by Karel Koskuba
Most styles of Taijiquan incorporate one or several forms of Zhan Zhuang (Pole Standing) in their training. These standing exercises are often presented as the one most important aspect of the training (to begin with, anyway), yet not always enough information is available to students apart from the usual advice to ‘relax’, ‘keep everything open’ and ‘keep standing’. So why are they so important and how should they be practised? Sometimes they are presented as a form of standing meditation, sometimes as an isometric standing exercise, sometimes even as a character-building exercise! Is there a difference in training for those interested in martial arts and those interested in health only?
In this article I will describe Zhan Zhuang training as it happens in Yiquan (more about Yiquan later). In Yiquan, Zhang Zhuang has been promoted to play a pivotal role from the most basic training all the way through to the most advanced training. Progress through the Zhan Zhuang training steps is methodical and detailed. I hope that by the time you have finished reading the article, all the above questions will be answered.
Before I start describing Zhang Zhuang, I think we should establish some common ground in terms of what is the final result of such training. Let’s say your teacher is a great master of internal martial arts. When you try to push him, he is like a rock – you can’t budge him. When he tries to push you, his body feels like steel – you can’t stop him. At other times his body feels like cotton – and you still can’t stop him! Let’s call these three feats a Rock Body, a Steel Body and a Cotton Body, respectively. In any of these feats it feels as if he is using great strength and yet when you try to imitate what he does, you are told not to use strength. If it is not strength, what does he use? The usual answer of ‘qi’ or ‘jin’ refers to concepts from a different culture. I shall make an attempt at explaining it using more familiar concepts. By the way, your teacher can do other things than the ones I have mentioned but I shall limit my description to those that can be trained using Zhang Zhuang.
The above three feats of Rock Body, Steel Body and Cotton Body are all expression of what is called whole-body strength. To understand what the whole-body strength is, let’s look at body musculature. There are two kinds of skeletal muscles: those that are involved in movement, so called motor muscles or mobilisers, and those that stabilise the body, so called postural muscles or stabilisers. The mobilisers are, on the whole, of the fast-twitch variety; they can contract and relax in a short interval but they get tired quickly. The stabilisers are of the slow-twitch variety; they do not get tired easily but, on the other hand, are quite slow. They are situated deeper in the body than the mobilisers.
The above division into the two kinds of muscles is a somewhat simplified view for the sake of clearer explanation. In reality, there are stabilisers, mobilisers and muscles that act in both roles. We can pretend that any ‘composite’ muscle is split into a stabiliser and a mobiliser by extracting the appropriate type of muscle fibres (slow-twitch and fast-twitch respectively) into each of them. The functionality of the body would remain unchanged.
We have very little, if any, conscious control of the stabilisers. But stabilisers have two properties that are very useful. First, given their position with respect to joints, they can make the body structure really strong. Second, most of them are designed to stabilise/balance our body against outside force (usually the force of gravity). We can use both of these properties to our advantage.
Let’s look at the first point. When discussing muscle strength, there is a distinction made between a static and a dynamic strength. Static strength, when the muscle is locked in position, is greater than dynamic strength, when the muscle is expanding or contracting. Locking the body in a very strong static position may be interesting but is not very useful. Especially if any push just topples the whole structure over! This is where the second point comes in.
Let’s imagine you are standing on a steep hill, with one foot higher than the other and you are supporting a fairly heavy weight sliding at you from above. Suppose that you support it from underneath, with your arms above your head. You would naturally try to let the weight pass through your body into the rear foot, using the front leg to stabilise yourself against the hill. If the weight were to wobble, you would just adjust your arms and body underneath to keep the weight passing to the rear foot. It would not require any (significant) mental effort and, unless the wobble took the weight too far from your base, not any (significant) extra physical effort. Your stabilisers would perform any adjustments needed automatically, with the mobilisers acting in unison.
Now let’s tilt the hill so that the ground underneath becomes horizontal and the weight you were supporting is now represented by a push from someone in front of you. There will be two likely changes to your behaviour. First, you would have to adjust your posture because gravity now acts in a vertical direction. Second (and here I am asking you to pretend you are a beginner again, before you had all that extensive training), because your stabilisers now act in a different direction from the push, you will use your mobilisers to resist the push. In order to stop the push, you will start pushing back with the same force. If your adversary starts changing the direction of his push, there will be nothing automatic in your response! So if you could somehow get your body to act as if the push was a result of a force of gravity, you could relax and let your automatic responses neutralise the push for you. My first Taijiquan teacher told us once to “make gravity your friend”. Unfortunately, I had no idea what he was talking about at that time!
What is Zhan Zhuang
Zhan Zhuang is often translated as Pole Standing. It is a name that refers to a number of stance practices in which the body is kept essentially still and mostly upright, though there are some stances where the spine is not vertical. The purpose of these exercises is to become aware of the stabilisers and then gain some measure of control over them.
The first task is to feel how the body acts against gravity. The best way to do that is to stand and feel (observe), in other words – Zhan Zhuang. There are a number of positions to produce different effects on the body but the most popular one is to stand with arms as if embracing a large ball in front of the chest. To isolate the stabilisers, you must relax the mobilisers. Unfortunately, the mobilisers will interfere, as most people, it seems, from a fairly early age will start (mis)using mobilisers to take on the task of stabilising the body. Because you can’t really feel the stabilisers, you must try to relax all muscles. As far as your perception is concerned, mobilisers are all the muscles you are aware of. That is, by the way, why my teacher (and yours probably, too) used to say “do not use any muscles”. So the first task really is re-educating the body to use the stabilisers. The next one is to try to integrate body’s movement to use stabilisers against any resistance that is encountered, as if acting against gravity. This will give you the basis of whole-body strength. As the Taiji classics say, “essential hardness comes from essential softness”. Eventually, your arms and body will become very heavy to the touch. Further training will be needed to be able to use the body in a natural way and especially to integrate the mobilisers and fascia (connective fibrous tissue) in issuing of strength (fali or fajing) but that is not the role of Zhan Zhuang any more.
Less is More
To set up a regime for Zhan Zhuang practice, I would recommend the following procedure. To start with, no more than five or ten seconds should be spent on the practice; but the practice should be performed every day without fail. There are three reasons for this seemingly ridiculous length of training. One is that it is very difficult, for an untrained person, to keep concentrating for any length of time on something as mundane as standing – and you do not want to stand just for the sake of standing. The second one is that, to start with, the most important goal to achieve is to get into a habit of standing; to achieve the rhythm of daily practice. It is far easier to do that if the practice is short. Lastly, it is quite likely, as I said above, that you may be using the wrong kind of muscles at the beginning. The last thing you want is to train yourself to hold the posture with the mobilisers. You may have heard of people suffering agony in standing practices of this nature who eventually made the breakthrough into a relaxed stance. Well, it is one way to achieve the same goal but it is rather wasteful on resources and quite painful. As I said, mobilisers tire quite quickly, and then they hurt. Getting them out of the way can be done either by just standing until they give up and stabilisers take over or by trying to relax by carefully monitoring the state of the body and inducing relaxation by the use of mental images.
The length of the standing should be governed by your attention span. When the concentration is weakening and other thoughts start to impinge on your mind, make a brief attempt to come back to the practice but if it fails, end the training for the day (or the time being). This way, your concentration will gradually improve with the standing in a natural way. The process is quite simple. As you keep standing, gradually areas of the body that you were not aware of will come within your awareness. As it happens, you will have more of the body to observe, and thus your standing can be longer, without you getting bored. So, if on your first day you exhaust your observation in five seconds, stop after five seconds. After six months you may be occupied with your body even after five or ten minutes. This is the easiest, and I believe the quickest, route to success. Standing in Zhan Zhuang and watching television is better than sitting and watching television – but it shouldn’t be thought of as replacing the standing where you concentrate on the body.
Using the Mind
There are two kinds of mental images that you can employ. The first type is used to create a tranquil state in your mind, which, in turn, will promote relaxation of your body. For example, imagine yourself standing in a beautiful garden. You can see pretty flowers and trees all around you. You can smell the flower’s scent on a soft breeze. 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. You owe it to your training!
The second type is used to induce some kinaesthetic feeling to guide the body. Some people get it naturally, others will have to have it explained in some fashion (difficult to generalise in an article) or will have to experiment before they can understand/reproduce it. I will give an example below.
When creating images or concentrating on the body, there should be no mental ‘effort’. The feeling created should be more like observing something rather than striving for something.
As an example a health stance, I will describe Cheng Bao Zhan Zhuang. The purpose of the images used here is still only to promote relaxation – thus any similar images will do.
Stand in a comfortable stance with your feet about shoulder-width. Keep your body upright by imagining that you head is suspended from above. Relax your spine by slightly bending the knees and feel as if you are lowering yourself onto a high stool. Keep you whole body soft. Create an image of a garden or other peaceful image as described above. Try to express the tranquil feeling in your face and body. Eyes can be open, half-open or closed. Breathing is soft, quiet, and preferably through the nose. Slowly lift your arms in front of you in a position of embracing a ball, hands at about shoulder-height and shoulder-width apart. Keep you fingers slightly bent and the palms slightly stretched.
Feel you whole body supported: you are sitting on a balloon; there is another balloon between your knees; your elbows are resting on soft pillows; your head is suspended by a thread; there are cotton pads between your fingers; etc.
With practice, you will be able to achieve a very relaxed feeling. When that happens, you can move on to the next step, creating kinaesthetic images.
Up to now, your elbows were resting on soft pillows, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Now imagine that your elbows are touching balloons floating on water. Your task is to keep the balloons under your elbows. If you lift your elbows, the balloons will be free to float away. If you press a little more, they will be pressed into the water and pop out to float away again. The big ball you are embracing is very fragile and filled with helium – if you press a little more, it will burst, if you press a little less, it will float away. The feeling created is that of sticking very lightly to a ball but making sure not to let it slip from your embrace. You must not get into an anxious state – you know these are just images. The purpose of this type of images is not to become skilful in creating them but in exploring how the body feeling changes and thus gradually becoming aware of the inside body structure (stabilisers) and body’s unity. You can start slowly swaying forward and back. Keep your body balanced and experience the movement as a passive movement; for example as if standing in a slowly flowing river that keeps changing its direction.
‘Primordial Void’ Posture
As an example of a combat stance, I will describe Hun Yuan Zhang Zhuang. The previous Zhang Zhuang training was designed to increase awareness of the stabilisers. The purpose of these are more advanced exercises is to get the stabilisers under control. This is done by very small and careful movements so that we do not ‘wake up’ our mobilisers. In Wang Xiangzhai’s (founder of Yiquan) words: “All sorts of strengths originate in the void and nothingness, which can only be felt gradually by the tiny edges and corners of the body”. Again, mental images are used to help the body do “the right thing”. Beginning of this training is done still in Zhan Zhuang, the rest in later training.
Starting from the Embracing Posture described above, transfer the weight onto your right leg and shift the left foot forward, lifting the heel off the ground. Put about a quarter to a third of your weight onto the front foot. Move your left hand a bit up and forward. Create the ‘garden’ (or similar) image as in the previous posture. Keep a very soft and relaxed body structure and create a kinaesthetic image of exerting a great deal of strength. For example, imagine that you are embracing a tree and try to pull it up. After a little while, try pushing it down. Try to uproot it by pushing with the whole body forwards, then by pulling with the whole body backwards. Do not imagine that you are actually succeeding in any of these tasks. The tree is big and just won’t budge. During your practice, you stay relaxed and nearly still with perhaps just very small movement. Little by little you will get a feeling of control.
So how about strengthening one’s body using weight training? As I said above, the only muscles that we are normally aware of are the mobilisers. When we decide to move, we immediately use the mobilisers. In fact, as was noted, we often use the mobilisers instead of stabilisers. So what muscles are we likely to strengthen and build up when we lift weights? Working on strengthening mobilisers when you try to use stabilisers is not going to help with your progress. It is usually the strongest looking person who starts to shake first when attempting Zhan Zhuang for the first time. Having big and strong muscles is not bad in itself, even in Internal Martial Arts. The problem is that normally weight training reinforces the habit of using mobilisers. This is contrary to what we try to achieve with the Zhan Zhuang training. So your first priority should be to establish control over stabilisers. After such control is established, you can start using weights, if you so desire. But you should be careful to use mobilisers for movement and stabilisers for handling the weights.
Is Zhan Zhuang Training Necessary?
Not really. Some people can achieve all of the feats attributed to your imaginary teacher above without any standing practice. What they probably do is to train a lot of slow moving exercises (either forms or silk-reeling type drills). The key to their practice is again to relax all the mobilisers (which, as far as they are concerned, are all the muscles) and to imagine they are moving against some slight resistance (for example as if moving in water). Little by little the stabilisers will start being involved in a similar manner as I discussed above. Sometimes they can ‘cheat’ by practising the form as a series of static postures. The idea is the same as Zhan Zhuang but they are training the stabilisers in the postures used in the form.
Your Zhan Zhuang (or other standing exercises) may be different in some aspects. As I said at the beginning, what I have described is a Yiquan system of Zhan Zhuang exercises and I hope that it will give you some ideas that will help to improve your Zhan Zhuang practice. Let’s have a brief look at Yiquan to see how the Zhan Zhuang training progresses further.
What is Yiquan
Yiquan (pronounced ee-chwen), sometimes called Dachengquan (see later about that), is a fairly new martial art – it was created in the 1920s by Wang Xiangzhai (1885-1963). Wang Xiangzhai sought out the best martial artists of his time on his quest to discover the ‘essence of boxing’. He then created his new art by dropping, over a period of time, anything that he came to consider as non-essential or that could be replaced by something that gave better or quicker results. Gradually, the mental aspects came to dominate all parts of the training. To emphasise the importance of mind, both in training and its use, he decided to call his art Yiquan – ‘Yi’ means ‘mind’ or ‘intent’ and ‘quan’ means ‘fist’ or ‘boxing’. The name was probably arrived at by dropping ‘Xing’ (form or shape) from ‘Xingyiquan’, probably the most influential of the arts that went into creating Yiquan (though Baguazhang, with its footwork and Taijiquan with its neutralising and pushing hands are not far behind). Eventually, he came to see Yiquan not as a martial art or a system of health exercises but as a “path to the truth” and a way to gain “absolute freedom”. On the way, however, he had plenty of opportunities to test its value as a martial art. He considered all schools of martial arts to be defective and “taking the students further away from the goal”. He made no attempt to keep his views to himself and when he moved to Beijing, in the late 1930s, Wang Xiangzhai issued a public challenge to his fellows martial artists to “exchange ideas and learn from each other”. In view of his public comments, there was no shortage of challengers. Any challenger had to defeat one of Wang Xiangzhai’s top four students first but none succeeded. The four students were Han Xingqiao, Hong Lianshun, Yao Zongxun (Wang Xiangzhai’s eventual successor) and Zhou Ziyan. Yiquan quickly gained a reputation for its combat effectiveness (and later on for its health benefits).
At this time, Wang Xiangzhai abandoned the name Yiquan as he felt that having a name bound the art to its image. His students and the public, in view of its successes, started to call the art Dachengquan (Great Achievement Boxing) and Wang Xiangzhai, after some initial resistance, accepted the name. However, he later reverted to using the name Yiquan again, as he felt that it fitted the art better.
The complete training consists of seven steps:
Zhan Zhuang (Pole Standing) – described above.
Shi Li (Testing of Strength) – simple exercises for learning how to keep the whole-body connection and whole-body strength whilst moving (this stage is equivalent to practising forms in other Internal Martial Arts) – in other words, learning how to integrate mobilisers and stabilisers in movement.
Mo Ca Bu (Friction Step) – learning how to keep the whole-body connection and whole-body strength whilst stepping.
Fa Li (Release of Power) – learning how to ‘release’ power (fa-jin training). How to release in any direction and with any part of the body.
Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) – this stage is similar to Taijiquan’s Pushing Hands. Also can be viewed as the previous three stages with a partner. Also called Dance of Death ( – just a joke!).
Shi Sheng (Testing of Voice) – learning to augment power and integrate the centre of the body in a more natural way using breathing musculature.
Ji Ji Fa (Combat Practice) – fixed and free sparring drills and sparring.
At all stages of training, students must try to follow the most important principle – Use mind, not strength (yong yi bu yong li). This principle was clearly seen in the description of the various stages of Zhan Zhuang training above.
Yiquan for health
Most posture and musculo-skeletal problems seem to be caused by the misuse of mobilisers that are usurping the role of stabilisers. Due to their low endurance characteristics, they cannot do the job adequately. Thus it is no use to tell people who slump to ‘straighten up’. They will naturally use their mobilisers to lift their posture with the inevitable result that the muscles will get tired and hurt and so they will slump again. To do any kind of conscious movement, it is only natural to use mobilisers. This is where Zhan Zhuang training of Yiquan can help. It is ideally suited for correcting all kinds of problems stemming from the imbalance between stabilisers and mobilisers. And I think the training gives quicker results when compared to other therapies, like the Alexander technique and the Feldenkreis method (and is probably less expensive, too).
There are other benefits stemming from the emphasis on tranquillity and very slow and careful movements. It obviously helps with any stress-related problems, and problems with co-ordination and balance. It is an excellent method of regulating one’s metabolism and sleep pattern. The list could go on but the space is limited!
After the Shi Li training, students are taught (if that is the right word in this context) Health Dance in which they link different exercises in a spontaneous manner.
The Traditional View
I’ll try to translate the vocabulary used in this article to a more traditional one often used in Taijiquan and other Internal Martial Arts so that you can cross-check the ideas presented here with your own training.
What I have been describing is how to gain control over muscles that we are not even aware of. Clearly, any movement using stabilisers must seem powered by something else than muscles. In Chinese culture, qi is a cause of movement so it is not surprising that the kind of movement I’ve been describing would be attributed to qi. We have seen how this ‘qi’ is trained by the mind (awareness) and activated by the mind. Sometimes ‘bone breathing’ or ‘bone squeezing’ methods are used to ‘congeal qi into bones’. This is just another way of gaining awareness of the deep muscular structures. Awareness of the stabilisers is felt like a tightness round the bones. Due to the structure of slow-twitch fibres, deliberate use of stabilisers produces more heat than is usual. This can be felt and it is different from a similar, but smaller, effect in the skin brought about by relaxation. Both of these effects, but especially the heat produced deeper in the body, are often taken as a sign of increased ‘qi’ flow.
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. Slow, very subtle movements can be felt under the guide of kinaesthetic visualisation (movement in stillness). Later on, when learning to move, the body’s structure should always be supported by stabilisers, producing the feeling of standing at any point in the movement (stillness in movement).
Whilst I have supported my ideas with quotes, I would like to say that as far as I know, the people I have quoted did not use any explanation referring to stabilisers and mobilisers. That part is my own explanation and should not be treated as the ‘official’ view.
This is a slightly modified version of an article that first appeared in the US T’ai Chi magazine, Vol 25 No. 3.