The above three feats of Rock Body, Steel Body and Cotton Body are all expression of what is called whole-body strength. To understand what the whole-body strength is, let’s look at body musculature. There are two kinds of skeletal muscles: those that are involved in movement, so called motor muscles or mobilisers, and those that stabilise the body, so called postural muscles or stabilisers. The mobilisers are, on the whole, of the fast-twitch variety; they can contract and relax in a short interval but they get tired quickly. The stabilisers are of the slow-twitch variety; they do not get tired easily but, on the other hand, are quite slow. They are situated deeper in the body than the mobilisers.
Let’s look at the first point. When discussing muscle strength, there is a distinction made between a static and a dynamic strength. Static strength, when the muscle is locked in position, is greater than dynamic strength, when the muscle is expanding or contracting. Locking the body in a very strong static position may be interesting but is not very useful. Especially if any push just topples the whole structure over! This is where the second point comes in.
Let’s imagine you are standing on a steep hill, with one foot higher than the other and you are supporting a fairly heavy weight sliding at you from above. Suppose that you support it from underneath, with your arms above your head. You would naturally try to let the weight pass through your body into the rear foot, using the front leg to stabilise yourself against the hill. If the weight were to wobble, you would just adjust your arms and body underneath to keep the weight passing to the rear foot. It would not require any (significant) mental effort and, unless the wobble took the weight too far from your base, not any (significant) extra physical effort. Your stabilisers would perform any adjustments needed automatically, with the mobilisers acting in unison.
Zhan Zhuang is often translated as Pole Standing. It is a name that refers to a number of stance practices in which the body is kept essentially still and mostly upright, though there are some stances where the spine is not vertical. The purpose of these exercises is to become aware of the stabilisers and then gain some measure of control over them.
To set up a regime for Zhan Zhuang practice, I would recommend the following procedure. To start with, no more than five or ten seconds should be spent on the practice; but the practice should be performed every day without fail. There are three reasons for this seemingly ridiculous length of training. One is that it is very difficult, for an untrained person, to keep concentrating for any length of time on something as mundane as standing - and you do not want to stand just for the sake of standing. The second one is that, to start with, the most important goal to achieve is to get into a habit of standing; to achieve the rhythm of daily practice. It is far easier to do that if the practice is short. Lastly, it is quite likely, as I said above, that you may be using the wrong kind of muscles at the beginning. The last thing you want is to train yourself to hold the posture with the mobilisers. You may have heard of people suffering agony in standing practices of this nature who eventually made the breakthrough into a relaxed stance. Well, it is one way to achieve the same goal but it is rather wasteful on resources and quite painful. As I said, mobilisers tire quite quickly, and then they hurt. Getting them out of the way can be done either by just standing until they give up and stabilisers take over or by trying to relax by carefully monitoring the state of the body and inducing relaxation by the use of mental images.
There are two kinds of mental images that you can employ. The first type is used to create a tranquil state in your mind, which, in turn, will promote relaxation of your body. For example, imagine yourself standing in a beautiful garden. You can see pretty flowers and trees all around you. You can smell the flower’s scent on a soft breeze. You can hear birds singing in the trees. There are few white clouds in the blue sky. Or you may prefer to picture a scene by the sea, with the white surf breaking on the beach. Any image that will make you as peaceful and happy as possible. You owe it to your training!
As an example a health stance, I will describe Cheng Bao Zhan Zhuang. The purpose of the images used here is still only to promote relaxation – thus any similar images will do.
As an example of a combat stance, I will describe Hun Yuan Zhang Zhuang. The previous Zhang Zhuang training was designed to increase awareness of the stabilisers. The purpose of these are more advanced exercises is to get the stabilisers under control. This is done by very small and careful movements so that we do not ‘wake up’ our mobilisers. In Wang Xiangzhai’s (founder of Yiquan) words: "All sorts of strengths originate in the void and nothingness, which can only be felt gradually by the tiny edges and corners of the body". Again, mental images are used to help the body do "the right thing". Beginning of this training is done still in Zhan Zhuang, the rest in later training.
So how about strengthening one’s body using weight training? As I said above, the only muscles that we are normally aware of are the mobilisers. When we decide to move, we immediately use the mobilisers. In fact, as was noted, we often use the mobilisers instead of stabilisers. So what muscles are we likely to strengthen and build up when we lift weights? Working on strengthening mobilisers when you try to use stabilisers is not going to help with your progress. It is usually the strongest looking person who starts to shake first when attempting Zhan Zhuang for the first time. Having big and strong muscles is not bad in itself, even in Internal Martial Arts. The problem is that normally weight training reinforces the habit of using mobilisers. This is contrary to what we try to achieve with the Zhan Zhuang training. So your first priority should be to establish control over stabilisers. After such control is established, you can start using weights, if you so desire. But you should be careful to use mobilisers for movement and stabilisers for handling the weights.
Not really. Some people can achieve all of the feats attributed to your imaginary teacher above without any standing practice. What they probably do is to train a lot of slow moving exercises (either forms or silk-reeling type drills). The key to their practice is again to relax all the mobilisers (which, as far as they are concerned, are all the muscles) and to imagine they are moving against some slight resistance (for example as if moving in water). Little by little the stabilisers will start being involved in a similar manner as I discussed above. Sometimes they can ‘cheat’ by practising the form as a series of static postures. The idea is the same as Zhan Zhuang but they are training the stabilisers in the postures used in the form.
Yiquan (pronounced ee-chwen), sometimes called Dachengquan (see later about that), is a fairly new martial art – it was created in the 1920s by Wang Xiangzhai (1885-1963). Wang Xiangzhai sought out the best martial artists of his time on his quest to discover the ‘essence of boxing’. He then created his new art by dropping, over a period of time, anything that he came to consider as non-essential or that could be replaced by something that gave better or quicker results. Gradually, the mental aspects came to dominate all parts of the training. To emphasise the importance of mind, both in training and its use, he decided to call his art Yiquan - ‘Yi’ means ‘mind’ or ‘intent’ and ‘quan’ means ‘fist’ or ‘boxing’. The name was probably arrived at by dropping ‘Xing’ (form or shape) from ‘Xingyiquan’, probably the most influential of the arts that went into creating Yiquan (though Baguazhang, with its footwork and Taijiquan with its neutralising and pushing hands are not far behind). Eventually, he came to see Yiquan not as a martial art or a system of health exercises but as a "path to the truth" and a way to gain "absolute freedom". On the way, however, he had plenty of opportunities to test its value as a martial art. He considered all schools of martial arts to be defective and "taking the students further away from the goal". He made no attempt to keep his views to himself and when he moved to Beijing, in the late 1930s, Wang Xiangzhai issued a public challenge to his fellows martial artists to "exchange ideas and learn from each other". In view of his public comments, there was no shortage of challengers. Any challenger had to defeat one of Wang Xiangzhai’s top four students first but none succeeded. The four students were Han Xingqiao, Hong Lianshun, Yao Zongxun (Wang Xiangzhai’s eventual successor) and Zhou Ziyan. Yiquan quickly gained a reputation for its combat effectiveness (and later on for its health benefits).
Shi Li (Testing of Strength) - simple exercises for learning how to keep the whole-body connection and whole-body strength whilst moving (this stage is equivalent to practising forms in other Internal Martial Arts) – in other words, learning how to integrate mobilisers and stabilisers in movement.
Mo Ca Bu (Friction Step) - learning how to keep the whole-body connection and whole-body strength whilst stepping.
Fa Li (Release of Power) - learning how to ‘release’ power (fa-jin training). How to release in any direction and with any part of the body.
Tui Shou (Pushing Hands) - this stage is similar to Taijiquan’s Pushing Hands. Also can be viewed as the previous three stages with a partner. Also called Dance of Death ( - just a joke!).
Shi Sheng (Testing of Voice) - learning to augment power and integrate the centre of the body in a more natural way using breathing musculature.
Ji Ji Fa (Combat Practice) - fixed and free sparring drills and sparring.
Most posture and musculo-skeletal problems seem to be caused by the misuse of mobilisers that are usurping the role of stabilisers. Due to their low endurance characteristics, they cannot do the job adequately. Thus it is no use to tell people who slump to ‘straighten up’. They will naturally use their mobilisers to lift their posture with the inevitable result that the muscles will get tired and hurt and so they will slump again. To do any kind of conscious movement, it is only natural to use mobilisers. This is where Zhan Zhuang training of Yiquan can help. It is ideally suited for correcting all kinds of problems stemming from the imbalance between stabilisers and mobilisers. And I think the training gives quicker results when compared to other therapies, like the Alexander technique and the Feldenkreis method (and is probably less expensive, too).
I’ll try to translate the vocabulary used in this article to a more traditional one often used in Taijiquan and other Internal Martial Arts so that you can cross-check the ideas presented here with your own training.
Zhan Zhuang is the first step in acquiring Internal Power. The emphasis should be on relaxing all muscles and feeling how the body balances against gravity. Slow, very subtle movements can be felt under the guide of kinaesthetic visualisation (movement in stillness). Later on, when learning to move, the body’s structure should always be supported by stabilisers, producing the feeling of standing at any point in the movement (stillness in movement).