Physical foundations of I-Bagua

Bagua is considered an ‘internal’ martial art, and internal martial arts are usually thought of not being dependent on ‘strength’, but on ‘internal energy’ or ‘qi’.

While this is true it does lead to a lot of misconceptions. So let me clarify some of these and describe what I consider to be good foundations for the practise of I-Bagua. This will involve a journey through history, physiology and culture.

Let’s start here, in the Western world and some of the ways Qi is perceived and sold. Yes, Qi is sold (though not in convenient bottles).

The idea of Qi or special internal energy is a major marketing or selling point used to promote Bagua, Taiji and other practises. It hints at special powers, extraordinary health, and longevity. It diverts the attention from the possibility of hard work and sweat.

Many modern practitioners of internal arts consider ‘strength’ an undesirable physical quality. Strength is almost a dirty word, and I’m almost embarrassed to show my physique to other internal artists (almost 😉 ).

Actually it is the inappropriate use of strength that is to be avoided, but strength itself is extremely important, and it always has been. Let me explain why.

We can start by looking at the origins of Internal arts, the context in which they began.

Internal martial arts started in pre-industrial China. No automation, no public transport, the majority of the population worked in agriculture or some form of physical labour. Rich people could afford to buy other people’s labour, but physical work was an accepted fact of life.

Taijiquan has its historically verifiable source in a small village in Henan province. The people who live there worked the fields and like 19th century farm workers were physically strong just as a result of digging, lifting, carrying, and walking all day long.

Foundations of physical strength and competence were taken for granted when these arts originated. Certainly they were expected by anyone who wanted to take on the challenge of martial training.

Compared to the early 21st century West,  food was also less abundant. Rich people could overeat, but genuine hunger was a familiar sensation for the majority of the population even if it may not have been an everyday occurrence for many.

Look at early photos of life in China. You do not see a great deal of obesity.

Strength and size were generally admired as attributes whether innate or developed through work. Sun Xikun shown here is a 3rd generation Bagua teacher, known for his internal skill, who clearly has a well developed physique.

Also Dong Haichuan, the founder of Bagua was described as having a back like that of a horse – broad and strong. Dong’s students were usually accomplished martial artists from other styles, Shaolin, Shuai jiao (wrestling), Xingyi. Some were professional bodyguards. They had considerable physical strength and skill before starting Bagua.

These people had gongfu.  The Chinese word gongfu 功夫 (kungfu) refers to any skill, whether in martial arts or not, in which any unusual capacity is developed. They had considerable physical strength and skill before starting Bagua.

A more literal translation of the characters is “work” and “man”. The first character Gong – work includes the image of a flexed arm that is the pictogram for strength.
The modern context

Let’s contrast this with today’s situation. The majority of people in the West have sedentary work and access to abundant food. People rarely walk very far or carry heavy loads.

This is a cultural phenomenon which cannot be blamed on individuals even if individuals do have responsibility to take charge of their bodies.

Moderns standards of ‘strong’ are very different from pre-industrial standards of ‘strong’, in the same way that the concept of ‘work’ has changed. They take elevators rather than stairs. Many people have poor posture, uncertain coordination and have difficulty with basic movement patterns like a full squat.

This means that most modern people who come to Bagua and other internal arts have a deal of foundation work to do.

Before we consider the nature of this work let’s take another look at what ‘internal’ means.

What Internal really refers to
‘Internal’ refers to a sophisticated way of using the body on its own and in relation to external forces (such as an attack from an opponent). This body use requires fine control of movement, the development of specific physical alignments in coordinations with breath, intention and awareness.

You cannot have subtle coordination or body control until you have mastered basic coordination and body control. You cannot have excellent body alignment or posture until you have at least developed correct body posture. You cannot apply sophisticated tactics until you have mastered basic tactics.

The result of this sophisticated body use is to give a martial edge – and several positive side effects in non-martial contexts. What makes that edge possible is the foundation.

From a martial arts point of view focussing on the subtle without first developing the basic material swiftly leads to a dead end.

Equally if all you focus on is strength then the ‘internal’ edge will remain elusive.

An important question is at what point to make the shift from one to the other and how. That is a subject for another article.

For now we just need to focus on what a basic physical foundation for internal arts includes.

What should you be able to do?
The following is a simple test of fitness. If you can do this you are in a reasonable state to start internal martial arts training. It emphasises leg and torso strength and so does not discriminate between men and women.

  • Perform 50 full squats in 90 seconds
  • Hold a planche position for two minutes
  • Perform 30 walking lunges with your arms overhead in 1 minute
  • Standing with a straight back hold one horizontal for 30s

If you cannot do this catch your breath, evaluate your performance and start to plan how to get in better condition. You can start investigating the subtler movements of internal arts, and you can use the awareness you gain to improve your performance. However for your general quality of life – as well as for your internal skill I suggest that you work on your general fitness.

What if I’m older?
Train! Internal arts are full of stories of spritely active older practitioners. In fact that is one of the things that internal arts are famous for old masters who moved like younger people. They managed this by training, by building on their experience of how the body works and refining it. It is never too late to start this process, and the body responds to exercise at any age.

Eat well, train intensely but correctly. The typical practises of internal arts may not address your exercise/strength needs most effectively because they assume a foundation.

To develop basic strength it is often helpful to look at what modern exercise science can offer.

Even in the absence of strength certain internal arts practises do help develop awareness that can make movement more efficient, pleasurable and safe. Practicing internal arts will help develop your general strength – but if your rely only on them (and do not put in a lot of hours) it it will be slow.

Eat well
If you are going to exercise intensely it is vital to eat well. Food is the foundation for exercise, just as ‘crude’ exercise is the foundation for ‘sophisticated’ exercise.

For physical performance and development I recommend the Crossfit diet prescription.

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

I realise that there are more considerations to diet than how tosupport physical development. There are ethical and environmental objections to eating meat that many people choose act on (and I applaud).

Food is a social experience, and changes in diet create social ripples. I will write more about diet, but for now I say that if you make  small incremental changes in your diet you will get results that build on each other in ways that are well worthwhile.

There is a little more detail on the Crossfit prescription below.

I will publish regular workouts that I think help create a foundation for I-Bagua practise. Exercises are ideally prescribed on an individual basis since our strengths and weakness vary. Still there are certain patterns that are common in modern people and certain qualities that are often lacking.

Naturally in I-Bagua classes these exercises will be part of basic training.

Practically what does this mean?
It means if you want to do good Bagua, or good Taiji get strong! Get strong, get coordinated, get supple and be ready to suspend that strength to learn the subtler skills of Bagua.

If you take an honest look at yourself you may find that you are lacking in at least one of these areas.

Logically the less in shape you are, the less likely you will have the knowledge, values or beliefs that support physical health. That is one reason why I do the work I do. Health makes everything better! I want to share how to enjoy this.

The good news is that there are clear paths that you can follow to change this, that the process can be surprisingly fun, the results swift, satisfying and empowering.

More details on the CrossFit dietary prescription:
Protein should be lean and varied and account for about 30% of your total caloric load.
Carbohydrates should be predominantly low-glycemic and account for about 40% of your total caloric load.
Fat should be predominantly monounsaturated and account for about 30% of your total caloric load.
Calories should be set at between .7 and 1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass depending on your activity level. The .7 figure is for moderate daily workout loads and the 1.0 figure is for the hardcore athlete.

What Should I Eat?
In plain language, base your diet on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar. That”s about as simple as we can get. Many have observed that keeping your grocery cart to the perimeter of the grocery store while avoiding the aisles is a great way to protect your health. Food is perishable. The stuff with long shelf life is all suspect. If you follow these simple guidelines you will benefit from nearly all that can be achieved through nutrition.

The Caveman or Paleolithic Model for Nutrition
Modern diets are ill suited for our genetic composition. Evolution has not kept pace with advances in agriculture and food processing resulting in a plague of health problems for modern man. Coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, obesity and psychological dysfunction have all been scientifically linked to a diet too high in refined or processed carbohydrate. Search “Google” for Paleolithic nutrition, or diet. The return is extensive, compelling, and fascinating. The Caveman model is perfectly consistent with the CrossFit prescription.

What Foods Should I Avoid?
Excessive consumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates is the primary culprit in nutritionally caused health problems. High glycemic carbohydrates are those that raise blood sugar too rapidly. They include rice, bread, candy, potatos, sweets, sodas, and most processed carbohydrates. Processing can include bleaching, baking, grinding, and refining. Processing of carbohydrates greatly increases their glycemic index, a measure of their propensity to elevate blood sugar.

What is the Problem with High-Glycemic Carbohydrates?
The problem with high-glycemic carbohydrates is that they give an inordinate insulin response. Insulin is an essential hormone for life, yet acute, chronic elevation of insulin leads to hyperinsulinism, which has been positively linked to obesity, elevated cholesterol levels, blood pressure, mood dysfunction and a Pandora”s box of disease and disability. Research “hyperinsulinism” on the Internet. There”s a gold mine of information pertinent to your health available there. The CrossFit prescription is a low-glycemic diet and consequently severely blunts the insulin response.


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  1. Eight ways to eat well | Integral Bagua - August 24, 2012

    […] ‘Eat well’ means different things to different people. For me it means eating food that I know is good for my body. I’ve posted a summary of this at the end of this article. […]

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