Zhan Zhuang – Spirit within
In Chinese, “Zhan” means to stand still and “Zhuang” means foundation or pile. “Gong” can be translated as exercise with the intrinsic meaning of assiduous practice.
Zhan Zhuang is an ancient training technique that lies between meditation, martial arts and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Its origins are remote. One of the first references to this kind of exercise is in the Huang-ti Nei Ching (The Classics of Traditional Chinese Medicine of the Yellow Emperor, 2690-2590 BCE), making it likely to be one of the most ancient medical books.
This posture, traditionally practiced and transmitted secretly in martial arts circles, has been openly shown to the public since the beginning of the 20th century. Wang Xiang Zhai, a very famous martial arts master, and creator of Yiquan (Mind boxing) was known to say “Immobility is the mother of any technique”.
Today, many internal arts practitioners, including those who study tai chi, Xing-yi, Bagua and Qigong, study this technique. Its applications are many. It is a core practice for both beginning and advanced students, being a key exercise to continuously nurture and develop their level of practice.
“Yoga” in Sanskrit means “Unity” – unity of the spirit and the universal truth. Yoga suggests the union of knowledge, action and devotion in order to achieve unity, “Advaita” – the universal spirit.
According to Ayurveda science, the human body is divided into six main parts: the head, the chest, two arms and two legs.
Knowledge is located in the head, the heart represents devotion and the legs and the arms mean action. Yoga combines these three locations that function simultaneously, in perfect harmony.
The external immobility of the Zhan Zhuang postures and their link with the ‘Asanas’ or yogic postures suggests that this training method is linked to “Chinese yoga”, its ultimate goal also being to achieve the unity of the human being, enabling a perfect balance between the earth and the sky universal forces.
Traditional Chinese Medicine asserts that when one part of the body is ill, the global energy of our body also loses balance. Everything is related, the body, mind and emotions. A complete energetic discipline like the Zhan Zhuang allows us to dissolve blockages and progress towards a better physical and moral shape. Our state of internal fitness is clearly visible from the outside. We become more alert, full of vigour and perfectly available for the chores of our everyday lives. This technique, as well as the ‘Asanas’, is also a form of meditation. By keeping our consciousness in our ‘Dantien’ (an area located three finger’s width below the navel) and by relaxing our tensions, a state of inner peace and tempered happiness appear. It is an indescribable state and its effects have a positive influence on our lives.
Step by step guidelines of practice
The four main attitudes in life
As humans, we should be able to put ourselves into the basic positions for standing, sitting down, lying and walking. However, most of us, driven by the needs of our sedentary and so called “busy” lives, do not pay special attention to these four essential aspects. Bad posture has simply become a bad habit, which often results in persistent back problems and/or chronic fatigue.
It is obvious that our body position has a direct influence on our emotional state. Retreating and defensive positions usually reflect a declining spirit. Your body is desperately trying to tell you that it is time to take care of yourself! Zhan Zhuang practice helps us to “unlearn” postural bad habits and to return to a more natural, comfortable and healthy posture. Though time and with regular practice we can gradually apply the structural principles of Zhan Zhuang to all aspects of our lives and physical tasks; waiting for the bus, washing dishes, sitting, lying down, cooking, driving… any situation becomes a laboratory of experimentation, a way to improve our practice. Progressively, you will go on to hold a better position when you are sitting in front of your computer or watching television. As a result, a general state of wellbeing, physical comfort and tranquillity will pervade all your daily activities.
Principles of practice
Find a quiet place for your daily practice. Avoid extreme climatic conditions when practising outdoors and when indoors, choose a fresh, well-ventilated room.
If your energy level is very low (exhaustion, depressive state, physical pains…), use some gentle music to start your exercises in a positive and pleasant way.
Ideally, Zhan Zhuang should be practiced a little everyday. Training three or four times a week can bring good results. In any case, it is better to exercise a little regularly every day rather than isolated, exhausting sessions from time to time.
It is possible to do Zhan zhuang exercises in a sitting or lying down position. These techniques will not be detailed in this article, but it is important to know that they exist. They are particularly convenient for the sick, the very old and for those with special needs. Occasionally, someone in who is in good health who feels tired can use these techniques to get fit again. Zhan Zhuang is for everybody. It is better to continuously adapt your training to your level of fitness.
When you start practising Zhan Zhuang two aspects are important:
Relax your entire body.
Fix your posture.
Keep focused on these principles without trying to apply them too seriously. It is normal to have some incoming thoughts, which “pollute” your practice. Do not try either to control or to stop them. Instead, notice them coming and going as you would watch clouds passing by through the sky.
Focus on your bodily sensations of tranquillity and comfort during practice. Let your practice become your rest.
Relaxation should not be equated with a sedative state. Traditionally, we say:
“Outside, remain quiet as Buddha, inside, be alert as a tiger ready to pounce on its prey.”
By focusing our attention on our bodies, we progressively learn how to remain alert and quiet at the same time. It is not, like in many sports, about making a dynamic effort then rest. Here effort and relaxation go together in an outside static but inside very dynamic exercise. At the same time, as long as you further develop your sensitivity you will become aware of all the blockages and changes that are taking place inside your body.
In this posture, the mind and body work together as a whole. The guidelines are simple, yet the details are numerous and some of them need to be settled down progressively. Enjoy the process.
Look for quality instead of quantity. Ten minutes of serious practice is more valuable than two hours of empty Zhan Zhuang.
Follow the instructions carefully. The inner trip is about to start…
a) Stand with your feet in a parallel position.
b) Hold your arms up as if you are holding a ball, placing your hands somewhere between your thorax and abdomen. If you just beginning or feel tired then hold your hands at the level of your “Dantien” or abdomen. With time and practice, you will feel the more able and inclined to raise them higher. Let it happen naturally, without force. Remain natural.
c) Keep your head up. You should have the feeling as if your head is suspended from above.
d) Relax your shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands.
e) Relax your chest and allow your breath to settle down smoothly into the ‘Dantien’. (It is very important for beginners not to deliberately try to push down the breathing. This can be harmful for the internal organs. In fact, we cannot force the abdominal breathing. It will come naturally with consistent practice.)
f) Relax your “Kwa” (hips).
g) Bend your knees, slightly relaxing them. Do not let the body weight rest on them. Do not practice a low posture if you are a beginner or if you are physically exhausted.
h) Relax your ankles.
i) Relax your feet.
j) Make sure that your body weight is equally balanced between both feet.
k) Relax and stretch your spine.
l) Relax your back.
m) Align your “Baihui” point (DU 20 ), which is located on the top of your head, in the centre and your “Huiyin” point (CV 1), located between the anus and the perineum.
n) “Listen to a soft rain behind your back”. Through the Zhan Zhuang practice, you will become aware of the eight subsidiary directions (front, back, left, right, front right, front left, back right, back left). Keeping your attention exclusively to the front part of your body will bring part of your energy up. As a result you will find it difficult to remain quiet and focused. Therefore, it is advisable to keep a “listening feeling” behind your back in order to achieve quietness and to enhance the development of vital energy inside your Dantien.
o) For some students, particularly beginners, closing the eyes during practice can be a source of tension or unbalance. If so, open your eyes from time to time, or keep them open all the time. Just avoid looking around too much. One of the advantages of keeping the eyes closed is to improve focus and to induce tranquillity.
In order to finish a session of Zhan Zhuang, slowly let your arms back to hanging on either side of your body. Take your time to finish this exercise.
You should then place both hands, one of the top of another, to cover your Dantien. When you start moving, take your time to relax your shoulders, elbows and hands again. Make sure that your Dantien is fully relaxed. Do not rush.
For women, the right hand is placed against the belly, with the left on top. For men, left hand is placed first. The “Laogong” (PC 8), (the acupuncture point at the centre of the palms) should form a straight line with the Dantien. Align the Laogong points from both hands with the Dantien.
Gently rotate the Dantien as a closing technique. Usually, when you stay in Zhan zhuang for around twenty minutes or more, you can rotate the Dantien 36 times in each direction.
When the rotations are over, you can keep both hands covering your Dantien for a few seconds. The whole body feels relaxed, quiet and stronger after practise.
Then allow yourself a few seconds before you go back to your usual activities. A nice walk in a park, some gentle stretching, or even some simple techniques of self-massage are an excellent way to finish your daily session of Zhan Zhuang.
Finding a good guide to improve your practice
When you start practising, useful advice is a most. It prevents you from making mistakes, which will either alter or retard the results of your practice. The approach of a beginner or an advanced student is usually very different. Each approach, each practice caters for different needs and different goals. An experienced and skilful teacher should be able to accommodate corrections to each level and to tailor a personal path for each student.
Basic corrections on the structure must be done from the first lessons to avoid bad habits. However, the corrections should be progressive.
First of all, the beginner’s body is unable to take the enhanced “chi” flow, which will be provoked by the postural changes. On the other hand, bad postures are usually a result of psychosomatic experiences and they should be corrected gently, respecting the student’s evolution and his/her body sensations.
Zhan zhuang is a step-by-step process, and there are no shortcuts for this practice. Persistency and patience are the keys. Of course, good teaching methods are also very important.
A way towards Freedom
This beautiful practice is also a source of spiritual inspiration, a way.
Ancient Chinese Masters used to require their disciples to be able to endure bitterness in order to reach true ‘gong fu’ (Master-ship) in martial arts. The serious practitioner must continuously overcome his/her weakness and show courage, will and determination to keep his/her practice and progress alive. This is naturally applied in Zhan Zhuang.
Practice is a continuous personal challenge towards physical, emotional and spiritual higher levels. With time and dedication, the experienced student will become the master of his/her own practice.
Zhan Zhuang is a style within no style, a unique technique of knowledge and personal development, and its simplicity and profoundness are a way towards the true freedom.
Author: Victoria Windholtz
Victoria Windholtz was born in Spain in 1971 and started practicing martial arts intensively at the age of 10. For many years she was a member of the French National Tai Chi Team. She won four gold medals at the European Tai Chi Championships (in the Chen style category) held in Denmark in 2002. She has also been a French National Champion for five years and was classified third in the category “Tai Chi Sword” at the Wushu World Cup held in Beijing in 2000. In January 2004, she received a special prize from the French Ministry of Sports for her outstanding results in international competitions of Tai Chi.
Images and editing was done by Ronnie Robinson