When I first began my Tai Chi journey, I had not heard of push hands. I spent over a year with my first Tai Chi teacher learning Cheng Man Ching's short form. My teacher, sensei Howard, never brought up push hands in class. Sensei Howard was a high-level Aikido teacher and taught Tai Chi from a meditative perspective. He had mentioned to me on a few occasions that what I wanted to learn from Tai Chi he did not know. He suggested I learn from a teacher he knew of that was proficient. However, his recommended Tai Chi school was over forty-five minutes from my house. At first, I did not listen to his advice.
While driving one day, I noticed a Kung Fu school with a Tai Chi sign in the window. The school was about twenty-five minutes from my home. Curious, I decided to go in. Hanging on the walls were several Kung Fu weapons, the school had an oriental decor. Choy Lay Fut was the main traditional style of Kung Fu taught at the school. Luckily for me, Tai Chi and Qigong were also taught there. The teacher was born in Taiwan and learned Tai Chi Chuan from his grandfather. I remember asking Sifu if he had a choice, which style would he think is more martial Choy Lay Fut or Tai Chi? he replied, "Tai Chi." I decided to join the school. We focused mainly on the Yang 24 Tai Chi competition form and Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong. Push Hands was never shown or mentioned. After spending a year and a half at this school, I felt something was missing. I decided to leave.
Frustrated to learn more, I decided to drive the forty-five minutes to the Long Island school of Tai Chi Chuan. I began learning William C.C. Chen's version of Cheng Man Ching's sixty movement thirty-seven postures short form. I don't remember how long I spent learning the movements of this form but it was several years before being exposed to Push-Hands. I remember after each class, as I would be leaving, a new group of students would enter the school for Push Hands and Tai Chi sparring. I remember I couldn't wait to take the Push Hands class. At the time, the school had rules, and you weren't allowed in the Push Hands class until you could perform the Yang short form with a limited number of mistakes. One day after class, I asked my teacher, "could I join the Push Hands class?" He sat down and watched me do the Tai Chi form and scribbled notes on a pad. To my surprise, many parts of my Tai Chi form needed improvement. I was disappointed but went home and worked on these for several months. I again asked for Sifu to watch me do the Tai Chi form, again he wrote down many areas needing improvement. I went home and worked on these for several more months. Again I asked for another chance to show my form. He sat on a chair with his pad and this time, Sifu handed me the paper. There were only minor areas I needed to improve. After this session, my teacher gave me a black and white Yin and Yang patch with red Chinese calligraphy. The patch was a right of passage. I was now able to take the Push Hands class. Even though it was more than twenty years ago, I still saved this patch today.
We practiced fixed-step Tai Chi Push hands with and without our eyes closed. With our eyes closed, it enabled us to be more sensitive to each other's energy. Some Tai Chi schools frown upon this. I remember practicing Push Hands with some of the other students in the class. Sometimes it led to brute force. I remember feeling like my opponent was using too much physical Yang force. If you asked them, they would say they were relaxed, and I was the one using too much physical strength.
It was my hope that every Push Hands class I took would get me closer to the "secret." This secret never seemed to come. Maybe that is what keeps me so motivated to learn all I can. After fourteen years with my teacher, I left the school.
I went to Tai Chi Push Hands Meetup's where I displayed really good Push Hand skills against some really proficient Tai Chi players. Maybe I was better at Push Hands than I thought. Maybe my teacher really did teach me well. I never was able to gauge my Push Hands proficiency while in class. It is possible because the other students were never compliant and also wanted to win. I watched countless YouTube videos from so-called Tai Chi masters and even videos from those with much less skill. I am always searching for more knowledge.
In my opinion, Push Hands is a tool that teaches you proper relaxation, correct body alignment, and how to express energy. It is not to see who wins. Push Hands training is essential to learning the Tai Chi form correctly. It is what makes your Tai Chi form come alive.
To reap the health benefits from your Tai Chi form, you have to practice with correct alignment and proper Tai chi principles. Without Push Hands practice, you will miss the essence of Tai Chi.
I feel competitive Push Hands has its place and is a lot of fun for the ego. How cool would it be to win a competition and put that on your Tai Chi resume? I have never competed at a Push Hands event but always wanted to. I feel the average Tai Chi practitioner does not need to enter a competitive Push-Hands event. I believe these Tai Chi skills do have a place in a Tai Chi school that stresses Tai Chi fighting skills. You just have to be careful you don't turn the competition into a feat of strength.
The average Tai Chi player needs to learn Push hands. It is essential to make sure your Tai Chi form is being done correctly. My Tai Chi form seemed to come alive only after I became proficient in Push-Hands. You need to put stress on your form to see how important proper alignment and body mechanics are. Without this exchange, you will never learn Tai Chi correctly. Without Push Hands training it will be difficult, if not impossible, to receive the full health benefits from Tai Chi.