Some Notes on Turning

Turning the circle is an activity that is unique to Baguazhang and Yin Style has its own take on the practice. This post is not meant to be a comprehensive description of circle turning, nor a guide on how to learn to turn, but rather a set of notes and reminders for those who have already been exposed to the practice.

We begin by turning to the left. The left is yang, which means the right is yin. This is because the emperor faces south and the sun comes up in the east, which is to his left. Starting on the left side also means that you give attention to what is probably your non-primary hand first. Yin Style emphasizes development of bi-lateral competence. Maybe if you’re left handed consider starting to the right.

As you begin to turn, focus on the eight requirements, of which there is one corresponding to each trigram. Hold the spine erect and the head upright, the waist full like an encircling inner tube, and broadly round out the back. The feet should grip the ground. The tailbone should be tucked under and the perineum should be uplifted. The chest should be sunken and the rib cage allowed fall. Ensure that there are no sharp angles in any of that joints and that the body is connected. Finally the tip of the tongue must touch the roof of the mouth. (See table in this post).

Typically the eight requirements are run through in order as a checklist and repeatedly checked as you turn. Circulating the macro-cosmic orbit is another way to approach the checklist, but the ordering of the requirements changes a bit. Yet another approach is to connect bai hui (DU-20) with the lower dan tian (REN-6), then connect the yong quan point (KID-1) of the back foot with the lao gong point (PC-8) of the front hand, and finally the yong quan point (KID-1) of the front foot with the center of the back opposite the solar plexus.

Of these, the first way will be most recognizable to other YSB practitioners. The second way is a bit esoteric. See the book Taoist Yoga for a description of the macro-cosmic orbit, (and avoid Amazon when possible). The third way is related to the set of requirements for the XingYi Santi practice, which I’ve played with a bit and seems to be useful. All of these seem to basically get you the same thing, and each has its pros and cons, which you can discover for yourself. One big advantage to the macro-cosmic orbit method is that if demands an attention to breathing and I have found it helps me deal better with the [good] pain associated with turning. The first method is technically the proper one.

As you walk around the circle the legs shoot straight out and once extended the waist and hip turn so that this action causes you to actually move around the circle. The outside leg is a hook step and the inside leg is a swing step. The knees brush past each other on each step. There are 6-8 steps per circle for most animal systems. Strive for a smooth stride. Don’t be robotic.

Every two steps there is a complete cycle of the waist. It goes twist, whirl, move, and turn. The twist and the whirl are approximately associated with the swing step, while the move and turn are closely associated with the hook step. The waist must originate all leg and hip movements. In general work from the waist outward. Waist, to hip, to knee, to foot so that the large parts of the body accomplish the largest parts of the motion and the smaller parts refine it, but grok that all parts move almost simultaneously so that you cover the most ground in the fastest most efficient way. These last parts are pretty easy to say and very hard to put into practice. A similar principle applies to moving the upper body, but doesn’t figure too much into circle turning.

The waist should actively turn your body and arm into the circle. This should not be overly exaggerated, and is typically a bit difficult for an untrained eye to pick-up on. It’s okay to exaggerate a bit to help develop the feeling.

The feet are lifted and placed, and they glide just above the ground. They do not scrape the ground. The foot is placed flat. Avoid heel to toe walking, which is natural but not called for here. When the foot lands there is a full transfer of weight along with it. It is as if you are walking down a flight of steps. As you turn you should imagine, and actually feel, that you are walking through a pool of water that is between knee and thigh depth. Focus on creating an isometric tension in your waist, hips, and legs that matches what walking through this much water requires. Try to be low in your stance, but don’t let your knee overrun your toe. This practice, if done correctly, and unlike some bagua turning methods, will not damage your knees. Your joints should not ache as a result of this. I have found that tight hips can cause some knee pain when turning and that stretching them out before and after turning using a cow’s head yoga pose, or similar, is beneficial. Your mileage may vary.

Typically some part of the arm or hand should be in the center of the circle, but it depends upon the animal system. For lion it’s the tip of the middle finger, for dragon and phoenix the wrist, for rooster the elbow, for bear and snake it does not really apply. My knowledge doesn’t much extend to monkey or unicorn, but I do not think it applies for monkey, or perhaps it’s the elbow. For unicorn it should be as it is for lion. The part of the body that is in the center of the circle helps determine the number of steps in the circle. Lion has the largest circle. Snake has the smallest. Don’t follow your hand around the circle. The hand should not be on the perimeter of the circle. This is a common mistake.

Regardless of the animal the arms should be held with a spiraling energy. The forearm typically rolls out toward the thumb, while the upper arms wraps in the opposite direction. But sometimes it’s the opposite of this, for example with the phoenix posture. The entire arm drills forward even as it pulls away. These causes the joints of the arm to open and a spiraling stretch of the muscles to occur. It should not be over done. With strength but not rigid. Relaxed but not flaccid. We’re basically looking at the principles from the Yijin Jing here.

Breathe. Don’t hold your breath. In through the nose and out through ideally the nose or if you must the mouth. Try to keep a constant thin breath. Breath into the belly, not the chest. Turning if done for an extended period of time becomes aerobic and the heart rate can be put in a very nice place. When I turn, I try to turn for at least 20 minutes, and usually not more than an hour. Turning for less than 20 minutes can also be beneficial, and depending upon what you’re trying to get out of that session, very useful. That said, we have at times been encouraged to turn three hours a day for one week.

Each animal system has its own take on some of the requirements above, especially as it applies to the waist. Lion will hold the waist big full and round. Snake will hold it similarly full. Dragon and phoenix will hold it full but pulled back away from the front hand. Bear and rooster hold it a little looser. Regardless you want to drop your center of gravity, sink your qi, lower your breath, however you’d like to conceptualize it. The sinking is both physical and psychological. Here again each animal will have small tweaks. The stride can vary a bit as well.

As your waist moves and causes your body and arm to turn into the circle you should have the intent of opening or somehow making contact with an opponent. The circle represents you moving closely around someone and making initial contact with them. Here too each animal system will approach this with its own flavor.

You should consider the eight attack methods for the animal system you are practicing and be able to feel how they are latently present in your posture and how they can be manifested as you turn the circle. Typically any single attack method can be done in multiple ways off of both arms, but for example, phoenix system typically considers the front arm to contain transforming, removing, curling in and stabbing while the rear arm contains dodging, extending, chopping, and shocking. For dragon the front arm contains entering, chopping, capturing, and moving, while the rear arm contains pushing, lifting, carrying, and leading.

Circle turning is rather complex and is a practice that is challenging both physically and mentally. The pain associated with holding your arms up for an extended period of time can become unbearable even when it is physically unharmful. Being able to withstand and cope with this is important. When turning the mind should be active. As described above, there are a myriad of things to attend to, and to attempt to perfect. Maintaining this concentration can be difficult, but as with the ability to withstand pain, it’s worthy of developing.

It’s always a work in progress. Improving but never perfect.

The following tables summarize some of the discussion above. The first are those requirements corresponding to the trigrams. The second table shows the Twelve Guiding Principles.

Qianspine upright
Kanabdomen full and qi sunk
Genback rounded
Zhenfeet gripping ground
Xuntailbone tucked and perineum uplifted
Lichest hollow, rib cage dropped
Kunbody connected, nothing broken
Duitip of the tongue touches roof of the mouth
roll out
wrap in
pull away
place down
swing open
hook closed

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