Creative Imagery: Functional Meditation in Baguazhang Training

Putting in the proper intent is much of what makes standing strengthening practice work.

Putting in the proper intent is much of what makes standing strengthening practice work.

Meditation is a wonderful thing in its own way, and sooner or later, I’ll probably talk about that some here. It, of course, conjures up thoughts of sitting in yogic positions and contemplating the universe, one’s own body or mind, or nothing at all, and all of that’s fine, good even in many cases. That’s not what I’m after today.

Baguazhang practitioners may assume they know what I’m going for here and are licking their chops to hear about my thoughts on the meditative benefits of the circle turning practice that is central to bagua training. Nope. Not today, and I’d go so far as to say we’re not ready for that talk yet. I’m after something much, much more important (not least because it’s at the functional core of circle turning as a meditative martial arts practice).

So, I’m after something that’s directly fighting-practical, and to get fighting-practical meditation requires using something that would fall under the “creative visualization” umbrella within the far broader set of practices we call meditation. It’s also one of the huge aspects–arguably the most important or even only aspect–of what makes an “internal” martial art like baguazhang internal at all. (And, to be sure, those seeking esoterica at this point are about to be resoundingly disappointed unless they’re smart enough to drop the fantasy and get ready to get real.)

Creative visualization/imagery

To give a quick overview, the idea of creative imagery is very actively imagining, as clearly as possible, doing an action (or experiencing an event, or what-have-you) while sitting still, often with the eyes closed. In YSB, I find this activity helpful for trying to get accuracy in a movement, and I find it absolutely indispensable for getting applications, which is to say for making my solo practice time worth anything more than exercise.

Russian basketball study?

Early in my YSB days, I was told a story about a study involving Russian basketball players in which some groups practiced free throws for an hour a day (or some such), some actively practiced less and supplemented their practice time with creative visualization/imagery of throwing free throws in varying amounts, and some never actually practiced with the ball and only visualized. The alleged findings were that people who did 75% mental training and 25% physical practice improved the most despite doing only a quarter of the physical work of the full-time practice group. (The ones pretending, no surprise, improved the least.)

I don’t know if this study really happened or not, and digging around a bit in the sports psychology literature, I cannot find a clear reference to it anywhere. It may be entirely apocryphal, and the ultimate source of the now-widespread story seems to be a book called Karate of Okinawa: Building the Warrior Spirit. Not to be a jerk, but color me a bit skeptical, then, despite my insistence that creative visualization is incredibly important to success in training YSB, or martial arts in general, really.

Olympians now

In 2014, during the Sochi Olympics, the New York Times reported on athletes in those Games using creative visualization. Further, despite the lack of solid evidence for the existence of the infamous Russian basketball study, there are a number of studies that are available in the sports psychology literature attesting to the success of Olympians (example and example) and physical therapy patients who employ creative imagery in their training protocols. These studies seem to suggest that there is something useful in employing creative imagery for improving outcomes in physical activity, and I hope to make a case here that for the martial arts, it is probably necessary (so, no surprise, it’s a fundamental requirement of proper YSB training).

Neuronal firing patterns

So, I want to talk a bit about why it might work, assuming it does. Practice, in general, is often designed to create what sometimes gets called “muscle memory,” although the term neuronal firing patterns would be more accurate.

The way I had firing patterns explained to me (by an anatomy and physiology expert) is that the human nervous system creates something like “recipes” for executing certain actions, and that over time and repeated use, those “recipes” and the neuronal pathways that they initiate become strengthened. The nerves involved make more direct connections with one another and myelinate more thoroughly (myelin is a fatty sheath around some nerve fibers that insulates them and thus allows them to conduct their signals more quickly). The brain’s motor areas create well-worn pathways that initiate signals in particular patterns, eventually almost or even entirely automatically, and these become neuronal firing patterns, or muscle memory.

The thing about the brain is that it can be fooled by sufficiently realistic imagery into reinforcing those same nervous pathways that we seek to strengthen during training, and it can be taught to associate those pathways with certain external stimuli. It is, for instance, relatively common for someone to hurt their back falling from a ladder, recover, and then ten years later be prone to the same back pain from far less traumatic causes because a slip or fright inadvertently initiates the neuronal firing pattern that caused the body to clench (and hurt itself) during the fall. This example, by the way, was a case study given in the lecture by the anatomist mentioned previously.

The study of the Olympians at Sochi, not even to draw from my own experience and the stated requirements–based upon lots of experiences–of training in YSB, fascinatingly suggest that the brain can be coaxed into reinforcing certain neuronal pathways and associating them with certain external stimuli merely by using the imagination, supposing the imagery is sufficiently detailed and realistic.

What that should mean is that creative visualization of a physical activity–and the more tactile the imagery the better–should reinforce the neuronal firing patterns associated with executing that activity, whether you are doing them physically or not. And, of course, if you are doing the movements physically at the same time, that’s all the better, a topic I’ll return to momentarily.

The fundamental disconnection

In training martial arts, the vast majority of training time presents a huge problem: practicing the techniques is necessarily divorced from really executing them to obtain a result, especially one in a tense situation with a resisting opponent. We cannot train techniques designed to injure, maim, or kill realistically in essentially any circumstances, some degree of nerfing is always required for the purposes of training. This creates a gap between how we train and actually using it that is an unavoidable part of training any martial art.

There are bridges across this chasm. Applications practice is one, but it’s limited both in opportunity (for most of us) and realism (for safety’s sake). Sparring is another that I’ll discuss at greater length later, but it too is limited and, as I’ll eventually argue, nearly as unrealistic as much else that goes in the martial arts. This gap has to be crossed to reach a high level of skill in fighting, however, and the question is how it is to be done.

Of course, this fundamental disconnection probably reaches its zenith in kata (forms) practice, and so kata rightly gets denigrated by nearly all martial artists who focus primarily on sparring, or even controlled fighting, as their primary mechanism for crossing this gap. (This, too–the problem of kata–is a topic I’d like to turn more attention to at some point soon.) Kata, though, along with any other techniques performed “empty” of a target, can be used to bridge the gap as well, and I think that creative imagery, one of the primary secrets of the “internal” martial arts, is the trick to doing it.

Imagining applications

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that the results of the probably apocryphal Russian basketball study are true, not least because of the huge amount of progress the activity of creatively visualizing my way through applications has provided for me. This, I know, isn’t really data, but, man, people love testimonials and anecdotes ;).

If you’ll remember, or if you’ve known me for any amount of time, I struggled (and still do to some degree) with what might be called a “knowledge-use gap,” which means I have a lot of work to do on making my techniques real and thus effective. Creative imagery of applications together with some actual applications practice (together with physical training) have netted huge gains in this department for me, though, and they did so in a relatively short time.

I spend some time every day, especially before I go to bed or between clients when I want to train but can’t get sweaty, just imagining applications. The process is simple: I think of an application I have a rough grasp on, imagine myself doing it to someone (and the bigger and stronger the person, in many regards, the better), try to make it vivid and tactile, and repeat. I add in ways he might resist and feel my way through how the technique is either designed to cope with that, exploit it, or enable changing in response to it, and I do it all in my head. I do this often, and I know it’s meditative because even as engaging as it is, it’s also stunningly soporific, probably the second fastest route to a nap or breaking insomnia that I know of (so, I do it standing up between clients!).

It happens that almost every time I get serious about this activity, I start making applications work that I couldn’t before, usually lots of them. The keys are visualizing the action of the opponent clearly, visualizing my movements clearly, adding as much tactile element as possible, and visualizing the result as clearly as I can. It’s not perfect–and without actually testing the techniques with real applications, it can go awry–but it really adds a lot to my training and development.

A warning–the fire and the ghost

Something I’ve heard about regarding the internal martial arts is a saying that you can get yourself pretty far down some idiotic fantasy paths by imagining you can do things that you simply cannot. The saying in Chinese, if I’ve heard it correctly, translates as something like “stepping into the fire and seeing the ghost.” I can run with that for my purposes here.

If you are imagining fantasy applications that will not actually work, you’re stepping into the fire and seeing the ghost, or at least trying to. I’ll probably misinterpret the saying (and warmly invite correction in the comments!), but it stands to reason at least that the ghost you’re seeing is bullshit you think you can pull off but can’t and the fire is the danger you’re putting yourself in by doing so. That, at least, is how I interpret those words, given my thoroughgoing lack of knowledge about Chinese idioms.

Either way, you don’t want fires or ghosts in your training. You don’t want to do fantasy martial arts. You want to be real, and the only way to get real is to reality check yourself and correct problems. That will mean actually checking out the applications in various situations (with real people) and with varying amounts of cooperation to determine if they actually work or need adjustment. Always assume that you’re doing it in a way that can be improved upon, and it doesn’t hurt to frequently assume (especially at first) that you’re doing it wrong.

Putting that visualization into live practice

I’m not sure whether putting the visualizations you’re using into live solo practice will, on its own, correct any fire-and-ghost errors you have going on, but I’m almost sure that putting visualizations into your solo training will help you improve. I’m also completely sure that it’s a requirement–not a suggestion–of Yin Style Baguazhang training. Therefore, I’d strongly urge practicing creative visualization of your techniques and then practicing the harder skill of combining them with actual physical movements.

Ideally, when you’re training Yin Style (or any other martial art), you should be continuously visualizing the usage of the techniques you’re doing in real time on imaginary opponents. You have to know what you’re doing to get better at it! That requires being good at both training physically and creatively visualizing mentally, and it requires coordinating those. (::Mumbles something about internal harmonies…. Mumbles something else about coordinating the eyes–representative of intent–with hands, body, waist, and footwork….::) This is the stage that follows having a basic grasp on how to execute the techniques (coordination) and how to put out power with them, and it’s absolutely critical to getting your training right.

When you can do this, you’ll get better, fast. It makes training both physically and mentally exhausting, though, so be warned up to the task. In return, every time you strike the air or throw an imaginary person, you can get very close to that real aliveness that legitimately simulates really doing it. If I’m in top form and have strong focus, I can practice throwing my friend more than five hundred times in an afternoon without having to test an ounce of his patience or pain threshold–or without even having him anywhere around. It’s really quite amazing.

When you train YSB, you have to add creative imagery of your intent to every aspect of solo training: standing strengthening, turning, striking, combinations, forms, and weapons. Without it, the training is good for coordination, good for generating knowledge and technique, but it’s functionally empty, dead, and not terribly effective at making you a better fighter. Again, you have to know what you’re doing, especially if you’re not relying on the corrective capacity of a fist to the head when you make an error in judgment about how a technique might work out.

Why does it work? If you ask me, it comes right back to neuronal firing patterns. Think about it. If you can strengthen the firing patterns for the physical movement both by doing the movement and by thinking your way through the movement in a tactile sense, doing both simultaneously should multiply that effect. If you can practice the movement while conditioning your mind to the stimulus of the appropriate situation, then you’re adding in the right triggers for initiating that firing pattern while you train.

In other words, by adding the intent and situational relevance to your physical training, doing so in your mind, you bridge the gap between knowledge and use and can cross the chasm between them. Just one word of caution, though: don’t play with fire and watch out for ghosts because you can ingrain that fantastical idiocy too if you’re not careful. It’s important to remember that applications are a test of your training, and they’ll help keep you legitimate.

As always, and yet again, if you have anything you’d like to share, add, suggest, or correct, please do so in the comments below!


One thought on “Creative Imagery: Functional Meditation in Baguazhang Training

  1. Great article! I have found a lot of this to be true in my own applications. Active visualization has definitely supplied me with an outlet for the more aggressive and dangerous applications. I can’t go around breaking and dislocating bones and joints. I can however work with the technique in my mind and as you say, play with it there and deeply think about it’s limitations and advantages. The romantic fantasy of martial arts is a very dangerous habit. Fun, but dangerous. Again, thank you so much for your hard work and enlightening and encouraging articles. David Boyer


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s