Zhan Zhuang translates to ‘standing like a stake’ and has been practiced for over a thousand years in China as part of a larger program of health improvement known as Nei Gong (Internal Practice). Nei Gong cultivates and directs the flow of Chi to improve health and wellbeing, being first developed by Taoists and later incorporated into the expansion of the martial arts. External Shaolin arts used aspects of Nei Gong to strengthen the body for fighting – iron shirt training – and the internal arts of Hsing Yi, Tai Chi and Ba Gua expanded the martial possibilities of Nei Gong to generate effortless power and fighting spirit. Zhan Zhuang was first pioneered for internal martial purposes through the development of Hsing Yi, using the San Ti Shi stance as its principle training method. More recently, Wang Xiang Zhai recognised the possibilities which could be achieved from Zhan Zhuang practice and built the entire Yi Chuan system around this training method. Yi Chuan regards Zhan Zhuang as the most important aspect of all martial training. Etheric Boxing also recognises this importance and because of this Zhan Zhuang lies at the core of the Etheric Boxing system.
Zhan Zhuang is such an important training method because it develops the fundamental skills needed to become a skilled martial artist:
Correct body alignment and connectivity
These core skills need to be strengthened from the beginning and expanded as training progresses. There are no end to their strength and development and because of this, Zhan Zhuang must be practiced throughout the life of a martial artist who wants to be the very best they can be.
Without training these core skills, higher spiritual levels cannot be reached:
High awareness of the self and the outside world
Complete sense of confidence and wellbeing
A skilled martial artist possesses a high level of spirit, inner strength and wellbeing. To be successful in real combat inner strength and fighting spirit are required and it is primarily through Zhan Zhuang that these higher spiritual skills are trained. This is the reason why Zhan Zhuang lies at the centre of Etheric Boxing, a martial system which trains the mental and physical skills needed for real combat.
The benefits of Zhan Zhuang can be discussed best through an examination of the six criteria for standing:
Cultivating intrinsic energy (Chi)
Educating efficient breathing
Opening the energy gates
Physical strength and stamina
Relaxation is essential for combat. Physically, relaxation allows the body and limbs to move freely in a controlled and co-ordinated manner. If there is tension in the body – from muscular tension or incorrect body alignment – movement and power will be stifled. The whole body must be relaxed to produce power. Power is not hard force, it is an explosive force. To produce real power you must first be relaxed.
Mentally, relaxation opens the connection between mind and body to enable the mind to direct the actions of the body. Real combat is an extremely stressful event because entering into it can mean the difference between life and death. Due to this intensity it is important that the mind remains calm under pressure. A martial skill set can be trained to a high level in the training room. However, the stress of combat can easily render this training useless if the mind is unable to cope with it for real. Once the mind is clouded through stress the actions of the body lose their skill. The stress of combat can easily cause the body to freeze and it is common to see even seasoned ‘training room’ martial artists physically freeze with fear when facing an opponent in a real confrontation.
The internal arts place a great deal of emphasis on achieving unity between mind and body and this begins by placing the mind and body into a state of ‘pure’ relaxation through Zhan Zhuang. Pure relaxation can only be reached in stillness. Pure relaxation is a state of complete awareness and wellbeing, where every inch of the body is free of tension and the mind clear. Reaching a state of pure relaxation must be achieved in stillness first before it can be maintained during movement because physical movement causes the mind to move and become de-centred, drifting off into thoughts and distraction. Once relaxation can be achieved in stillness it can then be trained during movement.
Cultivating Intrinsic Energy (Chi)
Good health is determined through balanced energy levels in the body. Too little or too much energy causes the deterioration of health and can eventually lead to disease and death. At any point in our life, at every split second, we are either moving towards good health or away from it. When the mind and body relax energy can flow steadily and uninterrupted throughout the body, building strength and healing ailments.
Intrinsic energy (Chi) begins as Jing (life essence). Jing is the foundational energy of all life and is contained within the sperm (for men), ovaries (for women) and kidneys (for both men and women) in the human body and is our ‘essential energy’. When there is no Jing surviving the body dies. Jing stays within us from our very conception to the point of death. It can be viewed as the battery which sustains us. This battery can be topped up throughout our lifetime to increase our health and longevity by transforming Jing into Chi. This transformation is achieved in small quantities by eating healthily, taking exercise and living in clean, tranquil environments. However, Chi can also be produced in large quantities through Zhan Zhuang.
The primary source of Chi used in Zhan Zhuang is air. We breathe this energy into our lungs and guide it with our mind into our central energy reservoir, the Lower Dan Tien (more commonly referred to as the Dan Tien) where it is stored. Storing Chi builds an energy reserve which can be tapped into and relied upon when needed. There are two further Dan Tiens in the body; the Middle Dan Tien and the Upper Dan Tien. The Middle Dan Tien is the central reservoir for emotional energy and the Upper Dan Tien is the central reservoir for spiritual energy (Figure 1).
The next step in energy cultivation is to guide stored Chi throughout the body. When the mind and body enter into a state of pure relaxation and mindfulness Chi naturally flows throughout the body. However, it is common to regularly encounter energy blockages due to physical and mental traumas that impede the flow of Chi. In these common scenarios the mind must be used to disperse energy blockages and guide Chi to flow unimpeded.
In the external martial arts power is created through technique and the expanding and contracting of the muscles. Muscular strength (Li), when trained well, can be very impressive and practical. However, there are negative aspects of Li in the long term that outweigh the short term benefits; the short lifespan of muscular strength due to the aging process and possibility for damage if trained to excess. In the internal arts Chi is used to produce power instead of Li. Chi can be built throughout one’s lifetime and invigorates the body instead of damaging it. Because the possibilities of energy cultivation can always expand there is no end to the power that can be produced from the use of Chi.
Emotional energy can be balanced through energy cultivation to achieve emotional wellbeing. Our outside environment and life stresses have the greatest impact on emotional imbalances which frequently cause our emotions to fluctuate, often uncontrollably, between extremes. An extreme of any emotion is not an ideal state to reside in. The relaxation from Zhan Zhuang naturally balances emotions and develops a higher sense of emotional confidence and wellbeing.
In more advanced stages of Zhan Zhuang practice our spirit is strengthened. This is the transformation of Chi into Shen (spirit). Shen is our higher spiritual awareness of ourselves and the world around us. Shen guides our intent and our decisions. Shen governs our ability to act correctly and decisively which is essential when faced with a combat situation. Shen guides our awareness of a confrontation and the correct course of action to take. Shen enables us to reach a higher spiritual level than our opponent, quenching fear and confusion, and enables us to implement strategies which are powerful and effective.
Educating Efficient Breathing
Air is our main source of energy from the outside world. We can survive months without food, perhaps a week without water, but not more than a few minutes without air. Air oxygenates the blood cells which travel to every part of our bodies through our blood vessels. The cardio-vascular system is a fundamental energy transportation system. Understandably, breathing plays an important role in Zhan Zhuang training and is used to its greatest possibilities to cultivate intrinsic energy and increase power.
‘Belly breathing’ and ‘reverse breathing’ are both practiced in Zhan Zhuang. As babies and toddlers we belly breathe. We are born belly breathing and because of this, belly breathing is regarded as our natural way to breathe. During adolescence we lose this natural method of breathing and resort to our ‘normal’ method of breathing, which runs on motor functions – controlled by the abdominal muscles and conducted constantly unaware. Only the top third of our lungs are filled with air breathing in this normal manner and vital energy is wasted. When we belly breathe we make a conscious effort to expand and contract the lower belly which draws air deep into the bottom two thirds of our lungs. Along with an increase in air consumption, the motion of expanding and contracting the belly draws energy into the Dan Tien and massages the organs of the body. On the in-breath the body contracts as it draws energy from the outside into our Dan Tien, filling it as the belly expands. On the out-breath the body relaxes and the belly contracts as this energy is pushed to every extremity of the body. After a significant length of time practicing belly breathing our natural state of breathing can return in our everyday lives unconsciously.
Reverse breathing – also known as Taoist breathing – reverses this process and is mainly used as a method to build and release power. On the in-breath the belly (and entire body) contracts instead of expanding as energy is drawn in. On the out-breath the belly (and entire body) expands as energy is pushed into every extremity of the body, filling the body like a balloon. Contracting the energy before expanding it outwards into the body creates power which can be directed into strikes once honed in stillness first.
Breathing promotes relaxation. By focussing on our breath we clear our minds of the distractions which draw us away from achieving a state of mindfulness. When we slow our breathing – which will naturally occur when training Zhan Zhuang – we also slow the heart rate and relax the entire body. The in-breath draws positive energy in and the out-breath releases tension and pushes negative energy out. The in-breath corresponds with Yang and the out breath with Yin. Learning to control the breath is essential for generating power and relaxing the mind and body during combat. Rapid breathing, due to stress, increases our heart rate, promotes the release of adrenaline and creates fatigue, causing the muscles to tense and disrupting the connection between mind and body. Controlling the breath during combat relaxes mind and body, allows the energy to circulate freely and increases power.
Opening the Energy Gates
The body contains a multitude of energy gates that control the flow of Chi. When these energy gates are blocked a deterioration in corresponding areas of the body occurs. These blockages can lead to ailments and disease. Martially, energy blockages stifle power, whole body connection and intent. Although there are hundreds of thousands of energy gates in the body (every pore of skin is essentially an energy gate) the three most important are along the spine; the Jade Pillow, the Dorsal Gate and the Tailbone Gate (Figure 2).
The spine is the primary vessel for connection between mind and body and holds our entire physical structure together. Because of this, opening the energy gates of the spine is extremely important for the flow of Chi throughout the body. Opening the energy gates in the spine can be achieved through correct body alignment: the back is held straight and is allowed to regain its natural posture; the pelvis tucks under to straighten the bottom of the spine; the shoulders open outwards to round the back; and the chin is tucked backwards and upwards to lift the top of the head and straighten the top of the spine (Figure 3). Stretching the spine in this manner allows these energy gates to open and provides a strong physical structure.
Chi moves around the body through the Microcosmic Orbit, a circuit that connects all the major energy gates in one complete cycle (Figure 4). There are two vessels which form the microcosmic orbit; the Conception Vessel and the Governing Vessel. These two vessels are joined together to form a complete circuit by pressing the tongue gently up against the roof of the mouth. The conception vessel shares a connection with the heart and the governing vessel with the kidneys. The element attached to the heart is fire and the element attached the kidneys is water. Fire’s natural instinct is to rise whilst water’s is to fall. If we allow fire to rise too much in the body stress, anger, heart disease and blood circulation problems can arise. If we allow water to fall too much in the body lethargy, depression, kidney disease and urinary problems can arise. Instead, if we allow Chi to fall down the conception vessel and rise up the governing vessel, reversing and controlling the nature of these elements, balance, harmony and equilibrium can be achieved. This is achieved by guiding energy to fall into the Dan Tien on the in-breath and rise up the spine to the top of the head on the out-breath, circulating the energy in this continuous direction.
Physical Strength and Stamina
Reasonable levels of physical strength and stamina are needed for good health and excellent levels are needed for martial arts. In combat you need the strength to overcome your opponent and the stamina to maintain this strength until the job is complete.
The two muscular systems of the body are the postural system and the phasic system (also known as the stabiliser system and the mobiliser system). Postural muscles are responsible for holding the physical structure of the body together, whilst phasic muscles are responsible for isolated movements. Internal strength training is different from external methods; external methods rely on building strength through phasic movements and stamina is built through the repetition of these phasic movements for extended periods of time. Phasic movements rely on Li (muscular strength) and isolate specific muscle groups, meaning the whole body cannot move as one connected unit from the centre. Although phasic movements have strength, no real power can be produced because they work in isolation. Real power requires whole body connection from the postural muscles and it is this muscular system that is primarily strengthened in the internal martial arts through Zhan Zhuang. When the postural muscles are strengthened the whole body can work as one to produce power. The strength and stamina of postural muscles are increased from holding Zhan Zhuang postures for increasing levels of time.
Although the internal arts place emphasis on internal strength over physical strength, it would be impossible to build any internal strength without a good level of physical strength first. Zhan Zhuang builds strength in the muscles, tendons, sinews, bones and organs of the body. Standing postures provide every aspect of your physical body with a complete workout. This is the reason why beginners can comfortably hold Zhan Zhuang postures for only a few minutes at a time before pain and exertion takes over. However, as in all exercise, once a practitioner begins to stand every day their body will naturally build strength, not through increasing muscle size but by strengthening the postural system. The stamina of this system is increased through longer standing sessions.
It is important to build good levels of postural strength and stamina to practice Zhan Zhuang effectively because the internal aspects will not start to be trained until at least 5 minutes into a standing session. Even after years of constant practice the physical body may sometimes begin to hurt or shake after only a few minutes. However, if the posture is maintained through this pain the mind and body will gradually settle into a state of relaxation to enable the free flow of Chi throughout the body. It would be futile to attempt to train the internal and higher spiritual aspects of standing when the mind and body are fighting under the physical stress of standing; Chi is unable to flow freely through tense muscles and the mind will be distracted by the pain. To train internal and higher spiritual aspects the physical body needs to break through the pain barrier into pure relaxation. Once this is achieved Chi flows steadily throughout the body, the mind loses all thought and the posture can be easily held for an extended period of time (anything up to a few hours at a time); building increased strength and stamina along with internal and higher spiritual aspects.
Grounding is important for developing of the ability to project and withstand force. The power to produce force can only be produced from a solid base, achieved through sinking the weight of the body into the ground. Equally, if you do not possess good grounding an opponent will be able to use their force to move you and keep you on the back foot in retreat.
In Zhan Zhuang the mind and body relax to sink the weight of the body into the ground, creating a solid base. When trained for extended periods of time the body will become grounded and elastic; producing the ability to project and absorb forces without breaking body connection. If body connection is broken, centre is lost and the mind becomes more preoccupied in battling to regain centre than on defeating the opponent. When grounded, body connection and centre remain intact which provides the ability to project and absorb force from any position and direction using minimal effort.
Wu Ji Posture
Wu Ji is the foundation of all standing postures (Figure 5). Wu Ji translates into ‘without extremities’ (often referred to simply as ‘neutral posture’) and is the most natural position for the body to hold in an upright position: the spine is held in its natural position; the head points straight forwards; legs can be together or shoulder width apart with a 50:50 weight distribution ratio; knees are unlocked but not bent; the weight of the body lies over the Yong Quan points in the feet; shoulders are dropped and arms allowed to naturally rest at the sides. Wu Ji is held in a very natural and effortless manner. The posture should be held so the Bai Hui, Upper Dan Tien, Middle Dan Tien, Lower Dan Tien, Hui Yin and Yong Quan all line up along central vertical lines to enable the free flow of chi between the air above your head and the ground below your feet through all the major channels of the body.
Belly breathing and reverse breathing can both be used in Wu Ji. Because Wu Ji is the most natural and neutral posture to adopt the mind can free all thought to achieve a state of emptiness. Wu Ji should be practiced for at least 5 minutes and anything up to one hour before moving into another posture. After standing in other postures you should settle back into Wu Ji for at least a few minutes before finishing a standing session to return to a natural state of being again.
The Universal Posture is regarded as one of the most important postures for health as well as combat (Figure 6). In the Universal Posture the body’s joints are held in their central positions, neither too extended nor too bent, which trains the body and mind to remain completely centred: the knees bend and the pelvis tucks under (straightening the bottom of the spine) to allow the body to sink into the ground; the top of the head lifts up to complete the stretching of the spine; the arms rise from the shoulder blades and are held at chest height a forearms width apart with palms facing inwards towards the body; the elbows are allowed to naturally hang and the knees feel as if they are pushing outwards a little to the sides.
Mental imagery can be used whilst standing in the Universal Posture using imaginary balls: imagine sitting on a large ball as you sink down into the posture and settle; imagine holding a large ball within your arms; imagine a ball in between your knees pushing them outwards slightly; imagine balls under your elbows supporting them; and imagine holding balls in between your fingers.
Zhan Zhuang is regarded in Hsing Yi, Yi Chuan and Etheric Boxing as the core training method of these systems which develops and strengthens both their foundations and the higher spiritual aspects necessary for real combat. The healthy mind and body is the powerful mind and body, and great efforts should be made in forging these through Zhan Zhuang to become an effective martial artist. Nothing can be achieved in movement unless it can be achieved within stillness first. This Taoist philosophy lies at the heart of Zhan Zhuang training and should be explored earnestly to understand the martial arts to greater depths.