I have often read or been told that walking while holding the Eight Mother Palms is actually the foundation of bagua both as a healing and martial system and, like most beginners, assumed that this was just a way to get us to put up with the tedium of basic training so that we could get on with the really important stuff—the various forms. Well, wrong again!
The essence of the art does lie in walking in circles; but not quite in the way or for the reasons the average beginner would assume. In fact, walking the circle does what it is supposed to: strengthens the body in a variety of ways, providing a mild or moderate cardiovascular workout in a small amount of space (like a hamster turning endlessly in its wheel but without the smell of cedar chips!) while calming the mind and spirit. In the long run, nothing else matters as much.
Many who practise in Europe or North America are obliged, due to inclement weather, to do too much of their training indoors, and it can be tough for a beginner to walk a circle without having a pattern to follow. But painting a circle in red paint on your wife's shag rug isn't always a solution, as has been playfully suggested on a couple of Erle's bagua videos.
If you are obliged to practise indoors, one way to achieve a circular path is to walk around a torchiere-style floor lamp. These are normally tall enough so that you can walk freely around its base while keeping one palm aligned with its shaft. Similarly, you can use the circles painted onto the floors of gymnasiums used for basketball or floor hockey, although it is not often easy to get the use of such facilities for something like bagua practice.
In parks frequented by Chinese practitioners, it is common to find trees that have circular trails worn around their trunks in the grass or soil. Using a tree as the focus of your circle is a venerable and legitimate aspect of many different qigong practices, inside bagua and in other internal systems. I must admit that I was reluctant to try it years ago when first told about it. However, it can certainly feel great to do your standing qigong with your arms embracing a tree, or your palms held very close to the surface of the bark. Of course, pine sap is awfully sticky in the Springtime..., and ants can become a problem in the Summer..., and the leaves dropping on your head can be distracting in the Fall., and it can be bloody cold in the Winter., and bystanders tend to think you are crazy if you are practising anywhere except in a park full of elderly Chinese.
However, in all seriousness, there is a lot to be said for practising with trees in this way Traditionally, the most beneficial time of the year to do this kind of qigong training was the Spring, particularly when the trees were flowering. But Fall and Winter practice could also be very beneficial, especially when done with and/or surrounded by evergreen trees. Pines, by virtue of their longevity and vigour, being particularly favoured for such qigong.
But, you don't have to be Chinese____In fact, any of us with Scandinavian, Germanic or
Anglo-Saxon blood had ancestors who were worshipping the oak trees in Europe as recently as the Dark Ages, which is a blink in the eye for Father Time. So, hug a tree today for a variety of reasons. It is better than chopping them down or beating on each other with the exuberance of macho youth!
Details of Practice: The Tiger Step footwork, which is normally used for walking the circle, resembles ordinary walking in that the heel touches down, followed by the outside of the foot, and then the toes. This method is more practical for walking on irregular terrain than the other major stepping method, the Slip Step. It is usually used in walking the circle, both solo and with a partner, and in the Linear and weapons forms. Also called, in some bagua styles, the Natural Step, this footwork requires that your body weight stays on the rear leg as much as possible, and you always move the front foot first when initiating a step after having stopped.
The correct mechanics of the Tiger/Natural Step require that you land on the new foot with the toes up and the knee almost straight. There should be little or no weight on that heel as it touches the floor. Once the heel lands, shift your weight to bend your knee and gradually let the sole of the foot touch the floor. As soon as the foot is flat, all the weight should be on that leg, and the other foot steps through to land relatively empty of weight on the heel so that the stepping process is ready to continue.
While you shouldn't actually stop moving each time you finish shifting your weight and dropping the foot—-you should be able to do so. Unfortunately, many settle for getting the body mechanics, sort of, and end up walking in a "floating" or "double-weighted" manner. Stepping properly at a slow or medium pace is essential for learning how to move by repositioning a foot and only then smoothly transferring all of the body weight to that leg. Learning to do this ensures that you can suddenly change direction if such is necessary.
I suggest getting used to walking the circle while using only one palm posture until you can fairly easily do an inside and outside change, which are the only ways that you will change direction while using the Eight Mother Palms. The inside turn is the most commonly used, and the easiest, method of changing direction. For example, you are facing into the circle with your weight on your left leg, and your left hand leading into the circle as you walk counterclockwise. To change direction, you swivel on your heels as a result of having shifted your weight and pumped your right palm towards the centre of the circle while retracting the left hand to its guard position near the right elbow. Now you can walk clockwise. The outside turn occurs when you are in a Scissors Stance, and you must turn on your heels with both toes spinning around to the rear in an outside arc out of the circle. As you do this, lead the turning action with the hand which will be in the centre of the circle so that once you complete the spinning on the heels you have reversed directions on the circle. Great power is generated using this method, but if you don't have good balance, don't lead with the correct hand and head/eyes, and don't have your feet in the proper relation to the circle and to each other, it is easy to lose your balance while executing.
Once you have become accustomed to holding your arms in the proper positions, keeping the palms stretched and the fingers separated, as well as being able to do inside and outside turns as required, you should hold the eight palms, one after the other, while walking the circle.
Counting the number of circles each way can help you keep track of time. If you are using a circle proportional to your height, count eight of your natural paces in a circular pattern to figure out what the proper size is for you. It should take 15—30 minutes to walk the eight palms while holding eight repetitions each way. Remember, you should hold each palm while walking first counterclockwise and then clockwise, before switching to the next. Erle recommends another way of training which can be very helpful to the beginner. Record on audio tape random numbers from one to eight for a 15—30 minute time-span. Play the tape while walking and try to change very quickly to the number of that particular palm as you hear it said. Change direction using an inside or outside turn as appropriate. At a more advanced level, record two numbers on the tape recorder. As the two numbers are heard, change so that the left palm assumes the first number heard while the other—the second number.
• As soon as possible try not to look at your feet when walking the circle by yourself. This is essential, as most beginners will drop their heads to look down, which breaks the key alignment of the spine. Keep your eyes directly on your lead hand as much as possible while walking. This will prevent most people from feeling dizzy or nauseous, which are common symptoms of walking for most beginners.
• It is counterproductive to go too fast, as you are likely to blur the technical performance of each posture, get winded, or lose your balance if your body stiffens as you turn.
• However, if you go too slowly, you are more likely to injure your knees or ankles through poor alignment, and it is harder to use the waist and the change of weight from one leg to the other to properly generate the turns and arm movements.
• Be aware of the common tendency to drop the lead hand too much while walking, in an effort to keep the shoulders from stiffening and rising up. In general, the tip of the longest finger on the lead hand should be aligned with the tip of your nose—assuming that your head is held properly suspended to begin with.
• Change to the new palm as you change direction using either the inside or outside change. While it doesn't matter ultimately which hand goes under and which goes over while switching, it is a good idea for beginners to be consistent. For example, always move the advancing arm over the retreating arm while doing an inside change; and always move the advancing arm under the retreating arm while doing an outside change. As you perform a turn, brush the forearms lightly together while switching, and remember to lead that action with the new palm, not the old one.
• Using a timer that beeps at preset intervals can be a good way of training for a predetermined amount of time. Try to change spontaneously as soon as you hear the alarm. You will need a model that resets itself automatically after it beeps.
• Remember, no matter how quickly you walk the circle—whether on your own or with a partner—you should not develop any momentum from falling into position.
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