Zhan Zhuang – the Only Shortcut in Tai Chi

Earlier I promised my students I’d share something about Zhan Zhuang – the “standing meditation” we briefly did at the end of tonight’s class.  What I promised was an essay that goes into detail about what it is, why it works and why we should do it.

Zhan Zhuang is a “supplemental” exercise to tai chi, much like our Qigong helps us limber up and get the blood going, and qin na (joint locking, which we’ll discuss much later) helps us make better use of the postures and transitions.  Briefly, Zhan Zhuang is a standing “exercise” which, if performed correctly, consistently and diligently, heightens awareness of our bodies and how they work.  This awareness then manifests itself when we practice tai chi, but also in everything we do throughout the day.  We move with greater coordination, balance becomes easier, we find out we have strength we didn’t know we had (because we didn’t know – or forgot – how to use it) and we are better able to address chronic aches and pains because we can sense them, localize them and work to alleviate them just by standing, sitting & moving differently.

Tai chi develops this same exact sense, but it takes a LONG time on its own – on the order of months or years.  Zhan Zhuang accelerates this development – a matter of a few weeks’ practice is enough to begin to grasp the “knack” of moving in a structurally-sound, balanced, rooted and coordinated fashion.  It really is the only shortcut in tai chi – everything else takes as long as it needs to take. 

That’s a pretty tall order, but this deceptively simple exercise delivers on these promises.  I wish I’d learned it earlier in my tai chi career.
My all-too-brief introduction didn’t do the practice justice.  It merits much more discussion by people with more authoritative opinions – I’m just an end-user.

Here’s what I promised.  It’s an essay, rather long and a bit dry.  But this dry reading is necessary to get a full understanding of the practice and how to do it the right way.

“Zhan Zhuang – Foundation of Internal Martial Arts”

Notice the website’s name.  You heard me mention Yiquan in class today.  It’s an “internal” martial art like tai chi, but it looks considerably different.  This martial art makes much greater use of Zhan Zhuang than tai chi does; it follows, therefore, that Yiquan players know more about it, spend more time at it and have brought it to a fair degree of refinement.  Well, they have, and there are videos showing what they’ve come up with.  I alluded to one beginning exercise but it’ll help if you have videos to show you, for there are several.

Chapter 2: Zhan Zhuang

This is the first video in a playlist of short videos on Zhan Zhuang.  I encourage you to watch them all and begin to work the methods described in them, starting in the order in which they’re presented.  They are geared toward Yiquan but they apply just as well to our art.  I strongly suggest watching these videos on a device that enables activating the “closed captioning” with a big enough screen to follow along, even if you don’t have artillery ears like I do.  The presenter’s English is very good (much better than my Chinese), but his accent is VERY strong.

Chapter 1 is mostly about Yiquan itself.  It’s up to you whether you want to watch them, but the first video – the introduction – does a good job of explaining “yi” or “intent,” which is as important in tai chi as it is in yiquan.

It’s not necessary to follow his program exactly.  He suggests spending increasingly long times in Zhan Zhuang postures, up to an hour.  This is unnecessary, especially if you practice tai chi at home.  It’s like I said before about meditation – start short, only a few minutes at a time, progressively building up to longer periods.  It isn’t necessary to go for longer than about 15 or 20 minutes in order to unlock Zhan Zhuang’s benefits, but to get the most out of them, we should practice tai chi in addition.  Tai chi is sometimes called “moving meditation,” so having a “moving meditation” and a “standing meditation” seems to create a nice balance.