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 referred 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 practicalities 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.
A traditionalist would argue that one should always practise outside, preferably in a garden or park and whenever possible in the early morning. I have known practitioners over the years who would refuse to practise indoors and instead risk frost-bite or getting wet in the rain. Good for them; but that's not for me. Where I live it seems to rain or snow a depressing amount of time, year-round, and the ground outside is often too slippery to risk doing solo forms. At my age, a broken hip or wrist is no laughing matter -- no matter how good your sense of humour.
So, as my stealing a phrase from Star Trek would suggest, the answer for those of us who are geographically-challenged by the weather is to look for enough space [indoors] to practise safely and in some comfort. However, you may already know that isn't easy if you live in a small apartment or the wife objects to you swinging a sword in the living room while she is trying to watch tv. Of course, some apartment buildings have recreational rooms or gymnasiums that can be of some use for regular practise but your fellow tenants may object, overtly or otherwise, to your taking up space with your slow-motion/strange movements, especially if you are using a staff, broadsword or sword.
I know from experience in teaching many introductory taiji courses in fitness and community centres in the 1980s and 1990s that one of the most common complaints I heard was that beginners were interested in practising but had no space to do the solo forms at home and were too shy to practise outdoors, even if the weather permitted. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that qigong and yoga have eclipsed taiji in modern popularity is that it is easier to learn very short sequences of movements and postures and much easier to find indoor space in which to practise.
While it is always preferable [especially in one's early years of training] to practise a competent long form, sadly they are often prohibitive of the amount of floor space necessary indoors. You can sometimes train these in a confined area by stopping, moving back or to the side a few paces and continuing from where you had stopped; but this can be confusing and also interrupts the 'flow" of movement that is such an intrinsic part of the taiji experience. More experienced practitioners can also use what are called "Changing steps" which allows one to move forward in principle but while doing so on the spot. One famous Yang style master was famous partly because of his party trick in which he would do an entire long form on a table top simply by constantly adjusting his stride in this way.
In some ways, the most practical solution is to learn a competent short form if you have to practise indoors most of the time and have some free space to use [coffee tables and chairs can be moved and stacked along a wall temporarily if you train yourself to ignore the irritated glare from your spouse or the cat that wanted to have a nap on her favourite chair].
However, you re-arrange your environment to make room for regular indoor practise; remember the words of a Yang style expert, Sam Masich, who said to a group of workshop attendees in 1990. His words that "You can correct anything in your practise eventually except for a lack of regular practise." was as valuable advice then as it is now. By the way, he's still teaching today and has achieved some deserved fame in the taiji world. I'd recommend his classes or workshops; and, no, I don't get rewarded for this endorsement.
Copyright M.A. Babin ©2018
I recently spent a very pleasant 90 minutes or so doing free-style swordplay games with three taiji colleagues [thanks Jill, Adriaan and Daniel] and had a lot of fun, scored a few “victories”, was ‘’defeated” or fought to a tie-match many times and learned a few more valuable lessons about unstructured, though controlled, sparring with swords.
I should clarify that we were engaged in dueling with weapons of equal length and type with no or little protective gear [just forearm protectors and gauntlets]. I mention this because there is quite a difference in tactics between what we did that day and doing free-play with fuller “armor” which allows more use of close-range tactics with the free hand or even the legs. Weight and strength make a greater impact when training to fight in armor and I’m getting to be an old man so I have to keep my opponents at a distance to avoid being grappled, kicked or struck.
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"
All text and photos on this website is copyright protected by Michael A. Babin ©2018 [with the exception of the photo at the top of this page which was taken by Helen Kriemadis ©2010]