Observations on the application of Tai Chi theory
to the practice of Push Hands and actual combat
These remarks are intended for those who have studied Tai Chi Chuan, or any internal art, for some time and who have already understood the basics. It is for those who have understood that skill in the internal arts comes not from the external, physical, techniques practiced in forms but from adherence to the principles of Tai Chi Chuan outlined in the Classics, particularly the 'five word secret' or 'song of Push Hands'.
My first observation is that the most common reason for lack of skill in Push Hands or combat in those who have practiced Tai Chi Chuan for many years is not adhering to the principles of Tai Chi Chuan. This stems sometimes from lack of understanding but, more usually, from the abandonment of the principles under pressure. I have witnessed many capable practitioners, who demonstrate fine forms and good Push Hands technique with their peers, who lose their ability in combat or when practicing with an unfamiliar partner. In this they demonstrate their lack of faith in the principles of Tai Chi Chuan, in that they resort to some other method when the going gets tough. In my experience the principles of Tai Chi Chuan are peerless. There is no better method for engaging an adversary whether in practice or actual combat. The most common manifestation of this lack of faith is 'Double Weighting' which manifests itself as meeting force with force or not yielding. This comes about in two ways: firstly in the tendency to resist the attempts of the opponent to apply this or that technique by pushing back against the direction of their attack and secondly by attempting to force their own attack to work, even though it has been anticipated and resisted by the opponent.
I believe the reason for the above is poor attitude in training particularly in Push Hands practice. Again, as with so many things, there are two, almost opposite, causes. The first mistake is to treat Push Hands practice as a battle or a real fight. It is neither. The cause of this mistake is usually ego, the desire to win. Push Hands is an exercise. It is meant to be the training ground for the key words (Listen [sensitivity], Yield, Stick, Neutralise, Control/Attack[Issue Force]). If treated as a contest it is difficult to develop the sensitivity to see the appropriate moment to apply the rest of the strategy and the tendency to resort to physical traits, such as speed or strength, will become rooted in the subconscious. My own teacher used to say "If you practice this way [wrongly], even if you win, you lose.", you lose because, ultimately, you will give yourself bad habits and not acquire real skill. The second reason for lack of faith in the principles is also rooted in the practice of Push Hands. I have observed some people who, perhaps having misunderstood the immediately foregoing, practice Push Hands as if it where a dance, with neither partner attempting to discern the correct moment to yield, stick or issue force. Simply moving in the pattern of Push Hands without attempting to apply the principles achieves nothing and does not prepare the practitioner to apply those principles when called upon to do so. The best approach to the practice of Push Hands is to attempt to apply the principles to the best of your ability while not caring whether you overcome your opponent or are yourself overcome. Either way you learn something: If you do manage to apply the principles and overcome your opponent you will see what you are doing right, if you are overcome by your opponent you will learn what you are doing wrong. Even if your opponent practices incorrectly and overcomes you by superior physical abilities, eventually you will discover how to deal with those abilities by using the principles of Tai Chi Chuan, you still benefit.
My second observation concerns the use of force in combat or Push Hands. These days there is much talk of 'Fa Gin' (Lit. attacking energy) and the use of internal or intrinsic power, or the use of Chi. While it is true that Tai Chi Chuan, Chi Kung (Qi Gong), and other internal arts develop power by conditioning the body from within and developing the ability to issue energy directly from the body, rather than relying on external physical conditioning it is not the case that this ability entirely replaces physical activity or can be used entirely without physical effort. The myth that Masters of Tai Chi Chuan can merely point at an individual or place a palm on them and send them hurtling away stems, almost certainly, from the observation of a master performing a technique with excellent application of force and impeccable timing, due to great sensitivity. The advantage of internal power over physical strength is a subtle one. It is not that internal power is more powerful than physical strength, it is that it can be applied without committing the momentum of the body to the technique. A good analogy is to compare internal power with a very sharp knife and physical strength with an iron bar. Either of these weapons could kill you but I would rather face someone armed with an iron bar than someone armed with a very sharp knife (if that someone also knew how to use the knife). The reason is that an iron bar, once swung, is set on its course, despite its power it is possible to evade it and defeat the attacker. A sharp knife, on the other hand, is light, manoeuvrable and hard to predict, it only has to touch you to cause damage. Internal power allows the practitioner to issue energy without much physical commitment because it is soft in its approach like a very sharp knife. Its superiority over physical strength lies in this not in the amount of power which can be generated.
There is a line in the Classics attributed to Wang Zongyue which is usually translated as "No excess, no insufficiency". Though, in fact, this is the first four characters of an eight character line. The other four characters translate as "Expand as your opponent contracts" and the opposite may be inferred "Contract as your opponent expands". The importance of this when issuing force is in two parts (possibly why only the first part of the line appears in most translations). "No excess, no insufficiency" implies using just enough force to accomplish the desired technique and no more. Most people, in my experience, seem to believe that if enough force is good more must be better. Nothing could be further from the truth! Using Internal power this way commits the practitioner, physically, to the technique and externalises the movement, turning the very sharp knife into a very blunt one, it therefore has all the disadvantages of the iron bar with none of the advantages. Of course, enough force must be used to accomplish the technique and therefore, for techniques to work, they must be appropriate and timed to perfection. Something which can only be accomplished with great sensitivity and strict adherence to the principles of Tai Chi Chuan. The second part "Expand as your opponent contracts" refers to the ability to stick closely to your opponent. Sticking is a difficult ability to master and, like much of Tai Chi Chuan principle, is often misunderstood. It could further be said that as your opponent contracts, or retreats from you, you must continue to advance, giving no room for your opponent to mount a counter attack (it is most important not to over extend or Yang becomes Yin and your advantage will be lost). Similarly; "Contract as your opponent expands" is also about sticking. It infers that; as your opponent expands, or advances, you must continue to contract, or retreat, giving no room for your opponent to press home the attack (it is vital, at this point, not to break with the opponent but to stick as close while retreating as when advancing). The above need not imply linear movement but can also be applied to circular and angular movement. Mastering these principles will make your techniques seem effortless and give you control over yourself and the situation.
My third observation concerns Neutralising. The Classics say that "Energy should be issued like an arrow from a bow", yet how often do we see practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan struggling to push an opponent? This is because they have not understood how to Neutralise an opponent or how to tell when the opponent is Neutralised. To Neutralise an opponent means to place the opponent in a disadvantageous position. This is done by the simultaneous application of Yielding and Sticking or, from the Classics, "Adhering to, joining with and sticking to every movement with no letting go and no resistance". When this is done the opponent is overwhelmed without effort and cannot help but fall into bad posture and broken movement, at that moment by issuing energy, joined with the energy of the opponent, in a sudden burst the opponent is sent flying away with hardly any visible movement.
To discern the moment when the opponent is Neutralised requires sensitivity, which can only be gained by many, many hours of practice in Push Hands and related activities, but it is important to know what to look for in the first place. If, at the point of contact with your opponent, you feel a sense of heaviness, your opponent is not Neutralised and you should not attempt to issue energy. By this I do not mean that you feel the opponent pushing back, if this is the case you can issue energy in the direction they are pushing to great effect, but rather a heavy rooted feeling. When the point of contact feels light, however, you should issue energy instantly. Again, I am not referring to a light contact, this may be due to circumstances and not an indication of Neutralising, but rather a feeling of lightness or uprootedness in your opponent. When this is achieved the point of contact needs no further attention. Energy should be issued from the whole body, from the feet up. The intent should be placed in the direction in which the energy is to be issued and beyond the actual target or target area. It is only necessary to focus on releasing energy not on the point of contact, to focus there will tend to make the movement external and retard the issuing of energy.
My final observation concerns the difference in mental attitude between the practice of Push Hands and combat. In Push Hands it is not necessary to win and it does not matter if you lose. Practice should be undertaken with a calm mind a strong intent and an eagerness to improve in the spirit of discovery. In combat on the other hand it may not always be possible to win but it is important not to lose. Combat should be undertaken with a calm mind a strong intent and a cautious and decisive manner. Whereas in Push Hands practice we may try an unlikely technique to see what happens or restrain ourselves when overcoming an opponent, so as not to cause harm, in combat we must stick like glue to the principles of Tai Chi Chuan, have a free and uncluttered mind but do nothing rash or unguarded. And, when the opportunity arises, defeat the opponent resoundingly. The practitioner of the internal arts should fight with a serious mind and a light heart.
Sifu R Rand