By IAI Instructors Thad Wong & Kelly McDonald
As is so often the case in Ba Gua Zhang, it all comes back to Ding Shi. Over the past couple of years, fellow Ba Gua Instructor Kelly McDonald and I have been regularly training together with a renewed focus on Ding Shi, “held posture,” circle walking. Our training sessions always start with a generous dose of slow, attentive mud stepping on the circle.
This focus on Ba Gua Zhang’s fundamental training method has unearthed a treasure trove of applicable realizations in both our practices. Our teacher, Tom Bisio, and the classical writings on Ba Gua Zhang, have both frequently encouraged a focus on walking the circle. Over the last several years we have come to clearly see why.
Our excitement at diving into Ding Shi led Tom to ask us if we would be willing to participate in a mysterious “Ding Shi project.” We immediately agreed, and showed up to our training session with him eager to start and curious what awaited us.
Video Footage of Thad Wong and Kelly McDonald Demonstrating Sections of the Form
I had imagined that we might be playing with some loose concept in our Ding Shi practices, but in typical Tom fashion, his project had more depth and precision than either of us had imagined!
At the start of our training session he dug into his bag and pulled out a bound notebook for each of us, which contained his recent translation of an excerpt from Li Gong Cheng’s book “Miraculous Secrets of Dong Hai Chuan’s Ba Gua Zhang”. Inside the notebook was the full description and original drawings for a form with changes based on each of the 8 primary Ding Shi postures in Li Zi Ming’s Liang style Ba Gua system.
Our project was to teach ourselves the form from the notebook, and work with it for a while as true to the description as possible. After it started to feel more natural, our next assignment was to suss out which parts felt good, and which parts felt like they could be tinkered with.
It took Kelly and I about 6 weeks of meeting every Sunday and puzzling through the drawings and lengthy descriptions of each movement together before we had the form fully assembled. There were definitely a few confusing transitions that we had to revisit several times, but overall I was struck at how quickly we could feel how the movements should naturally manifest, simply by applying the Ba Gua principles we had already been refining in our practices.
Before we moved into the phase of starting to play with the parts of the form that felt clunky, we met with Tom one more time to show him what we had so far. As is always the case when demonstrating material for one’s teacher, it was a little nerve wracking at the start. But as we got into it I was fascinated to see that most of the places we had flagged as potential moments to edit, Tom had too. The fact that we had arrived at such similar conclusions independently deeply reinforced how Ba Gua is an art based on dynamic, adaptable principles, rather than categorical techniques.
Of course Tom had also figured out some key things that immediately helped a few persistently rough patches smooth out in the form. There are levels to the internal arts and it was inspiring to see how clearly Tom’s body “knew” the right way to do something right away.
I was also struck at how conversational the interaction with Tom felt. More than any other time it felt like we were fellow travellers on the same path. Tom had put this form together just as recently as we had, so going over it with him was more of a discussion between practitioners than him “teaching” us. Tom’s eagerness to learn and genuine curiosity about what we felt in the changes was a little surprising. I left with a distinct feeling that his humble receptiveness even after decades of training was a critical aspect in how he had continued to develop his skills so fully.
After that session, polishing the other rough spots came quickly and naturally for Kelly and I, and within another couple weeks the form was feeling smoother and shorter – always a sign that a piece of material is beginning to integrate into the body.
Overall it ended up being an extremely valuable experience, but in ways I hadn’t expected. The form is interesting, but so far does not seem so unique that it feels like mandatory material for practitioners who train in our system. Rather, it was the actual process of resurrecting this form from the past and exploring it with Tom and Kelly that felt rich with lessons and realizations.
It was both humbling and inspiring to directly experience how the fundamental principles of Ba Gua could lead us through effectively learning an entire form from drawings and words on a page. The masters that have come before us have gifted us with a beautifully integrated art. With enough time spent practicing, Ba Gua’s principles take root and give one a compass-like body knowledge that guides one’s sense of how completely movements adhere to those principles. When we encountered a movement that strayed from these fundamental qualities, our bodies recognized it before our brains did.
I also really appreciated the opportunity to practice sitting with the parts that didn’t feel natural before considering changing them. I have noticed many times in my practice that corrections to my alignments or movement can often feel “unnatural” for a period before they get integrated. To stay in that inquisitive space where I don’t commit to the movement being either “right” or “wrong” has proved to be quite valuable. When I can apply this more patient and humble perspective, I find I learn a lot more and see deeper levels of improvement.
So if you have an internal arts practice, I recommend spending some focused time on the fundamentals, and then look for a project that gives you the space to apply the principles you develop in that practice. If you can find a partner or teacher to tackle it with, all the better. Take your time, trust yourself, and explore!
Thad and Kelly are both currently teaching Ba Gua privately online, and Thad is offering weekly group classes on Zoom. You can find get in touch with them through IAI’s instructor page here.