The origins of the martial art of Baguazhang are shrouded in mystery; its creation is attributed to different legendary characters and Daoist sects depending upon who you ask. Whatever the truth, we do know several things: Firstly it is a fairly recently created internal martial art compared to some other systems, secondly it was developed from the original circle walking exercises of the ancient Wu shamans and thirdly that a man named Dong Hai Jun introduced it to the public resulting in the spread of Baguazhang throughout China.
The circle walking practices of Daoism stretch right back into antiquity. These energetic exercises were designed to fully awaken the practitioners energy body and elevate their consciousness. Recognising the internal potential of circle walking, the originator of Baguazhang (whoever that may have been) began to add short martial sequences into the practice creating an internal martial art that seamlessly integrated spiritual cultivation with effective combat techniques. The spiralling energies originally utilised for spiritual cultivation where directed out towards the extremities enabling controlled bursts of internal force to be projected into an opponent. The key form of Baguazhang is based around eight short martial sequences performed whilst walking the circle. each of these sequences is known as a ‘palm change’ and each of these is in turn based upon one of the eight generative Gua (Trigrams) of the classical Daoist text known as the Yi Jing (I Ching).
As with its sister art-form Taijiquan, Baguazhang has caused dispute throughout the internal arts world as practitioners argue over whether or not it should be practiced as a combative style or as a health practice. This argument will likely continue as the truth lies somewhere in the middle; Baguazhang is an art form in its own right no matter how it is practiced. It is a form of cultivation that brings great benefits and due to its complete nature it can be either or both; in Daoism, martial arts, spiritual cultivation and healing practices are never mutually exclusive.
Within Lotus Nei Gong the key style practiced is Cheng style Baguazhang; this particular branch of the style focuses upon grappling techniques and throwing. Almost all of its movements are designed to bring the practitioner into an extremely close range with the opponent so that they may be tripped, thrown or choked into submission. At the same time, tight twisting and undulating of the spine and major joints of the body help to pump and direct Qi through the body opening up the entire of the meridian system.
Students begin their study with the ancient practice of circle walking. Once a strong foundation has been built in this practice they begin to study the key techniques of the ‘single’ and ‘double’ palm changes. These teach the core fundamentals of the system and enable a strong connection with the key environmental energies which surround us during circle walking practice. From here the various forms and sequences are taught along with different Nei Gong methods and partner exercises. At the highest level of practice students study the esoteric deer horn knives which are the signature weapon of the style. These small hand weapons reflect the different phases of the moon and with practice actually begin to resonate with the celestial Qi of the night time leading to altered states of consciousness.
Generally it is advised that Baguazhang is not a beginners practice; some prior experience of the martial arts is recommended before studying Baguazhang. As the popular saying goes within Chinese martial communities: We study Bagauzhang to show us how bad our Gong Fu is!
In Baguazhang, when the Yi moves, wisdom is generated and the Jin is transported through the body’s spaces. The waist is centred like an axle whilst the palms move like wheels.Attributed to Dong Haichuan
As with our school’s Taijiquan syllabus we divide Baguazhang training into three main stages. The first stage focuses upon studying circle walking, single changing palm, double changing palm and the other six key directional palm methods. Over the course of roughly three years’ regular training, students learn how to structure their body correctly for the style, reshape the tissues for effective training and develop all of the fundamental Baguazhang skills.
On top of this there is also the ‘small frame’ style of Baguazhang which can be learnt separately from the rest of the syllabus if wished. If you wish for more information on the ‘small frame’ Baguazhang as well as Damo’s personal view on contemporary Baguazhang training then click on the button below:
Daoist Circle Walking Nei Gong
The historical origins of the Daoist tradition lay in the shamanic Wu people of ancient China. Prior to the construct of a formal philosophical school the energetic practices, which later formed into Nei Gong, took the form of ritualistic dances and esoteric chanting. The Wu practitioners served as spiritualists, doctors and wise men to the tribal communities which made up Chinese civilisation. One key practice which which has been kept alive until this day was the practice of circle walking. Many ancient cultures around the world used walking or dancing in a circle to activate key aspects of the energy centre and elevate consciousness but arguably this practice was preserved to the highest level in the Daoist tradition. Through connecting with the environment and setting up a conscious connection between the vibratory information field of their own bodies and their environment the Wu would create a spiral of energy which could then be manipulated into and out of the body in order to lead them to higher states of spiritual connection with the divine.
Walking the circle is not as easy as it may at first sound. A particular method is learnt in order to connect with the Yin energetic field of the Earth which is then led up into the body of the practitioner. Through controlled opening, closing and twisting of the body’s joints this force is led through the deep congenital pathways of the energy body awakening the central Chong Mai and associated meridian branches. The conscious opening of this key energetic pathway begins to infuse the mind with increasingly refined levels of vibratory information which are then utilised by the practitioner to move them closer to a true perception of Dao. Different arm positions are held whilst the circle is being walked which helps to bring energetic information in from within the centre of the circle which helps to open increasingly deep areas of the energy body. At later stages this walking is then combined with the energy of trees and other aspects of the environment to assist with the awakening process.
The practice of circle walking integrates a great deal of the Nei Gong process into its movements resulting in a powerful form of walking energy work. In modern times many people overlook the deeper internal aspects of circle walking and so much of its function has been lost. As with any other Daoist practice its process of development takes place on three levels:
- Physical conditioning takes place through learning to twist the body, opening and closing the joints and releasing habitual tension stored in the fascial planes which run along the same pathway as the meridians. The early stages of Daoist circle walking are concerned with conditioning the body in the correct way so that it can handle the energetic movement which is produced at deeper stages in the practice.
- The energy body is opened through constant practice and controlled drawing in of environmental Qi. As the energetic system awakens the process known as ‘awakening the dragon’ takes place whereby the deep congenital pathways of the spinal meridian system generate strong movements which twist and contort the body as pathogenic information is purged from the body and the spiritual antennae of the Chiong Mai opens up.
- Gradually the consciousness of the practitioner is changed as more spiritual energy known as Shen is generated and sent upwards into the mud-pill palace area of the brain. Long-time practitioners of circle walking experience major shifts in their levels of perception and understanding as they reach high levels of attainment in their art-form.
The theoretical aspect of circle walking includes a study of the Yi Jing (I Ching) or ‘Classic of Changes’ which discusses the movements of energy which sit behind any event or change which takes place within the universe. The nature of change is conceptualised into the study of eight key energetic patterns known as the Gua or Trigrams; each represents a different form of Qi formed from the combined Yin and Yang creative poles of the external cosmos. In circle walking practice it is possible to directly experience the creation and movement of these eight forms of generative Qi within the body and understand through feeling how they interact and communicate with each other. For this reason many Yi Jing scholars historically practiced some form of Daoist circle walking.
Within Lotus Nei Gong we teach Cheng Baguazhang and Hebei Xingyiquan together as one combined syllabus. Over the course of modern history many Baguazhang schools did the same and incorporated Xingyiquan into their training. This was because the styles are complementary and share similar body principles whilst at the same time being distinctly unique. Baguazhang walks the circle whilst Xingyiquan stomps along the line.
Students in the school study the line drills of Xingyiquan as it helps them to understand direct power and internal force development within a simpler framework than that delivered by Baguazhang. Both styles drills are then practiced in paired work within the Rou Shou (soft hands) drill.
Xingyiquan is an internal martial arts style based upon the Daoist theory of the five inter-relating elements. It is an ancient system which like Taijiquan uses internal force but has a faster, more direct feel to it.
The core practices of Xinyiquan consist of a single standing posture and five movements. At first glance Xingyiquan can seem relatively simple in comparison to the intricate forms of Taijiquan or Baguazhang but in fact Xingyiquan is equally as long and complex a study as any other internal martial art.
Like Taijiquan or Baguazhang, Xingyiquan relies on being able to develop a strong root, correct bodily alignments and relaxing the muscles. It for this reason that the three main internal arts complement each other and practice of all three can help to develop a rounded approach to martial arts training. All three rely on working primarily with the mind to develop and issue power although the manner in which they do this is quite different.
Taijiquan practitioners seek to develop a strong (though Sung) core which becomes rooted and immoveable upon contact. Xingyiquan practitioners are far more mobile and direct in their approach to combat. Perhaps it can be said that Taijiquan feels far more defensive than Xinyiquan which concerns the study of mercilessly attacking your opponent and driving him into the ground. Both styles complement each other and provide a practitioner with both a Yin and a Yang approach to the internal martial arts.
The key to understanding Xingyiquan is the practice of San Ti or ‘trinity’ posture. This standing posture is practiced in most branches of Xingyiquan and can be compared to the standing post practices of Taijiquan which many people are familiar with.
Standing in San Ti can at first be extremely painful. The back-weighted stance is difficult even for experienced martial artists and it can take a long time to relax into the position. At first, the emphasis is on correct bodily alignments and softening the body so that it feels as if your bones are ‘stacked’ one on top of the other. The muscles slowly ‘melt away’ so that they are no longer being used to hold your San Ti in place. This allows your root to begin to drop down and sink into the floor which is the key to developing the internal power which drives Xingyiquan practitioners forward in smooth, unbroken bursts of speed. For every force there is an equal and opposite force. As your root drops down into the floor, a second force can be felt moving up from the ground into your rear leg. Over time this force increases until it feels as if your body is trying to spring forward.
Various parts of the upper body are opened or sunk so that different internal compressions are developed. Your entire torso is turned into a kind of organic spring which is coiled and ready to burst open when required. From the outside, these compressions are virtually undetectable and a skilled Xingyi practitioner will look as if they are simply stood naturally.
The elbows are sunk whilst the tendons of the hand are opened and lengthened to ensure that a Xingyiquan practitioner can maintain a strong bridge when in contact with an opponent. As a rule, it is far easier to develop a feeling of internal force in Xingyiquan than in Taijiquan although it is a very Yang type of power rather than the Yin internal force which is required for manifesting the various Jins of Taijiquan.
Breathing exercises are then introduced into the standing practice of San Ti. Consistent practice helps to open up the various energetic pathways of the body and take out any tensions which may be stored within the muscles and tissues. Xingyiquan power is delivered in a wave which is usually driven from the rear foot (although not always), up through the spine and out to the hands. If there is un-necessary tension then this creates a ‘break’ in the chain of power and so the internal force will be negated.
San Ti standing is a challenging practice which we do not recommend for beginners to the internal arts. Those who engage with it though find it a fascinating practice which quickly enables a person to experience their own internal force.
Prior to my own training in the internal arts I had been learning external martial arts for some time. I was used to using gross physical movements such as large waist turns to put power into my punches. When I came to Taijiquan these waist turns were trained and then shrunk down and internalised so that power was delivered from the Dan Tian area. In Xingyiquan I now had to learn how to use the mind to lead and direct force from the floor, through the body and out into the hands. It feels something like a combination of the two methods mentioned above and yet has a distinct feel of its own at the same time.
The key to delivering power within the five techniques is finding a path of least resistance for the force which wants to drive you forward from the rear foot when you are standing in the San Ti posture. Like water working its way through cracks in a cliff top, the internal force of Xingyiquan is directed through the body in different directions according to your mental intent and the physical shape of whichever technique you are practicing.
The Sister Arts
The three ‘sister’ internal arts styles are generally known as Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang. Sun Lu Tang, a past master, was the first to publicly acknowledge their similarities and from this point in time it has become common for practitioners of the Nei Jia to study all three of these systems together.
Whilst I do acknowledge the linked nature of the principles within the three sister styles I think it is also important that we recognize their distinct differences. They are all classed as internal arts and therefore must follow a certain structural framework when they are being learnt but they also maintain their own flavor which can only be experiences by those able to understand and express the individual characteristics of each system.
As far as similarities go, we have one key goal in mind when we practice any Nei Jia internal style. We must aim to relax and stretch. Note that one should not happen without the other. I have been to Taijiquan schools where relaxation was favored and stretching was ignored and (rather oddly) many Taijiquan schools where the postures were open and stretched but devoid of any sort of relaxation process. Both must occur together in order to build the kind of ‘buoyant’ structure which the Nei Jia are based upon.
The key way in which we learn to develop this structure is through the standing post exercise of Zhan Zhuang. Here we raise our arms in front of us and enter a form of standing meditation where we systematically work through a process of internal work which aims to build a relaxed, rooted and structurally sound body posture. In many cases students will study standing postures through simply holding the correct shape but in fact there is a series of stages which must be moved through. These are (approximately) listed below:
- Postural alignments
- Relaxation of major muscles groups
- Relaxation of deeper, connective tissues
- Re-alignment and micro-adjustments
- Controlled pulsing of tissue segments of the body to drop force down to floor
- Development of root by dropping force down and connecting together structural segments
- Opening of joints to develop spring within tissues
- Alignment and connection of Yin tendon collaterals
- Use of breath and small movements to begin shifting bodily power through structure and down into floor
- Reverse process of bringing force back up and through body to arms
- Advanced stages of increasing depth of release through Qi to Shen
When this has been accomplished you will be left with a powerfully connected inner structure which is relaxed, connected to the floor and surprisingly ‘springy’.
This springy posture becomes the base for all of the internal arts and it is from here that they begin to qualitatively differ. If we actually look at the key positions from each style it is easy to see how they aim to use the internal energy developed through standing.
Classical Taijiquan is almost entirely based around the shape shown (Zhan Zhuang). Through small movements and changes to the arms and legs this posture deviates out into numerous combative postures which we shift through in our forms practice and even pushing hands. This means that throughout all of our practice, the same buoyant and spring feel should be present.
Taijiquan’s key philosophy is that of Yin and Yang. These two forces either absorb (Yin) or release (Yang) as well as interacting with each other through the internal spiraling force of Taiji which is generated by the waist in beginners and the Dan Tien in intermediate practitioners. Advanced exponents move beyond either of these stages and actually work with the connected Taiji of the environment through a skill known as either Dan Yuan or Hun Dun depending upon which style it is.
Xingyiquan takes the Zhan Zhuang posture and changes it so that one side is emphasized over another. Rather than being equally weighted, the power is distributed through the rear leg and project primarily out through the leading limbs. In this way the same postural principles are utilised but in a more assertive manner. The result is that Xingyiquans absorbing qualities are much less than Taijiquan but the projection to be had from the style is great. Whilst Taijiquan relies on returning an aggressor’s force in order to issue power, Xingyiquan simply uses its own.
Compared to Taijiquan, Xingyiquan is much more Yang and aggressive but still we should remember that it is Nei Jia. It should still maintain all of the principles of the internal arts and standing practice should be used to build its effectiveness.
Whilst the Zhan Zhuang posture is relatively easy to see in Taijiquan and a little more tricky in Xingyiquan, Baguazhang hides it very well. It is so well hidden in fact that many practitioners are not even aware that Zhan Zhuang should be within their forms and movements. Baguazhang takes this posture and shifts it into the upper body and then down through the hip joints as we walk. Through twisting the torso it then redirects the pressure which would usually be dropping downwards out into the center of the circle which is being walked by the practitioner.
We could say that Taijiquan absorbs forces, Xingyiquan projects forces and Baguazhang redirects them into the environment.
The redirection of force means that there never has to be any hesitation in the practitioners movements as in the case of Taijiquan which needs to adequately root and drop the incoming power.
That being said, Baguazhang without the ability to absorb to some degree the forces coming in will be weak and unstable. The same forces which are raised and dropped by our breath and muscular connections in Zhan Zhuang and Taijiquan are actually shifted as we step in the circle walking of Baguazhang, These pulses of power then drive the various palm changes which we perform in our sequences.
Our Xingyiquan syllabus is taught alongside Baguazhang so essentially the two styles form one study. Students study the standing and basic movements of Xingyiquan alongside circle walking and palm change drills. Once students become competent at the basic seed techniques they branch out into the animal shapes as well as more advanced techniques and eventually the spear.
Xingyiquan is about direct development and issuing of internal force. All other goals are dropped in favour of reshaping the soft tissues of the body and sinking the Qi in order to animate the lower Dan Tien. The strikes become extensions of this power and it is easy to then see how Xingyiquan is a complementary style to Baguazhang.
The Five Seed Methods
Once a person has developed all of the compressions and springs required for Xingyiquan practice from their standing, they may begin to study the five techniques from which the entire of Xingyiquan is derived. These techniques are known as Pi, Zhuan, Beng, Pao and Heng. They are five different directions of internal force which are likened to the five elemental processes which are so important within Chinese Medicine. Rather than being exact techniques which can be applied to combat, they are a training method for developing effective power along five planes of movement. From this base, further techniques and forms show how these five powers are applied to various strikes, kicks, locks and throws but these are considered of secondary importance to the five main movements.
Each technique is studied from the San Ti posture which you will most likely have practiced for some time. Now the initial softening, aligning and rooting procedures are repeated whilst moving. It can be surprisingly frustrating to see how quickly all your long-practiced alignments move out of line when you begin to move forward. In particular the legs tense up which creates an unhealthy ‘jerk’ as you move forward. Xingyiquan relies on a downward force being delivered through the feet which ‘bounces’ back up through the body and creates the striking power of the five elements. If your legs are not soft and correctly aligned then this force will simply not get through your body up to your hands. At first this downward force is dropped down through a relaxed ‘stamp’ but over time this is normally taken out so that the steps look as soft as those of Taijiquan and Baguazhang.