The Nurturing Gong of Push Hands
by Rodney J Owen
Push hands practice is a crucial component of a complete Taiji curriculum. There are multiple styles, types, and approaches to push hands, but ultimately it is a two-person approach to Taiji practice that serves as a bridge between Tajij form and san shou, or free fighting. However, push hands is not fighting. In my system of study, all of Taiji is seen as gong practice, or the process of improving balance and coordination, and replenishing Qi. It is easy to see how Qigong and Taiji form are crucial gong practices, but many people don’t understand push hands in the same light. However, one can only go so far with solo practice. Partner practice adds another dimension to Taiji, and adds depth to the gains acquired through solo practice. Additionally, push hands, understood a certain way, is as much a healing practice as any component of the Taiji curriculum.
There are many practical benefits of Taiji practice. Of utmost importance is the development of Fang Song, or the quality of “being sung.” This is often translated as relaxation in English, although relaxation is not quite what sung means. Many people understand relaxation as implying a limp state with no force. A better description may be the lack of tension. One of my teachers described it as moving without feeling the movement. In the practice of Taiji in general, and push hands in particular, one should strive to find the sung state and maintain it. That is no easy task, but is one worth pursuing. Good push hands training helps with the development and maintenance of sung. And this is a benefit that stays with us as we leave the training hall and descend into the streets of life.
The development of sung contributes immensely to our health. A relaxed mind/body is open to the flow of Qi, is not as susceptible to the effects of stress, and is better able to fight off illness and disease. Push hands practice is as beneficial in protecting us against illness as in teaching us to deal with muggers and attackers. In fact we are much more likely to find the need to fight off illness than thugs. In addition, if or when the situation arises that we need martial skills, they are much better deployed by the healthy than the ill.
Our lives are full of potential stressors. Some of us are better at controlling these than others. For example, think of the various ways people react in heavy traffic. Some take it in stride, some get a little stressed, and others develop what is known as road rage, all in the same or similar situations. However, it’s not the stressors themselves that are the problem. It’s our reactions that determine how they affect us. We have the ability to be either adversely affected by or to deal optimally with various experiences. There is no entity out in the world called road rage that is waiting to infect the random unsuspecting driver. There is only traffic; or unemployment, or death in the family, or aggressive bosses and nasty co-workers, or catastrophic weather, etc… These things, these potential stressors, are real and their effect on our health, our lives, and the lives of the people around us are also very real. Fortunately, we have within us the ability to deal effectively with these stressors. Peace of mind is an option for anyone and everyone. It has only to be discovered and developed. Push hands is one of the tools that contributes to this development.
Most stress management techniques primarily consider mental and emotional defense mechanisms. These provide tremendous results and should be considered a crucial component of stress management practice. The general idea is that as we engage stressful situations we respond emotionally, which induces a physical reaction, which feeds back to our mental state and may induce another, perhaps different emotional reaction, which induces yet another physical reaction, and on and on. For instance, suppose your boss yells at you and upsets you. You in turn get angry and subconsciously tighten your shoulders. This tension strains your back and makes it hard to maintain a good posture at your desk, which in turn causes back pain. The back pain and shoulder tension make it hard to concentrate on your work, which your mind interprets as another stressor because you have a deadline and are falling behind, and your boss will only get angrier, which adds to the physical reaction, which in turn makes you angry and snappy, etc…. Contemporary stress management techniques work by teaching one to calm the mind and emotions in order to deal with the stressor, or to reinterpret the situation as something not worthy of an adverse reaction.
Taiji takes a reverse approach to the management of stress by going to the feedback system first. The physiological response that is engaged by the mental reaction to stress is a feedback mechanism. Concurrently, this feedback also registers with the brain as stress. Hence, a headache can trigger anger, or vice-versa. The practice of Qigong and Taiji form develop sung, activate the various meridians, and increase the flow of Qi, all of which help to develop internal harmony, which in turn calms the mind. These are the qualities of healthy living and it’s easy to develop and feel these in solo Taiji practice. However, we need to be able to maintain these qualities even when our harmony is challenged by stressors.
Push hands can be utilized as a method of stress simulation. In the practice of push hands we try to maintain central equilibrium while challenging the equilibrium of our partner. And our partner in turn tries to upset our equilibrium. In the process we give each other something to work with and the opportunity to deal with stressors while attempting to maintain peace of mind. Another person inside of one’s personal space, trying to upset equilibrium, can be a stressor. While relatively mild, controlled, and simulated, it is enough to challenge the relaxation gained in solo practice but is safe enough to not cause any real harm to the players. Every newcomer to push hands knows this experientially. Most people are not comfortable with another person being in their personal space. It is even more uncomfortable when one’s balance is challenged. The principles and techniques of push hands can be utilized to train our bodies to effectively deal with threats without getting tense or upset. In Buddhist terms, it is a method for developing equanimity. As a healing practice, it teaches the mind/body to remain calm under attack, which in the day-to-day world could just as easily be from a flu virus, an angry boss, or maniacal drivers in rush hour traffic.
While push hands practice is associated with the martial application of Taiji, it is not fighting. To fight is to struggle. Fighting implies diametrically opposed energies colliding head-on against one another. Push hands is more about cooperation, even if it means learning to cooperate with the uncooperative. Push hands is about redirecting opposing energies and learning to go with the flow rather than opposing it. Push hands is about harmonizing with the environment and finding peace of mind in the midst of chaos. Peace of mind is not something reserved for monks and hermits. It’s something inherently available to all of us. It is within us. Solo practices like those we find in meditation, yoga, Qigong, and the Taiji form help us to find and become familiar with this, to nurture it. Partner exercises, like push hands, provide us a way to learn how to maintain it under challenging conditions. Peace of mind, developed and maintained through bodily integration, leads to completeness wholeness and health.[Rodney Owen has had a life-long interest in the relationship between meditation and martial arts. Over the years he has followed and studied systems that emphasize that relationship: Aikido, Qigong, Taijiquan, I Liq Chuan, and Buddhism. He practices and teaches Taiji, Qigong, Kung Fu, and Meditation in High Point, NC. His primary interest is in the practical and functional aspects of these arts and in the concept that Kung Fu is a way of life, a methodology for improving and enjoying the content of life, of discovering and manifesting our higher selves. He maintains a blog on martial arts and mindfulness at http://nagualtime.blogspot.com/ Samples of his writing and other interests can be found at http://rodneyjowen.com ]