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Must Reads Tai Chi Grandmasters Discuss Push Hands Techniques

Yang Youfu on Push Hands

Push hands is the practical application of Tai Chi. Learning push hands is equivalent to learning to sense energy. Once you have a sense of energy, understanding energy becomes easier. Therefore, the general principle of “from understanding energy to reaching the realm of spiritual illumination” is undoubtedly rooted in push hands.

In pure Tai Chi, the arms are wrapped in cotton, soft yet heavy. During push hands, this can be discerned. When grasping someone, the hands are extremely light, but the opponent cannot surpass them. When releasing someone, it is like shooting a bullet, swift and decisive, without exerting any force. The person who is thrown feels only a slight movement and no pain, yet they are thrown several zhang away. When sticking to someone, there is no grabbing or seizing; it is a gentle adherence that cannot be escaped, causing the person’s arms to feel sore and numb. If one tries to overpower a skilled Tai Chi practitioner with strength, it would be like trying to catch the wind or chase shadows, always falling short and ineffective.

Xu Yusheng on Push Hands

Push hands, also known as “dǎ shǒu” or “kào shǒu,” is practiced by practitioners of various martial arts styles to develop their skills in close-range combat. The key to Tai Chi is understanding energy, and the initial step in understanding energy is to develop a sense of touch. This is achieved by interlocking elbows, wrists, palms, and fingers with a partner and engaging in back-and-forth movements to refine the sensitivity of the skin. Through the pressure and temperature changes felt on the skin, one can discern the lightness, heaviness, emptiness, and solidity of the opponent’s energy, as well as its direction. With prolonged practice, sensitivity becomes keen, and the ability to stick and follow emerges. Even the slightest movement can be perceived, indicating an understanding of energy. As the Tai Chi saying goes, “The more you practice after understanding energy, the more refined your skills become.” Practitioners of Tai Chi who do not practice push hands can be considered as not having truly practiced Tai Chi. If one practices push hands without understanding energy, their applications will be futile. Therefore, when studying push hands, one should pay close attention.

Chen Weiming on Push Hands

The purpose of push hands is to apply it in practical situations. While other martial arts also have two-person practice, they usually consist of only a dozen or so techniques, with a few more at most. However, in Tai Chi push hands, there are eight techniques: embrace, lead, squeeze, press, pluck, control, elbow, and lean. These eight techniques are practiced to make the body agile and rounded, with both practitioners sticking and following each other in a continuous cycle, like a sphere rotating in the sky, encompassing all possible movements. By training the body to be rounded and adaptable, one can respond effortlessly to any situation, allowing for infinite variations. This is known as the unity of ten thousand techniques, where mastering one technique encompasses all techniques.

Xiang Kairan on Push Hands

The Yang family’s approach to push hands progresses from simple to complex, encompassing four methods. Initially, both practitioners use single-handed contact, allowing for agility in stances and movements. The next stage involves leaning, pressing, squeezing, and holding, with both hands employed and the feet remaining stationary, using only body and hand movements to advance or retreat. Afterward, active stepping is introduced. Finally, there is stepping in all four directions, known as grand adherence. The footwork, body work, and hand techniques gradually become more intricate, allowing the practitioner to move freely and independently, adapting to changes in pace and intensity

. The principles of Tai Chi are different from those of other martial arts, focusing on sticking and following, which means not opposing or yielding to force. While the principles are easy to understand, putting them into practice is challenging. Partial sticking and following may be achievable, but complete adherence is difficult. To achieve complete adherence, one needs significant effort.

When practicing Tai Chi, practitioners should pay particular attention to the skill of “listening to energy.” This term is unique to Tai Chi and does not mean listening with the ears but rather listening with the skin. In other words, it involves developing tactile sensitivity. The skin can sense the direction of incoming energy, and practitioners respond by using half-circular movements to deflect and counterattack. This is what is meant by the Tai Chi saying, “Being empty means being sticky, and being sticky means not being pushed.” While the concept is easy to explain, it is challenging to achieve. Some Tai Chi practitioners, during push hands, deviate from the prescribed sequences by using various obstructive actions, making it difficult to follow a set pattern. If one is unfamiliar with the techniques, it can lead to stagnation and uncertainty about how to respond. These obstructive actions are referred to as “grabbing,” meaning holding on without letting go. Although this type of practice is necessary, it should only be a part of training and not the foundation. Its benefit lies in helping practitioners understand the variations of sticking and following and enhancing tactile sensitivity. Mastery of any skill comes with practice. While focusing on grabbing, which is a form of sticking, and simultaneously practicing walking, one can naturally acquire skill through familiarity. However, why is it that this partial training cannot serve as the foundation? This is because the ability to be empty and the inability to stick, the ability to walk and the inability to walk all depend on the depth of one’s skill. Without sufficient skill, even if one knows the methods of sticking and following, they will still be unable to stick and follow. Therefore, it is essential to follow the prescribed sequence of push hands exercises, including embracing, leaning, pressing, squeezing, holding, and so on, and to analyze them carefully, not rushing or being careless. Only then will all three techniques be precise and accurate.

Push hands is also a microcosm of Tai Chi. Within a larger circle, there are sub-circles formed through the actions of embracing, pressing, squeezing, and holding. These semi-circular movements are interconnected. If one hand is neglected, the integrity of the larger circle will be compromised. In these four hand techniques, each hand forms a smaller circle where sticking and following occur. Within each small circle, there is a division between sticking and yielding. Both hands must stick and follow simultaneously, distinguishing between emptiness and solidity. Failing to make this distinction results in double emptiness or double solidity, which is equally problematic.

Yang Yingjie on Push Hands

In the initial practice of push hands, start by learning the two-person exercise of sticking, drilling, and circling. Next, learn the four methods of leaning, pressing, squeezing, and holding. Then, learn the transformation of energy: first, learn the transformation of the elbows, then the waist, and finally both shoulders, emphasizing softness and smoothness. Afterward, learn to adapt the whole body to random changes. Study the applications of leaning, pressing, squeezing, and holding, and then learn the connected transformation of energy and striking techniques. Sensing and understanding energy requires practicing push hands extensively to truly experience the wonders of sticking and following. During push hands, carefully contemplate and analyze, avoiding the misconception that pushing the opponent out is a source of amusement. Focus on maintaining control of your own center of gravity, while making it difficult for the opponent to anticipate your movements. The opponent’s center of gravity should always be within your control. When you are squeezed, counter-squeeze; when you are pressed, counter-press; when you are leaned upon, counter-lean; and when you embrace, simultaneously apply an oblique force. These four techniques encompass movements in all directions and are repeated continuously in a circular and fluid manner. Through regular and prolonged practice, one’s skills will gradually become familiar and refined, leading to a heightened perception and understanding of energy.

Ye Damo on Push Hands

Tai Chi is light and agile, like a lotus leaf that tilts when touched by dew, causing the dew to flow away. In push hands, one should strive for roundness before seeking squareness. Push hands should flow yet be able to stick. Without losing contact, one can still lose contact; without opposing force, one can still exert force. The intention should be to anticipate the opponent’s movements and swiftly adapt to changes. This is what is meant by the concept of simultaneous losing and exerting force. Achieving this simultaneous action of losing and exerting force can only be attained by not losing contact and not opposing force. When forming the circle in push hands, it is better to have a larger circle on the outside and a smaller circle on the inside. The larger circle can distract and confuse the opponent’s senses, while the smaller circle allows for flexibility, quick transformations, and focused concentration. Even in the realm of push hands, the ability to appear and disappear is still considered preliminary. Mastery comes when one can remain neither hidden nor visible, and ultimately, one can effortlessly borrow and utilize the opponent’s force.

Xu Siyun on Push Hands

Tai Chi Quan is a form, and push hands is its application. In the beginning, practitioners follow the prescribed movements, imitating the steps and movements. With continued practice, they can maintain their balance and stability. They gradually become able to yield and dissolve force without losing their composure. The most challenging aspect is dealing with each other’s subtle movements, which requires seeking advantageous positions. Advantageous positions involve differentiating between conformity and opposition, forward and backward, and strength and weakness. Once advantageous positions are achieved, the next step is to determine the direction—up or down, straight or at an angle. Timing is crucial, as being too early or too late allows the opponent to anticipate and adapt. When all three aspects are mastered, practitioners can perform movements with minimal effort, quick reactions, and long-reaching pulls.

Chen Yanlin on Push Hands

In the early stages of learning, fixed-step push hands should be practiced, focusing on the four techniques of leaning, holding, pressing, and pushing. However, most beginners struggle to smoothly integrate these techniques. It is necessary to practice with an experienced teacher or skilled practitioner to gain proficiency in circling and complete mastery of each technique. Once the four techniques can

be clearly distinguished and practiced continuously, the waist and legs will be able to rotate freely, and the techniques can be applied effortlessly. Only then can one learn to grasp and issue force. At this stage, it is advisable to find a partner who can act as a dove and practice applying one specific technique at a time. Avoid the mistake of practicing multiple techniques simultaneously before mastering any of them. Furthermore, before learning to grasp and issue force, it is essential to observe how the teacher or experienced practitioner applies these techniques, how they grasp and issue force. Pay attention to the specific points of application, timing, and direction, which should be verified through personal experimentation. Avoid rushing and prioritize understanding. The foundation of Tai Chi lies in fixed-step push hands. After reaching a certain level, it is crucial not to limit oneself to practicing with only one partner. It is necessary to practice with different individuals, regardless of their hand strength, softness, level of skill, or depth of understanding. Otherwise, the ability to issue force will be limited to only those with whom one is familiar, making it impractical. When practicing active-step push hands, the hands, waist, and legs must move in unison. Maintaining continuous contact without breaking the sticking and following force is especially important during forward and backward movements.

Tan Mengxian on Push Hands

In push hands, there are two individuals, one representing the enemy and the other representing oneself. They use one or both hands to make contact and employ the four techniques of sticking, adhering, following, and neutralizing within the framework of the yin-yang circle. There are two methods: (1) Person A draws a circular circle, and person B follows and walks along with it, or person B draws a circular circle, and person A follows and walks along with it. (2) Both person A and person B each draw a semicircular circle, combining to form a complete circle. Regardless of whether it is a complete circle or two semicircles, the focus is on studying the four essential techniques of leaning, pressing, squeezing, and pushing within this circle. It is important to note that both person A and person B have their own center of gravity. When they make contact with their hands, a new center of gravity is formed at the point of contact. These three centers of gravity are contested between person A and person B, with the one who gains the center of gravity winning and the one who loses it being defeated. This is an unchanging principle.

Huang Yuanxiu on Push Hands

Understanding the four techniques of listening, adhering, neutralizing, and issuing is extremely difficult. Even if one devotes their entire life to studying, there is no end to it. The key lies in the concept of a circular circle. Transformation, issuing, evading, and attacking all revolve around the circular circle. The essence of Tai Chi lies in this, and the profound applications also stem from this. In my personal opinion, for beginners practicing push hands, they should start by working together to create five large circular circles in the context of embracing, pressing, and neutralizing. This can be considered as the fundamental method. (1) Flat circular circle; (2) Upright circular circle; (3) Diagonal circular circle; (4) Forward-backward circular circle; (5) Self-rotation circular circle. Mastering this method first and then being able to vary the circular circles in different ways will lead to profound applications… Initially, the circles are large and clumsy, then they become small and lively, and eventually, the circle is no longer on the outside but within oneself. The meaning of the circle exists, but its form is absent. In an instant, the profound applications emerge. At this stage, it can be perceived but not expressed. It is a realm beyond understanding, where the profoundness naturally manifests. Without long-term and diligent practice, it cannot be attained.

Huang Shounong on Push Hands

During push hands, one should practice the techniques of listening, adhering, neutralizing, and issuing according to the principles, as well as maintaining a continuous connection without losing the sticking force. The waist should be used to rotate the body and limbs, while maintaining full concentration, natural breathing, relaxation of the entire body, and a continuous flow of movements. In the early stages of practice, one should not seek to find force too early (seeking force disrupts the proper flow and allows for arbitrary attacks and resolutions). If force is sought too early, it leads to a reliance on using strength and prevents the development of subtle skills, limiting future progress.

Yang Gangfu on Sanshou (Free Sparring)

Tai Chi Quan’s free sparring should be adaptable and without fixed methods. If one can understand the concept of listening to the opponent’s force, then they can perceive everything from a single movement. If one does not understand how to listen to the opponent’s force, even if they know many techniques, they will not be able to use them effectively.

Chen Weiming on Sanshou

(Free Sparring)

Tai Chi Quan’s free sparring differs from free sparring in other martial arts. Tai Chi Quan’s free sparring arises from sticking and listening to the opponent’s force. In other martial arts, free sparring involves separate actions and movements, with distant attacks that do not connect with each other or close-range grappling and twisting, where victory is determined by who has more strength. As Sun Tzu said, “Know yourself, know your enemy.” The later one arrives, the earlier one succeeds. The ability to listen to the opponent’s force is the key to Tai Chi Quan. By sticking to the opponent, if they don’t move, I don’t move; if they move slightly, I move first. If the opponent cannot listen to the force, they will stumble as soon as they make a move. If one has not yet achieved proficiency in listening to the force in Tai Chi Quan, and is unable to stick to the opponent, there is no need to engage in physical confrontation.

The application of free sparring requires adaptability. If one wants to be adaptable, they must develop a highly sensitive feeling through regular push hands practice. Even if one’s hands are fast and their eyes are quick, they cannot achieve seamless integration without sensitivity. Therefore, in free sparring, one still needs to rely on the transformations that come from sticky hands. Otherwise, even if they remember hundreds of techniques and counters, they will not be able to deal with the diverse styles and techniques of various martial arts. Tai Chi Quan revolves around the concept of sticking, and from it, endless variations arise. “Tai Chi Quan Xiong Yun” says, “Others don’t know me, only I know others. The hero is invincible because of this.” This implies that the method of push hands is all about understanding others. Other martial arts may be skilled, but without push hands, they rely solely on speed and agility. However, once they stick to an opponent, they don’t know the direction, length, or strength of the opponent’s force, making them prone to resistance or failure. Sun Tzu said, “Know yourself, know your enemy, and you shall not be defeated.” This is the essence of it.

Chen Yanlin on Tai Chi Sanshou

Sanshou, also known as free sparring, is one of the important skills in Tai Chi Quan that complements the shortcomings of push hands and form practice. Whenever there is a loss of sticking or the inability to apply various forces in push hands or form practice, sanshou comes into play. The sanshou in Tai Chi Quan is completely different from other styles. It emphasizes sticking, adhering, yielding to others, and transforming internal strength into force in a continuous and unbroken manner, just like in push hands and form practice. Whether it is a single hand or a complete movement, there is a process of transformation and issuance that arises naturally from within. The focus is on the coordination of the waist and legs, without relying on rigid strength or forceful actions. Once practitioners have reached a certain level of proficiency in push hands and form practice, they should not neglect the study of sanshou applications. Otherwise, it would be like climbing a mountain and falling short by just one step, which would be a pity. Tai Chi Sanshou can be practiced individually or with a partner. There are various methods for individual practice, using palm, fist, wrist, elbow, shoulder, waist, hip, knee, and foot (a total of nine sections, each capable of issuing force). Any hand or movement in the form can be practiced individually. However, the understanding of postures, applications, internal strength, and the principles of movement should be learned from a qualified teacher. In partner practice, the complete set of thirteen movements in the form is divided into individual techniques, which are then connected and combined to form sanshou sparring. The connections between techniques are seamless, with endless variations and mysteries. It can truly be considered a masterpiece of Tai Chi Quan. If practitioners can memorize and apply the complete set of techniques in both individual and partner practice, their postures will be accurate and aesthetically pleasing during solo practice. Their interest and physical and mental benefits will also be greatly enhanced, which cannot be adequately described in words. As they advance in push hands and form practice, they will be able to adapt to different situations, use surprise tactics, and achieve victory. It is indeed the pinnacle of Tai Chi Quan. I sincerely hope that practitioners will not overlook the importance of sanshou practice.

Zheng Gengqing on Sanshou

Sanshou, also known as sanda (free fighting), has no fixed methods. In push hands and form practice, proficiency is achieved through the cultivation of skills, and true proficiency lies in the ability to listen to the opponent’s force and gradually understand the principle of yielding to force. Once one understands the principle, there is no need to worry about sticking or not sticking, being free or not free, stiff or not stiff, following or not following. All these distinctions become irrelevant and unnecessary. The essence of sanshou lies in the five elements: advancing, retreating, looking left, looking right, and stability. If one understands the principle and knows the appropriate direction, then they can apply it with their fists. During my seven years of training with Master Cheng, the most difficult thing to achieve was the principle of continuous force. Being able to receive force is the pinnacle of understanding force. Once this skill is attained, all other skills become insignificant. If someone throws a ball at me, I can deflect or intercept it with a slight push or touch, causing it to bounce off. This is an example of bouncing force, not receiving force. The ball is light, so it is easy to bounce off. If the ball weighs several hundred pounds, it can still bounce off with a slight push. Bouncing force is not in accordance with the principle. To truly receive force, the ball should stick as if it

can be sucked in and then thrown out again. When executed with the right timing, speed, and weight, the skill of listening, lifting, releasing, and sticking is present. The intention of swallowing and spitting is achieved in an instant, and the force is applied at the right moment. Only then can one approach the realm of spiritual enlightenment. What more can be said about sanshou? I often say, the reason why Tai Chi Quan surpasses other martial arts lies in one’s ability to receive force.

Wang Xinwu on Sanshou

Sanshou refers to the separate and individual use of techniques from different movements. The application of Tai Chi Quan is no different from other martial arts; it focuses on gradually developing the ability to follow natural movements, without seeking hardness or speed, without relying on forceful efforts. The initial focus is on mastering the application of a single movement, a single technique, and gradually expanding to the point where every movement can be applied and every technique can be mastered. This leads to an understanding of force. In regular practice, one should choose a specific movement or technique, thoroughly study its application, and test it in actual combat with a partner. For example, when practicing an attacking technique, in addition to using natural abilities to defend against incoming force, one should seize the opportunity to counterattack with appropriate punching techniques. When practicing a defensive technique, one should use the specific method of that technique to defend against the opponent’s attack, and when the opportunity arises, use natural abilities to launch a counterattack. Over time, the applied techniques in one’s practice become naturally integrated with one’s innate abilities and knowledge. The saying goes, “I am the technique, the technique is me; there is no intention apart from intention, and no technique apart from technique.” Without adhering to fixed methods and allowing oneself to be limited by techniques, but instead relying on one’s natural abilities to apply the techniques, is considered superior. This is the true path of Tai Chi Quan.

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