Not by Force – An Experience of Tai Chi Push Hands

Push hands figuresTai Chi Chuan (Taiji Quan) has been a popular health exercise for many centuries.  Its popularity continues around the world.  Although people practice tai chi to promote health, in its origin it is a form of martial art, a form of self defense.

The slow and graceful motions, with slow breathing, promote inner energy flow, tone muscles, and bring peace to the mind. According to some medical studies, its health benefits surpass those of other exercise or sports such as yoga, jogging, or swimming.

Many tai chi practitioners, in addition to practicing the forms, will begin to practice push hands, a two-person exercise that can be the first step to learning the self-defense applications of tai chi.  While the practice of tai chi forms train grounding, push hands trains sensitivity. In tai chi push hands, two people touch hands, using the basic tai chi movements of ward off, roll back, push, and press. The emphasis is on yielding, neutralization, and following your opponent.  It stresses non-resistance, not using force, no effort, and so on.

The more one follows these principles, the better chance one will be able to out-perform their opponent. Of these, the principle of not using force, is easy to say, but not easy to do. How can you defeat your practice partner without using any force?  How can you not resist or even push back when you are about to be unbalanced? Most of the time, tai chi practitioners understand the words, but find it hard to perform the reality.

My teacher Master Ping-Siang Tao, was known as “a master of soft way”. We often saw him practice with students who outweighed him by well over a hundred pounds. These students would often find themselves on the ground when practicing with him, unable to understand what had just happened.

Once I went to take him to the airport from the house of another student where Master Tao usually stayed when he visited Seattle. Since I arrived early, Master Tao suggested that the student and I practice some push-hands. He always wanted us to take every opportunity to practice. We were naturally happy to have an opportunity to do so while he was watching.

Since I had much more experience, I was soon able to unbalance my partner and put him on the ground.  Tao looked at me and said, “Not good, not good, you used force.  Try again.“  So we continued to play. At one point, even though I did not feel that I had used any special technique, or any force, the other student just fell to the ground. I had no idea how it happened.  This time Tao commented, “That’s right”.

I was puzzled.   I hadn’t done anything.  How could the student fall to the ground?  The student also commented that the first time he could feel my force, and felt uncomfortable when he fell.  But the second time, he didn’t feel any force, nor did he have any uncomfortable feeling when he fell to the ground.

I had studied with Master Tao since I was in college.  I was always trying to be to be light and soft, as light and as soft as possible. But I always thought that “not by force” was just a matter of scale. Surely one must use some force to defeat your partner. That was the first time I truly realized that “not by force” really means not using force. It took me over 40 years of practice to realize this is possible.

I have watched many tai chi masters demonstrate push hands in both real life and from the internet.  All these tai chi masters have good grounding and use the technique of yielding and neutralization to ward off their opponents. But they always use some force.  I have yet to see anyone who absolutely does not use any force, as Master Tao was able to do.

I suppose that only when you know it is possible, will it begin to be possible for you. This reminds us that Nature accomplishes everything without the use of force.

So, “Not by force!” It is possible.

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