(My online training is at patreon.com/rjma if you like the cut of my jib)
Baguazhang is a very amorphous art. An art meant to express change in all its aspects has to be started with very concrete methods in order to establish a vocabulary to work with. Like any vocabulary you begin with letters and sounds, these become words, sentences, and on to paragraphs and expression of ideas from the mind. The issue in Baguazhang and martial arts, in general, is that we begin training with paragraphs and expect beginners to learn the entire language from it. Forms are rehearsed patterns of movement and they exist in one form or another in every art, sometimes called kata or combinations or patterns, they are taught to give students a movement pattern to ingrain into their mind and body. But, while repeating these patterns can give a person skill in combative situations, they are a long way from understanding the way in which the patterns are created.
Bagua is meant to be a free-flowing changing living art. Repetition alone is not enough to understand the idea of change in martial arts and bagua is constantly pushing its practitioners to move farther and farther into a creative, live, expression of their understanding of the art. But this must be approached carefully, or the art remains hidden in plain sight even to its students.
Two Engines for the origin of movement need to be trained in the body. Middle Dantian or Tan Zhong and lower Dantian in the abdomen need to become independent origin points of movement in the body. The upper engine, Tan Zhong, is trained as an origin or movement in the upper body and arms and so acts as the turret and gun on a tank. While the lower Dantian is trained as the origin of the movement in the legs for the most important part of the art – walking.
The Upper Engine
In order to perform combat maneuvers, the arms and upper body need to have an understanding of the structure (integrated connection with balanced tension around the joints) and power. The training structure is done by exacting practice in positions that help to balance tension around the joints and make the shapes of the arms/body efficient and powerful. The Mother Palms are the positions generally trained in a static upper body posture while standing or walking to create relaxed familiar shapes.
The eight small palms are shen fa (body method) training for generating movement from the torso and express it through the arms and hands. Each of the eight small palms trains a specific type of movement and power that will take the shapes trained in the mother palms and move them into combative postures.
Green Dragon Climbs the Mountain trains creating power upwards and downwards simultaneously by contracting or elongating the flanks of the body. By turning from side to side this allows the student to use this type of force anywhere within their range of flexibility.
Sparrow hawk flies and falls trains a single arm at a time in extreme vertical drilling force upwards as well as a downward crushing heavy force through the movement of the torso. Upwards drilling force is a major component of bagua in every style I have come into contact with and is not only used in application as a deflection of incoming power but also a method of attack.
It is referred to often in my lessons as ‘thin’ power.
Green Dragon Whips Tail has two variants, one horizontal and one vertical. The horizontal method cultivates whipping power from the torso through the arm to strike or cut at the opponent. The vertical method works on ‘placing the heart on a shelf’ and creating heavy force by adding body weight to the dropping fist.
Tiger descends the mountain trains extreme flexibility in the torso as well as using dropping power from the middle Dantian to create outward force in the arms.
Mud Palms is an interesting method that begins training the upper body to remain connected during oblique and rolling movements with the torso. The rolling of the torso while maintaining structure in the spine and upper body is very important during close-range engagements with an opponent. Wrestling puts pressures on the torso in many directions and requires power to be flexible and constant o this method is very important. The second major type of power trained in mud palms is crossbody power, a quite unique type of force found in Baguazhang. Reaching across the body from left to right (for example) and maintaining power is unusual and difficult to train. The lower hand in mud palms is powered by the flank on the same side of the body and is also seen in the mother palms ‘green dragon extends claws’ during circle walking.
Blue Dragon Swims in the Sea trains direct upward and downward movement in Tan Zhong to create outward spiraling and splitting force in the arms and hands. This positive (shun) spiral is a very powerful and common method in martial arts that is rarely worked on as a body method. Blue Dragon Swims in the Sea is also very important in the application stage of bagua training.
Tai Peng spreads wings trains maintenance of spiral power in the hands and arms during extreme twists. This helps to cultivate long reaching force in the hands, remaining connected through nearly straight joints is another difficult skill that takes time to cultivate. Importantly the transition from one posture to the other uses cover body palm as a transition point. Cover body palm is a difficult posture to maintain connection in with good extension through the hands and so needs careful attention to cultivate it properly. Combatively this is used a great deal in mid to close range in bagua.
Giant cracks the Earth is a method to train power in various directions – splitting force, rolling force, downward force, and cross body force. It is also a tendon changing method when done properly with correct tension and breath work. This is a method to increase power, strength, and fajin ability.
Once well rehearsed the eight small palms should be trained on top of the walking which has been trained separately. Once the lower engine (lower Dantian) is functioning properly so walking can be done with the tang ni bu (mud wading step) the small palms moving from the upper engine (middle Dantian) should be able to function. This is where the metaphor of a tank makes the most sense, the lower engine is like the treads on the tank creating movement and the upper engine is like the tank’s turret, turning and targeting and attacking. At this point, the small palms should be able to be done turning towards the inside of the circle, along the circle itself, or turning to the outside.
Progressing to this point will mean the bagua player now has the skill to walk with root and power. Can maintain proper structure and movement in the upper body no matter the direction or twist and change directions while doing so with ease. Now it is like an alphabet has been memorized, words have been learned and it is time to write your own sentences. The creative part of bagua training should begin here, after months or years of studious training and following exact details the player needs to free themselves from only training structured exercises. Walking circles or lines, changing directions, and changing from one small palm to another at random is necessary to bring the idea of change to the forefront when training. These body methods now be a whole rather than simply parts of an art. Like writing down your own thoughts in a journal or telling someone a story the words/movements need to be free and easy and changeable. Each problem presented by the opponent is met with quick, changing methods that utilize not necessarily the movements of the small palms, but each of the skills they have trained in the player. Twisting, heavy power, drilling, reaching, expanding and contracting as necessary a good bagua player needs to change from one to another easily.
It is the palm changes that most people associate with Baguazhang and yet only now should they be trained. Each of the changes can be broken down into parts of or combinations of the eight small palms and their corresponding skills. One hand performing Dragon whips tail above the lower hand performing Tiger descends the mountain makes up the first move of the first change. But with proper training and progression, it is no longer an empty choreography but a well constructed, moving example of change and expression of skill.
Walking circles is not Bagua. Bagua, is Bagua.
Neil Ripski 2019 – Jerusalem