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“Stick, Follow, Lead, Don’t run! A look at Sticking and primary skills in Tai Chi Chuan”

Many skills can be developed through proper Tai Chi practice. It all starts with relaxation which will lead to sticking, indentifying, neutralizing and issuing. Whether you are a seasoned practitioner or new to Tai Chi I will assume that you are aware of the importance of relaxation. So here I will write about sticking.

            When we think of Sticking we think mostly of hands or forearm bridging. In Wing Chun practitioners use “Sticky Hands” to sense an opponent’s energy, intent and direction of force to redirect, trap, neutralize and counterattack. In Tai Chi we use sticking in similar methods and to lead an opponent’s force to emptiness or to transform their energy to suit our purpose. Certainly other forms of Martial Arts use Sticking in one way or another and at various levels of skill. Sticking may not be as important depending on the particular art and their focus. The level of sticking will be directly related to the level of relaxation or Sung. We must learn to stick without putting out too much energy of our own, just enough to connect and remain present, the touch must not be too heavy or too light. In Tai Chi Sticking leads to listening or Ting Jin (Listening Energy). Only by learning to listen with the skin and body can we identify the type of energy coming in and deal with it accordingly. After much practice this will become instinctive. The sticking in Tai Chi can be done with any part of the body, not just the hands.

            To illustrate this I would like to share my experience with Push Hands.  Although I certainly have a lifetime to go with my training, I have noticed and worked through different levels of skill. Coming from a background of training in Karate as a youth and later doing Shaolin Kung Fu I would say that my take on the Martial Arts was from a hard stylists’ perspective. Meaning that I believed strength and speed were imperative to be considered good. Blocks, strikes, takedowns were performed with me always generating the necessary power to administer the technique.  I respect all martial arts and am certainly not declaring one to be better than the other I am speaking from my experience. Always trying to overpower an opponent can not only be tiring but is not the most efficient manner of dealing with a situation. To learn to use the opponent’s energy or borrow his force, now that would be ideal.

 Several years ago my interest peaked in Tai Chi Chuan and it led me to train with Sifu Carl DeChiara when he was in Cleveland and Master Tony Wong in San Francisco.  They were both students of the now deceased Grandmaster Chen Qingzhou . Although my time with Sifu Carl was brief I was impressed at his ability to neutralize my hardest push. It would go off in all directions around his body no matter how hard I pushed and no matter from which direction, after which I would go flying off into the well placed mat behind me. I was also impressed with Tony who could “swallow” my push and remain immobile no matter how hard I tried to move him. Yet to watch him do his form he was almost floating on air but you could see that his movements were substantial. Like most teachers they started me out with single hand push. We would connect in Ward Off and “push” in a horizontal circle. The idea is to sense your opponents push and using the Dan Tien and legs move with the force and redirect it using Lu Jin or Rollback Energy. The arms will merely be an extension of your center. Then you would return the “push” and your partner would neutralize leading your force to emptiness. Here is where the sticking begins. As a beginner it is sometimes hard to relax to the necessary degree of becoming sensitive, being too forceful without knowing. When you are too forceful it will be obvious, your arm will soon tire itself out and you will probably see the many ways in which your teacher can use your force against you. I soon learned that strength was not the answer. There is also another error that can be made as a beginner and that is not being present or actually being too soft, in this you will not be able to sense your partner’s energy. Pulling is also an error, instead of feeling your opponent at every moment some people begin to predict their movements and get ahead of their opponents energy or even start to pull them in. These examples will not build the sensitivity we are looking for because they do not possess the true quality of Sticking. When you stick to your opponent the place where you connect should feel full and the rest of the arm empty of muscular force. There should be Peng Jin but not an overpowering feeling of tension. Once we have this feeling we should not become involved with mindless repetition as we do push hands and drills but rather feeling what our partner is doing at every single moment.

As I began to understand Push hands a little bit more I could stick to the arms nicely and sensitivity began to grow. I could feel a connection forming between my Dan Tien and my limbs. When an incoming force came in I would neutralize it by letting the point of contact and the rotation of Dan Tien be as one, thus following the energy and then leading it away. If the opponent’s arms were tense I would then use Peng to uproot them through the point of contact, without having to move the arms away or push at the body. It seemed I was gaining a little understanding. However among some of the missing elements in my training was an ability to stick and neutralize with the body. Whenever someone’s hand made it past my arm’s defenses I would wiggle and shift to avoid their touch or quickly bring my hand back around to deflect theirs. After clearing their hand away from my body I could then relax and go back to Tai Chi Principles.  I began travelling and going to different Push Hand events and competitions as well as continuing to Study with Master Wong whenever possible. Grandmaster Chen’s son Chen Youze would also come to the U.S. every year and I would go to his push hands workshops. Years later I began training with Sifu Lester Holmes in Ft. Lauderdale. What I began to notice was the higher level practitioners did not mind if you penetrated their arm defense or Ward Off, the whole body was Ward Off. They did not run from the energy but invited it in. How else to feel it so as to redirect or shape it to fit your own means? So I realized I had been running from the energy. Sure I could root ok and redirect here and there but when it came down to it I was running from bodily contact and thus not sticking. So I began to let people touch me however they wanted to and seeing if I could neutralize internally. Finally I understood the term “investing in loss”. I thought I understood before but now it had a deeper meaning. I began to let my opponent’s push become solid against my skin even giving away my center then seeing if I could change the direction, lead it to the ground or emptiness without using my hands.  This of course creates a whole new path of trial and error, new body mechanics and a whole new mind state. I began to not only let the push come in but welcome it and I realized I was sticking using the body. What started out as very big circles with the body and waist turns to neutralize became smaller and smaller. The bigger faster movements are easy to follow and will lead to being uprooted eventually. I found a subtle shift or Dan Tien rotation can completely dispel force and lead it away. Also the point at which I stick can be used to send energy back along the path straight into my opponent with a simple Fa Jin generated from the body without the use of arms. What a wondrous find!

Zhan Zhang known as Standing Meditation is crucial in the development of Tai Chi Skill and there are many sources of information on it. I highly recommend that you add Zhan Zhang to your practice if it is not already a part of it. It is not only crucial to the development of skill but has many health benefits as well.  However I must add that Silk Reeling exercises and Mother Forms will allow you to isolate different body parts into the smaller refined movements. The Silk Reeling exercises I learned from Master Wong loosen each joint of the body using rotations generated from the ground and out through the extremities. While one joint is being exercised the whole body is unified in movement as well.  The Mother Forms as taught by Sifu Lester Holmes, have the same effect. They also teach properties like expanding and contracting, rising and sinking, opening and closing, spiraling and coiling. Of course the Tai Chi forms should teach these properties as well but doing the Silk Reeling and or Mother Forms will add to the quality and depth of movement. The greater the quality of movement the more internal it can become. The more internal the movement the more we can transform and or neutralize a force once we have joined with it with minimal effort.

There are many levels to the skills that can be gained and no doubt some who read this will smile and remember when they were at this level. I am hoping that those who have not yet experienced this type of phenomenon will gain some insight as to the path necessary to acquire this skill.  It is always through hard work, determination and trial and error. I will emphasize it is mostly through feeling. Push with as many people as possible, let them touch you however they wish. You have to feel the different types of energy and you can’t do that if you are always avoiding them. Internalize the push, feel what happens as you are getting pushed, invest in loss. If you are getting pushed out do not tense up or fight it let your mind process what is happened so you can make adjustments to avoid it next time.

In one of the translations of the Tai Chi Classics, “Taiji boxing according to Chen Yanlin” The skill of sticking is stated as such: “Sticking is the energy of not coming away, of staying forward. It is the most important fundamental energy in Taiji Boxing and is developed through pushing hands. In the beginning of the training, your hands will not comprehend anything of what they are feeling and will seem like wooden sticks. Then sensitivity will gradually be generated in the skin of your hands, arms, chest, back, and finally your whole body. With sensitivity, you will begin to be able to stick. With sticking, you will begin to be able to lure the opponent under your control. “

Sticking is indeed used and developed in push hands as mentioned above. Sticking is also used to connect to and redirect strikes and other forms of attack. After we connect to an incoming force and sensing its’ direction we join with it and lead it to our desired outcome or destination. . The following are examples of exercises that can be used to develop sticking and following.  Remember, we follow to lead.

  1. Stand in Wuji or Bow Stance Facing a partner (pic 1A). Have your partner punch toward your chest with medium speed and pressure. Assume a Ward Off posture to attach to the incoming blow with wrist or forearm without pushing it away or collapsing (2A). Your arm should be relaxed, place your intention on the point of contact. See if you can feel the direction of their force.  Relax the arm to start position and repeat. Your partner should feel that you are sticking to his arm without tension. Switch with your partner and punch toward them and see how they feel while trying to stick to you. Make sure to give each other feedback.

  2. Once you have the feel of the first exercise face your partner and this time holding your Ward Off in front have your partner place a hand on your forearm (2A). Relax into their touch feeling their energy. Is it going to the left? Is it going up or down? Is it heavy and full of incoming pressure or barely there at all? Is it relaxed or tense? Now have your partner randomly push in toward you  but a bit off your centerline either right or left. Start off slowly so you can sense which direction they are going. If their energy is going to the right neutralize by rotating the Dan Tian to the right and letting the arm follow that motion (2B). In other words the Dan Tian and the arm connect and move as one. Do not neutralize using the arm alone. Once the direction of your partner’s energy has passed outside the range of your body return to the starting position without disconnecting stay in contact the whole time. Then your partner should push in again randomly to either side and without a specific rhythm so you are always listening and using Ting Jin. Again switch roles with your partner and as you push in continue to use your listening skills. Listen for connectivity and whole body movement as your partner neutralizes. The person neutralizing can try doing this with the eyes closed as well.

  3. Once you have the feel for the last exercise. Combine number one and number two. Starting off very slowly facing each other arms down (3A). Have your partner punch in while you connect with a Ward Off.  Have them continue to follow trough with the punch as you listen to the direction of the energy and rotate the Dan Tian in the proper direction to neutralize, again, the arm doing the Ward Off will be an extension of your center as you turn (3B). Do not use muscular force or separate the arm from the waist. The Tai Chi Classics state “…When one part moves the whole moves…”  Do this until you are comfortable with both sides. From here you can see how Ward Off leads into Rollback and your drill can advance the next step into Warding Off to Rolling Back.

  4. Sticking and neutralizing without the arms. Standing in Wuji or Bow Stance. Have your partner place a hand upon the chest or shoulder. Take in their energy and join with the touch without leaning on it or cringing from it (4A). Have them push slowly but with the intent of pushing through you or pushing you over. Rotate or move only the necessary amount or body part to neutralize (4B). At first you will want to make big movements which is a process you must go through. After some time smaller movements will prove more efficient.  Once you can relax and neutralize off center pushes mix it up and have them push directly against your centerline. After you make the necessary changes within to neutralize encourage them to follow your center. See how long you can continue to make changes as they try to push you out in a slow controlled manner. When you find a position or situation that uproots you have them push in the same manner and direction until you learn what to do to avoid it. As always give each other feedback and continue to challenge each other as you get better and better. Maybe increase the speed a bit or intensity of the push but do not rush to do so. It is best to go slow and steady to get a feeling for the incoming force

These exercises may seem a bit dry at first and not as flashy as some other styles of Martial Arts. However these skills are essential building blocks to much higher levels. As you develop the sticking and listening skills and realize you are making gains the drills can become quite fun. Tai Chi skill is developed over time and there is hard work involved to achieve any degree of success. By daily practice we slowly climb the ladder of skill until one day we looked down and see just how far we have come.

                                                                         1A

                                                                          1B

                                                                         2A

                                                                         2B

                                                                         3A

                                                                         3B

                                                                         4A

                                                                        4B

          Photos 1A through 3A – Jim DiFranco on the left Chime Ogbuji on the right

                                          4A-4B CHris Burnett on the right

To view video of Principles in article Click link or copy and paste:

Chris“Stick, Follow, Lead, Don’t run! A look at Sticking and primary skills in Tai Chi Chuan”

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