This article has the following major sections. Click on a link to jump to that section.
- The Circle Walk Practice of Ba Gua Zhang
- Origins of the Circle Walk Practice in Ba Gua Zhang
- The Circle Walking Method
- Why Walk the Circle?
- Circle Walking Variations
- The Benefits of Circle Walking Practice
- The Pa Kua Chang of Sun Lu-T'ang
- The Circle Walk Practice of Ba Gua Zhang
- A Detailed Study Of Ba Gua Zhang's Single Palm Change
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The Circle Walk Practice of Ba Gua Zhang
Circle Walking Variations
As discussed above, there are many benefits the Ba Gua Zhang practitioner can gain from the circle walk practice. The circle walking method employed will depend upon the result desired. Below I will discuss several of the most common circle walking methods employed by Ba Gua practitioners. I have divided this section into stepping methods, body methods, and mental methods (use of intention).
While there are literally dozens of different stepping methods Ba Gua practitioners will employ while walking the circle, there are three main methods which are practiced by most all schools. Each school may have their own special names for these steps, however, these three methods are most commonly known as the mud walking step (or snake step), rolling step (or lion step), and the crane step. Below I will outline the characteristics of these steps as practiced by several different schools of Ba Gua.
The Mud Walking Step: The "mud walking" step ( - tang ni bu), also commonly known as the "dragon step," the "gliding step," or the "snake step," is one of the most common Ba Gua stepping techniques. This step is not a method that is used very often in combat, however, it is an excellent training step and thus it is practiced by beginners in many schools. This step trains balance and stability in motion, thrusting or shoveling power in the legs and encourages an increased energy flow to the legs and feet.
Although there are numerous variations of this step being practiced by the various schools of Ba Gua, the basic step consists of the stepping foot sliding out along the ground, or hovering just over the ground, as the foot steps forward. As it is one of the most commonly practiced stepping methods in Ba Gua, a wide variety of variations have subsequently developed. In order to explore some of the mud walking step variations that are practiced today by various Ba Gua schools I will divide the mechanics of the step into three sections: picking up the rear foot, the actual step forward, and placing the stepping foot down.
1) Picking up the rear foot: While executing the mud walking step some practitioners never allow any part of the foot to raise up off the ground more than and inch or so. In other words, the entire sole of the foot always remains flat and parallel to the ground. This means that when the rear foot begins to step forward the heel does not lift off the ground, the entire foot remains flat.
Practitioners of this method have several reasons for executing their steps in this manner. The first is that they are concerned with maintaining the entire foot close to the ground while stepping so that if an outside force hits them at anytime during the step, both feet will quickly be in a stable position on the ground. Li Zi Ming style Ba Gua practitioners walk in this manner and Li gives this reason in his book, "When either foot steps forward it is necessary to lift the foot flat and step on the ground flat so that neither heel shows nor the anterior of part of the sole shows. If either the heel or sole is visible, it would be impossible to stand stable at that point in time and would provide the opponent an opportunity to attack."
Another reason for practicing this step is to train the psoas muscle and inner thigh muscles to engage more completely while walking. If the entire foot remains flat while the rear foot is coming off the ground it requires that these muscles be used to lift the leg. When the practitioner learns to walk using the psoas and inner thigh muscles in a more complete manner when stepping the steps become very powerful and stable. After practicing this method the student will notice that the legs are better conditioned even when executing normal walking steps or any of the other Ba Gua stepping methods.
The second method of picking up the rear foot utilized by Ba Gua practitioners while executing the mud walking step is to allow the heel to come off the ground as in normal walking. The heel lifts slightly and then as the foot is brought forward it flattens out parallel to the ground. These practitioners are less concerned with working the psoas muscle and more concerned with the forward extension of the foot portion of the step.
2) Stepping forward: At least two variations on this theme exist, one where the foot is never lifted off the ground at all, but slides along in contact with the ground when stepping, and the other where the foot is lifted off of the ground slightly and hovers just over the surface of the ground when stepping.
While most practitioners will step forward smoothly with a consistent movement of the stepping foot, practitioners who practice the "hesitation step" will stop the forward movement of the foot momentarily when it reaches the position of the other leg. The stepping foot is held parallel to the ground and about an inch high off of the ground. The momentary pause helps the practitioner work on balance and stability while executing the step. This step is also referred to as the "chicken step" by some schools.
3) Placing the stepping foot down: In the mud walking step, when the stepping foot moves forward and is placed in position on the ground it can be done so in several different ways. Practitioners who allow the foot to slide along in contact with the ground during the entire transition forward will either allow the foot to stop sliding when they reach a natural stepping distance or they will push the foot forward a bit farther after it has reached the comfortable stepping distance and thus they will execute an extended step.
Those practitioners who allow the foot to hover over the ground slightly as the foot is brought forward will place the foot down in one of four different ways. The first is to place the foot down flat so that the entire surface of the foot contacts the ground at the exact same time. The second is to place the foot down so that the toes dig in first and then the heel is set down. The third is to allow the toes to come down first and then continue to push the foot and allow it to slide forward in an extended step. The fourth is sort of a combination between the two different methods of bringing the foot forward. These practitioners allow the heel to rise up off the ground when they step and then they will flatten the foot so that it is parallel with the ground by the time it reaches the position of the opposite foot. At this point the foot is placed on the ground toes first and then slid forward on the ground and stops at a natural stepping distance.
The sliding of the foot forward in an extended step is trained primarily by individuals who like to use tripping and sweeping techniques. As they move towards the opponent they will quickly slide their forward foot behind the opponent's front foot or in-between the opponent's legs so that they can set up to lock the opponent's feet and legs before they execute a throwing, trapping, or tripping technique.
As you can see, there are numerous variations of the mud walking step in the execution of lifting of the foot, the transition forward, and the placing down of the foot. Other variations and combinations exist and each instructor will have their own methods of teaching and points of emphasis. Above I have simply described the most common variations in general terms. No one technique is more "correct" than the other, they all have merit.
The Rolling Step: The "rolling step," also commonly referred to as the "lion step," the "continuous step," and the "small fast step," is executed in a comfortable heel-toe walking fashion. Since it is the quickest most natural step and is easily and efficiently combined with the kuo bu and Bai Bu steps, it is often used in combat when speed and agility in motion are required.
The rolling step is very similar to natural walking, however, the knees are bent lower and the practitioner keeps the upper body stable without allowing it to bob up and down, wobble forward to back, or sway side to side. The hips, shoulders, eyes, and top of the head are all held level and the only movement occurs below the hips. The entire upper body remains relaxed, comfortable, and motionless. If someone were watching a practitioner walk the circle in this manner from the other side of a wall that was about hip height, the practitioner's upper body should be so smooth that it would appear as though the practitioner is sitting on an object which is moving around in circles. The upper body should give no indication of what the feet are doing.
In order for the walking to be smooth and the upper body motionless the legs must act as shock absorbers and the heel-toe rolling motion of the feet must be very smooth. When the practitioner's heel is set down there is no thud, it is set down very light and soft. The transition from heel to toe is very smooth, as if the practitioner had small rocking-chair type rockers on the bottoms of the feet. The transition of weight across the stepping foot is very smooth and continuous.
The Crane Step: The "crane step," which is also sometimes called the "chicken step," is executed with the stepping foot being lifted to about calf or knee height before it steps out. This step is primarily practiced to improve balance and rootedness on one leg for use when kicking, trapping, and sweeping with the legs. Yin Fu was said to have been fond of utilizing the crane step. Yin Fu was also said to be so skilled at leg trapping and sweeping that his feet and legs were as sensitive as a skilled push-hands practitioner's hands and arms. Walking with the crane step will help to develop the balance and stability necessary for these leg skills.
In stepping forward with the crane step some practitioners will slide the foot out as in the mud walking step, some will step out heel-toe as in the rolling step, while others will allow the foot to land flat so that the entire surface of the foot arrives at the same instant. In executing the crane step, some practitioners will step out smoothly while others will hesitate and balance on one leg before stepping out. The hesitation occurs when the stepping leg reaches the calf or knee of the other leg. The crane step is also typically the step which is used when practitioners practice walking on top of bricks, stones, or poles.
The Foot Placement: When practicing the circle walk, almost all schools that I have encountered have a similar foot placement in terms of the angle at which the foot is placed in relation to the line of the circle. The outside foot (foot furthest from the center of the circle) cuts in at approximately 45 degrees to an imaginary line which is tangent to the circle. The inside foot steps relatively straight ahead (parallel to the line which is tangent to the circle). Angling the outside foot helps the practitioner circumnavigate the arc of the circle. The exact angle of the outside foot will depend on the size of the circle, however, as stated above, this foot will usually angle in approximately 45 degrees when walking in an average sized circle (see illustration).
While each of the above mentioned stepping methods have their unique purpose in terms of foundational skill development, they also have purpose in fighting. Each of the stepping methods has an optimum time it can be employed in a fighting situation. Some steps are ideally suited to different kinds of techniques and different kinds of terrains. The stepping method employed (both linear and circular) in combat will constantly change depending on the situation, the opponent, and the environment. In all complete systems of Ba Gua there are complete methods of training and this means the usage of a wide variety of stepping methods in both practice and application.
Here I will use the term "body methods" to describe the height of the body, the alignment of the body, and the upper body positions used when walking the circle. When speaking of body height in reference to Ba Gua circle walking practice, practitioners often refer to the "three basins" (san pan - ). The three basins are the upper, middle, and lower, and refers to the height of the body as determined by the bend in the knees. In the upper basin posture the knees are only bent slightly. In the middle basin posture the knees are bent more and thus the body is lowered, and in the lower basin posture the knees are bent so that the thighs are almost parallel to the ground while the practitioner walks the circle.
Obviously, the lower one bends the knees while walking the circle, the stronger the legs will become. Lower basin posturing is primarily a leg strengthening exercise. The normal circle walking position is middle basin. One will walk in the upper basin posture if they are a beginner and have weak legs or if they are focusing the practice on the development of the upper body and do not want the legs to tire before the arms.
The alignment of the body when practicing the circle walk primarily has to do with the position of the torso, which includes the waist, hips, pelvic region, and inner thighs/groin area, and the spine. Some schools will teach the beginning students to walk the circle with the hips, shoulders, and head square to the path of the circle instead of looking in towards the center of the circle. In this practice the beginner is concentrating on the foot work and the hands are either held down by the sides of the body with the palms pressing downward or are in front of the body (either at lower abdomen or chest level) in an "embracing" posture. Some schools also utilize this body posture while holding arm positions where both hands are extended out to the sides of the body in some fashion (there are many variations on this theme).
Eventually all schools of Ba Gua teach the students to walk the circle with the eyes looking in towards the center of the circle. The body is twisted from the inner thigh area so that the hips are facing at a 45 degree angle in towards the center of the circle. The shoulders are aligned with the hips. The different upper body postures the practitioner will hold while walking the circle in this manner are many. Each school will have their own set of eight separate postures that they use. The most common posture is the "guard stance," which is also known as the "millstone" posture, the "dragon" posture, or the "green dragon thrusts its claws" posture. See the "guard stance gallery" on pages 16 and 17 of this issue for examples of this posture.
Another variation which occurs in the circle walk body posture is the position of the spine. While most schools will maintain a straight spine, some teachers will have their students hold the spine perfectly vertical while others will have their students tilt the spine forward slightly. The tilted spine, characteristic of the Yin Fu style, brings the body weight forward a bit so that it is centered between the legs (or just slightly in back of center). When the weight of the body is more towards the center, between the legs, the change of direction can be executed faster.
Mind/Body integration is one of the most important aspects of any internal martial art. Therefore, the mind plays a very important part in the circle walk practice. At the beginning levels, when the student is trying to work on becoming comfortable with the physical movements of the circle walk, the mind remains calm and relaxed, focused on the center of the circle, while gently reminding the body of the important points of practice. Basically the mind is trying to become aware of the physical body and thus takes a physical inventory. Are the elbows sinking downward? Are the shoulders relaxed? Are the steps light? Am I bobbing up and down or wobbling back and forth? Am I allowing my energy to sink to the dan tian? These kind of gentle reminders serve to increase body awareness and help the practitioner remember the important points of the practice.
After the practitioner becomes comfortable and familiar with the physical movements of the practice the mind can become increasingly aware of what is happening in the body. Some schools of Ba Gua will teach certain mental visualizations designed to move energy in the body. While some of these visualizations can become quite intricate, most teachers feel that the mind should begin to become more quiet instead of more active. The physical movements of the circle walk and the changes of direction will move energy where it needs to go in a naturally correct manner. Therefore, the student should allow the energy to move as it will and simply observe the movement and become aware of how the energy is naturally moving in the body. Once there is an awareness, the student can then follow the natural movement with the mind. Most teachers simply recommend that the mind be relaxed, the energy sink to the dan tian, and that the mind have a keen awareness of the physical movement. If all movements are executed smoothly and continuously with focused intention then there can be a full mind/body connection.
in Beijing's Temple oif Heaven Park in the early 1980's.
In terms of learning how to apply Ba Gua in an actual combat environment, the change of direction is the most important component of the basic circle walk practice. It is within the change of direction that the techniques of Ba Gua are usually applied. The change of direction in the circle walk practice also trains the Ba Gua body coordination, full body integration, functional flexibility, and whole body power. The torso is trained so that the upper and lower body are in harmony and Ba Gua's rotational power is developed while executing the change.
The primary movement utilized to change direction during the basic circle walk practice is the single palm change. The single palm change is the most important move in Ba Gua in terms of training the body and developing the power of Ba Gua. The single palm change is also the most important component of Ba Gua in its combat application. If a practitioner can learn how to execute and apply the single palm change properly, he will be well on his way to developing a high level of Ba Gua skill.
Like everything else in Ba Gua, there are many variations of the single palm change. Each school will execute the single palm change in a slightly different manner and within each school there are also many variations that are practiced. Ba Gua is based on the principle of change, therefore, nothing is fixed. In practicing any aspect of the art, whether it be stepping method, the single palm change, or any given technique, the Ba Gua practitioner will execute a wide variety of variations. I know of no complete system of Ba Gua that only executes one variation of single palm change. Most schools will have at least five or six different ways of executing this movement. Everything from the hand and arm positions, to the direction the body twists, to the positioning of the feet, to the positioning of the body are varied in the practice of single palm change.
Continue: The Benefits of Circle Walking Practice