Bagua’s “Mud Step”

Dong Haichuan, the founder of Bagua Zhang, had a huge reputation while working for the king. During that time, he taught Yin Fu and Ma Gui inside the king’s palace for more than a decade. But most of his disciples, including Cheng, flocked to him after his retirement.  By the time he taught Cheng Tinghua, he became more systematic in his teaching. The progression of training, the goals of training at each level, etc, became clearer. Mud stepping is one of those innovations.

Bagua is famous for its highly developed footwork. The normal human gait starts with lifting the heel of the back foot off the ground, pushing with the ball; at the same time we fall forward, catching ourselves by striking the ground with the heel of front foot. That front foot then rolls forward with outer edge of the foot touching the ground first, then inward, your toes expanding slightly, then finally the ball of the foot touches the ground.

This normal way of movement is judged to be not good enough by the high standards of internal martial art and requirements for fighting. There are two basic requirements for movement in martial art, they are contradictory, but must be achieved at the same time – stability and mobility. Stability means you have good connection to the ground, you are not easily dislodged from current position by outside forces, you have a solid platform for launching powerful attacks. Mobility means you can move quickly, change position quickly, in all manners and directions.

So how to achieve these goals? This is where shen fa comes in. Shen fa means particular ways/methods for using (both static and dynamic) the body (footwork in Chinese is bu fa, bu – step). You cannot be stable or very mobile if your body is not balanced and neutral. For balance, the ideal is the weight being supported is centered directly above the supporting element. Furthermore, that downward pressure should ideally be spread evenly across the entire surface area of the supporting element that is in contact with the ground.

If you’re standing, check your feet, rock all the way back, then forward, then roll your feet inward, then outward. Remember what it feels like to have more weight on one of those sides. Not start over and stand the way you normally do. Are you leaning in any direction?

Now check your hips. Your pelvis girdle is shaped like a bowel. Is the bowel resting evenly, is any one side higher than the other? Is one side of your hip more forward than the other?

Now check your shoulders, are they perfectly level to the floor? Also, is one shoulder in front of the other?

Finally, check your head. Are your eyes level to the ground? Do you have a habit of tilting it to one side when thinking? When you sit, do you lean forward and crank your neck up?

In Chinese martial art, these 3 basic shen fa requirements is collectively call San Ping (san – three, ping – level, even): eyes level, shoulder level, hips level, which then implies everything else is level.

When everything is centered this way, not leaning to any one side, it is in the most balanced position. When it’s centered this way, for every joint in your body, there are equal amount of open space in all sides. We call this neutral. When you are neutral, you can immediately put your body in any other posture quickly; combined with balance, you can move quickly to any other position, without having to reset anything first (if you are leaning to the left, then if you want to move right, it requires a bigger, longer movement).

The opposite of centered neutrality is leaning. If you are leaning to one side, then some other muscles must work harder than normal. It has to be tense because it has to support that extra weight, so that you don’t fall. So for those extra hardworking muscles, there’s more compression. Overall it’s not the most balanced, stable, or agile position. This is how a lot of people develop back and neck pain. Hence the advice from Taiji Quan Classics: let there not be any excesses or deficiencies in the whole body. When no part of the body is doing extra work to hold up another part, all the weight drops down. This is the feeling people call root.

What happens to this perfectly centered neutrality when we walk? When you lift off the back heel and push off with ball, it naturally push up the back side of your pelvic bowel. The opposite happens when you lift the ball of your feet, it naturally pushes the front of your pelvic bowel up, and therefore everything above it.

In Bagua, renowned for its advanced movement skills, we want to break this automatic reaction between feet and pelvic bowel. One common analogy used here is that of traditional sedan, the type carried by servants over their shoulders. In internal martial art, we want everything above the leg to be as relaxed as possible, letting the legs do as much as possible. So it is like the official in the sedan, centered, balanced, therefore relaxed, buffered from the harshness of the road. Your leg then is both wheel and suspension. Whatever they do, they must not upset the balance in the rest of the body.


So how do we practice no tilting the hip? By not lifting the heel or the ball of the foot, therefore breaking those linkages. So we practice this walk, this mud step, where the upper body is perfectly upright as if we are sitting in a sedan. With sufficient reinforcement, this will become our habit, what we can do without thinking.

After you have achieved that, even when you lift your heel or toe, you don’t tilt your hips.

Mud step is so named because that’s what this looks like. And if we are actually on slippery surfaces, we may walk this way. But if not, we don’t absolutely have to walk this way.

Let’s be scientific here, mud stepping is not the fastest way to move around. It’s a special method for dangerous surfaces, discovered by people long before invention of Bagua Zhang. If you are stranded on think ice, or walking along thin ledges on the outside of a building, you will do this naturally without anyone having to teach you first right? There safety is the paramount concern, not speed. That’s why you will see masters do heel toe walking when fighting. If you can do those without upsetting centered neutrality, you have the best of both worlds.

This is like the exercise where people put books on top of their heads to develop good posture. After you achieve the goal of the practice, you can put the book away.

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July 2009

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