The Way of Least Resistance
Push hands or "listening hands" - what it's all about.
Very recently I have been doing a lot of "push hands". What is "push hands"?
to start with, I prefer Chen Yun-Ching Shifu's term for it - "listening
hands". Other terms used include "sticky hands". This is a form of 2
person training (a form of limited sparring, if you will) that is found
in almost every traditional Chinese and Okinawan system of martial
Basically it involves setting up a rhythmical, cyclic sequence of
movements with a partner. This cycle can then be interrupted at certain
unpredictable moments with a technique - be it a push, a strike or a
joint lock (qin-na). Accordingly it serves as a platform for applying
techniques in a semi-free scenario; one where this a dynamic context
(ie. one that occurs in the context of continuous movement) but not one
that is totally unpredictable and chaotic. There is, instead, only one
moment of "chaos" - the point at which you or your partner chooses to
"break" the sequence with an unscripted movement. How you break that
sequence and how your partner responds to that sequence depends on what
Some schools have set movements - often quite elaborate - making up the sequence.
these movements take the form of "essence moves" that form the
foundation of deflections, parrys and even strikes. Examples can be
found in the taiji sequence "peng, liu, ji and an" and in the various
"chi sau" ("sticky hands") of wing chun (which feature deflections such
as fook sau, tan sau, lap sau, bong sau etc.). The concept in such
sequences is that while moving through it you are mapping neural
pathways important for learning the principles (and not necessarily the
actual techniques) that underlie traditional fighting methodologies.
Sometimes these drills are practised without any attempt to "break" the
flow; their practice is in itself a means to an end. Most schools will
however have some element of a "break".
In some schools there
isn't even a set sequence; instead practitioners will simply let their
arms remain in contact while flowing around each other until someone
makes an aggressive movement (ie. the "break" referred to above) - to
which the the other person will then have to respond. This is usually
called "freestyle" push hands or listening hands.
Some schools will do both scripted and freestyle listening hands.
this still leaves unanswered the following question: why do this form
of training? What function does listening hands have that cannot be
achieved through other forms of training, be it sparring (free or
The answer, as I've foreshadowed, lies in
sensitivity; "listening" to your opponent, learning how to "hear" every
change in his or her movement through contact and responding to that
change in a seamless, intuitive way.
In this regard I often see
various forms of listening hands (particularly Okinawan kakie) being
performed with tension (ie. muscular resistance or exertion). This
approach is, in my view, of limited value.