The information in this article was obtained during an interview conducted in July 1991 at " A Taste of China" Tai Chi Tournament.
The fundamental principles of Pa Kua Chang should be evident in all movements and applications regardless of the particular style of Pa Kua a person practices. It is generally accepted that Tung Hai-Chuan taught each of his students differently. It is said that Tung did not accept beginners. If a student wanted to learn Pa Kua from him, they were required to first be proficient in another style. Tung taught each student the principles of Pa Kua based on what they already knew, and thus he had to teach them differently. However, the common threads running through all of Tung's teachings are the principles of Pa Kua Chang.
Wai Lun Choi came to the Pa Kua Chang teachers' conference in Winchester, Virginia, ready to discuss these principles. At the conference, Choi stated that although Tung has been dead for over 100 years, his teaching of the Pa Kua Chang principles still lives in the book Pa Kua Chang Lien Hsi Fa (Training Methods of Eight Diagram Palms) published by third generation Pa Kua Chang instructor Chiang Jung-Chiao (Chiang was a student of Chang Chao-Tung). Unfortunately, the teachers' meeting did not lend itself to a detailed discussion of each of the Pa Kua Chang principles outlined in Chiang's book. However, during a lengthy interview with Choi in his hotel room one evening, he spent time discussing each of these principles.
Choi is one of the most qualified teachers in this country to talk about the principles of Pa Kua Chang, as written in Chiang Jung Chiao's book, because his teacher, Chan Yik Yan, was a Pa Kua Chang student of Chiang. Choi spent eight years, (1964-1972), with his teacher and studied Pa Kua, Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Liu Ho Pa Fa. Prior to studying the internal styles with Chan, he had spent seven years studying a number of other styles including Tibetan Lama, Northern Shaolin, Mae Cheong Law Horn, Thai Boxing and Judo. In 1971 Choi was chosen, along with several others, to represent Hong Kong at the Pan Southeast Asian Hand to Hand Martial Arts Tournament held in Singapore. Choi won two divisions and earned the nickname pai choi or "big gun". Chan Yik Yan was so impressed with Choi that he chose him to be his Liu Ho Pa Fa style successor. In 1972 Choi moved from Hong Kong to Chicago and has been teaching there since.
When discussing the postural alignment in Pa Kua, Choi started by saying that the head is held straight and the neck muscles are relaxed. When the head is held erect, the chin will tuck in slightly, but the chin should not be pushed in with force. The buttocks are dropped down, (tailbone straight), as in sitting. The lower back is relaxed in order to flatten the lumbar curve-- it is not forced to roll under. The chest is relaxed, but not collapsed. The body is relaxed, but not over relaxed -- hard must have soft and soft must have hard. Choi states that many practitioners will read phrases in books such as " the chin tucks in," " the buttocks is rolled under," or " relax the chest," and they will force the occurrence and inevitably go overboard, causing tension and misalignment. Internal arts practitioners are constantly reminded to " relax," but Choi says that even this can be overdone. The body should relax, but the shape must be full and ready, and control must be maintained. His advice is to keep things natural. In most cases, if it doesn't feel natural, its probably not right.
Another principle that is typically forced and overemphasized by many practitioners is " tightening the anal sphincter." Many books list this component as an important principle, and there is validity in the concept. However, Choi states that some practitioners overemphasize this action. The anal sphincter should be gently held closed with about the same force you might use to lightly close your eyelid. At the moment you issue power with a strike, the anal sphincter is tightened a bit harder, but otherwise it is gently closed. Also, when practicing Pa Kua, the spine is vertical and the body has a natural straightness. The shoulders are relaxed and the elbows sink down with gravity. The nose, fingers, and toes should be pointing in the same direction. The goal is to align the entire body with gravity, so that you do not create the need for excess muscular force and tension.
Choi explained that if your alignment is correct and balanced, then you will be solid like an island, and the power from a strike will all flow into your opponent. If your alignment is off somewhere, you will be like a cup that has a crack in it. If your whole body is not in harmony, then your opponent's force will find your weak point. Additionally, if you have a weak link in your structure, you will absorb part of the force from your own strike rebounding off your opponent and coming back into you when you try to hit him. The body should be natural and relaxed with correct shape and good control. Movement should be smooth and solid. The body is light, but not floating. The body is sold and rooted when the chi is in the tan tien. Movement can be quick and light and still remain rooted if the breath is kept in the tan tien.
The importance of deep, smooth, and continuous breath in practice is, in Choi's view, a key component to success in internal martial arts styles. Choi states that if the body is not properly aligned, there will be tension. If there is tension in the body, the breath and circulation are affected. If the breath and circulation are affected, the chi is not full and all parts of the body will not work together. Every improper body movement or alignment has a negative effect on breathing. If the chest is collapsed or too open, the breath is affected. If the shoulders raise up, the breath is affected. If the body does not move together as a unit, the breath is affected. negative effects on the breathing would include stopping of breath, interruption in the smooth flow of breath, or the breath being shallow (as in upper chest breathing). Choi also explains that incorrect body alignment will also decrease reaction time. If the body is not naturally aligned with gravity, it will constantly be working to right itself and there will be tension. The nervous system response will decrease if the body is trying to balance itself at the same time you are reacting to an opponent's movements.
Another important component of internal martial arts practice that Choi emphasizes is what he calls " the mind and heart being together." If the intention of the mind and the will of the heart are not congruent, then there will be hesitation. Hesitation causes tension in the muscles. When there is hesitation and tension in the muscles, then the breathing is affected and the chi is not full. However, when the mind, heart, and body are together, there will be confidence, the body will remain relaxed and the breath will stay in the lower tan tien. When the heart and mind are not together, there will not only be physical tension, but emotional tension as well. Choi states that the same idea holds true in any sport. If a basketball player is relaxed and confident, his mind and heart are together and he will be on top of his game.
While describing the idea of heart and mind being together, Choi asked me to throw a punch into the air. After I did that, he held his hand out and asked me to punch at his hand. " Do you feel a difference?" he asked. If you punch at a target, your punch will have meaning, there will be intent and the breath will be in the tan tien. He encourages his students to " shadow box " when they perform their form routine -- this way there will be intent in their practice. But Choi warns against over-focusing on one object when training. If you over-focus, you will be out of balance and you will lose flexibility and control. The term Choi uses when describing this component to his students is " Be Careful." To Choi, the term " Be Careful " means that you do not totally focus on any one thing -- you expect that something could come from anywhere at anytime. When you " be careful " your body is relaxed, your mind is calm, and your spirit is alert. Choi states that this concept must sink deep into the body. If you " be careful " deep within the body, then the body will always be ready. He says that Pa Kua principles are not intellectual ideas, you must understand in the body -- you must get into the body feeling.
When practicing the Pa Kua Chang circle walking, the idea behind the phrase " be careful " is particularly applicable. Choi says that when you are walking the circle, it should be as if you are walking on thin ice. The classic phrase " walking in mud " does not mean that you are walking as if you are stuck in mud or stomping in mud, it means that you are walking on something that is very slippery, and thus you must walk lightly and carefully, as if you might fall down at any time. When walking the movement is smooth and even like water running -- there can be no breaking or tensing. Smooth and even movement will help keep the breath in the tan tien.
Choi explains that when walking, the front foot does not step out, instead the back foot should spring you forward. However, the step should not be too high or too wide. As the back foot passes the front foot it should come close enough to lightly scrape the instep of the front foot. The " heart " of the foot should be empty and the toes grab naturally when the foot is placed flat on the ground. When the foot is up it is flat, when it is down it grabs. The grabbing of the toes should not be forced and you do not focus on the toes pulling The walking should be smooth and light. Root comes from a relaxed mind and tan tien breathing, not heaviness of the body. Your walking will be heavy if you are uncomfortable and tense. Walking the circle uses " twisting power " rather than " forcing power ". In each technique you use the waist to turn the whole body, then you have harmony and united power. When executing changes, the turning and rotating should be smooth on the inside and on the outside. The feeling should be like that of an eagle turning in flight.
Choi approaches each of the four internal martial art styles which he practices and teaches, (Tai Chi Chuan, Pa Kua Chang, Hsing-I Chuan, and Liu Ho Pa Fa) with the same simple philosophy. If you align yourself with gravity, insure that the breath is smooth, deep, and continuous, have your mind and heart together, and execute movements and postures that feel natural, your skill level will improve greatly.
Choi states that Pa Kua contains four main methods: running, looking, sitting and twisting. These four are for developing: flexible footwork ( running -- walking the circle ), alert spirit ( looking -- be careful ), stability ( sitting -- bending the knees, tailbone straight as if sitting on a stool), and power ( twisting -- uniting the spirit, chi, mind, and power on the inside and outside).
Choi outlines Pa Kua Chang training into three developmental practice steps or stages:
1. Single movement by single movement -- this is the foundation work. The practitioner practices slowly -- one step, one technique.
2. Continuous flexible movement -- like the first stage, but smoother. The movement is faster and continuous.
3. Change form practice -- the changes are not executed in any given order. The practitioner is creative and reacts spontaneously.
Choi states that the fundamental principles behind the first and second stages are the same only the first is done slowly and deliberately, and the second is done fast and continuous. He outlines these principles as follows;
1. Neck and head straight, tailbone straight, anal sphincter gently closed, relax shoulders, elbows down, breathe in tan tien, relax chest.
2. The body must twist, spin, run, and turn. The waist, elbow, arm, palm, and neck twist and turn to the circle center. Whether you spin or turn depends on the technique, but in either case you must twist.
3. Spring the back foot and touch the front foot instep when walking. The forward foot must slide, the backward foot springs. ( The weighted foot is called the back foot. The foot that slides forward is called the front foot. When you sit on that foot it is called the back foot.)
4. Don't step too high or too wide. Adjust by yourself, depending on your size. Be comfortable.
5. Bend the knee to walk in mud ( slippery surface). Be careful.
6. The foot center is empty, the heel and toes grab. The forward foot must follow the circle and grab. (When the step is big, the rear heel can go up. But when the back foot comes up to the front foot, it must be flat. When the weight is on the foot, the toes grab).
7. Fingers are open, palm center rounded, move the forearm and follow the circle center. Do not push forward, but into the circle center.
8. Shoulders are even, dropped down, and comfortable.
9. The waist is like an axle, the hand is like a wheel. When the hand moves, the body moves; when the body moves, the waist moves. Make the waist move everything.
10. The classics say,"Fire up, water down". "Fire is light, water is heavy". In the body they relate to the heart and kidney. They mean is the breathing is deep, to the stomach, the chest is relaxed. The stomach is the root of chi; it is like an air tank. You must make the breathing deep in the stomach. The chi is like a cloud moving. Like a cloud moving means slowly. No fast inhale or fast exhale.
11. At moments of change, when the weight is on the foot, it must be strong like a mountain. When you change, the foot must move like water -- that smoothly. When moving, the weight must be down, heavy, but not dull or sluggish, solid but not stiff, flexible and with good balance.
12. Dragon Body and Monkey Face. When you walk the circle, the body and footwork must look like a swimming dragon (i.e. a snake). The eye must watch the hand, (i.e. look at the opponent). Monkey face means intelligent and alert.
13. Tiger Sit and Eagle Twist. When you change your palm and your footwork, the hip must sit, like a tiger sitting and watching. When you twist your body and change your palm, you must be like an eagle turning in the air, flexible and smooth, not stiff.
14. You must get into the animal feeling, be able to picture it in your mind.
Choi states that the third level of training is much more difficult. Principles of this level include:
1. Eight Direction Chain Power. The mind not breaking, idea not breaking, power not breaking, movement not breaking. You are automatically ready and have awareness of all eight directions.
2. Roll and Drill, Holding and Forcing. These concepts are not only accomplished with the hand, but with the whole body. When you roll and drill, the power changes. Roll in a circle to turn the arm, then drill and turn forward to get the coil power. In every technique all four things must come together to get real power.
3. Yin and Yang Power. Soft has hard, hard has soft. Everything has to contain opposites. Rolling must have drilling, forcing must have holding. This is what produces power in Pa Kua. To develop you must know about this.
4. Mind like a Flag. Mind like a Lamp. This idea goes back to old-fashioned military communication. Day and night the Army could send messages and give orders, during the day with signal flags and at night with lamps. This tells you that when you practice you must use the mind to order movement, not simply move. It means you must know the reason for the technique and apply it with intention.
5. Make the mind clear and aware and the chi can go all over. Without the mind to order it, chi and power can't go with you. When you practice a technique and know how to use it, you develop alertness and sensitivity; the chi will follow your mind and go all over, because the mind orders it.
6. Shoot Out and Tie In. Don't hold back. There must be no hesitation. Shoot out and tie in are the same as open and close. Tie in means close. Inside you suck in, outside you make tight.
7. Still and Move. Still and moving, circle and push out. When you move you must want to be still. That means calm. When you are still you must want to move. That means don't stop there. Power at the end is still, but it is not stuck there, it is ready for something else. Still at the end means power at the beginning. Moving and stillness must be together. You must control both.
Beyond these three levels, Choi defines the instructor level as having experiential knowledge of the following;
Spirit and chi and mind and power must have harmony to be united. To develop properly, these elements cannot be separate. Hand and foot together, shoulder and hip together, mind and spirit together, chi and power together, inside and outside together -- that is united power. You must have harmony to produce this united power.
In Pa Kua, all of these elements must be together; otherwise, you have only learned the outside technique -- you have an empty form. Uniting the spirit, chi, mind, and power on the inside and outside is the reason for the Pa Kua method. If you really have this, then you can say you have learned Pa Kua. Otherwise, you only know an empty technique and can't say you really know Pa Kua.
If you have questions for Grandmaster Wai Lun Choi, send us a message. We will get back to you as soon as possible.