Freestyle pushing hands
My First post to this group.
Regarding pushing hands, depends if your just training the sensitivity drills with a compliant partner or free style against a non-compliant partner.
Free style pushing hands can be static/ moving with kicks/strikes to the body,joint/head locks to tap out and throws/sweeps. With or without protective gear.
Freestyle practice is a way of combining all the pushing hand set drills with the form applications and other theories/tactics in a continuous and connected way. Nothing is wrong so it becomes spontaneous-techniques either work or they don't.
But its not comp sparring-that uses a different set of skills. Its a way to 'safely' practice the skills(listening,diverting,following and discharging)under pressure so you can use them in a real situation.Not for points or medals.
Far too many times to count i have seen pushing hands and free pushing with no martial intent or focus,centerline open, just the use of the arms rather than the whole body movng as one unit and a mr. Burns (simpsons)style of pushing-weak/creepy. Or my own favourite- empty force techniques.
Not only in the UK but in China/ Hong Kong as well.
Generally the people that practice in this way are the first ones to poo poo any other TC styles that have a more rough tough attitude to their training. The most common reply is that these rough sorts are too hard, well thats fine if you can demonstrate your supereme softness in a pressure situation -very few can and most revert to using strength with no technique.
The pushing hands that we can all see on youtube etc show 'masters' and masters displaying the ideal refined public view of Tc. But in reality behind closed doors it should and will be a much more messy,sweaty and dirty affair.
"Mr. Burns Style" push hands.
I am not a fighter, but have competed in a "pushing hands tournament", as well as seen others. My thoughts:
The mindset is completely yang and focused on winning or scoring points. A key tennet of Tai Chi is to remain calm, centered, and relaxed so you can detect subtle changes in the unfolding present moment. This is not some philosophical point, it is a rewiring that is required of your mind and central nervous system. Other martial arts rely on speed, power, endurance and are fueled by "fight or flight" induced adrenaline. This animal approach to fighting has advantages, but also many disadvantages including: loss of fine motor skills, tunnel vision, lack of mental creativity, enourmous energy expenditures, and loss of touch sensitivity.
To my understanding, we are trying to stay calm and centered in a wider and wider variety of circumstances - ultimately even when faced by an attacker intent on killing us. The reason that Tai Chi training is a layered progression (from gross to subtle movements, slow to fast speed, and structured to freeform exchanges) is so we do not revert to oppositional reactions along the way. Tai Chi has a tough and long incubation period, but can lead to better (and more sustainable) skills in the long-term.
Since most of us have to "unlearn" the yang mindset in order to learn Tai Chi, going prematurely into pushing hands competitions carries the risk of slipping back unless you can let go of your competitive orientation.
In my case, I lost every match. But I was not there to win. I have tasted victory as a very successful collegiate sabre fencer, and already know about domination though better conditioning, speed, power, and aggression. What I did learn in the tournament was the real extent of the neutralization skills that I have learned (not very good so far). I also got to face "extreme yang" without always triggering an automatic oppositional response. So it was good as a reality check, but probably not good as an ongoing adjuct to my training.
To your final point, I think it will remain a "messy,sweaty, and dirty affair" until our skills improve. My Wu Style master (Henry Cheng) can manipulate all of the stronger, faster, and bigger senior students completely at will. He does this consistently and efforlessly (without bracing or a noticeable increase in pressure at the point of counterattack) at real-time speeds. It is also pretty clear that he is only showing you a fraction of his real abilities. I do not think that there is some magic power to all of this. It is simply physics, awareness, and consistent and correct training. I hope to get there myself someday.