Opening the Small Gates of Baguazhang

The Bagua Small Gate Opening Palm (Ba Gua Xiao Kai Men Zhang 八卦小門開掌) is a short form of Baguazhang that I teach to all my serious students. The name xiao kai men zhang is always the first question I am asked about, what are the gates? Well this depends on context as is usual in Chinese Arts and Language. One interpretation is from a health or qigong standpoint and the small gates are the joints of the body. Opening these gates means to soften, stretch and make pliable each one of the bodies joints. Ankle, Knee, Hip, Wrist, Elbow, Shoulder, Dantien (Kua), Tan Zhong (Chest) and Neck (Da Zhui) and Mind (Upper Dantien).
The first 12 of the joints aforementioned must be relaxed and have equal amounts of muscular tension around them in order to be opened. Generally this is difficult from a physical standpoint as over or under developed muscle groups tend to unbalance the strength around a joint from both sides. For example an over developed quadriceps (thigh muscle) can over power the muscularity in the lower leg and therefore pull on the knee joint more in one direction than another. Ideally training the small gate form will allow the quad to relax while the lower leg bears more of the strain of movement and allows it to grow stronger in order to balance the tension around the knee joint. Each of the 12 joints (6 harmonies) work in this way and should be studied to make them all relaxed, even and smooth and open.
The kua involves more than the hip joint as it also involves the entire muscularity of the inguinal crease joint and all the attachments in the pelvis. Dantien is another way of looking at this and working the 6 directions of Dantien equally (up, down, left, right, above and below) through three dimensional movement will help all the kua muscles and abdominal muscularity to become active when moving and ideally balanced in strength for any type of movement. Basically this means that any movement in any angle starting from the Dantien should have equal substance, force and stability. Cultivating the 6 directions of Dantien can be done through this form but there are other more specific exercises for it as well, which I will save for another writing.
Developing Tan Zhong or the centre of the the chest (Middle Dantien) for movement is one of the skills that is particularly focused on in Baguazhang. Tan Zhong should be able to move in any direction independently of the lower Dantien and have equal muscular tension on both sides of any movement. It is a gate of the body that is difficult to open and as such there are other Bagua exercises designed to work on it more directly than Xiao Kai Men Zhang. The Eight Small Palms of Cheng Style Bagua (八小掌), seated Fu Zhu Gong Fa exercises and many drills have been developed to work this area more directly. In Xiao Kai Men Zhang it is a part of the exercise to work Tan Zhong specifically especially in movements such as White Snake Coils the body or Remove the Helmet from Behind and it is a very important part in Bagua training and its health benefits include internal organ massage through movement and washing the the organs with blood.
Da Zhui or the Neck is often overlooked throughout training in martial arts other than some warm ups but in this form the most obvious work on the neck is found in Dragon Rolls the Ball at the opening of the form. By rotating the hands to play with the ball by using Tan Zhong the torso moves back and forth a great deal and if the neck remains relaxed and eyes gaze straight ahead the torso will move while the head stays still, stretching and moving the neck in order to keep the head in place. In order for the neck to open properly it must be relaxed and stretched from the base (Da Zhui) to the top of the neck at the base of the skull (Feng Fu). The muscularity of the neck goes under the skull itself and extends down under the scapula as well (shoulder blades). Again in Baguazhang a special exercise exists for each of the three joints I am discussing on the centre of the body, Dantien, Tan Zhong and the Neck (Sometimes referred to as Jade Pillow known as “Six Balls & One Pillar” Exercises. Xiao Kai Men Zhang does some work on the neck mainly through keeping the gaze and head still and through obeying the saying “Look Forward and listen backward” or open the neck, pull up the back of the head and tuck the chin.
The final joint is the Upper Dantien (Shang Dantien 上丹田) or the mind. The location of the upper Dantien is thought to be in the upper palace or the centre of the head. The mind itself is a big topic in internal training and involves the Shen (Spirit) and Yi (Intention & Intellect). For the purposes of opening the gate of the upper Dantien in xiao kai men zhang it basically involves bringing the mind fully to the focus on the form itself. Becoming soft in intention and relaxed in intent while remaining undistracted by other thoughts as you practice and observe the small joints of the body and the requirements to open and relax each one. The mind by becoming one pointed enters a state of meditation. Calming the monkey mind that likes to jump from one thing to another and keeping it still and focused on the task at hand. Xiao Kai Men Zhang is a great form for this type of moving meditation as it is short in duration, has a good amount of depth and detail in its movements and of course allowing the mind to enter a state of meditation in this way has many health benefits. In short the human immune system is taxed a great deal by stress hormones, stress from depression or anxiety, living in the past or future rather than the present. Becoming centred on the present moment even for a short while during practice allows the immune system a small rest from the stress of trying to exist in any state other than the present. If you are focused on the here and now, the worries of the rest of life fall away and the stress along with it, even if it is only for a moment. The Mind is the most important gate of all to relax and make smooth. Focused and strong the mind leads the body to a state closer to balance.
Combatively the small gates can also refer to not only the balance of structure and muscularity around your joints but to opening the opponents gates as well. Gates can refer to the nine gates of the body where techniques can be inserted into the opponent (Left, Middle, Right, Upper, Middle, Lower gates for a nine position grid) or to changing the structure, power and balance around the opponents joints (Ankle, Knee, Hip, Wrist, Elbow, Shoulder, Dantien, Tan Zhong, Da Zhui, Upper Dantien). Balance is the state we are all trying to achieve in training and harmonizing with the opponent is a high level skill. Being able to change the balance around an opponents joints be they physical or mental changes the way their body, mind and nervous system will respond to you in combat. Understanding how to balance and open your own joints teaches you its opposite, how to close or unbalance an opponents.
Any form that is worth learning has a depth that is not always readily apparent. Each form is like a carrier of a styles DNA. Just because DNA is passed on it does not mean that its potential is always realized by those who learn it. Just because your family genes tend to have great musical ability does not change the need for tenacious hard work, practice and memorization in order to become a great musician. A great style, great form and even a great teacher will never be enough to allow for greatness in a student. Realizing the potential of learning a form comes from deep study, introspection and testing. Without a ton of time and hard work (gong fu 功夫) even the best style can be wasted on lazy students.
Bagua is hard man,
Neil Ripski
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