The physical benefits of the circle walking practice include an increased overall physical strength, improved balance, full body coordination, and functional flexibility. Additionally, cardiovascular health can be improved with the walking conducted at a semi-rapid pace for a sustained period of time. While the basic circle walking practice will give the practitioner benefits in all of the above mentioned areas of physical skill, there are also circle walking variations and special methods which will specifically focus on each of these areas.
Legs: In terms of physical strength the circle walk practice will benefit both the legs and the upper body as well as torso and upper and lower body coordinated strength. Obviously the legs benefit from the walking itself. A practitioner who wants to focus on strengthening the legs will walk in a lower posture. Additionally, all circle walk variations (as outlined in the next section of this article) benefit the legs in different ways. In other words, the stepping method can be modified depending on what aspect of leg strength the practitioner is trying to develop. For example, some practitioners practice a high "crane step" whereby the foot of the stepping leg is lifted to about knee height before stepping forward. This trains the practitioner to be stable and balanced on one leg and thus provides a foundation for Ba Gua's leg trapping and sweeping techniques. Some practitioners take this idea a bit farther and walk on top of bricks, poles that have been driven into the ground, or different sized stones that have been arranged in a circular pattern. These are all methods of improving balance and stability while remaining in motion.
In addition to walking the circle in a low stance to improve leg strength or walking while utilizing the "crane step" to improve balance, there are other various methods of improving leg skill while walking the circle.
Some practitioners will pick up the stepping leg and then shoot it straight forward with force as if kicking to the lower part of an opponent's shins with their toes. This step, called the "thrusting step" or the "shake step," provides a foundation for some of Ba Gua's kicking methods. Some practitioners from the Yin Fu style will walk the circle with the stepping foot always landing in the bai bu, or toed out, position in order to train the use of this step in hooking an opponent's leg or kicking to the opponent's shin with the bottom of the foot. In general, a Ba Gua practitioner who is walking the circle with the focus on developing leg strength will primarily be concerned with leg strength which facilitates stable, balanced, and smooth whole body movement.
Upper Body: When training specifically for upper body strength the Ba Gua practitioner will walk the circle for long periods of time while holding static upper body postures. This practice facilitates the training and strengthening of secondary muscle groups and tendons. When holding the static upper body positions the practitioner will try to relax the major muscle groups and thus access the smaller secondary muscles and tendons which are responsible for body alignment and stability. These muscle groups are not usually under conscious control because they are not the muscles which actually perform physical body movements. Their function is to keep the body in place and stable while the bigger muscles are actually performing the movement of the torso and limbs. By holding upper body postures until the major muscles are fully fatigued, the secondary muscles have to work harder and thus they are trained more completely. Exercise such as weight-lifting work to strengthen the major muscles, however, do not train the secondary muscles and "stability" muscles fully. The result of static posture holding is a very stable, connected, and integrated whole body power. Practitioners who really want to get fanatical about this aspect of training will hold light weights in each hand (the practitioners of old used balls of mud or stones). However, most instructors recommend that students spend a very long time holding the postures without weights before adding light weights.
Torso: In Ba Gua it is extremely important that the torso (which will include the areas of the waist, hips, pelvis, and inner thighs) is strong and flexible. The torso provides the connection between the upper and lower extremities. In all internal styles the principle of power "coming from the legs, directed by the waist, and expressed in the hands" is very important. The "waist" in this case includes the inner thighs/groin area, the hips and pelvic region, and the lower torso. If the movement of the torso is not strong and coordinated with the entire body, the power in the legs will not be expressed in the hands.
During the circle walk practice the torso is trained during the change of direction. While practicing the basic circle walk practice most schools will change directions by executing the single palm change. The movements of the single palm change are extremely important in training the torso. When changing directions and executing the twisting and turning movements of the single palm change the practitioner focuses on the movement being driven by the legs and being directed by the inner thigh/pelvic region.
Whole body coordination relies on the proper movement of the upper legs and lower torso and thus the change of direction on the circle during the circle walk practice also develops the practitioner's ability to coordinate the upper and lower body. Additionally, the turning and twisting movements executed during the change of direction on the circle serve to develop a functional flexibility.
By functional flexibility I am referring to training which works to stretch and loosen muscles that will need to be supple and loose during the execution of Ba Gua. It is great if someone can perform the full splits,
Li Zi Ming's student, Zhang Hua Sen, walks the circle holding the "Heaven and Earth" palms however, performing the splits or being able to put your foot behind your head is not nearly as functional in Ba Gua as having a loose and supple twisting and turning movement throughout the whole body, especially in the pelvic region. There are many individuals who have very limber leg muscles, however, when asked to stand with their feet and knees facing forward and twist their hips as far as they can to one side or the other, they discover that the muscles in their pelvic region are not so loose. In Ba Gua functional flexibility involves twisting and rotating the muscles and suppleness in the joints. Twisting the legs, twisting the hips, twisting the torso, twisting the shoulders, and twisting the arms. Additionally, the twisting is executed in a coordinated fashion while maintaining whole body connection. These elements are all trained in the single palm change.
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