The only constant is change. Nature repeats in cycles of transformation. Like the seasons, and cycles of birth, growth, maturity, death, and rebirth.
As a martial arts system, Bagua Zhang reflects the cycles of transformation, and harmonizes with them, in many ways and on many levels.
Why I got into martial arts ~
Growing up as an introverted, artistic kid in South Omaha, dealing with bullies and schoolyard fights was common; while at home, I had an alcoholic father with a slow burning explosive temper. So while some of the impulse was standing up for myself and protecting my family, friends and myself, there was a deeper inspiration and connection to martial arts that transcended self preservation.
My artistic inspirations and unquenchable fascination with mythology and ancient cultures from early childhood, led to my cousin and friends introducing me to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Kung-Fu Theater movies in 1982 — the chord that resonated the most was their raw expression and flow of skill and power, even in the midst of a life and death struggle; instead of succumbing to fear or control from bullies, they would take a stand to vanquish oppression.
The core inspirations of martial arts for me have always been:
- the virtues and code of chivalry, or Wu-De, and
- cultivating the ability to connect with that creative source, the raw experience of “Amazing Grace” or Wu-Wei — the state of connection and flow beyond thought — which led me ultimately to Bagua Zhang.
Shortly after that, at 12 years old, I started training with a great Judo teacher, then a few years later found Kung Fu. A couple years later I saw my Sifu practicing Bagua Zhang, and was immediately captivated.
I love all martial arts and have been blessed with the opportunity to train several styles over the years, but Bagua Zhang was the purest reflection of that experience of creative, adaptive flow of connected consciousness. So over the years, Bagua Zhang eclipsed other systems I practiced and somehow seem to encapsulate them as well; I have gradually shed the excess to focus on Bagua Zhang as the pinnacle of my training, as well as what I mostly teach my students.
What is Bagua Zhang?
As a martial arts system, Bagua Zhang (“8 Trigrams Palm”) reflects the cycles of transformation, and harmonizing with them, in many ways and on many levels — not only in self-defense situations, but also in personal development and in social interactions.
In its cyclical training methods and spiraling application of force, Bagua Zhang uses the concept of 8 phases of change inspired by the I-Ching, the ancient Chinese “Classic of Changes,” to emphasize a unique personal transformation, sparking our creativity to awaken and enhance each individual’s aptitude and potential.
Each of the 8 trigrams represents a phase in the states of change; each phase reflects different feelings, strategies and principles to help the practitioner develop skills to adapt to change. To deal with changes, threats, dangerous attacks and the highs and lows in life — on an innate and instinctual level. It requires insightful persistence in training, that will enhance and transform the practitioner from the inside out.
In hindsight, the many hours I spent with all my martial arts teachers seems fleeting; I cherish the lessons I gleaned from their deep wisdom, each one having a uniquely valuable skill set and profound understanding.
What I learned, in seeing different students and classes from different teachers, most notably Shifu Yang Guotai, is that he would tailor his lessons to different people, and what he taught us would also change over time — no matter how peerless the instructor, the greatest ones continuously learn and grow as well… the True Path is never ending.
The changes, exercises and drills of Bagua Zhang are based on principles, connectivity of movement, adaptability and flow — more so than predetermined technical responses that are hallmarks of other martial arts systems.
As fiercely exacting as Yang Shifu was in teaching, his emphasis and methods altered with time, situation, and student… just like the art he taught. What Yang Shifu taught us at one time, he would alter later and complain “tsk, ah, you forget!” Somehow the corrections he made, in hindsight, I now realize was his way of sharing different perspectives and more appropriate alternatives based on adapting to a situation and aptitudes of individuals. I found all of the variations he taught to be valuable, whether he was intentionally tracking what we learned, or even if he had forgotten what he taught us before… What remained consistent, is whatever he taught was always effective.
On Learning Martial Arts…
Since standardization is good for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced students, I created a structured progression in lessons from the random cascade of skills and methods of my various teachers. I’ve found this progressive curriculum helps my students understand the art with much more clarity than my own experiences.
In the beginning, we often see our teachers as infallible sources of perfect truth… Later, as we gain skills they cultivate in us, we start to see our teachers’ humanity. As time goes on, every (martial) artist looks beyond the pedestal we put our teachers on to find our own expression of their art. Every practitioner of any art, after years of devoted training, eventually looks within, and will have their own insights and perspectives,talents, aptitudes & weaknesses…
All we can really do is appreciate each practitioner’s insights, as well as our own. A danger for advanced students is to confuse discernment with the extreme of criticism, and assume we know better; keep an open mind to continue learning always! To call someone with years of training “incorrect” might be seeing through the lens of condescension. This is dangerous because assumption dulls focus, attention and the ability to learn.
Dubious Lineages & Politics in Martial Arts:
Ultimately, you get out of your training what you put into it — it helps to have a teacher that knows their chops, their basics, but lineage (good or bad) doesn’t assure this.
Real skill comes from one thing: training!
So each practitioner’s learning and growth comes down to them. Find a teacher that you have a rapport with, and trust your instincts; learn with discernment, and make time to practice what you learn, on your own time, don’t just wait for class time to train — classes are for learning new material and refinement.
You Reap what you sow. It’s up to you to decide your priorities, set your goals and act on them. Your teacher is a guide, that should inspire you; don’t expect your teacher to carry you, and beware any instructor that warps respect into demands of worshipping their superiority.
If you find that something feels off about an instructor or the lessons, use your own discernment to find out why — is it your own misunderstanding, or is something wrong or misleading? Not all instructors are legitimate, but if you are diligent, you can find good instructors that are more skilled and authentic. I’ve been blessed to find some great instructors, and have had the insight to see through frauds as well; sometimes, it’s hard to tell if an instructor is authentic or not, and it’s painful to be deceived. Take it from personal experience, if we spend too much time focusing on the faults of others, then it distracts us from our own development. Learn from our own failures and triumphs, and the losses and wins of others, and move on; dwelling on the past and casting blame will only stunt your own growth.
Every one who trains earnestly has something of value, that they’ve learned from trial and error, and everyone has their own struggles, so if you appreciate these truths, you can learn from anyone and any situation. Even fraudulent instructors will have valuable lessons to share, even if sometimes the lessons are learning to see through delusions. If you get duped, instead of shaming yourself into victimhood, or descending into blame, realize that you still learned from the experience, and grew because of it. Tearing others down doesn’t build yourself up, it just means you’re too condescending to have the empathy or respect required to learn and grow —good students and good instructors both understand this reciprocal truth.
If you encounter an instructor that exploits or abuses their students, by all means, seek legal help and press charges — I fully support taking down anyone who manipulates others, violates trust and abuses their status and power at the expense of other’s suffering. While those cases are rare, unfortunately it happens; bullies and predators should not be martial arts instructors. Ever. When you go to learn at a school “Don’t leave your common sense at the door.”
Martial arts begins and ends with respect: for your teachers, your classmates, your family, friends, yourself, and Life. Before you commit to learning martial arts from any school, make sure your instructor has innate integrity, and clearly values and respects their students, family and life itself.
Why are there so many branches and styles of Bagua Zhang?
Bagua Zhang is a multifaceted system designed to help build on the foundation of any practitioner’s previous training, to help them develop more well-rounded skills, understanding of mechanics and strategies, awareness and ability to adapt to any situation.
The eventual goal is to help each practitioner cultivate their own personal “style”, their own expression of their True Self. Which is why Bagua Zhang is considered a “graduate level martial art.”
Look within to heal and reveal your True Self.
Every teacher, of every art (if they care about their students and training partners), will have their own perspective, a precious gem they’ve polished, that they share because it worked for them in their own experience. It is all valuable, whether we agree and assimilate those insights, or disagree and reject the material shared with us — we can learn from all of it. Just as we learn from our own losses and triumphs. If we can glean the truth at the core of our teacher’s lessons, they can catapult us forward in our own growth, skills and understanding. Especially if we are able to empathize with their experience, walk in their shoes and learn what inspired them and how it relates to us. That includes the most fundamental basic techniques, as well as the most tragic and inspirational life lessons.
We are all fractals from the same source, yet we all have our own individual light and expression. Only we as individuals can decide what we prefer and what works best for us.
As we learn and grow, we each have our own unique perspective, path and expression of our truth — embracing this uniqueness is essential to mastering Bagua Zhang, and realizing your own potential.
In-Person Martial Arts Classes:
We returned to in-person Bagua Zhang training last month, for all students who have completed their COVID vaccinations! More info here, in last month’s post.
New Podcast Interview:
in addition to being invited to be a guest on Ken Gullette’s Internal Fighting Arts Podcast,
I was also recently invited to another interview by Jonathan Bluestein on JadeCast!
I am honored to have the opportunity to share my experiences with these gentlemen and enjoyed the conversations, I hope you do too!
At Mace Martial Arts, we value the sanctity of all life, celebrate diversity, cultivate peace and justice, and accept students who are interested in learning how to improve and protect themselves. We have a zero-tolerance policy for bigotry and will reject any potential or current student who bullies or discriminates against others based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, or gender/orientation.