Zhan Zhuang Standing Meditation
origin, benefits, technique
Zhan Zhuang , also known as standing meditation or immobile pole , is a simple but extremely effective technique for stimulating energy, mental clarity and our inner strength. It is an excellent exercise to improve productivity and bring more vitality to our daily activities. In this article we will find out more about the origins of Zhan Zhuang, its benefits and how to practice it.
What is Zhan Zhuang Standing Meditation
In ancient China, Taoism was the dominant current of thought, based on a text entitled Tao Te Ching , which translates to “The Way of the Power of Virtue” . According to Taoism there is a form of universal energy, namely the energy Qi (pronounced “Chi”), which sustains life throughout the universe and flows through living beings.
In China, knowledge of the key importance of Qi energy has been cultivated and refined over thousands of years in order to prevent disease and premature aging.
The system of Taoist practices to rebalance and nourish Qi energy is called Qigong (or Chi Gung), a term that means “cultivation of vital energy” and includes more than 3000 exercises for physical and spiritual well-being.
Qigong methods cover three areas:
- Health (cultivation of fundamental energy)
- Martial application (to develop martial arts power)
- Spiritual development
Zhan Zhuang is the fundamental technique on which all Qigong styles are based and focuses on the first area, that is the cultivation of the fundamental energy to benefit health. The main feature of Zhan Zhuang is excellent effectiveness in helping to stimulate and balance the internal flow of Qi energy.
Although there are thousands of forms of Qigong, Zhan Zhuang is probably the practice with the longest tradition, dating back to 25 centuries ago (one of its first descriptions comes from a Chinese medical book written between 403 and 200 BC).
The word Zhan Zhuang is the modern term, coined by Wang Xiangzhai , a student of Xing Yi Quan (one of the Wudang styles of Chinese martial arts) who created a method of Kung Fu entirely based on this technique.
Benefits of Zhan Zhuang Standing Meditation
Zhan Zhuang is a simple and elegant practice that offers incredible benefits to its practitioners.
The main advantage, and also the one that can be noticed most in the short term, is a significant increase in physical energy , due to the correction of the body posture. In the age in which we live, poor posture has become almost the norm for many people, due to our increasingly sedentary lives. Poor posture creates a natural sense of fatigue by slowing or stopping the flow of energy flowing through the body.
In an ideal state, our Qi energy would flow freely through the body’s energy pathways , called vessels or channels. In Qi theory, energy blockages (stagnant Qi) are the root cause of most physical and mental ailments.
Zhan Zhuang’s goal is to unblock stagnant Qi and open all the energy pathways of the body.
The health benefits of practicing this technique consistently include:
- Increase in red blood cells
- Increased production of hemoglobin
- Better oxygenation in the body
- Sleep improvement
- Improved activity of the cerebral cortex
How to do Zhan Zhuang Standing Meditation
Zhan Zhuang literally means “standing like a tree” and, as the name suggests, it is a static practice in which one stops, in an upright position, as if to imitate the stability of a plant.
The metaphor of the tree is particularly fitting if we think of our body as a trunk and the head and limbs as branches. The feet , firmly planted on the ground, form the roots.
The ultimate purpose of Zhan Zhuang is to rebalance your energy from the head to the center of your body . The Chinese call this center the lower Dantian ; the Japanese call it Hara . This center point is located in the lower abdomen, just below the navel.
By learning to focus your awareness in this region, you will begin to better synchronize your mind and body and reconnect with your instincts and feelings, improving your ability to make effective decisions and feeling a much more powerful flow of energy that will aid your focus.
The actual practice of Zhan Zhuang is so simple that it is easy to lose sight of its value: you simply have to be able to sit still .
But to stay still for a long time, we must first understand the proper alignment of the body.
The human body is a natural cylinder. While the cylindrical body of most other animals is horizontal and supported by four limbs (therefore naturally very stable), our cylinder is vertical. This upright posture serves to free our forelimbs to perform other functions, but it is obviously more challenging to balance a vertical cylinder on two legs than to balance a horizontal cylinder on four.
The gravity always exerts a downward force on our upright posture: why, with improper alignment, the muscles of our body are in constant tension in an attempt to maintain balance and this results in an energy drain.
With proper alignment, the skeleton structure creates a natural “reservoir” of energy that circulates around the body’s meridians .
Standing meditation brings systematic improvements to our ability to maintain the right balance : the goal of this practice is to keep the body in a relaxed, extended and open position, while the mind is empty, active and alert.
Although you may have the feeling that a considerable effort must be made to obtain the correct posture, in reality the ultimate goal is to be able to maintain the pose with the least possible expenditure of energy .
But this relaxed state comes only after a little practice and you need to have learned the fundamentals of proper alignment. In the next section you will find out step by step how to do this exercise correctly.
Tips for doing Zhan Zhuang Standing Meditation
It is useful to remind yourself that in the beginning it is not necessary to do everything perfectly. Fixing yourself on this thought will only create internal tension , which will inhibit the benefits of this practice, so don’t give up if the first few times you can’t totally relax or achieve perfect balance: just keep trying.
Here are the steps to perform to practice Zhan Zhuang correctly:
- Stand with your feet facing forward , parallel to each other, and firmly planted on the ground shoulder-width apart. Sink your feet to the ground keeping them springy, with your toes slightly extended.
- Extend your body upward , stretching the top of your head towards the sky. The feeling you need to achieve is that your head appears to float above your neck, suspended effortlessly above your spine.
- Push your hips forward slightly , as if sitting on the edge of a high stool. This adjustment will straighten the spine in the lower back, as many people have a natural “s” curve in their spine. One of the main goals of this standing position is to reduce the curvature of the spine as much as possible to open up the flow of energy.
- Keep your knees slightly bent . Your knees should never be “locked” (ie too straight) and should never go beyond your toes (ie bend excessively).
- Relax your shoulders . Do not arch your back by straightening it excessively like in a military position, but do the exact opposite, forming a small curve with the upper back and making the chest slightly concave.
- Let your arms rest comfortably on the sides of the body . Imagine having a pea-sized ball under each armpit to create a small gap. Zhan Zhuang has 200 postures with different arm and leg positions, but you don’t have to worry about your arms at first. Keep your hands and arms relaxed and free as they hang down at your sides.
- Let your palms face towards your hips . Due to the small space under the armpits, the hands will not touch the hips, but will hang about 4 or 5 centimeters apart.
- Bring your chin back slightly as you push up towards the top of your head. This gesture opens the area where the spine meets the skull.
- Keep your eyes half closed looking straight ahead. Keeping your eyes open can lead to distractions and closing them completely can lead to tiredness and sleepiness. A relaxed gaze with half-closed eyes provides optimal conditions for effective meditation.
- Gently rest your tongue on the palate , keeping your lips parted. Relax your jaw muscles.
It is recommended that you focus on one or two alignment points at a time, adding the next ones only when you feel ready.
Here are some things you can do to help you:
- Breathe naturally through your nostrils, naturally slowing the pace of your breathing. Feel your whole body relax more deeply with each exhalation.
- Avoid forcing your breath, keep it calm and steady.
- Avoid physical exertion. You have to rely only on your bones to stand up.
- Be kind to yourself. Forcing yourself excessively will only increase the tension.
- Your first goal is to focus all of your muscle tension in your feet and the ground beneath them. To assist in this effort, first try to focus your attention only on your feet.
Wang Xiangzhai , considered the main teacher and father of Zhan Zhuang’s contemporary forms, describes the practice as follows:
In studying this method, the most important thing is to avoid straining ourselves mentally or physically. If we use physical force, our energy will be congested and blocked. When our Qi is blocked, our intention, or Yi, is stopped. When our intention is blocked, our spirit, or shen, will be distracted. And when our spirit is distracted, we will be deluded that we are making progress while in reality we are regressing.
Getting to the correct posture can take some time, so be patient with yourself. Once you are familiar with this basic posture, it will become second nature to you and you can explore the alternative poses of standing meditation.
When you practice for the first time, remember these tips:
- Practice in front of a mirror from multiple angles to get a better perception of your body positioning.
- If you are having trouble releasing tension, try lifting your shoulders and tensing your whole body for a few seconds. Then release the tension by relaxing.
- Focusing your attention on your feet and feeling your body weight on top of them will help redistribute your energy away from your head. This provides a calmer and clearer mind, ideal for productive work.
You can practice this posture at the bus stop, while getting gas or when you are in line at the supermarket. Literally any occasion where you have to stand still is perfect!
Duration of practice of Zhan Zhuang Standing Meditation
To get the full benefits of standing meditation, the ideal length of practice should be 40 minutes per day . However, I suggest that you start with just 1 or 2 minutes of practice and gradually increase the duration as your body becomes familiar with this exercise.
If you know that you will only be standing for 2 minutes, your mind will be less likely to divert attention from the practice.
When you have completed the session, slowly move your feet back and forth and side to side and gently shake your entire body to release the stagnant energy that may have built up during the practice.
Zhan Zhuang is a simple practice with extraordinary mental and physical benefits. You can practice it anywhere and it offers you a quick and effective means of recharging your energy, reducing stress, gaining mental clarity and staying focused.