an introduction to pushing hands

This is an another older post that I'm including here as new folks are often beginning or enquiring about Tai Chi two person practices. - AB

I am writing this piece in light of the new Friday evening open Tai Chi practice in Bellingham. We meet in one of the city’s most beautiful places – the Gazebo in Elizabeth Park, just off of Broadway. It is my hope that more and more people will come to share their practice, insights, and good will with one another.

Tai Chi is surely a community practice. This tradition traces its beginnings to a small farming village in China. In the early 1800′s, the people of this community developed Tai Chi as a means of defending themselves from bandits and other surly types who would wander through at times. The practice of Tai Chi also offered them a way to keep themselves strong and healthy so they could work the fields and support themselves. There was thus a strong, inherent motivation for members of the community to practice together.

In modern times, our motivation is similar but different. We still practice to support our health and well being but
the need for self defense is not as prominent as it used to be. Also, the community aspect of Tai Chi is actively created rather than pre-existing as it was in Chen village. Today, we seek each other out. In a way, this makes it even more dynamic and meaningful as we join together on purpose for the benefits of mutual development and camaraderie.

It’s also useful to distinguish the difference between community practice and classroom practice. In community practice, there is not necessarily a particular teacher. There might be, there might be several, but the opportunity is for us all to be students and teachers for each other as we explore various aspects of the art.

We might also notice that people will often have widely varying backgrounds and experience levels. This can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding. The challenge arises in how find a common basis for interaction and practice – a common movement language, if you will. If two people have different teachers, for instance, the drills they practice might be similar or quite different. If similar, great… we’re off to the races. If different, that’s also great! One can simply ask to have a new drill taught to them so they can practice together. Differences of approach can likewise be explored in an open-minded, beneficial manner. In this way everyone can improve and learn through the endless exploration that is Tai Chi Chuan.

Another option is for people to engage in what is called “free-play”. Free play can take many forms. It can be either fixed step or moving step. It can involve simple sticking skills or expand into techniques of various sorts… or any form two people care to explore. The key with free-play is to determine the basic guidelines of the game before hand. This can be achieved by simply asking your partner: “What would you like to work on?” and then contribute any ideas of your own.

In my opinion, there are three keys to successful two-person practice: communication, support, and enjoyment. If we communicate, we can achieve a healthy clarity with each other and with the objectives of our practice. We can then be free to both support and be supported in making progress. Once those bases are covered, we can relax, learn, … and enjoy the process!

Some of my closest friends are those I have practiced with over the years. Tai Chi is like that. There is a healthy intimacy that comes from being “up to your elbows” in various drills and practices with another. And as our shared purpose is self-cultivation, becoming the best we can be through this and other venues, we find much to share with those we meet on this path. Tai Chi is truly a wonderful stage upon which we learn that as each of us does better, we all do better.

I’ll have more to offer on this subject as we head into summer and I invite your thoughts and observations as well. I also invite you to join with us on Friday evenings and expand your practice horizons…