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 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"
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