Aikido and Push Hands Training

For some time now at the Koteikan we have been using a form of Tai Ji’s Push Hands training to supplement our aikido training. The form of Push Hands that we practice places emphasis on a number of what we consider to be important principles for the effective execution of aikido techniques. But first let me describe the ‘rules’ that we play by.
In our version of Push Hands we don’t take any steps – moving one’s foot is normally classed as losing the current ‘game’. However, avoiding stepping to the detriment of one’s posture is discouraged. For instance, if my partner forces me to choose between compromising my posture or moving my feet, then I will choose to retain my posture and lose gracefully by taking a step. However, if as a result of this, my partner loses his balance, it is classed as only a technical win by him because although I have stepped first, I am still on balance and he is not.
Secondly, grabbing legs is not allowed, to avoid injury to partners but also because it requires the grabber to expose his head to attack, which is not advisable from a self-defence point of view.
Punching or face contact is not allowed but grabbing clothes is OK. In addition, leg sweeps are allowed and are classed as wins only if the sweeper places the sweeping foot on the ground after the partner’s swept leg touches the ground. Thus lifting a foot from the ground is allowed provided it is not placed back on the ground before the partner does the same.
Emphasis is placed on gently and smoothly adapting to our partners’ attempts to unbalance us, on using the attacking energy rather than opposing it. Brute force pushing and pulling is generally discouraged and avoided but on occasions a practice partner will try it deliberately as a surprise tactic or as a training method when it becomes a valuable learning opportunity for the receiving partner. After all, that form of unexpected, unrefined attack is what is most likely to occur in real-life self-defence situations.
Aikido techniques, typically ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo and kotegaeshi, are allowed but when attempted are expected to be applied carefully to avoid injury.
Finally, no allowance is made for seniority between players, everyone trying their best to win. This is a deliberate policy so that even senior instructors, to whom students normally defer from politeness and respect during standard aikido classes, are given the opportunity to control their egos (assuming this is needed) if they succumb to junior partners, as well as to provide an equal opportunity to progress.
To augment our aikido practice the principles that we try to incorporate in our Push Hands practice are as follows:
• Relaxation, of both body and mind. We try to avoid tensing our bodies when ‘attacked’ by our Push Hands partner. Unnecessary tension provides an opportunity for our partners to unbalance us. We emphasise the importance of recognising physical tension in our partner and of taking advantage of it. Instead of tensing our body to resist a push we try to use it to unbalance our partner, just as we do in aikido when we utilise the attacking energy to neutralise the attack. At the same time we are vigilant of our own physical tension, recognising that it provides the opportunity for our partners to unbalance us. This release of tension is not the same as being limp. It is a state in which the body, though soft and relaxed, does not collapse under pressure. Rather, the greater the pressure applied to it, the firmer it becomes, just as a bale of cotton becomes firmer and more substantial the more it is compressed. We do not receive pushing energy passively; we offer a protective, soft resistance that encourages our partners to overextend themselves and expose posture weaknesses.
We aim to achieve the equivalent state of mind, that is calmness but yet the ability to respond instantly to unbalancing attempts. This is the state known as mushin , or ’empty mind’, in Japanese. We generally do not form a plan of attack but instead respond to stimuli provided by our partners. This response, with prolonged practice, becomes instinctive; one no longer has to decide what action to take – the appropriate action occurs without conscious thought. This, of course, is one of the aims of all martial arts training.
• Investing in loss. Importance is placed on learning from defeat rather than on winning all the time. In the words of the late Tai Chi Chuan master, Cheng Man-ch’ing, we try to ‘invest in loss’. The practice is still of course competitive to some degree, but we regard winning as of secondary importance to learning how to deal with attacking intent. We do not deliberately lose but sometimes we deliberately leave openings for our partners to try to benefit from. If one’s partner is able to capitalise on these openings, we study how they have done so and learn how to deal with it. And if your partner is bigger and stronger and uses his superior strength repeatedly to defeat you, this is also used as a learning opportunity. You will gradually learn how to deal with this form of attack. Your bigger opponent, however, will learn very little until he realises that superior strength and brute force do not always ensure victory.
• Responding without thought. The decisive moment for a conflict is the instant of contact, and the victor is the one who can most correctly and quickly sense the intent of the other. In terms of our Push Hands practice, being sensitive to the physical and mental state of one’s partner is of primary importance, and the instant of first contact with one’s partner should provoke an appropriate response which, if the partner is not careful, will instantly cause his defeat. For example, if when you first establish hand to hand contact with your partner he is unconsciously pushing your arm to one side, you have the potential to use that misdirected muscular tension to unbalance him. But you need to be relaxed, sensitive and respond without conscious thought to be able to do this, otherwise you might also meet that tension with your own and gain no advantage, or even suffer defeat if your partner is more skilled than you.
• Moving from the centre. In aikido the hara, or ‘centre’, which is situated a little below the navel, is regarded as the source of energy from which defensive responses are generated. One trains to be grounded, or centred. Once focus rises to the upper body, stability suffers. Keeping the awareness in the lower body engenders stability and physical and mental relaxation. In our Push Hands practice we try to attain this stable state throughout, shifting weight forwards and backwards rather than pushing and pulling using upper body strength.
• Henka waza. In aikido this is changing a technique in progress in response to a partner’s resistive action. In our Push Hands practice we do not force an attempted push or pull when it is resisted but use the resistance to redirect the attack. Again this requires acute sensitivity and accurate timing but it develops quite naturally with correctly directed practice. By ’correctly directed practice’ I mean learning to recognise when a push or pull is failing and not trying to force a win but instead redirect the resistance being offered.
• Unbendable arms. The state of the arms and shoulders are important in aikido. We try to maintain a state in which the arms, though relaxed and soft, still do not collapse under pressure, and the shoulder joints are open and also prevented from collapsing . The arms assume a slightly convex shape which also extends to the wrists and fingers. This shape is maintained wherever possible throughout Push Hands exercises. The arms are allowed to bend a little at the elbows but not to collapse or be pinned to the body. A partner’s push is received by transferring the body weight backwards while maintaining a level of protection with unbendable arms.
Push Hands training really does sharpen reflexes and improve sensitivity to unbalancing opportunities. It is also a very good way to improve relaxation, balance, posture and mental composure. Even just as importantly perhaps, it is also great fun