In this article I introduce you to one of the most all-around beneficial exercises that you can do. It is a form of qi gong called Standing pole, or just “standing” practice. I’ll give you some background about why its so good for you, and tell you how you can start practicing today!
Standing practice (Zhan Zhuang in mandarin) benefits the whole body. It is effective for the treatment of illness and the development of overall health and fitness, suitable for people of all ages and physical constitution. It is a form of qi gong where the only movement is the natural movement of breathing. To an outsider it looks like you’re practicing to be a statue! Its not really physically demanding, but what makes it hard is cultivating the patience it takes be relaxed and content while doing it, and also the focus it takes to be actively maintaining good posture. It is a complete practice in itself, but also considered a foundational exercise for internal martial arts such as taiji (tai-chi). When done consistently over weeks and months, it provides something that no amount of muscularly oriented exercise can give. Speaking generally, standing practice develops relaxation, focus, and integrated body-mind awareness.
How does it work? From the Western physiological perspective, research has found that the benefits of qi gong come from its effect on the cerebral cortex. As life goes on and we’re faced with various stresses, our bodies build artificial actions and reflexes in response. Such tensions are not easy to get rid of and over time we unconsciously physically hold these stress patterns, to our own detriment. Qi gongs in general give the cerebral cortex a chance to relax and let the body-mind unwind from these chronic stress patterns. When you relax with good posture, all the internal organs settle while all metabolic functions increase, and then the body goes into healing mode.
From the traditional Chinese medical perspective, free and unobstructed flow of blood and qi around the body is one of the most important elements in the development and maintenance of health. Standing practice trains you to become conscious of the stress patterns you hold and to let them go, thus freeing up the flow. We achieve this with good posture, relaxed breathing, and a calm mind. Its much more than just a power-nap!
Sounds good… but how do we achieve these things? Learn the following guidelines, practice daily, and cultivate patience. The first time, just try it for 30 seconds. As the days go on, you should increase the time you spend. With consistent practice, you’ll start noticing your imbalances.
1. Stand with your feet a shoulder width apart, toes pointing forward, either parallel, or turned slightly outward.
2. Dont stand so straight that you’re locking your knees. Make sure they’re unlocked. Also do not get into a low martial arts horse-stance, you can be standing almost straight up; take a look at the picture above.
3. Let your hands hang loosely by your sides .
There are many standing practice variations where your hands & posture can be in a variety of positions. They’re harder and develop more than what we’re doing here, so for now just let them hang down. For reference, you can see the picture on the right of Mr.Chen Xiao Wang doing a version of standing endearingly referred to as tree-hugging.
4. drop your shoulders
Imagine that, like a puppet, your whole body is hanging, suspended from your head. A string holds your head from a point at the top of your skull, directly in line with the tips of your ears. Feel yourself sinking down, relaxing, as you hang from the string. But dont droop, you want to be relaxed, not limp.
5. Breathe calmly and naturally through the nose. There is no special breathing in this exercise. When relaxed, your breathing should be down in your belly instead of your chest.
6. Look forward and slightly downward, so that chin is not pushed forward
7. Release any tension in your neck. This takes time, at first see if you can tune in to it and you’ll learn how to relax it over time.
8. Relax your hips and belly. Again, relaxed but not limp. Very important also that your lower back is relaxed so that it expands and contracts a little as you breathe. Don’t try to force this, learn to unlock your back if its locked.
9. Straighten your spine, let the bottom of your spine unfold downward so that neither your belly nor your bottom is sticking out.
Different people have different challenges with respect to the above list. Over time you’ll find which problems you tend to exhibit.
A classic description of the posture you’re trying to achieve: “Your center lies 2-4 inches below your navel, one third of the way into your body. It is in line with the suspension point at the top of your head. From below your kneecaps, your roots extend downward. From your knees upward you rise like a tree, resting calmly between the earth and the sky. Your weight is evenly distributed between your left and right feet. These roots sink deep into the earth. The weight of your body rests in the middle of the soles of your feet.”
Rome was not built in a day, and like any skill, this qi gong requires practice and patience. Striving and straining for results will only bring disappointment and tension. This exercise is subtle, and it takes time for you to tune in to yourself. Do not practice when you are full of food, over-tired, over-hungry, or full of alcohol. Its best to pick a practice schedule and stick to it. Wear loose clothes and maybe warm up and stretch a little before, remember the goal is to relax.
During the early stages of practice, you may feel a number of physical reactions, some of them unpleasant! Your hands may tingle or get numb, you might have itches, pain, trembling, and so on. These are the body’s reactions to the unaccustomed use of muscles, physiological changes in metabolism and circulation, and tension release. You will especially start to notice imbalances between your right and left sides. Stay calm and persevere, shake out any tensions you build up. It takes time and some discomfort to work through your chronic tensions. But dont hurt yourself either – be careful if your knees or back start to hurt, these are clues that your posture is not good, make sure you’re not leaning.
Practice daily. Its better to do 5 minutes a day every day than trying to do half an hour once a week. Shoot for 10 minutes in the morning and evening by the end of your first month of practice. If your going to the bathroom schedule is not regular, you’ll find that consistent morning standing practice will help that!