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Why learn Ba Gua Zhang?

If you are thinking about learning the art, then you will probably be asking yourself what the point is.

Background

Ba Gua Zhang (Pa Kua Chang) both refer to the same art, the difference is because there are two different ways of expressing Chinese in English: Pinyin (Ba Gua Zhang) and Wade-Giles (Pa Kua Chang). Pinyin has become the modern standard so we'll use it throughout, and refer to the art simply as Ba Gua.

Ba Gua symbol

The Ba Gua is an octagonal symbol that is at the root of Chinese philosophy, the I Ching and Feng Shui. It's composed of 8 trigrams which are paired to form the 64 possible hexagrams of the I Ching.

Ba Gua Zhang literally means 8 trigram palm.

Dong Hai-Ch'uan

Dong Hai-Ch'uan


Dong Hai-Ch'uan (Tung Hai-Ch'uan) is credited with originating the art, however there is debate over whether he personally developed the art or learnt it from a secret Taoist in the mountains. Its true origins remain a mystery.

“He was a bodyguard who tested the effectiveness of his skills against simultaneous attacks from multiple opponents armed with weapons”

Dong Hai-Ch'uan first popularised the art in the 1860's, which combines Taoist circle walking with fighting principles. As one of the youngest martial arts, it was able to take inspiration from the most effective arts of the time, including Tai Ji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan) and Xing Yi Quan (Hsing-I Chuan) (these are the other Internal Arts, so-called because they use internal energy or Qi), and combine them into a new art designed to be effective at combating all the others. Like many early practitioners, he was a bodyguard who tested the effectiveness of his skills against simultaneous attacks from multiple opponents armed with weapons.

Yin Fu

Yin Fu


Lu Shui-Tian's Ba Gua is broadly Yin Fu style. Yin Fu was considered the best of Dong Hai-Ch'uan's students. In 1900, he was responsible for escorting the Empress Dowager out of Beijing when the city was under siege from foreign troops. She had her choice of all the martial artists in the Forbidden City and she chose him as her personal bodyguard, which gives an insight into Ba Gua and Yin Fu's reputation. After this incident, he became famous and many pupils studied under him.

Natural principles

“Continuous evasive unpredictable movements, and continuous attacks”

The art is a physical manifestation of the natural principles which are the foundation of Chinese philosophy: Yin and Yang, the 5 elements (water, wood, fire, earth, metal), and the I Ching.

It's about being in harmony with change itself, accepting and moving with it is the principle of following the tao. Developing this sense is useful in our ever changing world.

The emphasis is on improvising and adapting to the current situation, to flow with the changes in your environment, or your opponent's actions. Formulaic techniques won't work if your opponent makes an unexpected move, which is why the focus is on the principles of movement and fighting. An understanding of these will enable you to cope with any situation.

Ba Gua uses the most effective and efficient movements, along with a clear understanding of distance and angles, to create continuous evasive unpredictable movements, and continuous attacks.

It's soft and flowing nature can make it appear like a dance, but don't be fooled as the focus is on simultaneously evading an attack and finding an opportunity to quickly finish the fight.

The Taoists always emphasised the importance of learning from nature, for example understanding the physical limits of what the human body can do, and what it's possible to train it to do. People imagine that martial artists can have supernatural abilities, Park Bok Nam says that a human being trained to their full potential can develop skills which appear supernatural.

Another approach common to other Chinese arts is to learn principles of fighting or movement from animals. Park Bok Nam was told by his teacher to watch cats, to understand the mechanics of lion-stepping - a lion is heavy but can move fast with very light steps - a principle which is used when circle walking. Ba Gua has 8 animals (lion, giraffe, snake, swallow, dragon, bear, phoenix, monkey).

The art of Ba Gua

It was not developed for soldiers on a battlefield or boxers in a ring. It's a close-in guerrilla style fighting art used against multiple opponents. It's main characteristics include:

Circle walking

Park Bok Nam circle walking in swallow posturePark Bok Nam circle walking in lion posture

Taoists developed circle walking from the theory that nothing in nature stands perfectly still, thus remaining in constant motion while meditating is more natural. Stillness in motion is about keeping the upper body still while the legs are in motion.

On a purely physical level, walking in a very low stance whilst twisting towards the centre of the circle is a powerful conditioning exercise. It increases the strength and flexibility of the legs, hips, spine, shoulders etc.

Holding static upper body postures (like the 8 animals) for extended periods along with focussed breathing forces the major muscles to relax, allowing the smaller secondary muscles, tendons and ligaments to take responsibility for body alignment and stability, which is what they're designed to do.

Palm striking

One of the main characteristics of the art is the palm strike. This is an internal strike which only requires a small quick shake of the body to create a powerful strike, that penetrates deep inside the body and stays there.

The principle of whipping uses the centre of the body as the handle and the palm as the end of the whip. Whole body power is about the continuous ripple of movement becoming a wave that crashes on to the opponent.

If the student has never experienced an internal strike, then Park Bok Nam will first give them a taste of what it feels like and then teach them exercises designed to progressively develop the ability.

Footwork

Park Bok Nam pai pu step

Like other arts the importance of being rooted is fundamental, both for balance and energy connection to the ground. What's different about Ba Gua is the ability to maintain a rooted connection whilst in motion.

It's not a heavy static root, but a light moving root which is developed through 8-direction rooted stepping and circle walking.

This allows powerful strikes to be issued while still moving, so there's no need to get rooted and reload for the next strike.

The purpose of training

All our training is a balance of Qi Gong and self defence, they are the yin and yang we need to balance in order for harmonious development of the true art.

Everything we practice has an application for health and fighting.

Read about learning the art of Ba Gua »

Qi Gong

Park Bok Nam scooping the moon Qi Gong

Qi Gong means energy work, to circulate the Qi. We use energy and Qi to refer to the same thing.

Park Bok Nam likes to say, "If a dam has a leak, you don't fill the reservoir with water until the dam is fixed."

The body's internal systems need to be balanced in terms of energy production, distribution and consumption. If not, then the body is not working optimally, and attempts to use internal energy (for martial arts or healing) will cause further imbalance.

Park Bok Nam doesn't like to mystify Qi Gong, he prefers to use clear explanations, and simple exercises which allow someone to experience it for themselves.

Effective Qi Gong creates powerful Qi circulation, which is beneficial to our health and vitality. When a part of the body is inactive (e.g. arm in a sling), energy and blood don't reach that area and it becomes weak. The mental intention and physical movement of Qi Gong circulates energy and blood to every part of the body.

There are many types of Qi Gong, what we practice has a specific Ba Gua flavour to it, which focuses on the joints and organs.

Park Bok Nam hidden flower under leaf

The joints need to be relaxed and supple for energy to pass through them, so Ba Gua Qi Gong is designed to work the whole body, using spiralling and twisting motions to work every angle of every joint.

The internal organs are attached by ligaments and designed to move inside the body cavity. Every Qi Gong exercise has benefits for specific organs (e.g. twisting the spine massages the kidneys, lifting up right palm raises the liver).

Additionally these exercises develop Qi awareness, Qi feeling in the body, and the sensitivity required to 'listen' to your opponent.

The muscles need to be relaxed enough to let the Qi flow, but still have enough natural tension to support and move the body. Ba Gua demonstrates the benefits of natually efficient motion, and teaches you to trust whatever feels natural and comfortable.

Ba Gua uses natural body alignments, the body's structural integrity, to work with gravity and create a strong connection to the ground.

At first glance it may not look hard to move so slowly, but twisting and stretching virtually every muscle and sinew simultaneously, whilst remaining calm, gives the body quite a workout.

Beginners start with more simple exercises, just moving their hands so they can get an immediate taste, an experience of what the practice is really about, where it might lead and why it has such a profound effect on the body. Thus they are cultivating their Qi Gong and including it in their practice from day one, rather than as secret teaching years later as with other styles.

See articles about Qi Gong »

Self defence

Lu Shui-Tian

It's considered a complete art because its a complete system which includes: Stretching, breathing, meditation, deep stance work, stepping, circle walking, blocks & strikes (palms, fists, elbows, kicks), Quin Na (Chin Na) joint locking, throws, weapons (staff and broadsword initially, then straight sword, spear, knives).

We practice each component of the system (e.g. breathing, stepping, palm strikes) in isolation until it's polished and works as a reflexive action. Then it's easier to combine them as functioning components of the system, as each part is now a reflex (e.g. so you don't have to consciously focus on your footwork), and juggling them itself becomes a reflex. It can seem disjointed at first, but the ways of combining components is limitless and you can start to glimpse the infinite nature of the art.

Learning Ba Gua also means detailed study of fighting strategy. Understanding what weapons you have and how to use them, or as Park Bok Nam would say, discovering what ingredients you have, what you need and how to cook.

See articles about self defence »