Review: Introduction to Baguazhang by Kent Howard

$18.95, North Atlantic Books. Get it here.

Introduction to Baguazhang by Kent Howard


Baguazhang has always been the most curious of the three big internal arts, but while its origins are shrouded in mystery, it’s applications non-trivial and its purpose often obscure, it’s actual practice has always been something that is accessible to anybody who can put one foot in front of the other and walk in a circle.

And getting you to put one foot in front of the other is exactly how Kent Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang starts off. Without being too specific of any particular style, Howard’s book lays out the basic content found in most lineages of Baguazhang, like the first two palm changes, teacups exercise, circle walking techniques and mother palms, and mixes in some advice on fluid movement, combat applications, standing practice and how to generate power from the root.

In terms of practical advice, Howard covers how to step in a basic circle, and the different ways to changing direction – L steps, T steps and V steps – in a lot of detail. But when it comes to the more complicated things like palm changes you are given pictures to follow rather than detailed step-by-step instruction.

In that respect, the book is exactly what it says it is – an introduction. The “Advanced practices” promised on the cover are certainly included, but not in a “how to do them” sort of way.

Regardless, it’s nice to see such a professional quality book produced on Baguazhang. The production quality is really high – with nice printing and a nice, readable font. The pictures are only black and white, but big and clear enough to see what’s intended, and time has been spent making sure it’s all been properly edited and proofed.

At various points Howard hands over to other authors – Wang Shu Jin’s “The Eight Character Secrets of Baguazhang” from his Bagua Swimming Body Palms book is here, for example, and some commentary from Darius Elder from the same book is reprinted, too.

I found it a bit of a shame he hands over the reins, as the book starts to feel like a collection of other people’s stuff towards the end, and Howard’s own voice, so much in force at the start, is witty, off beat and funny. I’d have liked it more if he’d continued in the same vein throughout.

Minor gripes aside, Howard’s Introduction to Baguazhang is a valuable addition to the literature available on this spinning, circular art that captivates so many people. If you’re looking to take your first steps into Baguazhang then it’s an excellent guide. You’ll certainly be able to learn how to walk a circle, perform the tea cups exercise and have a go at the palm changes. There’s also plenty of advice here that will guide you in the years ahead when you’re much further advanced in your practice.

Reiki and the Suicide Monks

I made a special guest star appearence on the Woven Energy podcast last week to join Damon Smith for a chat about Reiki and suicide monks.

Continuing our examination of the spiritual traditions that gave rise to modern Reiki, this episode looks at the Buddhist tradition of Mount Kurama. The tradition of Mount Kurama is one with strong shamanic undertones, and is one of the two primary lines of Buddhism that influenced Usui. We also talk about the related suicide cult of Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto.

Woven Energy

A bit of an odd subject, and not something I know a lot about, but I the episode was really about how organised religions can convince people to do some very wacky stuff, which is more my bag.

Tai Chi is still too deadly for the cage

I’m going to have a bit of a rant today, so bear with me.

I read this quote today:

“Why should everything always be measured by competition MMA standards? Rules and protections so people won’t get hurt, judges, mats, doctors standing beside the ring, and months for the people to prepare before a fight… So those are the standards of “high level fighting”?

That quote sums up what’s wrong with the attitude of a lot of people in the Tai Chi world. Now, don’t get me wrong. I tend to agree with his idea that not everything should be judged by MMA standards. There are lots of reasons to do a martial art, and it doesn’t all have to be about competing in a ring, but then he immediately loses the plot by claiming that MMA is safe, tame or sanitised, compared to the real martial art that he practices. This idea that his art is too deadly for the ring is as old as the hills. People have been using it as an excuse ever since the UFC was created. And we particulary hear it from internal martial artists – usually Tai Chi people. And despite it being obvious nonsense, it never seems to go away.

People who talk like this simply don’t know what they’re talking about, so I really should just ignore him and go and do something more interesting instead, but just for my own sanity, let me flesh out why he’s wrong.

MMA at all levels, but particularly the professional level, is ridiculously dangerous. People die, and they’re doing it for your entertainment and crappy wages. I like to watch MMA as a form of entertainment as much as anybody else who practices martial arts as a hobby, especially if I know who the fighters are and have been following them for a while. There are moments of brilliance that get pulled off in the cage, and they’re astonishing to see. To see one person successfully implement a fighting strategy against another and for it to work is as much a triumph of brain as it is of brawn. As with all sports, there are rare moments of pure drama that happen in the cage that cannot be replicated even in the highest levels of theatre.

If you’re a jiujitsu fan then there’s the added bonus of seeing your favourite grapplers transition to MMA to see if they can work their wizardry in the cage with the threat of punches added. Ryan “The wizard” Hall is one of my favourite fighters for this very reason:

But there’s also a lot about the sport I don’t like – I hate the way fighters keep hitting their opponent’s head after they have gone unconscious. I hate how much punishment the referees sometimes let the fighters take before waving the bout off. The weight cutting is ridiculous and dangerous. I don’t like watching violence for the sake of violence. But most of all I don’t like the fact that these people are putting their health and, let’s be honest, their lives, on the line for not a lot of money when compared to other sports that have similar viewing numbers, but don’t have anywhere near the same risk. No professional MMA fighter is getting out of the game unscathed. The effects of repeated blows to the head in competition or training often only reveal themselves as life-changing brain damage years after the fighter has hung up his or her gloves.

And that’s not to mention all the potentially life-changing injuries you can suffer inside the cage in the few short minutes of a fight. Chris Wideman suffered an horrendous injury to his shin just a couple of weeks ago:

Jack Slack gave a glorious rant (from 38.22 minutes in his episode 28 podcast) about the crazy situation of being an MMA fan and knowing the fighters are doing themselves serious damage for your entertainment. I agree with everything he said.

But it is what it is and we are where we are.

It’s not like a lot of other combat sports are much safer. Just a week ago a Sumo wrestler slipped and fell face down. He never got up again. There were no doctors present at the match and nobody checked on him for about 5 minutes as he lay there. You can watch it on Youtube if you’re feeling brave. His medical care, or lack of it, was an absolute disgrace and clearly the safety procedures (which seem hamstrung by tradition in this case) need urgently reviewing. Again, Sumo wrestlers are generally compensated appallingly for the amount they give to the sport, and then discarded after their career is over.

While football stars, golf pros, runners and basketball players can command huge salaries, professional fighters (with the exception of boxers) are just not getting the recognition they deserve.

So the last thing I want to read about is some Tai Chi expert telling me he thinks that MMA is too soft and safe compared to the “deadly” art he practices. If he’s even raised a sweat in training in the last 10 years, I’d be surprised.

As I’ve heard many people say over the years, MMA is the closest you can get to a no rules fight while still having some rules, so as a testing ground it’s immensely valuable for research. Let’s not pretend it’s not, or that practising a martial art without any resistance fighting will somehow make you a better fighter.

Review: Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-Chi by Bob Klein

Heal Yourself and the World with Tai-Chi

Bob Klein

Bob Klein first studied Tai Chi Chuan fifty years ago with Grandmaster William C. C. Chen, and also owned an animal importing business, which gave him a ready supply of exotic animals to test his martial skills against. In a method that sounds similar to the legendary founding tales of many Chinese martial arts, Bob observed the wild animals, and learned their fighting ticks. Bob describes the process as learning the “pattern of attention” of each species, which he then tried to adopt in himself in sparring and Chi Kung, creating his own system, Zookinesis, along the way.

“The imported animals were often not in a good mood as they emerged from their shipping containers and I was attacked frequently.”, explains Bob.  “Many of the animals were stronger and faster than I so I had to use my skill in controlling their attention. There were many close calls and I had many scars”, he observes.

Klein also traveled to the jungles of Central America several times to study animals in the wild. “I would buy a dugout canoe and spend a few months paddling along rivers, meeting the wildlife and people.”

The result of this study is the system of chi kung he calls “Zookinesis” (“animal exercises”) and the fighting system called “Phantom Kung-fu”, which is the result of his Tai Chi Chuan influenced by Zookinesis. Zookinesis seems to evolve into the wider world of healing and being in harmony with nature.

The book, Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is as much about Zookinesis as it is about Tai Chi. It’s not a “teach yourself Tai Chi” type of guide, or a deep dive into history. Instead, I’d describe it as a kind of stream of consciousness on the subject of animism, Tai Chi, energy flow and spirituality. There are headings and there are chapters, but I don’t really feel like they matter much. You could dip in at any point and just start reading. Stop, flick on 20 pages and read a bit more. Go back 40 pages. And so on. That’s not to say it’s not a well written book, but a reader looking for a more organised, practical or logical system to unpick will be disappointed.

Here are some examples of paragraph I’ve picked at random to give you an example of the sort of text it contains:

“Small children in our society usually draw people as big heads with tiny arms and legs sticking out of the heads. I wonder if they are just seeing the distribution of attention in a person, and drawing their pictures accurately from that perspective.”

In fact, Klein’s work makes a nice contrast to the often fractious world of online Tai Chi discussion. His musings are marvelously inofensive and do a good job of framing his points of reference. He has no interest in denigrating other styles of Tai Chi or teachers, exposing fake histories or arguing with anybody else about what ‘real’ Tai Chi is. 

No egos were harmed in the making of this book. If you’re looking for a philosophical meander through many of spirituality’s greatest hits then you’ve come to the right place. Step inside, pour yourself a cup of green tea and let the zookinesis flow.

Heal yourself and the world with Tai Chi is available through Amazon, and Bob’s website: https://www.movementsofmagic.com/

Never let your knees go over your toes… or should you?

I remember when I started Tai Chi in the 90s, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that you should never let your knees go beyond the line of your toes in a forward stance.

YCF: Knees not extending past the line of the toes.

Letting this happen was always seen as unequivocally bad. Not only was knees beyond toes seen as structurally unsound (your weight is too far forward making you easy to pull off balance), but this was seen as the primary cause of the epidemic of so many Tai Chi people having bad knees.

The Snake Creeps Down posture in particular was quite often used as an example of a badly done posture by Western dilettantes.

But it always struck me as a bit odd that it was seen as being such a dangerous thing to do. If you were training the martial side of Tai Chi then you were being punched, thrown and armlocked on the regular. Worrying about your knees going over the line of your toes seemed a minor danger in comparrison.

Fast forward to 2021 and today I found out that a lot of BJJ people (an art that specialises in slowly destroying your body over time) were raving about the benefits of the method espoused by the Knees Over Toes Guy on YouTube, who had achieved great results reparing people’s knees using a traning methods that empahsises, yes, you guessed it, putting your knees beyond the line of your toes as much as possible.

Interesting. Here’s what he says:

A year went by with no results. In fact, I was certain I needed another surgery when a spark of truth finally presented itself…

“The athlete whose knees can go farthest and strongest over his or her toes is the most protected.”

Everything I had been taught up to this point by dozens of trainers and physical therapists was very clear: NO KNEES OVER TOES — but when I read this statement, I immediately knew it was true.

Knees Over Toes Guy

The write up of his method is here. And here’s a video of his basic method is here:

The logic seems sound to me, so if you’ve got knee trouble, you might want to give it a try.

It makes me think – is the epidemic of Tai Chi people with bad knees (if it really exists) caused by the knees going over the toes? Or is it more likely because that group self-selects for other unhealthy behviours?

The future of push hands

I think push hands is completely flawed as a competitive sport, which is why it ends up as a shoving match, but somebody (Jet Li?) is trying to change the rules to make it work better as an Olympic sport…. So here it is! It’s essentially more like wrestling, which is probably a good thing as it means you can move your foot.

And it’s got takedowns, but I think the question is then always … why not just compete at Shuai Jiao?

Martial arts, Bruce Lee and philosophy

“I’m not aware of too many things,
I know what I know if you know what I mean.”

Edie Brickell

I was listening to the Drunken Boxing podcast recently in which Byron Jacobs and Phil Morrell were talking about Phil’s training history in Fan style Baguazhang. At one point he mentioned two of his teachers and how different their approaches were. One, the daughter of the old master, would deal with tricky questions by showing the answer with a physical demonstration, but if you asked for an explanation of the technical details she would sometimes struggle. She could however, just do it. The other he mentioned had been a professional martial arts teacher all his life, and as such had a more varied teaching method. He could answer questions at a variety of levels, from physical demonstration to a discussion of theory.

Most people’s first introduction to Kung Fu was through the work of Bruce Lee – either his films, or the TV series Kung Fu, which he didn’t write, but was based on his idea. The TV series was full of flashbacks to Master Po teaching his Shaolin philosophy, and Enter the Dragon has the classic master and student discussion at the start, which anchors the whole film in a kind of generic Taoist philosophy. So, from the very beginning in the West, Kung Fu and philosophy arrived hand in hand.

Photo by Man Chung on Unsplash

Theory is one of those things that martial arts is chock full of, whether it’s yin yang symbolism or lofty philosophical ideas of the merits of the soft defeating the hard or the theory of the meridians and Chinese medicine. It’s impossible to deny that Kung Fu is built on theory.

But there’s an opposite view that theory has a limited place in the grand scheme of things and it’s inherently prone to misinterpretation.  It’s an aid to understanding at a certain point, but quite a limited one. 

Theory is an undisputed source of dispute in martial arts, especially online. The typical online argument about martial arts (as we discussed in our most recent Heretics podcast on martial arts and shamanism) is usually about the definition of terms. Different styles and different teachers tend to say the same things in slightly different ways, which are correct from their own perspective – provided the teacher understands it of course – but appear opposite when written down.

I think we can all agree that it’s perfectly possible to learn the practical application of kung fu without ever hearing the theory, but could most people could learn the theory and deduce the practical application?

The repurposing of Kung Fu postures

I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:

True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.

But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.

If we go back to one of the earliest written descriptions of Kung Fu by General Qi Jinguang in his “Boxing Classic” of 1560 we can see that all he’s showing are a series of still postures with written verse about the move in question.

You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.

Lazily pulling back the robe, Qi Jinguang, 1560

A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.

I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.

The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?

Kung Fu 2021

The classic TV series is back! This time the lead is female and the cast is almost all Asian. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with it. I thought the trailer was pretty good. Not sure how I watch this in the UK though…?

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Tai Chi Chuan, is to ‘keep the head suspended, as if from above’. In the Tai Chi Classics it also states “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel”, whilst also saying, “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.

These quotes have produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi universe. If you look at ChengFu’s student Cheng ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you can see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle of suspending the head and standing like a perfectly balanced scale. In a forward posture, Cheng ManChing kept his head, neck and back vertical in relation to the ground at all times. He allowed no forward incline at all. To stay vertical he softened his back knee a bit, which removed the straight line from the heel to the head, producing a much softer posture than his teacher, Yang Cheng-Fu, exhibited.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of Yang Cheng-Fu in a similar forward posture you can clearly see that he holds his head in the same vertical alignment, but holds his back with a slight forward incline. He keeps his back leg straighter, forming a straight line from his back heel to his head, meaning that his posture is slightly harder than Cheng ManChings, and he exerts more of a forward pressure.

Both of these approaches can be seen as interpreting the advice to not “lean in any direction” differently. The situation becomes even more confusing when you look at the Wu style of Tai Chi Chuan, derived from the version of the form practiced by ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan. Wu holds an even more inclined position, which keeps the head vertical, but often seems to break the line at the hip, so that the back heel is no longer in a straight line all the way to the head. Being of Manchu heritage, Wu Jianquan had a shuai-jiao background. He was taught martial arts by his father who was a student of Yang LuChan and also a cavalry officer and imperial palace guard, as he was, so a change in his preference for grappling techniques could very well account for the changes in his version of the form.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms, regardless of its orientation in the vertical plane. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of our spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. The next time you’re sitting at a laptop observe what happens when you start to type. Notice that your head wants to move towards your focus of attention, the object you are interacting with.

Recently I was watching an excellent performance by a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut, filmed in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Search for the video “Old Kung Fu Footage in Hong Kong in the 1960’s” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the good posture he keeps throughout – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extended and space and awareness to be present.

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Tai Chi Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. What is required is the freedom to move our arms, but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how do we train this? Here’s something simple you can try. Get a 4-pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swing it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the neck and back muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they should feel active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy sword, of course, if you want to look more like a traditional martial artist, and less like a deranged milk man. And once you get a feeling for it you can try it without a heavy object, in which case it becomes more like a silk reeling exercise, or you can try and keep the same feeling when you do the Tai Chi form. In which case it doesn’t look like anything.

Obviously, when you are standing still, or sitting, in meditation you can achieve the same relationship of the torso, neck, head and arms but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. Initially at least. If you try standing in a Zhan Zhuang posture with your arms extended for a few minutes you’ll start to feel your neck and shoulder muscles tighten. This is where you need to work on relaxing them, yet maintaining your posture. You need to let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and flow down into the ground through the centre of the foot, or through the sitting bones if you are seated.

A human head is quite heavy, at around 5KG, which is a lot more than a typical bowling ball weighs. If the head moves forward of the hips too far then we have to start using a lot of muscle to hold it up. In a way, the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing an activity is a warning sign that we’re not using our body to the best of our ability. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then the weight of the head is transfered down to the ground through our frame instead. Our breathing will be better, and we won’t lose that sense of lightness and ease that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Finally, his idea of keeping an open relationship between the head, neck, back and arms raises a few good questions when applied to martial arts. What springs first to my mind is, should you have your head in that position to fight? I’d say probably not – you want to tuck your chin in a bit more when you fight, for obvious reasons, but the real question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck your chin. Dropping the head towards the opponent has all the same disadvantages we’ve outlined above when applied to martial arts, and will inhibit the free movement of your arms, so critical to fluid punching, not to mention making you more hittable.

So, keep your head up, as people say to you when you’re looking down. Walk lightly, smile brightly!