Why is partner practice so different from solo practice? In my daily Taijiquan practice in a time of sheltering-in-place, the answer of course is quite obvious. As a martial artist, I find I am missing the feedback I feel, the energy from a partner’s response, and our discussion as we explore via push hands, partner forms, and apply specific applications taken from our Yang and Chen Taijiquan sets. But on the other hand, practicing by myself for many years, I have learned to use my imagination as I focus my Yi, my intent, on how my spiraling energy wraps around an imaginary arm, leg, or body, and how I am potentially responding to an opponent’s approach.
Have I been practicing by myself in my backyard? Yes. And as such, my imagination runs wild! But I must confess, twice a week during this time of sheltering at home I have been meeting with a friend to connect, practice, and learn from each other. I have to say that being outside, physically distancing while practicing different forms and weapon sets has been safe and beneficial. I still can watch and learn, ask questions, and discuss a move’s application and meaning. But honestly, partner practice has intrigued me the most when we meet.
I am calling it physically distant partner practice (PDPP?). Specifically, we have challenged ourselves to relearn an interactive form we learned years ago: Sanshou. This is a two-person set that relies on the interaction between two people in contact with each other. There are many, many Sanshou sets. In all of them, through an exchange of attacks and blending responses, one intercepts and melds with a wide variety of attacks, and then returns an appropriate response that flows naturally. It is a stylistic, dynamic, honest set of stimuli and responses between two people. One learns to feel small changes that become large, responding by touch and movement to turn an opponent’s attack into one’s own attack.
Now how does one relearn and then refine a two-person set without being able to be within 8 feet of each other? It isn’t that hard to relearn it: as the one who remembers it (mostly), we could move in parallel, just like we originally learned it, rehearsing as we would any form. We filled in each other’s gaps of memory. But putting the two sides into practice against each other became more problematic.
We start a good twelve feet apart, facing each other. I found that simply mimicking the progression through the moves became entangled with my thinking: What does this mean? When is the right timing? To what am I responding? Suddenly, two brains remembering the set in a rote way while applying it visually (and not by feel) became a bit of a problem. I found that while I could see an attack coming (eight feet away!) and could respond to it, it was completely different from feeling the actual, physical energy coming my way. And since my partner was relearning this set from a more distant memory, she often became confused as to what came next with the most sensible response.
So we talked about it. We would stop and discuss as we rehearsed a particular cycle of attack and response. And, we found we could hold a dialog as we moved through the set. “I am shoulder stroking you, so you shift back, wipe underneath your arm to catch my elbow, and using the resulting spiraling energy, launch a hook punch. No, no, with the other arm!”