Like any other aspect of taijiquan, skill in push-hands comes, if it comes at all, from practising regularly with a variety of partners under the supervision of someone who has such skill and is willing and able to share it. The main approaches that one commonly finds today are structured and free-style or a mixture of the two with the structured exercises usually being learned first.
If you can find a teacher who still teaches the interactive side of taijiquan, structured practices are the most commonly used. For example in the Yang style; the main techniques or martial keys are Single and Double Push-hands, both fixed step and moving which are used to teach the four main energies of Ward-off, Roll-back, Press [also known in English as “Squeeze”] and Push; followed by “Four Corners” [also known in English as “Big Pull-down”]. This last method is usually only taught as a moving exercise to cover the other set of four key energies of Pull-down [also known as “Pluck”], Elbow, Shoulder and Split.
There's an Aesop's Fable about a King of the Bullfrogs trying to impress it's fellows by blowing itself up, bigger and bigger, to impress its subject amphibians after they described at length how big an ox was that had accidentally stepped on their nest. The King keeps inhaling more and more to try and seem larger than the descriptions it is hearing... until it bursts from its efforts to seem bigger.
That Fable seems apt to me on days like today when watching many of the "experts" who have posted videos of themselves on sites like Youtube™. It's hard to avoid the feeling that many of them haven't bothered watching a lot of the clips of better experts to see what real taijiquan expertise [insert the Family style of your choice] looks like. Is it because they can't tell the difference between mediocrity and excellence or is because they refuse to see the difference between what they are advocating in their own clips and what is available around them? It also often seems to me that those with dozens or hundreds of clips on their channels are trying a little too hard to metaphorically blow themselves up in the viewers eyes.
I had some sad news in the mail today from my former publisher, Paladin Press, which sent letters to current and former authors saying they would be closing shop after 47 years in the publishing business. Another death-knell for small publishers in a world that values electronic convenience over the printed word.
Studying a recreational martial art of any kind is usually a game of chance in that the skills one gains might work in a self-defense situation... if one has the basic requirement which is the "Heart" for the fight. Or the Will to fight, if you prefer. Even with that being present during class time; there's no way of knowing how anyone will react to a real attack -- with or without martial training.
Experience builds ability as well as confidence; but it's also very true that mindset can change dramatically in that moment that you realized that you are not "training/playing" and that the danger is real. Some of us seem to be genetically programmed to keep fighting even while dying or being maimed; others go into shock when struck once; others surrender too easily.
Taijiquan can't turn us into supermen though I have met one or two experts over the decades who certainly seemed "extraordinary" in their body mechanics and martial abilities even though they were no longer young or even middle-aged. While having good genes, on-going hard work and plain good luck in terms of avoiding injuries are sometimes deciding factors as well, on-going hard work is probably the most important factor after competent instruction!
This attitude is still surprisingly absent in those who think they want to learn Yang-style taiji. For example, I was eating lunch with one of my senior students in a restaurant and the man at the table next to ours had obviously been eavesdropping on our conversation about taiji training. As we got up to leave, he blurted out "You guys do taiji? I just started taking lessons with so-and-so and love it but it's hard to remember the postures. Do you think I should practise on my own between classes?"
I think of myself as a Yang style "generalist" in recent years rather than someone who follows a particular teacher. Thinking that way can have its dangers and its limitations but so can being a devoted follower of a particular lineage or teacher. For someone who values history and archaeology as much as I do, somewhat surprisingly, I'm not interested in turning my taijiquan forms and martial methods into museum pieces or slavish copies of someone else's material. That kind of stuff is essential in the formative years but can easily become its own trap as the years and decades roll by.
On the other hand, I don't see the value of creating a mish-mash of ingredients so that my Yang taiji looks like nothing I originally learned much less like bad xingyi or bad bagua. Nor have I been a fan in the past of modifying the solo forms taught by the men and occasionally women with whom I have studied. Perhaps this is because I have an old-fashioned approach to copyright issues and don't want to feel as if I am radically changing someone else's interpretations just to pass them off as my own.
I watched a video today of the best of a workshop that Rob gave last year on close range tactics from the perspective of the Systema that he practices and teaches in the UK. I was reminded while doing so that we live in an audio-visual age which might well have made the founder of the Yang style Taijiquan, Yang Lu Chan, green with envy. For those who don't know the story, he was reputed to have learned the basics of his art by watching Chen-style practitioners practising while he hid behind a stone wall and watched them training night-after-night. What would he have thought of the modern opportunity to attend workshops, buy dvds, stream instructional videos or "shop around' at a variety of martial arts that teach openly to anyone?
I felt a little bit like I was "stealing secrets" myself while watching Rob and his students training on my monitor screen. Perhaps I'm only fooling myself as to the depth of my understanding of martial body mechanics but I saw much that I recognized and liked. I also saw much that was done differently or explained in ways that made more sense to me than the kinds of explanations I have used with my own students over the years for similar methods of standing and moving while delivering and receiving "discomfort"
My first article on the martial arts was published in a Canadian periodical [RCMP Gazette] in 1979 and a year later my first article on taijiquan was published in an American martial arts magazine [see above]. About 160 published articles, five books and more than a hundred blog posts later, I had made a little money in the early years as a writer and the work of writing has also helped me sort out how I felt on a variety of martial and taiji topics over the years.
More importantly, I was sometimes told by readers that my articles had been helpful to them and that was more satisfying than the cheques that I received. We won't talk about the occasional comment that I was clueless about the topic that had offended that particular reader!
After all those years of writing on taijiquan and the martial arts the impulse to do so seemed gone in the late Spring of 2017 when I closed the blog that had run for almost a decade on my old website. But it's hard to silence an aging writer and so... to quote that famous line by Jack Nicholson in the cinematic version of The Shining "I'm Back!"
More About Me
I graduated from university in the early 1970s and went on to work in a variety of fields (archaeology, Federal Government civil service and IBM Ottawa) before becoming a magazine editor with the RCMP for a decade. From 1985-1996, I was the main caregiver for my two sons while also working as a free-lance writer and teaching Chinese martial arts in the evenings.