Thoughts on Push Hands[1]


Push hands is not a game, is not competition, or combat. It is play. Someone who practices taichi is a student or a player. We play push hands, but that does not mean we don’t take it seriously – “play play play, and strength is not far off.” How do we play seriously? By not giving up the principles in order to make a point, by playing to explore, not to win.


Push hands has a form, the peng-lu-chi-an four-movement fixed-step form. We know how hard it is to practice the solo form with deep integrity. Push hands brings this to a whole new level, because it’s now a two-person form, and contains innumerable opportunities for a disruption of your balance. If you understand that the push hands form has qualities of harmony and balance that protect you, then you realize that any break in the integrity of the two-person form represents an opportunity or problem. Sensitivity to the correct two-person form is thus a crucial element in understanding balance. You don’t know when things are unbalanced if you don’t have a clear idea of what balance is.


But being tai chi, proper form is not only a question of having the right parts in the right place at the right time. The spirit, the qi, must be alive and present, soft and sensitive. This is the truly hard part – with enough practice one can easily learn the external rules about what goes where, but maintaining the spirit is where the real challenge lies. “I’ve got you, and dammit, you’re gonna go,” or “You think you have me, but I feel solid as rock” are two of the many ways we lose the proper spirit.  Don’t insist. This is tai chi – “things change” boxing. If X doesn’t work, try Y.  Don’t resist – don’t give up, but don’t resist. Just try to neutralize until you fall over. Allow yourself to be moved if you can’t neutralize. Practice being like a cloud – there’s no place for their force to land.


Yin and Yang

As we address one another in the push hands, we assume yin and yang. The yin ward-off listens for the energy statement, judging its quality, its correctness. The yang push listens for gaps, for tension, inaccuracy or idea. The touch should be light, but ultimately it is up to the yin person to maintain no more than four ounces of pressure. If I feel someone is tense or asleep, I can move in on them forcefully, knowing they’ll not be able to take advantage of my excess. But if they can stay light, I will expose myself to their counter, and all my fierceness will fall back on me. So while it is ultimately to the pusher’s advantage to stay light, it is to the defender’s advantage if they don’t. Tai chi is an art of defense, and its most important lessons are learned while neutralizing.


Neutralizing in Push Hands

A neutralization always involves a dissipation of force. Any response to the other must commence with a neutralization. Their energy comes in, finds no place to land, exhausts itself and seeks to change or retreat. At this point, they may be vulnerable. But in terms of just neutralization, their vulnerability is irrelevant. The danger has come and proved to be empty. This is a victory, the most important one.


The first rule in neutralization is “don’t let more than four ounces build up.” You have to move with the energy, folding, turning, yielding, whatever is appropriate. A fly cannot alight, a feather cannot be placed. But stick – don’t run away and cause gaps. Give up the self to follow others. Move with their energy, so ultimately it becomes your energy, and you can do what you want.


Yielding is not neutralization. It’s one tool out of many, maybe a main tool, but still just one. When the push comes in on our wardoff, we need to judge its correctness. We cannot simply yield to a double-weighted push, for example. We need to be alive to the dot of yang in our yin – that as a part of us yields to dissipate, another part fills up, using just that same energy. Like a revolving door, one leaf approaches as one recedes. We cannot ignore this aspect, this identity of yin and yang. To empty out without filling up is to deny the tao, and will cause even greater problems.


It is harder to attack than defend. Tai chi as an art does not lend itself to attack, so how do we assume the yang role in push hands? When we touch, we listen. Between the choreographic dictates of the form, and what we hear in the other person, we should have a reasonable idea of what to do next. To attack, you probe for the center with the substantial arm. You know which is your substantial arm, because your weight is back (you’re in push) and you know which leg you’re on.


If you’re on their wrist, you probe for rigidity or collapse, an unwarranted weight change, or lack thereof. If you’re on their elbow, look to their shoulder. But in either case, if your probing is forceful or stiff then you are simply exposing yourself to a return.  Most important is to be aware of your own exposure, your own excesses and deficiencies. You are most vulnerable when it is “your turn” to attack.


When we attack we probe for the center. From the very first touch, we are looking for a line through their center. This is not a mystical idea, just a basic fundamental physical reality. Imagine they’re standing in a circle whose circumference is bound by their feet. Any line that is a diameter or radius of the cylinder will be going through the center. That’s where you probe to. Probing for the center means connecting to it, finding it.  We all have some idea of what it's like to have a solid connection to something, versus a tenuous connection.  So we need to feel it, and follow it down, even in the face of the opponent’s attempts at neutralization.  This is sticking.  But again, if we are forceful or stiff, we lose our connection and become vulnerable.  As the opponent retreats, he finds the distance exasperatingly short.


If you can stick to the center, then sooner or later when the opponent cannot turn you off they’ll resist -- we say they're "stuck.”  At that point a push is possible.  If we try to push through their resistance, then most likely it will become wrestling, which is why I recommend going for the soft spot, which is a point opposite of the resistance. If they resist left, they will go right.



To push an opponent, their root must be broken – they must be floating. Basically, push hands is a dance to see who loses coherence first. Once a defect is detected, a push is possible, at least theoretically. Coherence (being in balance, in accord with the various principles) is not an either/or.  Usually, both people are defective, so it’s clearly a relative issue. Who’s less a mess? The greater the disparity between the two people, the easier the push. It’s often hard to wait for a sufficient defect, so many pushes are forced, and engender resistance.


You have to consider direction. For a push to be least-effort, it has to go where the energy dictates. Often there are a few directions possible. Always there are many directions that would entail forcing. To determine direction, consider their feet, orientation of their waist, whether and where they’re leaning (among other things). Sometimes their fingers point the way.


Your line of energy must pass through their center. Any push that does not go through this line can be neutralized, or will result in forcing. Minimize the role of the arms by having the energy come from the ground. The push must start from the feet, from your root. Then the arms really don’t have to move more than an inch or three. Connect your root to your hands to their stuckness and follow the line going through their center.


The movement should be steady and gradual (but not necessarily slow). Sudden movements cause a break in the connection - they indicate a reliance on speed, a certain desperation. If you lose connection when pushing, the moment has passed and you cannot push unless you’re forcing it. Be grateful to have survived, as you are now vulnerable to counterpush.


The actual push involves a tipping or lifting, a catch and throw. Don’t try to push somebody into their root. It’s easier to tip something over than it is to shove it, so use rising and turning energy.

The amount of force to trigger the push is four ounces (or less). By trigger, we mean sever their root, get them just past the balance point, just over the edge. This is the heart of it, and the moment of victory. What happens next is often ruined by going for drama, by trying to do too much. Once the other person is going, you could add energy or catch them, as you wish. At the moment of push, you should be in control of their center, so whether it’s a nudge or a boom is almost an aesthetic choice.


Push hands check list

Not in any order of significance. These are basically some form defects that you can become aware of.

1.      Hips square - Hips turned when they should be square (as in the initial address) indicate a tendency in one direction and a stuckness in the other. They can only (try to) neutralize in one direction, otherwise they’re just banging into you. A clear line of energy is established at the outset. But if you just walk into it, you’ll be delivering yourself up to them.

  1. Feet Flat - If the toe or (god forbid) the heel comes up, the whole structure is compromised. There is certain to be an opportunity, if you catch it.
  2. Feet Oriented Properly - Similar to the hip square issue – if the feet are off, the root is compromised. Look at their feet, and try to imagine what you would feel like if your feet were off like that. Where would be easiest to unbalance you?
  3. Leaning, Any Direction - Leaning back is sometimes adopted as a tactic instead of actual neutralization. It seems strong because the lower body is locked while the upper body is elusive. It can be tough to deal with – better to not force it and wait for a more opportune moment. If they’re leaning back, there will be one.
    Leaning forward is susceptible to drawing in. Just don’t draw them right in to your face. You need to turn while drawing, or otherwise guide them off to one side.
    Leaning left or right is a straightforward lift into their shoulder, or perhaps a drawing down in the direction of the lean.
  4. Nose In Line With Bellybutton - If they’re looking off to the side, their attention is confused. Send them in the direction they’re looking, since that’s clearly where they wish to go.
  5. Tension, Stiffness - Resistance is a forward motion. Don’t support them. You can draw them forward, or even try a ti fong.
  6. Facial Expression, Focus - If they’re focused or frowning or scowling, then the attention is narrowed. They cannot hear the unexpected, so be creative.
  7. Substantiality, Both People, Both Arms - You have to know, at every moment, where your substantiality is, and where is theirs. You cannot yield to double-weighting without losing your coherence. If you feel pressure, or a probing from the insubstantial arm, you know they have a serious problem. Often people think they’re getting out of a push by managing to deflect the opponent’s hand, but often they deflect the wrong hand! Be clear on what is significant in the situation – don’t be distracted by “noise.”
  8. Proper Weighting, Forward Or Back - If they’re forward when they should be back, or vice versa, then the two-person form is broken, and an opportunity exists. If they are perching on the front leg, they are easily tugged off balance.
  9. Floating - If you feel that your center is underneath theirs, then find a line and go with it. People often float when moving (transitioning) then settle down at the “endpoints.” Catching them as they start to float out of their root is particularly amusing. A small movement can have a dramatic result.
  10. Resistance (Non Yielding) - What do I do if they just stand there? What if they “take it into the root”? This is hard. While there is always  movement, even in a bracing body, it can be very hard to get it going. If you can catch the tension developing, you might ti fong it, or use it as a lever into the center. Otherwise, better to not insist, and just wait for them to move again.


Don’t waste energy focusing on your “problems” or your “weakness” or whatever.  Practice instead by building on strength.  Find the situations or aspects or whatever that gives you the most space to relax and bathe yourself in them.  Listen for the good stuff.  When you hear it, follow where it leads you.


Kosho Uchiyama:  There will always be that complaining and unsatisfied aspect of the self with which we have to deal.  The dharma is not going to become manifest only when we have somehow brought this aspect under control or stamped it out.  The function of the dharma and of practice is to care for the obstreperous aspect of ourselves in the same way a mother lulls her baby to sleep.


Trungpa: If you are waiting for your discipline to become immaculate, that time will never come unless you can let go.


Cheng Man-Ch’ing: We must relax even the desperate will to succeed.


It's our nature to want to work on the things that are difficult, because if they were easy they wouldn't engage our interest.  I sometimes think that dissatisfaction is the necessary precondition for change or growth. Yet taoism and taichi stress the virtue of non-doing, of not approaching difficulty with strong determination, of not adding energy into the equation.  But they don't advise that we ignore the issue either. 


We need to make neutralization a habit in all aspects of our life.  Maybe neutralization is not such a great word -- we need to develop the habit of not-resisting, but just as important and at the same time, we cannot give up our stability either.  This is the conundrum -- how can we not-lose while not-resisting?  The answer lies in practice, by putting ourselves in situations where we are able to practice not-resisting, we ingrain and develop the habit.  As we delve deeper into relaxation, we find that gradually-gradually situations that were once difficult have become manageable, maybe even easy and obvious.


If a situation is safe and non-threatening, we will find it easier to practice not-resisting.  If there's a lot on the line, if there's real danger, or if our buttons are getting pushed -- these are the times when it's hardest to be relaxed, so it's harder to practice investing in loss, so it's not great practice.


Limit your exposure to the button-pushers. Work with those you can work with. Occasionally try the others, but do not go to the point of anger, do not allow your stability to be lost. Don't get in the cage.





From TaichiThoughts Vol 4 #4


In one of Carlos Castenada's books, Don Juan is holding forth on being a warrior when Carlos  asks how would a warrior deal with an assassin. How could you defend yourself against an assassin waiting for you with a high powered rifle and a telescopic sight?


"I wouldn't be there," Don Juan answers.


Don Juan is operating in a pretty rarified dimension, even by the standards of the miraculous, but the principle is real.  "Not being there" is at the heart of our study.  When Cheng Man-ching says, "Let the very cells in the body relax," he's referring to the same idea.


Hardness blocks energy, whether it's the energy within us, or the energy of another.  Hardness or resistance gives force a place to land. Non-resistance is a most difficult but crucial idea in the application of Taichichuan.  "Take a piece of cloth," said Professor.  "You can beat it, but you can't harm it.  The cloth is soft, it doesn't resist you. So if you are soft as cloth, you won't be harmed."


In the address, the initial positioning for push hands or da lu, we stand so that our front foot aims at our partner's rear heel, and vice versa.  Essentially, this means--as the street saying goes--we are not "in their face."  The position sets us up so that in yielding, sitting back on the rear leg, we are at an angle to the opponent and can allow them to thrust or fall past us.


This is the very basic level of an attitude that should reach to the cellular level.  We do not seek to be in confrontation, in opposition.


If we examine how self defense is viewed generally, most of us see it as necessarily confrontational, even if we are not the aggressor.  We think, "I must defend myself," and in that idea we first place ourselves in a hard place energetically--we confront the attacker, so that we can "defend."  Even running away--which is not the idea I'm postulating--usually begins with confrontation, if only on the level of energy and the mind.


To be truly soft we need to change the idea, the essential outlook.  We do not place ourselves in opposition; not physically, not psychologically, not spiritually.  We have nothing to defend, because we are not there.  The space where the "defender" must be--in the attacker's face--is vacant, empty.  Then the attacker will have no purchase, no place to land.


We are led to a corollary to Cheng Man-ching's "Investing in Loss." "Lose until you have nothing left to lose"--then if you are attacked, you will not be there.







[1] Now known as Sensing Hands -- Changing the name of the exercise, aside from being a gesture of respect to Robert Smith, removes an emphasis on pushing.


Creative Commons License
Push Hands Doc Copyright © 2015 by Lenny Friedland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.