A Writer’s Journey Into the Internal Art of Ba Gua Zhang
The author wishes to thank to Michael Dorgan whose memoir No Fight No Blame, excerpted in this issue,
inspired this essay.
Once upon a time, the twin towers went down.
In the aftermath, I did all sorts of urgent to-ing and fro-ing around my wounded city – much of it related to having having written what was now, definitively, the “before” book.* Suddenly vortexed into the media frenzy, I used what I knew would be an ephemeral window of opportunity to counsel against the country’s rush to war. Over the course of about two weeks, I gave dozens of nearly back-to-back interviews and overtaxed myself severely. I must also have aspirated something nasty because I soon landed up with walking pneumonia – sicker than I’d been in my adult life.
My doctor prescribed antibiotics, and sagely observed that according to his records, I’d had bronchitis every autumn for eight years. Not being a smoker, or having suffered from chronic respiratory issues, the persistent vulnerability of my lungs was a pattern that had, until then, escaped my notice. But there it was, in dispassionate medical notation.
Happily, the antibiotics overcame the infection. My lungs cleared. From a Western medical standpoint, I was cured. But at fifty-one, I felt like Methuselah. And, for the first time, needed to reckon with a body that no longer felt like my friend.
Truth to tell, until my mid-forties, I’d always been able to count on a surplus of energy to power me through any sort of fatigue or depletion. But incrementally, almost imperceptibly, for several years, I’d been losing my edge. I had reached the point where, when I drove, all the cars seemed to be going too fast. When I biked in the city, I was off my rhythm, and, in a general sense, afraid. Any sudden occurrence got the drop on me. I lacked all sense of resilience.
A friend recommended me to her acupuncturist, Kelly McDonald. At our first session, Kelly took my pulses and said my lung qi was essentially flat – or words to that effect. She applied needles and prescribed herbs which I bought at Kam Wo on Grand Street, decocted into a tea and resolutely drank down, at times literally holding my nose.
At our second session, Kelly taught me a qi gong exercise for the lungs, which involved chest-opening movements of the arms, performed on a breath. Pretty much instantly, I was aware of an internal shift. The sensation of meeting my qi for the first time as a distinct entity felt palpable as a handshake. Powerful as the experience was, on some level I thought my desire to recover might be inducing a placebo effect.
That evening, I went to an evening reading of New School MFA students, one of whom, Jenny, was also a student in my fiction-writing workshop. Spotting her near the stage, I approached and found her in a state of near panic having been told she was to read first – in five minutes. I was familiar with the story she’d chosen, and it was terrific. But anxiety has its own logic, and it was telling her to hyperventilate.
Well, I said, to myself, I can’t make her worse. So I led Jenny to a deserted stairwell and taught her the lung qi gong on the spot. In two minutes, she was breathing normally. She went on stage and read her piece without a hitch.
Over the course of my next acupuncture sessions, besides needles and massage, Kelly taught me qi gong exercises for my other zang (relatively solid) organs: heart, kidneys, liver, spleen. I took to the unity of movement and breath like a fish to water.
“If you like this,” she said. “You ought to come to a workshop my teacher is giving.” Which is how I ended up at an intensive course in Tian Gan, heavenly stem qi gongs taught by Tom Bisio.
Renowned as a martial artist, Tom also had a thriving Chinese medicine practice on the second floor of a townhouse in the East Village. There, he and his students, including Kelly, would often treat several patients at a time in an open clinical setting. For the workshop, the space had been cleared and along with about twenty other people, I learned a series of sixteen breath and movement exercises for the spine. These, I dutifully repeated for the recommended ninety-nine days. I continue to practice them today.
Tom was a fantastic teacher. If he’d said his next class would be in plumbing, I’d have signed up. For the moment, though, I was fine with deepening my Tian Gan. To my surprise and delight, my energy returned in full measure with the onset of spring. On top of which I felt less easily rattled by sudden occurrences, and I found myself more relaxed when I cycled. A few months after the Tian Gan intensive, Tom called to say he was starting up a weekly class in Ba Gua Zhang. I’d heard of the form, but knew nothing other than it shared similar principles to Tai Chi Chuan. “I’d love to,” I said, “but I’ve never studied a martial art.”
“Don’t worry,” Tom said, “there will be people at all levels.”
And indeed the following Tuesday morning at 7 a.m., some twenty-five of us arrived at the Yee’s Hung Ga loft which Tom had rented for the class. In any new space, I always gravitate toward the windows, curious as to what the urban prospect offers, but here the view was somewhat impeded by wooden planks set horizontally across the lower panes – a precaution against accidental defenestrations. OK, I thought, you’ve entered a whole new world.
Against one wall stood racks of fantastically intimidating, medieval-looking weapons. Enormous lion and dragon masks hung above an alter replete with orange and incense offerings, and flanked by photos of venerable masters.
Over the course of those first sessions, I more or less sussed out who was who and what was what. Tom avoided all formalities and overt ranking systems. But whenever he spoke to the group, no matter how loud the clamor of voices, all fell silent.
A number of the participants came from “external” martial arts practices, but were now discovering what an “internal” form had to offer. Among our group were several people from dance and movement backgrounds, and a goodly helping of folks like myself, intent on furthering our recovery from various illnesses or musculoskeletal injuries.
Given the multiple levels of knowledge and ability in the room, our sessions had a sense of happenstance bordering on chaos – though there also occurred moments of direct and highly-focused pedagogy, particularly regarding the characteristic elements of Ba Gua circle walking: the hook and swing steps that facilitate rapid changes of direction, breathing into the lower abdomen and kidneys, stepping as though through mud, the connection of the upper and lower body in unified action with the waist as pivot.
Though the learning curve of my induction into Ba Gua Zhang has blurred over time, one significant shift in my perception took place almost immediately. Like millions of others, I had grown up with an engrained model – a cultural substrate, really – of force against force: may the best phalanx win. Consequently, despite being relatively small and slender, I was conditioned to confront adversaries straight on – though this was often, in my case, tactically absurd. Psychologically, too, I was imbued with the idea of standing up to power, and either overcoming it by will alone, or being honorably annihilated. In essence, Tom said: Forget all that. First, get out of the way.
Which sounded odd coming from someone so physically formidable. But Tom knew that if he relied on his seeming advantages he would eventually come up against someone bigger and stronger. And in any case, a contest won by force might easily prove pyrrhic.
Thus I encountered the astonishing notion that when a punch or kick was aimed at me, I could step aside. This realization felt almost like an internal heresy. Yet no sooner had the idea made itself available than the opportunity to apply it arose in an entirely unanticipated context. I was at the time fiction editor of a literary journal whose editor-in-chief would habitually manifest her disagreements with others in a manner so aggressive, one felt physically assaulted. Characteristically, I had accustomed myself to meeting her force with my own, counting on my stamina to outlast her tirades, at which point she would, often tearfully, concede. But these were exhausting, embittering victories.
About a month into my study of Ba Gua, a point of contention arose around a manuscript I wanted to feature in the next issue. How on earth, the editor shouted, could you think we would publish a piece of crap like this? Something clicked internally and I imagined myself moving to the side while simultaneously pressing against the weak point in my opponent’s line of force. Fine, I replied, let’s not. Silence on the other end of the line.
In succeeding years, I would hear Tom express this principle many ways:
“Get out of the way and use the floor to hurt him – keep walking.”
“Make an empty space and plant him in it.”
“If he wants to go up, go up. If he wants to go down, go down.” **
Though my first trial of Ba Gua technique involved no physical contact, it was clear to me that the key to its efficacy in any realm lay in practicing diligently, and over time, its fully embodied form.
Happily the disputed manuscript was soon published in another journal.
* Divided We Stand: A Biography of the World Trade Center (Basic Books, 1999, 2011).