One of the greatest challenges when learning Baguazhang is remembering that it is primarily concerned with change. Constant change is the only key principle of Baguazhang that sets it aside from other arts. The internal engine of the system is remarkably similar to some systems of Taijiquan and Xingyiquan; so similar that the three styles have become known as a single ‘family’ of arts. Sure, there are slight nuances in the way that Baguazhang expresses the internal mechanics which result in a different ‘flavour’ from the other Nei Jia systems but essentially the basis of how it works is very similar. Some practitioners would adamantly argue against this claiming that each system is completely distinct in the way it is trained but ultimately, when practicing all three systems you will generally find much common ground. If the internal engine of the styles were so different then they could not be practiced together as one unit as the methods would clash with one another.
The circle walking side of Baguazhang training is generally the first part of the practice that new students will encounter. Through the practice of (generally) several different types of stepping whilst walking a small circle students begin to reshape the internal structure of the body in a manner specific to the internal arts. Far from being unique to Baguazhang, the rotational qualities that this practice builds into the muscles and tissues of the legs, hips and spine are also present in both Taijiquan and Xingyiquan though they are emphasised to a lesser degree and appear much further into their systems. Many students simply never travel far enough into their practice to encounter the practices which yield these results.
So what does make Baguazhang unique? Quite simply it is the adherence to the principle of change. The vast majority of other styles are studying finite, completed actions whilst Baguazhang studies the process involved in these actions without ever concerning itself too much with completion. To me, if I had to describe the manner in which the three internal styles were applied to combat it would be that Xingyiquan studies the clash, Taijiquan studies the relationship and Baguazhang studies the inherent process involved in change.
When you first begin Baguazhang training you will unlikely encounter the actual process of change to any great depth because you will be stuck at the stage of learning external shapes. In my own practice I begun with Sun style Baguazhang before exploring the Liang, Wudang and Gao systems before finally settling with the Cheng style of practice. Funnily enough it was always the Jiang Rong Qiao style of Baguazhang that interested me the most but I am a believer in studying whatever style an inspirational teacher practices and so hence I never found myself a good Jiang Rong Qiao teacher. Though the body of what I do is Cheng style I would be deluding myself if I did not recognise that my practice has been massively influenced by the previous systems I learnt as well. Some arts are easy to keep compartmentalised from one another due to their difference but this is not the case with Baguazhang. Though each original student of Dong Hai Chun had their own take on his teachings, differences which resulted in the formation of the ‘styles’, the inner method of Baguazhang remains the same and so practices will blur into one another very easily. On top of this, no two teachers I ever had of Baguazhang expressed their art in the same way and now my own practice has changed over the years meaning that my current expression of the art is very different from what I was shown. Some martial artists would hesitate to admit this since they would rather adhere to the whole ‘mine is closest to the original’ mind-set but I make no apologies for my love of art, expression, change and adaptation; especially within a practice such as Baguazhang. The principles and methods make it what it is; the many years of daily practice adjust the manner in which it manifests.
Once a beginner has got past the external shapes involved in walking the circle and performing the palm changes they then have the lengthy task of unpacking all of this information and actually understanding how the style relates to ‘change’. Classically, Baguazhang is linked to the teachings of the Yi Jing (I Ching) and so the 64 hexagrams of this ancient text. I have met many practitioners who have then attempted to link individual movements to the symbols in an attempt to liken what is essentially a philosophical and spiritual teaching to a method of striking or locking an opponent. Though this may be a high-minded way to approach the subject, an approach I find admirable in its complexity, it is not my way of approaching the art. To me, the Yi Jing and ‘change’ does not concern individual fighting methods, nor does Heaxagram 32 relate to an elbow driven down from above; instead the fluid manner in which spirit/consciousness creates constant change is what links Baguazhang to the Yi Jing. In short, it is the essence of the text, not the ‘words’ which underpin the practice.
It is said that Dong Hai Chun only ever taught the first two palms (some records say three palms) to his students. After this they then expressed the other five palm changes in their own way according to their previous martial training. The accuracy of this is debated by some and to be honest, in my opinion, it is of little significance to our training. What is important though is that the first two palm changes, single and double changing palm, are the important palm changes when it comes to understanding change. Even if a person only studied circle walking and these two changes then they would have the basis for understanding Baguazhang.
The ‘change’ in Baguazhang takes place inside of the body. This is where there is a direct conflict in the way that many people study the art. External techniques such as learning 24 strikes, 64 throws, 108 locks and so on and so on is essentially an external method of study. Of course, these need to be there, students need to learn methods in order to apply their art in the physical world, but it is not really Baguazhang. To study this way and stay at this stage is to stay with an external method of training that has little to do with the essence of the art. Every high-level teacher I have met of both Baguazhang and Taijiquan (note that I said high-level and not necessarily most well known) agrees with one another that essentially external technique fades away when you understand your art. The quality of the style takes place ‘at touch’ and so the smallest adjustment in your movement when in contact with the opponent disrupts what they are doing. This means that there are very few ‘techniques’ but an almost endless plethora of subtle shifts and changes which take place within the body of the practitioner upon contact with an opponent. The actual expression of these changes can be small or large depending upon the situation but in almost all cases are very direct and simple movements. This is in direct contrast to the fancy spinning, multidirectional antics often seen in Baguazhang fighting demoes’ given by those who are stuck in the external realm of practice.
The first thing to understand in studying change within Baguazhang is the first it is the body that must change. The basic rule of this is that the body will only change when your body mass is successfully relating to the floor. This can sound like an odd statement as surely when you are standing on the planet this is happening all of the time? The answer is that we are trying to efficiently take away all of the tensions and incorrect alignments which are ‘holding up’ some of your mass from the ground. Think of your mass like a fluid, now that fluid can only pass from the top of your head down to the floor fully when it does not get ‘caught’ anywhere. If it gets caught then this creates a blockage which detracts from your ability to relate to the ground. ‘Touching the ground’ with your mass in this manner is the very first part of what they call ‘sinking the Qi’. In Taijiquan they generally teach this skill through loosening and static postures whereas in Baguazhang the challenge is arguably a little higher as it should be learn from day one whilst walking in a circle. So difficult is this task that many practitioner end up learning the skill in Taijiquan and then crossing it over into Baguazhang creating a kind of ‘hybrid power’. This is fine since it is a transferable skill but in most instances people cannot achieve this in Baguazhang because they incorrectly twist the body (both too much and too little) and also because they don’t understand the opening and closing of the Kua (inside of hip joints) that should take place on ever y step. If the body is not twisted in the right manner than the harmonies of alignment are broken and if the Kua is not functioning properly then the Qi will not sink with the mass to the floor.
Getting the mass to the floor, ‘touching the floor’ as I call it, is needed because the placement of your weight into the feet serves as a kind of ‘anchor’ from which the soft tissues are stretched inside of the body. All arts involve stretching to some degree. Generally the external arts stretch the large muscle groups by physically pulling the body and the internal arts stretch the soft, connective tissues by dropping weight onto them as you sink. The advantage of the soft tissues stretching is that they connect into one unit creating an elasticated and very strong internal structure. On top of this, the stress created from the stretching helps to conduct more Qi along their length and so the ‘channels open’ as it was classically termed. The disadvantage of this kind of work is that compared to working the external muscles it is very complex, difficult and takes a long time. A large degree of trust is required as for a long time you are essentially making yourself weaker as you cannot use the large muscle groups that external stylists would generally (but not always) use to generate power.
It generally takes around 2-3 years of correct, regular training for a new student to form their inner structure to any great degree through an art like Baguazhang. No matter how well they may intellectually understand what they are trying to do, the body takes time to change and grow. From experience, most people seem to need these 2-3 years depending upon prior experience, the state of their body and how much practice they put in.
When you can ‘touch the floor’ and the soft tissues are starting to connect then you can begin to experience ‘change’ as it is meant in Baguazhang teachings. The body begins to feel somewhat ‘inflated’. The inner structure has become more taught and springy under the force of your weight and the Qi has begun to inflate the system. This is the platform upon which inner Baguazhang training begins.
The reason for this is the new ‘body’ you have built inside from your practice is more reactant to pressures. At first this pressure generally comes from partner work. As a person puts physical pressure into your body you can begin to feel all of the subtle shifts, engagements and stretches that take place from the point of contact all the way down through the body to the ground. Whereas beginners will essentially take force into their skeletal structure, skilled Baguazhang practitioners will avoid allowing the pressure to touch the bones. Instead it is redirected through the network of soft tissues they have been shaping so that it instead heads to the ground or else disperses over the body. This is how many of the supernatural looking feats of receiving large amounts of pressure begin. A solid physical push from a partner or opponent leaves them huffing with effort whilst the internal artists imply stands relaxed and not moving. Beginners will need bone alignment to do this whilst more experienced practitioners will use the network of tissues they have been building.
The next stage is to experience how all of the pressures and engagements within the body change along with the pressure coming in. So, if the force is non-fixed (as most incoming pressures are) how does this change inside of the body? This starts to feel like shifting waves and spirals inside of the body as you make contact with an opponent. It is these shifts that a Baguazhang practitioner should utilise and study. As the force changes the ‘circumstances’ inside of the practitioners they can be released and transformed into kinetic chains which go on to fuel the external techniques they are utilising. These chains of power generally then follow set routes within your body which have been built and reinforced time and time again through repeated palm change practice. After training for some time you actually realise that all of these lines are already contained within the single and double changing palm; they are simply played with and adjusted a little through the other palms to create adaptability.
The second stimulus for creating change within the body is the practitioners mind. Our awareness or focus is named Yi within the internal martial arts and a huge degree of classical internal training should be concerned with developing and cultivating Yi. Stillness and an ability to be ‘mindful’ of the bodies state should be trained, qualities known collectively as Ting in the internal arts. If a practitioner can develop a ‘whole-body’ mindful state through their training then the mind will interact with the soft tissue network they have built. It is a curious thing that external, contractive muscles do not relate to the Yi in the same way as the stretchy, connective ‘wet suit’ of tissues we are aiming to build in the Nei Jia systems. The mind generally feels contractive muscle as somewhat heavy and ‘dead’ after a while whilst it interprets the soft tissues of the Nei Jia is alive and somewhat fluid. When the Yi interacts with these tissues it causes them to lightly ‘grip’ and engage. Note that I did not say ‘tense’ here, but ‘engage’; they are quite different things. As the Yi causes this engagement it generates a stress on the tissues length and so it conducts more Qi to the area. This is the martial mechanism for Yi leading the Qi within Baguazhang practice.
If we look at how an incoming pressure to the body creates a changing series of engagements in the ‘internal body’ it is not so hard to understand how movement of the Yi also create these same results. The ‘gripping’ of the Yi is akin to an incoming pressure and so in this manner as the mind goes through various shifts it also produces changes in the quality of both the physical body and the practitioners Qi. At high levels of practice it is these changes of Yi which serve to generate the physical palm changes and movements of the style.
To go further into the nature of change within Baguazhang would take a long time, most likely a series of volumes. I shall stop here as I am simply sharing my thought processes whilst travelling by plane across Europe. I don’t want what was intended to be a short article to become too rambling. Baguazhang training is complex and deep, it takes a long time to become proficient and even longer to attain any kind of expertise. My advice to new students approaching the style would be to try and recognise the difference between the pre-Heaven and the post-Heaven methods. The external techniques and the internal expressions of the principle of change. Learn what these mean, when to study them and hwo to evolve from one to the next in your development.