Push hands, the non-verbal war - artikel om partnerövningar och tips om hur man tränar dem i kampkonster och för hälsa

Push Hands - the non-verbal war? (A play in four acts)

push hands (pushing hands) chin. mand. tui shou. A partner-exercise used within the chinese martial arts system Taijiquan ("Tai chi"). Basic premises for the exercise are a) yielding to incoming force (meeting yang with yin), b) learning to relax while under pressure from an "opponent", c) developing tingjing (listening-energy), the ability to listen to the intention and flow of energy within another person. push hands exists in different versions among other styles of martial arts. see also rou shou, chi sao, sensitivity in Silat, and "Want To Play?" - Martial Arts and the Lethal Pun.

- The Totally Serious Internal Arts Practitioner´s Encyclopedia (extract), AhSo Publishing House, 1999, p316.

Class night.
Two guys face off for push hands. Now, you can do push hands in a lot of different ways. You can do it technically in any number of versions - using one hand contact, two hands, fixed-step, moving; you can do it in versions with a specialized movement pattern, you can do it free-style, you can do it competition-style and you can do it with weapons. This is of couse not taking into account the mindset, which opens up yet another huge field: for health, for martial arts or for meditation purposes; for Becoming One with the Harmony of the Universe or for working with specific energetics. You can, to phrase it exasperatingly short, do it in a gazillion different ways.
These two guys have decided on one of them, subconsciously. They´re going to do Push Hands and Kick Some Ass.
We´re going to see what happens when - let´s call them Jake and Jonathan - touch arms.


"Right. Oo-kay. The form felt good today. Really good. My shoulders feel quite okay too. Ha! This time I´ll pay him back for what he tried to do in class last Saturday. He just kept getting all tense whenever I tried to do anything. Well, have I got a trap waiting for you, mate..."
Meanwhile Jonathan is tired. Of a lot of things.
"Bloody hard day at work. God, I cannot believe how he keeps ragging down on me all the time, just like it was my fault to begin with. Accusing me of making mistakes with that account when everybody else knows who´s fault it really was... Bastard. And my shoulders hurt. Even the form went all wrong today."
Neither Jake nor Jonathan has stopped to talk about what they´re doing. They just go straight into single-hand Push Hands. Their teacher hasn´t said anything (he usually doesn´t) so the dozen or so groups in the hall are pretty much left to their own devices while the teacher squares off with a senior student in a corner.
During the first fifteen minutes things go smoothly. Well, more or less smoothly.
"He´s doing it again! He´s doing it again! We´re supposed to do this softly, and he just keeps tensing up and shoving when he should be pushing! Same thing as last time! Okay, root yourself, Jake, root yourself. If he keeps this up I´ll show him what happens when you stay tense and don´t let your partner get any practice done..."
At the same time Jonathan is getting frustrated. With everything.
"This is so annoying... He just keeps yielding - how can he be so bloody relaxed? It´s unfair. My shoulders feel like wooden blocks filled with dry rot, and he´s got this smug little grin on his face when he yields, just like he knows he´s this really smart git who can do this stuff while I can´t. Same kind of grin Mr. Ribdon has, too! And I didn´t mess up that account!"

Act I: Enter Banquo´s ghost, stage left

One facet of partner-exercises that tends to get glossed over, is the emotional one. When you do push hands with someone else, you are increasing the level of energy through the interaction of energy from the two of you. This has the effect of bringing out hidden blockages in your emotions, in your physical body, and in your energy, and it gives you a helping hand with bringing them to the surface. But unless you are aware of the emotional aspect of the training, if you are in fact surpressing it...
Well, let´s have a look at Jake and Jonathan again, shall we?

Things have started to heat up. Some...spirited pushing is taking place in the training hall now, and off in the corner the teacher is merrily bouncing the senior student off the walls. As often before, neither Jake nor Jonathan can quite remember who started to get nasty. Both of them can quite well recall when it happened last time, though, and now the natives are getting restless.
"He´s doing it again. Here we go, just trying to pull me in while he´s in that ludicrously deep stance. Can´t he get through his thick skull that I could hit him several times before he´d even start to move when he´s down there? What a hopeless dimwit. It´s so pointless doing push hands with him. He just never learns."
But for Jonathan things look different.
"No way he´s going to push me this time. Not a chance. I remember last time, when he yielded and then just pushed me so hard I hit the wall! That´s just showing off, nothing else. If he had decent control he wouldn´t need to do that. Thinks he´s something because he´s so relaxed. If I just stay down here there´s no chance he can push me again. Just try, go on..."
Both Jake and Jonathan are starting to go from Simmer to Boil inside. Their central nervous systems are locking up and more and more muscle is getting into play. Under the surface both of them are digging up a lot of old emotional blockages, but since they both are unaware of the process they just keep filling those blockages up with energy and take it out on their partner. Their partner who, rather suddenly, has changed shape into an Opponent.

Act II: When Pushe comes to Shove

At this stage Jake and Jonathan should take a break. They really should. Either that, or consciously check what´s going on in their emotions and mind so that they can drop it, relax the connection it has to their bodies, and then remember it so that they can take it back into the solo-practices and resolve it there.
Unfortunately neither one of them has got the faintest clue about this. So the situation enters Defcon 2: Jake has just rather nastily tried to push Jonathan, using more tension than skill.
"Sod it. Almost got him there. Almost. Well, I´ll teach him what you have coming to you when you tense up and won´t let your partner practice because your ego is in the way!"
Jonathan loses it. All of a sudden his mind is just filled to the brim with that smug little way Mr. Ribdon has when he smiles, and he thinks he´s perceiving the same attitude in Jake. His motions are getting jerkier by the minute; tension radiates around him like charm around a politician. He tries to grab Jake´s arm, while at the same time using waist-turning to uproot him and, not very softly at all, dump him on the floor.
"I´ll get you this time!"
Jake manages to yield around it, but jerks on the way up, trying to convert that into a pull which almost drags Jonathan into his arms but not quite. For a second there´s a standstill before the motion gets going again, around and around. Somewhere in the background another student is telling his partner, "Relax, relax, just take it easy..."

And that´s where we leave Jake and Jonathan. And no, you´re not getting the satisfaction of seeing either one of them get pushed, hit, or bounced off the floor. We leave them with the face-off unresolved, because that is exactly how it is for them. They will leave the training hall that night with a lot of emotions brought to the surface and to a boil. Since they don´t know to expect that, they might both just deepen those emotional blockages, either through taking them out on their families or simply through trying to repress them anew.
But things will be so much more fun when they do push hands again, don´t you think?

Act III: Alas, poor Yorrick

Well, maybe Yorrick isn´t quite dead yet. I think that many practitioners who read this are nodding to themselves right now. They recognize the Annoyance Factor of push hands, but are unsure how to deal with it.
In the old qigong traditions emotions are considered to be just another layer of energy. The training is supposed to clear out and strengthen your physical body and energy. It is also, however, geared to make you more aware of your emotional landscape, and of the weak spots you ought to deal with and clean out. This is an area that needs to be taken into consideration when you do partner practices. If you don´t, you get two adults who are socially forced to do this very soft practice on the outside, but who inside are under increasing pressure which they are not allowed to vent. This might not only fuel the old blockages, but the backlash can in fact create new ones. The partner exercise turns nasty instead of relaxing, forceful instead of useful.

Act IV: Enter Prospero, in his magic robes

As we saw before, push hands can be done any way you like, from the misunderstood Overcooked Pot Noodle to full no-holds-barred fighting. One aspect that is often overlooked is the simple fact that verbal communication is also part of a partner-exercise. It´s just another way of exchanging energy. Most of us are not mind-readers, even though we like to think so.
Here are a few ideas and tips that might make your partner practice more effective and - let´s not forget - more enjoyable for both people involved.

Talk. Decide what you want to do or what you want to work with in advance. When you want to shift level, or shift from, say, just rooting yourself to actually hitting or pushing, check it with your partner first.

Don´t show off. It´s nothing more than a very visible gauge of what a big and immature ego you have. And, yes, to the people who know anything at all the way you´re doing it will be very visible indeed.

Keep in mind that it is called partner practice. Two people are involved, and both of them should get something out of it. Be polite. Don´t give training advice unless asked, and if you do, be nice about it. Everybody has things they need to work on. Yes, you too.

Next level you can add is the emotional one. This is more important and easier if you are working with meditation practices in your training, but can be used to get full effect for just health as well as for fighting. What you are really looking for is a deepening level of release throughout your body, all through your mind, your nervous system, your energy - throughout your entire being. The partner practices are just one aid to enable you to go deeper. Whatever you unearth there, you can bring back into your solo training. This creates a cycle where you go from solo practices to partner, then back, and use both modes of practice to resolve things that otherwise might elude you for decades.

First of all, keep an eye on your emotions and thoughts, not just your physical body and movement. If you do, you´ll probably start noticing recurring themes or recurring old memories with emotional content turning up as you practice. Especially when you start to get a lot of pressure or go very very still in your partner work.

Do not take out your emotions on your partner. They are your problems, not hers or his. Just notice the emotions, thoughts and memories that turn up. Try to let them go. If you take them out on your partner you will only deepen the blockages within yourself. Not to mention being rather rude while doing it.

If you start to tense up or if you feel that your nervous system is starting to go from relaxed into white noise, take a break. It´s not a case of "macho push hands wins the day". Don´t be afraid to be the one who wants to take a break. Your health and relaxation will not improve if you constantly push your push hands, nor will your skill.


"Well, um, sorry I was so tense today. I had a really awful day at work."
"That´s okay. I hope I didn´t push you around too much. Difficult to tell sometimes, isn´t it?"
"Yeah... It´s just my shoulders - they feel like wood! I can´t get them to budge an inch."
"Yeah, my shoulders feel pretty shitty too. You really must have noticed that today, right?"
"You have tense shoulders too?"

© Daniel Skyle 2004. Daniel Skyle is a freelance writer and Internal Arts teacher based in Sweden. Photographs are of Internal Martial Arts Master George Xu of San Francisco, US, © Daniel Skyle 2004