Walking the circle is Baguazhang’s celebrated iconic training practice. So imagine my surprise the first time I heard my teacher spit out, “Circle walking is kindergarten!”. Heresy? Political incorrectness? But he was and is my Shifu and I kept listening. Here is what I learned.
In the Jiulong Baguazhang system, a student stepping into the circle for the first time has already been introduced to mental focus and imagery, muscle control through relaxation, posture, coordinated movement of one’s entire mass, and direction changes. We spend hours going round and round, changing postures and directions, mindful of all the lessons from quiet sitting, standing, shifting and walking. But this is really only the beginning.
Combat is chaos. Anyone with experience can tell you this, whether a street fighter or a war veteran. Battle plans can fall apart when the first shot is fired and victor may depend on the ability to adapt to rapidly changing situations. Being able to walk around in a circle hardly seems like adequate preparation for the confusion of battle. And that is why Jiulong students have to train much more than simple circle walking and why the single, simple circle is kindergarten. They must learn to cut through the circle, expand and contract the circle, evade obstacles and move around each other in combat games. They must do this while retaining the ability to react to attacks and strike with whole body power.
Here’s an example of university level circling. My teacher set up 9 hanging punching bags, each about a meter apart in a square pattern, and set them all swinging. He then had several of us at a time weave through the bags, doing our best to avoid hitting each other or being hit by the bags. No stopping allowed! Think of it as walking a complex pattern of ever changing circles and you’ll get the idea behind such an exercise.
Endurance increases with aerobic training and circle walking is an excellent form of whole body, low impact aerobic exercise that can greatly improve cardiovascular health. Moving in circles repeatedly also alters brain activity to produce mental calm and other effects one might call meditative in nature. I don’t think it is just a myth that Baguazhang practitioners were among the most long-lived of Chinese martial artists.
For me, Bagua circling is a physical manifestation of a concept: how to move powerfully while under threat. Symbolism runs deep in Jiulong, just as it does in any martial systems. The name itself, Nine Dragon, is rife with meaning. Now, when I see a circle, what I really see is a symbol of endless movement.