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This article was first published in the Pa Kua Chang Newsletter 1993.

The information in this article was obtained during interviews conducted with Luo Dexiu (羅德修) in Taipei, Taiwan, in September 1992 and March 1993. Thanks to Luo Dexiu’s students Tim Cartmell and Bill Tucker for translating the lengthy interviews.

Learn the Bagua Zhang of Luo Dexiu in Cologne, Germany.

Luo’s Approach to Teaching Bagua Zhang

Ever since Robert Smith returned from Taiwan to write about the „internal family“ of martial arts he observed and studied while he was living there, many American martial artists have dreamed about traveling to China to study. Some have made the trip to China and, after studying for several years, returned to the United States to open up schools and teach what they learned. Others have made numerous short trips to China to study for a few month at a time and bring back the knowledge they gained while studying there. Many of the practicioners who studied in China have made a name for themselves in this country by running successful schools, writing books and magazine articles, and/or producing instructional video tapes. While this group of practicioners have become well known to martial artists in the United States and other areas of the world, there is another extremely dedicated group that is not so well known. These are the practicioners who traveled to Taiwan nearly a decade or more ago and have stayed there. They continue to study, they continue to practice, and they continue to improve.

If one traveled to Taiwan today and wanted to talk with Americans who went there specifically to study internal martial arts, have lived there for eight years or more, and have studied internal martial arts continuously since arriving, believe it or not, it would be fairly easy to ground them up. Why? Because six or seven of them who have been in Taiwan ranging anywhere from eight to twenty years are in Luo Dexiu’s Bagua Zhang class. After speaking with Luo, watching him teach class, and watching him demonstrate and apply his Bagua Zhang, it is very easy to see why so many of these hard-core practicioners have gravitated to his class.

Luo has studied and practiced the martial arts for over 25 years, however, his enthusiasm for Bagua Zhang is still like that of a kid with a new toy. He has deep knowledge of theory and principle, his movement and application of the art is first rate, he is highly skilled at imparting knowledge to his students, and his teaching is very open and direct. His philosophy is that a teacher should be honest and sincere and teach with an open heart. Luo is also very approachable and easy to talk to; his classes are informal and low key. He does not have a formal school and he does not advertise. He is content teaching the small group of students who manage to find him through word of mouth.

Luo’s teaching method is very systematic. He feels that in conjunction with walking the circle, the beginner should practice Qigong and other basic exercises which are designed to open up and gently strengthen specific parts of the body and enhance overall development. Luo states that although everyone naturally has power in their body, the power is not fully connected due to tension, blockage and lack of optimal body coordination. The first thing the student in Luo’s class will learn is Qigong which is designed to coordinate the body and rid it of its „interference“ so that the body’s power can be unified. The Qigong that Luo teaches helps the beginning student „reset“ and rebalance the body by clearing out the effects of old injuries or illness and strengthening weaknesses. Luo begins each of his classes using this Qigong set as warm up because it exercises every part of the body.

After students in Luo’s class practice the Qigong set, they will then practice a set of basic hand techniques which are designed to train the body to move in a way which best expresses the body’s power. Concentration is placed on training the body to be aligned, connected, and unified so that the student can easily access and use the body’s inherent internal power. One of the most direct ways of getting  a feel for this unified power (整勁) is in practicing a movement such as Beng Quan (崩拳) which is most notably in Xingyi Quan and trains students in the mechanics and alignments necessary for development of unified whole body power.

After practicing Qigong exercises which help to release tension and open up blockages in the body and then practicing basic hand techniques which develop unified body movement and whole body power, the student in Luo’s school will begin to walk the circle and practice the Houtian Bagua Zhang sequences. When the student begins the circle walk practice, Luo does not overemphasize the classic principles such as Han Xiong Ba Bei (含胸拔背, chest relaxed pulling the back) or Chen Jian Zhui Zhou (沈肩墜肘, sink the shoulder, drop the elbow). Although he wants the student to be aware of these basic principles, he does not want the beginner to become overwhelmed with too many details. Feeling relaxed and comfortable while remaining smooth and fluid in motion is priority. His advice to the beginner is to put the feet down softly to develop a sensitivity associated with the foot’s placement on the ground. He also emphasizes the body moving as a whole and suggests the image of feeling a constant, evenly distributed pressure on all areas of the body as if walking in water.

Luo advises beginners to avoid walking a circle which is too small. He recommends that the novice walk a circle which requires at least twelve steps per revolution. When explaining the correct circle walk body posture, Luo has beginners concentrate on walking smoothly, maintaining a balanced and straight body, clearly executing the Kou and Bai steps, and remaining natural and comfortable. Luo also emphasizes that the entire body continuously twists from the Yao Kua (腰胯), however, a strong turning of the Yao Kua inward is not taught at the beginning and thus the student avoids walking a small circle. The Yao Kua is the area of the body which includes the inner thigh/groin and the hips. Luo states that if the practitioner twists the body from the waist instead of using the Yao Kua, the body will not be properly aligned and the whole body power will be disconnected.

If the body is twisted in towards the circle’s center from the Yao Kua, the Dantian is drawn back and the „positive“ and the „negative“ power in the body is aligned correctly. When walking a small circle, the Yao Kua twists inward to a greater degree. Since most beginners are usually too tight in the Yao Kua area to faciliate the necessary amount of rotation which allows for proper alignment when walking a small circle, Luo has them walk a larger circle until the body has developed sufficiently.

While the majority of students Luo teaches will begin Bagua practice by learning the Qigong, basic hand techniques, the circle walk and Houtian Bagua, he does not teach every student exactly the same. He states that in teaching he evaluates each student and determines what they need, how much they need, and when they need it. He says that teaching the internal arts is not simply a matter of presenting a standard curriculum. The teacher needs to determine how to best present the material to each individual, how to give them the right size chunks at the right time, and then teach them how to explore the art on their own to discover the fine points.

In order to teach his students how to explore Bagua Zhang beyond the physical movements of the form, Luo emphasizes the importance of the principles that each movement or sequence of movements convey. Besides expecting students to master the shape of the movements, the principle of body motion inherent in each of the movements should be clearly understood; only then will students be able to reach the higher levels of skill where form and use are united resulting in spontaneous and creative response. He states that Bagua Zhang is not a system of kung fu „techniques“ as much as it is a conceptual framework which manifests change. Luo believes that the art of Bagua Zhang has at its center deep philosophical principles which are expressed in the movements and forms. The art contains strategies which were developed over a length of time, originated from various sources, and coalesced into the complete and refined system.