Zhan Zhuang – an exercise of patience
Most Internal Martial Arts use some form of standing practice as foundation training. These standing exercises are usually called Zhan Zhuang (pole standing); sometimes they are called ‘standing Qi Gong’. I think it’s fair to say that most students are baffled by them. They are supposed to be good for you but most students find them difficult to understand, boring and painful. Yet they are supposed to relax you and help you to ‘accumulate vital energy Ki.
Posture, Movement and Balance
We generally think of posture and movement as being separate – we are either still or we move. Movement and posture place different demands on our muscles and so it is not surprising that our muscles reflect this. For example, those muscles used mainly for posture have a high content of slow-twitch fibers whereas the muscles used mainly for movement have a high content of fast twitch fibers. But not only are muscles different from each other, one muscle can be quite different in different functions. For example a muscle when used in a postural (stabilizing or tonic) function will act differently from the same muscle when used for movement (mobilizing or phasic function). So for ease of explanation, let me pretend that each muscle is really two muscles – a postural one and a phasic one (sometimes called stabilizers and mobilisers).
As a further simplification, when I say a muscle, what I will mean is the muscle with all the various sensors associated with it plus its controlling mechanism within the Central Nervous System. So please keep it in mind when I talk about muscles ‘feeling this’ or ‘doing that’.
What is important about postural muscles from our perspective is the fact that they react against the force of gravity and that they act outside of our volition – we cannot normally control postural muscles directly, only indirectly – through intent. For example when we ride a bicycle, we keep our balance by the use of postural muscles. Our intent is not to fall down but we do not consciously control their operation in the way we can control voluntary movement. Conscious control would be too slow – before we could react, we would fall down. This is in fact what happens when we start learning to ride a bicycle – we start by using phasic muscles and through trial and error the postural muscles take over and we ‘find our balance’.
Our postural muscles are not only used in holding a posture or in balancing as was mentioned above, but during movement, too. If we think of movement as a transition between postures, we can see that postural muscles are active all the time.
Effortless and Natural
If someone pushes against you and you do not want to be pushed off balance, the chances are that you will resist using strength. If this happens, you are using phasic muscles. But it will be different if someone pushes down on your shoulders. In this situation you do not push back up – you just absorb the push effortlessly into your posture. So in the first example if, instead of phasic muscles, you were to use postural muscles to absorb the push into your posture, you would use far less effort. You could then also use the ‘balancing’ ability of postural muscles to effortlessly counteract any sudden change of direction. In other words, as the Tai Chi Classics say: “when he doesn’t move, you don’t move; when he moves, you’ve already moved“. So using postural muscles in this way would make “Push Hands” a far more enjoyable experience!
Where the Mind Goes, the Ki Follows
The parallels between Ki and the use of postural muscles should be becoming a bit clearer now. When I use intent to guide my postural muscles to lift my arms, I do not feel any effort – it is as if my arms are being lifted by invisible threads. When I use postural muscles to absorb or neutralize a push, I don’t feel any effort and my body reacts automatically to produce a balanced outcome for me. And when you start using postural muscles, you develop a feedback through subtle sensations such as heat, ache, flow and others. All these are properties of Ki. If we describe (human) Ki as ‘those processes of the body/mind that are outside conscious control’ than we would cover most aspects.
Ki originates in the Dantian
When you make any movement, before the movement begins there is a short delay during which the body prepares by stabilizing your lumbar spine using deep abdominal postural muscles. Normally you will not feel this ‘preparation’, but it is there and as your awareness increases you can feel it. As we said in the above paragraph, usage of postural muscles equates to usage of Ki. Thus any movement is preceded by activation of your Ki in your Dantian (think of it loosely as the lower abdomen).
Your body will not move till it is properly stabilized. This is important for fast moves, especially explosive fa-jin. The delay produced by stabilization of your lumbar spine makes you slower. This does not matter very much for slow movements. But when you want to move fast, you do want to move fast! There is a way to eliminate or at least minimize this delay by holding your body in a posture where your postural muscles are already engaged.
Any worry or anxiety impedes our learning progress. So the first task is to create a calm and happy mental state and it is important to keep it throughout all training. This is a skill, like any other and will improve with training. So create some image that will make your mind tranquil and happy. In doing so, engage as many senses as possible. For example, imagine yourself in a beautiful garden. You can see pretty flowers and trees all around you. You can smell the flowers’ scent on a soft breeze. You can feel the soft breeze on your skin. You can hear birds singing in the trees. There are few white clouds in the blue sky. Or you may prefer to picture a scene by the sea, with the white surf breaking on the beach. Any image that will make you as peaceful and happy as possible. Try to express the tranquil feeling in your face and body.
The next step is to relax the whole body. We shall use mental images again, this time directed towards relaxing specific areas of the body. Try to create kinesthetic images (sensations in the body) rather than visual images.
Stand with your feet about the width of your shoulders apart, feet parallel or toes pointing slightly out, whichever is more comfortable. Bend your knees slightly so that you can relax the lower back. Feel the whole body soft and balanced. Feel that your head is held as if suspended from above by a string attached to the crown of the head. The neck will then be relaxed and free from any tension. The spine, and especially the coccyx, should hang down – an image of reaching down with your bottom, as if about to sit on a high stool, can help with this. Eyes can be either open or closed, mouth nearly open (but not quite), breathing softly and quietly, preferably through the nose. Feeling calm and happy.
After a period of settling down, start observing how your body keeps the balance. Gradually you will become aware of small movements of your body. At the beginning, you are likely to feel the whole body sway a little and get automatically corrected into a balanced position. Try not to control these movements but imagine standing in (warm) water and feel your body swaying as if moved by slow waves. Feel the whole body swaying as one unit – do not move your arms independently of the body. Some people, because they think their body should be still in standing postures, try to keep the body motionless. That is a mistake – the body should be as soft and relaxed as possible.
The emphasis should be on relaxing all (phasic) muscles and feeling how the body balances against gravity. Slow, very subtle movements can be felt and these are used and controlled, first in a passive manner, later actively, using kinesthetic visualization.
Observe closely what happens in your body just before you move. Say you get ready to move but you ‘abort’ the move just before it actually happens. If you try it few times, you are quite likely to notice a certain type of feeling in the part of the body that you were going to move. At the beginning, it is probably easier to feel it in your hands or arms, so if you have difficulty with it, choose a hand movement. Eventually you will be able to feel a sort of ‘inner’ activity in your body. What happens is that as you form an intention to move and as you get ready to move, there will be some muscular activity associated with stabilizing your body in such a way so as to enable the movement to take place. Normally this muscular activity is not noticed as it gets subsumed in the sensations of the actual move that normally takes place. We can’t call it a movement, as there is nothing actually moving yet it is more than ‘not moving’ – that’s why I call it almost-movement. This is the basis of ‘sensing strength’.
Tips for Zhan Zhuang practice
Establish a regular routine
The best way to achieve that is to start with very little but every day. What is ‘very little’? Say 1 minute – and I do not mean it as a joke! If you start with 1 minute, you’ll eventually be able to go to hours with no problem (if you wish).
In Zhan Zhuang you are training your Mind
The best way to train your mind is to practice only when you concentrate. That’s why 1 minute is probably a good starting point. As you keep practicing, you naturally start to concentrate for longer and so you practice longer. Even when you can stand for a long time, if one day you can’t concentrate, stop practicing. If you force yourself to stand for a set period, you learn not to concentrate, the practice becomes boring and soon you would give up. When you concentrate, it’s enjoyable and you progress faster.
Pain is not necessary
Pain is distracting. Remember, you are training your mind – if the pain in your legs or arms distracts you, you can’t concentrate, so stop practicing or change to another posture. If you have pain in any of your joints, stop practicing – you should never feel pain in your joints. Muscle pain could be OK, but best to contact us.
Get someone to correct your posture
It’s a good idea not to worry about your posture at the very beginning. First you need to relax and settle into the practice. But fairly soon you should get someone to check your posture, preferably several times and then from time to time till you can feel yourself whether it’s correct or not. It can save you a lot of time!
Conclusion and Summary
Zhan Zhuang is the first step in acquiring Internal Power. The emphasis should be on relaxing all muscles and feeling how the body balances against gravity. Gradually the use of phasic muscles is eliminated from the postural function of the body. Slow, very subtle movements can be felt under the guide of kinaesthetic visualisation (movement in stillness). Later on, when learning to move using ‘intent’, the body’s structure should always be supported by postural muscles only, producing the feeling of standing at any point in the movement (stillness in movement).