The year of the Dragon is upon us. For the new year, I will introduce a Chinese system of exercise that is sure to assist one’s body to transform into a picture of health and strength — to become like a dragon: strong when strength is needed, supple and soft when not. It is called Zhan Zhuang 站桩 (roughly pronounced Jan Jwong), also known as “Standing Like a Tree”; a form of stance training that demands of oneself total and complete union of both body and mind to carry out accurately. Adding even five minutes of Zhan Zhuang to your everyday routine will deliver a desirable result.
To begin with, first start with simple warm up exercises:
Light arm circles forwards and backwards. Loosen up the hips by circling the hips in both directions. Loosen up the legs as well. Standard repetition count for these types of exercises usually fall within the 30 to 40 range, so shoot for roughly 30 to 40 repetitions in both directions. The object is simply to loosen the muscles and tendons and get the blood flowing. The best time to do the Zhan Zhuang exercise is in the morning as the sun comes up, but it is also fine to do it any time during the day. Five minutes at night before bed is also beneficial. There is an additional exercise called Ba Duan Jin 八段锦, or “Eight Section Brocade”, but I won’t discuss that in this post. I will reserve this exercise for a later posting, as it is an entire progression of postures and movements in itself.
1.Wu Ji – The first position in is called Wu Ji 无极 (Wu Jee), meaning to no extremes. The stance is to simply stand relaxed and erect, with a straight back, and hands to the sides. Breath naturally. (Those that are proficient in Abdominal Breathing or regular deep breathing will find their breathing cycle to be more slow and steady than most other people, and a good way to begin Wu Ji is to count those slow, even breaths from 1 to 10. Usually this can last for a full minute, so two cycles of 10 would equate to 2 minutes)
2. Holding the Ball (or Balloon) – After Wu Ji, step the left foot out to shoulder width or a little bit beyond shoulder width apart. Sink the body into a light squat, keeping the back straight, and pelvis slightly tucked frontward. Raise the arms up together until they sit in front of the chest, palms facing the body, fingers gently spread apart. The posture should look like you are holding a large ball or balloon in front of your chest. In fact visualizing that you are holding a ball or balloon in your arms will help the exercise along by focusing the mind’s attention on the space between your arms. That is another key to this exercise; a lot of visualization comes into play. Breathe naturally.
As I discussed earlier, if you are proficient in Abdominal Breathing or deep breathing in general, one possible method you could employ is to time your breathing to sync up with the time of a clock. This way, you will know how long you have been standing by counting the number of in and out cycles of your breath, 1 to 10 being one minute. For those who are unfamiliar with Abdominal Breathing or deep breathing, you can use a clock to determine your standing time. There is no pressure to be able to preform any additional methods. The main goal is to stand. I give these additional suggestions as optional variants. (If there is any interest in other methods, either related or non-related to Zhan Zhuang, I would be happy to do posts covering them at a later time.)
It will be challenging to hold this position for most of those who try it, but with time and determination, it will gradually become easier. Persisting through the discomforts that arise from standing is a major key in progressing forward.
Initially, as you begin Zhan Zhuang, aim to stand for at least five minutes. Even five minutes of standing on a regular basis can be measurably beneficial. As time goes on, increase the standing time incrementally until you can stand for at least 20 minutes. Zhan Zhuang training goes beyond this one posture into other stances, with advanced versions of all, but for the purposes of this post, I am only discussing the main stances, “Wu Ji” and “Holding The Ball”.
At the end of your standing session, slowly bring the hands down in front of you, and raise the body up to a full standing position, returning to Wu Ji. Stand in Wu Ji for an additional 1 to 2 minutes, and relax as much as possible. To finish, do some arm circles, and take a relaxing walk. Your legs will be tired, but this is all part of the training, so be sure to leave enough time between Zhan Zhuang and any other activities you have to fulfill during the day. The exercise should not be a strained endeavor. Relaxation is the key to performing Zhan Zhuang correctly. When your muscles are crying out for you to stop, try to gently will them to relax. It should not be forced. Zhan Zhuang is a gentle, yet demanding exercise.
Zhan Zhuang is an exercise of relaxation while simultaneously building strength of the entire body, both inside and out. So if you add this training to your life, I hope that you enjoy it, and don’t stress about progressing too fast. Things will happen when the body is prepared for them to happen. That is the key to creating a truly healthy and strong body.
If you are interested in delving deeper in to the world of Zhan Zhuang, a great book that I have found specially written on the subject is Master Lam Kam Chuen’s The Way of Energy – Mastering the Chinese Art of Internal Strength with Chi Kung Exercises
Disclaimer: If you are a little more than out of shape, or have a special condition that might be aggravated by increased blood flow and muscle tension, like a heart condition and such, I would recommend seeking clearance form a doctor before attempting any demanding exercises of any sort.