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The Importance of Pushing Hands in Tai Chi Chuan: Cultivating Right Habits in Form Practice

Tai Chi Chuan, often simply referred to as Tai Chi, is a centuries-old Chinese martial art that has gained immense popularity worldwide for its myriad health benefits and graceful, flowing movements. At its core, Tai Chi is more than just a series of choreographed movements; it is a profound internal martial art that emphasizes the cultivation of mind-body harmony. One of the key training methods that facilitate this harmony is "Pushing Hands." In this article, we will explore the importance of Pushing Hands in Tai Chi Chuan and how it aids in learning the right habits, which can be seamlessly integrated into Tai Chi sequences/forms.

The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan

Before delving into Pushing Hands, it is essential to understand the essence of Tai Chi Chuan. This martial art places great emphasis on relaxation, balance, and the efficient use of internal energy, often referred to as "qi" or "chi." Tai Chi practitioners strive to harmonize their inner energy and physical movements, leading to a state of mindfulness and tranquility.

The Role of Tai Chi Forms

Tai Chi form - Grand Master Yang, Jwing-Ming

The primary vehicle through which Tai Chi principles are conveyed is the practice of Tai Chi forms or sequences. These choreographed movements are not only aesthetically pleasing but serve as a means to integrate Tai Chi's fundamental principles into physical practice. However, it's not enough to merely memorize and mimic the forms. Tai Chi is about understanding the underlying principles and incorporating them into every motion.

The Importance of Pushing Hands

Pushing Hands, also known as "Tui Shou" in Chinese, is a crucial aspect of Tai Chi training that bridges the gap between solo form practice and practical martial application. It involves a partner-based exercise where practitioners engage in controlled, continuous, and circular movements. The primary goals of Pushing Hands are:

  1. Developing sensitivity: Pushing Hands cultivates the ability to sense and respond to the subtle movements and intentions of one's partner. This heightened sensitivity is essential for effective self-defense and martial applications.

  2. Maintaining relaxation: Tai Chi's relaxed and fluid movements are key to its effectiveness. Pushing Hands teaches practitioners how to maintain relaxation even under pressure, preventing stiffness and tension in a conflict situation.

  3. Balance and stability: Through Pushing Hands, practitioners learn to maintain their balance and stability when subjected to external forces. This is a crucial skill for self-defense and can help prevent falls in everyday life.

  4. Applying Tai Chi principles: Pushing Hands provides a platform to practice Tai Chi principles such as yielding, redirecting, and neutralizing force. These principles can be directly transferred to Tai Chi forms.

Learning the Right Habits

Pushing Hands serves as a laboratory for Tai Chi practitioners to refine their techniques and develop the right habits. Here are some of the habits nurtured through Pushing Hands that seamlessly integrate into Tai Chi forms:

  1. Rootedness: Pushing Hands teaches practitioners how to maintain a solid connection to the ground, ensuring stability and power in their movements.

  2. Listening and sensitivity: By honing their ability to "listen" to their partner's energy, Tai Chi practitioners can respond effectively to changes in force and direction, fostering adaptability in their forms.

  3. Yielding and redirecting: Pushing Hands instills the habit of yielding to incoming force rather than resisting it. This skill is invaluable in Tai Chi forms, as it allows practitioners to flow smoothly from one movement to the next.

Rootedness: The Foundation of Tai Chi Chuan

Standing on bricks. Photo: J. Rodriguez

Rootedness is a fundamental concept in Tai Chi Chuan, and it plays a crucial role in both Pushing Hands and Tai Chi forms. It refers to the practitioner's ability to establish and maintain a stable connection with the ground, providing a solid foundation for all movements. This concept is deeply intertwined with the notion of the whole body being connected, and it's an essential aspect of Tai Chi's effectiveness.

The Whole Body Connection

In Tai Chi Chuan, the body is viewed as a single integrated unit, where every part is connected and works harmoniously with the others. The concept of rootedness stems from this holistic perspective. When a Tai Chi practitioner is rooted, it means that the entire body is engaged in maintaining a strong connection to the ground. This is achieved through proper alignment, relaxation, and the distribution of weight.

  1. Proper Alignment: Tai Chi emphasizes correct body alignment, ensuring that the spine is straight but not rigid. This alignment allows for the efficient transfer of force throughout the body and into the ground. A misaligned posture can disrupt this flow of energy and compromise rootedness.

  2. Relaxation: Contrary to what one might expect in a martial art, Tai Chi encourages a state of deep relaxation. Tension hinders the flow of energy and disrupts rootedness. Practitioners learn to relax their muscles while maintaining proper structure, allowing them to sink into the ground and connect more effectively.

  3. Weight Distribution: Tai Chi forms and Pushing Hands exercises teach practitioners how to distribute their weight evenly between their feet and maintain a stable base. This ensures that the practitioner can absorb and redirect external forces without losing balance.

The Benefits of Rootedness

Rootedness in Tai Chi Chuan offers several key benefits:

  1. Stability: When a practitioner is rooted, they become stable and grounded, making it difficult for an opponent to push or topple them. This stability is not brute strength but the result of proper alignment and relaxation.

  2. Efficiency: Rootedness enhances the efficiency of movements. By maintaining a stable base, a Tai Chi practitioner can redirect incoming force with minimal effort. This efficiency is crucial in self-defense situations.

  3. Health Benefits: Rootedness is not just about martial effectiveness; it also promotes good posture and body mechanics. It can alleviate strain on joints and muscles, reducing the risk of injury and contributing to overall physical well-being.

  4. Mind-Body Connection: Rootedness deepens the mind-body connection. When a practitioner is fully grounded, they are more attuned to their body's sensations and can better cultivate internal energy (qi) and mindfulness.

Incorporating Rootedness into Tai Chi Forms

Rootedness is a cornerstone of Tai Chi forms. As practitioners move through the graceful, flowing sequences, they must maintain their connection to the ground. This means that each step, turn, and transition should be executed with a sense of rooted stability. It's not about brute force but about the conscious application of Tai Chi principles to maintain balance and alignment.

Listening and Sensitivity: The Heartbeat of Tai Chi Chuan

In the world of Tai Chi Chuan, the concepts of "listening" and "sensitivity" hold a place of paramount importance. These principles are deeply intertwined with the practice of Pushing Hands and are essential for both martial effectiveness and the cultivation of inner harmony. Let's delve into these concepts and explore their significance in the context of Tai Chi Chuan and Pushing Hands.

Listening and Sensitivity in Tai Chi Chuan
  1. Listening (Ting Jin): In Tai Chi Chuan, "listening" refers to the practitioner's ability to tune into their partner's movements, intentions, and energy. It's about being fully present and attuned to every subtle change in the interaction. Listening involves using not just the ears but the entire body to perceive the partner's energy and intent.

  2. Sensitivity (Ting Jing): Sensitivity is the natural outcome of effective listening. It involves the ability to detect and interpret the incoming force or energy from the partner. This sensitivity allows the practitioner to respond appropriately, whether by yielding, redirecting, or neutralizing the force.

Pushing Hands as a Crucible for Listening and Sensitivity

Pushing Hands serves as the ideal training ground for developing listening and sensitivity in Tai Chi Chuan. Here's how:

  1. Continuous Interaction: Pushing Hands involves a continuous and dynamic interaction with a partner. As the partners engage in controlled pushing and yielding, they must listen and adapt to each other's energy in real time. This constant exchange hones their ability to stay attuned to changing dynamics.

  2. Refining Reactions: Pushing Hands encourages practitioners to refine their reactions. They learn to avoid rigid responses and instead develop the sensitivity to adjust fluidly to their partner's movements. This skill is directly transferable to self-defense scenarios.

  3. Pressure Testing: Pushing Hands allows practitioners to "pressure test" their Tai Chi principles in a safe and controlled environment. This feedback loop of receiving and redirecting force helps them refine their understanding of listening and sensitivity.

The Benefits of Listening and Sensitivity

The development of listening and sensitivity in Tai Chi Chuan offers numerous advantages:

  1. Effective Self-Defense: In a self-defense situation, the ability to listen to an opponent's intentions and sense their energy is invaluable. It enables the practitioner to respond efficiently and avoid unnecessary conflict.

  2. Mind-Body Integration: Listening and sensitivity deepen the mind-body connection. Practitioners become more aware of their own body's responses and learn to synchronize their movements with their internal state.

  3. Energy Efficiency: By listening to the partner's energy and responding appropriately, practitioners conserve their own energy while achieving their goals. This efficiency is crucial for sustaining Tai Chi forms and applications.

  4. Conflict Resolution: Beyond martial applications, listening and sensitivity skills are beneficial in everyday life. They enhance communication, empathy, and conflict resolution abilities, promoting harmony in relationships.

Incorporating Listening and Sensitivity into Tai Chi Forms

The lessons learned from Pushing Hands, especially in terms of listening and sensitivity, can be seamlessly integrated into Tai Chi forms. As practitioners move through the flowing sequences, they should carry with them the ability to "listen" to their own body's sensations and adapt their movements accordingly. This ensures that Tai Chi forms are not mere rote memorization but dynamic expressions of Tai Chi principles.

Yielding in Tai Chi Chuan

  1. Yielding (Nian): Yielding refers to the practitioner's ability to yield to an opponent's incoming force rather than resisting it. Instead of meeting force with force, the Tai Chi exponent yields like a flexible tree bending in the wind. This principle is often summed up in the Tai Chi saying, "Four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds."

    • Efficiency: Yielding allows the practitioner to use the opponent's force against them. By redirecting the energy, the Tai Chi practitioner conserves their own strength and energy, making their responses more efficient.

    • Balance and Control: Yielding maintains balance and control. Instead of being overpowered, the Tai Chi practitioner maintains equilibrium, preventing themselves from being pushed or pulled off balance.

    • Minimizing Strain: By not resisting force, the practitioner minimizes physical strain and the risk of injury. The emphasis is on relaxation and suppleness.

Redirecting in Tai Chi Chuan

  1. Redirecting (Hua): While yielding is about receiving and going with the opponent's force, redirecting is the skill of guiding or deflecting that force in a way that is advantageous to the Tai Chi practitioner.

    • Sensitivity: Redirecting requires sensitivity to the opponent's movements and energy. The Tai Chi practitioner must be in tune with the opponent's intentions to execute precise redirection.

    • Neutralization: The goal of redirection is to neutralize the opponent's attack, rendering it ineffective. The Tai Chi exponent may guide the opponent's force away from them or redirect it into a vulnerable area.

    • Circular Movements: Redirecting often involves circular motions, which align with Tai Chi's emphasis on continuous, flowing movements. Circular redirection can unbalance the opponent and create opportunities for counterattacks.

Incorporating Yielding and Redirecting into Tai Chi Forms

Tai Chi forms are a series of choreographed movements that serve as a platform for practicing and integrating the principles of yielding and redirecting. Each form is a structured sequence that allows practitioners to apply these principles in a flowing, dynamic manner.

  • Yielding: In Tai Chi forms, yielding is evident in movements that appear soft and yielding, such as "Grasp the Sparrow's Tail" or "Brush Knee and Push." These postures emphasize the practitioner's ability to absorb and redirect force while maintaining balance and grace.

  • Redirecting: Redirecting is apparent in movements that involve turning, spiraling, and circular motions. For instance, "Wave Hands Like Clouds" or "Single Whip" in Tai Chi forms are excellent examples of how energy can be redirected in circular, graceful motions.

Tai Chi forms serve as a canvas for practitioners to express these principles and develop a deep understanding of how yielding and redirecting are applied. The goal is to make these principles second nature so that they can be utilized effectively in self-defense situations.


Pushing Hands is an integral and indispensable aspect of Tai Chi Chuan. It bridges the gap between theory and practice, helping practitioners develop the right habits that can be seamlessly integrated into Tai Chi forms. By honing sensitivity, relaxation, balance, and the application of Tai Chi principles, Pushing Hands enhances one's overall Tai Chi experience and martial effectiveness. It is not just a drill but a gateway to deeper understanding and mastery of this ancient art, making it an invaluable component of any Tai Chi practitioner's journey.

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