I learned to skateboard on steep hills in San Francisco.  They are steep enough that one hardly ever needs to push off with the foot, it’s just jump on and go.  Skateboards do not have speed controls.  No accelerator, no brakes.  How fast you are going is determined entirely by the steepness of the hill and how often one turns or slides.  Of course, this being the Era of The Wimp, now’a’days some skateboards have itty-bitty wheels that keep them moving at snail like speeds.  But in my day 35 miles an hour was about what one would expect to achieve if you went straight down the hill.  If you were going too fast to make a turn, you just died.  

That seems like a pretty good introduction to a mostly unrelated subject I want to talk about.  There is a common and legitimate compliant about people who practice push-hands as training for fighting.  The complaint is that some techniques only seem to work when they are done slowly.  Or stated another way, push-hands techniques tend to fail at higher speeds.  

There is a way to inoculate oneself against this problem.  It is quite simple and easy to  condition.  Of course it has to be conditioned to function at high speeds.  Normal learning and practicing won’t work unless they are put inside of a spontaneity inducing game.

Here are the instructions.  Begin touching forearms.  Stick to your partner.  If you become unstuck, just start over.  Use the entire surface of your arms, you can use other body parts too as long as you stick.  There are three levels of sticking and they must be practiced distinctly and exclusively.  The order in which you condition them does not matter.  1) Bone- structure against structure, if you lose contact with your partner’s entire structure, even for a split second, you are not doing it.  2) Skin- the contact must become so light that it is continuously sliding, skin passing by skin.  If you roll along the surface or press into the muscle or bone, or lose contact, you are not doing it.  3) Muscle- flesh touching flesh continuous rolling, no sliding what-so-ever, no pressing structure against structure, no bone contact, no losing contact.  (note: 1 and 2 are the extremes, 3 is in the middle)

The three levels must be distinct because they become guides for spontaneous action.  This is really part of the soft-hand (roushou) game more than it is part of push-hands.  To practice this you must develop a level of emotional safety with your partner that allows you to slap each other anywhere.  You should at least be at the level of comfort in which slapping and being slapped makes you happy.  (Generally speaking, if you and your partner are comfortable doing this while crying, you have reached an even higher level of trust.)

I’m not particularly confident that this type of kinesthetic knowledge can be communicated through a paragraph of writing, but if you already have an serious push-hands, roushou or sticky-hands practice, hopefully you can figure it out.  Keep in mind this key idea:  You are developing a game that conditions spontaneity such that the need to control speed is no longer a consideration.  Like skateboarding, there is no accelerator and there are no brakes.  Speed is determined by the depth of contact. 

Increase the Chaos

Rory Miller's workshop got me thinking about how Tai Chi push hands relates to ground fighting:

With your back to the ground you have a perfect root.
When you are on top, it is very easy to give all of your weight to your opponent.
If you can consistently have a solid root in fixed step push hands, and give all of your weight to your opponent to carry when you are just standing in front of him, then doing those to things on the ground is remarkably easy.
Push hands is great training for protecting the head through continuous attack. Great for learning how not to get locked up.
As you get better in push-hands if your opponent tries to get under you, you let them try to carry you in a position where they have no leverage. If he tries to get on top of you, you float him. (both just like ground fighting, but harder)
As you get better still, you practice moving a heavier opponent from the worst possible angle, that's why push hands needs to be practiced at a slow speed.
And when you have reached a level of skill where you can express power without having any root and completely melt your structure you can increase the chaos for your opponent until they simply defeat themselves.
In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Wrestling the goal is one-on-one domination on a soft mat. In the case of a surprise attack by a heavier opponent or multiple opponents where you go down to the hard ground! --instead of trying to dominate and control the situation, you want to increase the chaos, and keep rolling  You want to keep as much momentum in the fight as possible--and keep up continuous striking the whole time.
Fixed step push-hands and roushou is one of the best types of training for this situation ever invented.

Rory gave a rule of thumb which he explained like this.  If I am fighting on the third floor balcony of a condo and I'm about to die in a choke hold, I jump off the balcony with the guy choking me.

Rory's rule of thumb:  When you are losing, increase the chaos.  When you are winning, gain control.

I have a corollary to that rule:  If your opponent is experiencing chaos and you are comfortable with it, that works too.

A lot of training in internal martial arts is about creating disorientation and relaxation at the same time-- Or perhaps I should say unusual orientations like spinning in bagua, or unfocusing the eyes.

Steamy Woman, Watery Woman, Icy Woman

The practice of Taijqiquan push-hands is a feminine art.  Even when practiced by men, it unleashes feminine qualities.  For the fun of it, we could compare it to ballet.  Even though most people are familiar with a few famous male ballet dancers like Nijinsky, Nureyev, and Baryshnikov, everyone thinks of ballet as a feminine art.

The first level of practice is called "Icy Woman."  At this level we develop a root so that when pushed the opponent's force is directed through our body down to the ground.  As the Icy Woman's structure improves she is able to keep this rooted quality continuously during dynamic movement.  If played as a game, both people will try to keep even pressure on their opponent's root.  The moment the pressure is broken either partner can move to sever their opponent's root. The game can also be won root-to-root.  In this case each person uses a blend of twisting, wrapping, expanding and condensing to improve the integration of their root.  Root against root, the better root will win.

There are two side tracks many teachers take with the Icy Woman.  The first side track is technique.  90% of the push-hands on youtube is a demonstration of this.  Techniques include tricks, grappling, striking, pushing, plucking martial applications and so on.  The other side track is trying to develop sensitivity.  This confusion arises when an Icy Woman has a broken or ineffective structure or an inferior root, and yet still wants desperately to win.  Sensitivity does not need to be developed.  Sensitivity is innate, we are born with it, no assembly required.  The only way to reduce sensitivity is with aggression.  The Daodejing makes this point on the first page, (the concept is called wuwei).
In innocence we can feel the subtle essences.

When possessed of desire we can feel only the yearned-for manifest.

The second level of practice is called "Watery Woman."  At this level it is necessary to become weak.  If played as a game, the goal is to try and find some ice in your opponent.  Ice is either structure or rootedness.  The Watery Woman does not attempt to compete structure-against-structure nor does she try to uproot her opponent.  She gives up rootedness and structure for fluid movement and weight.  The Watery Woman sloshes her weight in and around her opponent, she only wins when her opponent makes a mistake--the mistake of becoming icy.

The Watery Woman is not hard to achieve, because it is also an innate human quality.  Many people get stuck with the Watery Woman because they try to fall back on Icy Woman skills and techniques when they are losing.  A heavier Water Woman has a huge advantage over a waifish one.  A half-frozen Icy Woman can beat a half-dried Watery Woman.  Being an Watery Woman is not an advantage in and of itself.  One can get stuck at this level by developing very effective mixed ice and water techniques, including vibrating, bouncing, or shaking oneself.  If it only moves fast, it isn't water.

When the Watery Woman becomes comfortable, lively and uninhibited-- the pleasure of the experience  becomes steamy.

The third level of practice is called "Steamy Woman."  At this level her body becomes cloud-like.  Empty and full at the same time.  When the Steamy Woman meets ice or water in her opponents she simply floats them out of the way.  Her mind is not on her body at all, but all around it at play with the elements of volume, momentum, and density.  Inside a steam-like feeling moves around freely without regard to purpose or concept.  Like a cloud, it has no agenda.  Outside the game is played by the shifts and swirls of presence.

For those of you who have been following my discussions for sometime, you will probably see the three Daoist "views" permeating the practice of push-hands:  Wuwei (effortless, natural, return), Transcendence (perfection, enlightenment), and Shamanism (contracts with, or sacrifices to, powerful allies,--in this case female super hero allies.)  Push-hands is a method which can be practiced using any of these views, but each view will produce a unique type fruition.

No doubt, some of my readers are thinking, "Where did you get this Woman thing from."  Here, I must admit that the Chinese term I'm referring to is ren, or "human," and it has no gender.  However, when George Xu, for instance, explains these three types of people, he makes the opposite mistake and calls them Ice Men, Water Men, and Steam Men.  I chose to use the female pronoun because it's consistent with Daoist thinking and practice.  Another key idea of the Daodejing is the centrality of our feminine nature. (Chapter 6)
The Valley Spirit is Deathless it is called the Dark Feminine.

The door of the Dark Feminine, is called the root of Heaven and Earth.

Subtle, it seems only tenuously to exist, and yet drawn upon it is inexhaustible.

I have been told there is a Fourth level, the "Void-like Woman."  It is effortless, and innate, it happens automatically with a completely resolved death.  Perhaps it is possible to reach this level while one is still breathing?

OK a little off topic, but pretty Icy! OK a little off topic, but pretty Icy!

Not Your Grandmother's Tai Chi

(Someone out there is probably thinking, "you never met my grandmother."  My apologies to those of you who are the offspring of an unrestrained warrior woman.  Here is an alternate title for you: Pure Fighting.)

Kids have less of a filter, they often say what adults are thinking but are too reserved to say directly.  In a way, the practice of Taijiquan is about trying to be less reserved.  I know that sounds funny; aren't softness and weakness near synonyms for being reserved? But the goal of practicing Taijiquan is to reveal your true nature, if you are by nature reserved, than fine, but I think most people have what Freud called the id, a wild unrestrained, unrefined, spontaneous nature waiting underneath their ego.

But it's wrong to say that we are "trying" to be less reserved, it's more like we are letting go of the need to control, temporarily dropping our social guard, in order to rediscover how our body works.

One of the most popular questions kids ask, particularly about slow circular Taijiquan, is, " Can you use it in a fight?"  I have 100's of posts on this blog talking about Taijiquan as a healing art, a performing art, a pantomime art, a dueling art, a wrestling art, a throwing art, a religious ritual art, a spiritual development art, a game, a form of social engagement, a tool for developing police type threat control skills, a self-defense tool, a way to deepen intimacy with oneself and others, a way of managing stress associated with overwhelming guilt, embarrassment, or fear, a mental relaxation tool, a movement meditation tool, and best of all, a way of revealing our true nature--the way things actually are.

But I would be remiss if I did not occasionally address the Pure Fighting aspects of Taijiquan.  (I believe you can practice in all these ways simultaneously, especially if you set aside a lot of time for it, but it's just as beautiful to choose just one of these ways of practice.  If you don't care about Pure Fighting, that's great!  It is not important.  Really if you want to do something to reduce your chances of ending up in the hospital, wearing reflective clothing while crossing the street is a much better use of your efforts than studying martial arts!  Please skip the rest of this post and plug one of the phrases from the last paragraph into the search box!)

Pure fighting requires discarding restraint.  As an act of necessity it requires being truly wild yet totally committed.  Pure fighting presumes (and this is a huge and difficult presumption to make) that all the moral or psychological restraint one may possess has been discarded.  (Can you tell I'm a big fan of horror movies?)

For Taijiquan to "work" as a pure fighting training system it must be "practiced without pretense" (the first precept of religious Daoism).  I say this because it is very easy to fall into bad habits when practicing with a partner.  Push-hands (tuishou) is the most common two person exercise people use to practice taijiquan.  There is a school of Push-hands which has popularized the expression, "Invest in Loss."  This is absurd, ironic, and also wrong.  They mean that if you practice loosing for a while, you will eventually figure out what your partner is doing and start winning.  This is a fools errand.

To train for pure fighting you must completely discard the notion of winning.  In pure fighting you must be capable of vanquishing multiple threats who are bigger stronger and have longer arms.  In fact, you have to assume that every attack is a potential sacrifice move, meaning the threat is risking everything in order to either, strike you in a vital area, knock you into something hard, get you on the hard ground, or make you vulnerable to one of the other attackers.  Sacrifice moves work, but martial artists don't usually train them because the risk is too high; however, dangerous people can and do use them.

All this while remaining light-hearted, good-natured, and lovable.  All this without becoming possessed by aggression.

The possibility of our art becoming a fantasy is ever present.  For instance, one cliche I hear batted around is that in order to learn fighting you must practice with a non-cooperative partner.  That is a sure way to create pretense.  In order to train for pure fighting your partners must be supremely cooperative.  They must expose all your errors to the light of day.

So now that I've gotten all that out of the way, we can talk about push-hands.  Obviously push-hands can be practiced for one or all of the reasons I listed above in the third paragraph of this post, but I'm talking about push-hands as training for pure fighting.  Of course, I'm only scratching the surface of this subject.

There are an enormous number of push-hands conventions, or rule sets.  Each one trains different things.  If you fail to acknowledge this you will train yourself for a fantasy.  For instance, there is a convention that if your partner moves their foot at all, they have lost.  In the convention, moving your foot is a stand in for being knocked to the ground.  In order to not make this convention a fantasy, you have to sometimes practice it all the way to the ground.  In a pure fighting situation moving your foot doesn't matter very much, as long as you can see where you are moving your foot.  And for this reason, in a Pure Fighting situation, moving forwards is often better than moving backwards.  (With multiple opponents, moving backwards exposes you to being tripped by an opponent on the ground.)

However if you step forward or lean forward without first finding an opening, your partner must show you that you can be struck; usually with an elbow strike, a slap to the head, or a hand on the neck or spine.  In training this doesn't have to injure your opponent, but it must convince them that they have made themselves vulnerable to damage.  Of course, in a Pure Fight, you can still continue to fight with some damage, so be careful not to presume that one strike is enough (but if you know how to chop, a chop to the back of the neck will sever the vertebra).  Similarly, if your opponent over extends, you must show them that you can dislocate their shoulder (cai).  If your opponent leans in, you have to presume they are willing  to sacrifice.  You have to presume that they are willing to take a strike to the head in order to strike you with their head, or wrap their arms around you and break your spine.  A partner leaning in with momentum, like a sumo wrestler, must be struck.  So in Pure Fighting training the better you get, the less you lean.

Tabby Cat actually had the audacity to say Taijiquan doesn't use strikes.  He says it isn't a striking system.  Look Tabby, in Taijiquan we fight using a ball, like a cat.  We don't point strike, or line strike, as Wang Xiangzhai put it, our "intent stays spherical."  This is because allowing our intent to come to a point, a line, an arc, or a ring will leave an opening. But that doesn't mean we don't strike.  Every movement in the Taijiquan form is a potential strike.  Period.  (Jianghu commented on that the same post.)

With multiple opponents, grappling is only used for sudden joint breaks.  You can damage and throw your opponent in less time and with less effort than it takes to seize and throw them.  In a Pure Fight you don't try to get your opponent to submit.  While it is always possible that a Pure Fight could happen in the shower or on the beach, chances are you and your opponents will be wearing strong clothes.  Grabbing or yanking clothing can be very effective, but it is not grappling.  Grappling gives the advantage to the bigger fighter.  Grappling in a multiple person fight leaves you vulnerable.

Now check out this video from the 60's.  They are training for a game, not Pure Fighting.  Watch at the end when the "loser" demonstrates how easy it is to get Stan Israel (the big guy) in a headlock.  Striking the neck would have been even easier.

Now jump ahead 40 years and watch Stan Israel's student Mario Napoli sweep away all the competition at an International Competition in the "birth place" of Taijiquan, Chen Village.

My hat is off to Mario Napoli.  Shirts off too!  A beautiful performance.  "Jiayou" America!  That must have been a load of fun.  But what did we learn?  First of all, the competition doesn't look very good.  Why?  Perhaps the old masters in China are too secretive.  Perhaps the highest levels of internal training never existed in Chen Village.  Perhaps the higher level masters had all left for Shanghai and Beijing by 1920.  It's pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that the training in New York has been better and more consistent over the last 40 years than it has been in Chen Village.

I don't blame Napoli for this, obviously Chen Village set the rules.  He played the game and he played it well, but that rule-set doesn't look like push-hands.  It appears to give the advantage to the thicker competitor.  Having long arms and legs is a disadvantage because you aren't allowed to slap, kick, or strike.  It looks a lot like Sumo.  Don't get me wrong, I love Sumo, especially "Skinny Sumo," but nearly everything they do seems like the opposite of what a Pure Fight form of push-hands would train.  If they were to put on Gi's, would they all lose to Judo guys?  How would a couple of college Greco-Roman wrestlers do with this rule-set.  I'm betting pretty good.

Despite my mellow temperament and fun loving, parlor game, deepen your intimacy approach to push-hands.  I've never lost sight of the Pure Fight.  Among my teachers George Xu, particularly, has never let me loose sight of it.  On the other hand, despite the fact that this is a really long post that took me all morning to write, I care a lot more about dancing than I do about push-hands.

I've never been to a push-hands competition (or a Pure Fight for that matter!), but  I wonder if there is a rule-set that would make me happier.  Would disqualifying a competitor for grabbing, or leaning, or taking a step back, or losing their frame make a more interesting game?  That would be giving a whole lot of power to the judges wouldn't it?

I stubbornly believe it is possible to create a push-hands milieu where everyone agrees that the fruition of competition is to set everyone free by revealing our true nature-- through the cultivation of weakness.  Training for Pure Fighting, does not require aggression, it does not require us to give up even an sliver of our true nature.

Oh well, it's a good thing we have so many fun things to try.