Push Hands in Schools – Why Not?

Push hands has become the forgotten side of tai chi.  Push hands is not only great as an independent activity for anyone, but it has generally been assumed to be strictly an adult activity. The idea of promoting it to children has not been adequately explored.

The benefits of push hands for children’s health and development is worth looking into. One of the less considered benefits is the social aspect of push hands.  Not in the sense of chatting about nonsense while practicing, but in the sense that you work with another person on new movements. You can investigate how a technique works and how to do them well.

Adding push hands to schools’ physical education programs would be both very easy, very innovative, very beneficial to the students and cost effective. It is easy because all a school would need to do is hire an outside expert to come in and teach.  It’s innovative because it opens children up to very new ideas regarding physical movement and art forms. It is cost effective because it does not require any equipment.

Push hands for children gives children many unique developmental opportunities. The foundation of push hands is maintaining continuous contact with a partner. I do not know of many exercises where children learn such “sticking” skills, as it is called in tai chi. Rooting is another foundational tai chi skill which does not seem to come about in many other physical activities. In push hands one learns how to keep their balance in a fixed stance while shifting weight and moving the upper body in various ways. This is actually a difficult first step in push hands, and many students will find that they can easily lose their balance.

Tai Chi and Peripheral Vision

Tai Chi places considerable emphasis on the use of vision while practicing. In the form, nearly each movement has a lead arm, and the lead arm is the one to watch. Because many of the movements of the form make use of the turning of the waist, this means that when we watch the lead hand, our head will also be turning in order to follow the moving of the hand. Watching the lead hand in this way also helps with the waist turning in itself.

Watching the lead hand however is only half of the story, there is also the other hand. As Master Wong would often specify, keep the other hand in the peripheral vision. In other words, by watching the lead hand, it does not mean we can loose track of the other hand. This is an easy fault to make simply because of the use of the language itself, if we ask our students, or our selves, to watch the lead hand, the statement itself will incline us to pay no attention to the other hand. I think that probably arises in particular from the word “watch.” The concept of watching does not include any idea of the peripheral vision.

In tai chi, then, we can not say, strictly speaking, that we are “watching” the lead hand because we are still also watching the peripheral vision. This is one of the subtle and interesting points of tai chi practice: tai chi is designed to train awareness of the peripheral vision: we are to learn the boundary of our peripheral vision, and be able to follow the movement happening in that sphere of vision. I do not know many arts or exercises that make use of peripheral vision.