A conversation with Yang Laoshi, Dave Barrett and Lance Lu
Explanations of the Push Hands exercise range from the simple:“Push Hands is the mutual exploration of the internal energies and is dependent primarily on the sense of touch. The method involves two people making contact at the arms, adhering to each other, and using the Taiji spiral movements.” (Gaffney, pg.150); to the mystical, “…it teaches one to fully realize what sensitivity of the entire body means. Externally, the practitioner develops an acute sense of touch transmitted through the skin. Sensitivity and awareness is also developed internally.The practitioner learns how to empty the body of all force. When one rids the body of all force, one can experience what it is like to be the twinkling distant star; the body is there and yet is not there. Through understanding the principle of Push Hands one can learn to balance Yin and Yang in daily life. Thus the quality of life as a whole is enhanced.” (Jou Tsung Hwa, pg.242)
Practicing Push Hands with a well trained player is to bask in the emanations of a fluid, tranquil force.Practicing with a poorly trained player is a numbing, exhausting experience like being attached to the spin cycle of a washing machine. Sensitivity is the foundation of correct practice, “…to learn to sense out the forcefulness,direction, speed as well as the substantiality or in substantiality of the opponent’s energy to be issued..”(Wang Peisheng, pg. 188). Developing skill in sensing and interpreting energy depends a great deal on the quality of contact and connection between Push Hands partners. In this article we will explore the four key actions that create correct contact. These are found in one of the oldest texts in Taijiquan, “TheSong of Pushing Hands” attributed to Wong Zongyue. They are Zhan: to stick,Lian: to connect, Nian: to adhere, and Sui: to follow. These verbs describe not only physical processes; they illuminate certain strategies that lead to successful practice.
This April, in Seattle, after a day long Push Hands Seminar Yang Laoshi sat down with me and Lance Lu to have a conversation about these four keywords.
DB: Yang Laoshi, could you tell us what Zhan means?
YJ: Zhan in English means sticking, with an uprising or pulling up energy. The phrase in Chinese that describes this is: ti shang ba gao zhi wei ye. This means you can use sticking to pull up and uproot the opponent. It has this type of feeling. Where do you get the sticking?The energy actually comes from both partners. You give some energy into it and the opponent gives some energy and when the two energies cross you are sticking. This sticking energy comes from the pressure between you and the opponent, then you can lead your opponent upwards.If the opponent does not give you the pressure you cannot stick. You are standing there doing nothing,how can I stick? This is the principle expressed in the phrase,“if the opponent doesn’t move, I don’t move”.
In talking about these four principles we need to understand an important cognitive process:the mind creates the intent, you want to do something; the body creates kinetic motion and understanding is created by feeling. So when the opponent starts to form the intent to do something to you,you already understand it, this is the listening energy.
DB: So this is a process of creating the right contact through sensitivity, using the mind?
YJ: The mind goes first! We have a saying that the mind leads the motion, the body responds to the intent and you start to move. With this method we use the mind first and then the physical sensations from the body to feel your opponent. So that is what is meant by the phrase, “Thinking, moving, knowing,feel it.”
DB: These are the elements that go into how to create the correct contact?
YJ: That’s right. Why do we want to do it this way? Because we want to know the opponent, to feel the opponent. How can you do this? These four principles Zhan, Lian, Nian and Sui will help you. So why do we want to stick, adhere, connect and follow because we want to feel and know the opponent. Know what? Know your opponent’s empty and full, yin and yang, whether the opponent is moving forward or going back, coming at you from left or right, you have to be aware of this.
DB: In order to create this sticking process we need to have the correct pressure?
YJ: You cannot say “correct” pressure; you should say that the pressure is right for you, because with some people they will like heavier or lighter pressure depending on their ability and foundation.
DB: We need to join the opponent’s energy to understand their intent. If they are very, very soft we need to be as soft to listen to them, but if we are stiff and tight we can’t listen clearly?
YJ: Generally speaking from Taijiquan’s principle we don’t want to use excessive force. If you use this type of energy it’s not good for you because you have no flexibility: you are stiff and unnatural, not moving freely. So your empty and full sides are easily controlled by your opponent. So if your opponent is very, very soft what are you going to do? Actually we can still use softness. Your opponent is soft, you can be even more soft; make it so your opponent cannot be softer than you, then when they start to use force then you can find their center easily.
DB: What happens if you don’t have this sticking energy?
YJ: If you have no sticking energy then you are sliding the contact points on each other and also actually you have no controlling ability.
DB: How do we correct this problem? By giving more energy?
YJ: No! The solution is that when you are doing the movements, do not start from your point of view.You have to forget yourself, and let the opponent initiate the movement.
DB: Does this lead us to the principle of Sui or following?
YJ: Actually the four principles can be used in the same situation but to explain different aspects of the Push Hands practice. For example,it doesn’t matter if you are following or want to stick. If you don’t follow, you can’t stick. If your opponent wants to go right and you go left then you separate and lose contact. So if they move right you have to follow. This doesn’t mean that you have no choice or influence. If your palm is set correctly you can control your opponent’s angles of motion and make them move in the direction you want them to go. So you still have control but are using their motion, changing their moving curves and circles to create a good position for you and a bad one for him.
DB: Let’s talk more about Sui. In English following means you lead and I go with you.What you are saying is that following also has a control element, that if I maintain contact and use sticking I can follow but also influence the opponent’s motion.
YJ: True, but you cannot always follow your opponent. Following is how you deal with the mat the beginning, eventually you want to create an advantageous position for yourself. You don’t want to follow to the point that you are actually permitting them so far into your center that finally you lose balance. So the phrase in Chinese that explains Sui is: bi zou ciyin zhi wei ye. This means that the opponent is doing something to you, how do you respond? This describes how you respond to the initiation of intent by the opponent. To be responsive you need the correct method.Firstly, you cannot resist the opponent and you must follow them but you cannot always follow.You still have to make some changes. How do you make these changes? Adhering also helps.
DB: So now let’s talk about Nian or adhering.Is there a Chinese saying about this skill?
YJ: Yes, it’s: liu lian qian quan zhiwei ye. This is hard to explain but the saying describes the opponent as totally immersed or enclosed in something like a gel or glue. So they can move anywhere but when they move they cannot be free of this contact.
DB: I think I understand, the opponent has freedom of motion?
YJ: That’s right, but any motion they make is covered by a pressure. For example if you move in air and then move underwater it’s different.Can you do the same thing in air that you can underwater? Yes, but underwater in slow motion maybe it’s the same but if you move quickly it feels different underwater than in the air, because of the pressure.
DB: So the adhering skill seems to be more o fa free energy in that I’m not trying to lift or stick I’m just trying to create constant contact in any direction.
YJ: That’s right: any direction he moves, the opponent is not very free to go. You have adhering to protect you because by adhering eventually you can deflect the opponent’s energy away from your center.
DB: What happens if I don’t have Nian? I may have sticking contact but if the opponent can shake this contact, I’m in trouble. Is Nian more of a protective energy?
YJ: It’s like if you push something in the water as opposed to pushing in the air, what’s the difference? Without Nian, this fluid sensation of contact, the opponent can easily move into your center. If you have Nian, there is this pressure that can be used to guide the opponent to the side.
DB: Is this a more responsive type of energy? With Zhan or sticking I initiate the energy but with Nian is this a passive, constant type of feeling?
YJ: Actually with Zhan, it’s both because you use a part of your opponent’s energy. If they give you nothing you cannot use it. Nian is the same type of thing: if they give you nothing you still cannot redirect them. If something is dropped into a gel it doesn’t move, but when it does move, there is a pressure from contact with the gel.
DB: This is an interesting concept: that no matter what direction or speed the contact is constant.
YJ: It doesn’t matter what direction, any direction you have adhering. So not just forwards and backwards, that’s not the right type of energy.
DB: I’ve seen some explanations of these four principles that say, for example, Zhan is a vertical energy and the others are lateral or diagonal. It seems so complicated.
YJ: No, no, no. These energies include all directions
DB: The final word we have yet to discuss is Lian or connect. Is there an explanatory phrase for this skill?
YJ: Yes: she ji wu li zhi wei ye. This basically describes Lian as forgetting yourself and staying connected with the opponent. Follow your opponent and keep connected with them. Even if they move back you still try to go with them to stay connected.From this connecting skill comes many techniques, for example, being able to borrow the opponent’s energy by connecting from forward to back, back to forward, actually this can be used in any direction.
DB: I’m struggling to understand the differences between following and connecting. In English, basically if someone moves away I follow by going after them. But if the opponent is moving in…
YJ: You still have to follow them!
DB: Yes, I suppose…
YJ: If you don’t follow them in, then you are resisting!
DB: I’m glad you mentioned resisting because I wanted to ask you about this last phrase in The Song of Pushing Hands, “without letting go or resisting”. If we just examine these four principles of sticking,adhering, connecting and following without this last phrase we might lose sight of the whole purpose of developing these skills.
YJ: You know, actually Zhan, Nian, Lian and Sui are techniques that we use in Push Hands but the result is not resisting and not separating with the opponent. The techniques tell you howto use the energy and this phrase, “without letting go or resisting” is the proper result.
DB: Is letting go or losing contact the biggest mistake in Push Hands?
YJ: Yes! If you separate from your opponent you lose all knowledge of their energy and intent. What we want is the mind thinking, the body moving, understanding energy and feeling the opponent; all of this is lost when we separate and lose contact. Why do we need the techniques of Zhan, Nian, Lian and Sui? We want to know the opponent, feel the opponent, and understand the opponent. Then we know how to respond to the opponent. You know the “Song of Pushing Hands” seems quite short but it is very important. It describe show you should practice, what you need to have to practice and finally it describes the strategy you need to succeed. Only six lines but it contains the spirit of Push Hands. Let me give you a free translation of this text. The title actually means the song of striking hands.
DB: Not pushing hands?
YJ: Later on we used this term but these words in the title, Da means strike or beat, Shou means hand. First of all, when you start you have to seriously study ward off, roll back,press, and push. These are the four square energies. When these four energies are done well, combined and coordinated with your upper and lower body movements; the opponent will have a difficult time to come into you, to attack you. The next line means that it doesn’t matter how strong the opponent comes at you, you use what strategy? Use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds. Here is this method: how do you use four ounces to do this? Let your opponent deeply in, then guide them to the empty area. So you must use adhering to guide them in. If you aren’t adhering to the opponent they will not continue to push you. You connect with and use the opponent’s force coming in and then he will fall by himself.
DB: If the opponent feels you have lost adherence he will stop pushing?
YJ: That’s right. Because he feels something,he wants to push. He wants to come in, he feels he’s almost there, almost there, but still not yet! Then I guide him to the empty space, I remain connected to his energy, linked to his force and I borrow this and release it back out towards him. This is how you borrow the opponent’s energy.
DB: Tell us more about this line, “attract him into emptiness.”
YJ: Let your opponent in and guide them to the empty area. First you have to make your center secure and stable. Then you try to borrow his energy and bring it back to the opponent explosively. The final line of the Song tells what techniques to use to do this: Zhan, Nian,Lian and Sui and warns against losing contact or resisting.
DB: What is resisting and how do we correct it?
YJ: Resisting can be from two sides: one, from your side, your problem. When the opponent tries to do something, you go straight against them. The other resisting can come from the opponent, meaning that when you want to do something, the opponent won’t let you but you still try to do it anyway: this is also resisting. For example, I try one particular technique and you don’t let me, I’ll change to the next step. If you push to me and I don’t let you push, this is resisting. If I try to roll you back and you don’t want to be rolled back and you won’t let me execute this technique, this is also resisting.
DB: So resisting can come from both partners?
YJ: Yes, actually from the Taiji point of view, the interplay between yin and yang, people need to understand if one technique is a dead end you have to change. From yin to yang, from yang to yin, make it alive, don’t get stuck in there, keep it moving, then you will keep the practice alive. If you cross to a dead end, yin cannot change to yang, yang cannot change to yin then there is no more dynamic motion.Force just meets force. Taiji means straight with curve, empty with full; if you are full and I am full, who is yin, who is yang? This is not right and this is resisting.
DB: How do we correct this?
YJ: Use the four principles, these are practical solutions to this problem.Lance Lu: Yang Laoshi, what is the best way to develop these techniques, just practice and more practice?
YJ: Not only practice them but understand them with your mind.
LL.: You have to think about them on your own?
YJ: Not just that, you have to understand that these techniques are valuable to you.
LL: So believe in these techniques?
YJ: Yes, and it may be more practical than that. Understand that following is a good strategy for you, connecting is a useful skill for you, adhering can help you control your opponent. If you understand that these techniques will work for you then your body will want to do them. Most beginners in Push Hands have this problem: they are too stiff. Something comes at you, you don’t know it, can’t feel it and the reaction to incoming force is to become tight. You might not even realize this is a reflexive response.
LL: Yes it’s natural to react that way.
YJ: Your reaction is like that, everybody has this response. But we don’t want that: we want softness instead of stiffness.
LL: So we have to change our natural reaction?
YJ: Actually from our point of view, yielding is the natural response. What we call prenatal or natural reaction to incoming force is to yield and follow.What we learn later on, or post-natal, is to resist and become tight. You forget your natural reaction.LL: Then as we grow older, we forget this natural response and move away from our Original Nature?
YJ: Yes! So how do we regain our natural responses and energies? Practice Taijiquan!
Postscript by Lance Lu: Laoshi’s comments have gone a long way in clarifying subtle and elusive concepts, but ultimate clarity will come only after we experience what he is talking about. He’s pointed the way to investigate these concepts, but we have to do the work ourselves, take these ideas and verify them in our own bodies. Do the training to get it from our heads into our bodies. Then, we will understand on a deeper level, and maybe clarity will come. It was important for me to delve into how we develop our skills.In a way, it’s a dilemma for all of us who are not at a high level yet. To get the experience into your body, you need your mind to be convinced that these principles will work. Without actually experiencing their efficacy, doubts will remain, and one will resort to the automatic reaction of stiffness. But if one remains stiff, it will be impossible to experience how soft can overcome hard,and how these theories are useful and practical. It’s like the “chicken or the egg” type of situation. That’s why I brought up “belief ” because it seems tome that at some point in pondering these theories, the student has to take a leap of faith. Laoshi’s contention that our automatic response was not our original or natural response is also anarticle of faith. Since everyone reactsautomatically with stiffness whenattacked, it is easy to conclude that thisis our “natural” response. The tenacityof this response and the difficulty ofbreaking this habit further supports thisnotion. There is no empirical way toprove what our original (pre-natal)nature is, so in the end, we have tobelieve it, and try to reprogram ourselves and see what happens.