Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Circle Walk Practice of Ba Gua Zhang by Dan Miller

Why Walk the Circle?
The circle walk forms the foundation of Ba Gua Zhang training for a number of important reasons, each of them having to do with the development of fundamental physical skills, internal cultivation skills, and fighting skills. In this section of the article I will describe some of the physical benefits, internal skills, and fundamental fighting skills the Ba Gua Zhang practitioner gains from the practice of circle walking.
Physical Benefits

The physical benefits of the circle walking practice include an increased overall physical strength, improved balance, full body coordination, and functional flexibility. Additionally, cardiovascular health can be improved with the walking conducted at a semi-rapid pace for a sustained period of time. While the basic circle walking practice will give the practitioner benefits in all of the above mentioned areas of physical skill, there are also circle walking variations and special methods which will specifically focus on each of these areas.

Legs: In terms of physical strength the circle walk practice will benefit both the legs and the upper body as well as torso and upper and lower body coordinated strength. Obviously the legs benefit from the walking itself. A practitioner who wants to focus on strengthening the legs will walk in a lower posture. Additionally, all circle walk variations (as outlined in the next section of this article) benefit the legs in different ways. In other words, the stepping method can be modified depending on what aspect of leg strength the practitioner is trying to develop. For example, some practitioners practice a high "crane step" whereby the foot of the stepping leg is lifted to about knee height before stepping forward. This trains the practitioner to be stable and balanced on one leg and thus provides a foundation for Ba Gua's leg trapping and sweeping techniques. Some practitioners take this idea a bit farther and walk on top of bricks, poles that have been driven into the ground, or different sized stones that have been arranged in a circular pattern. These are all methods of improving balance and stability while remaining in motion.

In addition to walking the circle in a low stance to improve leg strength or walking while utilizing the "crane step" to improve balance, there are other various methods of improving leg skill while walking the circle. Some practitioners will pick up the stepping leg and then shoot it straight forward with force as if kicking to the lower part of an opponent's shins with their toes. This step, called the "thrusting step" or the "shake step," provides a foundation for some of Ba Gua's kicking methods. Some practitioners from the Yin Fu style will walk the circle with the stepping foot always landing in the Bai Bu , or toed out, position in order to train the use of this step in hooking an opponent's leg or kicking to the opponent's shin with the bottom of the foot. In general, a Ba Gua practitioner who is walking the circle with the focus on developing leg strength will primarily be concerned with leg strength which facilitates stable, balanced, and smooth whole body movement.

Li Zi Ming's student, Zhang Hua Sen, walks the circle holding the "Heaven and Earth" palms.

Upper Body: When training specifically for upper body strength the Ba Gua practitioner will walk the circle for long periods of time while holding static upper body postures. This practice facilitates the training and strengthening of secondary muscle groups and tendons. When holding the static upper body positions the practitioner will try to relax the major muscle groups and thus access the smaller secondary muscles and tendons which are responsible for body alignment and stability. These muscle groups are not usually under conscious control because they are not the muscles which actually perform physical body movements. Their function is to keep the body in place and stable while the bigger muscles are actually performing the movement of the torso and limbs. By holding upper body postures until the major muscles are fully fatigued, the secondary muscles have to work harder and thus they are trained more completely. Exercise such as weight-lifting work to strengthen the major muscles, however, do not train the secondary muscles and "stability" muscles fully. The result of static posture holding is a very stable, connected, and integrated whole body power. Practitioners who really want to get fanatical about this aspect of training will hold light weights in each hand (the practitioners of old used balls of mud or stones). However, most instructors recommend that students spend a very long time holding the postures without weights before adding light weights.

Torso: In Ba Gua it is extremely important that the torso (which will include the areas of the waist, hips, pelvis, and inner thighs) is strong and flexible. The torso provides the connection between the upper and lower extremities. In all internal styles the principle of power "coming from the legs, directed by the waist, and expressed in the hands" is very important. The "waist" in this case includes the inner thighs/groin area, the hips and pelvic region, and the lower torso. If the movement of the torso is not strong and coordinated with the entire body, the power in the legs will not be expressed in the hands.

During the circle walk practice the torso is trained during the change of direction. While practicing the basic circle walk practice most schools will change directions by executing the single palm change. The movements of the single palm change are extremely important in training the torso. When changing directions and executing the twisting and turning movements of the single palm change the practitioner focuses on the movement being driven by the legs and being directed by the inner thigh/pelvic region.

Whole body coordination relies on the proper movement of the upper legs and lower torso and thus the change of direction on the circle during the circle walk practice also develops the practitioner's ability to coordinate the upper and lower body. Additionally, the turning and twisting movements executed during the change of direction on the circle serve to develop a functional flexibility.

By functional flexibility I am referring to training which works to stretch and loosen muscles that will need to be supple and loose during the execution of Ba Gua. It is great if someone can perform the full splits, however, performing the splits or being able to put your foot behind your head is not nearly as functional in Ba Gua as having a loose and supple twisting and turning movement throughout the whole body, especially in the pelvic region. There are many individuals who have very limber leg muscles, however, when asked to stand with their feet and knees facing forward and twist their hips as far as they can to one side or the other, they discover that the muscles in their pelvic region are not so loose. In Ba Gua functional flexibility involves twisting and rotating the muscles and suppleness in the joints. Twisting the legs, twisting the hips, twisting the torso, twisting the shoulders, and twisting the arms. Additionally, the twisting is executed in a coordinated fashion while maintaining whole body connection. These elements are all trained in the single palm change.
Internal Cultivation

Internal cultivation during the circle walk practice involves the cultivation of a mind/body connection, the development of what is referred to in Chinese as "stillness in motion," a connection between the "inside and the outside," and a keen awareness of one's "center." During the circle walk practice the mind is calm and the breathing smooth. The combination of a calm mind and smooth breathing is the first step in creating a strong mind/body connection and a feeling of being "still while in motion" (the inside is "still" while the outside is in motion). Beyond that there are many different images and visualizations that different schools of Ba Gua will utilize during the circle walk practice in order to create a stronger mind/body connection. Some use something as simple as focusing on an object such as a tree or pole which is placed in the center of the circle while others have more elaborate visualizations. Some imagine walking through water, thick air, or waist deep mud, others imagine that they are walking on thin ice or on a very slippery surface, while others imagine energy moving in their body in various ways. The images and visualizations that can be used are endless. Personally, I have found the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle to be the most effective. The more elaborate the visualization, the farther removed from the concept of "stillness in motion" one becomes.

Awareness of one's center and how that center relates to the rest of the body while walking the circle and changing directions is another important concept. In Ba Gua the practitioner is very concerned with the relationship between his center and the opponent's center. He will want to "protect" his center while trying to off-balance the opponent's center. Additionally, most of the movements in Ba Gua require that the practitioner become skilled at moving from his center or moving around his center. Thus, the keener the awareness of the center and how it relates to the rest of the body during movement, the more effective and efficient the practitioner will become. The practitioner works to become aware of his center in the circle walk practice both during the walk and during the directional change.

Sun Zhi Jun demonstrates the use of a deep Bai Bu step in trapping the opponent's leg.
Fighting Skills

In Ba Gua Zhang fighting, footwork is primary. The footwork must be executed such that the upper body is always stable so that no movements are "telegraphed" and that the body is always rooted into the legs and ground. Additionally, this stability must be maintained even when the practitioner is moving quickly. All of the skills mentioned above, strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, awareness of one's center, etc., are important fighting skills which are trained, at their most basic level, during the circle walk practice.

In a combat situation, the most important skill for the Ba Gua practitioner is the ability to change directions rapidly and smoothly while maintaining balance and stability (rootedness in motion). Bending the knees slightly and sinking the Qi to the dan tian when walking the circle in a smooth, continuous manner stabilizes the body and places the center of body mass and center of gravity in a position which optimizes the ability to maintain balance and rootedness while in motion.

The walking practice trains stability in motion and stillness in motion. Here the concept of "stillness in motion" not only refers to stillness on the inside, but also refers to stillness of the upper body while the legs are in motion. If the upper body is bobbing, swaying, weaving, or otherwise moving with each step, you will be telegraphing your motion. The change of direction during the circle walk practice also trains the ability to move rapidly and efficiently around one's center. This skill is also extremely important to the Ba Gua fighter. For more information about circle walking as it applies to fighting skill see the article "Advanced Circle Walking: Training to Fight" on page 23 of this issue.

Re-Blogged from The Pa Kua Journal

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