Monday, June 29, 2009

Discovering Nine Dragon ("Jiulong") Baguazhang, 2002

The road to Jiulong Baguazhang was long and circuitous and full of amazement.

It began—if you want to go all the way back—in 1987, when I was a freshman in college. A friend of mine invited me to an evening class on campus in Kenpo karate. Kenpo, as far as I can tell without being an Asian scholar, is a Hawaiian hybrid of Japanese karate and Chinese external kung fu. It resembles the fight scenes you see in movies, its techniques are quite effective when properly mastered, and it is a lot of fun. My college class, I can now say with hindsight, was very well taught, involving sound principles of motion and thoughtful training techniques.

Also during college, I spent two quarters taking a T’ai Chi course. Several of us Kenpo guys did that for adjunct work on stance strength and balance. Today, we might call it “cross training”! Well, through the ensuing years, I kept coming back to that glimpse of T’ai Chi. There had been something about it ... On the one hand, it had been entirely non-martial—that is, not at all focused on fighting or self defense. On the other hand, we had occasionally done some very cool meditation-like exercises involving guided imagery and what seemed to me like self-hypnosis (I was actually reading curiously about self-hypnosis at that same time). We stood outdoors in the late fall and warmed up our hands through pure thought. You could put your neighbor’s hand on your neck and feel it unnaturally warm! I learned to begin my T’ai Chi form by letting my hands float up in front of me, “as if they were floating by themselves,” and by George, it did feel like they were floating by themselves!

Then college was over, and grad school came. I got really skinny and even more sleep-deprived, and there was no more jumping around in karate outfits. Then I got a job, a Silicon Valley startup job with wall-to-wall Herculean hours that I gave with scarcely a thought. Eight years and 60 pounds later, there had been not an ounce of martial arts ... unless you count nine months of half-hearted Aikido training which I once took on Quixotically just to get out of the office, but that’s another story.

Finally, about age 30, I got back into it. This time it was Kempo with an “m,” same basic idea as college. Except very different. In college, they made you sweat for your next belt. They would push you on your test until you were sure you must have failed, all the while carefully managing you against your limit. When you learned you had passed, you felt like the luckiest person alive, and every time you tied on your belt, you knew you had earned it. But at my new school, students flailed half-heartedly through their tests. We tested in groups, not individually, so the more clueless ones would hesitate and watch those of who had studied, to jog their memories. No matter, everyone passed. I worked out with brown belts who couldn’t do a whole lot. To be sure, there were some very capable students, too. Any school is what you make of it. Those who trained hard were indeed competent. However, those who didn’t train so hard were glibly promoted and made to feel competent, which seems like a bad idea to me, if not downright dangerous.

Add to that the fact that this new school was pretty light on principles of movement. There was less use of the lower body as an integrated part of the whole, more reliance on upper body and arm power, and even many of the experienced students just didn't have the grace and power that I had seen in my first school.

So I was disillusioned. I had earned a brown belt in about 18 months, was within a year of the coveted “black belt” (everyone say Aaahhh!), but life was getting busier at home with a third child on the way, and I found that I did not value the training or the impending belt enough to continue!

I stopped. I thought. I read. I returned to those T’ai Chi experiences, and I pondered the rumors about “soft styles” of kung fu having real power with mysterious meditative roots. I am not much of a New Ager, so I didn’t know whether I believed any of that stuff, but when I stumbled on a teacher not ten minutes from my house, a guy who taught an obscure type of kung fu called “bagua” (full name: Jiulong Baguazhang) and taught it for real-life self defense, I had to check it out.

The rest of the story is what this blog is all about. I discovered, in slow, gradual steps, that the rumors were true. There are indeed “soft” styles of effective kung fu, with meditative roots and harmless-looking moves that are nonetheless devastatingly effective at generating mechanical power and defending oneself against determined attack. As an electrical engineer, my skepticism was with me all the way, and I am happy to report that none of this required taking up a new religion or believing in fairies! Yet, it also brought me to the frontiers of knowledge in medicine and consciousness, like a guided tour of Stuff No One Understands Yet, which—to the truly science-minded—is a triple chocolate fudge sundae. It has been a great ride so far, with a lot of great people, and I am looking forward to more!

1 comment:

  1. This looks to be an interesting blog - I had forgotten a few of the things you did in college, so this entry was a good reminder of the variety of your traning. Looking forward to reading more. : )