The most basic palm striking exercise, Dou Zhang (pronounced, “dough-ew jong” and meaning “Shaking, or Vibrating Palm”) is an essential part of your fundamental practice of Ba Gua Zhang. It is much more than just a way to learn how to strike something, however.
You should not consciously try to shake but instead focus on perfect form: In the starting position both palms face up (the yang position) on both sides of your body at the level of the floating ribs. The elbows should point directly behind you and not out to the sides. As you start with the left hand first, extend it out to nearly full length with the palm still facing upward. At the last second, you turn the palm over (the yin position) and facing away from you with the palm pulled back and fingers pointing upwards at the end of each strike. The arm is straight, but the elbow does not lock. The shoulders turn about 45 degrees and remain down and relaxed. The chest also remains down and relaxed.
When you’re ready to throw the right hand, you follow the same sequence while simultaneously pulling with the left hand. The power comes from three places: the striking hand/side of the body; the opposite hand/side of the body; and the Dan Tian, or internal center of the body (about half the width of your hand below the naval and between the front and back of the body).
As a first step in fighting application, Dou Zhang helps to develop your ability to rotate on a central axis (your spine). You maintain stability in a relaxed Horse Stance and become more aware of your center while turning the upper body to the left and right. Be sure to keep your torso straight and avoid leaning forward, where you feel more weight towards the balls of your feet. This results in a posture that easily loses balance (falling forward). Have your weight centered with a full feeling in both feet. There should be no side-to-side or up-and-down movements as the power is generated from the center and not from pushing the ground with the legs. You can imagine your stance being no more than a stool that you are sitting on that offers stability and no more. The power is not generated by the legs, it is only stabilized by the legs.
“Relaxed” is an important key to proper execution. If you try too hard to make power you will tend to tense up the body resulting in actually less energy reaching your hand and ultimately your target. There is a big difference between “internal” power and “external” power. In Ba Gua Zhang we are working to develop power that is similar to when one “cracks a whip”.
As you know, a whip has no joints as we do to slow down the energy once the handle is properly manipulated. The “wave” that is created goes smoothly to the tip, resulting in a sharp “crack” heard at the end of the whip upon striking. The closer you can get your body to act like that whip, the more power will be generated, assuming proper alignment of all body parts involved in the strike. (Please note: your focus as a beginner is on generating your power from the “turning”. Do not be concerned with trying to create any wave-like movement. Palm training must follow the proper sequence in order to develop the body correctly).
Proper alignment is simply the most efficient position based on physics. For example, if you wanted to push something forward, it is most efficient to align your elbow behind your hand in the direction of force. If the elbow bows outward it actually makes the position weaker and therefore takes more effort to apply the push. There are numerous other joints involved that must also take the most efficient position, and that comes from proper execution of numerous repetitions over time combined with proper Qi Gong exercises to enhance smooth, relaxed movement, breath, and body awareness (focus).
Any new exercise should first be practiced slow with a focus on details. Once you’re comfortable with the basic form you can begin to add more power, and once that begins to feel “right”, speed can be added and focused on. Speed is initially developed out of the “double-palms” set ( the left-right combinations).
Each repetition is coordinated with a short “Power Exhale” including the emitting of sound from the force of the exhale. The mouth remains closed throughout as you breathe through the nose. The rhythm of the exercise should always follow your normal breathing rhythm.
Your practice sessions at home should include one-hundred Dou Zhang repetitions (2 sets of 30 singles, 20 doubles, and 20 more singles), performed after the initial 13 Exercises as a way to loosen and relax the waist, hips, and shoulders, as well as to increase circulation to those areas and focus the mind on sending energy to the hands.
Regardless of your goals in studying Ba Gua Zhang, whether they be for self-defense overall health, or personal development, the Dou Zhang exercise is an important component. If health is your focus, the Dou Zhang works like “thunder” to get energy moving strongly throughout your body, helping to break up any stagnation. One’s own healing ability is also enhanced as you can send energy to the hands at will resulting in your ability to help others through the application of proper massage techniques.
Why the name, “Shaking Palm”? Does this mean you need to make your hand “shake” at the end? Not exactly. When properly executed, the vibration that is generated goes through the hand and enters your opponent’s body. How dangerous can this be? Well, in one story told to Master Bok-Nam Park by his teacher, Lu Shui Tian:
A farmer who learned this exercise from “Tai Sizu” (Great Grand-Teacher) Lu Shui Tian and practiced every day for two years, brought out one of his sheep to strike and demonstrate his power when they met up again. The sheep only let out a cry and held still for a moment, then walked away as if nothing had happened. However, the next day when they went outside the sheep was dead. They then cut it open and found that the sheep had bled to death internally.
Master Park has said that it takes three years to develop the Shaking Palm, and an additional three years to learn how to control it. That all depends on how much one practices with proper focus.
Morally, great care must be taken once this power is developed. You do not want to test it out on any living thing. Life is easy to take, so take care!
Originally Published in the Summer of 2002 under the title “Dou Zhang: Your First Palm Exercise”