Baguazhang is first and foremost a fighting art, which sounds obvious, but many forget how important this is as it underlines the core shapes and strengths seen in the various beautiful forms that we train. Although we don't always emphasize the fighting application in class, but it underlines all that we do as we move and get stronger.
The paradox of the system is that you need to understand the martial application to understand the form content, and then forget the applications so that the form can flow, and be released 'out of the body', as the emotional tension involved with preparation for contact, interrupts the flow of the art.
We do like to train to fight, but its not a macho affair as you may find in some of the MMA gyms these days. There is inevitably a point in a students development when you need to put the 'gloves on' to appreciate safe training under stressful a condition. Boxing gloves can make a lot of the technique we practice in San Shou difficult to perform, but never the less we always recommend the safe way to train when striking. Safe training is intelligent training for the martial artist, as injury is not something we take lightly or brag about.
Sparring format is often misunderstood by many a hobbyist martial artist, mainly because they have not actually received good teaching ethics. Sparring is in its very nature a form of movement research, where strategy and technique are explored in a competitive, but co-operative manner. Co-operation is not some much a willingness to be hit, but morso as a means to have a mutual 'softness' when striking or throwing each other. By repeating the technique and fitting them into free 'play' the student can gain confidence in their own repetiore of technique, so that they can use technique to develop rhythum that fits into working experience.
Sparring is NOT hurting each other or losing control when pressure is on.
A spotter (normally a teacher or senior student) will always monitor any sparring partners during a time limit round of normally 2 to 3 minutes.
It is very important that a student who wants to spar will commit to a good level of personal fitness, which will primarily test the cardio performance of each player. Please be under no delusions that sparring is easy as it requires a degree of responsible commitment and control.
Below are some images kindly taken by Pierro during one of our sparring sessions in 2009: