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Bagua and Tai Chi: Exploring the Potential of Chi, Martial Arts, Meditation and the I Ching

Bruce Kumar Fratzis; Blue Snake Books, 2012.

bagua-and-tai-chi-book

People more in tune with their own preconceptions than the inner teachings of Taoism continually find reasons to dislike Bruce Kumar Frantzis. Here is this blunt-talking, fat American with crazy hair who actually teaches the internal martial arts for use in real self-defence situations and is completely unapologetic about his manner presuming to teach Taoist meditation and philosophy. Given that he has practiced seventeen different Chinese and Japanese martial arts since the 1960s and studied with the most important lineage masters of the internal martial arts, one might conclude that he’s worth listening to anyway.

And we have another reason to listen, because this book is the real thing. In it, every level of the practice and purpose of the Taoist martial arts is aligned and explained. This is the roadmap for anyone serious about practicing the internal martial arts as internal martial arts, period, whether for health, defence or spiritual purposes. Without a doubt, hundreds of thousands of Tai Chi practitioners around the world have practiced for decades without gaining the slightest inkling of the reality laid out in this book.

The Great Enterprise

The greatness of this book is in its integrative alignment of every level of practice in these martial arts. While they can be used for specific health goals or self defence goals, neither of these is the fundamental purpose. The physical body is first healed of its illnesses and then strengthened. The mind is healed of its illnesses and then learns to relax to the point where the temporal conditioning that we mistake for our personality dissolves and we reach the stable, nondual mind, still but infinitely creative. The energy system is systematically activated and strengthened to the point where it can be used for healing and defending others and the spiritual pursuits of inner alchemy. Rather more is happening here than a relaxing form of exercise or relief from chronic disease. It is a carefully methodical sequence leading to the goal of Taoism, the reconciliation of yin and yang and the five elements into the nondual original consciousness.

The Roadmap

This book explains how all the stages of this sequence fit together. It is a guide above all to the practitioner’s attention. Attention is the all-important key to results, and knowing where to put it at each stage is essential.

At the health stage, Frantzis describes not only how to practice, but how to know which art and which exercises in each art will have the most beneficial impact. Bagua, for example, generates more yang energy and is better for low blood pressure, while Tai Chi is better for lowering high blood pressure.

Frantzis goes on to discuss the ways in which energy and power are gathered, and concealed so that with high level practitioners, it is impossible to see how they are generating power.

He describes in detail the use of these martial arts as meditative practices, the links between physical, energetic and mental states and using the forms to deal with blockages, mental resistance and negative emotions. The three stages of this kind of inner work involve restoring psychological health, reaching inner stillness, and finally the great enterprise of merging with the Tao. Each of these is dealt with in detail.

All of these levels of practice are united by the Sixteen Part Neigong System, which allows the practitioner to add layer upon layer of subtlety to their practice of the system by focusing on one element at a time. From basic breathing practices to advanced energy work, this system benefits health, martial prowess, qi development and meditation in turn.

In addition, Frantzis offers plenty of information and advice that’s useful along the way, from how to find a qualified to teacher to why it’s better to perfect one movement than learn a hundred to exactly what the difference is between “small frame” and “large frame.”

So What Is Bagua Anyway?

Bagua is the least known of the three internal martial arts. It was developed originally as a practice for health and meditation in Taoist monasteries, and later expanded into a martial art which reached the Chinese public abruptly during the 19th century and proceeded to become a favourite of caravan guards in northern China. Bagua is named after the circle of eight trigrams, drawn from the I Ching, the Taoist Book of Changes, which represent the possible combinations and transformations of yin and yang energies. A key objective of Bagua practice is to master these changes on physical, energetic and mental levels in order to be able to flow effortlessly through any situation in life.

Frantzis emphasises the root exercise of Bagua, the Single Palm Change, as the key practice for health, energy work and meditation, as it is capable of embodying all of the other energies of the art.

The Hard Truth

Frantzis is known for his bluntness, and he does illuminate some difficult truths along the way. His expectations of what sort of teacher is necessary to actually learn the upper levels of energy work and meditation will and should scare the crap out of anyone who thinks that they’re on the path of the Taoist Immortal just by going to a few Tai Chi lessons put on by their local community center.

Frantzis, writing from deep inside the real inner tradition of Taoism, says straight out that mind-to-mind transmission and direct qi transmission from teacher to student are and must be natural prerequisites of high-level energy work, and especially of bridging from energy work to spiritual work, because these aspects of practice cannot be fully described in language and must be directly experienced. There are also four to five thousand energy channels in the body, and to work with them requires a master who can literally show you how to use them one at a time. This he offers as a defence for the traditional Chinese lineage system, saying that it was a bulwark against people who lacked this direct transmission but would pass themselves off as representatives of the lineage.

Another truth that hits closer to home for people who study these arts is Frantzis’ perspective on spontaneity and adaptability. He describes how the original teacher of Bagua could give each student a version of the movements suited for their own psychoenergetic state. The form was adapted to achieve the energetic content that was needed. This stands in stark contrast to the ossified state of these arts today, in which eternal arguments spring up between different schools about the “right” way to do a movement, while little attention is paid to the energy work it is supposed to embody.

Conclusion

This book can be viewed as a smorgasbord of information that can enrich your practice of the Taoist martial arts no matter what your reason for practicing, but more importantly, it brings you face to face with their full purpose and depth of possibility.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Resilience Tool par excellence?

Bagua Zhang is perhaps the least-known and most intriguing of the Chinese “Internal” martial arts.  It is visually distinguished by a soft, flowing appearance and the fact that many of its forms and exercises involve walking in a circle.  This circle is often represented as the Circle of Changes (ba gua or “eight trigrams”), with eight trigrams from the I Ching around the circumference, as in the diagram below:

 

Historically, Bagua appears to have been confined to practice by reclusive Taoists living in mountains and distant monasteries until the 19th Century, when it suddenly appeared in mainstream Chinese society thanks to a teacher named Tung Hai Chuan, where it quickly established a tremendous reputation as a fighting art in that unstable and martial arts-saturated environment.  Since that time, Bagua has also gained a reputation as a tremendous tool for health and healing.

“Walking the Circle” as a practice for physical and spiritual health has a long history in Taoist monasticism with or without the martial applications.  It is a form of exercise and of walking meditation.  The spiritual benefits of the practice include cultivating stillness of mind, calm nerves and a sense of inner balance that can withstand even the most rapid and unsettling changes in your outer world- in other words, it can help you cultivate inner resilience.  Outer, physical resilience benefits include:

–       Developing consciousness of good postural alignment throughout the body in a state of movement,

–       Developing a good sense of balance,

–       Developing agility and the ability to change directions quickly,

–       Stretching, compressing, opening and strengthening the body’s soft tissues- muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia,

–       Gently massaging the internal organs,

–       Opening and strengthening the joints.

 

The initial focus of Bagua is to make the body supple, healthy and strong.

So what does this process look like?  First, Bagua teaches specialized stepping methods with particular energetic implications, which in the first level of teaching are used to walk the circle in alternating clockwise and counter clockwise directions with the arms in particular static positions.  This form of movement is used for the cultivation of inner power under the guidance of an expert.  In the next two stages, the practitioner is introduced to the single and double palm changes, which represent the yang and yin energies of Bagua, the projecting and fluid energies if you will.  In the fourth stage, the student learns the Eight Palms, representing the eight energetic possibilities depicted by the trigrams of the ba gua circle.  Bagua practice is distinguished from other martial arts by the fact that it is done moving at full speed (after a slower introductory period) with rapid changes of direction and circular and spiralling movements.  Here you can watch a basic Bagua routine demonstrated by a master from the Taoist monastery at Wudang:

Bagua operates on the principle of practicing a small number of movements, each of which has a great many layers of content.  An example of this are the single and double palm changes (see video).  Classically, students of Bagua were first taught to walk the circle while performing Nei Gung energy work, the two initial palm changes and very little else, until their internal power had developed to such a degree that any further techniques they learned became extremely powerful.  Even so, it is said that to be able to fully utilize and understand any of the individual palm change movements might take years of practice- and that the abilities in combat of those who focus on a few small movements are far greater than the abilities of those who learn complex combat applications.  The many specialized movements are merely a container for the energies being used.  Here, martial arts master B.K. Frantzis gives you a quick demo to give you the idea of how this all works:

The Bagua approach to developing inner power is the Taoist sixteen-part process of Nei Gung, which you can read about from a number of sources, notably B.K. Frantzis’ books.  Through this process, the student’s energy is made strong and healthy, and can be consciously used for particular purposes.  Blockages in the energy system from traumatic events are removed, and the student can begin to consciously cultivate, use and preserve energy for their own health, and also to heal others.  Finally, the Bagua student can begin to see and experience in real, energetic terms where he or she stands in the energy system of the world and the cosmos.

Bagua makes no bones about the fact that despite the many health, healing and martial applications of its many movements, those movements are useless unless you’ve first cultivated the inner power to make them work for their intended purpose.  Bagua is unique in its reliance on footwork as a form of energy work.  Where other martial arts rely on stances, Bagua relies on stepping methods that are both numerous and subtle.  In martial applications, this means that if you’re sparring with a Bagua person, they’ll end up behind you within a couple of seconds.  These stepping methods also have specific functions in naturally opening the body’s energy channels, and in opening, relaxing and strengthening the joints- in one instance recounted by Frantzis, a man with severe hereditary rheumatism used Bagua practice to keep his condition in check.

That last is an important point, because Bagua confers additional physical benefits from long practice- the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia are relaxed and subjected to constant gentle twisting motions, which are essential to the health and strength of these tissues and of the energy system which travels through them, an aspect of fitness that is only beginning to be recognized in the West.  The joints, another key component of the energy system, also need to be opened and strengthened through gentle movement to stay healthy as the body ages.

Bagua offers a lifelong path to personal resilience in personal health, healing, martial applications, spiritual development and energy work, unique in its comprehensive vision, depth and the concentric layers of simplicity and nuance that one seems to encounter at every turn.

Dr. Symeon Rodger

For a more extensive intro to Bagua, you can check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4seCogI5SE




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