It has been a few years since I trained, but Tai Chi—especially the partner practice of push hands—remains one of my favorite metaphors for human interactions. By way of a disclaimer I should say: I studied Tai Chi for a number of years at the excellent White Magnolia Tai Chi School under Miriam Marsolais and was, for some of those years, an instructor there. I also had the privilege of practicing push hands with Yadollah Moghaddam, one of Miram’s teachers and one of the great push hands players in Doc Fai Wong’s Plum Blossom Federation. However, my understanding of Tai Chi is my own and is almost certainly imperfect. My teachers should not be blamed for any confusion or misunderstandings I harbor.
Leaving aside some of the more mystical aspects which I’m not qualified to say much about, the purpose of Tai Chi training is to teach your body to stay in balance and to move as a single flowing whole. Tai Chi’s most obvious characteristic, the almost slow motion pace at which it is normally practiced, is designed to accentuate any moments of imbalance and to allow you the time to feel whether or not your motions are fully involving your whole body. Indeed, you can start learning the lessons of Tai Chi by simply walking slowly and deliberately across the room. Try it and you will notice that in order to take a step with one foot, you have to adjust the rest of your body to maintain your balance while the lifted foot is in the air. If you pay attention you can learn to make the adjustments that allow you to maintain your balance with very little effort.
Tai Chi forms—the stylized routines you may have seen people doing in parks—are just more difficult versions of these first slow steps. By the time you can perform the full 108-move classic long form of Tai Chi as a single flowing motion you will have developed a well-refined sense of how to move your body as a connected whole and keep it always in effortless balance. In other words, you will have learned to move through the world gracefully and without throwing yourself off balance. This—in Tai Chi as in the rest of life—is a real achievement and can be the work of a lifetime.
Most people, however, do not realize that Tai Chi also includes a two-person practice. Called push hands, it starts with two partners facing each other touching arms. In the most basic form, pattern push hands, the partners stand still and circle their hands in a fixed pattern, always staying in contact with each other but pushing first toward one person and then the other.
These first patterns are much simpler than even the simplest individual Tai Chi forms but the addition of another person to the mix, as it so often does in life, massively complicates things. Suddenly your partner’s movements can throw you off balance. Or the additional burden of having to pay attention to how your partner is moving, can overwhelm your ability to stay relaxed and flowing. Thus the first thing push hands training does is to improve the same sense of balance, flow, and connection developed by the solo forms, by challenging it with forces outside your control.
As you get comfortable with the patterns you start exploring the next aspect of push hands training: developing your sensitivity to your partner. You learn to always stay in contact with your partner—push hands players talk about being “sticky”—so you can feel exactly where they are pushing you and where they might be a bit off balance.
If you are skillful, you can feel where your partner is already a bit off balance and where a feather-weight’s worth of force could force them to take a step to recover. Soon you and your partner can begin to test each other a bit, seeing if with a gentle push here or there you can unbalance the other person. However, the point is not actually to push your partner off balance. The true practice of push hands is a joint effort: the partner who feels an imbalance gives a gentle push both to test whether the imbalance they felt was really there and, if it was, to help their partner feel the imbalance more clearly and to try to find a way to adjust.
Finally, push hands teaches another, even more important kind of balance—the balance between rigidity and collapse. Most people, when pushed, will respond in one of two ways. Some will resist, tensing up and fighting back to avoid being pushed off balance. Others will yield too readily and be unbalanced by every push. The goal of push hands training is to learn to respond with something in between, relaxing and yielding to the push without giving up your own sense of balance and connection. You neither push back directly nor do you let your partner push where they wanted to; instead you redirect their push so its force does not unbalance you so you retain the ability to circle back to them.
This is one of the hardest thing to learn in push hands because it is tied up in your emotional response to the push. If you are at all competitive, you won’t want to be pushed off balance and will be tempted to resist. If you are strong enough and your partner is not particularly skillful this may keep you from being pushed off balance. But you have missed an important chance to learn. If the push was true and skillful then it was simply pointing out an imbalance that was already there; tensing up is a way of denying it and covering up. If you accept the push, even if you have to take a step back to regain your balance, you let yourself feel where the imbalance was; the next time you may notice it before the push comes.
It’s also possible that your partner’s push was not skillful—that they are just using brute force. In theory you should be able to absorb and redirect such a push without tension. But even if you don’t have the skill to pull that off there is nothing to be gained by trying to fight back; it’s easy to get wrapped up in the game of who can make the other take a step first but ultimately that is just a game. If you cannot stay in relaxed balance without taking a step, better to take the step. And if you find yourself training with someone who frequently pushes harder than you are able to deal with, you can choose not to push with them any more. It may be that they care more about pushing people over than in the purpose of the training.
But not everyone is so competitive. You may go too far in the other direction and be too yielding. In this case, push hands training will teach you that you have the capacity to accept a push without being pushed off balance. Some of the simplest push hands exercises involve rooting your stance and making tiny adjustments so your partner ends up pushing directly into where you are strongest, straight through your stance and into the ground while you remain relaxed. These exercises are, in fact, just as useful for people who naturally fight back as those who give in too readily—the former use strength without relaxation while the latter know how to relax but don’t know how to use the strength they have. Ultimately you want to learn to meet your partner evenly—the harder they push, the more you absorb and root while staying relaxed enough to redirect and to circle back to you partner.
As you get more advanced at push hands you move from simple patterns to more complex moving patterns with footwork to eventually a completely free form style somewhere between a fight and a dance. Pushing with someone becomes a collaboration, an exploration of how you can move through space with another person while always staying balanced and centered. You can push slowly and softly or vigorously enough to leave you drenched with sweat.
I said at the outset that Tai Chi, and push hands in particular, is one of my favorite metaphors for human interactions. Although I haven’t practiced push hands in several years, I try to remember the lessons it taught me. And not just the kinesthetic lessons but the emotional ones. If I feel like someone is, metaphorically, pushing hard on me, I try to stay relaxed—rooted in what is actually important without being rigid—and absorb what they are giving me, sticking to them until I have a chance to redirect, circle, and respond. I also recognize that they may not be entirely skillful—they may be letting their own anger and frustration into our interaction. While I will be tempted to respond in kind, I can at least try be more skillful myself. I may be able to redirect their anger and hear the underlying thing they are trying to say and respond to that. And if not, I can try to remember that I have the option to step back if that’s what I need to do to keep myself in balance.