They came from far and near, those intrepid Baguazhang people did. (be sure to do your best Yoda voice when reading that sentence) On Saturday, July 14 the students from all the Ontario Nine Dragon Baguazhang schools assembled at the Toronto school for an event that is becoming a staple of their learning process – the workshop series called “The Basics of the Basics”. I started these sessions a couple of years ago and only offer them a few times a year. They started out with a simple idea. I would select an aspect or principle of our Bagua and focus on it at length on a Saturday afternoon. We have done workshops on Sung, the Ridgepole, Quiet Sitting, and stepping. Each workshop turns out to be more fun than the last one and the skill level of the participants is noticeably improved in subsequent classes.
This time, we looked at the preliminary work of Jiulong Bagua Push Hands and that quintessential Baguazhang exercise, Circle Walking. There are many new students in our schools and this combination of practices seemed like the right combination to help them start to move with that distinctive “Bagua” flavour. The push hands game we worked on is called Willow Bends and involves simply standing face to face with a partner, both in a horse stance, and attempt to push one’s partner over while avoiding being pushed yourself. Now this seems like a pretty straight forward idea right? Just push fast and hard before your partner does and you will win the game. Ah, but that is not the point of the game. It is to start to learn how to feel the forces involved in being pushed, and how to use one’s entire body to neutralize the incoming force. At the same time, one is to unbalance your partner without losing one’s own balance.
This game has many levels to it and helps develop many skills that are later used in more elaborate combat games. For example, there is the “rooting” skill inherent in the internal arts. This comes in very handy in the Willow Bends game since it allows one to remain relaxed while moving, yet being able to absorb and discharge power. One can practice the game solely to work on one’s root. Later, the focus of the game can be changed to work on improving the alignment of the spine to better control one’s balance. What is so cool about this game is that you can choose which skill you want to work on, ask your partner to play at a pace that allows for that skill to be sensed and developed, and later ask to play more vigorously to see if the skill development phase has improved one’s overall ability.
The spirit of cooperation is very important in this game. I was very pleased to watch the students face each new partner with the senior students saying “Friendship first, competition second” and the junior student replying “I will learn from you”. This creates an atmosphere of friendly learning that is crucial to a good Nine Dragon session. The skills involve the mind, emotions, and body. So one needs to feel safe about making mistakes since these are among the best learning tools.
So they pushed and pulled, laughed and learned. I cannot say enough about these fine people. They come from a variety of backgrounds, some are experienced martial artists while others are new to the practice. Yet they all played together and helped each other learn. I overheard conversations in which one student would say “how come I always get pushed when you turn your body that way?” and the reply would be “let’s slow it down and see if we can figure out how you can respond to my push.” They would indeed slow it down and sort out the dynamics of the push with the result being that it would no longer work as well because the recipient had a new way of moving. Imagine this. The goal of these two people was to learn something together, not to win at all costs. Very impressive!
Towards the end of this portion of the workshop, the students were set in groups of three. This time a person in the middle would be playing the game with the other two. This has the effect of splitting one’s attention and having to rely more on body feeling than conscious choices of movement. This is the bare bones of starting to learn how to deal with multiple opponents. Again, the idea is to learn in a very safe way and slowly build one’s skills.
To say everyone had fun would be an understatement. The laughter and joy felt in the room was very uplifting and is one of the secrets to learning something challenging like Jiulong Baguazhang. If one is enjoying the process, one stays with it longer and reaps the benefits slowly but surely.
In part two I will talk about Circle Walking and how the workshop ended. All I can say at this point is (Yoda again)….. good time, we had.