I got to meet up with a local Tai Chi instructor recently, and it was a good chance for me to do some hands-on work in push hands. One of the things working with somebody else at Tai Chi, as opposed to the endless solo practice that mainly makes up the art, brings up is the question of range.
Range is an interesting one in Tai Chi. You actually need to be in really close for Tai Chi to work. I think this is one of the things that has been forgotten along with the martial aspects of the art. I very rarely find another Tai Chi person who is comfortable working at the correct range.
How to fix your range
To get the correct range your front foot should be one fists-width apart from your opponents foot on the horizontal axis and your front toes should be roughly matching the back of heel. His front toes are then roughly matching your heel. (Look at the foot position in the photo).
This distance feels uncomfortably close to do any sort of combat actions to most people, however, this is where Tai Chi lives. At this range you will need to use subtle movements of the kua and rotation of the body to neutralise your opponent’s force, and it takes some practice. You also need to make use of Ting – or “listening” because you are definitely within punching range here, but from here you can go even closer (body to body) and turn it into wrestling if so desired, which will protect you from punches.
At the correct distance the Tai Chi techniques will work. When you are further out, they won’t work so well at all. So, this is where you should be when practicing push hands.
When it comes to actually fighting, I’m not suggesting you should “hand around” in this range, because that will just get you clipped. However, you do need to move into this range to do all the good stuff that the Tai Chi Classics talk about – controlling your opponent, knowing him before he knows you, etc. I think a lot of the time that Tai Chi fighting is described as “bad kick boxing” it’s because of the range being used. People stay too far out and pot shots at each other. Kick boxing is perfect for this range.
More of my writing on push hands: