Learning to be Balanced

Balance has many interpretations. It is being able to stand as still as a post for several minutes even when supporting yourself on one leg; it is the ability to move slowly and smoothly or quickly with a broken rhythm without being double-weighted; as well as willingness to work at both aspects of bagua—self-healing and self-defence—so that neither predominates in your training and daily life. Unfortunately, for the state of the art, balance is most often interpreted as being purely physical and technical.

However, being balanced is not simply a question of how well you can move through a variety of complicated physical manoeuvres. Balance is also about redefining how you interpret relaxation. New Age versions of bagua to the contrary, your objective is not to eliminate muscle usage, but to loosen, align, and connect it into a whole body usage. For example, the spine and hips become as important in striking as the shoulder, elbow, and fist. The mental visualisation of using the palm is as important as the physical movements that accompany it.

For the beginner, always having your body weight supported by one, rather than both legs is the beginning of balance in physical terms. At first, it seems relatively simple to avoid having an equal distribution of weight on both legs. However, always having more weight on one leg than the other is hard work for the muscles and ligaments of the legs and hips.

Similarly, the frequent toe-in and toe-out movements that are characteristic of bagua are also difficult to adjust to, as our hips tend to lose some of their natural range of motion even when we are relatively fit. It is not easy to learn to safely use the Triangle Stance that is so common in our discipline. In the long run, strength and mobility and, consequently, balance improves, but for the first months?...

As well as understanding how important it is to avoid being double-weighted, the intermediate level practitioner must also usually relearn how to stand and move. The spine must learn to lengthen and compress subtly to aid in powering the movements. This allows for a greater ease of Qi movement along the Governing Vessel that goes up the spine in the back, as well as the Conceptor Vessel that goes down the centreline of the front of the torso to the lower tan-tien.

To put it simply, balance is eventually achieved by relearning how to be upright and connected, not straight and stiff. Eventually, the practitioner seems to move effortlessly through each posture, each form, and pays less and less conscious attention to its specific details. Progress in the technical performance of form is still important, but has become much less so than in the beginning.

Few become master practitioners, and move with the ease of an animal. Their movements seem as natural as taking a walk or going up a flight of stairs are for most of us. Sometimes they make mistakes or stumble, but such minor losses of balance are smoothed over and have no bearing on their innate ability. In general, such practitioners usually are not particularly concerned over how they look to observers. This is partly due to emotional maturity and also because they are able to recover so smoothly from a loss of balance that the mistake is difficult for the average observer to see.

By contrast, the beginner or pseudo-master is so concerned with his or her technical prowess that this preoccupation becomes a source of imbalance and tension that can diminish the quality of his or her practice. This is not to say that the ability to balance yourself on one leg or the technical beauty of your movements are unimportant. If you go too far in the other direction, you may develop an obsession with internal development that leads to other problems.

In contrast to the technical perfectionists are the New Age bagua players who are content to go through the motions, as if in a trance, while doing their forms with no technical precision or ability. The essence of the art is to unify and co-ordinate the spirit, mind, and body, and not let one predominate. It is not enough to imagine that you can stand effortlessly on one leg. Your body has to have acquired the strength, looseness, and body mechanics necessary to do so.

Balance requires that you persevere, as much because you enjoy the classes and solo practice, as because you are determined to improve yourself. With the right attitude, your bagua training becomes play of the highest order. It is a sad reflection of human nature that most students seem to find a grimly obsessive attitude and facial expression necessary to feel as if they are learning something of value. However, the best instructors I have had all shared one trait, and that is a rich, if often eccentric, sense of humour.

Being balanced also implies that you will shuffle your educational, work, family responsibilities to accommodate your training needs. Few adults can train with the energy of adolescence. Nor is it always possible to devote as much time as you would wish to your training—whether it is in class or on your own. Are you balanced in how seriously you take your training—neither training obsessively day and night, sacrificing family and friends, education or career nor being lackadaisical, training sporadically as the mood strikes you.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. You may plan to go to the evening class after supper on a regular basis, but find, after the novelty wears off, that the location of the classes is so far from home or work that commuting is exhausting. In addition, there is always a price to pay for everything in life, and your leisure time is usually curtailed to some degree when you are serious about your training.

This may be fine if you are single, but it will cause problems if you are not. For example, your girlfriend may not understand why her dinner party seems less important than your scheduled workshop, or your husband may not understand your sudden desire to attend classes three times a week and worry that it will interfere with his routine.

Studying bagua can mean doing what you think is right for you even if others don't immediately understand or support you. However, as few of us are reclusive monks living in a mountain cave, we also have to remember the need for compromise. Erle Montaigue has often said that "you should train to live, not live to train." This is true, no matter what your age, especially for maintaining healthy relationships.

Being balanced also implies that you will practise both solo and two-person exercises. It is easy to convince yourself that walking the circle while holding the Eight Mother Palms or doing the circular form everyday will somehow bring effortless power and great self-healing benefits. It doesn't if that is all you have ever practised! To reap the maximum benefit from your daily practice it is essential to traine in all aspects of the art—not just the ones you find easy or enjoy the most.

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