March 13, 2005

Welcoming the Push

Today was the second day of the weekend tai chi workshop, and it more than redeemed the first day. I’m glad to report that it goes into the category of great experiences--Christophe said it was the best workshop he’d ever given, largely because of the good spirit at our school and the welcoming, brotherly response of our teacher, Tom Gohring. I’m sure all of us thought, in response, that the workshop succeeded mainly because of the warmth and humanity of Christophe himself.

Today was all push hands for five hours. As I’ve mentioned, push hands is a gentle sparring game in which two partners try to push (or pull) each other off balance using only minimal force. It works, by the way. I routinely push over a classmate who outweighs me by 100 pounds (and he, of course, routinely pushes me over). In today’s session one of the most adept learners was a very petite 50–something female botany professor who tossed over a tough–looking young man, about five nine and 165 pounds, with virtually no exertion.

We learned some nifty new techniques for tossing people around, and that’s fun, but what will stick with me longer are the insights associated with this practice. Tai chi is a worldview, an attitude that, to be called successful, must be used in life, not just in a training school. As Cheng Man–Ching, perhaps the greatest tai chi master of the twentieth century, said, the most important step in the form is the first step you take after completing the form.

The tai chi attitude is very much like a matador’s attitude. Something big and overwhelmingly powerful is coming at you, fast and furious, and it would folly for you to try to stand in its way or fight it head to toe. But all you have to do is turn slightly. Take a little step aside and let it go by.

All the movements we did today were very slow, at least when we were doing them correctly. (It’s hard for students not to get overexcited and try to speed up and strengthen their pushes.) “Five miles an hour,” Christophe told us, both for offense and for defense. Why? Partly to minimize injuries, but more deeply because if you do something like this fast, it’s harder to know what you’re doing. If your fast shove pushes someone over, it’s probably by accident, and it probably happened so suddenly that a student can’t analyze what was done right and what was done wrong. If you push someone off balance in slow motion, with a soft movement, you probably did it on purpose, and you can study it.

Christophe imposed another condition on us: we were only allowed to push using moves from the tai chi form. People who do martial arts will understand when I say that there’s an endemic problem in these sports, a problem in translating the skills from a graceful choreographed form into a freestyle fighting situation. In karate and tae kwan do, students learn complex katas, but when they enter the sparring ring they just bash and kick at each other--form and technique go out the window, and sophisticated movement deteriorates into primitive kickboxing, usually with the brawnier one winning. The tai chi form is soft and slow and elegant, but push hands competitions usually turn into wrestling matches.

Christophe wants to change that, and he did it with us today by showing us that using the elegant move from the form is actually an easier way to take someone down than trying to muscle them down. Time and again we discovered that doing the move right took less effort and less motion than doing it wrong. After huffing and puffing got nowhere, a simple turn or a well–timed lift of the hands would have an instant effect. It wasn’t magic, it was simple physics of leverage.

That too is something to apply outside the school. It may be something that a lot of people know already in theory, but when you practice it day after day and see it having immediate physical results, the lesson takes root deeper.

And repeatedly, the key to taking someone down was to let them attack, let them get close and think that they had you where they wanted you. Tai chi is close–in fighting, and it’s often paradoxical: it’s often an advantage to be shorter, for example. Christophe says that push hands is not the art of pushing--it’s the art of being pushed. If someone grabs you, that person is giving you something to work with. If someone’s hands are on you, you know where that person is, and the hands that are ineffectively touching you cannot be used for an effective touch elsewhere. But you can use the opponent’s hands to throw him off balance. It’s as if your opponent is giving you the weapons to defeat him. So you should welcome the push. And this makes the other person not an opponent but a partner. It doesn’t really matter who pushed who on any given try. Both are learning the same skill together.

Doing push hands requires and creates an attitude change. Most people, when pushed, tighten up. They get alarmed, they resist. Thus they lose. If you can welcome a push and stay relaxed and unresisting, and move with it so that it goes by you like the bull going past the matador, then you will not be hurt. It’s as simple as that, and it takes years, decades, to make it part of one’s inner being. But anyone can, with enough patience.

And the result, if you learn this well enough, will be that you never have to fight. You can disarm people before they strike. You can view them as partners in learning, not as opponents.

In push hands, one of the great keys to learning is to stop thinking about whether you are going to win or lose. In fact you learn more by losing. We call this “investing in loss.” This truism becomes immediately, physically obvious to everyone who practices this art. Of course it’s still nice to win, but you can change your definition of winning, too. You may find that you get less out of scoring points in a loud, misguided arena than by studying deeply something quiet and obscure, and telling others about it.

For any readers out there who find this appealing, I want to make a final point: tai chi is not just for old people. That’s a widespread misconception, common in China as well as here. Tai chi can be done by old people because it’s a gentle exercise, but people do it from about 13 years of age, sometimes younger. (Children, in the US anyway, usually shouldn’t do it because they can’t stand still for long.) The earlier you start, the better, because mastery takes a long time, and because this study is infinitely deep: the more you know, the more you realize there is to know. As Christophe reminded us, we are all beginners, seedlings. We should count the length of our tai chi experience not in the numbers of years we’ve been involved but in the number of hours we’ve actually trained—and how many 24–hour days would those hours add up to? Someone who’s supposedly been studying for five years may only have been training for a month of hours. And how much better they would have gotten if that one month had been two!

I wish I’d started at 15 the way Christophe did.