Bagua Zhang is perhaps the least-known and most intriguing of the Chinese “Internal” martial arts. It is visually distinguished by a soft, flowing appearance and the fact that many of its forms and exercises involve walking in a circle. This circle is often represented as the Circle of Changes (ba gua or “eight trigrams”), with eight trigrams from the I Ching around the circumference, as in the diagram below:
Historically, Bagua appears to have been confined to practice by reclusive Taoists living in mountains and distant monasteries until the 19th Century, when it suddenly appeared in mainstream Chinese society thanks to a teacher named Tung Hai Chuan, where it quickly established a tremendous reputation as a fighting art in that unstable and martial arts-saturated environment. Since that time, Bagua has also gained a reputation as a tremendous tool for health and healing.
“Walking the Circle” as a practice for physical and spiritual health has a long history in Taoist monasticism with or without the martial applications. It is a form of exercise and of walking meditation. The spiritual benefits of the practice include cultivating stillness of mind, calm nerves and a sense of inner balance that can withstand even the most rapid and unsettling changes in your outer world- in other words, it can help you cultivate inner resilience. Outer, physical resilience benefits include:
– Developing consciousness of good postural alignment throughout the body in a state of movement,
– Developing a good sense of balance,
– Developing agility and the ability to change directions quickly,
– Stretching, compressing, opening and strengthening the body’s soft tissues- muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia,
– Gently massaging the internal organs,
– Opening and strengthening the joints.
The initial focus of Bagua is to make the body supple, healthy and strong.
So what does this process look like?
First, Bagua teaches specialized stepping methods with particular energetic implications, which in the first level of teaching are used to walk the circle in alternating clockwise and counter clockwise directions with the arms in particular static positions. This form of movement is used for the cultivation of inner power under the guidance of an expert.
In the next two stages, the practitioner is introduced to the single and double palm changes, which represent the yang and yin energies of Bagua, the projecting and fluid energies if you will.
In the fourth stage, the student learns the Eight Palms, representing the eight energetic possibilities depicted by the trigrams of the ba gua circle. Bagua practice is distinguished from other martial arts by the fact that it is done moving at full speed (after a slower introductory period) with rapid changes of direction and circular and spiraling movements.
Bagua operates on the principle of practicing a small number of movements, each of which has a great many layers of content. An example of this are the single and double palm changes (see video). Classically, students of Bagua were first taught to walk the circle as a basis for performing Nei Gung energy work, then the two initial palm changes and very little else for quite awhile.
Even so, it is said that to be able to fully utilize and understand any of the individual palm change movements might take years of practice- and that the abilities in combat of those who focus on a few small movements are far greater than the abilities of those who learn complex combat applications. The many specialized movements are merely a container for the energies being used. Here, martial arts master B.K. Frantzis gives you a quick demo to give you the idea of how this all works:
The Bagua approach to developing inner power is the Taoist sixteen-part process of Nei Gung, which you can read about from a number of sources, notably B.K. Frantzis’ books. Through this process, the student’s energy is made strong and healthy, and can be consciously used for particular purposes.
Blockages in the energy system from traumatic events are removed, and the student can begin to consciously cultivate, use and preserve energy for their own health, and also to heal others. Finally, the Bagua student can begin to see and experience in real, energetic terms where he or she stands in the energy system of the world and the cosmos.
Bagua makes no bones about the fact that despite the many health, healing and martial applications of its many movements, those movements are useless unless you’ve first cultivated the inner power to make them work for their intended purpose. Bagua is unique in its reliance on footwork as a form of energy work. Where other martial arts rely on stances, Bagua relies on stepping methods that are both numerous and subtle. In martial applications, this means that if you’re sparring with a Bagua person, they’ll end up behind you within a couple of seconds.
These stepping methods also have specific functions in naturally opening the body’s energy channels, and in opening, relaxing and strengthening the joints- in one instance recounted by Frantzis, a man with severe hereditary rheumatism used Bagua practice to keep his condition in check.
That last is an important point, because Bagua confers additional physical benefits from long practice- the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia are relaxed and subjected to constant gentle twisting motions, which are essential to the health and strength of these tissues and of the energy system which travels through them, an aspect of fitness that is only beginning to be recognized in the West. The joints, another key component of the energy system, also need to be opened and strengthened through gentle movement to stay healthy as the body ages.
Bagua offers a lifelong path to personal resilience in personal health, healing, martial applications, spiritual development and energy work, unique in its comprehensive vision, depth and the concentric layers of simplicity and nuance that one seems to encounter at every turn.