by Michael W. Jones*
Standing Like a Stake: Internal Pathway to Power
Unlike hard style martial arts (e.g., karate, taekwondo, etc.) with which most Westerners are familiar, traditional Chinese internal martial arts practice often involves holding various static standing postures (zhan zhuang) for varying lengths of time to help achieve mind-body integration by calming the mind to enable one to consciously mold optimal structural alignment in the body itself which can lead to more efficient movement generally. Although external styles may also practice holding stances, internal styles take a different approach.
Internal zhan zhuang (standing post) practice is about more than merely developing powerful legs and strong body structure, goals shared by external stance training. Although both internal and external stance training may develop a strong "root," internal standing practice specifically uses the mind-intent (yi) to lead the qi/ki to develop relaxed body alignments which are both mechanically optimally efficient and nimbly sensitive and capable of instantaneous change in relation to one’s opponent(s). Consequently, internal martial arts stance training does not seek to "lock" structural body alignments in place by tensing one’s muscles (and gritting one’s teeth, metaphorically speaking). However, this is not to say that proper internal standing practice is not physically (as well as mentally) demanding.
In a simple example of the basic mechanics which underlie proper standing, imagine pushing on a stick which is propped against the ground. The stick does not need to "push back" to neutralize your push, it merely needs to conduct your force into the ground. Next, consider two sticks placed end to end and secured with duct tape, with the end of one stick again stuck in the ground and the free end of the second stick up in the air at a 45 degree angle. If the alignment of these two sticks is optimal, the force of an outside push will be conducted through both sticks into the ground, notwithstanding the flexible "joint" where the two sticks are duct-taped together. Once again, the structure does not require "local muscle" to efficiently conduct force.
The human body is analogous to this simple example, though obviously the human endoskeleton is a much more complex structure than the simple two stick example. Even so, the basic idea that optimal alignment(s) can efficiently conduct force without the need for "local muscle" remains applicable. With the addition of multiple "joints" the human body structure is capable of efficiently conducting a wide variety of different force vectors into the ground while evenly distributing and minimizing the stresses along the force path through the body by balancing the relative angles of the joints. Excess muscular tension in the body structure inhibits the unimpeded pure conduction of force through the body and makes it difficult as a practical matter to be sensitive to and aware of the postural micro-adjustments that must be made to optimize one's body alignments to conduct a particular force through the body structure.
Many neijia practitioners begin standing in a high neutral posture known as Wuji, a relaxed and natural posture with feet parallel shoulder-width apart and arms hanging down at the sides (seen at right). However, unlike "normal" standing, it is important that one follow the classical admonitions for standing practice, including: keep the head upright (raise the baihui, crown of head) and the body straight; eyes gaze forward and level; hollow the chest and raise the back (careful, this does not mean "hunch"); relax the waist and huiyin (perineum); sink the shoulders and elbows; extend the fingers; keep the kua (inguinal crease) open and the dang (crotch) rounded; the tail-bone hangs straight down; keep weight balanced over yongquan (bubbling well points behind each ball of the foot); while qi circulates freely and completely throughout the body. Another standard variation (the so-called "Universal Post" posture shown above left) has the arms raised at varying heights from the lower abdomen to the shoulder level as if hugging a tree. This helps to develop optimal alignments extending from the torso into the arms.
Casual observers will likely miss the subtleties of what such practitioners are trying to achieve by "merely" standing in an upright posture. Interestingly, Wang Xiang Zhai’s art of Yi Quan, developed from his intensive training in Xingyi, makes a detailed study training a variety of different standing postures. However, one does not necessarily have to assume a low stance to develop leg strength (as well as the overall benefits of optimal alignment). A top level Chen style Taiji teacher such as Chen Xiao Wang can optimally adjust one’s body alignment to make most folks "feel the burn" even in a high standing posture like Universal Post.
Although Universal Post standing may be practiced generally by Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua stylists, Xingyi training traditionally focuses on a specific standing posture known as San Ti Shi (3 body posture). Santi is actually the concluding position for the basic Metal Element technique, Pi Quan (splitting fist), with one foot ahead of the other, front hand at head level facing palm down aligned with lead foot, rear hand palm down in front of the dantian (the area just below the navel), weight distribution varying depending on style from 50-50 to a more rear-weighted posture. A fairly typical variation of Santi standing is shown at left.
Aikido practitioners who are interested in this type of training can easily utilize a basic variation of the static hanmi ready position with hands raised to the front as if holding a sword to try to build optimal body alignments in a static position. For those who use the ki visualization method, one should consciously "extend ki" up from the ground and out through the fingertips in this position. A person pressing lightly into one's stance ought to feel the relaxed solidity of a body efficiently grounding incoming force without relying on tensing local muscle.
Although Bagua stylists often bypass extensive static standing practices to build optimal body alignments in motion from the common practice of "walking the circle," some practitioners may spend some time preliminarily holding various postures to develop static optimal body alignments. An example of a commonly held Cheng style Bagua circle-walking posture is shown at right. When progressing to hold this position dynamically while walking the circle, one gains the double benefit of working on optimal body alignments in motion. Any position that is held on one side, can also be held on the other for balance.
Although there may be a tendency
for some to focus on how long one can hold a particular position, the amount
of time spent standing is less important than the quality of one’s practice.
There is an important distinction between an optimal efficient relaxed
body alignment that permits one to change position nimbly in relation to
outside forces and merely tensing muscles and resisting. Beginners being
adjusted for the first time by a high level teacher may find it difficult
to stand for even less than a minute in a relatively high position without
breaking the alignment. With regular practice, one gradually is able to
stand for longer periods of time. Famous masters supposedly were able to
stand in the same position for an hour or longer. Correct zhan zhuang
practice can be extremely helpful toward developing relaxed optimal body
alignments, a necessary prerequisite to developing explosive internal power
*Michael W. Jones is the editor of the Internal Martial Arts journal published by Six Harmonies Press, a bimonthly print publication that provides modern coverage of traditional Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, Aikido and related arts with an emphasis on practical training advice. The following article was expanded and adapted from a Beginners' Guide article featured in the December 2000 issue of Internal Martial Arts.