Hopping around in Tai Chi class makes us all look foolish.  Let’s acknowledge that upfront.

It almost seems like a confidence trick, doesn’t it?  The teacher pushes one of their students backwards, and the student responds by jumping upwards, perhaps even bouncing two or three times as they retreat. It must be some kind of gimmick, outsiders say. A practical illusion, designed to make the teacher look strong…right?  No other explanation makes sense…

Not yet, anyway. So let me help you make sense of it. Because, in fact, there are very good reasons for hopping around this way.

Pushing is a core element of the Taijiquan curriculum.  Pushing is a safer, gentler and subtler alternative to hitting your practice partners.  Even still, there are certain inherent risks associated with this practice—especially when pushing fast and hard.

Bumping your head is a risk.  It could happen if you fall down, and strike your head on the ground.  Or, by stumbling headfirst into a wall, or an innocent bystander.  Yikes!  We don’t want to slam our heads into solid objects.  And we should probably avoid banging our elbows and knees too.

In the modern Tai Chi community, the most common response to these risks is to avoid pushing altogether. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on yielding and evasion. But this creates a negative feedback loop. Students in these schools tend not to develop any offensive skill, and their defensive abilities suffer from the absence of any real challenge.

Earlier generations of Tai Chi masters understood that pushing cannot be ignored. Some would demonstrate proper technique by launching their disciples into a bare wall, dozens of times in a row. Others taught their students to hop.

Pushing Drills Versus Pushing Hands

The traditional partner curriculum of Taijiquan goes beyond ding bu tuishou (“fixed-step pushing hands”), to incorporate both simpler and more complicated methods of practice. It includes many limited-scope drills to develop a single attribute—such as the ability to push.

The goal of a cooperative drill is fast and focused improvement. In the case of a pushing drill, we assist our practice partners by offering them a solid and stable mass to push on. To perform this drill, we must temporarily put aside any notions of avoiding or yielding to force, no matter how important these ideas may be in broader contexts.

Forget about stepping backwards or sideways. Restrain any urge to bob and weave, slip and dodge, sink and dissolve. This is not an evasion or a footwork drill; this is a pushing drill.

As we are pushed, we minimize the chance of an accidental bump or fall by remaining upright. That is, by keeping our head above our shoulders, and our shoulders above our feet.

Given that cannot avoid or neutralize the push, there are only two options left for our response.

The first option is to slide backwards along the ground, like a stick of butter across a hot frying pan. Unfortunately, this strategy has limited use. It demands a perfectly horizontal push… and a perfectly level and flat surface behind you… and low-traction footwear, of course.

If you happen to be wearing socks on a polished gymnasium floor, sliding works. But in any other situation, you’re quite likely to tip over, and fall down. Bad news.

As it turns out, there is only one good option for this pushing drill. That is to jump.

Don’t Stop the Hop

Hopping allows your body to move while remaining vertical.  It allows you to practice elements of Tai Chi with real speed and force, and with minimal risk of collision or injury.

Hopping, it turns out, is not foolish after all. Within its original intended context, it is a brilliant solution.

This is why legitimate* Tai Chi instructors have been teaching their students to bunny hop for decades—long before outsiders started watching practice drills without context, and attempting to explain them to other outsiders on social media.  They don’t understand what they are seeing…but now you do!

* See demonstrations by Cui Yishi 崔毅士, Dong Huling 董虎岭, Feng Zhiqiang 冯志强, Fu Zhongwen 傅钟文 and many others

Chris Marshall
Head Instructor
Shoreline Tai Chi