How to begin your first Bagua class? Starting any new practice can be exciting, but stressful. Most of us don’t like to appear ignorant or clumsy, and sometimes that acts as a barrier to begin. This post is to help smooth over those issues. I’ll cover some terminology, etiquette and basic ideas.
Remember too that most teachers will appreciate effort and good will and good humour over talent. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly at first!
I think I covered all the bases, there is a video below and a little exercise that you can practice for a headstart.
Etiquette and general manners
There is a lot of variation between teachers. Personally, I do not go in for formality, I use no titles. Some teachers like to be called sifu/shifu or laoshi. I prefer to be called Edward. Titles and nicknames grow out of relations and context, I don’t think they should be either assumed or imposed. If in doubt, ask. Different classes have different flavours and no reasonable teacher would expect you to come in knowing exactly how to fit into your first Bagua class. Generally, pay attention around you, imitate what you see.
Come to class early, or on time. If you say you will be there, be there. Most teachers will have some part of their mind looking out for the new person, wondering if they have got lost (some park classes can be tricky to find). If you don’t bother to turn up, that’s just shitty manners.
Be attentive to how busy the teacher seems and if they are giving you cues to ask questions or that they want to get on with their class. If you have some previous martial arts background be prepared to summarise it in a short sentence or two. A teacher is more likely to be impressed if you are 10x world champion and don’t mention it than if you begin to recite your CV at length. Equally, lengthy comparisons on the subject of ‘In my old school we did it like this…’ save those fro when you have built some relationship with teacher and students.
If a teacher gives you a movement/exercise to practice, follow the instructions they give, and keep going until they tell you to do something else. Do not start imitating the exercises of other students. The teacher gave you those exercises for a reason.
What to wear? Generally wear loose, comfortable clothes. Sweat pants and a t-shirt, flat shoes, be prepared to go barefoot. If you watch below I’m not a big one for uniforms – there is an entire post on uniforms here.
If you wear clothes from another martial arts school (they tend to be practical so why not) it is probably more discrete to leave belts/rank symbols behind. Your rank somewhere else is not your rank there. Again, your experience may well be valued, but it will be valued more if it shows in the quality of your behaviour rather than your clothes or speech.
Related: Come to class clean, with trimmed nails and don’t wear jewelry that can scratch or snag yourself or others. The amount of contact varies from school to school, with zero in some and plenty in others. These are ideas for looking out for the safety and comfort of others. There will be more on the kind of contact that is likely below.
Watching a class
Many of your questions will be answered if you watch a class. Here are some tips for watching classes. Unlike on the internet you do not get to watch just the class highlights, which means you will need to be patient. Most classes start with warmups and breathing exercises before getting on to the more identifiable Bagua. Best if you are prepared to watch until the end.
Whether you are attending or watching a class for the first time do not expect to be the centre of attention. The people who have demonstrated an ability to put effort in over time are the ones who the teacher should be paying attention to. You might become the most dedicated, hardworking, skilled, generous member of the school in time, but that is something that can only happen over time.
Effort exertion difficulty
I don’t know what your state of fitness is but generally, I’d classify most Bagua as moderate exercise. Some schools may have conditioning components that can be quite hard work, but these are more likely to be the exception. The challenge that most people face in learning is primarily about body control and focus rather than strength or endurance. There can be challenges of coordination, balance and memory too. The way you move is more important than choreography, forms etc.
Hard exercises are scaleable, you can modify them to suit your capacity. A teacher who forces/bullies you into a position is a teacher to avoid. You are in class to develop physical/mental capacities you do need to have them upfront.
What is likely to be hardest is holding postures. This often leads to burning muscles. It can be excruciating, but it’s unlikely to be harmful. If you can’t bear a posture that the rest of the class seem to hold happily, ease yourself out of it with grace rather than grunting, swearing and flapping dramatically. This is better for your mind and less disruptive for the class.
Moves and terminology
There is no standard terminology across Bagua. There are some categories of names and movements that you are likely to come across. Some teachers use Chinese terminology, others not atll and still others a mixture.
Jiben gong – basics. Basics are advanced – they are what you go back to repeatedly, not something to skip over to get to the cool stuff. Usually this will be stance holding, or simple repeated movements that are found in many forms/techniques.
Qigong – movement coordinated with the breath. Sometimes these will be indistinguishable from basics.
Zhanzhuang – standing postures – different schools use postures to stand in.
Bufa – foot methods/footwork. two important steps in Bagua are koubu – hook step where the foot turns in towards the centreline and baibu swing step where the foot turns outwards. Bufa can also include stances. gongbu – bow or front stance, mabu– horse stance – pubu – drop stance, xubu -empty stance, panbu -twisted stance. Not everyone uses these names or puts emphasis on the stances separate to forms and techniques.
Bamuzhang, Mother palms or fixed palms (dingzhang) – these are hand positions that are held when walking the circle
Shenfa – body method – how you move and coordinate your body to maximise mobility and power.
Danhuanzhang – single palm change – the fundamental short form to change direction while walking the circle.
Laobazhang – old eight palms – or palm changes – usually short forms that are used to change direction while circle walking.
Tuishou/sansou/roushou – pushing hands/scattering hands/soft hands – partner exercises that involve sticky contact between partners. They can be more or less cooperative
Partner exercises and contact
Most but not all Bagua classes have some kind of partner work/contact. This can be partners testing the integrity of fixed postures, practice of techniques that come from forms, little games to develop angle/distance, cooperative partner forms, to full contact sparring. Some schools take the attitude that you must master certain things before laying hands on a partner. This can be for technical reasons, or to give time to assess character. I prefer to include various kinds of partner work from day one.
Teachers should give clear instructions of what is expected in partner work. When learning techniques in a cooperative context it’s a dick move to resist your partner. Levels of resistance and intensity can be specific to exercises. In all partner exercises, you need to take care of your partners. Most teachers will pay attention to new students to observe if they are responsible. You should be able to opt-out of partner exercises if you have some good reason not to do them. You get to choose what that good reason is.
Something to practice for a headstart
If you are flexible and strong that’s a plus, but you don’t need to be flexible and strong to start.
The one single thing that I suggest you practice before your first Bagua class is the ability to stand soldily on one leg with a little knee bend and vertical extended spine. Keep your breathing relaxed, scan your body for excess tension – and release it with an exhale. Keep your head lifted gently. Hold until your thigh burns, or until your mind wanders then go to the other side.
If I get the chance I’ll be happy to welcome you to your first Bagua class (and your 2nd and your 243rd).