Alchemy of Pushing Hands

Oleg Tcherne

Singing Dragon Books [2009], 2004, ISBN: 978 1 84819 022 1

Oleg Tcherne isn’t very well known in the west, but in Russia he is an established populariser of Taijiquan and Daoist arts. This book brings together both his understanding of Daoist Alchemy and Tui Shou (pushing Hands) from his study of Taijiquan. Books focussing exclusively on push hands are a bit of a rarity and the fact that this book looks at push hands form the perspective of alchemical cultivation perhaps makes it unique.

The premise of the book is that pushing hands can be an independent practice in its own right, one that allows us to engage with and develop our own energy while working either solo or with a partner. The book suggests a methodical approach, building up from solo chan si jin exercises to push hands.

Tcherne’s position on push hands is that it is primarily a self-development exercise. Whether you are working on your own or with a partner it allows you to connect with the environment (or partner) and test yourself. Working with a partner provides a direct feedback loop to see whether your body structure is good and whether you have developed sensitivity (ting jin / listening energy).

In terms of Daoist Alchemy Tcherne posits that the word “shou” or “hand” has wider significance as a metaphor in Daoist arts where it is often associated with the shaping of energy and it is this insight that has led him to focus on push hands.

The book promises a methodical approach and begins with solo practice, exercises that aim to build a foundation of good physical structure. The first exercises of the book relate to the taiji ball. Again this makes this book a little bit unique. The taiji ball is quite a rare exercise, not often seen in either the west or China.

Over the last few years Chen Qingzhou has been working to popularise the taiji ball exercises and more recently Chen Xiao Xing’s son Chen Ziqiang has released a training video on the taiji ball. The ball used is relatively large and heavy (a bit like a ten pin bowling ball) and the exercises are mostly orientated to body conditioning. Like kettlebells the taiji ball will condition you to controlling both weight and momentum.

Although the section on the taiji ball is quite short, it is interesting and provides a good introduction to the subject. A little later in the book are a further series of taiji ball exercises to develop short energy, which are again, interesting and useful. For people who want to give the exercises a try I would recommend testing them with a medicine ball to see how you get on – that way you can try different weights and see which suits you (5kg is probably a reasonable weight to start with, for anyone in good condition as that is roughly the weight of an arm, if you are not in good condition start lighter and build up gradually).

The book then covers the basic details of posture (stand upright, tuck the coccyx, keep the chest empty, etc), principles like the liu he (six harmonies) and shi san shi (thirteen postures). It is around this stage that the book develops some problems. It is not that the information is wrong, it is just that it is presented in an overly complex manner that most people will have some difficulty following.

The next section covers what appear to be some chan si gong exercises. They have a similarity to the chan si gong exercises from Chen Xiao Wang. The exercises can just about be followed, but would have been made a lot more accessible by numerically linking the instructions and diagrams and perhaps some simple arrows showing direction of movement. However, with a bit of effort the exercises can be figured out and as with any chan si gong exercise, time spent doing them is time invested wisely as they reveal many principles about body movement.

From Chapter seven onwards the book mostly concentrates on Chinese Alchemy. Again these sections are hard to follow and unless you are familiar with the cryptic language and terminology of alchemy you may not get very much from these sections.

Overall ‘Alchemy of Pushing Hands’ isn’t a bad book, but it could be better. Any book that aims to explain movement will struggle and given when it was written there probably were not many other options. Nowadays, I suspect that the book would come either with a dvd tucked into the back cover or password to access a web site so that you could watch film of the exercises. This book’s alchemical approach to push hands is unique and there are some good insights to be found here. For me the most interesting sections were those on the taiji ball exercises and I don’t know of any other western book that touches on these.

Glenn Gossling, 2012

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