Zhan Zhuang are methods of training the transmission of relaxed strength through the entire body.
STANDING GONGS (ZZ) have a long history in Asian health and martial systems. There are numerous variations. Every village/school has their own take on what it is, how to do it and what it’s for. The majority of information on the web and elsewhere links the practice of STANDING to “Qi Gong” practice. Qi Gong exercises rely primarily on visualization and breath control to cultivate “Qi” and or “energy”.
Most of the information, training techniques, personal practice and what I share is drawn from the Chen Family system of Taijiquan. My reasons are quite simple – it is a recorded historical fact that the Chen family originated Taijiquan. Additional sources are Grand Master Feng Zhiqiang who was an indoor student of Chen Fake and Grand Master Zhang Xue Xin, indoor student of Master Feng Zhiqiang. An “indoor student” is one who has worked one on one with a master for an extended period of time thus being exposed to details and techniques not shown or taught to the public.
This type of Standing training requires considerable introspection and self awareness in order to focus attention sequentially throughout the body, releasing muscle tension wherever it is found. Success requires consistency and repetition on a daily basis, as well as guidance from an experienced instructor to aid in all important verbal and physical feedback. It is in Standing that learning correct “Shape” is studied.
Deep abdominal breathing accompanies all standing practices. Maximum oxygen intake and full carbon dioxide output while breathing as smoothly and seamlessly as possible feeds the muscles and nervous system, helping promote deep relaxation. Maximum time for a beginner session is no less than 5 minutes. Duration is increased as the practice becomes more comfortable.
Initial feedback characteristics. Initial sensations when first engaging in Standing Gongs vary but the most common is discomfort in the legs and tension in various muscle groups throughout the body. It can take considerable patience to get to a point where the body is reasonably comfortable with the process.
Practice sensory feedback: as practice time increases, the ability to let go and become quietly aware of our body weight on the ground introduces new sensations. One new sensation can be the subtle feeling of the body expanding and the body weight feels as though it is increasing. This is usually felt in the soles of the feet as added pressure and the sensation of lateral expansion the way a large beach ball expands outward laterally when gently pressed on the top against the ground. This “expansion” sensation is often accompanied by an increase in blood flow to the hands and feet. In Taijiquan language this is called “Peng”.
More advanced feedback: as the ability to stand quietly, calm, and with minimum muscle tension we begin to train simple movements with the intention of maintaining the relaxed body we achieved while standing still. These movements are the prequel to learning the unique physical principles of Taijiquan such as the “open and close”, coordination of shoulder and hip, elbow and knee, hand and foot and understanding differentials and counter rotation.
The 13 Point Guide for Beginner Zhan Zhuang
- Center of Gravity Force – Center of the feet
- Perineum pointing down to the balance beam line
- Dantien – Suction & Condense
- Mingmen – Project & Expand
- Crown – Suspended
- Sternum – Suction & Condense
- Qua – Maintain the energy on the center of the hips
- Drop shoulders over the hips
- Tucking of the ribs
- Nine solid & one empty on the feet
- Elbows always wrapping down
- Knee pointing to the toe
- Balance the body of Yin & Yang
Core Strength and Internal Training
All powerful movements we perform throughout the day originate from the centre – the core – of the body and are transferred to the arms and legs. For all such movements – bending, twisting, and reaching – we need a secure fixed point from which to apply the force. In many cases, this force comes from the muscular corset around our trunk, our core muscles.
Qi Gong = Qi Work,
Nei Gong = Internal Work
We are studying Nei Gong (Internal Work)… the physical principles, mechanics and training techniques of the Chen family system of Taijiquan. It’s unclear if early Chen Taijiquan training included Zhan Zhuang. There has been a suggestion that Chen Xiaowang was introduced to it by a peer from another internal system but as yet I’ve found nothing to substantiate this. My classes with him always included Standing.
The following is my analysis of the concept and practice of Standing Gongs from a Western strength training perspective and how Standing Gongs when practiced consistently can have a direct positive affect on the development of a very strong, stable body core. The ultimate goal of Standing Gong practice in the Blue Mountain Taiji Neigong approach is to develop the ability to extend core body strength to all the extremities, while allocating minimum work load to the large muscle groups and keeping the joints free of local tension. An important part of the training is learning to rely on relaxing the muscles for strength.
These simple movements are the basis of all movement skills within Taijiquan and are intended to help learn the feedback sensation of moving the body while relaxed. The next step is to extend the core body strength to each movement and as skill increases the movements become more complex and practice begins to include larger and more overt expressions that include another unique aspect of Chen Taijiquan training – Silk Reeling.
Silk Reeling sequences are ideal for practicing the extension of the core to the extremities. The range of motion involved, plus the conscious spiral mode of movement in the limbs and torso, helps to increase the sensation of internal movement outward from the core as well as inward returning to the core.
Flexibility in the trunk or torso of the body is one of the aspects Silk Reeling trains. Flexible core body strength allows efficient access to the muscles in the legs and direct access to the ground under foot. The very traditional idea of all movement originating from the Dantien can be thought of in Western terms as the idea that all movement is initiated by the deliberate conscious exertion of specific deep core muscles. All movement is initiated from the core. A daily routine of Standing helps to develop a mindful self-aware modality of physical movement. Once this is achieved, the concept of ‘extending the core’ or “sending the Qi” to the extremities becomes easier to conceptualize and actualize.
Mobility in the hips or “Kua” (area of the Inguinal process) is equally important since core rotation (lower Dantien rotation) is a very necessary part of generating core strength to the extremities. All of the Silk Reeling sequences utilize the lower core muscles to initiate movement. Learning to loosen the hips and opening the Inguinals are essential. In the beginning learning to round the crotch (Dang) helps to condition the hips, lower back, lower abdomen and upper quadracepts, psoaz and glutes to generate strength and movement from the entire area.
Chen Taijiquan spiral strength is the traditional concept of consciously adding twining or twisting in specific directions along the extremities and torso. This adds structural reinforcement to core extension. It is a way of adding directional strength with control of the mild twist. This is trained in Standing Gongs by consciously adding very light gentle twists outward with the mental intent of pushing out from the core, and conversely with a pulling intent with the twist moving toward the core. With a very relaxed body the spiral movements are very gentle and done at the edge of perception so that there is a sensation accompanying the effort but very little actual movement. This is initially trained one arm or leg at a time, until there is a recognizable sensation associated with the action. Then with both arms, then both legs, then alternating and combining both arm and leg on the same side of the body, then alternating left leg right arm, and then right leg left arm, and so on. Gently twisting around a vertical axis with the arms raised and rotating simultaneously trains alternating complementary rotations and connections throughout the body. It generates core strength while allowing the entire body to sink calmly onto the ground and engage the ground for stability. This exercise helps to reinforce the concept of moving (turning) with only the torso, while the hips remain loose but immobile.
Training with external feedback. Applying relaxed strength without overlaying muscle tension requires a very relaxed overall body, solid engagement with the ground, and focused awareness on how the entire body is connected as a single unit. One method involves setting the body in position and working with a wall or a tree, anything that is solid with a little ‘give’. A brick wall or metal column is much too rigid to allow true sensory feedback. The idea is to “press” the wall with the back of the arm held horizontally at chest height employing sinking the dantien or core into either the back leg or the front leg while keeping the entire body loose and as free of tension as possible. The trunk should be relaxed and slightly folded in the front causing the lower back to bow outward very slightly. This provides a curved path from the contact point on the wall to whichever foot is bearing the body weight. The curve can be equated to bowing an archery bow. As the string is drawn the bow curves, storing energy. As with all training techniques, this needs to be shown in a hands-on situation to fully grasp body position, alignment and guidance on how to read the feedback. Working with a wall is a very basic introduction to the kind of feedback necessary to understand “sinking the Qi while expanding pressure (Peng) and ‘unlearning’ the natural inclination to “push” with local muscle in the shoulder, arms or legs.
Breathing techniques are an essential part of the equation when using a relaxed body to generate strength. Basically there are two primary methods of incorporating the use of the breath to augment the work. One is called “Natural” or “Abdominal” breathing and the other is “Reverse” or “Pressured” breathing. “Natural” breathing generally is described as expanding the abdomen on inhalation. It is commonly used to help the body relax and calm the mind. “Reverse” breathing is the opposite. The abdomen is pulled tight and held tight for an inhalation and held tighter for the following exhalation. It is the common breathing method used when exerting force. Standing Gongs use “Natural” breathing – expanding the abdomen when breathing in and allowing it to contract naturally as the breath is released. It is trained to be very slow and very gentle or ‘quiet’.
Training with a partner is the ideal way to train relaxed extension. A partner can give immediate verbal feedback on what is felt and not felt. There is a distinct tactile difference that can be felt when someone is extending thru the arms with Peng instead of local muscle tension. One often described sensation when in contact with an adept is that their movement and contact feels very heavy and ‘soft’ as opposed to someone using local muscle which feels hard or rigid and ‘brittle’.
To be perfectly honest this type of work can be quite difficult. Standing Gongs require hours spent being highly aware and attentive to the body while controlling the breath and calming the mind and nervous system. Working with walls or practice partners requires considerable patience. It requires effort to avoid using effort. Learning to trust the idea that a relaxed body can provide considerable strength is challenging at first. The best way to begin to understand is to feel someone who has trained this way. They will express strength in a very different and unexpected way.
Traditional Chen Taijiquan core strength training includes Heavy Weapons work, Push Hands (Tui Shou), Taiji Ball, resistance training, fajin (explosive force) training and grappling, to name only a few.
The following compilation is credited to Palastanga et al. (1994). Anatomy of human movement. Butterworth Heinemann: Oxford and Zatsiorski (1994). Science and practice of strength training. (1994). Human Kinetics: Champaign IL. I include it here to show there is a strong relationship between the Asian concept of the “Dantien” and the Western concept of the core muscles of the body.
The Asian approach to training the whole body uses somewhat abstract language but it is obvious that both Asian and Western systems have the same goal in mind. The following descriptions apply to Asian as well as Western understanding of core muscle training.