Tai Chi Push hands is a part of the training schedule from the so called internal martial art of Taijiquan (T'ai chi ch'uan). I say 'so called' when referring to internal or external because I do not believe that these expressions are exactly true. The 'so called' hard styles of karate also have so called, soft elements while the so called soft style also have hard elements. After all, it's not easy to punch someone in the mouth, softly! I prefer to use centrifugal force, using the power derived from the whole body rather than just one or two muscle groups as being representative of the 'soft styles'. Rather than rely upon the old mysticism of some form of magical internal power where-by one is able to knock people down from a distance etc. for a definition of the internal styles.
Tai Chi Push hands is a tool in just the same way that push ups on the knuckles etc is for the 'hard styles'. Now we are not going to see the 'hard stylists' going into competition to see how good they are at push ups! Neither should we see people going into competition to see how good they are at push hands.
Good common sense body mechanics is learnt from performing push hands. How to evade while not losing balance, how to gain the maximum amount of power from your particular body type, attacking while defending and most importantly, timing.
In performing tai chi push hands we are actually doing and abstract form of attack and defence. Although the four main movements of P'eng (ward off slantingly upwards), Lu (roll back to the rear), Chee (squeezing power forward) and Arn (press the opponent) are all martial applications individually, they should only be regarded as being representative of a myriad of applications which can come from these basics. Every small seemingly insignificant movement has a sub-conscious meaning. Just placing one's palm onto the opponent's elbow is significant of so many applications in defence and attack.
In stopping one's partner from pushing you over, or at least trying, we learn about timing and body mechanics. We learn about force and vectors, how to gain the greatest leverage using the least amount of energy. In stopping your partner from pulling your arm down and pulling you off balance, or trying, we are learning about adding to his force to once again gain the upper footing.
Many applications are able to be put into tai chi push hands and they all teach us about applications but these should be regarded as secondary to the ultimate goal of balance, timing and co-ordination. It should not be regarded as a competition as anyone is able to strike someone from this distance. We rather use other techniques such as punching, palm attacks, leg sweeps etc to teach us how to do these techniques and not to beat out partner. For instance, if I am performing push hands with my partner and I know that if I throw a hook punch to his/her head h/she will block it successfully, I am still going to do that technique because with ever attack I make, I am using the right muscle groups for that job. And in a good push hands work out I might throw 100 hook punches against a solid object. I am gaining the practice at throwing that type of attack while my partner is gaining experience in blocking that type of attack. The only reason that I will try and get in with an attack is to help my partner up the ladder on quicker responses, not to try and beat him!
When tai chi push hands is placed into the competition arena we see some quite damaging techniques creeping in. Not damaging physically but to one's overall training. This is when push hands no longer acts as a learning aid but becomes a hindrance to our training. for instance, if I wish to stop a strong push and I am only doing push hands for the sake of doing push hands, I will lean backwards greatly to avoid the push. I have seen many people doing this technique and saying how great they are at evading an attack and how great their flexibility is. But take a look at how open the groin is to an attack, this is just bad martial arts and creates bad habits. We should never lose sight of the initial goal of doing push hands to teach us something about the fighting arts and not just to win competitions.
In tai chi push hands as with all of Taiji (as stated in the classics) the back should remain plumb and erect. This is the only way that we are able to maintain the upper hand balance wise and martial wise. we us the twisting of the waist and hips to turn the opponent away rather than lean backward or forward. By the same token, we do not lean forward at the waist when we are pulled downward this might win a push hands competition but exposes the head to attack in a real situation. We should rather use the pulling force to take a step in and attack with a shoulder or elbow.
In changing our weight from front foot to rear foot in a normal 'bow stance' (i.e.; a shoulder width stance laterally with a slightly longer width length wise) we are actually shifting our centre about six inches, we are not moving straight back or straight forward but rather moving on a diagonal line. So if someone attacks your centre, all you do is to move back onto your rear foot thus shifting your centre and the force has then gone out to your side. IF we then place an almost immoveable object in the path of the force in the shape of a wheel, we are able to further shift the oncoming force by turning the waist slightly so that the 'wheel' turns with our centre to cause the force to rotate out to our side.
This also works in reverse in that is someone is attacking our centre while we are sitting on the rear foot, we move forward so that our centre is again in a different position thus putting the attacker's timing off. If, once again we are able to combine this shift with a step to the side and a technique which further forces the attack to the side, we are able to re-attack while maintaining the upper footing.
This is the basis upon which tai chi push hands is structured. Of course it all becomes much more complicated than this but the basics remain.
IN this exercise we have the above four mentioned techniques to stick to and now the mechanics become a little more complicated. The mechanics now depend upon which footing you are on, 'open or closed'. For instance; if I am pushed unto my right 'peng' arm (an arm held in front of the chest with an elbow angle of no less than 90 degrees) with my right foot forward, I will be eventually pulling down onto my 'closed side' i.e.; I am pulling down to my right with my right leg forward. But before I do this, I will try and confuse the attacker by turning my right forearm to my left for a brief moment. However, if I were to shift my centre right away, I would be taking the opponent onto my centre as it goes backwards. So I keep my weight essentially on my front foot while I turn. Then, as he thinks that the force is going to my left, I immediately turn my waist to my right and sit back onto my rear leg, thus shifting my centre and also attacking him with pull down.
However, if I have my right peng arm being attacked as before but no my left foot is forward, I must sit back by 50 % as I use P'eng thus shifting my centre and causing him to think again that he is going out to my left. Now, as I sit back fully, I am in a small amount of danger because I must now pull him across my centre in order to get him to my right. IN this case I use a slightly harder bumping and pulling and as it is easier to pull onto the open side, I am still able to gain the upper hand and not lose my centre. I am also able to change the direction of the pulling and pull him down onto my left side thus losing any disadvantage.
Da-Lu is an exercise which is like tai chi push hands but rather uses the four corner directions rather than the four cardinal points. It is said of da-lu that if one has to make use of it, one's technique is not fully mastered. This is a counter exercise to poor technique where-by we are able to use diagonal stepping to stop from being attacked with pulling or pushing.
For instance; if my technique is not good enough to avoid a grab and pull down and the opponent actually takes my hand. I will step to my left with my left foot thus going with the force. Then I will use my left foot to power in diagonally to his centre with another step with my right foot to attack him with shoulder or elbow. To stop me from attacking with shoulder, he shifts his weight, steps to near my front foot and attacks me with palm. To avoid this, I should use P'eng to block his attack while stepping around behind him with my left foot and then take another step diagonally and attack him with pull down Now, he attacks with shoulder press as I did before and the whole process has now repeated itself and we continue covering the four corners. This is of course only basic da-lu and this too becomes quite complicated at an advanced stage with direction changes and other attacking and defensive techniques.