This training method is a bit more complex than the Conditioning Set and I have named it Hammer Hands in honour of Erle, whose hands certainly can feel like hammers when he uses them against you, even in friendly training.
I have mixed feelings about sparring or applications sets. Some that I have seen in other styles of bagua are ridiculous in the complexity of their movement or require a level of co-operation from your partner that would merit an Academy Award for acting. Others are simple in design, but work best against attacking methods common in the China of a century ago. You are unlikely to encounter them in the present day.
It is also easy for such sets to become an overly choreographed ritual which brings a false sense of security as to your self-defence ability. However, competent examples can provide a real challenge to the intermediate level student as, unlike a solo form, forgetting the next move might mean that you get hit in the nose by accident. When accidents such as those just mentioned happen, it is good to have developed the ability to use controlled contact, maintaining the concept of sustained effort for technique after technique without becoming breathless or stiffening your movements, and learning applications on a body level instead of as an intellectual abstraction.
In fact, you must, in some ways, do many of the specific techniques incorrectly for your partner's safety, unless both participants are of equal size and skill—incorrectly in the sense of not going too fast or using explosive energy. In relation to this caveat, it is also true that flowing from one technique to the other requires that neither partner ever finishes a technique. If you don't have competent instruction, you may never actually get a feel for how each method could work if it wasn't countered skilfully.
Two-person sets, whether simple or complex, act as a martial bridge for many students to bring them to the edge of spontaneity in a martial sense. Conversely, if two-person sets become a choreography, as is often the case, then the martial lessons to be learned tend to be superficial. I have always found it interesting in my own students that those who take most naturally to free sparring of any kind usually have the least patience or aptitude for structured two-person exercises. On the other hand, most modern students seem to need the structure to make progress even though most have trouble transcending it. Pay attention to the following points when practising Hammer Hands:
• In keeping with the often encountered tradition in the Chinese internal arts, this form is not learned solo first and then practised with a partner—you can only do it with an instructor or a peer. This means that you must have basic skills at the solo and interactive methods to be able to retain any of it between practice sessions. It is an indication of your level of development as to how well you remember the part of the form you know from class to class.
• Train slowly at first with light touch contact; it may be many months before you can use more speed and power safely.
• Many of the better defensive methods will only work easily when you learn to move away from the incoming force only as much as necessary, rather than running away from it.
• Whenever your feet are together, you should look double-weighted but not be that way. The combative idea is to try and deceive your opponent, so that he or she doesn't know for sure which direction your next step will be, even though your sparring partner should!
• Most of what seem to be blocks are meant to be striking deflections aimed at vital points of the anatomy—use care when doing them.
• Most of what seem to be pulling movements are really negative strikes, but be very careful when training with a partner, as you can give them whiplash (in martial sense) if he is stiff. Use care when doing them.
• Most of the interactions can easily be divided into a defensive part and a counterof-fensive part—but remember that the majority are really one action when done well or explosively, if you don't have to worry about harming your partner.
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