“To conquer yourself you must be powerful of mind and body.”
-Laozi, Daodejing Chapter 33
There are two situations that produce the “spiritual feeling” in all Baguazhang circle walking practice. The first, magnetic force circle walking / Cili Bu yan quan-zi, is related to how our brain works in conjunction with the magnetic field of the earth and the second is called spontaneous spirit dancing / Zifa Bagua Xian Wudao. We will cover the latter in a future issue. To understand how the second method is achieved we must know a little about the first principle. Daoist masters who practiced an early form of circle walking known as Rotate in worship of heaven / Zhuan Tian Zun, a precursor to Baguazhang as a martial art discovered that if one circled for an extended period of time the mind went into an altered state of consciousness where time seemed to become distorted. They called this strange effect Circle Walking Meditation / Zouquanzi-Chan.
To understand how this is possible we have to move forward a few centuries when scientists discovered that magnetite, a magnetic mineral found in the skulls of homing pigeons, migratory salmon, dolphins, honeybees, bats and even humans, may be able to detect the earth’s magnetic field. According to Dr Charles Walcott of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, “these deposits act as tiny compass needles, allowing animals to orient themselves in the earth’s magnetic field”.
In a work entitled The Compass in Your Nose: and Other Astonishing Facts About Humans, by Marc McCutcheon from St. Martins Press published in 1989 the author states, “All humans have a trace amount of iron (magnetite) in their noses, a rudimentary compass found in the Ethmoid bone (between the eyes).” Another researcher from England’s Manchester University found that when a magnet is placed on the right side of the head, the directional accuracy of test subjects falls 90 degrees to the right. The hypothesis is that the magnetite is responsible for direction finding in animals and helps migratory species migrate successfully by allowing them to draw upon the earth’s magnetic fields.
When it comes to humans, some experts believe the magnetite in the Ethmoid bone is connected to nerves that signal the brain and this makes some people sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field aiding their a sense of direction. It is thought that our ancestors had a much more evolved use of this capability than we do today. Nevertheless it seems to still function and send signals about direction through the nervous system to the brain even if most people can no longer sense these signals. In other words the magnetite is still activating nerve impulses in the brain as we change directions during movement.
More evidence of this was found in a 2007 Neuroscience paper “Evidence of a nonlinear human magnetic sense” by Carrubba et al. In this paper humans were wired to an electroencephalograph and electroencephalograms (brain waves) were recorded as the subject were subjected to varying strengths of magnetic fields aimed from different directions. The results were very clear and showed the existence of a human magnetic sensory ability.
Connections to Circle Walking and Primitive Dancing Rituals
After reading these works and examining the anthropological findings that most early cultures from many parts of the world, as a part of their spiritual beliefs created a state of altered consciousness by walking or dancing in circles I wanted to know more. Dr. Painter told me that his Chinese teacher of Baguazhang said circle walking created a state of meditation if performed correctly. Dr. Painter, a neurologist friend and myself undertook and interesting experiment. We connected a portable brain wave monitor (bio-feedback machine) to ten test subjects. One group of five performed straight line walking meditation (Zen walking) while the other group performed circle walking moving first counterclockwise for 27 circles then turning and going clockwise for the same number of circles. The linear walking group registered only minimal change although they went from a high Beta wave form to a lower one around 29-30 cycles a second.
Our circle walking group subjects showed little change for the first few revolutions but soon began dropping to a low Beta (18-14 CPS) and after approximately ten to twelve minutes moved into a high Alpha brain wave cycles, (13 to 11 CPS) indicating a state similar to light stages of meditation. At this level alpha brain waves basically promote changes in the autonomic nervous system that calm it. Regular practice of this type reverses the roles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems so that the normally dominant sympathetic nervous system takes a back seat to the normally secondary parasympathetic system. The overall effect is lower blood pressure and heart rate and a reduction in stress hormones, as well as calming the mind. It is also noted that some of the effect was associated with the secretion of the neurotransmitter dopamine released during this type of activity.
More research needs to be done, however preliminary tests indicate a link between circling and deep levels of relaxation (alpha brainwaves) stemming from the way the human internal compass attempts to deal with the constantly changing directions from circle walking as found in Baguazhang and in other ancient cultural dances which also use circumambulation to produce states of altered consciousness. This seems to explain many things about how and why Baguazhang circle walking seems to produce higher levels of health and longevity than other forms of the internal arts. Our research has shown that fifteen minutes of circle walking around a circle roughly from eight to sixteen normal walking steps in circumference will produce an alpha brainwave pattern congruent with light meditation practice. This pattern will, in consort with correct postural alignment and abdominal breathing (post-natal breath method) have a measurable effect upon respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure while producing what Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School termed “the relaxation response”.(2) Benson’s relaxation response involves a method of activating activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes humans to relax while stimulating the immune system response in the human body. We have postulated that this is why ancient shaman and Baguazhang practitioners who walked and danced in circles seemed to possess a secret to longevity, radiant health and freedom from many chronic illnesses. They also often said it created a very spiritual feeling during the practice.
About Brain Waves
It is well known that the brain is an electrochemical organ; researchers have speculated that a fully functioning brain can generate as much as 10 watts of electrical power. Even though this electrical power is very limited, it does occur in very specific ways that are characteristic of the human brain. Electrical activity emanating from the brain is displayed in the form of brainwaves. There are four categories of these brainwaves, ranging from the most activity to the least activity.
There are four primary brainwave states, Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta. These refer to the electrical cycles per second given off by the brain as it functions. These brainwave states range high arousal in Beta to deep dreamless trance like sleep in Delta.
The same brainwave states are common to all humans. They are consistent across cultures and country boundaries. For our purposes of Qigong training in this system we need only look at the first two the Beta and Alpha frequencies.
Beta Waves (awake and aroused)
The brain is aroused and actively engaged in mental activities. Beta waves ranges from 40 to 15 cycles a second. Beta waves are characteristics of a strongly engaged mind such as when you are puzzling over a problem or operating a machine or perhaps engaged in a lively conversation with a friend. Beta waves are also associated in some cases with signs of stress or tension. Although Beta brain waves are important for effective functioning throughout the day, they also can translate into stress, anxiety and restlessness if taken to a high level or allowed to continue without a respite. This is why the body needs frequent periods of rest as found in Alpha and the lower stages of brain wave activity.
Alpha (contemplative and relaxed)
Alpha represents non-arousal. Alpha brainwaves frequency ranges from 14 to 9 cycles per second. Quiet reflection or meditation usually occurs in an alpha state. Alpha brain waves promote changes in the autonomic nervous system that calm it. Regular contemplative practice of this type reverses the roles of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems so that the normally dominant sympathetic nervous system takes a back seat to the normally secondary parasympathetic nervous system. This lowers blood pressure and heart rate and lowers the amount of stress hormones in the body, as well as calming the mind. One of these stress hormones is cortisol.
(2) Benson, Herbert, 1975 (2001). The Relaxation Response. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-380-8159-8