Partner work

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Does tai chi involve physical contact?

Yes it does. Tai chi students explore qigong, form and partner work.
Qigong and form are solo training methods. Partner work involves training with other students.
Physical contact is necessary
in order to receive feedback (tense/relaxed/connected etc) and to practice the tai chi skills.
Some tai chi schools may offer non-contact classes, but we do not. If you are not comfortable with physical contact, we recommend that you consider an alternative form of exercise.

Tai chi classes

All tai chi classes feature 3 main areas of study: qigong, form and pushing hands. If you are not undertaking partner work, you are not really training tai chi.

A lot of folks say they are relaxed... that they are Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or something that says you know I'm concerned for my fellow man. But when somebody puts their hands on these people you'll see that that priest or that monk or that rabbi becomes just as rigid and as violent as anybody else who would never ever describe themselves as being God fearing. Why? Cos they're not used to the pressure.

You would like to believe you're relaxed and when someone puts their hands on you and pushes all of a sudden you realise just how indignant you are about that whole thing happening.

Some people are very stretched and they have a full split or they are very balanced on their hands and they can do a handstand but when you put your hands on them all that ability goes out the window and they resort to Cro-Magnon behaviour.

(Roberto Sharpe)

Partnered exercises

Apart from pushing hands there are dozens of other partnered exercises. They vary considerably in purpose and difficulty. Many of the exercises are concerned with yielding, alignment, footwork and sensitivity.

Looks aren't everything

A tai chi student may perform aesthetically pleasing solo movements yet be massively tense. Their muscles may never soften.
Movements that should be powerful and connected are in fact flimsy and weak.


How can we determine substance? By feedback. By touching. By physically feeling what is taking place. Partner work is vital in tai chi. It offers you proof.


There is a modern phobia of physical contact. People quite often do not like to be touched. Yet, touch is one of our senses and if we ignore it, our world becomes far lonelier.


In tai chi we consider touch to be very important. By working with somebody else we can help them to feel how their own body operates and help ourselves as well.
We encourage people to become accustomed to physical proximity from the start of their training, to relax, soften and be receptive to other people.

4 ounces of pressure

If you cannot gauge how much force to use then you have no real skill. Imagine picking up a glass...
If you cannot determine the necessary degree of pressure to apply, you will either drop the glass or crush it in your hand. Neither outcome is acceptable.

Nervous system

Tai chi teaches you how to use the least amount of force at all times. This saves energy and is more efficient. Training your nervous system is vital.
'Listen' to what is happening, be aware of the sensations and interpret the feedback accurately.

Touch is as important as vision and hearing for learning and retaining information. Lack of touch can lead to emotional disturbances, as well as lessened intellectual ability and physical growth, reduced sexual interest, and even immune system weaknesses.

(Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publication, May 2009)


Clumsiness is an indication of low skill. As you progress through the syllabus you must demonstrate a growing capacity to use the tai chi properly. Ineptitude speaks for itself.

Pushing hands?

One common tai chi partner work method is called 'pushing hands'. There are many different forms of pushing hands; each teaching its own unique range if skills.


It is very important to be considerate of your partner and keep their wellbeing in mind at all times.
Partner work is a forum through which you can explore the syllabus, so each person needs to work with the other person rather than against them. If your partner is struggling, assist them by going easy.
If they are finding it too easy, try to gently challenge them.

Attitude & etiquette

Right conduct is an important part of tai chi training; your attitude says what sort of person you are. We have a 'code of conduct' that all students must follow during the class.


Some people get too vigorous during partner work... Again, consideration is the key. Temper your actions by restraint at all times.
If your partner is in pain or discomfort, be considerate and ease off. They are either doing something incorrectly or you are being too rough relative to their ability level.


Do not tutor other students during partner work. Leave the teaching to the instructor or a teaching assistant. If you do not know how to do something, please ask.


You are quite welcome to give the following advice to your practice partner:

  1. You are tense

  2. You are using force against me

  3. You are banging against me

  4. You are just using your arms

  5. You are being clumsy/rough

  6. You are being awkward

  7. You have lost your composure

  8. You are leaning

  9. You are off-balance

  10. You are spacing-out

  11. You are doing the wrong exercise

These are easily observable faults and you do not need to be an instructor to see them.


Please perform the exercise you have been shown. Changing the
drill, altering the material or improvising is not appropriate for a student.
You have insufficient knowledge, experience and understanding to start developing your own tai chi. Just do the required exercise.


It is quite OK to speak with your partner during an exercise providing you are doing the work. The danger with talking is that people tend to use talk as an excuse not to train.
This is a sign of laziness.


Touch is a form of communication. When a person is afraid or ill, physical contact can help to reassure them. If you are emotionally calm and open to other people, this will be transmitted through touch.
We can share our compassion without the need of words.


Some people smile and speak nicely but when you partner with them they are not friendly at all. Their bodies are tense and they are brittle.
Instead or working with you, they compete
. The truth of their nature is revealed.

Not combat

Partner work is not combat. In fact, it is the opposite of combat. It is a means of safely practicing fundamental skills in a safe, predictable, controlled manner

In working with some of my tai chi teachers I have the sense that at the instant their hands touched my body, they knew a great deal about my physical and emotional state. During these encounters, my teachers also seemed to convey nonverbal information intentionally; it was as if their touch and movements shared information with me. Becoming aware of their physical, energetic qualities provided me with a reference against which I could calibrate my own qualities and abilities.

(Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publication, May 2009)


Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023