Friday, April 1, 2011

Zhan Zhuang 101

This is my typical first training session on Zhan Zhuang:

1. Practice objectives:
  • Understand the basic Zhan Zhuang stance
  • Understand the mental condition required for effective practice
  • Understand the concept of “points stretched with body relaxed” (點緊身鬆) and the dynamics between Yin and Yang for more effective chi generation
  • Understand one’s unique starting point in terms of posture
  • Know how to generate chi and can feel the existence of chi inside one’s body during practice (and its disappearance after practice)

2. The techniques:
  • The basic stance is called “embracing a tree”. As its name implies, the hands are to be like embracing a huge tree that touches the front part of the body and the insides of both hands and arms. The tree should be like rubber instead of being too hard or too soft (another possible visualization is holding a balloon). This is an example of everything dynamically positioned between two extremes in Zhan Zhuang practice. The sense of being rubber-like signifies that there are two dynamic forces in action and in equilibrium (one pushes in – hands and arms pressing in; one pushes out – the reaction force of the now slightly compressed [imaginary] rubber tree ). Having said that visualization is not absolutely essential for Zhan Zhuang, it can make things too complicated for some practitioners.
  • The basic stance is also called horse stance, as its name implies, it is like riding a horse. Care must be taken for new practitioners that the knees should only be slightly bended and in any case shouldn’t be over one’s toes, otherwise too much stressed may be acted upon the knees for some.
  • Should a practitioner feels too weak to stand, he/she can remain seated with legs no need to fold but should be resting firmly on the ground.
  • The hands should be stretched with the body being relaxed (點緊身鬆) as explained below. Shoulders should be relaxed. Elbows should be raised leaving ample rooms under one’s armpits (for one with very tight shoulders, elbows should be raised only a little).
  • The hands should be stretched but not stiff (點緊). Hands must not be too stiff - a common slogan being “looks stiff yet not stiff, looks relaxed yet not relaxed” (似緊非緊,似鬆非鬆). This is the Yang side of chi transfer (reference post: Are you too stiff?).
  • The body should be relaxed but not collapsed (身鬆). This is the Yin side of chi transfer (reference post: Are you on Depression stance?)
  • Mental condition: First: one’s mind should be in the (meditative) zone, meaning with mind between being asleep and being wake up (if in doubt as to where is the correct mid-point, always choose the more sleepy position that one can manage). Second: one’s mind to be focused on one’s third eye (place between eye-brows, sometimes called square-inch 方寸) and “look” or “listen” to internal chi-flow during practice, towards the hands and/or the lower abdomen (丹田). Needless to say, “look” or “listen” are metaphorical expressions.
  • Use the mind to subtly control chi-flow: with the objective of making chi to spread evenly throughout the body, i.e. flow slowly and smoothly from Yang to Yin (or between Yang and Yin). This technique can usually only be understood or appreciated through more private practice after session one.
  • Weight of the relaxed body: use one’s mind to direct the body’s dead-weight down to the two soles, evenly distributed. And only when one is deep in the meditative zone (between asleep and wake up) can one be having dead-weight and be able to subtly manage its distribution using one’s mind. If successful, the soles will become another two Yang points. Like the above point, more practice is needed for its realization.
  • Understand one’s unique starting point in terms of posture: During relaxed state while keeping a good balance, and with point stretched body relaxed (點緊身鬆), one’s unique starting point will surface. This starting point depends on the unique conditions of the muscle-cum-bone structure of one’s body as well as one’s level of mind-relaxation. For example, with tight shoulders one can’t raise one’s elbow to the standard “embracing-a-tree” position without causing too much strain at some part of one’s body. Respect one’s starting point and try to subtly move towards the standard form ONLY with more daily practice. Don’t falsify flexibility, or one scores no point for being (or looking) flexible but scores good points for having daily improvements.
  • Breathing: breathe normally and slowly, can be either chest or abdominal breathing (yes, contrary to common belief, chest breathing is perfectly OK in the beginning), as long as one feels comfortable; and remember not to hold one’s breathe during practice. 
  • Should part of one’s body be feeling too uncomfortable, too tight or aching, loosen oneself with fine-adjustment in the posture.
  • During a training session, a coach will finely adjust a learner’s posture, with or without relaxing or strengthening individual parts of his/her body in the process. In the absence of a coach, an intelligent learner can sometimes use a mirror to do self adjustments with good results.

3. Criterion of success (depends on each individual, so don’t worry if you don’t experience all those below)
  • Tinkling and/or warm sensation in the fingers and/or hands
  • Slight perspiration
  • Feel slight chi flowing and balancing inside one’s body
  • Isolated part(s) of one’s body has a denser sensation, i.e. a sensation of with-chi (得氣感).
  • Initial muscles tension (may be caused by Zhan Zhuang practice!) disappearing
  • Mentally relaxed after practice
  • One has to use one’s toes to balance one’s body which sometimes tends to move forward and backward slightly and involuntarily, as if in risk of falling over (vigorous movement is however considered to be wrong practice)

4. What can you get out of it?
  • A more aligned body with increased flexibility and strength
  • Mind and body more in synch
  • After chi has been activated, one can practice moving chi-kung forms (e.g. Tai-chi) more efficiently and effectively
  • This is the best exercise for middle-aged-plus and for people with general body weakness
5. What next?
  • Practice suggestion: A practitioner is suggested to practice daily with a minimum 30 minutes practice time per day (either one 30 minutes session or two 15 minutes sessions). Preferably in the morning or in the evening when one has a more relaxed mind. Private practice in solo without external disturbance is preferred. Music is not necessary.
  • Objective of next training session:
    • Loosen one’s shoulders and pelvic joints for stronger chi generation.
    • Incorporate chi-generation into daily activities.

    Left: stretched hand in Zhan Zhuang stance  Right: Bruce Lee's stretched hands in Combat stance, note his focus on his middle fingers for generating maximum chi and power


    1. When I do zhan zhuang like this, it seems the chi has moved to my fingertips and stopped there, making my palms feel heavy. Is it supposed to be like that so should I encourage it through visualization to flow elsewhere?

    2. The next (possible) step is to visualize or feel chi flow upwards through the (muscles of the) arm and up to the shoulder joint. Do it one at a time, then, at a later stage, both arms together. Likewise you can practice the same with your legs, which is more advanced.

    3. In doing zhan zhuang, I find the front of my thighs burning with the effort. As I practice some more, the burning sensation seems to move towards the kua. Is it supposed to be like that? Are we supposed to "grin and bear it"?

    4. First you must differentiate two kinds of sensation: one is painful which should be avoided, probably you're hurting your knees or "dislocating" your joints (like your pelvic joint, I mean moving your joint away from its aligned position, oftentimes in the incorrect name of achieving flexibility). The other sensation of feeling "heat" is actually OK. I think your situation relates firstly to your conditioning of your thighs (which is good). When the sensation move up to your Kua (pelvic joints), you should subtly direct that "heated" sensation of chi to gently open (and strengthen) your Kua (tip: direct it towards the point(s) of maximum resistance, and at the same time, NOT "dislocating" your joint). It's like a sluggish feeling.

      Good luck with your practice.


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