This article discusses how we approach "Tui Shou" or "Push Hands" training within the Martial Tai Chi Association. As we employ several rather different approaches, we sometimes broaden the category out, calling this broader aspect of training "Sensitivity Work" or "Sensitivity Drills."
Initially we differentiate three distinct categories of Sensitivity Drill: Push Hands, Sticky Hands and Hitting Hands.
This exercise is recognized for developing the following skills. A few years ago I made up a little mnemonic to help remember them:
FUSE, don't LORD
That is, "FUSE" or merge with your opponent and don't try to "LORD" over them. The two words also break down as follows:
Feel (develop physical sensitivity)
Understand (develop ability to read opponent's intentions and exploit them)
Stick (adhere to opponent)
Emit (release power from any point in circular movement, without breaking contact or telegraphing your attacks)
(don't) Lean (i.e. stay vertical - "without bending or leaning I'm suddenly disappearing, suddenly (re)appearing")
(don't) Overpower (don't use brute force)
(don't) Resist (don't stubbornly resist force either)
(don't) Discard (in other words maintain sticky control of your opponent - don't leave anything unchecked)
We use our various "push hands" drills as a device for exploring the eight methods in a grappling orientated environment.
Sticky Hands drills are about sticking, but they also about tactically finding gaps and leaks to strike through. Various circular and advancing spiraling patterns are employed. Again, we explore the potential for the eight methods to be executed within the flow of movement, but here we allow ourselves to break contact to deliver strikes and it is then the defender's responsibility (indeed it is in their interests) to try to resume sticky contact so that they can divert the oncoming attack.
We have numerous "Hitting Hands" drills that enable students to drill each distinct fighting shape or technique from the linked form in order to hardwire those movement patterns into the body. The drills frequently have variations and students can insert traps and responses to vary and change the patterns. Here we can explore how changes in intention can produce different combat method manifestations (from the eight methods framework) in order to subtly alter the shapes and yet produce markedly different effects. Footwork variations are also practiced.
Whereas the emphasis in Push Hands is on stickiness and the emphasis in Sticky Hands is on finding gaps, the emphasis of Hitting Hands drills is often on pure destruction, including limb destruction, so the drills tend to be the least sticky and most overtly violent of the three different branches of sensitivity training. Even deflection manoeuvres manifest as attacks and stop hits. Such drills also provide an opportunity for physical conditioning - contact may be sufficient to cause bruising, but should stop short of causing permanent or long term damage.
The initial basis of all three of these partner training methods is cooperative martial research. The drills start out as predictable patterns and each student must adhere to the rules of the drill - they are not the same thing as fighting and should not really be approached with a competitive spirit. So-called "winning" is irrelevant as the drills are designed to develop specific skills. If a student concerns themselves only with winning, they will never progress past the point of becoming reliant on various favourite techniques that they know their peers cannot yet counter. It is far better therefore, to always be trying new things and to be prepared to be seen to "lose" in the interests of your martial research. It is also good to share ideas with your fellow students and possibly replay certain movement sequences in order to explore how things could be done better, with a view towards mutual improvement. If someone asks "how did you do that?" or "what did you do there?" you should analyze it and tell them and you should also be prepared to take their advice, suggestions or general feedback.
It has often been remarked that "it is easy to win at push hands if you are prepared to cheat", but that will not teach you as much as if you manage to insert an effective trap or technique within the rules.
As students develop, the drills can become more competitive, but still, postural alignment and substantiality rules must be adhered to. The drills can gradually become more and more free-form and can merge into one another as the drills progress closer and closer to free-form fighting practice.
The three kinds of Sensitivity Drill can be seen as three strands of a half-unravelled plait (braid), eventually merging into semi-competitive, semi-cooperative free-form combat training. In our school, this plait in its entirety forms a single strand of a greater "Contact Training" plait, encompassing numerous other training methods such as specific technique practice and various kinds of sparring. Every branch or strand of training ultimately leads to the same single destination of spontaneous Tai Chi fighting.