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How to Learn Advanced Bagua Self-Defense Techniques

Title Page PhotoA DVD customer sent me a message. He had purchased my Basic Building Blocks of Bagua Self-Defense DVD and he had this question:

Where can I find advanced Bagua self-defense techniques?

I asked him how long he has studied Bagua. His reply -- he is new to the art.

He probably has good intentions. I am sure he is a nice person. But the very idea behind his question is one of the frustrating aspects of teaching a martial art -- and especially an internal art.

It's the equivalent of a student walking into your school and asking, "How long does it take to get a black belt?"

Well, that depends. How much of your life are you willing to commit? How many years are you willing to spend thinking about, practicing, pondering, studying the art?

Bagua -- like Chen tai chi and actually any other fighting art or sport -- is a very complex art that requires specific body mechanics that take years and years of hard practice to develop. Asking for an advanced DVD when you haven't spent years practicing the basics is like asking for advanced video on Michael Jordan's best moves before you have learned to dribble a basketball.

8 main apps 4-73I have been involved in Bagua since 1988, and I'm still trying to work out the advanced techniques myself.

If you find video from someone who claims it is "advanced," the instructor is probably doing the "advanced" techniques against willing partners -- their students -- and the techniques demonstrated probably would not work very well in a real fight. You'll see his student throw a punch and stand there while the teacher winds and twists his way through three or four techniques that look pretty cool until you try them against someone who is not cooperating.

Or the instructor will try to appear supernatural, as if his "chi" gives him an edge.

The old school masters in China who know the advanced stuff don't teach the way we do -- they hold knowledge in and don't really do much in their videos except demonstrate movement (with no real teaching). The language barrier is also a problem. Let's face it -- they just aren't that into teaching you their advanced material. It's a cultural thing. They want your money, but don't expect to get much of their art in return.

BaguaDVD-1-250As of the writing of this blog post, I have put together four Bagua DVDs -- the Basic Skills (crucial), the Basic Building Blocks for Self Defense, the Eight Main Palms Form and the Swimming Body Form. Both of the latter DVDs include instruction on the movements of the form plus some of the fighting applications. I also have two DVDs that teach foundational skills required for success in Bagua, Xingyi or Taiji -- my Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling DVDs. I began putting my knowledge on video 10 years ago, and it has taken me this long to even begin approaching the advanced material.

If you are really interested in learning Bagua, you'll need to spend months or years practicing the basic skills, just as you would spend months, or years, working on a jab, hook, uppercut and a right cross if you took up boxing. You would spend years working on dribbling, ball handling, a jump shot, and a layup if you took up basketball.

In the end, Bagua is just like any fighting art. It's a lot prettier in a form than it is in actual fighting, where it relies on simple concepts used in creative, fast-changing ways. In my opinion, the old masters who built reputations using Bagua in real fighting in Chinese villages were simply good fighters using simple techniques in skillful ways.

So how do you develop advanced Bagua technique? My first recommendation, if you really want to learn, is to focus on the basics and spend some time. As you do, the advanced techniques will be more clear. But you need to start by really studying Internal Strength (ground path, peng, silk-reeling, whole body movement, opening/closing the kua, and Dan T'ien rotation) before studying Bagua basics. And then you must work on circle-walking, mother palms, tea-serving, and a dozen other skills before you can even consider advanced techniques.

If you were handed a paint brush, would you be ready to paint a masterpiece? By giving you basic instruction on DVD and on my website, I am handing you the brush. I was handed this brush decades ago. How much of our lives we commit to that brush -- and struggling through the basic principles, strokes and techniques -- will determine if we will ever go beyond doodling. 

Tai Chi's Single Whip and Finger Chin-Na - Silk-Reeling and Connected Internal Strength

Single Whip is a common movement in all styles of Tai Chi (Taijiquan) and, like all Taiji movements, it depends on some key internal body mechanics that give you relaxed strength. The body mechanics include:

-- Establishing and maintaining the ground path through all movement, including stepping.

-- Establishing and maintaining peng jin, an expansive force that is a physical skill (not mystical).

-- Whole-body movement -- when one part moves, all parts move, and they are connected through the body from the ground.

-- Silk-Reeling energy -- not actual "energy," but a spiraling movement that is another physical skill.

-- Dan T'ien rotation that is the center of all movement.

-- Opening and closing the kua.

Ken Gullette - Chris Miller - Single-Whip-Finger-Lock-1There are many other skills and principles, but if you don't have these basic concepts, you aren't going to get very far in Taiji.

I'll show you a self-defense technique that you can practice with a partner using the opening part of the Single Whip movement, when you spiral the palm outward and form a "beak" with the fingers.

Ken Gullette - Chris Miller - Single-Whip-Finger-Lock-2Single Whip contains many self-defense applications.

In the top photo, my friend and student Chris Miller grabs my fingers to do a finger lock. In Chen push hands, finger chin-na is popular. I asked Chris to grab my fingers and "don't let go."

Next, I spiraled inward, downward, and finally, in the third photo, I spiral outward. By connecting from the ground through the hand, the spiraling Ken Gullette - Chris Miller - Single-Whip-Finger-Lock-4got my fingers out of his grip every time.

This is just a simple defense technique, nothing fancy, but it is not limited to finger grabs. Try grabbing the fingers at different angles and different grips. Try a wrist grab, too. There are many applications for Single Whip demonstrated on my website and my Tai Chi Fighting Applications DVDs. And the principles are taught on my Silk-Reeling DVDs.

I am always fascinated by the way the use of internal body mechanics give you the ability to defend yourself without the shouting and muscular tension that was part of my training in other arts. 

Always use caution when practicing joint locks. It is easy to apply too much pressure or torque your partner too far, and it is never fun to take time off and heal a sprained or broken finger, but you can still make it realistic and practice this to help you understand how the connected, spiraling body mechanics turn even a simple-looking part of one movement into self-defense.


Two Bagua Moves to Escape an Arm Lock - Baguazhang Self Defense

8 main 6-9Baguazhang is an internal martial art that relies on circular movement, turning, spiraling, and relaxed power similar to Taijiquan.

Many types of arm locks are used in martial arts. One of the locks that we use is sometimes called "Pat the Bull." Your opponent has you in the lock and has grabbed your shoulder to make it more firm.

In the Cheng style Baguazhang form "Eight Main Palms," two movements in the section called Grinding Palm are very useful for escaping this arm lock. The movements are called "Green Dragon Swings Its Tail" and "White Snake Twists Its Body." In the form, these movements follow each other. 

8 main 6-11

Photo 6-9 shows the start of "Green Dragon Swings Its Tail." You continue to turn, stepping your right foot around into a pidgeon-toe stance, and spiral the arm upward. You continue to spin for the movement called "White Snake Turns Its Body."

When you finish, you are standing upright again.

Someone who applies force to you is often thinking in one direction. An opponent who is applying an arm lock is trying to apply upward pressure on your arm, and in this particular case, downward clamping pressure to the shoulder.

Ken Gullette - Chris Miller Bagua-Arm-Lock-1To escape, go in a different direction. In the bottom three photos, black sash Chris Miller applies "Pat the Bull." In our practices, we don't want to let go - we try to make it realistic because we do not like to practice weak and ineffective techniques.

When I bend over to begin the movement "Green Dragon Swings Its Tail," I spiral the arm upward. Both of these actions relieve pressure. As I bend over, I am going in the direction he is applying to Ken Gullette - Chris Miller Bagua-Arm-Lock-2my shoulder, but my arm is turning and spiraling, escaping the upward pressure he is applying to the arm.

In the Bagua movement, the arm spirals straight upward, but as we all know, self-defense is not often as perfect as the form. The intent of the movement is to escape. Notice when I bend over, how the hand that had been clamping down on my shoulder is being moved in a different direction. I am neutralizing his downward pressure.

As I continue turning, I am suddenly in position to apply an arm lock or elbow break to Chris.

Ken Gullette Chris Miller Bagua-Arm-Lock-3This is a good technique to practice with a partner -- just be careful, as in all joint lock practice. You do not want to injure your partner, but it is important to apply enough pressure to the arm lock to immobilize your partner if possible.

Some of this silk-reeling movement takes practice, and is part of the Internal Strength, Silk-Reeling, Taiji and Bagua teaching that we do. It is an excellent technique and shows how relaxed internal technique can often overcome muscle and brute strength. 

Do You Need to Be Bitch Slapped by the Tai Chi Hand of Reality?

Do Tai Chi and you will be calm, confident, wise, One with the Universe, brave, thrifty, reverent, and you will be able to heal people and live forever, blah blah blah.

I read a blog post this week by a well-intentioned (I assume) person who teaches Tai Chi and calls it the "art of gentle movement," a description that misses the essence of Tai Chi. The author says that by doing Tai Chi, you can feel the universe flowing through you and you can achieve enlightenment.

Here is an excerpt from this article that was titled "Entering the Quantum Era of the New Energy":

"Tai Chi Chuan finds it place back amongst the most powerful ways to become a condensed person that has clarity of mind, health of body and emotional countenance. It is said that the real meaning of the martial art is the cradle of enlightenment, that it is about self-discovery through a state of being that allows the universe to flow through the empty space between the particles and that this state brings a higher consciousness to the practitioner."

When I read things like this, I tend to lose my center for a moment. Oops, it's happening again. My mind is boggled by the many people who have this strange idea about Tai Chi, an idea cultivated, nurtured and promoted by countless people who are looking for the mystical and metaphysical in a martial art, and by Tai Chi teachers who want other people to believe that they, somehow, have tapped into the mysterious secret of the universe and achieved a supernatural calm -- a "higher consciousness."

I suppose it will come as no surprise to those who read this blog on a regular basis that I have a different view. Let me sum it up simply:

Here's a secret of the universe -- some Tai Chi instructors are very nice people, but just as many, if not more, are as messed up, egotistical, territorial, jealous, petty and greedy as a Wall Street tycoon. I have not met one who displays a higher consciousness. I have met one or two that were mentally ill, with violent tempers that flared while, at the same time, they talked about how enlightened they were.

Some great Tai Chi masters are cruel to their own children. Some are chain smokers (not uncommon in China) and some are sexual predators. Some are nice people. Some don't mind if you put a second mortgage on your home as long as they get the money you owe them for doing a workshop at your school.

If you put Tai Chi teachers on a pedestal you need a guardian to oversee your affairs. If you are a Tai Chi teacher who needs to be placed on a pedestal, you need counseling and perhaps some strong meds.

There is a real problem in thinking that the practice of Tai Chi is going to give you some breakthrough insight about the universe. If anything, the more Tai Chi instructors you meet, the more you have breakthrough insights into the jealous nature of empire-building money grabbers.

Is this harsh? If you believe Tai Chi gives you special insight into the universe, someone needs to bitch slap you with the hand of reality.

You can theoretically find "enlightenment" while mowing the yard -- while cooking dinner -- while touching the hand of your spouse or your child. You can find enlightenment sitting on a bench. I once had a flash of enlightenment when I saw the light of the moon reflected off my hand at night.

You can find confidence in working to achieve skill in anything -- basketball, drawing, Taekwondo, a good marriage, well-adjusted children, Tai Chi, or being a middle manager in a business. You do not need a martial art to find confidence, calm, or enlightenment. Martial arts can give you confidence about your ability to defend yourself, but NOT if you are using it as an "art of gentle movement."

Borrowing phrases from quantum physics and dressing them up to sound scientific (what the hell does "flowing through the empty space between the particles" mean, anyway?) makes it more ridiculous.

If you are detaching your mind from the intent of your Tai Chi movements so much that you can feel the universal energy flowing between the spaces of the particles in your body, you are doing it wrong, my friend, and you are losing sight of the true intent of your movements. Any exercise should make you feel good, and Tai Chi is no exception. You should also feel the same benefits just by taking a good walk or playing softball.

Martial arts are designed for self-defense. Tai Chi is a martial art that is NOT an "art of gentle movement." It is an art that combines movements of relaxed strength with explosions of power (what is known as "fajing"). Real Tai Chi is strong and relaxed during some movements (iron wrapped in cotton) but fast and furious in bursts of hand strikes, elbow strikes, forearm strikes, shoulder strikes, bumps, joint breaking, kicks, throws and takedowns.

Tai Chi is practiced slowly at first so your body mechanics are developed, and you can eventually break an attacker and put them on the ground. When someone attacks you, the goal is to knock them back into their own "cradle of enlightenment."

If you want to become enlightened and feel your connection with the flow of the universe, do qigong and ponder Taoism or Zen Buddhism. But don't do it while you are performing Tai Chi, because they are two different pursuits. The more you detach to feel the glory of the universe, the less you will be able to focus on the quality of your Tai Chi.

Dropping Power in Taiji Xingyi and Bagua - Generating Power Over a Short Distance Like Bruce Lee's One Inch Punch

Have you ever heard of the "Teacher Test" in Taiji? When you meet a Taiji instructor, ask if they can do the Teacher Test.

Most often, they will stare at you with a blank expression, but if they actually know what you are asking, and demonstrate the Teacher Test, you have found a good teacher and you should sign up for instruction.

The Teacher Test was demonstrated to me by my first Chen Taiji instructor, Jim Criscimagna, the day I met him in early 1998. I had been in martial arts for 25 years at that point, and I had read about the Teacher Test in an online forum but had never seen it. When I asked Jim about it, he asked me to stand next to him and put my hand on his shoulder.

Dropping Power is part of many techniques, including the self-defense application of the Opening movement in a Tai Chi form.

"Now, without cocking your arm and shoulder -- without using local arm and shoulder muscle -- and without changing your stance -- knock me off balance," he said.

I was paralyzed. I had no idea what to do.

He laughed and asked me to stand there while he demonstrated. He put his hand on my shoulder and, without using "arm and shoulder" muscle, and without changing his stance, he knocked me off my spot.

I knew that I had to start over and re-learn Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang.

I just recorded a video for my online internal arts school demonstrating how the Teacher Test is done. It uses Dropping Power -- a close relative of Borrowing Energy and utilizes a Bouncing Energy that pushes down into the ground and then rebounds through the body and out the hand (or whatever body part is attacking).

It is very similar to Bruce Lee's One-Inch Punch, and it can knock someone off his spot, but its power is amplified if an opponent is bringing force to you and you combine Dropping Power with your opponent's incoming mass and velocity (Borrowing Energy). Recently, one of my good friends demonstrated this concept and he did not learn it from a traditional Taiji instructor -- he learned it (and very well, too) as a student in the Guided Chaos system. So the knowledge is out there, just not very often in the typical internal arts classes that you sign up for.

Knock your partner back, not by pushing, but by dropping your energy and letting it rebound through the body.

We've all heard stories of the little Chinese man who can knock a big guy away and not appear to move very much at all. It is one of the stories that gives rise to the mythology of "chi." But it is not mystical. It is completely physical, like everything else in the internal arts. It depends upon proper body mechanics.

To do Dropping Power, you drop your weight (some like to say "drop your energy" but it is your weight) into your feet -- catch the ground path and let it rebound up through the body and out your hand. You can use a forward motion -- you do not have to stand perfectly straight, but you do NOT want to use localized arm and shoulder muscle to cock the arm or bring it back before the punch. 

It is a whole-body strike, and it is perfectly internal. In fact, it is an internal principle that everyone involved in the internal arts should know and be able to demonstrate. Especially your teacher. If your teacher has not shown you this, I would suggest supplementing your teacher's instruction with the material on my website, or else find a teacher who can demonstrate (and teach) this skill without making it seem mysterious and metaphysical.

Learn how to do Dropping Power and have complete access to more than 600 other internal arts instructional videos for two full weeks free -- just visit and sign up. No charge for two weeks -- no contracts -- cancel anytime. There is nothing to lose and a lot of insight to gain.