He sauntered over in a large fitting black t-shirt and black trousers. A thin middle aged man with silver hair and glasses. Sifu Philip was unassuming, he looked a little like Apple CEO Tim Cook. I’d noticed his class at a quiet spot in Regent’s Park, he invited me to join them; and so began my introduction to Yin Style Bagua.
Martial arts are a big deal now, MMA is pretty popular, street defence classes are widely advertised, and it has solid representation in the Olympics. This is all great, but where’s all that kung fu mystery? The animal styles, the rich cultural tradition of Chinese kung fu, the elderly sifu long past his physical peek that can still work his sweet kung fu magic. Sure some stuff has gained a relatively broad acceptance, but this doesn’t touch upon the many rarified forms of Chinese kung fu.
Martial arts serve a purpose and, I guess, that purpose is martial, but they are much more than that. Each kung fu style embodies a belief system; a style and a philosophy. They stand as ancient edifices, preserving a living discipline and mode of harnessing human potential. Much as an ancient edifice needs preservation through continued maintenance, so too do martial arts achieve preservation through practice. This is where the bespectacled enthusiast Sifu Philip comes in.
Yin Style Bagua is perhaps the least intuitive martial art I have tried. This starts with the open handed strikes; fingers held together and pointing directly forward. The purpose is to ensure that the fingers gain support from one another while being wielded like a blunt weapon. The forearm is kept entirely rigid so that forward pressure is channeled directly through the arm. Bagua uses the fingertip strikes targeting pressure points and “delicate regions” – fortunately I didn’t find out what these regions were. The thumb hovers an inch above the palm, this locks the forearm reinforcing the fingers and sealing pressure points in the wrist.
Locking your forearm in the attitude of a Lego figure feels unnatural enough, but then you have to adopt the movements of Bagua. I believe there are different forms, however, I was shown the motions of the lion. This starts with the horse stance: back straight, legs stretched wide apart and bent at the knees. The arms sweep in broad movements blocking and striking, gaining their strength from the waist. This is all incredibly difficult, but the results are compelling. It optimises force by channeling energy through the body in fluid powerful movements underpinned by strikes from those rigid jabbing fingers. Unintuitive though it may be, you can quickly understand the force of the moments and aggressive application of the style.
I just had a fleeting introduction to Bagua, – Sifu Phillip needed his lunch and I was holding things up – however, with expertise comes manipulation through movement. Bagua experts develop excellent mobility; learning to circle their opponents and utilise obstacles, even manipulate multiple attackers. It’s not the kind of martial art that you’re going to learn over the weekend, nor is it easily applicable to modern self defence. However, it is fascinating, it looks super cool, and it has real status. First used by imperial bodyguards in the Forbidden City, Yin Style Bagua is a particularly classy martial practice.
Sifu Phillip runs Yin Style Bagua as a non-profit group looking to preserve and continue the form. How fantastic is that? He was welcoming, it was well instructed, and it was completely free. But perhaps the thing I enjoyed most was its location. All too often kung fu is restricted to gyms and other closed environments, this was the first time I had practiced outdoors. Under the shade of a tree in the centre of Regent’s Park, kung fu just felt more at home. Sifu Phillip is doing something amazing, this very English Tim Cook lookalike is preserving the fighting art of guards of the Forbidden City. Though not the likeliest Sifu, he’s resealing the plaster and retracing the paintwork of a worthy edifice; to question him is not only wrong, it is also a risk your delicate regions.