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Why I Practice Ba Gua by IAI Instructor Mark Greenfield

IAI instructor Mark Greenfeld with Master Gao Ji Wu In Beijing

Which Martial Art?

Which martial art is the best? It depends. If you are interested in beginning martial arts or considering switching to a different style, the more relevant question is “which martial art is the best for you at this point in your life?” Martial arts are not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. If you weigh 90 pounds, Sumo Wrestling may not be for you. If you weigh 300 pounds you might consider something other than Capoeira. If you have a medical condition that requires avoiding head trauma, MMA is out. If your 13-year old needs a way to deal with a school bully, Tai-Chi may not be the thing, and if you’re 65 with bad hips, Tae-Kwon-Do might be the wrong choice.

Ba Gua Zhang (Eight Diagram Palm) was developed roughly 200 years ago. Like many martial arts, the person credited with creating Ba Gua Zhang (Dong Hai Chuan) combined elements of previous martial arts, adding his own personal twist. It is believed that Dong combined his martial arts experience with the Taoist meditative practice of circle-walking. So on the most basic level, part of what distinguishes Ba Gua Zhang is that it combines the benefits of exercise and self-defense with the benefits of meditation.

At first glance, the benefits of Ba Gua read like a list of benefits from a lot of other martial arts:

  • Improved health
  • Cultivating a more relaxed state of being and a sense of well-being
  • Improving your ability to defend yourself

To be more specific about the benefits of Ba Gua, I’ll discuss my personal experience.

Improved Health

I am currently 56 years old. Having studied a couple of different martial arts for over 35 years with a variety of teachers, I can honestly say I’ve benefitted from all of them in one way or another. I was lucky to work with some great teachers. From the age of 30-45, I focused on a martial art that requires a high degree of agility and strength, and includes a fair amount of contact oriented sparring. I loved this martial art, but after 15 years I severely injured my back while practicing. As I worked to recover, I would lay off training, get better, go back to practicing, and then, bam, my back would get reinjured. I had to move on. I stopped practicing for a year or two. I missed training, but I wanted to be able to walk upright.

I was seeing an acupuncturist who was also a martial artist. I told him “I’m looking for a new martial art. One I can actually apply in a fight if necessary, but one that will allow me to practice without re-injuring my back.” He pointed me to Tom Bisio. For the past 9-years I have been studying Ba Gua with Tom. From the day I began training with Tom, my back improved. My back still goes out occasionally, but the frequency and severity of my back problems has been greatly reduced. Most martial arts promise “improved health,” but let’s be real: many of us know martial artists who can kick your butt, but who can barely walk from the impact of their training. This is not “improved health” in my book. So, one of the benefits of Ba Gua is it allows you to train in self-defense in a way that avoids chronic injury.

Ba Gua training requires practitioners to root their feet into the ground, sink their tail, and to simultaneously “ding” (a Chinese word that essentially describes the physical activity of reaching up to the sky with the crown of your head as if you are pushing a hat upwards). The simultaneous action of rooting, sinking the tail and raising the crown, elongates and benefits the spine. Ba Gua also incorporates twisting movements in the torso that put you in touch with the body’s naturally spiraling structures and gives you a feeling of opening-up and moving the way your body wants to move. In a sentence, Ba Gua opens the pathways in your spine and in your muscles, and on a purely physical level, it makes you feel good.

Reexamining the Attitude of No-Pain No Gain

There are difficult moments in every martial art where you challenge your perceived physical limitations. Ba Gua incorporates, among other exercises, holding stances for long periods of time, people throwing you and executing seizing techniques on your joints, and conditioning exercises like two-person arm-banging drills where your partner and you smash various parts of your bodies against one another as a means of learning how to deliver and how to receive force. These activities challenge one’s threshold. But there is a progression in Ba Gua. The exercises that lead up to things like arm-banging, help you to experience it as energizing rather than as painful.

Your other Martial Arts Click

Ba Gua made the other martial arts I studied click. For example: I spent a couple of years studying Tai-Chi with some great teachers. Having sparred with people who exclusively studied Tai-Chi, I can attest to its effectiveness. However, for some reason, Tai-Chi never fully clicked for me personally. But when I started training in Ba Gua, it activated my understanding of how to apply Tai-Chi. In fact, Ba Gua helped me incorporate all the martial arts I had studied, and gave me a format to continue honing the principals I had learned in other arts without incurring chronic injuries.

Self Defense

I am not nearly as flexible and fast as when I was studying other martial arts 20 years ago, but in Ba Gua Zhang, you learn techniques that don’t require you to be able to kick over your head or to do a handspring. And I feel safe in saying, the 56-year-old me of today, could handle the faster and more agile me of 20-years ago. 30-year-old me could lift more weight than I can today. But 56-year-old me is a lot more rooted, and knows how to maximize the amount of force my given body can generate. I also know how to yield against superior force, but in a way that allows me to find advantage in other ways. (I am still working on the yielding part!) My improved self-defense capabilities are due in large part to having a good Ba Gua teacher. It is also due to the core principles of Ba Gua. The forms can be intricate, but once the principles behind the movements are embodied by you, the applications become direct and pragmatic.

When I practice Ba Gua, I feel better afterwards. I believe this stems from the art’s origin: a martial art combined with a meditative practice. There is something about walking the circle that un-clouds your mind. I had been having some challenges in one of my jobs and could not stop thinking about it. This obsession clouded my days. As I was in class one morning, walking the circle, it occurred to me after about an hour in, that I had stopped thinking about my job; I had stopped thinking about my taxes; I had stopped stressing out. I wasn’t thinking at all – I was in a meditative state, focusing on doing the movements correctly and on my breathing. I realized, that I was in fact doing a walking meditation. As someone who always had a hard time with seated meditations, this discovery surprised and elated me. Somehow, in the pursuit of learning martial arts, I had inadvertently stumbled into the benefits of meditation.

People who don’t do martial arts often ask “how do you find the discipline.” It’s not discipline if you love doing it. Some Ba Gua forms are regimented and the movements are the same each time. Other forms, are like a puzzle with pieces that can be put together in a variety of ways, so that there is a creative quality to them. There is something in this improvisational way of training, and in the forms being practiced in a circle, that makes time fly. You’re not just trying to get through your forms, you get lost in them. You wish you had more time.

These are some of the reasons I have chosen Ba Gua Zhang over other martial arts. Is it for everyone? No. But as one of the less well known arts, I would encourage everyone interested in martial arts to try it. If you are an experienced martial artist, it may transform your practice, and if you are a beginner, it is a wonderful way to open-up the door.

Mark Greenfield is a Foundational Level Instructor under Tom Bisio with NY Internal Arts. He teaches in Brooklyn and in NYC and can be reached at moc.liamgnull@dleifneerghkram