What is it about walking the circle that is so magical? Is it really that important? Is it really worth your time and effort? Where did this strange training method come from and how did Ba Gua Zhang become famous for it?
Prior to my martial arts training with Master Park Bok-Nam, my only exposure to Ba Gua Zhang, which included several instructors, any and every book available on the subject, and any and every magazine article or video I could get my hands on, involved ‘walking the circle.” All Forms practice was done on a circle or , as far as I knew, it was not Ba Gua Zhang. So little was known about the style. So few had even heard of it at the time.
Circle walking has as many variations as there are Ba Gua schools, and as well as variations within some schools. Each method has a reason – if you don’t know “why” then something is amiss. There is high walking, middle walking, and low walking. I’ve practiced very, very slow walking with what some call the Chicken Step or Crane Step. There is also very, very fast walking in low postures. I’ve walked on bricks for years, and while in China, I even saw bricks laid out in a circle that was actually level with the ground from so many years of practice on them. Another older practitioner we observed in Beijing’s famous “Temple of Heaven Park”, practiced in the same spot for so many years that his practice place was nearly a foot deep ditch encircling his favorite tree.
So what is it about this circle walking practice that has people so obsessed? Is it really worth an hour of my time daily? Is it only found in Ba Gua Zhang?
Researchers in China have traced the circle walk back to a Daoist sect that practiced walking in a circle to quiet the mind and create “stillness in motion”. Dong Hai Chuan, accredited with creating Ba Gua Zhang (Note: Master Park’s teacher, Lu Shui-Tian disagrees with this believing his system is much older) is believed to have spent time with this Daoist sect and combined his martial knowledge with this Daoist training method of walking in a circle.
When I began my training with Master Park I never heard of walking the circle for an hour straight. Although I had been practicing Ba Gua for about four years prior to meeting Master Park, lets just say it was different. Most of the circle walking at a “normal” pace was done within forms: once around, then a series of movements culminating in a change of direction, then once around the other way, etc. The only circle walking without forms was done holding four static postures and walking very slowly with the Chicken Step and a perfectly vertical back (this tends to be more like Tai Ji Quan or Xing Yi Quan – one can see the influence when familiar with these arts). The circle walking Master Park teaches feels more natural and relaxed (he would say, “Walk as if taking a brisk walk in a park.”). Smoothness is also emphasized along with lightness: “Stepping should be like walking on thin ice.”
Within a few weeks I built up to 20 minutes consistently on a daily basis until we began to learn how to add the “Eight Animal” postures, one by one over a few months. Each animal would add about five minutes to my walking until all eight animals added forty minutes to my original twenty, resulting in a hour in total.
You can certainly work up to an hour in just the Dragon Posture over time before adding any of the other postures. Gradually increasing the time as animal postures are added worked well for me.
Either way, working up to that goal of an hour each day brings more benefits through experience than any article or book can give you. Some things just can’t be done justice in print. Just like if you’ve never tasted chocolate and someone describes it in every detail, you really don’t know until you taste it yourself.
For those who have learned how to walk the circle, if you commit to warm-ups, Dou Zhang (palm exercise), Dragon Back, then Breathing, Qi Gong (Fan Zhang is good here) and finish with circle walking, building up to that magical hour in the circle, you’ll be amazed with the progress you’ll make.
If your goal is to work up to an hour per day then do it gradually. No need to get all pumped up because you read this article and try to force yourself to walk for an hour immediately – then not practice again because it was too difficult. Start by walking about 10-12 minutes once or twice per day. Gradually build that up to 20 minutes. This is what I did. You need to develop a habit – consistency is key.
There is also a “Rule of Three” when working on increasing time, pushing the body and strengthening the mind: As you walk and begin to feel tired, sink lower and increase your speed for a few moments. This will pump more energy through the body and help to overcome the feeling of fatigue. Your body will learn that you’re not ready to stop. As you continue walking and again begin to tire, repeat above – walk lower and faster. When this happens for a third time, this would be considered “real fatigue” and it is at this point that if you force yourself to continue that it is possible to do harm to your body. Don’t worry, few people have the mental strength or discipline to hurt themselves from pushing too hard. Most will stop long before it is harmful. Listen to your body.
Space prevents me from going much more into this. However, for more information, refer to both volumes of MasterPark’s books, “The Fundamentals of Pa Kua Chang”. Master Park truly shared an abundance of knowledge about the circle walking among other things and really gave all students a lot to look forward to. But remember: each level of training builds a foundation for the next. Don’t waste time worrying about what you haven’t learned. Focus on what you have!