Zhan zhuang, more commonly referred to simply as ‘Standing’, is surely the Marmite of internal arts practise. You either love it or hate it. In spite of this it is arguably one of the most, if not the most, effective of all training methods; integrated ‘whole body’ strength, robust health, deep relaxation, fine concentration, enhanced awareness and elevated propreoception are all to be readily gleaned from regular, relaxed practise. The genius and efficacy of Standing lies in its simplicity. The absence of deliberate, conscious movement allows one to perceive, observe and experience the body and mind in a unique way. This enables one to train the innate fundamental structures and mechanisms of the body in a natural way otherwise difficult to access through movement or form practise alone. To put the icing on the cake, Standing epitomises wei wu wei, the key tenet of Taoist philosophy: achievement without action or effortless doing.
It’s unfortunate that in some schools of Taiji, Standing is seen as just a kind of warm up to get out of the way at the start of a lesson. Similarly, apart from this obligatory five or ten minutes in class, many students shun it in their home practise in favour of more ‘exciting’ form work. My aim in this article then is twofold. Firstly, to inspire readers to practise Standing with relaxed abandon, and secondly to talk about how the most simple and down to earth approach to Standing can be the most useful. We are often drawn to the ‘bright lights’ of complicated technical and intellectual internal practises but for me it’s the blood, bones and guts of basic, tangible and visceral training that usually bears the most tasty fruits. It’s easy to fool yourself by thinking that you are adhering to some internal principle when actually what your body is doing is something entirely different. To quote Bruce (Lee, that is): ‘Don’t think…feeeeeel!’ There are a plethora of instructional books and videos out there which detail more complicated Standing practises and techniques but as I say to my students (and to myself) ‘rather than whiling away the hours trying to fathom complicated theory you could just be practising’ and what’s better than your own direct experience?
My experience comes from Chen Taiji and Yiquan, two systems of which Standing forms the most essential and integral component. By talking about this a little it should help you get a sense of where I’m coming from.
When I first started Standing I thought the idea was to hold the position for as long as possible, from which some mysterious benefit would be gleaned while I endured the agony. Coming from a background of external martial arts, this kind of torture seemed like the right thing to do. It took me a little while to figure out that this was not going to be particularly beneficial. Fortunately, commonsense eventually prevailed. Holding a fixed position seemed to have little to do with the flowing movements of Taiji. Though my shoulders and legs felt independently stronger there was little sense of the internal connection and whole-body strength associated with the internal arts that I was looking to develop. Nonetheless, I was still fascinated by Standing and had a deep sense that it must be of some tangible benefit if practised correctly, but how? In the meantime, while I tried to work this out, I noticed something. During Standing, with the absence of movement, I could really feel my body from the inside-out. I sensed that all my external training had made my body tense and left me with a feeling that my center of gravity was unnervingly too high. I had never noticed this before and I didn’t have to be a genius to work out that this residual tension was in no way beneficial for any kind of activity, let alone martial arts practise. On the one hand this was quite disappointing to discover but on the other this new feedback would allow me to improve in a whole new way. I set to task to relax this tension as much as possible.
Sometime later at a workshop in Spain I met Karel Koskuba of the Chinese Internal Arts Association. We talked and practised a great deal together or rather he talked and pushed me around a lot while I listened and tried to stop falling over. I found his approach to training refreshing and it helped clear up my misunderstandings about Standing. He suggested that in training, we always tend to try to make the body ‘do something else’ instead of working with what it does naturally. Rather than trying to impose or force a certain postures upon the body, one can discover how the body can happily maintain a posture in a balanced and natural way. You can do this, he said, by focusing upon observing, feeling and sensing the body and what it does naturally without any interference. An integral element of this is getting to know and gradually dissipating, the habitual restrictions and tension in the structure of the body we have developed up over the years. Once lessened, the natural maintenance of a Standing posture becomes ever more easy to achieve. Karel asserted that if you impose something upon the body structure by force you will just be swapping one rigid posture for another. After all, he added, we are looking to develop a fluid, and not a rigid, structure.
All this input was excellent and I felt much happier and more relaxed practising in this observant and curious manner. Seeing that I was so keen on Standing, Karel gave me contact details for Yiquan Master Yao Chengguang in Beijing. That summer I went to study with him for a month and continued to do so each year for the next few years.
Yiquan, or Mind-Boxing (sometimes referred to as Dachengchuan or Great Achievement Boxing) is a lesser well known branch of Xingyiquan. It was pioneered during the early twentieth century by Wang Xiang Zhai, the disciple of the famous Xingyi master Guo Yun Shen. Wang Xiang Zhai suggested that if one could uncover the natural mechanics of the body then this would lead to a superior kind of strength and robust health. For him, every movement should be infused with an awareness and tensegrity which permeates all directions and sections of the body. He believed that Zhan zhuang was by far the best way to acheive this and shunned training forms as he deemed them to be ‘empty’. Master Yao’s father, Professor Yao Zongxun, was in turn Wang Xiang Zhai’s designated successor.
Fifty percent of all Master Yao’s training consisted of standing in a variety of postures. The other fifty was simple movements both slow and fast with lots of moving step push-hands. I was very impressed at how he and his long term students had a formidable kind of fluid strength that enabled them to execute fine listening skills, smooth control and superfast fajin. After this I didn’t require any more convincing of the efficacy of Standing practice. Yao’s main assertion was ‘Yong yi bu yong li’: use mind, not force. Even though he encouraged us to build the length of our Standing time up to many hours a day he insisted that we do this very gradually so the body and mind remain fluid not rigid.
Similarly, it was through Karel that I was introduced to Chen style Taiji and Master Chen Xiao Wang. As with Yao, Master Chen places Zhanzhuang high up on the practise priority list. For him the key purpose is to build a solid, balanced, ‘quiet’ body structure and dantian. If this cannot be achieved when standing in a simple posture then what hope of doing so during form? Sometimes in Master Chen’s seminars we stand for a long time. He has a unique way however, of adjusting your posture so that you get a clear feeling of whole-body integration and comfort. Not to say that it isn’t challenging to stand with him for an hour but you get a direct sense ‘post-adjustment’ that you are training with the right kind of effort and all that is needed to improve is time and relaxed awareness. Through regular practise you see that he points you in the right direction and it’s just that relaxed persistence is required to uncover it. To me, his method is simple and natural and his Taiji exhibits a wonderful relaxed power.
I’ve now been practising Standing for thirteen years and enjoy it immensely. I encourage my students to get stuck in when they can, so here’s the thing: I hear whispers and mutterings amongst some of my students, colleagues and training buddies that they consider Standing to be pointless, boring, painful or even all three. Conversely, I know numerous devoted ‘extremist Standers’ who adhere to myriad postures for as long as possible like a test of endurance or a game of musical statues gone horribly wrong. I feel that this illustrates the main issues detrimental to Standing: a) people do not want to practise it because they find it too challenging and b) those that do, force themselves to hold a fixed position. The underlying theme here is the misconception that you have to force yourself to stand, that the longer and more torturous it is the better.
I think that to begin with the majority of people find it quite challenging to stand still for even a short amount of time. Incorrectly, we assume that maintaining a posture for longer is better and I think it is here that many people are put off or deviate from good practice. Either students suffer from trying to stand for longer than their capacity will comfortably allow and give up, or they force themselves to hold the posture in a bid for ‘no pain no gain’. Giving up is useless for them as how can they then improve? Forcing oneself to carry on doesn’t cut it either because what we then develop is a rigid posture. ‘Seek movement in stillness’ the classics say and it is from here that we get the concept of a fluid structure. I’m not saying that Standing does not require effort, it does. However, just the right kind of effort and you learn this by practising little and often, gradually learning your limits and building up from there. If you have a curious mind during practise then simply observing and feeling rather than trying to ‘control’ the body will provide an immense amount feedback and greatly improve the quality of your training. We must try not to interfere but feel, this way fluid structural strength can be built little by little.
I think it is fair to say that the majority of people do not experience their bodies as a whole thing, that is a connected, integrated unit. Even athletes training for many hours a day seem to be in a constant battle with their bodies. Standing practise is the epitome of reorganising the perceived separate parts of the body back into a homogenous whole. What separates the body is habitual tension and the restricted movement underpinned by a lack of awareness in corresponding parts. Usually we are not aware of the restrictive postural patterns that have become enmeshed in our structural fabric over the course of our lives. Everybody has them but they are essentially unfelt. Standing then, is to help us feel, locate and relax restrictions in the body’s structure. It’s not that we want to replace one habitual posture for another but instead return to neutral so that the body becomes less segmented and more integrated; a malleable mass free to be directed by our will. By gently coaxing the body little by little to open up we discover how it can support itself effortlessly from the ground upwards. The key is to simply feel, observing and learn. Curious observation through the lens of stillness allows one to discover the inherent qualities our body’s possess and work with them rather than against them. To finish off I’ll leave you with some of Wang Xiang Zhai’s words on Standing. As for me I’m off to practise!
Integrated with spirit and mind,
This boxing is named Dacheng.
With plain truth easy to understand,
It is both interesting and enlightening.
It has no method yet every method,
for in boxing all methods are of no avail.
With profound knowledge it helps to mould your temperament,
Cultivating you in faithfulness, sense of justice, benevolence and bravery.
Propelled by natural strength,
you are as strong as a dragon.
Inhaling and exhaling naturally and quietly,
You perceive the mechanism of all movements.
Be neither too familiar nor too distant towards others,
Show them courtesy, modesty and respect.
Avail yourself of the force of the Universe,
And bring your instinctive ability into full play.
Stand at the centre holding the key,
Act according to circumstances without a trace.
Eyes seeing nothing and ears hearing only your breathing sound,
You train your mind and regulate your nerve system.
In motion you are like the angry tiger,
In quietness you are like the hibernating dragon.
Your expression is as awesome as the leopard,
Your strength is as powerful as that of a rhino.
Preserving the heavenly wisdom and maintaining the state of meditation,
You are ready to act in response to all possible situations.
by Wang Xuanjie
Hai Feng Publishing Co. May 1988
Sam Moor teaches Chen Taiji and Yiquan full time in Chichester, Brighton and across Sussex. www.sussextaichi.co.uk