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!

3 thoughts on “Getting Better the Yin Style Baguazhang Way

  1. Hi Jim

    Enjoying the new blog. I would be interested on your thoughts in particular with regards to the use knowledge gap in YSB. In YSB we have 7 forms per attacking method, this can be seen as examples of usages and combinations from the attacking method. Taking a step back this is demonstrating possibilities and one should not be too rigid but at the same time a sound structure is important in transitioning to applying YSB in fighting.

    Do you see the forms as offering a doorway into the application of YSB and therefore that this is a sound starting point in using applications from these forms? i.e creating a framework of usage?

    At what point does this become bogged down in ‘doing moves’ and having too fixed an idea of what you are trying to execute to the exclusion of the very YSB concept of change and adaptability.

    The Beijing crew seem to put great onus on combinations practice is this the next step in fighting practice in breaking down movements into applicable fighting combinations to adapt and change to the situation.

    Honestly this is where I feel I am struggling at the moment and I would be interested in your views given how you say your training and focus has changed over the years.


    • Hi Rob,
      I think this is a great question, and I think (supposing I ever hit upon the time for it again anytime soon!) it will make a great topic for a new post. Keep your eyes open, and with some luck it won’t take me too long to write it.


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