This blogpost is a small excerpt about push hands – tuishou – from my book, “Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Standing meditation”, which will be out in English Summer 2017. In the book, I divided the part about pushhands into several different sections, depending on whether it is aimed at the beginner, the intermediate or advanced student. Although it is only a small excerpt from the book (focusing on the beginner and intermediate) and I left out all the exercises that follows the written word on the subject, it covers quite a bit, and I hope that you have the patience to read it and hopefully get some benefit from its content.
Where you in your taijiform work on yourself, you must continue this work while being influenced by an external force – a partner. These exercises goes under the English term pushhands (Chinese: tuishou). The English translation (and it is even worse for the Danish one) is in fact misleading because the focus is not on pushing, but on being pushed and listening (to your own body at first, then to your partner’s body).
A competitive mindset arises for many people as soon as they start to do pushhands. They want to avoid being pushed by their partner at all costs, and will do everything they can in order to get to push themselves. It is the exact opposite of what you should do. Remember, in Taiji you never meet hard with hard. In your form, you train using minimal muscle power to the greatest effect. You should continue doing this in pushhands.
Taiji master Zheng Manqing often said: “Youmust invest in loss.” This means that you must accept the push without offering resistance. You must follow your partner’s push and thus develop the ability to yield.
To yield is to follow, to give in. When you yield, you accept your partner’s push and follow the direction of the force. At no point do you resist the push, but stay connected to and follow it. You must “Invest in loss” I.e. allow yourself to “lose”, to move backward and accept your partner’s push. If you don’t and instead try to resist your partner’s attempt to push forward, it isn’t Taiji anymore. Remember, your base – hips and legs – move you backward, with the rest of your body balanced on top. You do not just bend your upper body backwards while the legs stay still. If you do, then you are already violating one of the basic principles of using your whole body as an integrated unit.
When Taiji is used for self defence, we never meet hard with hard. For most people this is one of the hardest things to get used to. If someone grabs us, it is natural to tense up and resist. In Taiji, we do the opposite: Relax and follow the direction of the movement. It is said that “softness overcomes hardness”. You will not do that by resisting, but by accepting, connecting and relaxing. By yielding you follow the direction of the force – extending it – and thereby lessening its power. When you can’t yield any further, it is time to neutralize.
Neutralization is best described as changing direction and dissolving. When you yield, you can extend the force and decrease it somewhat. However, it is still targeted on to you. When you neutralize, you change the direction of the force and dissolve its effect. From here, the force goes through your body into your feet and into the ground (in the beginning, later you only take it to dantian). If this is done correctly, you now have complete control over the situation. You can send the force back towards your partner. You can issue.
To issue means to release or return. Once you have extended (yielded) your partner’s force and neutralized (changed direction and dissolved) it, send your partner’s own force back towards him. You do not do this by tensing your muscles and pushing back hard. On the contrary, you allow the force that you have yielded and neutralized to return to your partner. You do this by being relaxed in your body and sending melting sensations in a continuous flow down toward your feet (later dantian, and instead of melting, you expand like a balloon). Issuing – returning – your partner’s force can be difficult to understand. When a skilled Taiji practitioner does it correctly, it looks like magic or a rehearsed play. Neither is of course the case. It is the natural result of a well-trained, integrated and well-coordinated body, a relaxed mind and coordination between mind and body.
There are no shortcuts in learning how to issue. Your form is your alphabet, your scales. There are many who would like to learn this “supernatural force” when they start to learn Taiji. Rarely do they continue for long. Taiji requires patience and an understanding and acceptance of the process involved.
“It is three times harder to learn to yield than it is to learn how to neutralize and issue”.
Yielding is the main process of the above three. If you are not able to yield 100%, you will not be able to neutralize and there will be no force to return. According to my teacher, Master Sam Tam, it is three times harder to learn yielding than it is to learn how to neutralize and issue.
In the beginning, there will be a clear distinction between when you are yielding, neutralizing and issuing. Later this gap will become smaller, and in its most sublime expression completely disappear. It will all take place simultaneously. This is where it looks magically: Sending an opponent away without any obvious movement. The processes, previously described, have all taken place. They have merely been refined.
Not everyone who trains Taiji wants to work with pushhands. As justification, it is often said that the self-defence aspects are not interesting, and therefore pushhands is not something they wish to spend time working on. It is clearly a mistake and usually based on a lack of understanding. Pushhands is not just for people interested in self-defence. Pushhands can and should be seen as a tool for understanding your form better. Your partner helps you feel and sense your movement and your body on a deeper level. You learn to decode your body and mind, keeping both from tensing up in stressful conditions. This means that you, even more so than through the form training, will be able to relate your Taiji practice to your daily life, where you must constantly relate to outside forces, both at work and in private life.
Yielding – in Taiji and in life
Yielding is one of the key elements of Taiji. In relation to the self-defence aspects, but also – and in particular – in relation to daily life.
On a physical level, you move in the direction that the force comes in while you stay connected and centered. One of the biggest challenges in this regard is to sense exactly which direction a given force has. Be off-line by just a little bit, and you will end up resisting and thereby doing the exact opposite of yielding. Yielding requires sensitivity to learn. In the system of master Sam Tam, we have some partner exercises, which according to me, are the best ones to develop that skill.
Relaxation is the foundation of yielding and allows you to receive and follow the direction of the force, and thus avoiding a conflict. Both in regards to self-defence and everyday life interactions with other people.
Some people equate yielding to being weak, and they do not think that the real world leaves time and space enough to yield. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, that assumption most likely occurs as a product of internal tensions and uncertainty, as well as an inability to yield at the right time, which requires timing. Secondly, once you have developed your ability to yield, you will find that you neither need space and time – you can yield anywhere and at anytime.
At the internal level, remove all intention and tension from the part of your body that is exposed to a resistance or force. You “empty” your body at the contact point, removing the power, so that it disappears from your center and your body into the ground. In the same way as water is drained out of a bath with increasing speed.
Both physical and mental yielding is needed. As a beginner, you will first learn the physical part. Later, internal yielding and gradually emptying will take over.
External and internal martial arts
External martial arts are, roughly put, based on the energy produced by movement, where the internal arts are based on the movement of energy. The external martial arts are based on strength and movement, the internal on awareness and immobility. The external martial arts are based on the idea of the best defence being an attack – the internal on the best attack being a defence. In the external martial arts, a blow is designed to penetrate the opposing defence, no matter what the opponent does to block it, and is therefore independent of the opponent. In the internal martial arts, the practitioner uses having control over the opponent’s strength, responds to an action made by his opponent, and is therefore dependent on the opponent.
Push Hand and competitions
If you use force – you lose (the) force.
– Sam Tam
The growing number of push hands competitions seen around the world is a misguided development. It is a very common misconception that pushhands is the self-defence aspect of Taiji. Nothing could be more wrong. Pushhands – or the more correct translation – sensitive hands – has in fact very little to do with pushing. It is about practicing your sensitivity to another human being and external forces. There is obviously an aspect useful for self-defence in becoming more sensitive – and there is especially a philosophical aspect that affects and changes the way you interact with other people.
Push Hands is not the strong overcoming the weak; the fast beating the slow. It is at odds with the underlying principles of Taiji: “The weak can overcome the strong, the old can overcome the young, and the woman can overcome the man.” Now that is a self-defence art – the opposite part is simply a fact of life and not worth spending 30 years training on!
Furthermore, a mediocre wrestler or sumo wrestler would win the majority of so-called pushhands contests, where technique, body weight and muscle strength are at the forefront.
Taiji is – if learned properly through a competent teacher and a good system – one of the very best self-defence systems. If it is learned from an incompetent teacher and a poor system based on brute force, it is one of the worst.
Taiji develops over time through continuous, diligent and proper training of the basic principles. It is not so much about acquiring many techniques; it is more about letting go of tension and reconstructing the body and the mind. And that takes time.
There are hundreds of different pushhands exercises. From stationary to mobile, from pushing directly on the body to exercises where it is either one hand or both hands that are pushed on.
The whole idea of having predetermined patterns in pushhands is that it provides a method through which you can practice fundamental principles. Initially, single-handed pushhands exercises are used to understand and train the different circles, and achieve some basic ability in not providing any resistance yet being connected to the opponent (sticking). Next comes double-handed pushhands, where the same things are developed and further refined. And for both single- and double-handed pushhands learning to feel the direction of the force ( 8 out of 10 even experienced practitioners don’t do that!).
In the beginning, work slowly and with big circles, and in order for development to take place it is important that you cooperate with each other. Later, the circles get smaller and the pace can be either fast or slow. From there you move into more freestyle pushhands, i.e. there is no predetermined patterns, you only need to be sensitive to one another and work on moving away from action/reaction towards responding.
Pushhands exercises are, as mentioned before, a way to develop sensitivity. Often when I introduce push hands exercises to new students, I start with exercises where there is no focus at all on pushing the other person or trying to find the other’s center. Instead, they focus on being sensitive and aware. If I say to you: “Relax your shoulders”, it may be difficult for you to feel your shoulder, and therefore close to impossible to relax it. But if I put my hand on your shoulder, then you have something useful to guide your intent. A partner exercise where you carry your partner’s arm with both hands and move it around in different positions is a good place to start.
First, you ask your partner to let you carry the whole weight of his arm while he lets go. Then move your partner’s arm around in different positions and at different speeds. If you sense that your partner would like to control or move the arm himself, you can change the tempo. If you find that he tenses or holds the arm up, you let go of it so it falls down. At first, move your partner’s arm around in positions lower than shoulder height, where it is easier to let go and feel gravity, then you move up to higher positions, which are more challenging for the shoulders, and where most people find it difficult to let go. Your partner is forced to direct all his attention towards his arm, bringing it into his consciousness via the sensory nerves and via the motor nerves telling himself to let go of all action and movement. The contact and the movements are made conscious.
Later – with more practice – it will all take place as an automatic, natural response. It is a bit like learning to ride a bike: First, it requires deep and focused concentration and lots of energy, but once learned, it is done automatically and does not require much energy.
Intention versus attention
Once you have an intent to do something, then your attention (awareness) is busy and you will not able to “listen” to your partner. For many, what happens when they train push hands is that they mistakenly become so focused on pushing and winning that they completely forget what pushhands is all about: learning to listen to your partner, sensitivity, noting the direction of the force, relaxing the body, etc. If you are focused on doing something specific (like pushing), you cannot simultaneously be fully attentive and responsive. To train your intention and to have a strong intention is fine when you want to develop certain things – for example certain mental imagery or release internal force – Fajin – in a certain direction. However, when you are training pushhands exercises with a partner, it is far better to dial down your intention and increase attention.
Tension, yielding and neutralization
External or superficial tension in the muscles often has its origins in external conflicts, where inner tension comes about from inner conflicts. Internal tension prevents deep relaxation, making it difficult to learn yielding. Profound relaxation is the foundation that creates the opportunity to learn yielding and later neutralization. Small babies obviously do not have much inner conflict and therefore no inner tension. There is a saying in Taiji: “Become like a child again.”
Yielding – true or false?
One of the major obstacles in the development of genuine yielding is – yourself.
At a conscious level, there can be a great desire to learn yielding, but on a subconscious level, the reverse may be the case. For example, after having felt Master Sam Tam many people express, that they really want to learn to yield as he does, but they are unaware that the real motive behind their desire to learn yielding is that they just want to win. This inner – perhaps unconscious – conflict means that it will never be possible for them to master it.
In most external self-defence systems and most sports, the primary focus is on developing muscle strength. In the internal martial arts, we aim to build elastic strength through our connective tissue, tendons and fascia. We develop this elastic quality throughout our body and frame, so that we are able to absorb a push or blow and subsequently return it to our opponent without any physical action from our side. When our connective tissues, tendons, and fascia stretches, they subsequently return to their starting point, and thereby send our opponent back in the direction from which he delivered his push. Just like a trampoline.
Learning to stick is an essential part of your pushhands-development. Without the ability to stick you will never be able to develop yielding, neutralizing or issuing beyond a very limited level. The moment you make contact with your partner, stick to him like glue or like two magnets where the poles fits.
Your partner can feel you, but not push you. Just follow your partner’s push in whatever direction it might come. You provide no resistance at any time. You maintain contact right up until the point where you have issued or returned your partner’s force. Only then do you lose contact. It is impossible to learn to stick if you have not first developed your sensitivity up to a certain level and are able to yield without either offering resistance or collapsing your structure.
Remember, yielding is neither to resist, nor escape. Yielding is to follow the direction of an external force, extend it and gradually dissolving it until neutralizing it. You can only do that effectively by sticking to your partner.
In pushhands, you will always uproot your partner before issuing. You can compare it to removing weeds. To succeed, you must catch the roots. You uproot by first yielding and neutralizing your partner’s power and connecting to his center. Then you issue. Both your partner’s feet lose contact with the ground when they are uprooted, and he is sent back through the air in the direction that his push or force came from.
I remember many training moments with Master Sam Tam, where he, while sitting at his computer with his back turned, suddenly says to me: “You’re doing it wrong. You don’t uproot.” If you practice in front of a mattress hanging on a wall, you can hear from the sound your partner makes when he hits the mattress, whether he has been properly uprooted or not. Properly done, the partner will fly through the air. If not, he will just stumble lightly or take a step backward, one foot constantly in contact with the ground.
“Fill up the gap”
If your partner in pushhands suddenly collapses his structure when you try to issue, and quickly pulls his arms towards himself close to his body, follow immediately and “fill up the gap”. When you start training free pushhands, where there is no fixed pattern, you will from time to time meet people who collapse and think that it is yielding. It is not, and in a real confrontation with another person, it would be a disaster!
I remember one of my former teachers, Master Yek Sing Ong, telling me one of the first times I got the opportunity to train free push hands with him, that I should always imagine that my partner’s hands were knives. You do not want two knives to get close to your body!
On another occasion, several years later, during one of my first visits to Master Sam Tam, I tried, in frustration over not being able to yield properly, to collapse. Immediately – which he later explained – he chose to fill up the gap and placed his hand around my throat as were he a pittbull. He stressed that I should never use a substitute method in a vain attempt at “winning” and that it would have disastrous consequences during a real confrontation with another person. I should always do the right things – yielding, sticking, neutralizing – even if it did not work right here and now against him. Like a bow is stretched and unstretched but does not collapse, we too do not collapse when yielding.
“I’m not a meat rack, why do you hang your meet on me?”
– Yang Chengfu
In addition to collapsing, there are many who use other unintended solutions in free push hands, violating all the fundamental principles of Taiji. They focus on not losing, rather than on learning. It is possible that they manage to train the principles, as long as it is in predetermined movement patterns, but as soon the switch to free push hands occur, they forget all about it. They lean their entire body towards the partner and use their bodyweight, or they use segmented force where they push with their hands, use arm muscles or they choose to “noodle”.
“Noodle” is a term that is often used for people who violate more or less all Taiji principles when they train pushhands: Everything from the straight back to being connected in the body and everything in between. Just so that they can remain standing on the square their feet are planted on, as were they defending a piece of land. They can be difficult to push if you use brute force. However, if you do not succumb to the temptation of using strength and power – and of course you don’t, why else learn Taiji? – but instead use sensitivity, sticking, awareness and sink the qi to dantian, you can walk right through them. If they start to “noodle”, then immediately stop having any power whatsoever in your hands. Just maintain a connection through touch. When they subsequently move and try to escape, they end up tensing their muscles, and then you can move them completely effortlessly. Or as Master Sam Tam puts it: “The noodle becomes spaghetti before cooking.”
Various training partners
It is important to have good training partners, if you want to grow and develop your skill. And it is important to train with different people. By training with partners who are more experienced than you, you get the opportunity to follow their movements and experience their quality. Allow them to move in any direction they want, but try to follow their movements without resisting while remaining centered. Do not “noodle”. Be sensitive.
Training with someone who is less skilled than you are, on the other hand allows you the opportunity to experience what it feels like when you perform the movements correctly and with relative ease can control your partner. It allows you to experiment, making small improvements and refinements. You have to trust the process and the relaxed state – otherwise you risk being tempted to use brute strength and lean your bodyweight toward your partner, should he tighten up or block, while you lack the inner strength needed to move him. It will come in time – if you trust it!
Training partners you should kindly reject are those that continually correct you. One moment, they do everything to ruin the drill, using physical strength and resistance. The next moment they jump backward just by a small touch of your body or arm – of course after having corrected you based on how they think the exercise should be performed. They rarely have time to listen to the teacher’s instructions and directions, and are more concerned with their own ideas and showing everyone how talented and clever they are. There is often no hope of any real learning or development taking place, and you are wasting your time practicing with such a person.
When a muscle contracts, it gives power in the same direction as the movement is performed. Stretching of the muscles on the other hand produces force in the opposite direction of the movement. In relation to Taiji and push hands, it means that when one partner pushes in on you and you simultaneously stretch and expands, you will yield and return at the same time. The prerequisite is a relaxed structure, where there is both something stretching, and at the same time something giving a frame. As the classics say, “like bending the bow and shooting the arrow.”
If, however, you tense up your muscles, you will “lock” the power inside your own body, stiffen, and will only be able to move your partner by making a weight shift or by pushing hard in front of you with the use of chest, shoulder and arm muscles.
“To draw the bow and shoot the arrow.”
There are several ways to issue. The two most useful ways are from the feet and from the center. As described in a previous newsletter, issuing from the feet is slower than doing it from the center. On the other hand, there is great risk that you are going to tense up and use physical force when issuing from the center and expand simultaneously. I would suggest that you learn to relax, sink and empty, have a fully integrated body with a relaxed structure and is able to take all the power from your partner’s pressure on your arm or body into the ground before you train issuing from the center. Without structure, no elasticity!
Your center – in regards to pushhands
At the beginning of your Taiji training, you have no idea of where your center is – at best only an intellectual understanding. Therefore, great time is spent on various exercises and standings to find and feel your own center. If you train push hands with an experienced partner, he or she, in turn, easily finds your center and thus the opportunity to uproot you. Gradually you develop a sense of and contact to your center. It feels large and you begin to sense that all movements originate from here. Later on, you experience moments of being connected to your center, and later yet you will always be centered. Your body will feel like a big ball or balloon, with your center as the center of all movements in any direction.
Your training partner will have a more difficult time finding your center, where you in turn find it easy to find his, connect it to your own and thereby be in complete control of him in any situation. For your training partner, your center has changed from being huge and easy to find to being small and, at best, impossible to find. For you, your center has gone from being something you could not even find to something feeling big and covering your entire body. As a babushka-doll in a ball edition: Beneath the big ball is a smaller ball, and beneath this an even smaller ball and so on. And at the center of all these is your center.
Timing – with respect to a partner
There are several aspects to training timing. At the physical level, there is our own sense of timing regarding our own body during movement – as an unbroken line from feet to fingertips. The different body parts should be balanced and integrated. Next, the body must be as relaxed as possible so that energy can flow freely and unhindered – guided by our Yi. The same adjustments should be made when engaging a partner, and we have to blend and interact with him. Are we too fast relative to our partner, we lose the connection. Too slow and we resist.
Through our partner exercises we are able to develop our sensitivity and experiment with timing in different ways. In this regard, the partner is of great importance. The partner should be interested in cooperating and developing the material – otherwise it will be very difficult. Master Sam Tam once said to me when I told him that I felt privileged to have good partners to work with:“Up through history, they all come in pairs.”
The importance of having good training partners and to create an environment without competition, but with a focus instead on learning and developing, cannot be overemphasized.
Once you have developed some understanding of the basics and have begun to experience the positive aspects of improved timing and sensitivity, it is time to practice with as many different people as possible. Different people react differently, and once you feel that you have a foundation to work from, you should develop yourself further by crossing hands with as many people as possible.
Your training partner may choose to slow down a bit when he issues, so you have an opportunity to feel what is happening in your partner’s body and in your own – before you react. Gradually you can increase the tempo, so that the duration between your training partner yielding, neutralizing and issuing becomes smaller.
As you develop over time – provided the correct training methods have been followed – yielding, neutralizing and issuing will begin to take place in close to one movement. For great masters it is one movement.
It is necessary to know the theory and to practice the exercises, that are required for your development – and then to give it time. The surest way NOT to develop these skills, is to try to force it. It is not possible.
Push Hands – attention, point of contact and intention
“Give the point of contact but not the point of issue.”
– Sam Tam
When you are pushed, give your partner a point of contact – but not a point of application. Be like a flag blowing in the wind. Your partner can touch you, but not find your center and push you. You disappear, yielding and sticking wherever you are pushed. In pushhands, you yield in a circle and subsequently return the power to the sender – if you wish to. Alternatively, just wait for his next push and yield there too. It is entirely up to you.
In a real fight, you basically do the same thing: Here you are only yielding where you are pushed, punched or kicked though. The second part of the circle returns instantly and punch, push, or whatever else you may find necessary and appropriate in the given situation. You can either choose to use force in your return circle and thereby probably escalate the conflict, or you can choose not to use force at all and just control your opponent and ensure that he cannot hurt you.
The last option will probably be the best. It enables any conflict to be resolved peacefully. And in a training situation, both parties will find it an amusing experience – as opposed to you returning with great force.
Once you have yielded and uprooted your partner, it is important that you do not fall for the temptation to use (brute) force. Instead, use your Yi, i.e. project your intention through their back to somewhere far behind them. A bit like choosing a target to shoot for.
In fact, the comparison to ball sports is not so crazy. If you need to kick the foul in soccer, you do not focus on the point of contact with the ball, but on where the ball should go. Your Yi has shown the direction, and in a well-trained mind and a ditto body, it is simply a matter of the body following the direction of your mind.
Regarding pushhands, it is a very common mistake to focus on the point of contact of our partner and stop there rather than continue through him. Many, many times when I have been with Master Sam Tam and have practiced issuing relaxed strength or internal force, he corrected me and said that I should think through my partner instead of stopping at the point of contact: “Think all the way to Granville Street.” (Granville Street is a few blocks from his house).
In the relationship between body and mind, you are obviously aware that thinking about something is one thing; actually doing it is different. When it comes to pushhands, imagining the direction is more important than the physical movement. As the classics put it: “Yi leads Qi and the body follows.” This assumes of course that the body is well-trained and well-coordinated and able to deliver what is intended from your mind. The body is not the decision maker – the mind is. That is one of the reasons we practice standing meditation: to strengthen and prepare the mind to guide and the body to follow.
Dantian and Fajin
As far back in history as we can go, the Holy Grail of internal martial arts has been developing Fajin – this “mysterious” and explosive force, which has been sought by many, achieved by few. This “secret” power generated and developed in the dantian, your center. One of the great masters of internal martial arts described the importance of the area as follows: “When you stand still in the standing, everything must be concentrated around your center. When you move, everything must originate from here.”
As you become more experienced over the years, you will most likely experience a connection to the area, and when you are relaxed, in your standing for example, the area feels like an elastic ball by touch. When issuing or releasing Fajin, the area will become round as a dome and hard as a rock. Anyone who has been in contact with Master Sam Tam and been able to feel his stomach can attest to that. Your abdominal muscles, your sixpack for example (rectus abdominis), do not contract when this dome occurs; on the contrary, they are stretched. So today’s ideal of a tense six-pack does not leave much space for developing and releasing Fajin. And just like a dome is equal in all directions, or a ball pumped up is expanding from its center and out in all directions, so does your center.
Push Hands – sinking the energy
“I touch, you fly.”
– Torben Bremann
If I place my hand on a student’s chest and tell him that I can feel where his center is, I have contact to his center of balance. When sinking the energy to either my feet, or later just my center, I uproot him. (I have yielded and neutralized at the same time by connecting to my partner and emptying). At the same time the muscles in my arm are relaxed, my elbow slightly bent and my shoulder soft. I do not push with my arm; it is just my point of contact. I push from either my feet or, at a higher level, from my center. How do I do it? I sink the energy (qi) to the center.
The connection to the ground produces the power that is released from my hands, having first yielded and neutralized my partner’s force and sunk the energy. Initially this process is trained slowly and analysed so that it can be understood and developed; later it happens all at once.
It is a bit like when a car during a crash test runs right into a wall: in the collision with the wall the car is thrown backwards again. It “bounces”. We can also compare it with compressing one of those big exercise balls that are so popular in many training centers. When you compress the ball, you can feel – if you are slightly sensitive – that it becomes firmer, and that force is returned to your hand. Or like jumping on a trampoline. The more force you send out, the more it will return to you.
Connected to the center
When you are able to yield, neutralize and have practiced issuing and releasing relaxed strength (Fajin), you can work on the following in free pushhands:
As soon as you make contact to your partner, attempt to connect to his center, then catch and conquer it to release the relaxed strength against him at the right moment. It requires much training and a high level of sensitivity to reach that level.
When your partner touches you, you give him access only to the point of contact, not to your center. Thus, he has nothing to issue on. Even some skillful Taiji practitioners never reach beyond the level of push hands, where the focus is on one/two: first yielding, then issuing. At an even higher level, such as Master Sam Tam’s, it is all done in one motion; half-yielding, half-Issuing. Or, as he himself describes it in his own humorous phrase: “Giving them the moment of joy, followed by the taste of dead.”
Timing, reaction and response
“Timing is everything.”
– Sam Tam
Everything in life is about timing. From an athlete’s peak performance to a stockbroker’s purchase or sale of shares. In both work and private life. In your Taiji, it is the level of integration between the sensory and motor nervous system, controlled by Yi, which is the crucial factor for mastery of timing. The response time varies, depending on the stimuli we are exposed to. Whether they are visual, auditory or tactile. In the external martial arts, which are mainly being fought with a certain distance between the combatants, and where punches and kicks are what you have to relate to, it is primarily the visual part that is being challenged and influenced.
In the internal systems, which are usually trained with a very short distance between the combatants, it is primarily the tactile sense from pressure that is dominant. You can distinguish between reacting and responding. A reaction always occurs after an action – i.e. you wait and react to what comes. A response on the other hand takes place simultaneously with the action. A reaction takes place mostly as a trained reflex – well or poorly trained – and there is a delay from the action taking place and your reaction. A response on the other hand takes place simultaneously due to your trained awareness and sensitivity.
Stability – to be like a sack of rice
“Be still as a mountain, move like a great river.”
– Wu Yu-hsiang
Occasionally one sees Taiji practitioners who have too great a focus on learning to take power into the ground and being stable and motionless. They become like a big sack of rice – heavy and solid. They confuse this state with the much higher level, called intercepting force, where yielding, neutralizing and issuing takes place at the same time.
Doing intercepting force, it looks as if the practitioner is motionless. He is not. The movements are simply so small that it requires a very trained eye to see that they are taking place.
On a trip to different Taiji schools in Malaysia, I witnessed one of my former teachers getting a healthy lesson in why you should not just stand still in the same position and try to take all the power into the ground when an unknown pushhands opponent comes with great force.
My teacher, who was far better than the person who pushed him, had become too accustomed to only his own students pushing him. And in the pushhands confrontations with them it worked. It did not work here though, and he was pushed by his opponent.
Afterwards I did pushhands with the same person, and by learning from the experience of what I had just seen happen to my teacher, I just yielded my opponent’s push, got him off balance and threw him backwards. Not because I was better than my teacher was, but because I had just witnessed what happened to my teacher – and learned from it.
Standing still and motionless to receive a push can be an excellent exercise to train the feeling of your whole body functioning as an integrated whole. However, it is an exercise specifically aimed at developing that kind of sensitivity. It is not an end in itself. Imagine that it were blows or kicks instead of pushes, and you simply stood motionless and received – then you would be like sandbag in a boxing club.
“A legend in one’s own mind”
Quite a few teachers succumb to the temptation of staging performances, when they are conducting workshops or upload video clips to YouTube. Meaning that they do pushhands demonstrations exclusively with their own students, and they jump and dance around like hell in all possible and impossible directions as if being hit by a magical force. It is a scandal to witness, and deeply discrediting Taiji.
Many times have I been alone with one of these “masters” or teachers, and it does not work on me! Not because I am a special or unique person whom very few can handle, but simply because these masters or teachers cannot perform these miraculous things in reality. Staging is used as cover for an insecure person who knows that he is living a lie, and is afraid of being exposed. And what does that result in? Tension!
It’s ok to use one’s own students to demonstrate some specific things that you are working on and developing and can only momentarily perform, as long as you also recognize that you have not quite reached the level yet of being able to do it to everybody at all times. However, it is not ok to create an illusion and a myth about yourself, just waiting to be found out. Be honest, and let go. Otherwise, you just give Taiji a bad reputation.
It may be possible to develop these skills so they work on everybody. Master Sam Tam and a few others I have met, are examples thereof. But accept if you are not quite at that level yet. Only that way will the possibility of development in that direction be possible.
Yielding, neutralizing, issuing – a summary:
At the physical level: Follow the direction, and adjust your body so that it is vertically balanced while you get your partner out of his balance. Issue when your partner is trying to regain his balance.
At the mental level: Empty your mind and follow your partner’s direction without any intention, thereby getting your partner’s intention out of his own center. Project your intention, and connect it to your partner’s attempt at restoring balance.
Rules of thumb
Yield the body part that is closest to the body first.
Yield the body party where your opponents force seems greater.
Yield with big movements in the beginning, later with small movements.
When you yield with a focus on self-defence, you only yield to get into a better position to issue.
When you yield, the elbow can be high or low in any position.
When issuing, the elbow should be dropped and facing downward.
When you yield and neutralize, you do it in a circular motion. First large, then small. First physically, then mentally.
When issuing, you do it in a straight line through your partner’s center.