In taiji two-person training, we are told to “find” or “stick-to” or “search for” the other person’s Center and how important it is to be relaxed/sensitive to do learn to do this. I have tried to keep this little article rather general in the sense that I refered to the person you are doing [or trying to do this] with as your “partner”. I suppose I could have made it sound a bit more martial by writing “opponent” but many who study taijiquan are interested in formal push-hands training as a sensitivity exercise more than as one of the many tools needed for self-defense — much less fighting for fun or as a competitive sport where youth and fitness are essential — so I will keep my comments to the civil side of taiji two-person training.
By the way, in talking about a partner’s Center in taiji, we are discussing, at a basic level, the practicaliities of training your own physical touch to establish how well connected to the ground the other person is in structural terms [for example, do they feel stiff in some parts of their body or overall? do they feel segmented in terms of their upper and lower body or uncoordinated in general? do they feel solid but relaxed? etc.,]. All this has to be done while moving your body in the manner prescribed by the style/teacher that is supervising your efforts. With time and effort, you can learn to do this “your own way” but that is sometimes difficult to reconcile with stylistic needs.
Speaking of creativity, many experienced practitioners and teachers have also developed their own individual training methods for trying to get students to understand key concepts in isolation though contact exercises that do away with the scary prospect of having to first make contact to someone who is attacking with skill and/or aggression.
In the beginning, there are many structured formal methods [for example, single and double push-hands, both stationary as well as moving and da-lu] that train sensitivity and basic two-person co-ordination and interaction. Almost all that I have experienced and many that I have seen in demonstrations and/or on videos are useful, when properly taught, for teaching the basics of connecting to your partner’s structure without letting him or her use that connection against you.
They do this by having both partners start already in contact and with both in agreement that they will train relatively slowly. Some of these exercises are very useful for beginners, some are more useful to more advanced students or for martial training but the good ones that I have learned and taught or observed elsewhere involve providing the opportunity for both people to learn something of value.
Being in contact, even in such civilized conditions, can be strange the first time you are told to put your palm on another person’s shoulder or stomach and push for a variety of reasons. The less experienced will often respond by being stiffer than normal, or shrinking away from the contact or, conversely, by reacting with more force than necessary for that particular exercise. None of those common coping mechanisms are appropriate; but they are also difficult habits to break.
It is also important to remember that listening attentively and sensitivily evolves as one gets beyond learning the bare bones of “when my partner shifts forward and does this; I shift back and do that”. Greater experience allows for added factors like allowing one or both partners to move their arms and legs spontaneously whether that movement is relatively slow or relatively fast; in addition we could also talk about the eventual goal of dominating another person's center on an energetic basis but, most of the time, I prefer to talk about it in terms of mis-direction [e.g., a magician makes you look at one hand while he does something “tricky” with the other; or a good boxer fakes with his left to knock you out with his right].
Speaking of higher level skills, while some expert practitioners are very good at hiding their physical abilities from a superficial contact [The Taiji Classics say “I know my Opponent but he does not know me.”]; in general, it is true that making contact with a less skilled partner will give your trained touch a good deal of intuitive information at the moment you establish that contact.
Unfortunately, the sad truth in modern push-hands is often that the other person you practise with or even the instructor may be not much more more skilled than you are and that, in itself, can make it very difficult for the person with lesser skill to improve. In a nutshell, you can’t learn to copy excellence if you are never exposed to it!
I prefer to avoid jargon when working with people on such ideas or 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. 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.
If you have avoided the idea of doing push-hands and such is available wherever you may train, go watch such a session and then give it a try. With good partners you may learn a lot about yourself as well as about how others react under pressure [even when they know that the pressure is implied and not a real physical threat]. Just don’t do as some seem to and confuse the skills that can be learned from structured push-hands as meaning that you can now go and pick fights in biker bars!
Copyright Michael A. Babin ©2018
43+ Years of Experience Training in the Chinese martial arts; 33+ years experience teaching taijiquan and 24+ years experience teaching baguazhang