by Arieh Lev Breslow
The first impression of most students to push-hands is the name itself. For beginning students, it seems that the essence of push-hands is to ‘push’ your partner off his stance. This belief often leads to an excessive emphasis on pushing. Moreover, if one begins from the aggressive attitude of pushing, his or her push-hands is likely to resemble Sumo wrestling. It will have little in common with the true art of push-hands, which is as subtle and deep as the Tao itself.
We should always keep in mind that pushing is only one component of the whole. Yielding is the other half. For most students, yielding remains a mysterious principle; a thing difficult to fathom. This is understandable because learning to yield requires deep concentration, delicate sensitivity and much patience. In the fast-paced modern world, these qualities are a precious find like an oasis in the desert. “Who can wait quietly while the mud settles,” observed Lao Tzu, “And who can remain still until the moment of action.” Perhaps, for the first few years of practice, we should change the name and call push-hands, “yield-hands.” In this manner, teachers might be able guide students away from jumping to conclusions based on first impressions and the name.
What is this thing we call "yielding?” The T’ai Chi Classics describe it in this way: “When the opponent is hard and I am soft, it is called tsou (yielding).” What does soft mean here? Generally, we think of soft as defining something easily molded, smooth to touch or even flabby. A kitten is soft. So is a wet noodle. But this is not the kind of soft that the Classics have in mind. When the masters of old spoke of 'soft,' they meant, “sensitivity to the touch.” They understood soft within the context of the ever-changing flow of Yin and Yang. When someone pushed them on the left side, they instantly emptied it, and similarly for the right side. They also employed the image of someone who is “soft as cotton on the outside and strong as steel on the inside.”
Some masters of T'ai Chi carried the notion of softness to the extreme. The following is a story that is told about one famous teacher, William C. C. Chen, who lives and teaches in New York City. I cannot vouch for its accuracy because I heard it second hand. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates the seminal importance that we should place on yielding.
William Chen would walk down the street, practicing his yielding techniques with the blowing of the wind. You can imagine how he must have looked to the people of Taipei as he slipped and evaded the wind’s touch. They probably thought that he was a bit ‘touched’ himself. In the end he became very good at yielding. He knew that this was true when one evening in the dark he ran up the stairs of his home. Someone had put a chin-up bar in the doorway and had forgotten to remove it. He ran into the bar at full speed and yielded the terrible blow that would have coldcocked someone without his yielding abilities. He was unhurt. Later his yielding abilities stood him in good stead. In the 1950s he became a champion boxer in martial arts tournaments. One can imagine that he was difficult to tag with a solid blow. William Chen epitomized the sayings of the Classics: “So light an object as a feather cannot be placed, and so small an insect as a fly cannot alight on any part of the body.”
So, practically speaking, how do we approach this idea of ‘yield-hands?’ There is a secret transmission of T’ai Chi that says, “Forget yourself and follow others.” As a beginner, you must lose yourself. For a time, you must give up your ego and your will to win. This is not easy to do. However, every Tai Chi practitioner who has reached a reasonable level of competence in pushhands, has followed this difficult but ultimately rewarding path. If you do not follow the words of the masters, you will never plumb the depths of push-hands. T’ai Chi may be soft but it is certainly not easy!
To summarize the above idea, Cheng Man Ch’ing, one of the great masters of the twentieth century, coined an interesting phrase. He said that you must “invest in loss.” He believed that by investing in small losses at the beginning, the student would reap the rewards of his labor later. One plants a small seed from which a large tree grows. However, this is an idea that works best in T’ai Chi and is not recommended as an investment strategy for the stock market.
What he meant by ‘investing in loss’ is that in yield-hands we must allow others to attack us while not resisting or striking back. The key is to adhere to your partner, connect, root, and follow the force of the push with great sensitivity. If you practice investing in loss, you may suffer from a bruised ego or you may become impatient. Do not give up this idea. Persist! Cheng Man Ch’ing observed: “this idea (investing in loss) is impossible to grasp for those of shallow learning and brutish ways.”
By investing in loss, you will learn how to gauge the force of your partner’s push. Just as a Patriot missile must instantly calculate the speed and force of an incoming missile, so you will develop a similar skill with regard to a push. You will learn to allow your partner to touch your body and yet never allowing him or her to apply more than ten ounces of pressure. You will become soft as water by growing accustomed to being pushed. You will lose also lose your fear of being pushed or humiliated. You might understand what Lao Tzu meant when he wrote: “The tiger will have no place to plant his claws and the soldier no place to land his blade.” You will discover the infinite number of ways in which you can soften your body and yield the many varieties of pushes. Someone may push you fifty times but, if you can yield on the fifty-first, then your partner is at your mercy.
One of my teachers, Lenzie Williams, once told me something extremely valuable: “the best and most powerful pushes always come out of a successful yield.” The truth of this practical wisdom has been borne out time and time again. Being at one with the ever-changing flow of Yin (yield) and Yang (push) is the most efficient and spontaneous way of acting in the world. This idea forms the basis of our art and is the reason it is called T’ai Chi, “the mother of Yin and Yang."
How does one begin to invest in loss? In my push-hands classes I have developed a number of simple exercises. With the above principles, you can create your own. Here is one that we use in class.
1. The partners assume the T’ai Chi stance for push-hands.
2. One will be the pusher and the other the yielder.
3. The goal of the yielder is to defend his or her turf by not moving the feet.
4. The yielder must allow the pusher to push his body. In other words, he must not
try to keep the pusher’s hands away from the body by using his hands. If not, this
often leads to the use of force and wrestling.
5. The yielder can touch the pusher’s arms or body but he cannot push back or
prevent the pusher from pushing.
6. The pusher should not use force but try to discover the places where the yielder
cannot yield. He or she must focus on being sensitive with the push and not
utilize force. In yield-hands, power should be saved for later.
7. The pusher should push in various ways and from various angles, not forgetting
that he also should use his legs and waist, not just his arms.
8. The pusher needs to be sensitive to the fact that he has the advantage.
9. As the legs tire, the partners should switch sides. It is important that both sides
of the body become equally adept at yielding.
10. After awhile the partners should switch roles.
In Chinese history, T’ai Chi was something mysterious. People on the outside knew what it was, but not its methods or its secrets. It was said that T’ai Chi was taught by the secret method or behind closed doors. For the most part, this is not true today. Knowledge is much more accessible to everyone. However, someone could reveal the greatest T’ai Chi secrets in the world and they would be meaningless without the necessary work of the learning process. The key to success in push-hands is building a firm foundation based on the T’ai Chi principles and then working hard with a strong dose of perseverance thrown in for good measure.
Finally, we say that we play at push-hands, not work at push-hands. Do not forget to have fun! Be serious, rooted, and yet remain light as a feather.
Arieh Lev Breslow is the founder of The Jerusalem School of Tai Chi Ch’uan where he teaches with his wife, Anne. He is also the author of Beyond the Closed Door: Chinese Culture and the Creation of Tai Chi Ch’uan.