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Pushing hands, (推手, Wade-Giles t'ui shou, pinyin tūi shǒu), is a name for two-person training routines practiced in soft style Chinese martial arts such as Pa Kua Chang (Baguazhang), Hsing-i Ch'uan (Xingyiquan), T'ai Chi Ch'uan (Taijiquan) and I Ch'uan (Yiquan).
Pushing hands is said to be the gateway for students to understand experientially the martial art aspects of the nei chia (內家 nèi jiā or internal style) martial arts; leverage, reflex, sensitivity, timing, coordination and positioning. The theory being that there is a limit to the amount of physical conditioning available from performing solo form routines, so pushing hands adds the weight of the training partner's pushes onto the legs of the student, legs already bearing the student's own weight. The student then has to deal with the extra work load effectively from a martial point of view before returning their own pushes to the partner in turn. In that sense pushing hands is a contract between students to train the defensive and offensive movement principles of their martial art; learning to generate, coordinate and deliver power to another and also how to effectively neutralize incoming forces in a relatively safe environment.
Training pushing hands
In T'ai Chi Ch'üan, pushing hands is used to acquaint students with the principles of what are known as the "Eight Gates and Five Steps," eight different leverage applications in the arms accompanied by footwork in a range of motion which proponents say will eventually allow students to defend themselves calmly and competently if attacked.
The Eight Gates (八門 bā mén):
- P'eng (掤, py péng) - An upward circular movement, forward or backward, yielding or offsetting usually with the arms to disrupt the opponent's centre of gravity, often translated as "Ward Off."
- Lü (履, lǜ) - A sideways, circular yielding movement, often translated as "Roll Back."
- Chi (擠, jǐ) - A pressing or squeezing offset in a direction away from the body, usually done with the back of the hand or outside edge of the forearm. Chi is often translated as "Press."
- An (按, àn) - To offset with the hand, usually a slight lift up with the fingers then a push down with the palm, which can appear as a strike if done quickly. Often translated as "Push."
- Ts'ai (採, cǎi) - To pluck or pick downwards with the hand, especially with the fingertips or palm. The word ts'ai is part of the compound that means to gather, collect or pluck a tea leaf from a branch (採茶, cǎi chá). Often translated "Pluck."
- Lieh (挒, liè) - Lieh means to separate, to twist or to offset with a spiral motion, often with the metacarpal and carpal bone area of the thumb as the contact point. Lieh is often translated as "Split."
- Chou (肘, zhǒu) - To strike or push with the elbow. It is said in some schools to be the strongest blow that a human body can deliver unaided. Usually translated as "Elbow Strike" or "Elbow Stroke" or just plain "Elbow."
- K'ao (靠, kào) - To strike or push with the shoulder or upper back. The word k'ao implies leaning or inclining. Usually translated "Shoulder Strike," "Shoulder Stroke" or "Shoulder."
The Five Steps (五步 wǔ bù):
- Chin Pu (進步 jìn bù) - Forward step.
- T'ui Pu (退步 tùi bù) - Backward step.
- Tsuo Ku (左顧 zǔo gù) - Left step.
- You P'an (右盼 yòu pàn) - Right step.
- Chung Ting (中定 zhōng dìng) - The central position, balance, equilibrium. Not just the physical center, but a condition which is expected to be present at all times in the first four steps as well, associated with the concept of rooting (the stability said to be achieved by a correctly aligned, thoroughly relaxed body as a result of correct T'ai Chi training).
The Eight Gates are said to be associated with the eight trigrams (八卦 bā guà) of the I Ching, the Five Steps with the five cosmological elements of the Taoist Wu Hsing (五行 wǔ xíng); metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Collectively they are sometimes referred to as the "Thirteen Postures of T'ai Chi Ch'uan" and their combinations and permutations are catalogued more or less exhaustively in the different styles of solo forms which T'ai Chi is mostly known for by the general public. Pushing hands is practiced so that students have an opportunity for "hands-on" experience of the theoretical implications of the solo forms. Each is seen as equally necessary, yin and yang, for realizing the health, meditative and self-defence aspects claimed by T'ai Chi Ch'uan practitioners for their art.
Pushing hands trains these technical principles in ever increasing complexity of patterns. At first students work basic patterns, then patterns with moving steps coordinated in different directions and then finally different styles of "freestyle" push hands, which lead into sparring that combines closing and distancing strategies with long, medium and short range techniques. These exchanges are characterized as "question and answer" sessions between training partners; the person pushing is asking a question, the person receiving the push answers with their response. The answers should be "soft," without resistance or stiffness. The students hope to learn to not fight back when pushed, but rather to allow the direction of the push, the intent of the one asking, to determine their answer. The intent thereby is for the students to condition themselves and their reflexes to the point that they can meet an incoming force in softness, move with it until they determine its intent and then allow it to exhaust itself or redirect it into a harmless direction. The degree to which students maintain their balance while observing these requirements determines the appropriateness of their "answers." The expression used in some T'ai Chi schools to describe this is "Give up oneself to follow another." The eventual goal for self-defence purposes is to achieve meeting the force, determining its direction and effectively redirecting it in as short a time as possible, with examples provided of seemingly instantaneous redirections at the highest levels of kung fu by traditional teachers. Pushing hands also teaches students safety habits in regard to their own vital areas, especially acupressure points, as well as introducing them to the principles of chin na and some aspects of the manipulative therapy or tui na also taught in traditional T'ai Chi Ch'uan schools. At a certain point, pushing hands begins to take on aspects of ch'i kung, as the students learn to coordinate their movements in attack and defense with their breathing.
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