When I think of push hands, what comes to mind is that it is tai chi’s “fighting modality”, but fighting doesn’t really explain it properly, as push hands is much more than that. Fortunately, I found a wonderful definition in Wikipedia:
“Pushing hands, push hands or tuishou is a name for two-person training routines practiced in internal Chinese martial arts such as Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, Taijiquan (T’ai chi ch’uan), Liuhebafa, Yiquan.”
“Pushing hands is said to be the gateway for students to experientially understand the martial aspects of the internal martial arts: leverage, reflex, sensitivity, timing, coordination and positioning. Pushing hands works to undo a person’s natural instinct to resist force with force, teaching the body to yield to force and redirect it. Health oriented t’ai chi schools may teach push hands to complement the physical conditioning available from performing solo form routines. Push hands allows students to learn how to respond to external stimuli using techniques from their forms practice. Among other things, training with a partner allows a student to develop ting jing (listening power), the sensitivity to feel the direction and strength of a partner’s intention.”
The emphasis on “two-person training routines” is mine. I would like to emphasise this point, as in push hands we are helping each other to learn about our tai chi form, we are not necessarily fighting each other, but helping each other to become more aware of our errors while doing simple exercises. The movements are repetitive so that you can concentrate on what is happening in your body internally.
For example, if we overextend or lean forward while doing the form, we would be pushed forward by our partner in push hands and lose our balance. That teaches us to stay centred and balanced, finding the right position in our push hand session and applying that posture later on to our form. If we tense, we will be uprooted and lose balance very easily, but if we relax, we will feel more grounded and less easy to be moved by our partner.
During the movements, the wrists and some parts of the arms are in contact with the other person, and we both move rhythmically in unison, listening to each other and observing their structure, looking for mistakes: too much tension, arms too close or too high, legs not centred, hips not relaxed…We use these observations to push, pull and take our partner out of their space, which is great fun.
For those who think that tai chi is a solitary practice, please know that push hands is an essential part of tai chi in more advance stages, and offers a platform for further self-learning while having lots of fun with different partners.
This video shows some of the movements involved in push hands. Please excuse the bad quality of the image.