Taiji Routines and Pushing Hands

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If we were to dissect every move of the Taiji routines, we would realize that each move is a counter-measure to the opponent’s attack. Every move involves the practitioner diverting the opponent’s attack, before counter-striking the opponent.

While we all practice the taiji routine diligently, when it comes to pushing hands, we seem to forget about what we have practiced completely. We would attack our opponents first, instead of waiting patiently and counter attacking.

To divert an attack is not to block the attack. Instead, it is to redirect the opponent’s attack, and in the process disrupting the opponent’s balance. We would only attack the opponent after he has lost his balance. This would allow us to use minimal force and yet have a great effect on the opponent.

My teacher always reminded us that “when you are pushing hands, don’t be the first one to push”.

Shyness and Ego

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine told me what her yoga teacher had said during their yoga class. The yoga teacher was sharing with the class a conversation between a yoga guru and his student.

The guru told his student that he believed the student was ready to step up and become a yoga teacher. However despite the confidence shown to him by the guru, the student was somewhat hesitant about starting a class on his own. He told the guru that he was not ready to do so, and claimed that he needed to overcome his shyness before he could stand in front of everyone to conduct a class.

“You are not shy,” the guru replied. “Your ego is too big.”

The guru went on to explain that instead of feeling shy, the student was afraid to fail; he would not allow his ego to be bruised by rejection.

This insight was a revelation to the student. He promptly acknowledged that his ego was holding him back from his yoga progression, and in his words, “Thereafter I am shameless”.

When there is no ego, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Sweet Surrender

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A fellow practitioner shared with me how he felt that there must be an easier way to get fast results from the Taiji practices. In fact, he was confident the teacher was holding back these methods from us.

While I do not subscribe to his views on the teacher being not forthcoming in his teaching, I do think that constantly challenging the status quo is not a bad thing. However simply challenging anything and everything is not productive unless it is followed by researches and experiments, plus a lot of practice! Or else, we would always lack faith in the teacher’s methods, and yet we would do nothing about it.

Only when we “surrender” ourselves to the training methods and principles could we have no doubt about the time and effort we invest into the daily practice. And only when we have no doubt could we start to see things clearly.

Fast and Slow

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Last week we had a visiting practitioner from a neighboring country joining us for a pushing hands session. While he does not practice push hands normally, this visitor is no push-over due to his strong foundation in “qigong”. In fact, he was very much able to hold his own when he pitted against other more experienced opponents.

A fellow practitioner, after observing how this visitor pushed hands, remarked on the “mistakes” that the visitor made. While his remarks could be right, the point he totally missed was that the visitor had little experience in pushing hands, and yet his opponents were struggling to even uproot him. Furthermore, as I personally know this fellow practitioner, I was quite sure that if he were pitted against the visitor, the visitor would be able to handle him without breaking a sweat.

The above brought to mind an advice a teacher once gave me. He told me “to be fast in appreciating others’ strength, and be slow in criticizing their weaknesses”. If we keep focusing on others’ weaknesses, we would miss out the opportunity to learn from their strengths.

The Three Jewels

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In the Buddhist philosophy, there are three very important elements, namely “Dharma”, “Buddha” and “Sangha”. Dharma is the law of Nature, Buddha is a person who has attained full enlightenment, and Sangha is the practitioner of Dharma.

Drawing parallel to our Taiji journey, we also have three jewels, namely the Taiji principles, the Teacher, and the Taiji practitioners. The Taiji principles must be able to stand up to the test of time. The teacher is one who understands these principles fully, and has the compassion to share his wisdom. The Taiji practitioners, as the name suggests, put whatever Taiji principles they have learned into practice.

When we have all these three elements in our Taiji journey, we will get closer to full understanding of the Taiji principles with each passing day.

I “Am” a Singer

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Recently I was watching the second season of the very popular Chinese TV program, “I am a Singer”. In the program, seven professional singing artists will perform “live” to an audience of five hundred. At the end of these seven performances, the audience will give their votes to the artist whom they think performed best. Once the votes are totaled up, the artist with the lowest vote counts will face elimination.

As you can imagine, the pressures were tremendous on the performing artists. Not only were they subject to scrutiny, they also have their egos bruised should their performances win the lowest votes from the audience.

One participating artist put a very thoughtful meaning to his involvement in the program “I am a Singer”. He said that both the “I” and “a Singer” are no longer meaningful to him. The most important thing, to him, is “am”. That is because only when he can prove that he “is” a singer could he say “I am a Singer”. It is a state of being.

Very often we hear people describing themselves as Taiji practitioners. If we challenge that claim further, we would find that most of these people are not really Taiji practitioners. They do not practice Taiji. What they practice is the Taiji routines, and not Taiji. They do not adopt the Taiji principles and introduce these principles into their daily activities. They could be future Taiji practitioners, but until they practice Taiji even in the most mundane daily chores, they could only say they are Taiji routine practitioners.

I am thankful I have watched that episode of “I am a Singer”. It has given me a timely reminder of how I should continue my Taiji journey.

The Art of Persuasion

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I was reading a book on Persuasion, in which the author explained how we influence our audience to move from point A to point B through persuasion. It is the art of getting people to do something they would not ordinarily do if we did not influence. More importantly, when our objective is met, the audience does not hold ill feeling towards us.

This made me think about the similarity to pushing hands. In push hands, our objective is to “convince” our opponent to move into a position where he loses his balance. Without our influence, our opponent would normally be able to maintain his balance. We have to “persuade” our opponent to move from a position of balance, to one of unbalance. Because the whole process is about gentle “cajoling”, at the end of the push hands session, there is no ill feeling of “coercion” (by brute force), and we can all go home happy!

To Be In Control

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My teacher never fails to remind his students during the pushing hands session to control, and not to be controlled by, the opponent. When we are in control of the situation, we can afford to be more relaxed, and we can dictate how the push hands session develops. However, when our opponent is in control, we would have to be working doubly hard, expending double the effort to keep up with the opponent.

To be in the position of control, we must first maintain our balance in the posture. How we stand, how we keep our physical and mental balances, and, how we position ourselves are important, as we do not want to start off the push hands session in a handicapped position. By reducing the number of weaknesses the opponent can exploit, we give ourselves a head start in winning the control of the push hands session.

Gearing Up the Joints

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A fellow Taiji practitioner likened the physical body to a set of gears in a pulley system. When we use only one joint, say the shoulder joint, to do a work of 10 kilograms, we would need to expend at least 10 kilograms of effort on one single joint in order to get the work done.

If we were able to spread the work evenly over all the joints in our arm, that is, over our shoulder joint, elbow, wrist, palm and fingers, ideally we only need to 2 kilograms of effort on each joint to get the work done. This has reduced the effort on each joint from 10 kilograms to 2 kilograms, thus only requiring a fifth of the original effort in the earlier example.

Bearing in mind how the Taiji principles require the practitioner to start from the feet, passing through the body and finally reaching the fingers, the amount of effort on each joint further reduces as we move from the toes, ball of the feet, the ankles, knees, hip joints, waist, upper torso, shoulders, elbows, wrists, palm and finally the fingers.

In order to use as many joints as possible in our Taiji movements, we need to “relax” these joints. Thus it is no wonder why there is such an important emphasis on “松” throughout the whole Taiji practice.

The Three Ways of Practicing

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I was attending a Taiji demonstration a couple of weekends back. It was a joy to watch so many Taiji practitioners, both local and from abroad, performing their Taiji routines.

While I was feasting my eyes on the different performances, a thought struck. Why is the feel different despite the performers doing the same routine? And when I asked a teacher who was sitting beside me, his explanation was something I never thought of.

The teacher told me there are three ways of practicing the Taiji routines. In the first approach, the practitioner practices the Taiji routine with the objective of reaping the health benefits from the daily practice. With that objective in mind, the practitioner practices the routine in bigger and more elaborate movements, which also makes it very suitable for public performance or demonstration.

Another way to practice the Taiji routines focused on building the foundation. The same movements from the practice may vary from one period of practice to another, as the practitioner moves from one aspect of the foundation building to another. There is no standardized form in this approach.

Lastly the practitioner focuses on the application aspect of the Taiji routines. The martial arts aspect of Taiji is emphasized. The movements become smaller, sometimes the practitioner may not appear to be moving much at all, though all these time there are many internal movements inside his body. The movements sometimes appear overly simplistic, and yet hugely effective.

While there is an increasing popularity of Taiji throughout the world, many of us only have the chance of learning the art on the superficial level. With luck and a lot of hard work, we may have the good fortune of coming into contact with teachers who are skilled in the more in-depth Taiji learnings. And when such an opportunity arises, we would do well to grab it with both hands.