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12-19-07 The Target or Push Hands with Master Ni

When practicing Tai Chi it is important to remember the Target. On the most obvious level this has to do with one’s opponent. Are you striking the knee, the groin, or chest with your fist, palm or foot? Are you slashing the ankle, wrist or neck with the edge of the sword? Or are you skewering your opponent with the tip of your sword? This type of awareness is incredibly useful in that it aligns the body or sword in the proper direction.

On more subtle levels awareness of the Target has to do with one’s intention in practicing Tai Chi. Are you aiming for martial proficiency, health or a meditative state? Although it is important to balance each of these factors when practicing, the Target of our class is the cultivation and conservation of internal energy to augment the quality of life.

Ideally each route, whether martial, health, or meditation, leads to increased vitality. However it is easy to veer off onto a Side Path, entirely missing the point. For instance martial intent can lead to health or a meditative state. However it is easy to slip off onto techniques whereby one can dominate an opponent – forgetting health, vitality, and internal cultivation altogether. Similarly a health orientation can lead to vitality and awareness. Or it can lead to the mindless repetition of forms without any intent whatsoever.

Let’s compare Master Ni’s Push Hands training with that of other schools to discover the nature of his Target. First, for those who don’t know, Push Hands is a two person interactive exercise, which incorporates many Tai Chi principles. In many Push Hands sessions and competitions the goal is to dislodge one’s opponent from their root and to avoid being uprooted. Hence the training incorporates exercises designed to promote flexibility and stability, as well as martial techniques. It is a very useful way of discovering weaknesses as well as increasing one’s energy flow. However, it is also easy to slip off the Target altogether in the desire to win the competition.

When Master Ni taught Push Hands there was no winning or losing. There were only circles. When practicing with a student he might gently push on some hardness in the shoulder or waist. Although he never said or explained anything this was done presumably to increase awareness of deficiency, not to establish dominance.

Me: “Are we supposed to push our partner off balance when doing Push Hands?”

Ni: “Push Hands not a competition. Push to the point when they are just aware. No more.”

This is radically different from the intent of most schools, where Push Hands is a competitive exercise.

When doing Push Hands with Master Ni, he might rock our balance or gently go under or over our guard. But he never knocked us off our feet. Further he never speeded up, although he might slow down to instruct. None of his movements were jerky or explosive. However he always guarded his center, maintaining Ward Off at all times.

Master Ni: “If there is no Ward Off, it is not Tai Chi.”

It is evident that his Push Hands training was an exercise to increase our understanding of the art of Tai Chi, not to increase our martial proficiency. His Target - to open up our energy channels to maximize awareness and vitality.