Most styles of internal martial arts incorporate standing meditation as a core component, if not the most important part of their training. While the practices are elegantly simple and instruction on correct posture abounds, the difference between Zhan Zhuang (pole standing) and qi gong standing meditation are pretty big.
Zhan Zhuang is a single-posture standing meditation practice that increases vitality and health by stimulating the production of energy to support the bones, bone marrow, and organs. Intense sets in low postures can be completed in 3 minutes or high postures are practiced longer. Zhan Zhuang was originally a Taoist standing meditation practice that has been adopted by internal arts like Yiquan and tai chi to improve martial abilities and health.
Qi gong standing meditation is performed in a single posture or in sets of movements that can last from 2-90 minutes on average. As a whole, qi gong regulates disturbances of the mind, body, and breathing so that the practitioner can heal, think clearly, or improve their overall health and wellbeing. There are thousands of qi gong sets, with specific health focuses, that have been in use for thousands of years.
At it’s core, Zhan Zhuang is a qi gong standing meditation posture. However, the goals of Zhan Zhuang and other standing qi gong sets can be radically different. The risk in not understanding the difference or muddying the two is that you will do a standing meditation that doesn’t match your goals, you won’t make progress, and you will abandon the practice. More exciting though, if you understand the differences between the two, you have more tools in your wellness toolbox and have a better chance of reaping the rewards of Zhan Zhuang or standing qi gong meditation. Let’s take a closer look:
The Differences Between Zhan Zhuang and Qi Gong Standing Meditation
|Zhan Zhuang||QiGong Standing Meditation|
|Performed intensely in low postures for 2-3 minutes or for longer in higher postures.||Performed for 10-90 minutes on average, usually in a higher comfortable posture.|
|Always uses a single unmoving posture.||May use an unmoving posture or may include body movements like squatting down or arm and hand movements.|
|The focus is on the breath and posture. May include counting or silent tones but otherwise thought is limited.||The focus is on the breath and posture but also may have a specific medical focus such as concentrating on an organ or working to move energy to a region or throughout the body.|
|Low postures cause pain in the legs, shaking, erratic breath, and a perceived increase in body temperature. High postures are calm and relaxed.||Postures are typically calm and relaxed.|
|Used for cultivation of martial abilities, mental health, and physical development.||Generally used to improve mental and physical health.|
So, Is Zhan Zhuang a Form of Qi Gong?
So hopefully this makes clear that Zhan Zhuong is a qi gong standing meditation. On the other hand, all qi gong standing meditations are not Zhan Zhuong. There are said to be over 10,000 qi gong standing meditation sets that are designed to improve specific aspects of physical or mental health. If there is something you want to improve, seek out a qi gong set that matches your goals or more commonly improves overall health. Let’s use this time to better understand Zhan Zhuang.
There are two primary types of Zhan Zhuang poses. The original Taoist standing meditation tree pose (Hun Yuan) is the most practiced and can be done in both a higher (longer, less taxing) or lower (shorter, more painful) stance. I practice and teach in the Chen Tai Chi tradition so I am going to be talking about the lower, more intense form of Zhan Zhuang meditation in this article. This Zhan Zhuang posture is practiced in a deep stance with the left hand aligned behind the lower back and the right hand flat and open in front of the eyes.
Let’s start with how to pronounce Zhan Zhuang and the rough translation(s)
Zhan Zhuang is pronounced “Jan Joo-ong” with the “Jan” being half way between “Jan” and “Jen” and the “Joo-ong” being pronounced in one long syllable, not two. You can hear it here: Zhan Zhuang Google Translate.
I like presenting all of the translations of Zhan Zhuang collectively because the important point is what it all hints at. You are assuming a posture that gradually transfers the strain/weight to your lower extremities and gives that sensation that you are cemented to pylons/roots that extend through the ground beneath you. It is a heavy comfortable feeling.
- standing on stake
- standing qigong
- standing like a tree
- post standing
- pile standing
- pole standing
- standing like a post
It is typically written two different ways: 站樁 and 站桩. The first character (站) means to stand but also means to stop or halt. I love this idea. Yes you are standing there. But, you are also stopping all internal and external motion, thinking, worry, or anything keeping you from being present. The meaning of the second character, which I have seen interchangeably as 樁 or 桩, is pile, pole, or stilt. What is neat about this character is that parts of it are used in words like scope, rise, and reach. So when I first heard of the meaning of Zhan Zhuang I thought it had to do with balance or sturdiness which is partly true. But the meaning of the word also means to vault yourself upwards or to help raise you up.
Man, Chinese is beautiful! Think of Zhan Zhuang as meaning: to stand, stay present, and enjoy the mental freedom made by halting all thought and motion (Zhan 站), while you are creating stability to reach greater heights (Zhang 樁).
How do you perform Zhan Zhuang?
Zhan Zhuang is a stance practice in which the body is kept essentially still and mostly upright, though there are some stances where the spine is not vertical. When we instruct in tai chi class, here are the points that we use to get students in the proper posture:
- Feet shoulder width apart.
- Sit as though you are on an invisible stool.
- Soften the lower back. This DOES tuck the tailbone but is better than saying “tuck the tailbone” because that can lock the pelvis.
- Sink the chest slightly.
- Relax the shoulders.
- Simultaneously pull up from the crown of the head and down from the tailbone elongating the back.
- With your left hand, gather all of your fingers around your thumb into a “bird’s beak.” Place it behind your back in front of the ming men.
- Place your right hand one foot in front of your eyes, palm flat facing left, elbow pointing down.
- Soften your eyes so that they are 2/3s closed. You should be looking right above your right middle finger.
- Light close the teeth together.
- Touch the upper palate with your tongue
- Breathe through the nose deep into the belly
Here is a great cartoon drawing of Zhan Zhuang that is easy to follow: Brisbane Chen Tai Chi
How to Perform Zhan Zhuang with a Partner
The best situation to be in is if you have a partner to work with because the body shifts to make itself more comfortable and unless you are practicing with a mirror, this is difficult to notice. With a partner, you can each take 3 minutes to do Zhan Zhuang standing while the other makes corrections and then switch. Here are the corrections to improve your standing. A partner can make for primary corrections:
- From the front, place both hands on the pelvis crease and push to make them sit again. As we do the posture, we tend to rise up as the discomfort grows in the thighs. Push them back down! They won’t be happy but will thank you later.
- From the side, put one hand on the lower back and one hand on the clavicle (upper chest). Hold their lower back in place and sit them upright. As we stand, we start to bend forward to compensate for leg discomfort.
- From the side, put one hand on the chin and grab a couple hairs on the top of their head. Pull their had back and up over their spine. As we stand, our head creeps forward and we start to look down.
- From the front, cup the elbow(s) in your palms and rotate them towards the ground, pulling down to relax the shoulders. Say “Relax your shoulders.” The shoulders tend to rise. Pushing down on them doesn’t work because it causes more tension on the thighs. Reorient the elbows down and out instead.
You don’t want to make corrections every time you stand because that gets tedious. Every so often just correct each other. Truth is, most of us practice alone! You can have someone you know read this and correct you. It will be more stressful on your thighs. That’s the point.
How long should I do Zhan Zhuang?
Teachings vary between 2 minutes and 120 minutes. Obviously a lower, more erect posture limits a practitioner to around three minutes. Three minutes of correct posture is enough to shake, feel like you are going to collapse, and raise your body temperature. Chen Qingzhou counseled that you work towards a more perfect three minutes and not on increasing the time. Karel Koskuba in the article: Yiquan – Power of the Mind suggested to begin with 5-10 seconds daily because making the practice habitual and learning how to quiet the mind where initially essential. Yi Quan and many external arts maintain a higher posture and work up to 90 minutes.
Is Zhan Zhuang effective?
The purpose of these standing exercises is to become aware of the body and how it stabilizes itself. You are then able to gain a measure of control over this autonomic process and use it to improve health, posture, and martial abilities. Additionally, you are heating up and putting pressure on the largest bones which are the storehouses and factories of bone marrow. White blood cells are manufactured here which drives your immunity.
Still too esoteric? Let’s break it down a bit. Normally your stabilizer muscles keep you from falling down. However, this relies on balancing with minute, continual adjustments against gravity. Secondly, the same muscles that stabilizes you also constrict your blood flow. By aligning your posture you are asking you major muscles and your bones to take your bodies weight. This allows the blood to rush freely while you concentrate on your breath and mental presence.
What does Zhan Zhuang feel like?
Those unfamiliar with Zhan Zhuang can be shocked when they initially experience severe muscle fatigue and “trembling.” You sweat, your mind asks you to stop, and your breathing races if not controlled. For those of you who haven’t yet experienced this, it is shocking and intriguing that you can induce this state in 180 seconds. Once sufficient stamina and strength have been developed the practitioner can use Zhan Zhuang to work on developing ‘opposing forces,’ central equilibrium, and sensitivity to specific areas of tension in the body.
There is a great series of short videos on Zhan Zhuang put together by EmptyMindFilms.
Is Zhan Zhuang dangerous?
Zhan Zhuang is not dangerous. I wanted to answer this question directly but also acknowledge where the concern is coming from. If you can stand for a few minutes you can do Zhan Zhuang. If you cannot stand initially for 180 seconds, you can work up to it. It is a standing meditation that produces health BENEFITs, not problems.
So why do people wonder if Zhan Zhuang is dangerous? This pose requires the legs and back to hold and feel 100% of a person’s body weight which can feel painful. Typically, we are moving, leaning, or shifting our weight so we don’t sense our weight. People with knee or back issues will feel pain. However, you can shorten the time or stand higher. The “pain” is actually blood flow to an area that probably needs it. Pain is also an indicator of bad posture. If your lower back hurts, it is probably rounded and should be flat. If your knees hurt, they are probably too far in front of the toes, push your butt back. Lastly, Zhan Zhuang causes your body temperature and blood pressure to rise like when you are working out – because this is a workout! Just like any workout, start at a level that is acceptable and increase over time. Yes running hurts, but it is good for you at a certain dosage. The same logic applies here.
Zhan Zhuang Standing Meditation: A Case Study
Each year in our tai chi community we have been undertaking a 21 Day Standing Meditation Challenge to bring in the new year and to help introduce standing meditation and reap the benefits. The benefits of Zhan Zhuang standing meditation are often difficult to explain because of their subtlety. A student responded with his experience so I thought it only appropriate to share.
My Experience with Standing Meditation
This time last year, I found myself in very tumultuous times personally. I had hit a depressive state that I had not experienced since my mother passed away over 20 years ago. I was very unfocused, in a very dark place, and constantly had suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, during that time in my youth I was surrounded by amazing friends and remarkable professors, one of whom integrated some Tai Chi, Chi Gong, and Yoga into our daily warm-ups in class. His class was one of the most transformative classes I have ever experienced in my life. What I learned in his class laid the foundation for how I take care of myself today mentally, physically, and spiritually.
When I heard about the standing meditation challenge last January, I felt like I was needing something like this since I found myself struggling with depression again. I liked how they spent some significant time during that first class in January to explain what was behind the meditation (including this article: Benefits of Standing Meditation). They told a story about how Master Chen Qing Zhou would not tell them the secret to improving one’s Tai Chi, because they would not believe it. Ultimately he shared that standing daily would improve their Tai Chi. One of the sound bites that stayed with me throughout the time that I did the standing meditation and even today is that it only takes 5 minutes of your day.
The True Commitment
I did the math: There are 1,440 minutes in a day. This meditation would only take .3% of my day. That’s less than one percent of my time during my daily routine. I was also looking forward to doing the challenge with my fellow Tai Chi peers. Basically, every week we would report about our progress and talk about the challenge in class, and it was inspiring to see so many fellow peers committed to doing it every day.
Trouble with Weight, Sleep and Health
During the month of December I had lost 5 pounds due to a loss of appetite. I was really struggling with depression that came about due to some personal challenges that I was facing. I was at 200 pounds when we started the standing meditation challenge at the beginning of January. I was also struggling with insomnia, so sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, and toss and turn for 1 to 2 hours before being able to go back to sleep. I would try to force myself back to sleep because I knew that in the morning I would feel very tired going to work. I was a high school teacher at that time. In addition, I had been cautioned frequently by my physician that I needed to take care of myself, since I have a family history of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Both of my parents died of cancer, and I have witnessed many of my relatives fight a losing battle with these illnesses. This provides a lot of motivation for me to be proactive about my health.
Despite all this motivation my greatest challenge in doing the standing meditation was finding those 5 minutes in my very busy schedule to do it. So my attitude became that I would make sure to do it everyday no matter what. And one of the drastic measures that I took was that I quit watching television completely. I started dedicating those 2 hours a day to playing music, and doing my standing meditation. There were several days where I did the standing meditation in the morning before I took a shower to go to work. Some days I would do it after coming home from work when I felt really exhausted and stressed out.
The standing meditation would reenergize me on those days, and I would be more productive the rest of the day. And some days I would do the meditation before doing my routine to go to bed. I would be really tired, and not really feel like doing it, but I would push myself.
Even during the 21 day challenge I continued to struggle with insomnia. It would not be until much later in the year that I figured out that the stress level at work was really affecting my sleep. The stress of being a teacher is not the students. The stress comes from the toxic attitudes of colleagues and administrators, the pressures of high stakes testing, and politics in education. These problems kept me up more times than not in the middle of the night. There were times when I would just get out of bed and do the standing meditation as well as a few other Chi Gong exercises that I had previously learned that helped with settling your core so it would lead to better sleep. I had also discovered that the nights I got the best uninterrupted sleep was on Tuesday nights after Tai Chi class.
There was another discovery I made about the standing meditation: The more I did it, the more difficult it got because I would need to sink deeper into my stance to experience the sensations you experience when you are doing it right. However, I kept going knowing that my Tai Chi peers were doing the same. After about 2 weeks, I started to experience several positive effects. One of them was the reenergizing effect the meditation had on my mental state as well as my physical state. I was able to easily deflect the negativity I was experiencing from some of my colleagues and administrators at the high school, even if figuratively speaking they threw daggers, knives and spears at me.
During those first 2 weeks of the standing mediation, I started getting my appetite back, but I was also eating a lot healthier. I was staying gluten-free, cutting down on the carbs, eating more protein like fish and chicken, and making sure that I ate more veggies and fruits. I stayed away from wheat, dairy and sugar. And I drank lots of water along with my daily dose of green tea.
During the third week of the challenge I had sustained a minor injury that landed me in a medical clinic. It was there that I got on the scale that I was so surprised. The scale read 190 pounds. I didn’t have time to really take it in because they hurried me over to one of their examination rooms, but I even told myself, “that scale must be off or broken. It can’t be.” When I returned to Tai Chi class the following week I weighed myself on the scale right outside the
weight room, and it was true. I was down to 190 pounds. I was blown away because I hadn’t been anywhere near that weight since college. More than anything I liked the way I was feeling physically. I had more energy during the day. And I started to notice that I was sinking deeper into my stances as I was practicing Tai Chi in class.
However, life kept coming at me in so many ways that even after the 21 day challenge was over I continued to do the standing meditation. The meditation would bring me back to center when I felt my life was spinning out of control. I was also still battling my depressive states at times. My work environment was not improving, and I was still facing personal challenges that created emotional instability.
I continued doing the standing meditation all through the month of February without missing a day. I continued to observe small improvements in my Tai Chi form. I remember in late February several aha moments where I was either doing one of the exercises with the bowling ball or doing the form and feeling like “Wow, this is how this is supposed to feel!”
I continued doing the standing meditation in March. The second week in March I attended theSXSW Edu conference, and I continued to do the standing meditation daily. The following week was Spring Break, and I attended the SXSW Interactive, Film & Music Festival. I wanted to keep the streak alive, and I succeeded for one day of the festival. Then on March 12th I came home extremely tired and worn out from being at the festival for over 14 hours that I just went to sleep. I had gone 67 straight days doing the standing meditation.
The Rest of the Year
Even though my streak stopped, I still continued to make the standing meditation a part of my daily routine after Spring Break. I haven’t had a streak like that since then, but I will have streaks where I still do the standing mediation for like ten days straight. I also bought a bowling ball so that I could do the strengthening exercises that we do in Tai Chi class at home at least two times a week. I continue to see positive results in my Tai Chi form, and in my overall health.
I am looking forward to another 21 day challenge with all my peers at the Chen Tai Chi Association of Austin. I decided to share this story because I know how tough it is to overcome procrastination, challenges that life presents us, and depression. I hope that this personal story that I am sharing with you will inspire you to commit to something that enhances your well being. You deserve it.
- A Zhan Zhuang internet/bibliographic reference for practitioners
- Zhan Zhuang – The Foundation of Internal Martial Arts
- Translation of ‘The Science of Nei Jia Quan’ – a book explaining the mechanics of Nei Gong practice, including that of Zhan Zhuang
- Yiquan – Power of the Mind by Karel Koshuba
- Zhan Zhuang and the Search for Wu by Yu Yong Nian
- Zhan Zhuang by Wang Xiangzhai