The Quick and the Dead

On External and Internal Aspects:

Circle walking exercises
All of the body’s
Muscles and connective tissues.
It increases coordination
Helps develop speed
And has an aerobic effect
Which helps develop stamina

Internally the postures help
relax the mind
release the tension in the inner organs
open the energy channels
and sharpen your focus

I was disabused of my claim that I was entirely innocent of any experience in the martial arts rather harshly the first time I signed up for a class in my mid-thirties. Once my instructor recovered from his suspicions that I had willfully misrepresented myself for some nefarious purpose, we did manage to come to an agreement that:

• I had practiced the horse stance (click here) for countless hours while actually working with real live horses.

That encounter soured me a bit though, and I could never find a martial arts school that spoke to my particular needs. Eventually I realized that there is much rivalry between schools, most practices arose out of conflict, their techniques focused on fighting, and their meditation practices primarily intent on removing the stiffness and hesitation arising out of fear and preparing for violence.

When a book on ba gua zhang came into my hands, I was intrigued. It is the first school that seemed relevant to what I experienced in my work with horses. Most people seems to drawn to martial arts either for self-improvement or to channel their aggression. While that is also true of contemporary ba gua zhang practitioners there is a fundamental pragmatism, a groundedness and sanity flowing through the practice. It claims that its founder was first noticed for his ability to carry fully laden platters of food from the kitchen to the Emperor’s table through a crowded banquet hall without spilling!

Personally, I learned to practice the Mud Tread Step (click here) as a child as it really is the best way to avoiding injuring bare feet on the stones and stickers of the New Mexico desert, so this practical basis resonates with me.

On Mind and Body Integration:

a strong relationship will be established
bringing together coordination of
the mind,
the contractions and relaxations of the muscles,
the movements of the body,
and the functions of the internal organs.

Even when encountering a sudden attack
(emotional or physical)
The highly coordinated
Body and mind
Will not collapse-
One should be flexible
and able to change
and take control of every situation

Working with horses is full of paradoxes- one must be alert without being nervous, responsive with being aggressive, relaxed without being oblivious, strong without being resistant, receptive without losing one’s center. So ba gau xhang’s emphasis on a certain kind of coordinated grounded flexibility also felt familiar, as does the demand that the practitioner actually be aware, feel, and respond with their whole body. It has been made clear to me that there is a not-so-subtle difference between thinking about one’s body and actually living in that is vital, both in working with horses and in working with the degree of traumatic damage I have in my body. Add to that that our human automatic reflexes are so much slower than the average horse’s , we have to be able to respond physically, emotionally, and energetically immediately to be attuned with them. If we pause to process what we see and think about what we should do, we are hopelessly behind the horse, and, as so many riders learn the hard way, that floundering is very dangerous.

On What’s Alive and What’s Dead

Students must learn
To feel their bodies
By awakening their nervous systems
At the same time
They must do their best to shut off
visualizations of their body.
Once the nervous system has been awakened
He can simultaneously visualize his body
and still be able to feel it
but if he engages in visualization
during the first few months of practice
his mind will only make mental pictures
of his body
and he will never be able to really feel it

I found myself laughing with a rueful sort of recognition at the story of the Chinese master Wang Shu Jin’s frustration with his American student when he realized that the he was unable to follow instructions because he was so unaware of the inner environment of his own body. Apparently, the master asserted that anyone who was that unaware of their own body was essentially one of the walking dead and a waste of his time. For me personally, to be unaware of my body is to be one of the not-even-walking soon to be truly dead. If I don’t go through my body each morning (and repeat often during the day), checking out what’s living, what’s locked up, and what’s dead, I can’t stand up, much less move around. So I have to agree with him that those who are truly alive are those who are aware of and actually sense their bodies. And that those who refuse that awareness are not worth my time and effort.

At least one of the doctors attempting to treat me was perturbed by what he called my ‘unnatural control over my autonomic nervous system’ as it made it difficult to diagnose what was wrong with me. However, I am much less interested in having a diagnosis than I am in being able to move freely. Since I know I cannot stand up by myself, I rely on aligning myself with the energies of heaven and earth to move through my life. Staying grounded, aware, and clear-headed while in harmonious purposeful motion brings a whole other realm of being into play.

On Rooting:
allows the energy
to sink down
to the lower dan tien
makes the mind calm
and makes the body feel centered
and perfectly balanced.

Walking very slowly
and focusing on feeling
the energy in your legs
helps to develop
this rooting process.

This energy travels
In front of the walker
And under the earth,
Creating a feeling
Of being pulled from underground,
To stabilize the structure of the walker.

also requires proper alignment
that harmonizes
the shoulders and hips
elbows and knees,
hands and feet.

My attraction to the practice was not surprising once I learned that it is unique among martial arts in that its adherents claim that it evolved from Daoist meditation techniques that were in turn rooted in the movements attributed to the mythological Ancient Yu who held the secrets of Chinese Shamanism. Their emphasis on astute observation and an ability to flow harmoniously through and with the ever-changing cyclic manifestations of the oneness of all life are essential elements that resonate with my own challenges, experiences, goals, and practices.

While I am infinitely grateful to Frank Allen and Tina Chunna Zhang for sharing their experience and vocabulary, for sharing a living structure with deep and ancient roots that helps me to express my experiences, those experiences are my own. They arise out of my efforts to deal with my health issues, my shamanic and spiritual callings, and my drive to ride as one with my horse. While my honoring Yu, the archetypal and mystical master of the arcana of Chinese shamanism, feels totally appropriate, I want to make it entirely clear that I do not consider myself a practitioner or instructor of traditional Chinese ba gua zhang.

Like horses, while I enjoy the dance and may prance and posture within my herd, fights are something I prefer to avoid. I would be utterly at a loss in a traditional Chinese ba gua zhang class or competition, and strongly recommend that anyone interested in learning it seek out and study with those instructors who have been trained and recognized in this particular martial art.

all quotes from

The Whirling Circles of Ba Gua Zhang

by Frank Allen and Tina Chunna Zhang

click for practical horse related exercises


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