Is Bagua a Healing Art or a Martial

As with the previous discussion, there seem to be two major camps—those who believe that bagua is really a Taoist form of moving meditation, and it can heal just about anything if the practitioner has enough faith, and those who feel that it was developed as a martial art and should be trained with that in mind.

Certainly, the reputation of the early masters was not built on healing people, but on defeating them. And it sounds as if some of their personalities were rather harsh as well, if half of the stories are true. However, it is also important to remember that we shouldn't judge them from a modern "enlightened" perspective, as they were living in a very different age and society.

In any case, I have seen no evidence in almost fourteen years of practice and teaching to contradict my impression that the health aspect of bagua is anything but a relatively modern overlay on the art. After all, even the word Qigong only came into popular usage in China in the early 1960s. On the other hand, it is quite possible that those who followed Master Tung added traditional Chinese self-healing exercises and Taoist meditative knowledge, gained elsewhere, to what they had learned from Tung Hai Ch'uan in an effort to make the art more complete.

Realistically, I don't think we will ever know for sure. The older generation of teachers were too secretive, and very little was put down in writing until the 1930s, when Sun Lu Tang became the first to write authoritatively about bagua and the other internal arts, and when it was often of most use to those already "in the know" (martial short hand, so to speak).

In the long run, a good style of baguazhang will make you a better and healthier person. However, it bears repeating that it will not bring significant self-defence skills unless you learn and practise that side of the art with a competent teacher for several years. You cannot learn fighting by osmosis. Conversely, students who practise the healing part regularly may find that they learn the self-defence stuff more efficiently than those who approach the martial side of bagua without an inner peace of some kind and an understanding of the basic concepts of moving meditatively.

Because of the mystical nonsense that has been added to baguazhang from a variety of external sources, many students will assume that practising should make you a superhuman of some kind and guarantee you don't get colds or suffer injuries. Perhaps, because of the New Age veneer on many of the North American variations of bagua, there tends to be an expectation in both students and teachers that regular practice will somehow eliminate all physical ills and confer immunity to illness and general physical wear and tear. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For example, knee damage or chronic inflammation has ended or limited the careers of many internal arts practitioners. In particular, circle walking is often a killer on the knees if you don't get the walking just right, and sometimes even if you do. Two of my best taiji students started studying bagua with me, but had to stop because their knees were killing them after a few months. Once they stopped, things went back to normal. The Slip Step seems to be the hardest to do safely. I have other beginners drop out after a few weeks because they found that bagua in general was too hard on their backs and shoulders as well.

It is important to practise regularly and moderately, and not neglect getting warmed up and stretched (the two activities are not the same) before doing the more demanding forms. There is also a certain amount of wear and tear to be expected from training, so all we can hope is to avoid major injury.

There is a price for practising martial arts for years or decades—injuries. There are many days when everything aches in my middle-aged carcass, and I think to myself, "Why am I doing this?" I have arthritis in both elbows from being a training partner for too many students who didn't have the control that prevents needless damage, and my right hip is an osteoarthritic mess for a variety of reasons, including having tried to do high kicks for years and the stamping in some of the forms I have practised.

As you get older, it takes longer to recover from even minor injuries, and I now understand why instructors traditionally preferred to not train with the beginner and intermediate students. Sadly, those are exactly the students who need to feel the teacher's skill and power the most. As in many things, there are no easy answers.

The overall truth is probably that being relaxed and relatively calm can certainly improve your emotional life, and these can positively affect your general health—but common sense should tell you that you remain mortal no matter how skilful you are at any aspect of ba-guazhang. Practising martial arts can lead to a lot of unavoidable wear and tear.

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