I first learnt a couple of versions of Ba Duan Jin a very long time ago. Since the form was created somewhere around the Song Dynasty (960–1279), there have of course been subtle and not so subtle changes as it has been taught over the centuries. At Celestial Tai Chi College, our Golden Treasures are a form of Ba Duan Jin. We also learnt a slightly different version called the Eight Pieces of Brocade. I frequently include some of the forms in my warm ups before tai chi class. The version I have filmed here is the standardised version that was compiled by the Chinese Health Qigong Association. Their book and accompanying video were released in 2007 and since then it seems that this version has become incredibly popular. Just look at YouTube–there are so many videos of this form there. So why not add mine to the mix as well!
The main purpose of any qigong form is to enhance energy and improve general health and fitness. I tend to steer away from talking about the Traditional Chinese Medicine benefits to the meridians and accompanying organs. My education in that area is very limited so I prefer to leave that to those who have actually studied TCM. Suffice it to say, that conscious practise of this form will most likely make you healthier.
My interest and training is more aligned with a fitness perspective of flexibility, strength, conditioning, breathing and mental focus. I like to think about how a form might take us through a broad range of movements across all major joints of the body. The Ba Duan Jin does a great job of that. It’s a very complete workout of the whole body.
When looking at the first movement for example, Holding the hands up high with palms up to regulate the internal organs, (pictured above) it might look at first glance to be just shoulder flexion and neck hyperextension. In fact, to get into that position of the hands directly overhead and looking up is really very hard. In order to lift the arms overhead, the thoracic spine has to extend (flatten) slightly so that the shoulder blades can slide into the correct position to allow the arms to fully flex. If you have a stiff upper back then take care with this movement as pushing it too hard may cause pain. Moving the hands just forward of the head makes a huge difference to the upper back and just that small change may make it more achievable and comfortable. A further change would be to keep the elbows slightly bent so the arm position is more rounded than straight.
Also in this move is full forearm pronation and some shoulder internal rotation. Feel the difference between lifting the arms overhead with palms facing inwards towards each other, versus clasping the hands and rolling them so that the palms face upwards. It is a much greater stretch and can potentially cause tricky shoulders some grief. The internal rotation at the shoulder, while not much, is enough to cause some impingement to the structures that are jammed between the head of the humerus and the acromion process. Shoulder impingement is most unpleasant so if this move causes pain in the shoulder you need to modify it. Don’t avoid it, just work out what modifications you need to do to allow you to do the move comfortably.
To whip through some modifications to the following moves:
–Posing as an archer shooting both left- and right-handed: Your horse riding stance needs to suit your level of strength and flexibility. In my video I was having a good day and was able to sink fairly low for me. I frequently do not sink this low and keep the position higher and with legs not as wide (especially if using this form as a warm up). The hand form is a Lohan palm with the three outer fingers bent at the second finger joint, not at the main knuckle. If your hands won’t let you do this move, don’t force it. Just do sword fingers (two fingers straight with the thumb holding the other fingers in to the palm) or an open palm instead.
–Holding one arm aloft to regulate the functions of the spleen and stomach: The upper palm is meant to be rotated so that the palm is facing upwards and the fingers point in towards the head. I don’t do this in the video because again it takes the shoulder into some internal rotation and my shoulders do not like that. So I have my fingers facing backwards, which is easier, but still gives a good stretch. Easier again is moving the hand forward of the head, which takes the pressure off the shoulder and the upper back.
–Looking backwards to prevent sickness and strain: This is surprisingly hard. The trick is to stabilise the torso by activating the core muscles so that your back does not arch. Keep a neutral spine position and then roll the arms outwards so the palms face upwards if you can. This gives a rip-roaring neural and fascial stretch of the arms, front of the shoulder and chest, so go easy. If it’s too much then unwind the hands a bit until they are comfortable. You can also soften the elbows but that will reduce the stretch significantly, so keep them straight if you can and tweak the rotation factor instead. We also have a rotated neck and the amount of rotation is dependent on your neck flexibility so listen to your body and only turn to a position of gentle stretch. Keep the neck long and the chin very slightly retracted.
–Swinging the head and lowering the body to relieve stress: This move is nicely positioned at number 5 to loosen us up with a circular, flowing move. Set the width of your horse riding stance to suit your level of strength and flexibility at the time. Only sink and circle to a level that feels right. If you sink quite low then it’s a great strength workout for your quads.
–Bending to strengthen the kidneys and waist: (Pictured below) This is another really hard move and requires good body awareness. After stretching down and assuming you make it to your feet, ideally the arms are lifted overhead while the torso is still flexed a long way down. Then we lift the torso while maintaining the overhead arms position. This is a great workout for the upper back muscles and again requires some extension through the thoracic spine to get into this position. If this is too painful then start to lift the body before the arms lift too high and keep the arms forward of the head in the final position. You might also like to adapt the amount of forward bend to suit your hamstring flexibility. Instead of swooshing the hands off the feet, swoosh them off your knees or shins instead.
–Thrusting the fists and making the eyes glare to enhance strength: If you have the strength, sink into a low horse riding stance and take the opportunity to further strengthen your quads. Otherwise keep the stance comfortable because you have to hold that static position for a while. We are glaring at the fist and really putting some energy into this move. If you can, straighten the arm and really stretch out the fingers with a big forearm rotation. It feels great. We then fold the hand into a fist with the thumb on the inside. Remember this is qigong with a focus on energy, health and wellbeing; we are not throwing a punch at someone or the thumb would be on the outside. Arthritic fingers might not like the fist position so go with whatever your fingers allow you to do.
–Raising and lowering the heels to cure diseases: It can be very hard to balance on the balls of the feet for any length of time. This one requires great control and body awareness. It helps to lengthen out the whole body as if you are being supported by a silken thread from the crown of the head. Draw in the core muscles to stabilise the torso and lift your pelvic floor. Subtly shift the weight forwards before lifting the heels. That helps to activate the calves and deeper plantar flexors of the ankle. Then lift upwards as high as you can comfortably go. It might not be very high and that’s fine. Hold if you can, lower halfway if you can, and then drop so that you feel a gentle vibration through the whole body. I love that feeling. It takes practise to get a gentle vibration rather than a rough jolt, but do persist. That vibration connects and relaxes the body and also very clearly brings us into the present moment, if we weren’t already here.
That wasn’t quite the ‘whip through’ was it. Got on a bit of a roll there. Well done for making it this far through! There’s a lot to like about this form and I do think it’s worth learning and working on so that you can practise it regularly at home without following a video. Absolutely watch a video at the start, but try to wean yourself off it so that you can fully focus on your own body and keep your mind focussed on your moves, not how someone else is doing them. I don’t recommend learning forms from videos; I think classes are the way to go. But in times like right now, with COVID-19 keeping us all at home, we need to keep moving and using whatever tools we can find to help us. I hope you enjoy this video and can follow along at home with a relaxed focus.
AND... a final word on the music. I'm lucky enough to be able to use the music of a professional musician who comes to my class at Boroondara Sports Complex. Greg Dikmans is playing the baroque flute and I just love it. This is the music and here he is:
G. Ph. Telemann (1681–1767)
Fantasia No. 12 in G minor
Greg Dikmans (baroque flute)