Zhan zhuang translates as “standing like a tree” and is an ancient Chinese practice for cultivating internal energy. Originally used for developing the minds and spirits of martial artists, it was also found to be profoundly beneficial for general health and well-being, and a wonderful relaxation aid. Nowadays, zhan zhuang is used both by practitioners of the Chinese martial arts and by people wishing to dissolve away the stresses of 21st century living.
One of the most well-known teachers of zhan zhuang is Master Lam Kam Chuen. He teaches a wide range of qigong practices, enabling the absolute beginner to benefit from simple standing meditation exercises. The following five techniques form the foundation of zhan zhuang and can be used daily to relax body and mind.
First Posture – Wu Ji
All zhan zhuang exercises begin with this important posture, designed to relax and prepare the body and mind. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and arms hanging down by your sides. Relax the shoulders and neck, holding the head as if suspended from above. Keep the knees relaxed and unlocked, and tuck in the bottom; do not let the belly or bottom stick out during practice. Breathe deeply and gently, inhaling and exhaling through the nose. The mouth should be closed but not tightly clenched. Continue to hold this position and let your mind wander around your body looking for tension. Each time tension is found, consciously relax that part and continue. Practise this until you can do so easily for five minutes.
Second Posture – Holding the Ball
This and the following positions should be practised with the same calmness of mind, with the head feeling lightly held from above, and with all the limbs feeling heavy but relaxed. The second posture is called “holding the ball” and involves lifting the arms up the front of the body so that the hands are at chest height with the wrists separated by a shoulder width, palms facing toward the chest, fingers relaxed, and elbows sunk below the hands. Hold this posture for five minutes while going through the same mental checklist, looking for and relaxing any tension.
Third Posture – Holding Your Belly
For this exercise imagine that you have an enormous belly. Raise your arms from the beginning Wu Ji posture, so that they are held level with the abdomen, palms open and relaxed, fingers gently spread apart. Sink the weight slightly (about two inches) by bending the knees. Relax your arms, forming a long sweeping arc from each shoulder, down the arms to the hands. The fingers of each hand should be pointing towards the opposite knee. It should feel like you are lightly holding that enormous belly. As your practice continues over time and your endurance grows, you should aim to hold the positions for longer periods of time.
Fourth Posture – Standing in a Stream
Sink your weight from the Wu Ji position by four inches, and imagine you are standing in a stream that is flowing towards you. Reach your hands out to either side, palms down at waist height. Imagine little balls held under your palms and the flow of the stream trying to wash them away; mentally prevent this by gently pressing down on them. Do not let the shoulders raise or tense during this exercise. Let your mind find and release any tension, and hold the posture for five minutes to start with and then gradually increase the practice time.
Fifth Posture – Holding the Ball in Front of Your Face
This is by far the most challenging exercise. From the Wu Ji position, sink your weight as low as you can, but do not let your knees move forward past your toes. Lift your arms so that the hands are shoulder width apart and held at face height, palms facing forwards. You should imagine a ball in front of your face and you are gently guiding it forwards. Do not allow any tension in your arms. Keep your back straight and do not lean forward. You may only be able to hold this position for short periods of time to start off with, but persistence will pay dividends. Try to hold for up to five minutes.
Once you have built up your endurance and can perform all the five postures without creating any tension in your body, you can move onto the full cycle: hold each position for five minutes, starting from the First Posture, then Second, then Fifth, then Fourth, then Third, and finally finish with another five minutes in the First Posture.
Zhan Zhuang is a wonderful low impact form of cardiovascular exercise, and if you stick with it, you will find that – in the words of Lam Kam Chuen – you can stand still and be fit!