Interview conducted by IAI Instructor Mark Greenfield
IAI: I’m going to start at the end and then move back to the beginning. Are you going for your senior instructor certification in Ba Gua Zhang in Italy this summer?
Svilen Pronev: Yes, I’ve signed up to test for it. I’ve been going through the curriculum to practice everything for the last few months. Maybe every 2-3 weeks I would go through all parts of it and work on each item in a bit more detail. I train here in Toronto with Marc Begin who is a senior instructor. He has been training with Tom since the mid-1990s. I meet with Marc every week and we work on the different parts of the curriculum together. It’s a great advantage having him here in Toronto. I have enjoyed working with Tom as well over the years by joining many week-long and weekend workshops, as well as seeing him one-on-one. That has also contributed to my development a lot together with my weekly sessions with Marc.
IAI: Why did you initially get into martial arts and where?
SP: As a kid I was fairly weak. Didn’t really do any sports very intensively. I was getting picked on and I couldn’t defend myself. So, for that reason I always wanted to learn martial arts. My parents weren’t really aligned with that, so they never signed me up. Around the time I turned 15, I signed myself up and started training. I didn’t ask for permission. I started training Kyokushin Karate in my home city Varna in Bulgaria. I remember when I started it wasn’t yet that big, but maybe one or two years after that we had at some point over 800 members. We had some big classes. I trained for about 5-6 years in Bulgaria. In the first year I went to classes 6 days a week. It took one year until I really started feeling like it actually had some visible effect. After a year the bullying stopped. They just found someone else to pick on at that point because picking on me wasn’t feasible anymore.
IAI: It sounds like you learned how to carry yourself in a way that is a form of self-defense in itself.
SP: Yes, exactly. We trained and sparred full contact without wearing any protection. So, you either had to toughen up or quit. You learned to fight but also to take a beating because that comes handy quite often. I’ve been knocked down quite a few times during training. That was normal. Most people quit within a few weeks to a few months.
IAI: But nobody was making you do this? You had a passion for it?
SP: Yes, and I tried to build more on top of the foundation after the first year. I didn’t need it anymore for defending myself, but I was interested to see where it would go to. When I was 21, I moved to the US to complete my Bachelor’s degree and then did a Master’s degree after that. I didn’t train much during this time as I was busy studying and settling into a new country. When I started working after graduation in Houston, I started training again. I trained Kyokushin Karate for one more year in Houston and helped teach beginners as well. During this time, I started noticing that the daily injuries from the full contact fighting didn’t heal quite as quickly as before when I was in high school. So, eventually I switched to something else.
IAI: What was that evolution like?
SP: I didn’t train martial arts for about 2-3 years after moving to Canada. When I was in my late twenties, my wife got me to join a Tai Chi class with her. After Kyokushin Karate I wasn’t exactly sure how to interpret Tai Chi. It felt like a good exercise to stay healthy. The Tai Chi I did was based on Yang style but modified to be used strictly for health. No martial arts applications were discussed. We did push hands and later I learned straight sword and broadsword forms in the Tai Chi style as well. I also learned and practiced Lok Hup Ba Fa (Liu He Ba Fa) in parallel to Tai Chi and I found that form to be very useful. It was also modified to focus on health benefits and not martial arts applications. I had some very good instructors during this time who helped me get further with these arts. I trained these arts actively for 15-16 years.
IAI: So, how did you get into Ba Gua Zhang from there?
SP: I had never really seen anyone do Ba Gua, but I had heard it mentioned many times before as another internal art. I couldn’t find much information about it, so I really got curious. I started searching online to find information, books, and videos. I spent a few months trying to understand it on my own. After about 3-6 months I realized that trying to learn it on my own was probably not going to work well. So, I tried to find a teacher at that point, and that’s how I found Marc Begin here in Toronto. That was in 2013 – about 10 years ago.
IAI: What were some of the things that you and Marc initially worked on?
SP: We worked on several things in the very beginning – circle walking and Ding Shi, Ji Ben Gong, stepping exercises and piercing palms partner drills. I would say it took at least 2 years, if not 3 years before I could even connect the dots about how I could possibly apply Ba Gua. In Kyokushin Karate seeing the applications was pretty easy – blocks, kicks, punches and other strikes. But it wasn’t so easy for me with Ba Gua. You cannot apply anything until you figure out the stepping. Until then nothing really works.
IAI: Did your experience with hard-style external martial arts help your internal martial arts, or was it an impediment.
SP: I would say they both helped as well as hindered to some extent. On one hand, Karate helped establish an understanding of how to apply force through connectedness. On the other hand, it was too rigid and resulted in a lot of tension in the Ba Gua moves, which I’m still trying to get rid of. Same with Tai Chi. It helped soften my body and my moves, but to a certain extent Tai Chi made some of my Ba Gua moves feel too soft and disconnected.
IAI: I know that an important aspect of the internal martial arts is that when you are moving your hand, every part of the body is involved in the movement of your hand.
SP: Yes, you can see this in those who have been practicing the internal arts for a long time. Their movements are smaller. You don’t see the big swing outside but you do feel the big movement inside when practicing applications with them. This is something that Marc Begin mentioned many times after I started training with him. No matter which path you take, whether you take an external martial art path or an internal martial art, the goal is the same. You just get there in two different ways.
IAI: I see the same thing when I look at internal martial artists. Their movements have become smaller, but they are still connected, and they are harder to perceive. So, when you watch videos of them, it looks like they are almost not moving.
SP: That’s exactly it. After training for a long time, the movement becomes more “inside” and less “outside”. The movement on the outside is smaller while on the inside, you feel so much more happening. So then, it’s really just awareness and perception of what’s happening. It doesn’t have to be visible outside like it is in the beginning.
IAI: What are some of the benefits of Ba Gua for you?
SP: One of the biggest benefits for me is being able to move and walk in a connected way where the whole body is involved, and you stay connected while you are moving. Walking is good exercise in general, but before I began training in Ba Gua, walking sometimes resulted in lower back stiffness and this didn’t really seem like a very healthy outcome. Something was missing. But if you apply the same principles and alignments from circle walking, to when you take a regular walk, everything feels a lot more connected and nothing gets sore even after a long time. It feels healthier in a big way.
IAI: Are there any other benefits you would say, or any other thoughts you have about Ba Gua?
SP: There is something about the complex movements that I think activates your brain in a way that I like. I think it has to do with remembering the forms and movements. Trying to do all of these complex movements in Ba Gua Zhang challenges you in many ways, because the forms in Ba Gua are not that simple. Even our core form (Lao Ba Zhang) is quite complicated. I personally find that the Tai Chi forms are simpler. So it has been a challenge to internalize the Ba Gua forms. When it’s working you can actually feel it inside. During the last few years, I have also begun working on Xing Yi. I think that also helps a lot with building awareness. Xing Yi seems a lot simpler on the outside than Ba Gua but it requires a lot of focus and awareness when making even the smallest of movements. I find that in Ba Gua I can easily get carried away when practicing the more complex forms and that sometimes detracts from what matters in training.
IAI: How would you describe the difference between Tai Chi and Ba Gua?
SP: I would say Ba Gua is all about mobility and depends on constantly changing where you stand. It allows you to cover your surroundings better as you are never in one spot for very long. It allows you to change direction easily and you are able to cover a lot of ground if needed. In Ba Gua there is softness, but there is more absorption than softness. It’s more like a spring, more spiraling while you are on the move instead of in one spot.
IAI: I love how you put it that. It cultivates one’s ability to change immediately. It makes me think of the Daoist principle that the only constant thing in the universe is change. Is reading a part of your practice?
SP: I’ve been through most of Tom’s books related to Ba Gua Zhang. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future when I’m not working full time, I will have more time to read.
IAI: If you ever had to defend yourself, what would come out when you fight today? Would it be Karate, Tai Chi, or Ba Gua?
SP: It’s going to be Ba Gua for sure. It’s kind of entrenched in how I move after 10 years of training. I know that 10 years is not a very long time when it comes to Ba Gua, but by now I don’t think that any of my other martial arts will show at all when fighting.
IAI: Have you had the opportunity to teach at all?
SP: Yes, I’ve been teaching since I got my Foundational Instructor certification. I’ve been teaching pretty much all the time since then. Most people only stick around for a few months and lose interest, but I have two students now who have been with me for about 3 years. That’s been useful, because usually when you teach new people, you show them Ji Ben Gong and circle walking and not too long after that they go away. Then you start over again with other students. I have been through the complete Foundational level with my two students as well as Lao Ba Zhang, Tian Gan, and the 64 linear forms and applications. I think that has been very useful. Showing them the applications has given me a lot to think about and try to figure out parts that don’t yet fully make sense to me.
IAI: So, what do you focus on with new students?
SP: We always first start with different stepping methods, walking the circle, and Ji Ben Gong. We work on these for a while, because they seem to be the most important in the beginning. Then we get into Qi cultivation exercises and 12 standing postures and then gradually into Tian Gan, Single and Double Palm Change. I keep stressing with my students that if they don’t have too much time to practice, they should work on Ding Shi plus Single and Double Palm Change. That’s enough to make progress in Ba Gua.
IAI: In what other ways has Ba Gua Zhang helped you? Are there any last things you would like to say?
SP: I think training Ba Gua has helped me stay healthy. I feel even better now, with more energy than when I was in my late twenties before I started doing Tai Chi. In my late twenties I would sometimes get, for example, lower back pain. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and have lower back pain, and I didn’t know why. Now that never happens. And even when something hurts, I can adjust my practice, and pretty well take care of it and make it feel better. Over time when practicing Ba Gua you learn to feel what is causing the problem and pain and have ability to focus on movements and exercises that gradually make it feel better. It has helped with how I walk or do almost anything for that matter. Even something simple like reaching to get something from the upper shelf or going up and down stairs has changed. I have been playing the guitar since I was a kid and even how I sit when I play has changed, resulting in a better posture now with less tension. Same with skiing – training is Ba Gua has changed how I stand on the slope and how I initiate my turns while skiing.
IAI: That’s fantastic! Thanks for taking the time to talk!
SP: Thank you! This was great!