Those Basics: Ba Shi takes a stand

There are dozens of stances in the art of Kung Fu. Masters throughout its history have tried to reduce everything to essentials. That’s why we often say that the basics of Kung Fu came last, not first. And one of the most basic methods of training is stance work. The masters also had some very smart ideas about that. They carpentered a regimen that consisted of only eight stances called the Ba Shi. In the past it was so common to see people practicing this fundamental exercise that Kung Fu people were often referred to as Ba Shi students.

What is the Ba Shi? Let’s start with the name because it wraps around an important concept. Ba Shi means eight positions. It is very similar to another stance practice called Ba Bu which means eight steps. But there is a difference, at least in this context. Put simply, if you hold your fists at the cocked position next to the hips and change from stance to stance without adjustments, you are practicing Ba Bu. If you not only change the position but the shape of the posture by adding the arms and other necessary torso adjustments, then you are practicing the Ba Shi.

The Ba Shi is therefore eight key positions or shapes fundamental to Kung Fu practice. But there’s more to it. One important idea is that the collection or decision of  the most important eight positions changes from style to style. For instance here is the list from Northern Long Fist Training.

1. Horse
2. Bow and Arrow
3. Cat (Empty)
4. Sitting Stance (Pu Tui)
5. Crane (DuLi)
6. Hidden Foot
7. 4/6 Stance
8. 3/7 Stance

Each stance is held for a long breath. You might even say this is the first Qigong of each style. Then you transition slowly to the next with the appropriate arm changes. Each time, you return to the Horse. Next you do the other side. If you takes the least time-one breath a stance-there are 33 changes: not  a bad leg work practice. You can graduate to two and three breaths if you are so inclined. One great thing about the Ba Shi is that it is dynamic; you hold those stances but you also develop out of them into other stances. It’s more like slow sculpture than a bunch of snapshots.

The masters were ingenious. Each style can pick its own eight significant stances. In Bagua, for instance, the last two are the Kou Bu and the Bai Bu, of course. In Mantis, the Seven Star stance might be substituted for some position less important to that style. Everything is structured but the structure is flexible. In schools where different styles are taught everyone may get together for the same Ba Shi practice but doing it in the method of their group: Bagua, Tai Chi and Long Fist people all practicing “together”.

You can walk the Ba Shi like a marching exercise or you can take out certain stances and concentrate on them. Real traditional training was variable and creative. You are the student but you are the master, too.

And, just as a last note: Ba Shi is a killer no matter who you are.

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