In the internal arts, Zhan Zhuang is one of the practices that gives you the most immediate benefits. It’s a practice that (initially) involves nothing more than standing and relaxing, yet this simple practice can produce a feeling of deep calm in the body and mind, and even give you the feeling of having more energy throughout the day.
How is this achieved? I’d warrant that it’s something to do with the effect of the calming action on your nervous system, plus standing for prolonged periods with your arms held away from the body is actually pretty physically challenging, so there are a lot of the benefits you experience from cardio-vascular exercise, but without you getting out of breath.
At more advanced levels of pratice, Zhan Zhuang a great way to practice Jin in different directions.
I came across a very good article recently written by Tony Dove full of good tips for starting a standing practice. Here it is.
Some good quotes:
“Use the breath as your focal point. Whenever your mind begins to wander, gently ask yourself, “Am I breathing? How am I breathing?” Bring your attention back to your breathing. Physiological awareness brings self-awareness. The mind becomes silently attentive to the subtleties of what is happening in the here and now, rather than thinking about the past, the future, or abstractions disconnected with the present.”
“Discomfort reveals places of dysfunction and should be welcomed as an opportunity for improvement.”
“Build gradually to a minimum of twenty minutes daily Standing, and a maximum of forty minutes. This is a small investment of time considering that you will probably have more energy during the day and need less sleep at night.”
Master Lam Kam Chuen’s TV series of how to begin your own standing practice is on YouTube, and a great way to get started:
“I remember one time when a student was showing a qigong posture she was taught from another teacher and spoke about how qi circulated through it. He adjusted her posture slightly and said “now you have qi circulation”. “
When you read something like this I think it reinforces the incorrect idea that Qi is some type of etheric, mystical energy that rises in our bodies like steam and can be directed by the mind… (in fact, that’s what the article goes on to talk about)
Well, frankly, it isn’t. At least in the context of martial arts, it isn’t. Acupuncturists probably have a different opinion on that, but I’m not talking about acupuncture.
But at the same time, if you know what is meant by “Qi” (through your practical understanding) then that original sentence I quoted above does make sense. Let me explain.
You’ve got to remember that when a Chinese teacher talks about Qi in terms of martial arts, what they are talking about is related to your physical structure. The stuff that makes you up. Skin, bones, tissue, muscles, etc…
If you have “strong Qi” then it means you are physically strong. So, for example, a strong athletic young guy or gal would be described as somebody with “strong chi”. Usually, the posture is good, the eyes bright, the hair shiny, etc… These are all aspects of “strong Qi”.
A weak slumped, tired, or sick-looking person would be described as having “weak Qi”.
You, my friend, have “weak Qi”.
So, an old person could have either “strong chi” or “weak chi” depending on how they presented themselves. If you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’re doing well. Your Qi is strong.
Strong Qi, or BDE as the Yooth say today…
In Tai Chi your Qi refers to your physical structure in a movement, as well as a special type of conditioning of the body’s structures that takes place through exercises like Standing Post and Silk Reeling. Through these exercises, you can strengthen the felt connection from your fingers to your toes – a kind of all-over body suit. It’s the strengthening of this ‘body suit’ that explains the circus-style feats of strength you see martial arts groups demonstrating. Things like throwing a needle through glass, bending a spear on your neck, being resistant to blades and breaking rocks with your hands.
I would not suggest trying these things at home! Sure, there are often ways to fake feats like the ones above, but there are also ways to do it correctly, utilising the conditioning of the body’s Qi.
Martial arts techniques in Tai Chi require two things – Qi and Jin. Here we’re only talking about Qi. I’ve talked about Jin before.
Qi (Chi) relates to structure. So, if you adopt a Tai Chi posture that’s relaxed, sunk, stable and strong (i.e. your structure is good), then you are “using your Qi well”. And it could be said the “Qi is circulating well”. (Actually, nothing is circulating in the sense of water in a pipe). If your structure is off in someway then it could be said that your “chi is not circulating well”.
So, if we read that quote again, with the new knowledge that it is to do with posture and structure:
“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have qi circulation”.
Could equally be written:
“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have better structure”.
So, to me that means, he corrected some defect in her posture (say an overly tense lower back, or tense shoulders, for example), so that her “Qi” started to circulate – i.e. the posture regained its natural strength.
Sorry guys, but none of this has anything to do with steam or heat or a mystical energy in the body. But it’s so easy to assume that this is what is meant when you read quotes like the one above.
Especially once you add to that the fact that people can feel pretty much anything they can imagine.
Standing Chi Kung exercise, or Zhan Zhuang, as it’s known in Chinese is one of the most powerful exercises for developing your inner power.
There’s a brilliant series of videos on YouTube on the subject of Zhan Zhuang taught by Master Lam Kam Chuen. They’re presented in a very ‘easy to follow’ manner, and they’re a great way to get started with standing exercises.
Here’s the first episode:
One question people often have is “what should I be doing in these postures?” Well, “it’s complicated” is probably the best answer. It depends what you’re working on.
But if you have to start somewhere then I think the following words written by Eckhart Tolle from The Power of Now, (and apologies in advance to anybody who gets offended by even the merest whiff of anything New Age) where he talks about connecting to the inner body, are a good start:
“CONNECTING WITH THE INNER BODY
Please try it now. You may find it helpful to close your eyes for this practice. Later on, when “being in the body” has become natural and easy, this will no longer be necessary. Direct your attention into the body. Feel it from within. Is it alive? Is there life in your hands, arms, legs, and feet — in your abdomen, your chest? Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and every cell? Can you feel it simultaneously in all parts of the body as a single field of energy? Keep focusing on the feeling of your inner body for a few moments. Do not start to think about it. Feel it. The more attention you give it, the clearer and stronger this feeling will become.
It will feel as if every cell is becoming more alive, and if you have a strong visual sense, you may get an image of your body becoming luminous. Although such an image can help you temporarily, pay more attention to the feeling than to any image that may arise. An image, no matter how beautiful or powerful, is already defined in form, so there is less so there is less scope for penetrating more deeply.
The feeling of your inner body is formless, limitless, and unfathomable. You can always go into it more deeply. If you cannot feel very much at this stage, pay attention to whatever you can feel. Perhaps there is just a slight tingling in your hands or feet. That’s good enough for the moment. Just focus on the feeling. Your body is coming alive. Later, we will practice some more. Please open your eyes now, but keep some attention in the inner energy field of the body even as you look around the room. The inner body lies at the threshold between your form identity and your essence identity, your true nature. Never lose touch with it.”