“Static Hands” Push Hands for Beginners

August 6, 2016

Here are three types of push hands exercises that are designed to get people to use their hip joints and encourage free play.  They are all forms of what I now call “static hands” drills in that the hands/arms maintain the same contact point with the other person.  Keeping these fixed hands positions intentionally limits any sort of parrying motions of the arms, and is a good indicator of/way to develop functional structure and root.

The first is a form of single hand push hands minus any major intent to push the other person back.  The focus should be to roll around the person’s incoming force and get into a better position while staying grounded.   Basically, we’re just practicing ward off/peng energy here.

The second is a static hands drill designed to teach people how to push someone out of their stance in response to pushes they received.  For this drill to work it is important not to be too light with the hands or disconnect them at any time.  We’re not practicing parrying here but learning to move the body while staying structured and rooted.   This drill in particular seems to give people a good foundation for free play rather quickly.  In fact, I’ve shown this drill to people who have had years of competitive push hands experience, and it was clear they could use this drill to improve as they had trouble with other less experiences than they were.  There is little room for error.  You can’t save yourself by using some flailing arm motion.  You either have structure or you get pushed back.

The third static hands drill is an expansion of the second, using the starting hand position used in competition matches.  Because the shoulder joint is freed up a little bit more, a couple more techniques can be used, e.g. rollback and elbow.

These drills are simple enough, I hope, for people who don’t have access to a teacher to try on their own.  They can get the idea of what it’s like to play in Taijiquan, and build some foundation skills that would allow them to hold their own against people in many push hands meetup groups.  They’re also nice to use when people from different schools used to different rules sets of free play want to find an easy way to practice together and not have to argue about rule sets.  No teacher?  No excuse.  No Taoist philosophy?  No problem.  Grab a buddy and play!



Naturalistic Tai Chi

July 26, 2016

A naturalist error is one in which we fail to make a distinction between something that is factual or concrete knowledge and something which is a prescription for action or what ought to be done; also known as the is/ought fallacy. Ex. Just because drinking alcohol *is* helpful in preventing some medical problems, doesn’t mean we all *ought* to be drinking.   If it feels good, should we always do it?   Not necessarily.  Through scientific study, we learn about the world and much about our bodies function and structure.  But how we are to use that knowledge in our Tai Chi is quite a separate matter.

This problem is represented by two separate fields of exercise science: biomechanics and motor control.   In biomechanics, we learn about muscle anatomy and equations for determining the velocity, force, torque, etc of bodily movement.  Much of this research is done by video analysis, or things we can see externally.  Motor control, on the other hand, is concerned with what we think about, focus on, or are told to do in order to produce movement.  It focuses more on the internal world.  Or to sum up:  Biomechanics describes what movement is while motor control is concerned with how movement is produced by humans.

Things get more interesting when we start talking about the mind, or the cognitive neuroscience of movement. When we “think” about movement the part of the brain most utilized is the thinking part of the brain or the cortex, more specifically, the motor cortex and some nearby regions. As movements become more skilled and require less conscious control, sub-cortical regions of the brain like the cerebellum take over.  This unconscious control center, which is responsible for refined movement, contains half the neurons in the entire brain, demonstrating how the brain’s structure prioritizes the importance of movements which are not consciously controlled.

Specifically thinking about a movement, according to the brain’s structure, means that we are engaging in a movement which is less skilled or not even a skill at all.  Thus in Tai Chi practice, if we are thinking about which muscles to use when or about the various angles of our joints while moving, we have not yet refined those movements enough so that they can be taken over by the cerebellum, i.e. unconsciously controlled  This is perfectly normal in the beginning when learning a new skill, but as we advance we must practice letting go of excessive “biomechanical” thoughts, so that we can develop smoother more efficient movements.

Learning biomechanics or anatomy is not necessary for learning or even teaching Tai Chi.  Thinking about movement is different from the physics of the movement that occurs.   It actually may do more harm than good. In motor learning research studies, it’s been shown that when students are told to focus their minds externally, that is focus on the effects their correct movement is supposed to have rather than focusing internally or on the feeling of certain muscles being used, joint angles etc, those focusing externally have the advantage in learning the new movement.  Teachers often make the mistake of telling students that a movement should “feel” a certain way or that this muscle should be used, but this is not how people learn new movements efficiently.  Thinking externally by being told things like “punch toward his gut” initiates a lot of automatic control processes in the brain that naturally coordinate many of the desired muscle actions.  Once that basic movement has been ingrained in the mind then the student can gradually devote more cognitive resources to refining certain aspects of the movement and improve how it feels.

In the internal martial arts, many instructors have experience with traditional Chinese medical terms like Qi and have little anatomical knowledge.  Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, yet if taught right away, it could cause students some learning difficulties due to the inefficiency of internal visualization.  Saying things like “train your Qi” also has very limited benefits for teaching people how to develop practice methods that are specific to them.  “Qi” is a representation of how we feel performing certain movements.  How anyone feels during movement is very subjective, and telling people that they should feel a certain way may not help them move any better at all.  This is where some might start talking about biomechanics instead, thinking that the more accurate depictions of movement will help people move better.   However, attempting this would mean bumping into the classic degrees of freedom problem in motor learning studies, namely that there are so many possible configurations of the various joint angles of the entire body that we must somehow choose from a mathematically infinite number of movement possibilities — far too much for our conscience minds to handle at the speed needed for athletic activities.

So what are some good visualization techniques?  As noted above, the best ones are those that have some depiction of the motion that is outside the body.  For example, when working on the stability of various fixed postures, try imagining being able to support pressure from several different directions.  The imagery can be aided by having someone push on you from different angles. Imagining outside forces prevents the mind from focusing too much on particular aspect of the movement or specific muscle groups and naturally unifies the body.

Thinking of the martial art applications is often a useful way to get people to learn new movements quickly.  Some Tai Chi practitioners are resistant to this idea because they feel that thinking of direct applications with lose sight of Tai Chi’s emphasis on relaxation.   In the beginning this will be true; however, no movements can be very relaxed when they are first being learned.  I argue that it is better to first teach the move in the most efficient way possible so that greater relaxation can begin to occur even sooner than if we focused on relaxation right from the beginning.

Some martial art applications are too complicated for the beginner to usefully visualize in the early stages of learning; this is especially true of the internal styles of Kung Fu.  For those I would suggest other less complex imagery to aid in learning such as drawing lines in the air with the hands/feet or moving imaginary objects around.  These visualizations are simply a means to an end, and can be discarded once the basic movement becomes more automatic.

To sum up,  what we actually think about to produce movement in the martial arts doesn’t matter in the least, as long as it helps us move the way we want to, whether it be qi energy flowing from your dantian or equally imaginary arcs, angles, and line segments in the air. After all, the goal for martial artists should be to not have to think about their own movements at all, but to devote those precious cognitive resources to discerning the movements of the opponent.

Taijiquan and the Role of Government

October 20, 2015

Someone recently asked me about my political views, and indicated to me they were often hard to pin down. That’s probably because I believe in working toward a society which uses violence or the threat of force as little as possible to allow people to live together in harmony. In other words, I think government should do as little as possible. Most people, however, are much more accustomed to the idea of the government doing things that they want, even if other people in the same society don’t agree with that decision.

Taijiquan has a similar problem. We call it a martial art, yet we want to defend ourselves using as little aggression and injurious techniques as possible. Whereas most people think practicing martial arts, means learning to defeat other people precisely by learning techniques that can cause great injury and require an aggressive mindset, Taijiquan seeks a calm mind so as to learn to read and respond to the aggressive intent of others.

People that believe in having more freedom in society, don’t necessarily want chaos, as that could lead to less overall freedom. Likewise in Taijiquan, we are not advocating pacifism, as that would not be a martial art and could allow others to bully you. In both cases we want to use only the precise amount of power necessary to get the job done. Neither idea represents dogmatic extremism, merely thoughtful, sober efficiency.

CMC Full Form Video

September 12, 2014

Senior Center Classes (Please register ASAP)

May 30, 2013


Classes begin next week on Tuesday & Thursday 6-7pm. Go here to register:

Spring 2013 Experimental College Classes

April 7, 2013

Lots of great, new classes are being offered this quarter!

Here is the schedule:

Chen Style Taijiquan: Tuesday 9:00-10:15am & Saturday 8:45-10:00am

Beginning Taijiqan: Sunday 9:00-10:00am

Xingyi Level 1: Friday 7:30-8:30pm

Xingyi Level 2: Saturday 5-6pm

Baguazhang Level 1: Friday 8:30-9:30pm

Baguazhang Level 2: Saturday 6-7pm

Kung Fu Basics:  Wednesday 5:30-6:45pm (Free to students of all other classes)

For those that like spreadsheets:

Day/Time Mon. Tues. Wed. Thurs. Fri. Sat. Sun.
9:00 AM    Chen   Tai Chi  Chen   Tai Chi Tai Chi  beg.
10:00 AM
5:00 PM   Kung Fu Basics 5:30- 6:45pm Xingyi 2
6:00 PM Bagua 2
7:30 PM Xingyi 1
8:30 PM Bagua 2

For more registration information and course descriptions please see the experimental college website: http://ecollege.ucdavis.edu/courses/catalog?term=__None&group=130&instructor=100306&number=&name=

Please note that the online registration process is not always functional.  Please come to a class first if you are unable to register and we can help you.

For any questions you may contact Daniel Pfister at 530 574-3684 or e-mail daniel_pfister@msn.com

Instructor Shot

Traditional Yang Style practice with UCD Tai Chi Club

February 12, 2013


Photos from the Experimental College

February 5, 2013

BGDaoLow Picture of me with my big Bagua broadsword.  More can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151244101850986.452753.126539245985&type=1

New Classes at Experimental College in Davis, CA

January 3, 2013
Tai Chi, XingYi, and Bagua classes are now listed on the Experimental College’s website:


Please spread the word!

Push Hands 101: The Single Hand Method

December 14, 2012

One cannot learn push hands from a blog post.  Consider these just a few reminders for when practicing without the aid of a teacher.


Begin by bowing to your partner a few steps away from them.  Then take one step to close the distance and a second step to get into the position.  The front foot should be parallel to your partner’s, a few inches away, and with the toes at least as far as their heal.  The forearms will touch in a peng (ward off) position, but as soon as contact is made movement should commence as the slight touch of your partner should give a signal as to how you should respond.


Most of the weight of the body should be kept on the back leg for the duration of the exercise, but be careful not to push back with the front leg as this may loosen ones connection to the ground.  Turn the body via the kua (hip joints) without excessive movement of the hips or knees and rotate as if your back leg were a swiveling stool with the upper body resting upon it.

Arms Relaxed

As your partner pushes forward on your elbow joint respond by simultaneously sitting into the front kua, bending the elbow, and turning the hand palm up to ward off your partner’s movement.  Although these moves happen at the same time, we must think that the movement is driven by the bending of the hip joint while the elbow and hand are merely following along.  This prevents the movements of the arm, which is in contact with your partner, from becoming discernible or telegraphed. As soon as you’ve moved your partner’s arm off your center, begin to turn the palm face down again and open the the front kua.  As you follow your partner’s elbow back and rotate the forearm make sure not to raise the elbow too high or lift the shoulder.

Body Upright

Keep the body and head upright at all times during the exercise.  There should be no need to bend forward or back, just rotate horizontally out of the way of your partner’s push.  When you are pushing, don’t lean in to try to push strongly as this could easily result in being thrown off balance.  Stay upright, and be aware of how your partner moves to avoid your subtle push.


After several turns your back leg may start to burn and shake from carrying the weight of the body in movement.  This is good.  Do not immediately come out of your stance when you feel this; rather, try to relax through the burning and notice how your leg wants to straighten itself out to escape it.  Learn to master the body by not giving in to the first presence of discomfort.  Stay focused on your partner, and do not allow the creeping tension in the leg to hinder your responses to his movements.