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 assidous practice.
Zhan zhuang is an ancient technique between meditation, martial arts and traditional chinese medecine. Its origins are remote. One of the first references to this kind of exercice is in the Huang-ti nei ching (Classics of Medecine of the Yellow Emperor, 2690-2590 before J.C. ), which is probably one of the most ancient books in the medical field.
This posture, practiced and transmitted secretly in the martial arts cercles, has been openly shown to the public in the beginning of this century. Wang Xiang Zhai, a very famous martial arts master of that period in China, made of this technique the foundation of a new martial art called I Chuan (Mind boxing). He used to say “the immobility is the mother of any technique”.
Today, this technique is more and more studied by practicionners of internal martial arts, including Tai chi. Its applications are many. It is a core practice for beginners, advanced students and experts of any style, a key exercice to continuously nurture and develop our standards of practice.
The Chinese Yoga
“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.
Following Ayurvedic science, the human body is divided in six main parts : head, chest, both arms and both legs. The knowledge is located in the head, heart represents devotion and the legs and the arms mean action. Yoga combines the three locations which fonction simultaneously, in perfect harmony.
The external immobility of the zhan zhuang postures and its link with the asanas or yogic postures has suggested the qualification of this technique as “chinese yoga”. Its final goal is also to achieve the unity of the human being, in perfect balance between the earth and the sky universal forces.
Chinese medecine asserts that when a part of the body is ill, the global energy of our bodies loses balance. Everything is related, body, mind and emotions. A complete energetic discipline like the zhan zhuang allows us to dissolve blockings and progressively achieve a better physical and moral shape. This state of fitness is visible from outside. We become more alert, full of vigor 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 (point located three fingers below the navel) and by relaxing all the tensions, a state of inner peace and tempered happiness appear. It is an indescriptible state and its effects have positive influence in our lives.
Step by step guidelines of practice
The four main attitudes in life
As humans beings, we are all supposed to be able to put ourselves properly into the main basic positions of standing, sitting down, lying down 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 main attitudes in life. Bad postures have simply become a bad habit. As a result, persistent back problems and a state of chronic fatigue might appear.
It is not necessary to demonstrate that the body position has a direct incidence on our emotional state. Retreating and defensive positions usually match with a declining spirit.
Your body is desperately trying to telling you that it is time to take care of yourself!
The zhan zhuang practice proposes to “unlearn” all these bad habits and to return to a more natural, comfortable and healthy posture.
In time, we become to apply the structural principles of zhan zhuang in all the chores of our everyday lives. Waiting for the bus, washing dishes, sitting, lying down, cooking, driving...Any situation become a laboratory of experimentation, a way to improve our practice.
Progressively, you will hold a better position when you will be sitting in front of your computer or television. As a result, a general state of well-being, physical comfort and tranquillity will impregnate all your daily activities.
Principles of practice
Find a quiet place for your daily practice. Avoid extreme climatic conditions if you practice outdoors. Indoors, choose a shinny and well ventilated room.
If your energy level is very low (exhaustion, depressive state, physical pains...), use some instrumental music to always start your exercices in a positive and pleasant way.
Ideally, zhan zhuang should be practiced a little everyday. A three or four times a week practice can also bring you some results. In any case, it is better to exercice a bit everyday instead of relying in big and exhausting sessions from time to time.
It is possible to do the zhan zhuang exercices from 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 handicaped.
Occasionally, someone in good health who feels tired can use these techniques to get fit again. Zhan zhuang is for everybody. It is just necessary to continuously accomodate the training to your fitness level.
When you start practising this technique, two aspects are important : first, relax the whole body, second, 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, watch their coming and going as you would watch clouds passing by through the sky.
Rather, focus on the body sensation of tranquility and comfort during practice. Let your practice become your rest...
Relaxing should not be assimilated with a sedative state. Traditionally, we say: outside, remain quiet as Bouddha. Inside, be alert as a tiger ready to bounce on its prey.
By focusing our attention in 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 goes together in an outside static but inside very dynamic exercise.
At the same time, as long as you further develop your sensitiveness, you will become aware of all the blockings and changes that are taking place inside your body.
In this posture, 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 are more valuable than two hours of empty zhan zhuang.
Follow the instructions carefully. The inner trip is about to start...
- - Feet are parallel.
- - Keep your arms up as if you were holding a ball and place your hands somewhere between the torax and the abdomen. If you are tired or if you are a beginner, keep the hands at the level of your “dantien” (point located three fingers below your navel). With time and practice, you will feel the need to raise them progressively. Let it happen but do not force your posture. Be natural.
- - Keep your head up. You should have the feeling as if the head was suspended from above.
- - Relax shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands.
- - Relax your chest and allow the breathing 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 damageable for the organs. In fact, we can not force the abdominal breathing itself. It should come with consistent practice.
- - Relax your “kwa” (hips).
- - Bend your knees slightly and relax 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.
- - Relax your ankles.
- - Relax your feet.
- - Make sure that the body weight is equally balanced between your both feet.
- - Relax and strecht your spine.
- - Relax your back.
- - Align “Bai hui” (DU 20 ), located on the top of your head, and “hui yin” (CV 1), located between the anus and the perineum.
- - “Listen 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 exclusively your attention 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.
For some students, and particularly for beginners, closing the eyes during the posture can be a source of tension or unbalance. If so, open your eyes from time to time, or keep them opened all the time. Just avoid to look around you 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, you will slowly let your arms go down, hanging them on both sides of your body. Take your time to finish this exercice.
You will usually place both hands, one of the top of another, covering your dantien. As you start moving, take your time to relax shoulders, elbows and hands again. Make sure that your dantien is fully relaxed. Do not rush.
For women, right hand is placed first. For men, left hand is placed first. “Lao gong” (PC 8), the accupuncture point placed in the middle of the hands should form a straight line with the dantien. Align Lao gong, lao gong and dantien. Some rotation of the dantien should follow, 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 both directions.
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 occupations. A nice walk in a park, some stretching exercices 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 advise is a most. It prevents you from making mistakes which will either alter or retardate the results of this practice. The approach of a beginner or an advanced student is usually very different. Each approach, each practice caters different needs and different goals. An experienced and skillful teacher should be able to accomodate the corrections to each level and to give a personal path to each student.
Basic corrections on the structure must be done from the first lessons to avoid keeping 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 not short-cuts 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 from their disciples to be able to endure bitterness in order to reach true « gong fu » (mastership) in martial arts.
In fact, the serious practicionner must continuously overcome his/her weakness and to show courage, will and determination to keep his/her practice and progress alive. This is naturally applied to the zhan zhuang.
Practice is a continuous personal challenge towards physical, emotional and spiritual higher levels.
With time and dedication, the experienced student becomes one day the master of his/her own practice.
The zhan zhuang is a style within no style, an unique technique of knowledge and personal development, and its simplicity and profoundness are a way towards the true Freedom.
About the Author
Victoria Windholtz was born in Spain in December 1971 and started practicing martial arts intensively at the age of 10. For many years she has been a member of the French National Tai chi Team. She won four golden 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. Her meeting with Grand Master Chen Xiao Wang, 19th generation inheritor of Chen style Tai chi, has marked an important stage in the development of her practice. Today, she is particularly interested in the true transmission of Tai chi principles as a life art which contributes to the global developement of the human being. Victoria currently runs her own school of Chen style Tai chi in Paris and teaches in France and internationally.
See her website at www.victoriawindholtz.com