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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Standing Meditation (Qi Magazine, Issue 44, 1999)

by Glenn Gossling

The meditative aspect of Taijiquan is known as Zhan Zhuang, which is commonly referred to as “holding” or “embracing the tree” in the West. It is one of the best known of all meditation postures.

Zhan Zhuang is common to most styles of Taijiquan and some systems of Qigong. This meditation is one of the foundations of the Chen system and is to be recommended for students of all levels. Zhan Zhuang is a standing meditation and emphasizes many of the basic principles of correct posture that relate to Taijiquan as a whole. Most importantly the posture should look and feel smooth and flowing. The body should be relaxed. Zhan Zhuang begins in the same way as a form. We start by standing with our feet together, arms by our sides, upright and alert. The knees should be slightly bent. It is helpful to take a few moments to calm down, relax, and correct the posture before opening. To open, the left heel is lifted and then the foot is stepped out to shoulder width. We centre our weight and sink into the posture. How deeply you hold this stance is up to you. The deeper you go the harder the exercise is. The important thing is that the posture should be correct no matter how deeply you hold the stance. It can be quite difficult to get the stance correct if you are a beginner, but the principles are very simple. The weight should be centred. It is possible to check this by moving the body slightly and feeling where your weight falls on your feet. Try moving backwards, forwards, left and right until you are confident about where the centre is. The spine should be upright and vertical. It is possible to check this by moving as well. The hips and the shoulders should both be level. The head should be upright. It can be very helpful to work with a partner to get your posture correct. Most of us are far more used to working with our visual rather than our tactile senses. Initially it is a lot easier to correct someone else from the outside than ourselves from the inside, but with a lot of practice considerable sensitivity can be developed. To check someone else’s posture there are a number of factors to look out for. The spine should make a nice clean line from both the side and the back. It should be positioned centrally between the feet. The spine is distorted if the hips or the shoulders are not level. The hips should also be tilted slightly forwards so that the lower back is not arched. Taiji postures need to be “sat into”. If the legs are too straight or the stance is too high it is difficult to correct the spine. The ears, the shoulders and the ankles should all be on one vertical line when viewed from the side. Once the basic posture is correct the arms are slowly raised and the eyes closed. The arms form a circle in front of the body, with the palms facing inwards and very slightly upwards. The circle can be held at a variety of heights but most people aim to train at shoulder height. At this height the elbows should be slightly lower than the shoulders or palms. Once the arms are raised the posture should be checked and corrected again. Particular attention should be paid to making sure the weight is still central, the body is not leaning and the shoulders are relaxed. 

The Zhan Zhuang posture can be held for some time, one hour is a basic standard. Any tension in the body will cause physical discomfort. Tension can be a particular problem for beginners. Most commonly it occurs in the shoulders, especially if the arms are held at shoulder height. Part of the key to the posture is letting the skeleton do its share of the work. The shoulders should be back and relaxed so that the weight of the arms is transferred to the collarbone and spine. Once in the Zhan Zhuang posture one should place one’s attention on the Dantien. The idea is to relax and breathe deeply so that the Qi can be felt circulating. The more you practise the stronger the Qi will become, and the more smoothly it will flow. Just relax, but stay alert. Meditation is not like going to sleep. Pay attention to the different sensations that happen and keep your attention on the exercise. The mind should remain focused and the body still. Zhan Zhuang primarily trains the legs and the skeleton, but it is also very useful for improving general posture, sensitivity, and mental concentration. It is a powerful exercise for developing energy and like other methods of meditation can be beneficial for stress reduction and health promotion. It should be one of the most important components of daily training.