Zhan Zhuang, in Chinese means "standing like a post", though it is often called "standing meditation". The most common practise of Zhan Zhuang is the embracing posture, which can be held by practitioners for mere minutes to hours at a time. The claimed benefits of the practise are many, and in this article I hope to expound on these as well as the many levels of intricacy of this practise. But before that lets look at some history, and how it came to be what it is today.
The Zhan Zhuang postures, of which there are many variations, were originally health and longevity practises of the Daoist masters. In more recent centuries these postures were combined with martial arts practises, in particular the neijia, or internal styles such as Tai Chi. Though the practise of Zhan Zhuang is commonly thought of as a Tai Chi training method in western circles (in particular, the non martial oriented practitioners of qigong), it's story of adoption into the martial arts lies with another style, Xingyiquan. Used on the battlefields and adapted from spear fighting techniques, Xingyiquan was revered for it's combat efficacy amongst the neijia, or internal styles. The most fundamental practise of Xingiquan is San Ti Shi (trinity pile standing), which in itself is a form of Zhan Zhuang intended to teach the novice practitioner how to relax in perfect alignment so that he (from an historical context it was only taught to males) may learn to issue maximum force with minimum effort. The other purpose of Zhan Zhuang in the martial arts was that of mental focus. Xingyiquan was originally Xin Yi Quan, which means fighting art of the harmony of Mind and Heart. This is the meditational aspect of Zhan Zhuang in martial arts, and one can see why meditation is important to the fighter in developing quick reflexes by doing away with mental clutter and other inefficient thought forms in both mind and the emotional body.
After his younger days had passed him, and he had earned the reputation of being a highly formidable fighter and respected teacher of fighters amongst the Chinese martial arts community, Master Wang began to focus on the health and longevity enhancing aspects of Zhan Zhuang. He taught this along with practising Chinese Medicine, and it was also adopted by Tai Chi practitioners as Qigong began to find a resurgence in China, since the so-called "Cultural Revolution" (a dark blemish on the history of China and humanity as a whole) had finally ended and attitudes somewhat changed.
A SIMPLE GUIDE
Following will be a brief guide to a very basic practise of Zhan Zhuang as a form of meditation. This can also be very useful as a preparation to seated meditation as practising will help to align and quiet the impulsive nature of the mind, especially since the body is the doorway to the subconscious. Here are nine simple steps to follow:
1. Stand upright. Begin to breathe through the diaphragm (ie. - allowing the belly, rather than the chest, to expand on inhalation and contract on exhalation).
2. Separate the feet to around shoulder width, pointing slightly out from forward, with equal distribution of weight.
3. Bend the knees slightly (just enough so that they are not locked out), allowing the centre of gravity to sink. Ensure that the knees are not pinching inward but rather pointing more outward. As you sink your dantian (centre of gravity) into this stance, tuck the pelvis forward so that your butt is not sticking out. This will create a neutral spinal position, now adjust your head so that it is level and aligned with spine and pelvis. A natural curvature that is firm but not stiff, relaxed and not slack - is the ideal way to stand.
4. Begin to let your arms float up in front of you with your wrists in front of your shoulders, palms down, with your elbows bent around 120 degrees. Continue to raise them until your hands are in front of your neck, around 6 to 8 inches apart.
5. Now turn your palms inward so that they face you, the fingers of each hand pointing to each other and separated as though you have cotton balls between your fingers.
6. Allow your elbows and shoulders to relax down gently as though you are embracing a large soft ball. This "roundness" extends to your ribcage, expanding with every breath.
7. As you relax more into the posture, feel the roundedness harmonise the circle of the arms and ribcage with the circles of pelvis and legs. It may take some time of practise to gain the feel for this, however, by learning to hold the posture by relaxing more into it one can begin to feel how to balance the tension with relaxation against gravity.
8. As you breathe you will find the need to make minor adjustments to your posture. Remember that the point is not to be perfectly still, but to form a connection between the various parts of your body and being. If your posture must expand, then so be it, if it must contract, allow it to contract. Flow with these changes and allow them to be cyclic.
9. Allow yourself to enter a state of meditation. I have outlined some steps in the previous article (scroll down).
At first you will not be able to complete all stages, as it is advisable to only begin practising for two minutes at a time. Also this is to be practised mostly in the morning or throughout the day but not too close to bedtime as it may cause restlessness.
Personally, I like to do this in the Morning Sun, with a little sungazing (mostly with eyes closed or very partially opened) and use it as a time to connect with the Universal spiral of life as it is manifest to us. I also use it in my warm up and cool downs, and during workouts to maintain postural integrity whilst lifting heavy weights, and also to muster up "full-body" functional strength rather than muscular force alone. That is because, over time, Zhan Zhuang teaches one to incorporate into movement the deep muscle fibres that are not under conscious control, but are under the control of the subconscious. It teaches to incorporate the skeletal structure and diaphragm pressure on the thoracic cavity also.
The implications and applications of Zhan Zhuang are so extensive that I couldn't possibly write it all in one article, so it is my intention to expand on this in more articles to come.
Please feel free to comment below