The first time I hit a heavy bag was a revelation to me. I had already been shown how to make a fist, how to stand, and how to throw a punch. I practiced punching the air, beating it mercilessly into submission. I was ready.
Owww! The bag barely moved and my wrist hurt. I thought I had done everything right, but the bag didn’t care what I thought. It just hung there, sullenly. So began one of my first lessons in how to apply a set of skills.
I would argue that when we practice Jiulong Baguazhang’s quiet sitting, standing, shifting, walking, and circle walking, we are developing skills and creating building blocks that support and reinforce each other. I would also argue that these skills have great value in themselves because of their benefits to emotional and physical well-being. In fact there is a whole system of practice in Jiulong that is directed solely at health. But if any kind of martial proficiency is your goal then you must learn to apply those skills to that end. I believe combat skills require combat practice.
Jiulong students begin applying skills early in their training. When standing and holding a posture, the instructor might push or pull them in different ways to test stability. While shifting weight or walking across a room a partner might offer resistance to the movement by leaning or pushing against it. We play martial games and practice combat scenarios so that students have to deal with real moving bodies that are actively attacking and resisting. As the student’s skill level rises, the faster and more powerful the tests of those skills become.
Equipment training may include striking pads, heavy bags, and padded posts among others, all used to provide feedback to the student about the effectiveness of a technique. We may use equipment traditionally, standing in front of the bag and hitting it or get the bag swinging and start circling around it, trying to strike effectively on the fly while changing directions. The diligent student eventually learns how to use many everyday things as equipment to apply skills. One of my favorite examples is a fellow Jiulong instructor who dodges around moving swings in the park he takes his boys to play in.
One of the most important aspects of applying Jiulong skills is the use of cognitive training involving sensory imaging started in quiet sitting practice and continuing in each of the art’s building blocks. Having gained the physical experience of striking, pushing, or throwing, the student learns to mentally recreate those physical sensations during solo practice. This process reliably enhances physical performance, likely through its reinforcing effects on central nervous system pathways. Such mental training methods are now in common use by sports psychologists to improve athletic performance.
Although the basic progression of Jiulong goes from sitting to applying, it would be a mistake to think we can abandon one set of practices because we have progressed to the next level. I like to think of sitting, standing, shifting, walking, circling, and applying as a set of stairs that repeats itself endlessly up a circular staircase. Each set you climb, step by step, brings you to a new and higher landing.