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.
Teachers who use this approach to teaching these in sequence often also include for the more experienced and adventurous students semi-unstructured methods called "Soft Hands" or "Sticking Hands" that may allow the use of striking with control or throws and are commonly done in a moving context.
Studying any of the more structured methods is difficult unless you can spend a great deal of time learning such choreagraphies from people that can do them effectively; and, in the end, such skill can be a bit of a trap in the sense that one becomes “good at doing structured push-hands” with someone practising the same approach as opposed to understanding intuitively how to change and be “sensitive” with someone who doesn’t stick by the rules to which you are accustomed.
The other somewhat less common approach is to do free-style push-hands, stationary or fixed step, right from the start and skip all the structured stuff or place less emphasis on them. In the long-run, the more free-style approaches to push-hands can lead to greater levels of martial skill against unrehearsed "attacks" but the structured methods can provide a better foundation, especially in stylistic terms, for understanding whatever core principles are considered essential by your teacher or role-models.
I prefer to avoid jargon when working with people on such skills or on an over-reliance on Chinese terminology although I also think that a serious student of something like taijiquan is rather silly to not make some effort to study the theory and history of the art and the culture that gave birth to it. However, it is also sadly true that one meets more theoretical experts than anything else when it comes to taiji push-hands. Knowing stuff in your head is not the same as also understanding the same stuff in your body, not to mention your partner’s body.
Practising with different body types and different approaches to how aggressive or passive a partner can be are also potentially useful learning experiences. I know that some teachers have, perhaps even still, advocate that you can practise one side or the other of structured push-hands patterns on your own to improve your skills… but I personally think that is nonsense, especially for those who aren’t already experts.
I have practised and taught variations of the structured curriculum over the decades that I have learned and taught the Yang style and in recent years I am focusing on a more unstructured approach to push-hands as I was exposed to in my early years in martial taijiquan. In general, I have seen that those who are drawn to free-style play often have less interest in structure and vice-versa; similarly, I have seen that very few students ever are equally good at and interested in both. Perhaps that has to do with a student’s basic nature? I don’t know as I am not a psychologist.
Finally, as with any interactive side of a martial discipline, too many people who practise push-hands either don't take it seriously enough or conversely are so serious that they don't enjoy the activity for it's own sake. I once heard a teacher at a workshop say playfully that push-hands could be much like sex... when it's good it's great but even when it's not great, it's still pretty good. There is some truth to that but for both interpretations, good partners are essential, not luxuries!
Copyright © Michael A. Babin, 2017
43+ Years of Experience Training in the Chinese martial arts; 33+ years experience teaching taijiquan and 24+ years experience teaching baguazhang