Traditional Baguazhang Walking Methods
Learning the Traditional Stepping Patterns of Baguazhang Practice
Walking in the Wuji Posture limits your focus to two items: proper body alignment and walking on the edge of the circle. When you are comfortable moving around the circle in the Wuji Posture, you can progress to the Mother Palms of baguazhang practice.
For beginners, I recommend walking a large circle in the Wuji Posture for more than 10 minutes a day. After a week of daily practice, make your circle smaller until you can walk a complete circle in eight to ten steps. When you are comfortable walking that size of circle for an extended period, you can progress to more complex postures.
Natural Stepping in Baguazhang Circle Walking Practice
Stand on the edge of your circle in Wuji Posture facing in a counterclockwise direction. Take eight breaths and become mindful of your body alignment. Bend the knees slightly and maintain this bend as you walk. Step forward with the left foot by kicking the left foot out from the knee and landing the foot on its heel. For now, use a normal heel-to-toe gait, I will share two alternate forms of walking in another lesson.
Put the left foot down so it is flat on the floor and grab the floor slightly with your toes. After the foot is flat on the floor, shift your weight forward onto the left foot and lift the heel of the right foot off the floor.
Step up with the right foot and turn it in slightly so you are walking on the edge of the circle. This slight toe-in step with the outside foot forms the circle. How far you turn the foot into the center of the circle will determine how large a circle you are walking.
Land the right foot on its heel and gradually put it down, grabbing the floor slightly with your toes. Shift your weight onto the right foot as you raise the heel of the left foot. Swing the left foot next to the right and place it in front of the right along the line of the circle. Repeat this stepping pattern over and over until you have completed one circuit.
As you walk, pay attention to your Wuji Posture, your weight transfer between the feet as you step forward, and keeping your knees bent. Imagine that your legs are the blades of scissors, cutting a piece of paper as you walk. The steps are fairly small, not extending beyond the width of your shoulders. If you are keeping your steps within shoulder width, your knees may rub slightly as you walk, thus reinforcing the Scissor Step image.
You will be wobbly at first. People who have practiced this art for years still wobble and sway occasionally. In the internal martial art teaching, this means that your Qi has risen. If you sway off the line or become unbalanced, remember the three internal harmonies from the Trinity Posture practice. The heart harmonizes with the intent; the intent harmonizes with the breath; the breath harmonizes with the power. You need to practice them here to avoid being off balance.
One way to accomplish the three internal harmonies while walking is to time your breathing with your steps. When the inside foot steps forward, breathe in; when the outside foot steps forward, breathe out. One breath in, one breath out, completes one cycle. If you are still off balance, then make your circle larger. If you have to walk around your entire back yard or gym, that is fine, but remember to walk in Wuji Posture.
Coordinating the steps with the breath also means that you will have to walk slowly. Walk at least three circles in this direction before changing directions to walk clockwise around the circle.
A Simple Change of Direction
The challenge of learning martial forms is practicing the beneficial, boring movements that train actual skill over the flowery movements that make you look and feel like a superhero. Practicing a few things with purpose is better than practicing many things and losing focus. All martial schools have practice methods that stress a few repeated postures, but we often ignore such practice for the longer, more energetic looking sequences.
Sun Style Eight Trigram Palm provides an alphabet of directional changes that, if you practice diligently, you can string together to impress your friends with your martial prowess. For now, however, I need you to focus on the footwork and conduct a Simple Change of direction.
With the left foot forward, swing the right leg in a tight arc. Land the entire foot on the floor with the toes pointing to the toes of the left foot. Your weight is now equal between both feet, and it should feel like standing in Wuji Posture, except that your toes and knees are pointing towards each other.
If this step was a little small, your knees may be touching. If your knees are touching, slide the right foot out slightly so they separate. Your heels should be about hip width apart.
Take eight breaths and get a feel for this posture before continuing.
Shift your weight onto the right foot and swing the left foot out in an arc, landing it flat in the same position you used for Yin Yang Posture.
Step up slightly with the left foot, landing it on its heel. This is like the step you took when you were moving from Universal Post to Trinity Posture in the Trinity Posture standing exercise. We call this stealing a step, and it is a crucial component. Do not ignore it.
Continue by bringing the right foot next to the left foot. Stop momentarily with the right foot flat and just off the floor next to the left foot. After this slight pause, sweep the foot forward in a slight arc to walk in the clockwise direction. The pause of the right foot next to the left is called a chicken step. While the half-arc sweep of the foot after the pause is called a sweeping step. I will refer to this entire movement as the Sweeping Step.
Walk at least three circles in the clockwise direction before turning and walking in the counterclockwise direction. When you are ready to stop, find a point on the circle where you would like to stop, stand up into Wuji Posture, take eight breaths, and finish your practice.
Once you are comfortable walking around the circle with the Natural Step described in the previous section, you can practice two alternate stepping patterns that come from traditional Baguazhang practice.
The first of these is the Sliding Step, and it is probably the most common type of stepping used in Baguazhang. Most schools call this stepping practice walking in mud. Since it calls for you to walk slowly, it is good for developing balance and leg strength.
The other method is the Pole Step, which is sometimes called mud walking as well. It calls for you to lift the entire foot off the floor as one unit and put it down as one unit.
Notice that both stepping patterns are a mud walking step. You could use either version to walk through mud. You could slide your foot along the bottom of a muddy creek, or you could lift the entire foot straight up and out of the mud while balancing on the other leg. If the goal is to not lose your shoe in the mud, both would probably work, but you might get mud inside your shoe in the process.
Another view of these stepping patterns comes from chapter fifteen of the Dao De Jing. This chapter describes a true master of Dao. One verse says:
“They were careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream.”
How you choose to cross an iced-over stream depends on the circumstance. If the ice is thick, you may walk over the stream by crossing on the ice. However, you will want to test the ice as you step, sliding your foot out, and slowly putting your weight on it. If the ice begins to crack, then you will want to test a different area of the stream before you take a step.
If there are rocks in the stream, then you will find that it is safer to cross over by stepping on the rocks. The rocks are small, you can only put one foot on a rock at a time, and the rocks have ice on them as well so you will have to put your whole foot down on the rock, and remain balanced on one leg as you walk.
Practicing the Baguazhang Sliding Step
Start in Wuji Posture as before, but instead of putting your left foot down on its heel, lift it slightly, and slide it forward along the floor. The sliding step is not ice skating. You have to lift your foot slightly to slide it along the floor.
Grab the floor with your toes, as you put your weight onto the left foot. Imagine that you are listening for the ice to crack beneath your foot. Do not lift the heel of the right foot.
When all the weight is on the left foot, lift the right foot off the floor slightly and slide it in a path along the edge of the circle. When you have stepped forward with the right foot, put your weight onto it slowly, as you grab the floor with your toes.
Breathe out slowly as you put your weight onto a foot, and breathe in slowly as you move the rear foot next to, and past, the front foot. This means that each foot will take one complete breath (in and out).
Practicing the Baguazhang Pole Step
Start in Wuji posture and put the left foot forward with the sole of the foot flat on the floor. Put your weight onto the left foot and lift the entire right foot off the floor. Bring it next to the left foot and pause for one moment. Then swing the right foot forward and drop the entire foot onto the floor.
The pole step is not hopping; it is walking by raising and lowering the entire foot.
Lifting the entire foot off the floor is harder than it sounds. It helps to imagine that your big toe is lifting first, as if you are kicking something with your toes.
Breathing is like the Natural Step; breathe in as you move the inside foot, and breath out as you move the outside foot.
I recommend that you practice all three walking patterns, Natural Step, Sliding Step, and Pole Step. Choose one pattern each day and practice it exclusively for that day. Beginners will want to change patterns every day until all three become natural. When walking the circle is easy for you, then use the Natural Step for most of your practice, and use the Sliding Step and Pole Step once a week.
Once you have committed to a pattern, stick with it, even when you are changing directions. You will find it is easy to slip into the Natural Step when changing directions, especially if you are practicing the Sliding Step.