How essential, really, is push hands? Can we not learn or advance in tai chi without it? Are we not doing real tai chi without knowledge of push hands?
Push hands is a defining characteristic of taijiquan. Along with qigong, forms and application practice, push hands contributes to the physical, mental, spiritual and psychological development of a taiji player. It is seen as a continuation of the practical development that begins with the solo routine and qigong.
Few schools teach tuishou to beginners.
Most schools have optional tuishou classes so that students who do not wish to engage in the practice are not required to do so. There is so much to be gained from the solo practice that most student of taijiquan do very little if any tuishou practice. Even among those who do, few approach the depth or intensity of practice that is possible.
If you are seeking high level martial skill in taiji, it is pretty safe to say that push hands is essential. But push hands is useful even if your purpose for learning taiji is more health and fitness related, or you practice as a means of achieving peace of mind.
Martial arts in general are often practised more for their benefits to mental and physical well-being than for pure combat skill. The reasons for this are deep and complex.
One thing that I tell my students is that push hands – like sanshou, suaijiao, and fencing – is an excellent form of biofeedback. If you want to know if your posture is correct, or to know if you mind is clear, or to know if you are in harmony with the universe then play push hands. If you lose your balance, use force, or get knocked over, then you will know that you have some work to do. push hands can teach you what your mistakes are and help you to correct them, especially if you have a patient training partner.
If you don’t have the opportunity to practice tuishou very often, then occasional practice will inform your solo practice. You can take the lessons learned in push hands and use them to refine your understanding of the forms and your qigong practice.
My teacher once told me that he doubted there were many high level qigong masters who were not also martial artists. I think this may be because martial study is a very efficient way of exposing the delusions, illusions and misunderstandings of the ego.
Every thought carries an emotion, every emotion affects the physical body. Refining these things on our own is very difficult. It is like wearing a lamp on our foreheads and looking for our shadow. Solo practice just doesn’t give us an objective point of view of ourselves the way push hands does.
There are many stages in push hands practice. And there are many ways to approach it. Beginners should practise in a co-operative and non competitive manner at least until they understand the basics of listening and following. Later it can be quite vigourous.
Having a good teacher, patience, and an open mind are most important.