak attentions.  While a properly trained martial artist has a “field of attention” so that he can deal with many things going on at a time, most fighters have a “single-pointed attention” which can only be in one place at one time.  That person’s attention has to jump from one place to another and it gets tired.  

So you should strike to different parts of the body.  You can punch the legs as well as the head and body.  You can integrate kicking with the punching rather than using punching for a while and then switching to kicking.  Add a little bit of grappling as well, just for a second or two, here and there and then go right back to punching and kicking.  If your partner cannot predict what you will do next, his attention is uncertain and wears out quickly.

Keep the body fluid.  Allow your hips, lower ribs and elbows to rotate in small circles and allow the head to reflect this movement.  This will allow you to respond quickly and will make it difficult for your partner to aim.  It will require his attention to follow your movements and most people cannot do that for long.

These are but a few simple ways that proper Tai-chi training can teach you to be uninviting to attackers and to make it difficult for an attacker to defeat you.

ESCAPING FROM OUR CAGE

The source of joy in our lives does not come from external circumstances but from our internal state, according to Tai-chi and Zookinesis principles.  We have created our own cage of fears and assumptions that blocks us from our full share of joy in life.  Through proper training you find that there are areas of the body that are dead to your awareness.  The body seems dull and clumsy rather than a finely tuned, intricate mechanism.  Your attention seems sluggish and small rather than expansive, detailed and agile.

Proper training in these disciplines begins with bringing the body and attention (consciousness) back to its original vibrant and powerful state.  You first learn to be aware of every muscle and joint in the body, how each feels and how each works.  Students find that they are using far too much effort and movement to accomplish their tasks such as the Zookinesis exercises or Tai-chi forms. 

As an example, self defense students usually respond to the opponent’s strike by trying to block the strike out of their way.  This requires the force of their own arm and results in their arm knocking into the striking arm of their opponent and getting bruised.  Through proper training the student learns to duck away from the strike and deliver their own strike into the opponent’s unprotected areas. 

He can also lightly touch the incoming strike, adding more momentum to it by pulling the striking arm in the direction it is already going.  This throws the opponent off balance.  The student can then easily throw the opponent to the ground or strike him.  In either case you are using far less effort and energy than blocking. 

In the Push Hands exercise, described in many of the articles below, the goal is to push the partner off balance while maintaining your own stance.  Beginning students tighten their shoulders, raise their bodies and push with their arms.  This is very ineffective yet it makes them feel strong.  They feel their own tightness and think they are strong. 

Soon they learn to sink their bodies, relax their shoulders and use their legs and hips to power the push.  The arms become like shock absorbers, remaining slightly firm and springy.  Yet the arms themselves do not push.  The power of the push comes from the action of the whole body.  The result is a lot more power and a lot less effort.

These physical examples are used to illustrate the types of situations that each of us face in everyday life.  Few of us get involved in the martial arts or will even encounter a physical conflict.  Yet how many of us can avoid the daily psychological stresses in our jobs and family lives?

By practicing how to deal with physical conflict in a controlled setting such as a Tai-chi class, we can apply the principles you learn to these everyday situations.  You learn to remain relaxed yet powerful.

As an example, notice how your shoulders rise and tense up during the day.  First notice the feeling of the shoulders when you first wake up and then after you come home from work.  There is no physiological benefit to tensing up the shoulders.  In fact this can lead to headaches, tiredness and add to depression.  It is just a habit.  You can’t punch someone who is giving you a hard time and so the tension builds up inside of you. 

Many people say that they just can’t help it.  But through Tai-chi and Zookinesis training you discover the very psychological mechanism that makes you tense up.  You uncover the internal “control panel” for bad habits and learn to turn them off. 

You must be willing to change.  Many of us feel that we are our habits.  We resent the idea of changing.  Yet these habits will kill us.  In a sense, we identify with these “angels of death” as if they were the basis of our identity. 

With proper Tai-chi and Zookinesis training we learn to identify with our creativity, our health and our feeling of joy.  We feel as comfortable letting go of destructive habits as we would letting to of a “hot potato”. 

As our bodies and our attention (consciousness) become more relaxed, powerful and joyful, this inner state affects our emotions as well.  We find that the aggravations and angers we previously had were not effective in improving our lives.  In fact they only served to hurt our bodies, minds and spirits. 

While it is difficult to let go of our self righteousness (because we feel that we are the perfect example of all that is right), this feeling seems silly after awhile.  After examining all our faults – our tensions and poor mechanics of the body and mind – we can hardly fault others for the same problems.  We understand the problems within ourselves and can better empathize with these same problems in other people.

Yet we can only work to improve ourselves.  Complaining to others about their problems is useless.  If you clear out your own problems you can serve as an example to others without lecturing and complaining. 

There is so much beauty in the world and there is so little time to experience it.  Why orient your attention to anything other than that beauty.  You start by clearing out the debris in your own internal state to reveal the beauty that is already there.  The sun “wants” to come in through your windows.  All you need to do is keep the windows clean.  Tai-chi and Zookinesis exercises fine tune our internal state so that the beauty of nature can always shine through.

It is amazing how, just by learning not to tense up in reaction to external circumstances, our lives can change so much for the better.  By loosening up all our joints and allowing our bodies to become flexible, we can overcome depression.  Such negative emotional states are a reflection of the internal state of the body and the attention.  Attention is a biological state of complete awareness so that every cell, muscle, bone and organ of the body feels fully alive and you feel connected to the rest of nature. 

The internal disciplines evolved during the time that people moved from living in nature to living in artificial surroundings such as cities.  Our natural biological state was being caged by the physical and cultural surroundings.  

Tai-chi and Zookinesis helped people to live in such artificial conditions and yet retain their original natural power and joy.  Remember that even though there is cement beneath your feet, there is living earth under that.  We cannot let the concrete beneath us and the square walls around us imprint their artificiality on our spirits.  Whether our spirits are caged or free is a choice each of can make, as long as we have the tools to remain free.