By Erle Montaigue
By now, most martial artists have heard somewhere along the road about the Taiji practice of push hands. That two person exercise that is given such great importance that it is said to be responsible in some Taiji circles as being representative of the total fighting art. Some say that it can cure cancer while others have said that if one is good at push hands, then that person must be good at fighting. One person in the USA even went so far as to argue (with myself) that a person who was good at push hands would be able to beat (in a fight) someone who was not well versed at push hands! All of this is bullshit of course, a person may never in his or her life even see push hands and still be a great martial artist in good health.
So, why is so much importance placed upon this strange four part exercise? For the most part, many Taiji people simply do not like the idea of having to fight or even admit that they are studying a self defence method. Taiji has always attracted the 'softer' parts of the community, those who believe that it is possible to defend oneself without becoming angry or even using a little bit of aggression. So, when push hands was introduced, it was the ideal way of saying to those people that they did not have to fight, all they had to do was this exercise and they would know all, and if they were ever attacked, it would all be there. Somehow, miraculously through practising this simple exercise, they would be able to fend off all comers and not even ruffle their feathers or think a bad thought. They even introduced special contests of push hands so that these people would have some way of showing the rest of the martial arts community how good they were at fighting! They would jump into a ring or circle and try to push each other out! This would show their prowess in the self-defence area!
It's all garbage, and any martial artist worth his salt derides this type of activity and thought line. This is one of the main reasons why Taiji and the other two internal systems to a lesser degree have such a name of derision in the main stream martial arts community. However, the tide is turning and now many martial artists of the so called 'hard school' are now turning to arts such as Taiji as they are now realising that it has much more to offer than some slow movements and pushing hands.
The reason for this misinformation is that not many know about the advanced way of push hands which is totally different to the more normal way. The most common and basic way of push hands is to use the postures known as 'P'eng', 'Lu', 'Chee' and 'Arn'. We both get into a very low and stable stance to begin with. Why on earth do people think that this ridiculous stance is strong and good for self-defence! You can't fight in this stance! You can't move in this stance and it gives one a false sense of security. You have not the time to get into this stance when attacked. So just to show what this normal push hands is all about I will, in a nutshell show all. He pushes my right arm with both of his palms so I ward off to my left and take my left palm under his right elbow. Photo No.1. I am already beginning to move backwards. This in itself goes against the Taiji classics, one never moves back when attacked but forward. So, now it's my turn, I take my left palm onto the back of his right elbow and grabbing his right wrist I use 'Lu' or rollback as his left palm come across to protect (Chee). Photo No.2. I have now sat right back and am in the most vulnerable position ever. Now, it's my turn to push. I place my both palms onto his left forearm and push him. He now does exactly the opposite and we continue in this way trying to push or pull each other over. In my last article, I stated that there are no pushes or pulls in Taiji!
Another mistranslation from the Chinese is this. "If he moves up, I move up, if he moves down, I move down" fine up to here, but now it all goes strangely wrong. it continues, "if he comes forward, I move back! and if he moves back, I move forward"! In this case the translation has given us the exact opposite to what it should be. It should read, "if he moves forward, I move forward and if he moves back, then I move back". This is more martial arts and not dancing. So, in the normal basic push hands we have to do something that is completely wrong for a fighting art. When my opponent moves forward, I move back and when I move forward, he moves back etc. This is wrong.
Advanced Push Hands
My teacher, Chang Yiu-chun used to call this exercise 'joining arms' because there are no pushes in Taiji! In order to teach this exercise, I take it arse about face. I reverse the usual learning process. I teach firstly a martial application, then I teach the exercise which is exactly the same as the martial application. Firstly, there is no stance, the feet are as if in a normal fighting stance, standing upright. This in itself causes us to have to use more awareness and body connectivity in order to defeat the oncoming attacks. In the broad low stance we are stable and are able to use our superior low stance to take the oncoming forces using purely physical stances. But this is not fighting, it is playing. We are tricked into believing that if we are able to take a strong oncoming force in this stance, then we are able to defend ourselves. We see so called masters using this stance and a strong triceps muscle to throw someone many feet away with a strong push. So what! This has nothing to do with the fighting art. And in most cases it is a case of 'student compliance' where the student does not wish to make and absolute idiot out of his teacher in front of people and so he 'helps out' by throwing himself backward. I had one chap at a workshop in Britain who, when I was simply showing him the difference between static tension and internal tension by allowing him to place his palm onto my forearm to feel the difference, throw himself many feet away when he felt the difference. Now this chap was probably one of the best martial artists in that particular group and was picking it all up very quickly, but because he was used to 'playing the game' with his own teacher, here he was on the floor and I had not done anything to cause this!
P'eng & hinge is one of the most valuable tools that we have in the fighting system. See Photo No. 3 for the boxing stance, really a non stance. My left arm is 'hinge'` while my right arm is 'P'eng'. And I am making use of the 'C' back, (covered in my last article). I now have my partner throw a straight right. I use the hinge to bump it over to my right, notice the position also of the P'eng. Notice also how I have come forward and not back. Photo No. 4. Now, as my left palm takes over his right arm, my right palm attacks to his neck as in Photo No.5. This is the first part of advanced push hands as you will see later. This exercise gets a little more complicated however. After this has been practised for some time, I now take a forward step as well as doing the previous so that I am now ending up at his right side. Photo No. 6. Notice the 'C' shaped back. There is only one way to stop a really hard attack, one that 'rides the natural instinct', and that is to have the 'C' back. This is our suspension, we are completely mobile and yet we are not using the low wide immobile stance and still we are able to have great power in stopping heavy attacks. This is where we learn about the 'C' back and how to use it. The hands and feet work independently to each other, leaving the hands to do their work knowing that the feet are also doing their job in holding us up. This brings us to the next area of this training method. Now, as I block and re-attack as before, my partner stops my final attack by holding up his left palm. This is exactly the same as in advanced push hands where your partner places his palm onto the inside of his elbow. See Photo No.7. We are now able to perform a Chinese training method called 'two goats butting' no, not two dogs .......! Two goats butting! We now apply pressure onto the arms but without leaning forward so that if our partner moves away suddenly, we would fall forward, but rather the pressure comes from the waist. We walk around a circle still holding this pressure leaving our feet to move freely as we walk. This is the way of the 'C' back. The suspension from the back is able to leave the arms and feet free to do their work.
The final area of this training method is to have one person (we agree as to who it will be) make any type of strike towards us, this can be in the form of more pressure to try and move us or it can be in the form of an actual strike. Still holding the pressure, and still walking, we now re-attack without thinking using the correct tool for the job. If for instance, we were to withdraw the fist first and then attack, this would be wrong. If we were to strike with the elbow for instance by only turning the waist, then this would be correct. Then we also follow up with other strikes to various points. In this way, the push hands is used to teach, the 'C' back, 'Eagle Vision', 'Using Peripheral Vision', 'Point Strikes' and sub-conscious reaction, 'Foot work' 'Hand work' and rooting.
The above exercise can be performed by anyone from any style.
Next article, I will take you into the actual 'doing' P'eng/hinge