Ba Gua Zhang: The Art of Change
Ba Gua Zhang, along with Xing Yi Quan, and Tai Ji Quan, is one of the Chinese Internal Martial Arts, or Nei Jia Quan (Internal Boxing Arts). Translated literally, Ba Gua Zhang means “Eight Diagram Palm,” which is a reference to the Yi Jing (I Ching: Book of Changes).
Ba Gua Zhang is known for its Circle Walking practice. Circle Walking forms the foundation of Ba Gua’s martial skills. Ba Gua seamlessly combines striking, kicking, locking, and throwing as the practitioner is in continuous motion, combining circular footwork with sinuous twisting, spiraling body actions.
The founder of Ba Gua Zhang, Dong Hai Chuan (?-1882) said, “Training martial arts ceaselessly is inferior to walking the circle. In Ba Gua Zhang, Circle Walking is the font of all training.”
No other martial arts system combines so many fighting techniques into a single, unified practice. At the same time, Ba Gua Zhang is a method of moving meditation, based on ancient Daoist practices that open up the body’s energy pathways and directly connect one with universal cosmic forces.
Ba Gua Zhang Practice
The practice of Ba Gua Zhang emphasizes circular footwork and spiraling body actions that continually transform and change. Body movements are coordinated with the rotation of the waist and the walking action of the legs. All of these elements, when combined with relaxation and connection of mind and body, produce an explosive, coordinated power that comes from the unified action of the entire body and is not dependent on the relative strength of the external musculature.
In both training and application, in Ba Gua Zhang there is an emphasis on internal stillness while the body is in motion. Internally the mind and spirit are still and calm, while internally and externally the body constantly changes and transforms. With mastery of Ba Gua Zhang, one is able to create infinite techniques, seamlessly linked together.
Ba Gua Zhang Master Gao Ji Wu
(photo by Valerie Ghent)
Ba Gua Zhang & Health – Integrating Body, Mind, Spirit
Although Ba Gua Zhang is a martial art, for many practitioners its most important facet is its ability to promote health and deeper engagement with the world. In this sense, Ba Gua Zhang provides a template for integrating body, mind and spirit. The foundation of spiritual health is physical and mental health. Ba Gua Zhang’s emphasis on creating internal harmony and balance, self-cultivation of mind and body, and adapting to change, can help one to more easily negotiate life and interactions with others. The martial tactic inherent to Ba Gua of changing with changing circumstances, or as some people say, “going with the flow,” helps us understand and adapt to the natural world, and its manifestations within us. Understanding change also helps us foster a healthy relationship with ourselves and with others, so that we can adapt to different situations and cultures.
Ba Gua Zhang Spirituality and Philosophy
Ba Gua Zhang provides practitioners with an embodied spirituality and philosophy based on ancient principles that have withstood the test of time. Regular practice of Ba Gua Zhang develops a singular mindfulness that improves one’s health and approach to living. Practicing Ba Gua can help us to be in tune with ourselves and therefore with the world around us. From a Daoist perspective, Ba Gua reconnects us to the “Original Mind,” an inner knowing, or inner wisdom, that is outside of analytical thinking mechanisms.
Historical Background of Ba Gua Zhang
Although there are various theories about the origins of Ba Gua Zhang, Dong Hai Chuan (1797 or 1813 – 1882) is considered by most people to be the founder of Ba Gua. It is not known for certain what martial arts Dong studied in his youth in Hebei Province, but there is evidence that he combined martial arts with Daoist meditation practices, which involved keeping the mind empty while walking in a circle. Dong was often quoted as saying, “training in martial arts is not as good as walking the circle”, because walking the circle calms the mind and trains both the spirit and internal energy. In addition, Ba Gua’s circular arced steps aid evasion in counter-attack and help you to literally ‘turn’ an opponent’s corner.
When Dong Hai Chuan began to teach Ba Gua during the Qing dynasty, many accomplished martial arts practitioners studied with him, including Cheng Ting Hua, Song Yong Xiang, Liu De Kuan, Liang Chen Pu, Yin Fu, Ma Wei Qi, and Fan Zhi Yong. It is thought that Dong taught each student somewhat differently according to their natural physical attributes and previous martial arts training, and that later each disciple modified the principles they learned to suit their individual temperaments and abilities. Although there are many styles of Ba Gua Zhang, they all share a common root.
Some of the most famous styles of Ba Gua Zhang are:
Yin Style Ba Gua Zhang named after Yin Fu (尹福)
Cheng Style Ba Gua Zhang named after Cheng Ting Hua (程廷華)
Liang Style Ba Gua Zhang, named after Liang Zhen Pu (梁振蒲)
Gao Style Ba Gua Zhang, named after Gao Yi Sheng (高義盛)
Beijing Gao Style Ba Gua Zhang, named after Gao Wen Chang and Gao Zi Ying (高文成; 高子英)
Liang Style Ba Gua – Our Ba Gua Zhang Lineage
IAI Founder and Chief Instructor Tom Bisio began his study of Ba Gua Zhang with Vince Black. Tom traveled to China to study with Zhang Hua Sen, a senior disciple of Li Zi Ming and former Beijing Opera performer, and with Wang Shi Tong, one of Guo Gu Min’s few remaining students, and also a school brother and disciple of Li Zi Ming. With Wang Shi Tong, Tom had the opportunity to research Guo Gu Min’s contribution to the Ba Gua Zhang of Liang Zhen Pu. Master Wang’s expression of Ba Gua was pure and powerful. In 1997, Tom became a disciple of Wang Shi Tong.
Master Wang Shi Tong Teaching Tom Bisio the intricacies of the Ba Gua Saber
After Wang Shi Tong’s death, Tom and instructors from Internal Arts International studied with Gao Ji Wu and his school brothers, who teach Beijing Gao Family Ba Gua Zhang, an offshoot of Liang Zhen Pu Ba Gua Zhang. Gao Ji Wu’s grandfather, Gao Wen Cheng, was a disciple of both Yin Fu and the famous Liu De Kuan – Liu purportedly created the 64 Linear Forms (64 Hands). Liu De Kuan and Liang Zhen Pu both taught Guo Gu Min. Gao Ji Wu’s father, Gao Zi Ying, studied with both Guo Ge Min and Gao Wen Chang. Gao Ji Wu then inherited the art from his father, Gao Zi Ying.
Another influential teacher for students and instructors of Internal Arts International is Zhao Da Yuan, disciple of the great Li Zi Ming. Zhao Da Yuan is famous for his Qin Na skills and for his work training bodyguards and special forces operatives. IAI Instructors Nelson Tai, Valerie Ghent, Reggie Haley, and Thad Wong trained in Beijing multiple times with Master Zhao Da Yuan over a period of several years. In 2016, IAI instructors Wolfgang Schwalenberg, Jonathan Breshin and Mark Greenfield trained with Master Zhao for the first time.
Ba Gua Zhang, Change and the Yi Jing
The philosophy of the Yi Jing (Book of Changes), and its diagrammatic representations of change and transformation were adopted by Daoists who practiced inner alchemy. Because of the influence of Daoist Circle Walking Meditation on Ba Gua Zhang, Ba Gua practitioners also use Yi Jing Symbolism to understand and explain the concept of change and transformation. To some degree, the practice of Ba Gua is an embodied manifestation of the approach to life and change espoused in the Yi Jing. Practicing Ba Gua Zhang sensitizes the individual to adapt to the natural ongoing processes of change and transformation that are taking place within us, and in the world around us.
As a mind-body discipline, Ba Gua Zhang trains one to experience and sense the continuous changes and transformations that flow from the internal unity of Heart-Mind, Yi, Qi and Jin. Internal harmony is attributed to unity of the Heart-Mind and Intention (Yi) with Qi (vital force), and the unity of Qi with Jin (movement and power). The postures and movements of Ba Gua Zhang simultaneously arouse and enliven the Qi, so that there is no gap between intention and action, and open the body’s energy pathways, so that they are unblocked and free-flowing. This creates the basis for developing a sensitized awareness of transformation and change, and the development of instantaneous and appropriate reactions.
Ba Gua Zhang Training
Basic training in Ba Gua Zhang focuses on three inter-related practices:
1. Foundational Exercises (Ji Ben Gong)
Ba Gua Zhang training begins with Foundational Exercises that loosen up the joints in order to increase flexibility and mobility. The Foundational Exercises teach the body to move in a unified, connected fashion. Each exercise has a specific purpose and acts as a building block for more advanced movements. For example, Foundational training includes holding fixed postures that both strengthen the sinews and bones, and create fascial twists which run through the body, opening specific meridians so that Qi can flow smoothly.
2. Tian Gan (Heavenly Stem) Nei Gong
Tian Gan exercises open and stimulate the spine and the Central Channel, which in turn opens and regulates the other channels (meridians) in the body. Tian Gan exercises develop the subtle “silk winding”, spiral power dynamic that is employed in Ba Gua Zhang’s circular movements. Opening the Central Channel is a prerequisite to inner change and transformation, and the unification of body, mind and spirit.
3. Circle Walking Nei Gong (Ding Shi Ba Gua Zhang)
Ding Shi is the key exercise in learning and mastering Ba Gua Zhang. Ding Shi strengthens the body, gathers Qi in Dantian, develops unified whole-body power and agility, trains footwork and defensive and attacking skills, and opens and unblocks the meridians. Practicing Ding Shi, or Walking the Circle, integrates the principles of several powerful internal exercise methods into a single exercise. Key aspects of the famous Silk Reeling Exercises (Duan Jin), Marrow Washing Nei Gong (Xi Sui Jing), Five Animal Play (Wu Chin Xi) and Daoist Nei Dan methods of meditation and internal circulation of energy are all contained in the one seminal Ba Gua exercise, Walking the Circle.
Old Eight Palms (Lao Ba Zhang)
The first three key training methods fuse into practice of Lao Ba Zhang, literally the ‘Old Eight Palms’. Each of Lao Ba Zhang’s Eight “Palm Changes” contains hidden changes and transformations that unfold in one’s practice and in one’s life. The eight movement patterns of Lao Ba Zhang are the basis of all the other changes, forms and techniques. Training Lao Ba Zhang imparts the ability to manifest fluid interchange, as well as external and internal transformation.
Supplemental Qi Gong and Nei Gong Exercises
Supplemental exercises are often prescribed to individual students to specifically prepare their bodies for inner transformation. The following supplemental exercises activate and develop the inner Qi Dynamic, strengthen the internal organs, bones, sinews, and spine, and develop a flexible, connected power dynamic:
– Standing Meditation (Zhan Zhuang)
– Qi Cultivation Exercises (Qi Ji Gong)
– Marrow Washing Nei Gong (Xi Sui Jing)
– Daoist Waterwheel Circle Walking Meditation (Shui Che Xiao Zhou Tian)
– Three Powers Turning Palms Meditation (San Cai Zhuan Zhang)
– Daoist Seated Meditation (Nei Dan)
Ba Gua Zhang Advanced Training
Advanced training in Ba Gua Zhang includes the Eight Animal Form, the 64 Linear Palms (or 64 Hands), several advanced Linking Forms and a variety of Ba Gua weapons.
The Eight Animals of Xing Yi include Dragon (Long Xing), Snake (She Xing), Tiger (Hu Xing), Swallow (Yan Xing), Monkey (Hou Xing), Horse (Ma Xing) – or Bear (Xiong Xing), Hawk (Yao Xing), and Lion (Shi Xing). Each of the Eight Animals manifests a different aspect of the Single and Double Palm Change.
Ba Gua Zhang Weapons
Ba Gua weapons include the Staff (Gun), Saber (Dao), Straight Sword (Jian), Spear (Qiang), Mandarin Duck Knives (Yuan Yang Yue), Rooster Claw Knives (Ji Zhao Yin Yang Rui), Wind-Wheel Swords (Feng Lun Jian), Hook Sickle Swords (Gou Lian Jian), Elbow Knives (Zhou Dao) and the Seven Star Stick (Qi Xing Gun).
Training Ba Gua Zhang weapons enhances the ability to change and transform utilizing the energetic signature of the individual weapon. Weapons training improves one’s Shen Fa (body dynamics), and refines internal movement. Training with weapons teaches the practitioner to extend his or her intention and spirit beyond the limits of the body.
Benefits of Ba Gua Zhang Training
– Increased Energy
– Integration of Body, Mind and Spirit
– Development of Sophisticated Self-Defense Skills
– Increased Agility and Flexibility,
– Develops Inner Strength
– Improved Balance and Coordination
– Increased Sensitivity and Awareness
– Opens up the Spine and Joints
– Realigns the Tendons and Muscles
Additional Benefits if you do other martial arts or sports:
– Increased power and ability to root
– Increased awareness of internal movement in yourself and the opponent
– Develops relaxed power and ease of movement
– Improves footwork and the ability to dodge and evade