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Beginners Series: Zhàn zhuāng (standing meditation) Part 2 alignments

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Welcome back to our beginners series on Zhàn zhuāng (standing meditation) in the last article we covered the history, the basics and some of the benefits of this practice. Now we return to give some more details on how to stand well.

We all know people who have bad posture, hunched backs, tight shoulders, locked up hips, slouching and the now omnipresent mobile phone stoop. We all have a pretty good idea of what bad posture is in a similar way to how we all have a good idea of what a sick/unhealthy person is. But what is good posture? Here health is again a good analogy, is a swimmers body healthier than a gymnasts? It seems as if there are many possible paths to a healthy body. Here we look at two examples.

Western Military Posture

If you tell most Western people to improve their posture they normally do so in a very predicable way. They sit bolt upright and tighten their abdomen. Men usually also puff out their chests and some may tuck in their tail bone. The knees are locked, the jaw often clenched and the arms tight against their side. All of these adjustments do lead to a straight back which is often a significant improvement from a slouched posture. What happens next is always the same, very soon the large external muscles like the abdomen, chest and lats that are supporting this posture tire and the slump returns. This is a very external approach to achieving a straight back. It makes use of the large prime mover muscles rather than the postural muscles that surround the spine and lie inside the hips and abdomen.

Attention soldier! Here is Mark demonstrating Western military/victorian schoolchild posture. Yes the back is straight but there is a lot of effort exerted to get that result.

The Eastern vertical posture

So how do we get a nice straight and vertical posture without using so much tension? We need to open up and loosen the joints, relax those large prime mover muscles as much as possible and let the postural muscles do their jobs. This is achieved with the combination of intension (more on that in a later post) and alignments. Alignments are the word we use for little postural corrections that let the body sit in a comfortable and natural way. Most of the time you will notice when the body moves into alignment, it feels just easy and right (sometimes not as an unhealthy misalignment has become so ingrained that the correct position now feels weird, if this is the case dont force anything just try for a minute or two). Assume the basic standing posture in the photo (dont stress to much about the details just try your best for now):

Now scan downwards just making a few adjustments (listed below). If you cant do one or feel anything don't worry just move onto the next one. Starting at the top and working down:

1) Head and face are relaxed, eyes soft

2) Tongue lightly touches the roof of the mouth

3) Jaw is unclenched and held naturally as though if you relaxed it any more it would open

4) Head is held upright and vertical. A good cue is to imagine you are wearing a pair of glasses on the back of your head.

5) Neck is relaxed

6) Shoulders are relaxed. THIS IS HARD FOR MOST PEOPLE. Shoulders should feel like they are resting down and back in the socket. This area is often locked up in beginners so don't stress about it.

7) There is some space under the armpits

8) Chest relaxed. THIS IS ALSO HARD FOR MOST PEOPLE. As you breathe out try to get the chest to relax and the diaphragm to drop. Keep that feeling of a sunk chest as you breathe in again...this can be difficult.

9) Elbows slightly bent

9) Wrists relaxed and slightly bent

10) Fingers lightly separated from each other, like you are about to shake someone's hand.

11) Belly relaxed. This doesn't mean core floppy but the external muscles should be soft. This wont help your beach body abs but will train your spinal erectors and posterior chain (deep muscles around the spine and back) to do the job of keeping you upright rather than your front stabilizers.

12) Hips open and bum lightly tucked. This is a big topic as the hips move in all sorts of directions, we will come back to this in another article.

13) Knees slightly bent (more bent than most people like! Check every minute or so as most people come up quite quickly)

14) Ankles slightly bent and open (not closed inwards)

15) Feet flat on the floor and weight evenly distributed over the middle of the foot.

16) Finally everything lines up; the shoulders sit evenly over the hips, weight is even left to right and front to back, spine is straight and vertical, body is soft and relaxed.

A zoom of the hip, knee and ankle alignments (ignore the hands hiking up my shorts here!)

There you go. A basic overview of the external alignments (there are internal ones and energetic ones too...Taoist mystics had a lot of time on their hands!). I recommend doing the scan approach to start with or if that is too much to remember just pick a single one each time you stand. So if you are standing for 5 minutes a day, just pick one (eg bent knees) to start with and then mindfully correct that alignment every time you notice it drift off. Stay relaxed and dont stress about it, the alignments will come.

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