Learning how to Learn Baguazhang

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The name of this art (also spelled Pa-kua Chang in older English language books) translates as "Eight Trigrams Palm" in reference to the famous eight patterns of broken and solid lines used in the Chinese philosophical and divination text I-Ching. While the principles of bagua, and even its martial tactics, are often related directly to the text and various commentaries on this ancient book, I prefer to focus on the more mundane aspects of training in my classes, and this will be reflected in the pages of this little manual.

As with the other internal martial arts, there are an often contradictory variety of stories about its history. Although methods of walking meditation in circular patterns have been used for religious and meditative practice by various Taoist sects for centuries, notably in the monasteries of the Er-mei and Wu-tang mountains, historical bagua begins in the mid-1800s with a man named Tung Hai Ch'uan.

Born an impoverished and illiterate farmer, he went on to learn a variety of traditional fighting systems and eventually began teaching his distinctive approach while crediting others with its creation, in the grand tradition of the Chinese martial arts. What a modern person would call falsifying lineage was a common and accepted practice in China in the old days—as venerable was always better, and innovative martial approaches were always suspect. Particularly, but not exclusively in the Chinese internal arts, there is a long list of anonymous Taoist monks or mythical figures who are supposed to have transmitted the secrets of the various arts in dreams or through texts which mysteriously appeared on cave floors or in other unlikely places.

In any case, Tung likely synthesised his art from a variety of fighting and meditation methods that he had learned over the years. Indeed, Tung's greatness as a founder and instructor lies partly in his ability to adapt the principles and methods of his art to suit the temperament, physiques, and existing skills of his various students who were all experienced martial artists when they came to him for instruction. Although he taught relatively few, many of those went on to teach and modify, in their turn, what they had learned from Tung.

Today there are many different styles of baguazhang, and almost all of those available in North America trace their lineage back to him. The style I practise and teach came from

Tung Hai Ch'uan to Chang Chao Tung to Chiang Jung Chiao to Ho Ho Choy to Chu King Hung to Erle Montaigue and to me. It has been heavily influenced by the hsing-i training of Chang and Chiang and the varied expertise and experiences of those who have followed. I am not sure that Tung would recognise the details of what we do if he were to come back from the grave, but he would surely notice the spirit and the principles of what he taught.

Done properly and moderately, over the long term, bagua solo training will transform you and your health, often in ways that surprise you. However, I am not suggesting that you need to become more Chinese than a native to be able to practise and benefit from your training. There is an unfortunate tendency in Western beginners to want or expect exotic and mystical aspects to bagua training. I was discussing this with a colleague. His comment was very apt: "Too many of us spent too much time watching the kung-fu television series when growing up." This tendency among those looking for life's answers in cultures other than their own is often exploited by instructors who have confused wearing Chinese clothing and spouting pseudo-nonsense in a learned manner with developing real internal style skills.

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