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I remember a conversation many years ago with one of my sons, then twelve, who asked me in wide-eyed innocence if I had wanted to be a bagua teacher when I was his age. He couldn't understand why I then laughed as hard as I did when he asked his question and looked surprised when I explained that at his age, as a French Canadian in early 1960s Canada, I hadn't even heard the word, much less known what it meant.

Although times have changed and more people than ever before know that such a discipline exists, few have any understanding of how hard it can be to do any traditional version of that art really well. So, what is Bagua about?... Well, like any traditional internal art, it is about whatever each individual instructor brings to it within the broad framework that runs the gamut from being a harshly effective martial system that builds health through hard work and efficient body mechanics to New Age nonsense in which walking in circles while chanting neo-taoist prayers and wearing archaic costumes is the whole of the practice.

Good bagua, no matter what its style—and there are many—emphasises balance and relaxation (sung), the development of twisting strength and whole body power, as well as the use of the mind to create intent, both for healing and martial purposes. The solo aspect of its circular practice can be strangely beautiful, full of graceful twisting movement, sudden stops and changes of pace and direction, swooping and lifting actions, as well as explosive movements.

The solo aspect of walking the circle while holding various postures or shapes is designed to train the body in different ways—more on that in later chapters—as well as to be meditative, which can help to strengthen and heal the emotions and the spirit. Walking by yourself or with partners can be a very beautiful experience and very demanding physically. In addition, as the exercise physiologists are now telling us with new-found fervour, walking at a moderate pace is one of the best exercises for the body in terms of strengthening the cardiovascular system without straining the joints the way that running can.

The traditional combative aspect is without sporting elements. It was designed to incapacitate or maim in an era in which firearms were still rare and fights usually involved more than one attacker. It is also important to remember that many of the early tactics were designed to be used against opponents who might be wearing some form of body armour and were heavily armed with staff, spear, sword, knife, and any of a host of traditional weaponry. In fact, many of the tactics that come down to us in the forms are designed to lock-up and throw the opponent rather than strike targets that might be protected from a punch or palm strike by leather or metal armour.

Most defensive and offensive movements are done with the open hand. The energy generated by the twisting of the torso combined with literally throwing your weight around in a controlled manner is expressed through the open hands to strike, control and/or throw the opponent; the weight of the body stays on the back foot when walking in a circle, though not necessarily when doing postures within each change. The steps are rather tight, the knees staying in close proximity one to the other. Kicks are normally aimed low, at the shins and knees, to distract the opponent and leave his torso more vulnerable or to trap the lower body to make it more difficult for the opponent to evade.

This martial effectiveness was refined by the many early practitioners who earned their living as bodyguards and merchant convoy escorts. Those with no skill literally didn't survive to pass on what they had practised, which was good for the art, if not for the unfortunates whose martial skills didn't live up to their hopes and expectations.

In the end, the combative essence of bagua is learning to change spontaneously to deal effectively with the tactics of an opponent. The smaller student learns to evade attacks and counter-attacks almost simultaneously, while the larger person learns to immediately invade the attacker's space by battering his way through the attacker's arms.

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