Learning any aspect of bagua is not simply a process of memorising physical moves and remembering their sequence, or of doing a variety of martial training methods with a partner or with your instructor—although those are certainly essential aspects of the training at any level of competence.
Learning this art is also, in part, a process of relearning the learning process itself. This is especially true for those adults who have settled into a comfortable lifestyle and lost interest in acquiring new habits. There is a saying that "education is wasted on the young," but it is also very true that the older student is already at a disadvantage compared to a younger beginner in bagua if he or she is grossly out of physical condition or very set in his or her ways.
For a beginner it is always preferable to have the best possible instruction, as it is easier to create good habits than to correct bad ones once they become ingrained. Unfortunately, good instructors, whether in China or North America, are almost as rare as good students, and everyone has to start somewhere. However, it is equally true that the average beginner will probably not be able to do more than crudely copy an instructor's movements whether those are of high or no quality.
Before you can copy your instructor, which is in itself the first step towards developing any real skill, you have to really see what he or she is doing. Until you can observe the subtle movements and the fine details of your role model's posture and body mechanics, you won't know it is possible to move in such a manner. The majority of beginners may look but cannot see what is being transmitted in any detail, subtle or otherwise.
At an intermediate level the student learns to refine his or her interpretation of the copied movements until they are automatic enough so that there is some mental energy available to work on the more subtle aspects (i.e., keeping the mind on the lower tan-tien; when to in hale and exhale, etc.). Once you meet a qualified and compatible instructor, stick with him or her until you have decided that bagua is not for you, a process which needs a few months of class time at the very least. Assuming that you stay for several years, learn everything you can from that individual before trying to find the next teacher. In fact, you should always wait a little longer—you may discover that your own arrogance had made the forms and methods seem easier than they really were.
However, it is also important to remember there are different ways to write a sentence that still provide the same information. I have seen and experienced many different ways to interpret baguazhang. Some are flawed. Few are completely without value, particularly for beginners.
I must add, though, that this is not true for those who wish to learn the self-defence aspects of this discipline. When you are learning skills you might have to use to defend yourself or your loved ones from real aggression, it is essential to have competent instruction from the start, particularly if you have never had any decent martial training in the past. It is easy for the many bogus instructors to fool their students if the latter have never been hit, in a fight, and have no experience at rough and tumble.
Whether for martial or health purposes, you must learn to be patient with your own progress without becoming too complacent about it. It is easy to give up if you feel that you have no aptitude for what you are studying, especially if you find it more difficult than you had imagined. In this regard, I have always valued advice I overheard Sam Masich, one of Canada's finest modern internal arts instructors, give someone at a week-long training camp of his that I attended in 1990. Sam's comment was, "You can correct almost anything, except lack of practice!"
For those who go the distance, you owe your instructor loyalty. This, however, should not be a feudal willingness to suspend your ethics or misbeliefs and do what you are told, no matter what. Rather, martial loyalty should imply an honest and mutual exchange and the willingness on your part to trust the instructor's motives and skills without losing sight of the fact that he or she is human. Good students are essential to an instructor. They challenge him or her constructively, ensuring that he or she continues to evolve as a teacher, as a martial artist, and as a person.
Sadly, some teachers become egoists, content to surround themselves with students whose only talents lie in flattery or hero worship. Perhaps, the Chinese were on the right track with the Confucian concept of loyalty which, though extremely strict and hierarchical, had a safety valve—if you successfully revolted against the Emperor, it was obvious that Heaven was on your side, and you deserved to displace the old dynasty. You can rationalise betrayal as with any form of human behaviour; but, in the end, loyalty is a two-way street. Both the instructor and the student must contribute to the relationship if it is to survive and help both to evolve as people and martial artists. By the way, I am not saying that the average student of today should grovel before a prospective instructor, shower him or her with presents, and hang around their front door day and night until accepted as a student. Such may have been appropriate in another time, another culture. It is not so appropriate today. It is very true that, at least for the first few years, the student who wishes to learn deeply needs the instructor more than the latter needs students.
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