Foundation Exercise for Standing Practice (Zhan Zhuang)

Discussion in 'Internal Martial Arts' started by inthespirit, Jun 6, 2013.

  1. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    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.
  2. runcai

    runcai Valued Member

    I Liq Chuan is new to me but most Yi Quan people started rocking after they achieved balance, as breathing effected their balance. Can you clarify what you mean by "significant amount of tension to maintain" and how you maintain your balance? Thanks
  3. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    Hi Runcai,

    In the I Chuan/Yi Quan branch I studied before, we didn’t have ‘rocking’ as I describe it, but more like a ‘swaying’, the purpose was not really the same as the ‘rocking’ I described above. If I recall correctly it was a type of Shi Li exercise to feel the forward and backward force.

    The ‘rocking’ exercise I described is about finding the balanced or neutral point between two extremes and using the two extremes to find this middle point.

    When I say "significant amount of tension to maintain" in the above text, I am specifically referring to either the forward or backward maximum lean position. In other words, you lean either forward or backward (while feet are parallel and without bending at the waist) to the point where a centimetre more in the direction of the lean will result in complete loss of balance and falling over, so literally, instead of standing like this “I” you are standing like this “/” or “\” (not the best graphical representation) at the maximum limit. The tension your body needs to produce to support your leaning position is significant as the skeletal structure is not balanced and without the tension to support this lean, one would fall over.

    This is basically to show that the extreme off balanced (but still upright, as in not fallen over) position requires a lot of effort/tension to maintain as the body needs to become quite tense/rigid in order to stop you falling over. Once we identify this limit on either side (forward and backward), we have identified the two extremes (forward and backward extremes). We then decrease the angle of the lean, making it less and less extreme, yet feeling how our body produces tension to keep us upright when we are leaning, whether this lean is extremely or slight. This process is done and made smaller until we can on a continuously finer level, identify the balance point between the two, which is the position where we can use minimal tension to keep ourselves upright.

    Hope that makes sense.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2013
  4. runcai

    runcai Valued Member

    Hi inthespirit,

    Thank you for your clarification, and it is interesting to learn about I Lig Chuan.

    Do your contract your Perineum when you do your standing posture? Some Yi Quan people do not sway because of this.

    Did you mean muscle contraction (shortening) when you said a lot of tension and minimal tension? Some Chen Tai Chi people use similar method of contraction and relaxation, a lot or little contracton, etc.
  5. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    You’re most welcome Runcai!

    I’m not any sort of authority on I Liq Chuan though, it’s just my own understanding at the current time.

    Personally, I don’t contract my perineum deliberately or in isolation, but I do feel like when the alignment is correct there are lines of force that run through the area.

    In regards to muscle contraction in relation to this specific exercise, I’ve never really thought of it in terms of muscle contraction or otherwise. It’s simpler than that I think. Basically, the more off centre you are, the more muscular force you need to use to stay upright and keep yourself from falling over, likewise the more centred you are the less muscular force you need to use. The tension does not arise deliberately, but simply as a result of being unbalanced and preventing yourself from falling over. This exercise teaches to recognise and differentiate between the balanced (centred) and unbalanced (off-centre) alignment so that when you are losing your balance it is easier for you to notice this and correct it.

    Does that make sense?
  6. runcai

    runcai Valued Member

    Thanks again, I think you are suggesting that one should use mimumal effort to maintain the effortless position in standing.
  7. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    No worries Runcai. I would say more along the lines that one does not need to use much effort when standing if the alignment is correct. The same principles can be carried forward in to movement with ever greater complexity, providing the awareness to maintain the central/neutral alignment is present.

    I'm pretty sure this stuff is basic to most people who train such systems, but I think it something that can be infinitely and indefinitely refined and should not be forgotten.
  8. cloudz

    cloudz Valued Member

    I thought it was worth adding my 2 cents: in that the exercise also teaches us to recognise the muscle tension that arises when not in this neutral position. It's not so much the fact you are unbalanced but how that effects the muscles up the front and back of the body and how they engage to support and maintain such positions.

    edit: you try to feel how they engage up the body and disengage down the body as you lean and correct.

    By slowly controlling the entry and exit into and out of these positions of involuntary tension we can transfer this muscle memory into how we control our movement. We can try to ensure we stay in "central equilibrium" ("zong ding"), and therefore always maintain "song" as much as possible in free movement. In this exercise as mentioned you don't contract consciously yourself, the idea is to feel and become aware of how the body reacts "on its own" to being out of structural alignment (as it naturally seeks to correct itself) and the exercise also seeks to cultivate a muscle control and recognition of it (how it changes from neutral to engaged and back).

    What tends to happen (generally) is that when we feel we are losing balance we add our own conscious muscular effort to correct, more so if there is another external force making this happen (opponent). Ideally, in that situation, you don't want to try to go head on against such a force but to move in a way that goes along with it, recovers to central equilibrium/neutral and attempts to turn a inferior position to a superior one.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2013
  9. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    Very eloquently put Mr. Cloudz! Thank you!
  10. cloudz

    cloudz Valued Member

    Cool, I think you covered it all very nicely, just thought I would share my experience with it and what I try to take from it. It's a cool little exercise and one of those I've kept.
  11. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    Yeah, you know in my ignorance I had this exercise pinned as ‘too simple’ for ages until I forced myself to do it daily for some time. Took me a while to see how much can be gained from it.

    There are a couple of interesting variations that can be added too, maybe you’ve tried these already. Basically all other details remain the same, but you can play with not letting the tension come past certain segments of the body (rocking movement becomes smaller), namely upper leg, lower leg, ankles and feet. In other words recognising the tension as it arises in the lower extremities and feeling it in these segments without letting it unbalance you further. Good to practice with people feeding force to you too especially when you get comfortable working with the feet in this exercise. It’s got a good crossover to application too, if you can move someone of the centre of their feet, which can be done very subtly and with very little force, you can manipulate their balance much easier. Likewise if you can feel someone doing this to you from the very outset, you can retain your balance easier. I’m sure you know all this stuff in one way or another, just wanted to mention it for anyone that might have questions as to why one would do such a seemingly basic practice.
  12. runcai

    runcai Valued Member

    Pardon my ignorance, what is involuntary tension? As the only normal involuntary muscle contraction I can think of at the moment is stretch reflex.
  13. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    Hey Runcai,

    I think what Cloudz means by that is that this tension arises out of a need to stay upright and stop you falling over through lack of balance. Maybe "necessary" tension is a better descriptive term.
  14. cloudz

    cloudz Valued Member

    I guess I meant your body just does it "by itself" when you lean forward or back. You're not doing it particularly consciously, the lean is doing it in a sense. To let yourself fall over is actually more of a conscious decision; to let go of the muscle activation if your set on staying upright - which is our natural disposition through daily life. If you decide you're going to simply fall forward or back then you can override this muscle activation.

    I guess we are so used to being upright and obviously falling over is something we seek to avoid both consciously and unconsciously.

    If you try it out you will experience this muscle activation for yourself as it travels up the body to stabilize and correct (stop yourself falling).
  15. runcai

    runcai Valued Member

    Thanks, this bring out the fear of falling from our subconscious and we tense up when sensing the possibility of falling. But this is not a kind of involuntary muscle action or "how the body react on its own".
  16. cloudz

    cloudz Valued Member

    Sure I get how that term is used in a different context (like a muscle spasm), sorry if that confused you. But there is no problem understanding it the way I have used it, because the definition fits. It's "involuntary" in the sense you're not making a conscious choice or decision to do it, are you ? It just happens.

    Now, shut up and train, then maybe you will get the fact that the meaning/definition of the term which I have bolded for you in the above fits the experience being discussed just fine.
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2013
  17. inthespirit

    inthespirit ignant

    +1 :D

    A phrase I repeat in my internal monologue on a daily basis!

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