A common question from beginners and non-practitioners especially who are interested to start studying T’ai Chi Ch’uan, is about when they can start to learn push hands.
There is a common view that form should be practiced first and push hands later. Many teachers, even some established and well known, will teach form and basic exercises for the first one or two years, and then go on to start teaching push hands. Applications and combat practice will be initiated even later.
Some people say that you need to practice form first to be able to understand push hands. I don’t agree with this conception. Form practice is not a prerequisite for push hands. In my opinion, the truth is quite the opposite around. Push hands is a tool for learning how to practice the form correctly, especially in terms of balance, alignment and intent. Form should be taught together with, and alongside, push hands and applications. Otherwise your form practice will be just as good as walking around with an empty bag. Later you’ll probably need to re-learn how to do your form… if you haven’t already cemented a false appreciation of the form and still are able to change it…
But practicing push hands, and applications especially, early when you have started to train, doesn’t mean that you should do it in a purely ”technical” or ”external” manner, as you commonly see in Karate or Jujutsu. No, on the contrary, you should do this using tai chi principles and practice this to learn and understand Tai Chi principles. My own teachers paid a great attention to details right from the beginning. When we did simple applications and “leading & following” exercises, my first teacher would show me how to stand correctly, how to relax properly, how to sink into the stance and how to use my waist. He would to tell me how to breath correctly or not to hold my breath. And he would constantly repeat “relax, relax, relax”. Tai Chi principles were taught and drilled right from the start, practically. The first thing my first Tai Chi teacher did on my very first class was not about showing a form or any kind of solo exercises. No, instead he taught some simple evasion and guiding exercises, as well as balancing and unbalancing. These few exercises set the course for the whole progress in my Tai Chi practice. For the years to come, form, push hands and applications were always fully integrated. I learned balance, rooting & structure more from the latter two parts of the practice and I would continue to study what I’ve been taught in class when I practiced form home alone.
In my own opinion, this is the correct way to teach form, push hands and applications. For push hands, I believe that the basic simple drill also could be taught from the start. But the progress from drills to free push hands exercises should be achieved by a gradual process. In my own opinion, free push hands is always better as a semi-cooperative game where you help each other solve problems and come up with solutions. Free combat practice and sparring should is in my opinion better learned from other formats of practice.