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
The Benefits of Circle Walking Practice
No matter what circle walking technique is utilized, if the practitioner is relaxed, the body is aligned properly and the intention is focused, positive results in the physical, mental, and spiritual realm will follow. The practitioner's primary goal in practice will determine the walking technique employed and the technique employed will result in a more pronounced level of growth in one or more of the components which make up our physical, mental, and spiritual existence. In this section I will briefly describe some of the direct benefits a practitioner might experience if the focus of the practice is in one of three areas: meditative practice, Qi development practice, and/or physical development practice. The Ba Gua Zhang purist will be concerned with development in all three of these areas in training the complete art.
Circle Walking as a Meditative Practice
The circle walk exercise of Ba Gua Zhang originated as a Daoist Qi cultivation and meditative practice. In the world of Chinese martial arts, this practice can be compared to the Zhan Zhuang , or standing meditation practice which is an integral part of the Shaolin and Xing Yi Quan training systems. However, there is one important difference; in Ba Gua Zhang circle walking the practitioner is constantly moving. Zhao Da Yuan , a well known Ba Gua Zhang student of Li Zi Ming in Beijing, China, states that the circle walk, or moving, meditative practice directly reflects the Daoist influence. The Daoists of the Long Men sect were concerned with a unification of Man, Heaven, and Earth and therefore believed that if the meditative practice was conducted while in constant motion, one could better blend with the patterns of nature and absorb the Qi of Heaven and Earth. Zhao continues by saying that nothing in nature stands perfectly still and thus remaining in constant motion while meditating is more natural. Whereas the Buddhist meditation is static and the focus is inward, the Daoist circle walking practice is a moving meditation with the intention focused outward. In this circle walking practice, the practitioner seeks to blend with the natural world.
The practitioner who walks the circle with the meditative aspect of the training as a focus will walk at an even, fluid, steady pace. The speed of the walk can be slow to moderate. The walking step should be natural, comfortable, and continuous. The knees should be bent and the hips and waist sunk slightly so that the Qi sinks to the dan tian. Lowering the center of gravity encourages the Qi to sink; maintaining a smooth, fluid walking motion stabilizes the dan tian so that the Qi will settle. If the body bobs up and down or wobbles back and forth while walking, the dan tian will be disturbed. When the Qi sinks to the dan tian, the mind can more easily maintain a meditative focus.
While walking, the practitioner will maintain focused on an object such as a tree or pole which is placed at the circle's center. The breathing is smooth and relaxed and the practitioner may choose to repeat a mantra while walking as in the Daoist practice mentioned earlier in this article. This mantra does not need to be of religious significance, it can be as simple as repeating, in your mind, the number of times you have walked around the circle. It can be anything that will keep the mind from wandering.
Typically the practitioner will walk in one direction for a desired number of rotations and then switch directions and walk the other direction for the same number of rotations. Training sessions last between 30 minutes and one hour with the practitioner circumnavigating the circle's perimeter, alternating between the clockwise and counterclockwise walking directions. The method utilized to change directions will vary from school to school. When training the circle walk as a meditative practice, the change of direction is always very simple and executed in a smooth and fluid fashion so as not to disturb the practitioner's mental focus and concentration. The upper body posture the practitioner assumes while walking will also vary from one school to another. The practitioner may choose to hold the same upper body posture throughout the practice session, or change the upper body postures with the change of directions on the circle. Each of the different upper body positions is designed to have a specific influence on the body's energy.
Circle Walking for Qi Cultivation
Walking the circle with Qi cultivation as the main priority in practice will not differ greatly, in terms of mental focus, from the meditative circle walking practice discussed above. In the meditative practice the practitioner's goal is to maintain a calm mind and focused concentration while the Qi collects in the dan tian. In walking the circle for Qi cultivation, the mental focus and breathing pattern will remain the same, however, the walking step, body posturing, and direction change will become a bit more complex.
When walking as a meditative practice, the practitioner's step is smooth and natural. A natural heel-toe walking step executed in a smooth, fluid natural walking manner is well suited for meditative practice as it is the most natural and comfortable. This step is sometimes referred to as the "lion step" or the "tiger step" by Ba Gua Zhang practitioners. In walking with Qi cultivation as a priority, the practitioner may want to change the walking step to the "snake step" (also known as the "dragon step" or the "mud walking step") or the "crane step" as these stepping methods are designed to encourage a strong flow of Qi from head-to-toe.
In the "snake step" the heel is only brought up off the ground slightly when stepping, and as the foot is brought forward, the bottom of the foot remains parallel to the floor and hovers just slightly above the floor. When the foot has come forward and is ready to step down, it is placed on the ground such that the entire foot lands flatly on the ground at the same instant. There is no heel-toe rolling motion as in the "lion step." The "snake step" is a bit more difficult to perform than the natural heel-toe walk of the "lion step," however its advantage is that it helps bring Qi down to the legs and feet and thus it is a good method to employ in Qi Gong circle walking practice. The "crane step" is similar to the "snake step," in that the stepping foot slides out above the ground and is placed down flat, however, in the "crane step" when the back foot is picked up off of the ground it is brought up to the level of the knee of the other leg before it slides out to take the advancing step. Lifting the leg helps "pump" the Qi down to the stepping leg and also helps the practitioner develop balance and stability.
While the "snake step" or "crane step" footwork encourages a balanced flow of Qi to the legs while walking, the practitioner's static upper-body posture and focused intention will influence Qi movement in the upper body. Each school of Ba Gua Zhang will typically have eight different walking postures which the practitioner will transition through during the course of the Qi Gong circle walking practice. Each posture is designed to have a different influence on the body physiologically and energetically.
Typically the practitioner will walk in one direction holding a certain upper body posture for a desired length of time and then change directions and walk in the opposite direction holding the same posture. Upon the next change of direction the practitioner will then change to a different upper body posture and perform circle revolutions in both the clockwise and counterclockwise directions holding that posture before changing to another posture.
By the end of the practice the practitioner has spent time walking in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions holding all eight of the static upper-body postures. Each posture is usually held for the same number of circle revolutions, however, since each posture influences the Qi circulation to the body's vital organs in a different manner, a student who is experiencing a particular health problem may be advised to hold one or two postures longer than the others in order to help his or her body seek a balance.
Holding a static upper-body position while walking the circle with focused intention and calm mind helps to balance the Qi in the body and gather Qi in specific areas as influenced by the unique posturing. The movement sequence executed while changing directions on the circle is designed to take the Qi that has been gathered and direct it to new locations. The movement of Qi will differ with each different changing maneuver. Some changes will promote a spiraling movement of the Qi, some changes will influence its movement upward or downward, while other changes will encourage the Qi to collect or disperse. Each change effects the movement of Qi in the body in a different way.
Through the process of continually gathering Qi during the static-posture walking phase of the practice and then moving it through the body during the various changing maneuvers executed when changing directions on the circle, the aware practitioner will gain valuable experiential knowledge concerning the ebb and flow of Qi in the body.
In his book, The Fundamentals of Pa Kua Chang,5 Park Bok Nam recommends that the student practicing the Qi Gong circle walking method walk in one static posture until a "Qi feeling" is developed throughout the body. After the practitioner has cultivated the "feeling," he or she should then execute the directional change in a smooth, fluid, and connected manner so that the Qi feeling remains constant during the change. The focus while walking in the static posture is to feel the body fill with the energy of that posture. When executing the change, the awareness is placed on maintaining the full body Qi feeling while the body's energy shifts and adjusts with the physical movement of the change.
Upon ending the circle walk practice, Park Bok Nam recommends that the practitioner remain standing in a comfortable posture with the hands resting down by the sides of the body for several minutes. Attention is focused on the palms and the Qi that has gathered there. The student allows the hands to hang loosely by the sides, relaxes all of the body's joints, and places the concentration on the "Qi feeling." Typically this "Qi feeling" will first manifest itself in the hands as fullness, heat, and/or tingling.
When the practitioner has obtained this Qi feeling during the execution of any exercise, he or she will want to relax for several minutes and concentrate on this feeling after the exercise has been completed. By concentrating on the feeling, a mind/body/nervous system connection associated with this feeling will develop. The more developed this connection becomes, the easier it will be for the practitioner to bring Qi to the palms or other parts of the body. With continued practice, the student will be able to produce this effect just by thinking about it. Later, increased amounts of Qi will flow to the palms naturally, when it is needed, without conscious thought.
One goal in practicing Ba Gua Zhang as a selfdefense art is to be able to move Qi very rapidly to the palms (or any other part of the body) when striking. When the mind/body/nervous system connection has been fully developed, as soon as the body moves the Qi will be there and the movement of Qi to the palm will be rapid and spontaneous. Forging the mind/body/nervous system connection during and after the circle walk practice will help the practitioner reach this goal.
Circle Walking to Train Physical Strength
Training physical strength while executing the circle walk practice can be accomplished in a variety of ways. If the practitioner wants to train the legs, he or she can walk in a very low posture or walk very slowly holding each step with the weight on one leg; if the practitioner wants to train balance and stability he or she can execute a walking technique which incorporates high steps, or walk the circle on top of bricks; if the practitioner wants to train the respiratory function or improve cardiovascular fitness, he or she can walk very fast for an extended period of time.
There is no set walking pace for the circle walk practice. I joined one class in Taichung, Taiwan, in their circle walk practice and it took us 45 minutes to complete 10 revolutions of a circle which was about 10 feet in diameter. Later, when I was in Beijing, I was walking the circle in a class where the teacher kept yelling faster, faster! At his pace I could have completed about 300 revolutions of the circle in 45 minutes. There is also no set circle size. While a circle of eight steps is standard, a larger circle is used by people practicing in big groups while a very small circle is used by those practicing advanced footwork drills and hip/waist flexibility training.
Practitioners wishing to improve upper body strength and full body integration will typically hold the static upper body positions for long periods of time before changing postures. When this practice is executed with the major muscle groups in a state of relaxation, the secondary muscle groups and tendons begin to develop and the body is trained to work in a unified manner. This integrated and unified "whole body" strength is an integral part of developing power in the internal martial arts.
Zhao Da Yuan, of Beijing, China, states that the element that makes the circle walk practice "internal" is the link between mind and body that is forged during the circle walk practice. He explains that when the average person contracts a muscle, 45 to 50 percent of the muscle fibers in that muscle "fire." A trained athlete, or a person who repetitively works a set of muscles performing a certain task, may contract about 70 percent of the muscle fiber in a given muscle for a given purpose. His theory is that if the practitioner holds a static upper body posture with focused concentration for an extended period of time, as in the circle walk practice, he or she will be able to develop the ability to get more muscle fiber to contract at the same time for the same purpose. Holding a static posture for an extended period of time, or moving very slowly as in Tai Ji Quan, a more complete physical development occurs than in exercises where the body moves rapidly. Secondary muscles are conditioned and the body learns to act in an integrated and unified fashion. Zhao states that if the practitioner trains the Yi (intention) during the circle walk practice, and thus develops a highly refined physical awareness, the mind can better focus and control the body's function.
Walking in very low postures, walking on top of bricks, holding one's arms out until they are about to fall off, or walking around the circle at high walking speeds are all fairly extreme methods of practice. The truth is that if the practitioner walks the circle for approximately one hour per day, bending the knees so that body is at a mid-level stance allowing the Qi to sink to the dan tian, and walks at a moderate pace, changing directions on the circle every ten to fifteen rotations, and constantly insures that the body does not bob up and down or wobble back and forth while walking, the physical benefits in terms of leg strength, upper body conditioning, respiratory function, cardiovascular function, nervous system function, immune system function, Qi development, and peace of mind will be phenomenal.