Also known as bagua chang, bagua zhang, pakua chang, ba gua jang. Eight trigram palm bagua is one of China's three main internal martial arts. It is a Taoist practice based on the I Ching, which is simultaneously a longevity practice, a martial art, a healing modality and a spiritual/meditation practice.
Two of China’s great gifts to the world are the movement arts of bagua zhang (ba gua chang/pakua chang) and tai chi (taiji). Although tai chi is far better known throughout the contemporary world, bagua zhang is far older and some would say richer. It was developed more than 4,000 years ago as a Taoist health exercise and meditation art. During the past two centuries, however, bagua zhang has become better known as a martial art called bagua zhang or “Eight Trigrams Palm Boxing.”
Bagua zhang and tai chi share many similarities. Both practices are rooted in Taoism, a Chinese philosophical and spiritual tradition, and are designed to help develop and balance one’s chi or life-force energy. They are expressions through the physical body of such Taoist concepts as yin-yang, balance and naturalness.
In bagua zhang, you learn precise footwork methods for walking in circles in opposite directions. During early stages of learning, your hands are kept at the sides. Eventually, you learn to hold your hands in various postures, which are similar to, but not the same as, some of the postures used in tai chi.
As your learning progresses in bagua you learn increasingly complex ways of changing direction, which includes footwork and hand movements. The various combinations of bagua arm movements, used with the stepping actions of the legs as you reverse direction, are called bagua palm changes. The most important and foundational bagua palm change is the Single Palm Change.
Walking the Circle, as it is called in bagua zhang, is customarily done at about the speed you might use when you walk down the street. In time, walking gets progressively faster until you are speed walking. At this point, bagua zhang becomes aerobic—a characteristic that distinguishes it from almost all forms of tai chi (taiji).
Unlike tai chi, bagua zhang is not normally done in slow motion. Bagua zhang is practiced in slow motion for short periods of time to develop physical coordination or balance. After the skill is grasped, you then go back to practicing at normal or fast speeds.
Taoist Meditation Arts of the I Ching
Thousands of years ago the art of bagua zhang was developed by Taoist monks as a form of moving meditation based on the principles of the I Ching (Book of Changes).Some of its principles include the interplay of change between yin and yang, and the transcendence of yin and yang that leads to what is eternal, permanent and unchanging. It is known by such names as the Tao, primordial space, emptiness, and the universal link that connects all and everything.
Complete study of the I Ching includes advanced practices in bagua zhang. Here you can literally coordinate all levels of your being—physical, energetic, emotional, mental, psychic, karmic and spiritual—with the Five Primal Energies (also known as the Five Elements) of manifestation.
My teacher Liu taught me how to adapt the principles of the I Ching into Wu style tai chi, a process that Liu learned with Taoist elders during 10 years of training in the mountains of Sichuan Province in the 1940s. Bagua zhang and tai chi broaden the possibilities of movement arts beyond their martial and health traditions into the realms of meditation.
Bagua practice will help you:
• Accept and flow with change
• Understand the spiritual quality of emptiness
• Become one with the ever-changing universe, your own unchanging consciousness and ultimately with universal consciousness, or the Tao.
When you practice bagua zhang as Taoist meditation, at no point is there a distinct dividing line between when you are exercising and when you are meditating. They become two sides of the same coin. By shining and refining the coin from both sides at once, you progressively open your heart to receiving two gifts for the price of one: exquisite exercise and profound spiritual realization.
Refining the exercise side of the coin helps your bagua zhang or tai chi progress from a beginning qigong exercise toward becoming an ever-more finely tuned movement art. The root becomes the 16 neigong components through which your body can handle the increasingly powerful energies inside and outside you that release in meditation.
Shining the meditation side of the coin initially helps you gain heightened levels of awareness. Together with emotional and mental stability and clarity, it turns you toward exploration of the most refined and profound spiritual energies within your inner and outer worlds.
In order to support spiritual exploration, your body and mind must become progressively more healthy, open and alive. It is the only way that the more powerful energies of the universe can smoothly—rather than disjointedly—move through you. It is only when these energies are available to you that you can fully make your body and mind healthy, open and alive.
Of course old age, illness or injury can catch up with everyone, so the inherent limitations of the body will sooner or later prevail. However, for most bagua zhang practitioners this potential pain and discomfort is typically significantly mitigated. Even so, the further along the Taoist exercise-meditation continuum one travels, the more capacity you will have to more smoothly manage and navigate the limitations of your physical body. With it you will experience the balance, joy and inner freedom that meditation brings.
I recently returned from a three week instructor training in a chi gung practice called “Gods Playing in the Clouds”. This intensive was held at Menlo College near San Francisco and I’d like to share some details about my experience.