Getting Better the Yin Style Baguazhang Way

Bear System turning practice for development.

Going through a particularly painful checklist.

Among a large number of other things, Yin Style Baguazhang gets training methodology right. My experience in training Yin Style over most of the past decade has led me to believe that part of what makes the YSB training methodology so special is that it gets to the core of the process of getting better. When it comes to developing well in any skill, having a successful method for improving is of utmost importance, and here I’d like to discuss how I think Yin Style’s approach to training gets this right.

Be serious

One of the first things a new student of Yin Style Bagua will be admonished when training is to be serious. It isn’t enough to go through the movements with your head in the clouds–or on what you intend to do later on. That won’t work because it isn’t serious. Training like that, you will not improve, at least not much, and you are shortchanging your training by changing it into exercise. Exercise, of course, might get you in shape, but it isn’t going to get you better at a skill, particularly not one like YSB, which is pretty freaking complicated, so far as skills go.

Being serious means paying attention to what you’re doing. It means keeping the focus where it belongs, and that’s on the technical skill required to make it work and to practice well. The mind has to lock onto the intention behind the technique being trained, remembering and meeting the requirements of the training activity, and on looking for ways to improve what you are doing. This last point, intentionally seeking improvement, requires applying corrective mechanisms in practicing any skill (here, in training), and it will be the primary topic of another post in the near future.

Core to being serious when training a martial art is being mindful of your goals in your training and applying a particular methodology to improve. YSB has a great approach to achieving this goal, and its students will have heard its casual expression before: “run through your checklist.”

A bit about cognitive behavioral therapy

One of the most effective methods of changing unwanted behaviors known to psychiatric clinicians and psychologists is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The goal of CBT is to assess behaviors (or patterns of thought) for unwanted elements and then to methodologically modify those via deliberate thought, or cognition, aimed at changing the behavior. It is amazingly effective on depression and anxiety disorders, and I have found a simple and practical derivation of it immensely useful in my professional work as a bodyworker where it comes to changing pathological posture and injurious habits. I’ve also found it useful in my training and think it is central to the conceptual roots of YSB’s “run through your checklist.”

It’s certainly fair to say that bad habits in training and generally training poorly fall well under the umbrella of behavior with unwanted elements, and so it should fall within the purview of CBT to help amend those behaviors. The result should be better training and, eventually, good training. With good training, obviously, you have every right to expect the best results that your talent can produce.

The essence of CBT, at least for our purposes, is simple: choose a mindset of awareness concerning the behavior and how you’d like to change unwanted elements of it, develop a strategy to make corrections, correct yourself each time you catch yourself doing something unwanted, and do so without passing judgment on yourself, especially aiming to avoid negative self-assessment in the process. It’s probably worth adding to this list too: be prepared to do it over and over and over again for a fair amount of time. For a variety of reasons that seem to include the ways in which our brains simplify motor commands and other neuronal patterns, changing them takes consistent effort over time. Just changing the orientation of my pelvis while I stand and walk–like in everyday life, forget training for now!–was a goal that took me six solid months to achieve.

What’s needed, then, to improve your training is just a few key elements. You need a sense of what good training looks and feels like, which probably follows from seeking out competent instruction, a serious mindset to improve, enough focus to attend to the reality of your own training, and enough patience to let it happen. For most people, the more systematic and clear this method is, the better it works.

The checklist

When we train Yin Style, or really anything that we want to get good at, we can apply a “checklist” model like the one YSB employs (especially while training the circle-turning exercise). The “checklist” refers to a list of requirements for doing the practice correctly, and it is pure insight into what proper training looks like, feels like, and demands.

Yin Style loves lists like this, and the expectation while training is to keep your mind the requirements necessary for good training, going through them one-by-one as though they are on a checklist. While turning, for example, if we’re running through the checklist, we’re sequentially thinking about as many requirements either as we can remember or as we wish to focus on in that session, and we address them each in turn, over and over again.

It might start at the upper-body posture: Am I holding it correctly? Are the proper forces present? Is my elbow dropped? Is there opposition of forces? Am I using the right amount of strength? At each stage, a question of that kind gets asked, the practice is evaluated, and mistakes are corrected; and then it’s off to the next requirement. Maybe it’s the feet: Am I stepping well? Am I reaching with my feet on each step? Am I grabbing the ground with my toes? And then it continues, or it repeats. One reason (among many), that YSB practitioners are expected to turn for an hour at a time (every day if they have it) is that the full checklist of requirements for turning properly is extremely long, and in an hour, you’ll be lucky to get through it a handful of times.

Of course, the checklist doesn’t apply only to turning. With strike drilling, there is the question of accuracy of technique–which includes several requirements–of body movement, waist involvement, proper use of footwork (if stepping), clarity of intention, power generation and emission, sitting down well, and so on.

There are requirements everywhere in training, and to train well, you have to meet as many of them as you can every time you train. Yin Style is not ambiguous about the requirements, nor is it equivocal in the importance of meeting them. “We train by the book,” we’ve all heard over and over again. The book in this case is a (mental) list of requirements. Our job is to remember them, consider what you’re doing, adjust, don’t get frustrated, and keep moving, then later, mull them over and do it again. This is, essentially, cognitive behavioral therapy applied to training, and that’s good news because we know it works.

Broad and narrow

There are advantages to reminding ourselves of as many requirements as possible in any given training session and attempting to attend to them. By doing so, we work on getting as much right as we can, and thus improve at a lot more details in a more comprehensive way than we would otherwise. There are competing advantages, however, to focusing only on a narrow set of requirements–say, footwork–for an entire training session, letting the other requirements remain important but on the back burner, not frequently directly observed. In this way, we can dedicate to improving a particular aspect of our training, perhaps something that we are aware needs a little extra attention because it lags behind the quality that we can put into our other requirements.

Choosing between these ways to train doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be done either by design, say by choosing to focus on certain aspects of the requirements on certain training days and the whole list on others, or a bit more organically by simply paying attention to either what seems most interesting at the time or what needs improvement most. Maybe you’d prefer to run with a good thing and keep focusing on something that you’re good at. Do that sometimes; it’s very encouraging. Or maybe you just know that your waist is the clumsiest bit of your movement, and so you want to iron that out. Do that sometimes too; it’s very helpful for fixing specific problems.

What matters most is that you’re choosing to focus on some requirements, be they a few or many, and running through them as a checklist, effectively using CBT to improve your accuracy and skill. Over time, you can expect good results from such a method.

Again, be serious

Without seriousness, accomplishing the aforementioned goals simply isn’t possible. Seriousness in training is the foundation upon which improvement is built. A seriousness of intent to improve, in fact, is what distinguishes training from exercise (another topic of a future post). Your goal when you train should be to improve, so, get out there, get to it, and run through your checklist–and be serious!

As always, let me know what you think, especially if you have ways that help you stay engaged, be serious, or get better!

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Martial Arts Is for Fighting

Getting knocked over with a low strike.

Getting knocked over with a solid low strike I didn’t see coming.

The title of this post seems like a no-brainer. Martial arts is for fighting. No kidding, or so you’d think, unless you see how people train in the traditional martial arts, or what passes for them.

In fact, we don’t even have to look very far to get a sense of how alien a statement “martial arts are for fighting” really is. Consider the contemporary definition, provided by Google, for the term “martial arts.”

Martial arts, noun: various sports or skills, mainly of Japanese origin, that originated as forms of self-defense or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.

Let’s highlight some of those terms. The current definition of martial arts starts with “various sports or skills,” not a word about fighting, then attributes their origins to Japan (I hope you’re as mystified by this as I am, seeing as essentially every culture ever has had what could be branded martial arts and seeing as Japan’s are heavily influenced, if not outright imported, from China). The big kicker comes next: “that originated as forms of self-defense or attack.” Originated. Originated. Implying that that’s not really what they’re for so much any longer, which brings us full-circle back to the notion of “various sports or skills.”

Granted, I know there are about as many reasons to practice the martial arts as there are martial arts out there, and fighting doesn’t actually have to be one that is very high on anyone’s priority list in much of today’s world. People train for exercise, interest, development, friendship and family, and all kinds of other reasons. Great. Here’s the thing, though: if you train martial arts the way that they were intended to be trained, for fighting, you will get a better result in most of the other aspects of your training as well. Doing a thing right often has that effect, whereas doing a thing wrong only gets it by luck in blindness.

Now, I don’t really want to make this about the martial applicability of sport or demonstration martial arts (sometimes termed “wushu“). Instead, I want to talk about something a lot more practical for training Yin Style Baguazhang correctly, as a fighting art. Of course, there’s a lot that could be said on this topic, but I’m going to focus in on one particular problem.

First, an anecdote

Once upon a time, a couple of years ago to be sure, a couple of us from the Knoxville Yin Style Bagua group were cordially invited out to a local martial arts academy to show them what YSB is all about. After a short introduction and a little talk, they showed us a lot of what they do there, and they had lots of really nice, crisp, good-looking, perfectly-unlikely-to-work techniques, both in forms and “self-defense” application. We thanked them and complimented their technique, quickness, sharpness, and thoroughness.

Then, at their request, we provided a demonstration of a few techniques and their applications (pulling from the holding and lifting sweeping attack strategy within the Lion System), and the audience seemed to be more alarmed than anything else.

Soon after our demonstration, we began talking more about Yin Style with the head of the school and several of his black belts. The owner asked us, point blank, “So, after that demonstration, I have to wonder. What kind of a martial art would you say Yin Style Baguazhang is? Is it more forms, sparring, or self-defense?”

The question actually took us aback. I wasn’t sure how to answer. None of those categories seemed right, even though I should have known that the ubiquitous trichotomy of “forms, sparring, and self-defense,” the holy trinity of martial arts training, would have come up at some point in a “traditional” school. Yin Style, as its practitioners know, doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories, and despite my many years in so-called “traditional” arts and even some MMA, I hadn’t ever really tried to categorize YSB until that moment.

I responded, “Yin Style is for fighting. It’s a fighting art.”

I don’t think the answer was well received, eliciting a combination of distaste at the brashness and annoyance at the idea that I’d have given such an obvious answer–one that could easily have been taken as insulting if he deemed that I was implying that holy-trinity arts aren’t really for fighting (mostly, they’re not). My companion seemed to sense the sudden increase in discomfort in the atmosphere too, though, because he added his (somewhat legendary in our circles now) two cents.

“You asked if Yin Style is for self-defense. It’s kind of more for self-offense. Like Jim said, it’s for fighting.”

This, as it turns out, was probably exactly the wrong thing to have said if our goal was to nurture a productive and fruitful relationship with a holy-trinity school, but so it was. All I could do is hastily try to add, “What that gets at is that our philosophy is that if you can fight, self-defense is no problem. If you can’t, it’s a big problem.”

The story should have ended there, but the owner of the school wasn’t satisfied. He asked if he could grab my wrist, and I agreed to it. His grip was firm but not strong or painful, and it was clear he didn’t want me getting away easily. He even dropped into a low, broad stance. “How would you get out of this?” he asked, half curiously and slightly defiantly. I hit him in the head (lightly) without bothering to do anything more than pull him to me by the grip on his wrist. …and so much for that relationship.

Note: Most MMA gyms do not qualify as “holy-trinity” schools because they focus on technique and sparring, even some more realistic fighting, which isn’t the same as splitting “martial arts” into three mostly distinct categories, usually forms/techniques, sparring, and self-defense.

Looking for martial arts but not finding it

If you were to ask me if I think that most holy-trinity schools have a lot of martial arts going on, the answer I’d tell you is “no, not really, not to be unkind.” To be fair, if you were to ask me if I thought that I had a lot of martial arts going on for most of my time training martial arts so far (YSB included before maybe 2012), I’d tell you the same thing. If you were to ask me the same thing about many of the the people who have trained with me, for the most part, yet again, I’d have to say the same. No. Not really.

I’ve seen this in every holy-trinity school I’ve trained with, visited, or been involved with in any way whatsoever. I’ve seen it for years and years in myself. I see it from so-called martial arts experts all the time. I see it come up often in the guys that come train with me in our weekly study group meetings. I see it when I attend YSB workshops from the attendees (definitely not from the instructor and his assistant!). I see people doing martial arts in a way totally divorced from fighting, and I was one of them for a long, long time. I used to call it the “knowledge-use gap,” and I had no idea how to bridge it.

I started crossing the bridge probably in 2012, right around when I first named the problem. Martial arts are for fighting, I realized, and that takes something I don’t see a lot of and have been diligently working to correct in myself over the past three or four years. There’s a certain mentality that’s needed, a willingness to make martial arts and the techniques we train legitimately about fighting (some call this a kind of meanness). There’s also a shift in focus that most holy-trinity schools, caught up in nonsense notions of what “traditional” means, seem to lack. Everything has to be made for fighting under some assumptions about realism, and the goals of fighting aren’t usually nice ones.

What we’re doing wrong: doing moves

Especially in traditional martial arts schools, we have a major problem that learning “martial arts” means learning moves, learning techniques, and then trying to do them, usually in highly controlled scenarios. This, in and of itself, is not something that anyone is doing wrong. It’s a great training tool that has been used successfully in every martial art ever trained by anyone (even sparring-oriented arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, and MMA programs utilize this training tool). The problem is forgetting the point, and it’s far too easy.

Remembering the point is a matter of simply realizing what not to do. Don’t do moves. Moves aren’t the point. The point is winning a fighting-oriented encounter, which may mean defending oneself, winning a contest in the ring, or winning a fight that’s happening for any other reason. The point is fighting and doing it successfully. So long as your intention lies on “doing the move” or “doing the move correctly,” your mind is on what you’re doing with your body and not on what you’re trying to accomplish with it, but it’s what you’re trying to accomplish that’s important. You’re trying to hit the guy; you’re trying to throw him down; you’re trying to knock him over; you’re trying to wreck his balance; you’re trying to beat him in a fight. In other words, you’re trying to manifest a particular outcome, and “doing the move” isn’t it. “The move” is just the vehicle. The point of the vehicle is just to get somewhere.

And here’s the thing: in a fighting encounter, if you enter into a situation intending to do a move, you’re going to succeed in that intent, and so it’s only likely to work if you get lucky. The move is disconnected from the point of the move if your intention is on doing the technique “correctly” instead of appropriately, which often means devoid of context. The context of the fight is the only context that matters when you’re in a fight.

So, if the technique you’re working on is a throw, keep your mind on throwing the guy instead of all of the technical content (which you should have drilled into yourself on your own already–that’s what training is for!). If the technique is a joint lock of some kind, focus on locking up that joint, manipulating the guy to get him to where you need him in order to injure the joint. If you’re trying to hit him, get his defenses out of the way and hit him! Your training experience, sensitivity, familiarity with bodies and reactions, skill with the techniques, and so on, will carry you if you’ve ingrained them, but you have to focus on the result, not the technique when you go to use it for real.

Focusing on “the moves” instead of on the intended results of the movements will invariably produce ineffective martial arts techniques that will never work for you in a real encounter unless they are extremely simple and natural. Focusing on the result will not only help you get better applications, it will also help you make your training and your “moves” more real and more alive, and that’s the only way you have a hope of making them work. You can practice moves all day long, but if your intent is wrong, they won’t help you. So, when you get a chance to try to apply them, work on accomplishing something with them, which will require timing, angles, footwork, and distancing. Over time, when you have the basic mechanics down, you can start to ramp up the realism.

Keep the intent

It is of utmost importance, then, when training martial arts is keeping the mind on the intent of the movements, how they can be used in a realistic fighting situation–at speed and with a resisting opponent (whether you spar as part of your training or not, more on that in other posts). It’s too easy to fall into a trap of trying to learn “moves” in a way that is disconnected from fighting, and that misses the whole point. The movements are for fighting, and getting that right will improve your training immeasurably, even though it’s hard.

Though not every martial artist is or has to be serious about training to that level, anyone who really wants to get things right will do it. The mark of a serious student, at some level, comes down to obvious work on how to make fighting applicability a central focus.

Welcome, and a Proper Introduction

A Yin Style Baguazhang throw. I'm being thrown.

One of my students throwing me with a solid toss.

Welcome, which for some of you will be welcome back, although really I’m the one who has returned after a long sabbatical from keeping public notes of my thoughts on training martial arts. This blog, Six-Step Circle, can be thought of a revamped continuation of my old training blog, Becoming the Lion, which I kept with Blogger for a number of years much earlier in my training.

This first post may be a little perfunctory, but it will seek to elaborate upon the goals and anticipated direction that this blog will take, hopefully for some time to come.

For those who do not know, I train a martial art called Yin Style Baguazhang and have done so for a number of years. Baguazhang in general is not well-known, with Yin Style in specific being even lesser known, so this will present some degree of impediment to reaching as broad an audience as I like. I’m glad you’re here, though, whatever brought you.

What this is about

My objectives with this blog all center upon sharing some of my thoughts about the martial art known as Yin Style Baguazhang, as I am learning it from my teacher, He Jinbao of Beijing. For those who practice, this may be rehashing a lot of what you already know or have heard before. Of course, as it’s a blog related to my training in YSB, as we often abbreviate, I’ll talk about my own training as well–what I’m up to, what challenges I am facing or face routinely, my thoughts on productive avenues for training, and so on. As I’ve been running a Yin Style study group in Knoxville, TN, for quite some time, I run into a lot of opportunities to try to get concepts of this art across to others, and much of that effort will serve as an inexhaustible wellspring of new material for me to share with you.

Full disclosure

I have other goals as well. First and foremost, so that I’m not in any way ambiguous in my disclosure, I do hope to make a little money doing this. I don’t intend to install ads on this blog (though maybe WordPress does that for me, no matter what I want?), but I am running a Patreon account for it. Patreon is a crowd-funding platform that’s something between a voluntary subscription service and an online tip jar. You can read more about that by clicking the “Support My Work” tab at the top of the blog, clicking here to go to that page, or clicking here to go directly to my Patreon page, or you can not bother with any of that for now and just try to enjoy the blog.

I’m not asking anyone to contribute, and I’ll keep the blog going as long as it interests me, which will certainly be longer and with richer content the more I’m being compensated for my time and effort here. I’ll not go into detail about that account here, leaving it for my Patreon page for those details, but I’ll mention that I will be posting paid-only content there that will not be available here, such as detailed notes from the group training sessions I lead, perhaps more esoteric philosophical pondering, and eventually maybe even video (maybe!). In the future, I may write at least one post detailing the Patreon business more fully–how it works, what it does for me, what I hope with it, what I expect (not much), and all that good stuff. No more of that for now, though.

Themes and topics

That said, my other objectives include discussing a number of topics pertinent to martial arts, especially Chinese martial arts, and particularly Yin Style Bagua. I want the blog to be specific enough to keep my Yin Style audience focused and interested, but I will probably make commentary about martial arts in general, training in general, and, as a pet project of mine that I feel is very important (especially for Chinese martial arts), skepticism in the martial arts. This last bit is sorely lacking, and bullshit-busting is likely to be a somewhat common theme here.

Most of the topics will be directly relevant to Yin Style Baguazhang or bent to it, so those of you who do YSB will get plenty of content that’s right up your alley. I’m especially interested in analyzing various aspects of our training methodology (as compared with others), considering points about strategy in the martial arts and the unique way in which Yin Bagua uses it, and developing my thoughts about the various kinds of fighting skills that YSB has to offer. I’ve also got quite a repository of training-relevant sayings that I’ve come across over the years that the philosopher in me would love to plumb in greater depth. Of course, as was quite popular on Becoming the Lion, I want to dedicate a good deal of space to my thoughts on how to get good at martial arts and Yin Style Baguazhang in particular.

So, thanks!

That, then, is what this blog is intended to be about, and hopefully it will be engaging enough to keep you all reading. Again, I’m glad to be back, and I’m glad you’re here with me.