Small Frame Baguazhang
It is said that when Dong Haichuan (Bagua’s founder) first taught Baguazhang, he taught only the first three of eight palm changes. Each of his students then studied the internal mechanics of these changes until they had integrated and mastered them. From there they then extrapolated the essence of Baguazhang, combined it with their existing martial arts knowledge and founded their own styles. These styles are then the origins of all the modern systems of Baguazhang. Damo’s personal study has included Baguazhang from the Cheng, Liang, Gao, Sun and Wudang methods. In each case one of the apparent qualities of Baguazhang as a style is the speed and frequency at which it changes physical height. The practitioner of each style will be moving through a palm change and suddenly drop close to the floor in a very athletic manner before rising back up as quickly as they went down. On top of this there is a great deal of athleticism contained within the postures themselves with high kicks, twists of the torso at seemingly impossible angles and fast spins. All of this may be excellent training for a youthful body and an effective form of aerobic training but the truth is that it is pretty far removed from Baguazhang’s internal roots.
Generally, the Chinese martial arts have moved towards being overly focused upon aesthetics and flexibility to the detriment of their intended function. This was actually a necessary evolution for the martial arts as they were nearly wiped from record during the last of China’s cultural revolutions. They were then given a chance for rebirth when China started to search out its lost cultural arts. In order to popularise the arts and put them back into mainstream practice they had to appeal to a new generation. The way they did this was to turn Gong Fu into a kind of gymnastics which made for a more readily accepted spectators sport. Shaolin and Taijiquan went through this change which is what gave rise to the large postures we so commonly see now whereby the practitioner often has their hips almost touching the ground during performance of the long, low stances. Whereas the externally based martial arts can get away with this kind of change to a certain degree it has proved to be the death of the internal systems. Taijiquan in particular is almost dead as an internal system because of these changes and the large-stanced ‘Wushu’ versions of Taijiquan we see today have little relationship to the family Yang, Wu, Sun and Chen styles as they would originally have been taught. Thankfully, Taijiquan has started to move back away from this way of training with an increased understanding of the internal nature of the system. Whilst true Taijiquan still makes up for a very small percentage of Taijiquan practice, there are pockets of the authentic training methods still surviving. Baguazhang has not been so fortunate.
Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with the way Baguazhang is being practiced, it is Damo’s opinion that much of the art has been lost as it moves closer and closer to becoming another form of Chinese martial aerobics. Many teachers believe that an art is more ‘complete’ when it teaches a person to fight whereas in actual fact the ‘completeness’ of Baguazhang comes from its adherence to internal principles based upon a very specific set of internal mechanics. It is these internal mechanics that are generally lacking and as much as anything these have been lost due to Baguazhang’s over-focus on flexibility and athletic skill.
The ‘small frame’ Baguazhang form is based primarily upon the Cheng style. This is because Damo has spent more time studying Cheng than any of the other variants of Baguazhang. Truth be told though, once the Hou Tian aspects of Baguazhang are no longer emphasised excessively then the internal mechanics of each system of Baguazhang become the same. A ‘style’ after all is just a variation on a key set of principles most likely created by the practitioner interpreting them according to their own biases.
Xian Tian and Hou Tian Training
Xian Tian can be translated as meaning ‘Pre-Heaven’ and Hou Tian as ‘post-Heaven’. Without getting into complex esoteric principles we can essentially simply call these two ways of working as being the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’. The ‘inner’ method of Baguazhang is learnt through the practice of circle walking whilst holding a series of ‘static’ postures. The ‘outer’ method is then expressed as a by-product of the inner method. How well you can express the outer method of Baguazhang (the palm changes) should depend upon how well your body has been able to manifest the internal qualities of the system through practice of the circle walking. In this way continued and progressive practice of the Xian Tian method should help you to (over time) generate the Hou Tian expression of Baguazhang. This is an absolutely fundamental and key ethos of the system which is so often misunderstood.
Xiao Jia Palms
These are the eight palm changes of Xiao Jia Baguazhang. Each is is based upon the process of transition from one Xian Tian posture to another.
- Single Changing Palm – The Heaven Gua. Maintaining internally originated expansiveness whilst moving on a single plane. Essentially adjustment of focal point of power on a two dimensional, horizontal arc.
- Double changing palm – The Earth Gua. Taking the quality of the Heaven Gua and distorting the plane of movement so that it can move off of the horizontal axis.
- Following Body palm – The Wind Gua. Maintaining the quality of internal expansiveness and then allowing it to spiral within the body through controlled releases of pressure.
- Reverse Body palm – The Fire Gua. This change teaches you to draw in and then expand out from the centre point of the body. In this way the ‘release’ is directed like a chain out towards your extremities.
- Turning Body Palm – The Thunder Gua. The pressure in the body is built up and then released through the structure causing sudden changes in speed and power within the centre of the body.
- Turning Body Palm – The Water Gua. The pressure within the body is raised upwards and dropped down creating changes in force and mass as you move.
- Overturning Body Palm – The Lake Gua. Bringing the result of the release process out from the confines of your body into the space generated within the centre of your circle.
- Returning Body Palm – The Mountain Gua. A sudden and abrupt ‘stop’ to the waves of force generated within the body.
Each of these ‘palm changes’ is taught in relation to the circle walking aspect of the practice as well as the Xian Tian ‘static’ postures of Baguazhang.
The Process of Baguazhang
Essentially Baguazhang should be built from the inside out by studying the Xian Tian methods until you have attained a certain level of expertise in them. From here you begin to learn the single and double palm chances – two types of ‘release’ which work alongside the Xian Tian methods to generate the two major kinds of connectivity within the body. This connectivity is studied with regards to its relationship to ‘change’. This is the basis of converting the Xian Tian to the Hou Tian successfully. From here the principles of single and double palm change are taken in whichever direction you wish. This can be into martial arts, medicine or alchemical training. As a Daoist art form Baguazhang does not differentiate one from the other. These three aspects of Baguazhang are seen as one whole.
Further training then studies how this process works according to six more variables. These, together with the single and double change, become the eight palm changes which correspond to the eight Gua of the Yi Jing. To study all of this is complex and very involved. This is the reason why Baguazhang has always been seen as a very sophisticated system of martial arts. Sadly this is often lost on people as they mistakenly believe that the complexity of Baguazhang is due to the difficulty of its coreography or how physically demanding it is.
The fact of the matter is that the ‘large frame’ style Baguazhang we generally see has several shortcomings:
- It is only for those who are flexible, athletic and essentially youthful
- It is too large in nature to adhere to the internal mechanics of the system
- It divides the Xian Tian from the Hou Tian rendering the style as no longer Baguazhang
- It ‘breaks’ the power which is a huge ‘no no’ in the internal arts
This is not to say that nobody can manage the generally seen forms of Baguazhang with all of the principles in place. A few can; generally those who have studied martial arts in depth from a young age or those with the rare inherent ‘talent’ for martial arts that many Chinese masters classically sought in their students. If you don’t fall into one of those two categories then, to be honest, the contemporary forms of Baguazhang will rarely be able to take you very deep into the system.
Xiao Jia Baguazhang
It is for the above reasons that Damo Mitchell has created the ‘small frame’ Baguazhang form. Generally Damo would be against the modern creation of any style or system but after watching those who are not athletically gifted or young and fit struggle with learning Baguazhang it seemed like time to make a change. On top of this, the adjustment of the form to a smaller ‘frame’ of movement more fully enables students to manifest the actual principles of Baguazhang.
The ‘small frame’ Baguazhang form is essentially made up of eight palm changes that have had the athletic aspects of the sequences removed and the aspects of the ‘changes’ that correspond to the internal qualities of Baguazhang emphasised. Make no mistake, this is not a ‘simplifed’ form of Baguazhang. It is simply a form that makes it more possible for students to actually understand how Baguazhang works and a style that does not shut anybody out because of their age or athletic ability. It is Damo’s opinion that Baguazhang training would have more closely resembled this way of training in the past anyway and that the large athletic exercises we see today are a pure modernism.