Pushing hands – why do people hate it?

pushhands1Once you have been learning T’ai Chi for a year or two, your teacher will normally suggest it is time you did some pushing hands. I teach beginners’ T’ai Chi in the Welsh town of Brecon, and I have found that a high proportion of my students don’t like pushing hands or don’t see the point of it. I wonder if this is a defence mechanism? Pushing Hands is really about intimacy and interaction and most of us are pretty scared of that, I reckon,

Pushing hands is a flowing back and forth movement which you do with a partner. Its object can be to push your partner off her centre, or simply to ‘join’ with her and move together, turning at the waist to deflect the incoming energy. It is more fun if you test each other of course, but it is true that the process can bring up some difficult stuff for people along the way. When I was first learning it, I was partnered by a chap my own age who pushed me rather too strongly for my liking. I would find tears jumping into my eyes when he ‘got’ me. I reckon I was being reminded, through my body, of childhood contests with my brother where feelings of rage on both sides ran pretty high. Fifty years later they surfaced with a gush.

If you have been bullied or abused, then your defences might be challenged by this exercise. On the other hand, it is a safe way to practise interaction and intimacy which might teach us all to do it better. That’s what Andrew Heckert suggested at a recent workshop in London. This charming, talkative Yank, who wore a tweed sports jacket throughout the session, teaches a kind of T’ai Chi where yielding is always preferred over ‘rooting’, a ‘way of weakness’ if you like. Fascinating idea!

It is not just pushy chaps who upset me. Small, wiry, insinuating women I find even worse, snaking their little hands towards my centre. I just want to thrust them away and go and have a cup of tea. What am I so afraid of? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s centuries of ancestral Glaswegian aggression which have built up a pattern of defence-attack in me which is difficult to dismantle. When I do manage not to fight back, either in pushing hands or real life, the results are often extraordinary.

I was on a walk once and hit a path which was blocked by brambles and nettles. I didn’t have a stick with me and noticed that, alongside the path was a field with a couple of horses in it. They looked calm to me, and I reasoned that the owner would not mind me nipping through the field to the gate at the end. So that’s what I did, only, as I neared the gate, I spotted a woman marching towards me from the nearby house. I put a conciliatory smile on my face and began my excuses.

“What makes me mad about people like you…” she began and ran through a litany of complaints about uppity ramblers invading her property. Every so often, when she stopped to draw breath, I would interject:
“Look, I’m your neighbour, I’m really sorry but I don’t want to fall out with you…”
For some reason that day I didn’t feel aggressive. There was something about the woman’s performance of rage which did not convince me: if I had been reviewing her, I would have said she was ‘exaggerated and over the top.’ Finally, after perhaps five minutes of her shouting and me muttering apologies, she suddenly slumped to the ground and started sobbing.
“I can’t get planning permission for my stables,” she bawled. “The bastards won’t listen and our dream is at an end…”
I listened, and, within two minutes we were sitting at her kitchen table having tea with her husband.

Our bodies hold tensions all the way from childhood and when we push hands those tensions emerge and condition the way we move, the way we sense and feel others and their energy. Which is why the lady at the stables tumbled melodramatically to the ground like a tantruming toddler when she broke through to her real pain. It is why, I guess, we fall in love when we encounter someone whose energy mysteriously and deliciously complements and enhances our own. It can be addictive!

“The secret is in relaxing” as many T’ai Chi teachers have said. But how do we learn to do that? It is a long path, but I do think pushing hands is the royal road to dropping fear and anxiety about interaction with other human beings. Therefore I plan to attend again the great pushing hands event run by Adrian Murray at Worcester University at the end of August. This is not about competition, fighting or aggression (though some people there do enjoy a bit of that) but about relaxing, joining, yielding. Sounds good to me.