Standing Practice (known as “Zhan Zhuang” and roughly translated as standing like a post) is a common practice found in some Chinese Martial Arts systems, primarily those which are generally classified under the umbrella term “Neija”. There are numerous methodologies and variations specific to certain styles, their practitioners and goals. The way I see Standing Practice is that it is a method to enhance awareness of your body, its structures and their interaction, which in turn show you where and how your habits and lack of awareness affect the way you move, breathe and so on. In order for us to begin to balance the body in a way which allows for maximum freedom of movement and comfort, we must find where, why and how we have either an excess or deficit of relaxation and/or tension. The “Neutral Line” concept is something that I have been using to help fulfil this goal. The “Neutral Line” is a concept which represents a way to balance the body so that the majority of the weight passes through the middle or centre of mass of each structure and joint, thereby aligning the body’s centres of mass in order to achieve 2 goals: 1) Balanced Skeletal Alignment: Weight supported by the skeletal structure is enhanced by means of aligning the skeletal structure in a stacked, balanced manner whereby the lower structure supports the one above it by centrally balancing its weight, resulting in balanced weight distribution on all sides. 2) Balanced Muscle Tension: The above adjustment of alignment of the skeletal structure allows one to release muscles which may have previously required tension in order to support the unequal/unbalanced weight distribution borne by the skeletal structure. Misalignment in the skeletal structure requires various degrees of muscular tension to support. Prolonged muscular tension required to support an unbalanced skeletal structure may results in overuse injuries in the muscles, whereby the muscle attempts to accommodate the continuous requirement of tension by shortening. Shortening can take place through mechanism such as “trigger points”, wherein the muscle fibres knot up to reduce energy consumption and adapt to the continuous and/or repetitive requirement of any given position. Such action is usually accompanied by pain (either local or referred) and decreased range of movement leading to further unbalancing of the skeletal structure. Furthermore, muscles which remain continuously, habitually and unconsciously tense require more energy than muscles which are relaxed as the energy is necessary to maintain a tense state. As a result, an unbalanced skeletal structure and the tense musculature required to support it, drain more of our energy than a balanced and relaxed structure. In addition to the above, stress (whether psychological such as work stress, or physiological such as bad posture, illness, etc) tends to reflect negatively on our skeletal structure and its balance. By being aware and recognising structural imbalances as they to occur in real time, one can act to mitigate some of the negative effects stress can have on body and mind. In order to begin to balance the body by using the above methodology, there first has to be a benchmark to show us what the ideal is. However, the ideal, which in this case is the “Neutral Line”, is not something which can be shown to you. It is something you have to become aware of within yourself. As time passes and your awareness increases, your perception on what the “Neutral Line” is and how it passes through your body will also change and evolve and will keep evolving and refining as long as you continue the practice. The process is slow, but patience and diligence in practice yield results as daily repetition slowly builds your awareness and enhances your perception of your body. Recognising the “Neutral Line” In order to be able to work with the “Neutral Line”, we must first be able to recognise it. The “Neutral Line” (as I currently understand it) is a line of optimal balance for the human body and the effect exerted on it by the earth’s downward gravitational pull. The line runs centrally through our head and torso (from the crown to the perineum) and falls on the mid-point of the line which intersects the centres of our two feet. Through specific training methods we can recognise how the balance of our skeletal structure is ideally arranged in a way which is efficient to maintain, promotes relaxation and avoids and/or works to resolve problems associated with tension and musculoskeletal imbalances. Rocking to Recognise the “Neutral Line” Rocking is an exercise which we can use to recognise the basic function of balance in our body. Before starting, one should stand upright, breathe normally, place feet parallel to each other at shoulder or hip width apart (which ever one is broadest in an individual), if you cannot make your feet parallel then keep them in as close to a parallel position that you can maintain comfortably. To start the exercise, rock or lean forward a little so that your weight falls on to the balls of your feet (not enough to make you completely lose balance). Do not worry about the alignment of your body, just keep it more or less upright. As you rock forward, you should notice that your toes will begin to tense up in order to support the increased weight due to the forward lean of your body. Likewise, your legs, torso and neck will begin to tense up to support the forward lean. Be aware of the feeling of how this tension is supporting your structure in the forward lean position. You can stay in this position for a few seconds or longer and then rock back to the middle or centre of your feet (centred between the ball and heel of each foot). Once you return to this position feel your body and try to be aware of how the tension which was present when you rocked forward has dissipated and how this position is easier to maintain in comparison to the forward lean. Next, rock on to heels of your feet, creating a backward lean, you should notice how your legs, torso and neck tense up to support the backward lean of your body. Be aware of what this tension supporting your structure in the backward lean position feels like. You can stay in this position for a few seconds or longer and then rock back to the middle or centre of your feet. Once you return to this central/middle feet position, feel your body and try to be aware of how the tension which was present when you rocked backward has dissipated and how this position is easier to maintain in comparison to the backward lean. Keep repeating this process, by rocking forward (balls of feet), then back to the middle, then backwards (heels), and back to the middle, and so forth. The point of the exercise is to recognise when the body is balanced in the middle/centre (neutral) and when the body is off balance in the forward and backward position. It is important to pay particular attention to the transition and the feel of how your body changes when you rock between the forward and middle positions and the backward and middle positions. Progressively make the rocking motions smaller but maintain the same principle and attention on the feel of the three positions (forward, middle and backwards) and their interaction with each other, specifically with the middle (neutral) position. This exercise should be practiced daily for at least 5 minutes and only continue to practice for a longer time period as long as you can comfortably maintain attention/awareness. Long practice periods without awareness/attention are not necessary as we are deliberately attempting to increase awareness of the neutral line. Repetition without awareness/attention serves no purpose here, in this case quality trumps quantity. Regular practice of this exercise will build greater awareness over time. Do not expect any significant results without sustained daily effort. The effects of this exercise are cumulative and depend on the amount of quality time (awareness/attention) spent doing it. The purpose of this exercise is to begin to identify the effortless middle position where the skeletal structure is optimally supporting the gravitational pull on our mass/weight by finding the extremes (forward and backward extreme) of our body where the skeletal structure is not optimally supporting our weight and instead relies on muscular tension for support. This effortless middle position is the concept of the neutral line. As the forward and back extreme require significant amount of tension to maintain, it is easy for our awareness to pick up these tension signals, thereby identifying the two extremes. If we can identify the two extremes, we can then begin to identify the mid-point between the two which is where balance is reached and the neutral line is achieved. The same process can be repeated on a progressively smaller scale thereby providing an ever increasing sense of balance and relaxation. Progressing from the above exercise one should move on to Standing Practice (Zhan Zhuang) which begins to further implement the neutral line idea in a more precise and deeper way. It is important to note that throughout the progression of these exercises, the principle remains the same, to always seek the middle point (balance, neutrality) of each part in relation to the gravitational pull. Later, when more martial elements are introduced in to practice via partner work, the same methods are used to absorb and counter the pressure an opponent may exert on to your structure. NOTE: The above is heavily influenced and in part borrowed from the curriculum of the art of ‘I Liq Chuan’ as developed by Sam Chin. Many thanks to Sam Chin and to all the patient teachers and instructors who have shared their knowledge with me over the years. Readers, please feel free to provide your comments and criticisms or ask questions.