The Heretical Baguazhang and Xing Yi Monkey connection

Bagua and Xing Yi are two styles that have historically been trained together. The story you usually read is that martial artists living in Beijing in the 1900s rooming together found the two styles to be complimentary and therefore a long history of cross training naturally arose between them. I think this description of history is true, however, I often wonder if the real story is that earlier in time the two styles sprang from the same source, so this period was more of a reuniting of styles than two separate styles meeting?

Xing Yi Beng Quan

We speculated about the origins of Baguazhang before in the Heretics episode I did with my teacher. That one seemed to upset a lot of people, especially those were emotionally invested in Baguazhang, but hey it’s not called the Heretics Podcast for no reason! You’re going to get an heretical view of things there, and that will always upset people. Perhaps we should have put a big disclaimer on the front! If you’re going to listen to it, we’d suggest emptying your cup first. But anyway…

If we forget historical lineage questions for a moment and just look at the arts as presented today, it’s not hard to see a connection between the two. The stepping is very similar. Xing Yi normally steps in a straight line, but once you look at the turns at the end of each line you start to see what is clearly the same sort of stepping that is used in Baguazhang’s circle walking.

I think this is a very good video by a martial artist called Paul Rogers explaining how Bagua circle walking is basically two steps – an inward turning out step bai bu (inward placing step) and kou bu (hooking step).

Notice that his student is asking him questions about why they circle walk in Baguazhang and he keeps returning to the same answer, which is “you could do it in a straight line”. The problem with doing things on a straight line is that you need a lot of space, doing it in a circle helps you make more efficient use of whatever space you have. So, it’s the steps that are important, not the circle.

Here’s a short article about the two steps and their usage in Baguazhang. Plenty of styles of Baguazhang do have straight line drills too. And when you take the circle walking away, I think the connection between Xing Yi and Baguazhang starts to become clearer, at least to me.

In the Xing Yi lineage I’ve been taught the animal that most looks like Baguazhang is the monkey. These days Xing Yi is know for short little forms (or Lian Huan: “linking sequences” -as we prefer to call them) however I believe this is a result of years and years of politically-directed reformations being applied to the rich and varied martial systems that existed before the Boxer Rebellion. After the Boxer Rebellion and the religious secret societies that fueled it, there was an effort to strip martial arts away from any religious connections. Then came the Kuo Shu movement (we’re simplifying history here, but several authors have written about this – have a look on Amazon, and this video from Will at Monkey Steals Peach will help) and then the Communists arrived with the WuShu movement. The result was that the rich and varied lineages of Xing Yi became standardised, often into short sequences that could be easily taught to large groups. In any case, the idea of set sequences doesn’t have to be the be all and end all of martial arts. Some teacher encourage students to create their own, once they have a good enough understanding off the principles.

We have an extended linking sequence for Monkey, taught to me by my teacher. Here’s a video of me doing a fragment of it, being a Xing Yi Monkey in a forest grove. My natural home :). I’ll put the full video in my Patron’s area if you want to see more of it.

But look at the steps I’m doing – can you see the bai bu and the kou bu? I think that if I added circle walking into that it would be almost indistinguishable from Baguazhang.

This begs the question, which came first? Xing Yi is historically older than Baguazhang, but I think because of the mixing of the arts, they both influenced each other at this point, and possibly are the same art to begin with!

I like to think of the best answer to the terrible question that plagues martial arts lineages of “which is oldest?” is “right now, we are all historically equidistant to the founder”.

Practicing Tai Chi in nature: Being like a teabag in the ocean

On holiday in the southwest of England for a week I managed to find some time each morning to practice Tai Chi in a lovely old wooded area.

So often we have to practice Tai Chi in our front rooms, back gardens or patios because of time pressures. Or maybe we only get to practice at a class in a village hall, gym or community centre. Either way, our surroundings are often far from natural.

Being able to practice Tai Chi in an environment where there were no other people, no human sounds and no interruptions was a blessing. It was possible to really sink into the environment for once, and not just my legs!

It’s a process one of my teachers calls “being a teabag in the ocean”. If you want to take in the good stuff from the natural world around you then you need to adopt the attitude of being like a teabag in the ocean – i.e. let nature move through you as well as around you, so that you don’t feel like something separate to it. Absorb it, soak it in. I’d say most people practice Tai Chi as if they are a teabag that’s sealed inside a plastic bag then dropped in the ocean. They can be doing great Tai Chi, but they are perfectly contained within themselves and not interacting with the environment. Often there’s not much environment to interact with, as mentioned previously, but if you get the chance to practice Tai Chi out in the woods, you should take it and take the opportunity to get out of that plastic bag.

Before you practice the form, stand for a few moments and try to let the barriers between you and your surroundings break down. Your mind should be focused on the moment and on your breathing, after all, that is as much a part of nature as anything else. Stand like that for a while before doing the form and just experience it, don’t think about experiencing it.

Then as you go through the movements of the form, you’ll start to feel like you are moving with the natural patterns around you. Don’t worry if your form takes on a subtly different quality than normal. It’s all part of the process.

I find that I don’t have as much free time for this in my normal life as I do when I’m on holiday, but I’m going to try and make an effort to get out to a secluded place now and again and practice my Tai Chi out there because the effort is well worth it.

The “Make Xing Yi Wild Again” podcast episode

makexingyi

My last post, “Make Xing Yi Wild Again“, about how the global coronavirus pandemic is offering us a chance to reconnect with nature and change our approach to martial arts practice, inspired the latest episode of our Heretics podcast with my Xing Yi teacher Damon Smith.

Check it out.

In the podcast we discuss a lot of the ideas thrown up by the article including rewidling, degrowth and shamanic practice. Of course, we also delve into the martial art of Xing Yi and how it has changed over the years, what the 12 animals are really all about and we look at how we can approach rewilding Xing Yi again.

Natural structures in Tai Chi

I spent my lunch hour practicing Tai Chi with the leaves falling around me, which made me realise that Autumn is definitely here. Practicing under the trees also made me think about the strong parallel between the postures of Tai Chi and the structures of nature.

Take trees for example – the branches grow upwards and outwards:

alone autumn branch cold

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you look at the postures of a Tai Chi form you can see the same ‘outwards and upwards’ structures:

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Yang-single

Animals have the same quality too. The horns on a deer are a good example:

nature animal grass meadow

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But the alert, ready posture of most animals (when they’re not sleeping) also mirrors this:

cat outdoors

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The spine is always extended, the eyes engaged and the posture directed upwards and outwards.

The following is a Yang Tai Chi form video. Notice that his body structure is always opening outwards and upwards:

So why do we do this in Tai Chi? Well, natural structures are inherently strong structures. Nature has been working on trees, plants and animals for millions of years, and they have evolved into strong shapes that can take a battering from the elements and survive. In terms of postural considerations of Tai Chi we are aiming to mimic natural structures to take advantage of their inherent strength. For example, with the arms, the elbow is usually kept below the wrist in Tai Chi, when the hand is going up and outwards, this enables your arm to create the same sort of shape as a tree branch that grows outwards and upwards.

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If you collapse the structure of your arms – say, close your joints like the elbows and shoulders too much, you don’t get this effect of mimicking natural structures. Instead, the structure needs to be supported by more muscle usage if it is going to withstand pressure.

Think also of stretching the ‘body suit’ of skin, fascia, tendons. If you bend the joints too sharply you lose the stretch from feet to toes. If you look at a picture of a fower, plant or tree, it looks kind of ‘stretched out’, doesn’t it?

selective focus photo of cherry blossom

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

There’s a lot to learn from nature.