Zhàn zhuāng literally means post or pile standing but like most literal translations from Mandarin this has little real meaning. I prefer the term standing meditation (or just standing) as I think this captures more of the essence of the practice and Western students have more of an idea what they are in for.
Zhàn zhuāng is one of the handful of martial arts and health practices that is really truly Chinese. It began with Taoist mystics practising standing still for long periods to improve their health. This in turn increased their ability to meditate for long periods. Other meditative traditions have walking, sitting and lying practices but standing practice is really unique to Taoism. It serves a similar function to asana in Yoga, opening up, strengthening and unblocking the body in preparation for meditation.
Chinese martial artists, mostly in the internal schools of Taiji, Xing Yi and Bagua (but also many others) took note of this and incorporate the practice into their arts. It serves as a sort of internal fuel that gives power and life to the movements of these arts and builds the body in a way that supports their training.
Now many of these arts (especially Taiji) are practised primarily for health by a large proportion of the people who train them. As such Zhàn zhuāng is being practised again primarily for the health benefits, to help people heal from injuries and live active lives into their silver years.
Zhàn zhuāng is simple. You adopt a calm neutral upright but not forced posture with the hands often held up and then you hold it. You try to relax as much as possible in the posture and use the minimum amount of effort to hold yourself there. Nothing is locked out, the hips are free, the knees are slightly bent, the back is straight and the belly and chest are relaxed. Arms are held up but the shoulders are sunk, fingers are open and lightly splayed, elbows open and slightly bent. Then you just breathe deeply and naturally. Hold for a few minutes at first and then build up slowly. You never force anything and follow the 70% rule (more on this another time). Over time you will build up the time you can spend in the posture. The longest I have stood in one session is for just over 4 hours but few have the luxury (or desire) to achieve this (thanks PhD!). To slowly work up to one hour is a great achievement.
Below is an example with me standing in one of the most common postures: embracing the tree (also known as the Mother posture):
So why do this? Well standing meditation offers a number of benefits:
1. It improves posture
2. It strengthens the postural muscles
3. It relaxes the body and teaches relaxation in an active position (rather than just lying down)
4. It improves blood flow to the joints and tendons (often leading to the recovery from nagging joint issues)
5. In the untrained/de-trained you also get significant strength gains in the legs and shoulders (but if you know your way around a barbell or kettlebell this wont add much here)
6. It deepens and lengthens the breath again in untrained/de-trained individuals it can lead to significant cardiovascular improvements (but it wont help much here if you already have your couch to 10k done!)
7. It puts the nervous system into the parasympathetic mode reducing cortisol and promoting healing as well as improving sleep quality
8. It prepares the mind and body for more involved meditative practice and teaches stillness and focus, all prerequisites for sitting meditation. Students that have experience in standing mediation often can progress quickly in sitting practices.
9. It teaches the alignments and biomechanics that work for Chinese internal martial arts
10. It does all this with a very positive risk to reward ratio. Ie there is very very little chance of injury (you just stand there man!) but the benefits are huge.
More to come
So why don’t you give it a go? More details are soon to follow on this series on the alignments and posture in standing, what to do with your mind, how to breathe etc. But, the most important thing is just to try it. Don't overthink it and don't be tense just stand there and try to relax.
A final word. One of my teachers told me that: "Standing meditation is the most important practice in your first 10 years of training." Let that put things into perspective.