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A common tai chi pedagogy is to progress from forms to push hands (tui shou) to free sparring (san shou). As Ayron Howey says:

[You] cannot simply practice Tai Chi forms without other training in push-hands and other physical applications and call yourself a martial artist.

So:

At first students work basic patterns, then patterns with moving steps coordinated in different directions, patterns at differing heights (high, middle, low and combinations) and then finally different styles of "freestyle" push hands, which lead into sparring that combines closing and distancing strategies with long, medium and short range techniques.

(from Wikipedia's Pushing Hands article)

Most Yang taiji systems will have you do push hands for quite a while before you do sanshou.

(from the YMAA forums)

Assuming that tai chi is a fighting art, and assuming that one is primarily training tai chi in order to gain martial skill, and assuming that one is studying at a school that believes similarly and is primarily teaching martial applications by fighting...

What are the primary considerations as one progresses from the grappling-only practice of push-hands into the striking-and-grappling practice of free sparring?

The principles of the art should of course remain constant, but what common pitfalls should be avoided? What modifications to technique are helpful as one makes this transition to include punching and kicking?

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A similar progression from fixed-step tuishou to sanshou as similar to free fighting as possible is shown in this Yiquan video. This Bullshido thread has other videos and discusses the reasoning and history behind the rulesets. –  Dave Liepmann Aug 7 '13 at 16:22

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I would argue that there is no such progression.

While push-hands may look like a "slowed down" version of sanshou, it is an entirely different exercise on its own.

The only way to progress to sanshou is to start doing it.

Edit:

To elaborate, the practice of sanshou (or free form sparring if you like) is an integral (albeit rarely practiced) part of taijiquan as a martial system. It is ultimately, what all the other practices of the system are designed to support.

In order to progress to sanshou, the practitioner should have at least passing understanding of the core principles of taijiquan and have some experience in applying those principles. This is actually where push-hands comes into play.

You use push-hands practice, to teach how to apply core principles of taijiquan in a mildly uncooperative confrontational setting. It is not a hard prerequisite to sanshou however.

Below is my take on the progression to practicing sanshou.

Step 1: Single person drills

To start with sanshou, in addition to working on push-hands you should probably work on your fa jing (or releasing energy/power). In particular, learning to deliver your punches and kicks, first one at a time then in rapid successions - starting from a static stance and then adding stepping to the mix.

When feeling reasonably comfortable, try adding few more tricks to the game - first try adding some peng and lu for blocks and deflections and then slowly increase your arsenal.

Take care however not to get too fancy and complex. There is time and place for all the neat applications from the form, but this in not it. Most of the stuff you see in the form is rather advanced in the terms of practical applicability and usually works best if the relative difference in skills is heavily skewed in your favor.

At first I would not recommend to start off with hitting punching bags or dummies - learn to release fajing without using "external" (or muscular) force first and then use punching bags only for checking and improving the structural soundness of your punches and kicks. However, I've found that punching bags are useful for improving your punches, as they offer much needed focusing target and allow you to test the your fajing without fear of hurting anyone.

Step 2: Two person drills

You might want to start working on these at about the same time as you work on your single person drills. Maybe altering between two.

I would recommend starting out with relatively structured and well defined sets and slowly progressing to more free-form variants as your skill and confidence improves.

Probably the simplest thing to start with would be to try and apply lu and peng against a punch. Lu (or rollback) works the best against relatively straight punches and peng would work the best against hooks from outside.

Start out with one and first just learn the body mechanics of these techniques by starting out with low energy punches from one side, increasing the energy and speed of the punches as you progress.

Keep in mind that you are practicing taijiquan, not brawling, so work hard on applying proper body mechanics and core principles.

Remember the classics [1]:

The jing [intrinsic strength] should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers.

That means you should diligently work on using your entire body instead of only hands to deflect or block, which is the most common mistake.

As you get hand on the lu and peng, the one who feeds should start varying the right and left punches more often and varying the speed and adding occasional feigns to the mix, to make it more interesting and keep the duifang alert.

Also - at some point you should add stepping. First simple forward and backward half-stepping and then more complex sideways, diagonal and snake-stepping. The main thing is - you should keep your drills alive.

One good exercise at this point is a variant of "willow bends", where you essentially just let your duifang attack you with various punches and your only concern should be to avoid those punches (and/or kicks) by turning your waist and using stepping - keeping yourself "just in range".

Use your imagination, but keep it real. The one that feeds, needs to feed punches and kicks, not caricatures of punches and kicks. They need not be delivered with full force, but they have to target the specific points on duifang. If duifang fails to void or block, they must hit the target.

Step 3: Freeplay

While at some point the drill may look a lot like freeplay, the important distinction here is that in drills usually there is an asymmetry of initiative, that is designed into the drill.

The most important thing in freeplay (ie sanshou) is that both of the duifangs have equal freedom of initiative.

You may intentionally limit various aspects of freeplay for the purposes of training. Usually it means limiting the "energy level" or intensity of the play, but sometimes you may also agree to exclude some techniques or distances to make it easier to concentrate on specific areas of your skill set - for example only limiting yourself to punches so that you would not have to think of dealing with feet while you are still struggling to handling the punches. Or disallowing take-downs if the conditions in the practice area make it either dangerous or impractical.

Start out with low intensity (10% is good) and work yourself up as you progress.

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Excellent answer. This description of the relationship between the two practices, and the progression from general taiji practice to sanshou, is exactly what I was looking for. –  Dave Liepmann Jun 6 '12 at 13:27

This won't be a popular answer.

The goal of taijiquan (太極拳) push-hands isn't to push the other guy off-center. That's a side-effect of the real training.

The goal of taijiquan push-hands is maintaining no-mind even through disruption by outside agency. You are training for:

This is actually quite difficult (yet stupid-easy once you know the "trick"). One usually works up to this training, first by no-self during standing (zhang zhuang, 站樁), then no-self during walking (forms). It's assumed you know the body methods (shen fa, 身法) well enough that techniques will flow out naturally during push-hands. By this point, staying centered in no-self, no-mind is the most significant challenge. You learn to lose a lot.

Just as practicing no-mind during standing and walking prepare you for practicing no-mind during push-hands, the push-hands practice prepare you for practicing no-mind during sparring.

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1  
I agree with @DaveLiepmann. Sparring training's primary goal could be stated exactly as you stated for push-hands: to "maintain no-mind even through disruption by outside agency". –  Ben Richards May 16 '12 at 20:10
2  
Having done mostly external styles I have rarely achieved no-mind in sparring...but ah!...when it happens it is a beautiful thing. I have got to back into regular workouts soon. –  dmckee May 16 '12 at 21:10
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@DaveLiepmann Like I said in the first sentence of my answer, "This won't be a popular answer." –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao May 16 '12 at 21:21
2  
@Ho-ShengHsiao If those sparring are trying to win, then they aren't sparring properly. That is totally missing the purpose of sparring. –  Ben Richards May 16 '12 at 22:17
3  
@sidran32 I don't like describing ladders of attainment. "No technique" is the minimum required to practice "no mind", otherwise you would just be flailing. The "no mind" I am talking about is more of investigating this bit.ly/hardcore-dharma-three-characteristics during push-hands. –  Ho-Sheng Hsiao May 17 '12 at 0:05

1. Static Push Hands

The purpose is to teach you to let go with your hips and your back, to allow flow, yielding and redirecting of energy properly. In addition, of course, you are learning to apply every other Tai Chi concept. I've found that Roberto Sharpe's videos on Youtube are amazingly detailed. He explains things very well, and most importantly, he will frequently stop mid-motion in push hands to explain and to leave the student figure out the next thing they should do, which is extremely instructional. Here is an 8-minute video during which he says, most interestingly, "It's not a technique, it's an understanding". If you are very impatient, go straight to 7:40 and just watch the last minute.

2. Push Hands with stepping

Now you are learning to direct your energy and your intent, still applying every taichi principle and the lessons from static push hands.

3. Patterns

From there, all the high/mid/low patterns get applied, and while studying and practicing them, you apply every taichi principle and the lessons from static push hands and push hands with stepping.

4. Sparring

But Trevoke, I hear you say, you can't spar at push hands speed, that's just dumb! Ah-ha, I tell you, and what exactly do you think push hands is? When you get to freestyle full-speed sparring, all the lessons from all the above elements still get applied. Nothing gets changed. If you have to change it to spar with it, either your understanding is poor or the principle is poor.

Well, sparring is nothing if not a two-person cooperative exercise in, among other lessons, speed, distancing and rhythm. That's exactly what push hands is.

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Could you provide some detail on step 3, high/low patterns? –  Dave Liepmann May 17 '12 at 3:21
    
@DaveLiepmann Unfortunately, I cannot, lacking knowledge in this particular area. Since TaiChi has strikes that are high, middle and low, including kicks, I would expect these patterns to include the various strikes and each of the 'eight energies' of taichi, in various combinations. I did not add anything about it because this is all just conjecture for me right now. –  Trevoke May 17 '12 at 13:23
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Commplex patterns can include partner exercises like "split vertical circle" and one with a more complex chinese name that I can't recall, but essentially trades the active role in ward off/rollback/press/push. Good answer @trevoke –  Mark C. Wallace Oct 5 '12 at 19:19

Breaking up the form

According to Li Zheng, Fu Nei Pai Yang style tai chi, uses a 30-posture taiji sanshou set to bridge forms practice and free-sparring:

Many teachers split up the movements of the form in order to make it easier to teach. This is a teaching method which can make things easier for students, but actually applying these ‘split out’ components of the form in combat is very difficult, which is why our system has these 30 individual ‘moves’. In the old days, they used to be called dan cao shou. There are three variations to each move, and each move has a 4-sentence mnemonic to help students remember the move’s purpose and requirements. These sanshou moves are a bridge from taiji forms practice into combat.

These individual moves are used for drilling and even partner work:

Each ‘combo’ is a unit that can be practiced by itself. The...moves can also be combined at will.

This reinforces the use of forms as a mnemonic for straightforward, concrete combinations or counters.

More vigorous push-hands

Tim Cartmell, lineage holder in multiple Chinese martial arts and accomplished competitor, explains that his teachers used an intermediate step between semi-scripted or gentle tuishou and totally-free sanshou:

Both of my primary Yang style teachers advocated sparring. There were two basic formats. One method was a free method of "push hands" sparring that started at contact and allowed pushes, pulls, sweeps, throws and takedowns and chin na techniques. The other method was regular "sparring," starting from a distance with all of the above techniques allowed including blows (we kept head contact light).

My belief is it is virtually impossible to learn how to apply your techniques for real without non-cooperative sparring (no matter what style you practice).

This can also be seen as a more continuous gradient between a pure grappling drill and freeform combat, per this exponent of the art:

Taiji tui shou becomes taiji san shou by way of incorporating more and more techniques and footwork into tui shou until one is simply sparring using the body mechanics and techniques of taiji.

Elsewhere, he adds this warning:

The main difference — and, in my opinion, stumbling block to transferring skills — between tui shou and san shou is bridging. Taiji fighters...tend to go through a small crisis when they move from drills that start in contact to ones in which they must establish contact.

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Karel Koskuba, tai chi instructor and co-author of "Tai Chi for Every Body", describes the taiji syllabus as follows, leading to free sparring at the summit:

  1. Taijiquan forms practice
  2. Fa Li (Release of Power) learning how to 'release' power by using phasic muscles supported by postural muscles (learning how to produce Jin by combining Qi with physical strength)
  3. Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) at first fa-jin is omitted; later fa-jin is also used.
  4. Weapons training
  5. Shi Sheng (Testing of Voice) learning to augment power and integrate the center of the body in a more natural way using breathing musculature.
  6. Ji Ji Fa (Combat Practice) fixed and free sparring drills and sparring.

This puts weapons training and shi sheng, with which I am not familiar, as stepping stones from tuishou to sanshou.

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Excellent answer. –  Mark C. Wallace Oct 5 '12 at 19:11

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