Saturday, December 20, 2014
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the phrase “Tong Qi” refers to ventilation of part or all of the body. In Zhan Zhuang “Tong Qi” refers to the time when the Qi becomes heavy enough to plunge through the Dan Tien, down through Huiyin point CV-1 and descend through the legs and travel out under the feet, all without the use of any intention on the part of the practitioner. This is a result of the abundance of cultivated Qi “ventilating” the entire body. This being one of the major goals in Zhan Zhuang, it often takes decades of dedicated and correct practice to achieve. But Tong Qi in itself is also a gateway into various forms of what feels like emptiness, as though the body were hollow or transparent or like there are no boundaries between our body and our surroundings, the air or even the ground.
Good News! The INSIDE ZHAN ZHUANG Companion DVD - Standing Meditation for Beginners & Seniors is now available on Amazon.
At last, a real in-depth look at this simple yet profound form of exercise. The Inside Zhan Zhuang Companion - Standing Meditation for Beginners and Seniors, clearly presents the basics and then delves deeply into the inner workings and techniques necessary to improve health and achieve power. Continued daily practice of Zhan Zhuang - Standing Meditation - has been found to relieve anxiety and depression, help regulate high blood pressure, reduce headaches, improve posture, vitality, memory, focus, circulation, digestion, spinal, back and internal organ problems as well as increase overall strength and balance. It also has the amazing ability to calm the mind and nervous system and support healthful longevity. Also contains a comprehensive Masterpoints Video Reference Guide and an extensive chapter menu for easy reference. Suitable for the novice and seasoned practitioner alike. Excellent for those who don’t have access to a skilled teacher.
Friday, December 12, 2014
Good News! Inside Zhan Zhuang Companion DVD Now Available on Amazon. Plus Internal Exercise: "The Mind Leads the Chi"
Aloha from Maui. To everyone around the world who has written me asking for a DVD to accompany the book “Inside Zhan Zhuang,” I am happy to announce that “Inside Zhan Zhuang - Standing Meditation for Beginners & Seniors” is now available at Amazon.
Here’s a simple yet elegant Chi Kung/Nei Kung Exercise that can have profound effects both on one’s health and their ability to move energy. It is my understanding that Wang Xiang Zhai utilized a similar method as part of his training regime.
1) Bring feeling-awareness to Baihui point (GV-20) at the top of the head. Inhale into Baihui point. 2) Just before inhale ends move feeling-awareness to Huiyin point (CV-1) and exhale. 3) Just before exhale ends, move feeling-awareness to Baihui point, inhale and... Repeat process.
1) Bring feeling-awareness to Baihui point. Hold until sensation.
2) Move feeling-awareness to Huiyin point. Hold until sensation.
Monday, November 24, 2014
Friday, November 7, 2014
Aloha from Maui. Here's the new excerpt from "Zhan Zhuang Wisdom - The Breath of Life."
Once this has occurred we have begun to become in touch with the energetic aspects of the training. And these will come into play even more as we explore Longevity Breathing and enter into states where the breath takes unusual forms and sometimes seems to disappear altogether.
With Longevity Breathing, whose name derives from the compression and release of the internal organs facilitated by the descending of the diaphragm, we enter into the final stage of conscious breathing, the portal, through which it is possible to pass and return to the state of Original Breath, or breathing like an infant, the true ‘natural breath.’
To perform the Longevity method correctly, it is important to first define a few important parameters. Try this; inhale and then exhale normally. On the exhale note the place where the abdomen is most fully withdrawn. (Moved back toward the spine.) Now gently hold the abdominal muscles in, to that same moderate degree. This is done using only the minimal amount of force necessary and applied mostly to the following four points or corners. The first two points lay on the line of the navel where the Rectus Abdominis muscles meet the External Obliques. In other words the Left and Right Dan Tiens. The second set of points each lie on a line directly below the Left and Right Dan Tiens respectively, where each line intersects its respective inguinal crease.
There’s an easy way to locate the four points. Try this; place both thumbs on the navel. Next, slide the thumbs laterally until they reach the two points where the Rectus Abdominis [washboard muscles] meet the Obliques. There’s generally a slight vertical indentation in this region. These points are usually easiest to feel while standing. Now, while holding the thumbs in position, extend your middle fingers directly below until they reach the Inguinal Crease. And there you have it. (See Diagram)
Now having located the four masterpoints and while keeping them slightly withdrawn, [held in] breathe in very gently, slenderly and slowly behind the abdominal muscles such that the breath reaches the Perennial region and begins to fill the low back and Sacrum first and then an instant later, the sides and front. Once the breath has filled out the ‘circle’ in all directions at the level of the Perineum/Sacrum/Low Back, as you continue to inhale, the breath will seem to rise, like filling a large energetic cylinder which physically becomes the entire torso [abdomen and chest] and then later, the neck and head as well.
The organ massage spoken of earlier starts to occur as we drop our breath to the bottom of the torso. As we feel the breath reaching the floor of the urogenital diaphragm (Perennial Region) we soon realize that our (Hiatal) Diaphragm located at the at the level of the lowest rib has descended toward the pelvic floor in the process. And if done right, this will also include the chest and particularly the Sternum. This descending motion creates a slight compression within each of the internal organs which is in turn, released and becomes expansion as we begin inhaling.
Please note that this method is in direct contrast to the forceful withdrawal and tightening of the abdomen used in ‘Packing Breathing’ which people train in order to develop the Iron Body and Golden Bell Cover protection mechanisms.
Lastly, as one continues to practice the Longevity method they will find their breath elongating further and further, until the difference between inhale and exhale seems, if only temporarily, to vanish. This leads for some to the idea of breathing or needing to breathe itself temporarily disappearing. And with that we come full circle and arrive once again at the Natural Breath, only now with and entirely new understanding.
This form of Natural Breath has been found to also have a number of other health rejuvenating benefits, not the least of which, is the increased oxygenation of the blood and increased tissue oxygen saturation.
Increased blood oxygenation leads to improved circulation which nurtures the entire organism, including the brain. The increased oxygenation is especially valuable to the brain where it helps stave off the untimely cessation of brain cells which would ordinarily lead to problems like Alzheimer's, dementia and the like, as we grow older.
Increased tissue oxygen saturation helps such things as the muscles to function longer and more optimally during prolonged exertion. This can be very useful in maintaining one’s vitality into old age. As well as our daily Zhan Zhuang and Taijiquan training.
It has been my experience that Standing Meditation and Taiji are a perfect compliment of Yin and Yang. With Zhan Zhuang (Yin) we are outwardly still while things move inside, whereas with Taijiquan (Yang) we have just the opposite. We move outwardly while inwardly we maintain a still point. “The mind stays with the Dan Tien.”
Saturday, November 1, 2014
Aloha from Maui,
Here's a new excerpt in which I discuss allowing the breath to become round and then spherical…
THE DEPTH ASPECT - FULL MOON/SPHERICAL BREATHINGThe Full Moon breathing method adds three additional points on the back to the five Half-Moon points already mentioned. These are Mingmen, GV-4 and two points roughly equidistant between Mingmen and the two Jingmen points. These are located in the vicinity of Zhishi point BL-52, on either side. In combination, these eight points create a complete circle, and when the inhale is generated from the body’s centerpoint, they form the basis of Spherical Breathing. That is, an equal expansion in all eight directions from the tiny sphere of our centerpoint to an energetic sphere that eventually encompasses the entire torso and later the whole body, including the extremities. As this technique becomes comfortable, the practitioner finds that the vertical elements also come into play, that is, from our centerpoint downward through Huiyin point, CV-1 in the perineal region and also upward to Baihui point GV-20.
When we exercise the Half-Moon method, often we can see and feel a lot of movement in the tissue, even on the sides. But when we add the points on the back something unusual happens. All of a sudden the amount of abdominal movement we had earlier appears to become greatly reduced. This results from the stretching or expanding of the tissue of the back which takes away from the elasticity in front. But as we become more comfortable with the equilateral expansion in all directions, this feeling will change. With enough experience, one begins to feel a sense of unified, equal expansion without resistance. At that point we are ready to add one final element which will lead us into what some have called Longevity Breathing.
But before we do, a brief recap is in order. The navel - which expands forward, and the Mingmen - which expands backward, together create the archetype for the depth [front to back] dimension. The two Jingmen points, each expanding laterally generate the archetype for the horizontal aspect or width. And finally Huiyin and Baihui points, activated from our centerpoint induce the vertical dimension or height aspect. With enough daily practice all three dimensions will find their correct dynamic tension, at which time the breath seems to expand and condense without a sense of impediment from the muscles or other tissues.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Aloha from Maui,
Here's the next excerpt from "Zhan Zhuang Wisdom - The Breath of Life"
THE HORIZONTAL ASPECT - HALF-MOON BREATHINGThe second aspect we shall explore is the horizontal aspect which is encompassed in Half-Moon breathing. This method derives its name from the shape the abdomen takes while inhaling. What we do is simple. First we establish three points, all of which will expand simultaneously. The first point is the navel or low Dan Tien region. The second and third points are found on the left and right sides of the body, in the midriff area at Jingmen Point, GB-25 just below the the free end of the 12th rib. As we inhale we shift our feeling-awareness between the navel and the two Jingmen points on either side. The idea is to ensure that all three locations have physical movement. The navel area expands forward while the left and right points expand outward in a lateral manner. Together, the expanding arc formed by the three expanding points now resembles a half moon. Along with the three points mentioned, two other points, specifically the Left and Right Dan Tiens are then added. These locations lie roughly halfway between the navel and Jingmen point on either side. Together the three basic points and these other two further reinforce and amplify the “roundness” of the half-moon.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
Aloha and greetings from Maui.
Here's the second excerpt from the "Zhan Zhuang Wisdom - The Breath of Life" article. Mahalo.
THE VERTICAL ASPECT - CROSSING BREATHThe first of the three dimensional aspects of the triad of Sphericality (Height, Width and Depth) that we shall explore is the vertical or height aspect. The ‘Crossing Breath’ develops this. The idea is simple. Breathe into your upper back and lower abdomen. The breath from the upper back descends to the sacral region while the breath starting at the Low Dan Tien or navel area simultaneously ascends to the Clavicle. Half-way down and up the twin aspects ‘cross,’ hence the name.’
In addition to refining the vertical motions of down and up individually, the Crossing Breath begins to train the muscles to move in opposite directions or contrary motion; an essential characteristic of Spherical Breathing.’ The idea of opposite motion is also especially useful in the area of the midriff, and specifically between the External and Internal Obliques who’s job it is to move in opposite directions during proper Taiji, Qigong and of course Zhan Zhuang practices.
Friday, October 17, 2014
Aloha and Greetings from Maui. Below is the first excerpt from an article I wrote entitled, "Zhan Zhuang Wisdom - The Breath of Life" which comes out in the winter issue of Qi - The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health and Fitness
ZHAN ZHUANG BREATHING METHODSIt is often said in Zhan Zhuang that one’s breathing should be ‘natural.’ But what does this really mean? In one sense ‘natural’ breathing is however we happen to be breathing in each moment. Although there is truth in this, this type of natural breath often has embedded within it, various deficiencies due to injury, lifestyle or a lifetime of various habitual behaviors.
ORIGINAL BREATHBefore a baby is born and is still within its mother’s Bao, the baby breathes through its umbilicus without using it’s lungs. This is actually its ‘Original Breath,’ which sustains and nourishes it for the nine months prior to birth. This is breathing from your Centerpoint. (An old Daoist tradition says that this incoming transmission occurs more from the left side of the navel than from the right.)
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Aloha and Greetings from Maui,
Here’s another insight that came during a recent Zhan Zhuang session. It concerns the meaning of Wu Wei, which most of us know as “effortless effort” or “doing without doing.” In addition to those meanings, Wu Wei is also the Golden Key that opens the Gateway between purely physical consciousness and energetic consciousness...
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Aloha and Greetings from Maui,
I had some sudden insights during a recent Zhan Zhuang session and I thought I’d share one.
"The feeling of greater and greater space within the body, reported by many veteran practitioners of Zhan Zhuang, also described as “hollowness” is actually the perception and feeling-awareness of a proven scientific fact; the massive amount of space inherent in atomic and sub-atomic particles, such as the vast distance between electrons and the nucleus of an atom."
Something to think about...
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Aloha and greetings from Maui.
Friday, April 11, 2014
Aloha and Greetings from Maui,
Here's an updated article that's been in several Internal Martial Arts magazines, entitled: "Zhan Zhuang - What Really Happens When We Stand"
ZHAN ZHUANG - WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN WE STAND?
Tai Chi Chuan is taught very differently today than it was one or two hundred years ago. While this statement seems obvious to those in the know, it is this difference that is fundamental in answering the question of why many practitioners in olden times had such awesome power, skill and in many cases, radiant health and most today do not.
A SECRET HIDES IN PLAIN SIGHT
One answer lies in the very beginning of the Tai Chi form, just prior to Commencement. What are we doing then? Probably standing with our feet parallel, somewhere between shoulder and hip width, depending on style. And there it is, one of the biggest secrets of Tai Chi, hiding in plain sight.
The truth is, the original Tai Chi lineage practice contained Zhan Zhuang training. The practitioners of old often stood in the Wuji posture, arms resting at their sides just as they are prior to Commencement, for an hour or more before beginning their form repetitions.
THE THREE CATEGORIES OF DEVELOPMENT
When one begins Zhan Zhuang training their goals generally fall into one of three categories: health and longevity, internal martial power and mental/spiritual development. And since most all achievement in the internal arts is based on greater and greater relaxation and integration, standing meditation naturally becomes an excellent method of choice for rapid accomplishment.
So, we find a suitable location, get ourselves into position, correct our alignments, center our feeling attention in the lower (or upper) Dan Tien and then what?
It is obvious that over time much happens to the individual during Zhan Zhuang practice, such as the transformation of the nerves, healing of various injuries, the acquisition of genuine internal power and even energizing the brain and expanding consciousness. It is fair to say that nearly all great internal martial artists of the previous centuries acquired their achievement to a major extent by first passing through the gate of Zhan Zhuang. (This includes Yang Cheng Fu who trained Zhan Zhuang but only taught it to a handful of people.)
So the question becomes, how did they do this? What occurred inside their bodies that allowed them to reach such high levels? The answer to this question has three components: Physical, Energetic, and the Shen force. (Shen force can be thought of as a combination of Xin - heart/mind and Yi – intention, as well as that part of us which controls both.)
AS THE WATER SETTLES THE ROCKS APPEAR
The first thing people generally feel when they begin standing are various ‘discomforts’ in the physical body. These imbalances are generated by causes such as old injuries, energetic blockages, including organ or gland imbalances, psychic/emotional karma, and general mental rigidity.
In this discussion we will primarily focus on the physical arena as these issues must be reckoned with before the other areas become steadily accessible.
So what is it exactly that causes our discomfort and pain and perhaps more importantly, how do we change it and become relaxed?
It can be said that all discomfort within the body is caused by incorrect tension between two primary dynamic forces - the descending Heaven energy (gravity, sinking, Yang) and the ascending Earth energy (lifting, rising, Yin.) These can be thought of as opposite pressures which when not properly equalized, create pain, discomfort or at the very least odd feelings or sensations in the body. These pressures manifest both physically and energetically. Our goal here is to enable a balanced interchange.
Following the laws of hydrodynamics (the study of fluids in motion) we can postulate that an imbalance of pressure - either too much or too little - exerted on liquid within a defined, somewhat flexible membrane (the body) creates actual physical distortions. Eventually these can become ingrained and also warp the energy body(s).
As these imbalances become habitual, the body adapts and creates a “new normal.” The definition of “normal” in this case being what we accept as natural for us, such that no area of the body calls attention to itself. In the case of an injury, normal refers to how things felt before the damage. Of course the “new normal” is actually an aberrated pattern. This means that after a time we “get used” to the imbalance and begin to experience it as normal.
The body is often miraculous in it’s ability to self-heal and yet this same adaptive ability can also be a double-edged sword in that what can’t be corrected by the body’s self-healing, eventually gets blotted out of the conscious mind and feeling. When this occurs the pattern has been locked into the subconscious. And that’s where Zhan Zhuang can be most helpful.
The continuous practice of the standing exercise reveals these aberrated subconscious patterns and eventually helps resolve them.
MUSCLE BLOCKAGES AND RELEASING THEM
When we have a muscular injury, in most cases the muscle contracts like a spring, upward and inward. If this is not resolved then ultimately the injured muscle becomes “stuck” to the bone, fascia or other nearby muscles. When this happens the pain or discomfort becomes pretty much constant. To resolve this type of injury we primarily use the descending, lengthening Heaven energy.
In extreme cases it is possible for the opposite to happen. The muscle “spring” can be so sprung that flaccidity occurs. This can be particularly challenging when tendons and ligaments are involved. In this case, in addition to the descending Heaven energy, we must rely heavily on the rising, lifting Earth energy to slowly retighten the spring.
The good news is, with time, Zhan Zhuang can resolve and heal many of these injuries. What actually happens is that the contracted muscle elongates and comes “unstuck from the bone.” This process can sometimes be quite strenuous, especially when long unused/newly freed muscles come back online or when the body attempts to return to the original energy flows that were present before injury. However, with continued practice these sinews gradually regain their strength (correct dynamic tension) and the soreness vanishes. Please note: if the injury is severe this process can take a long time.
HOW STANDING IS DIFFERENT FROM MOVING EXERCISE
Despite it’s apparent simplicity, standing meditation is actually one of the most challenging things a person can do. One of the reasons is because Zhan Zhuang practice requires absolute mental and emotional honesty. Let me explain. When we practice movement, whether it be Tai Chi, Xingyi or Ba Gua, especially at the beginning, it is easily possible to do it incorrectly and think we’re doing it right. Only later when the teacher corrects us, do we realize our error. This is where Zhan Zhuang is different.
Standing for an extended period of time, (40 minutes a day for health, an hour or more for martial achievement) we cannot deceive ourselves into believing we’re relaxed when we are not because sooner or later some uncomfortable sensation appears to remind us. Therefore, when we finally do achieve some degree of relaxation, we can know it is genuine. Of course there are many, many deepening levels of relaxation that become available over the years.
An example of this can be a feeling of profound contentment, like we are exactly where we’re supposed to be as a human being. Heaven above, the Earth below and we, man or woman in between, nothing to do, nothing to achieve, just pure beingness. Or sometimes we feel as if our muscles are “melting.” When this occurs, the body will respond to our feeling-awareness and release blockages wherever we focus.
The same is true of Nei Kung “energy experiences.” When we work with various Taoist alchemies or the like, our imagination becomes so refined that we can create experiences. But the question is, are these feelings and experiences real or just mock-ups of our imagination? With Zhan Zhuang however, there is generally no question whether some energy or feeling is real. Since we are not seeking any particular experience, just greater relaxation, when something does happen out-of-the-blue so to speak, we know it’s real because we had no part in trying to create it. Also after one of these experiences, we are often able to duplicate and utilize the new awareness.
STRUCTURE VS. RELAXATION
When I first began Zhan Zhuang training, I asked the following question: What is more important, posture or relaxation? The answer I was given after long deliberation was relaxation. While structure is obviously important for many reasons such as integration and Chi flow for example, it is the ability to relax more and more deeply that actually brings achievement.
Here it is important to point out that obsessive preoccupation with a posture’s alignment will almost always bring negative results in the way of unwanted tension. Therefore, the symmetry of structure and the quest for its perfection can be deceiving, just look at nature. Nowhere in nature will we find symmetry in the way humans define it. The branches of a tree are not symmetrical nor equidistant, or even completely straight for that matter and yet the tree thrives and grows healthy and tall. This means that the sooner we accept our imperfections and learn to be okay just the way we are, the faster our progress.
By concentrating on relaxation, eventually the body will begin to correct and adjust imbalances of itself, or suggest to us how to work with the asymmetrical elements. Here, there are two keys to remember, 1) The body wants to heal itself and 2) The body has certain innate wisdoms we can trust. That said, the best way to deal with this dilemma is a balanced approach, to use both elements, alignment (structure) and relaxation interchangeably. The phrase, “Set it and forget it,” is appropriate here. In other words, do your best to set up your structure and then let go of it and work mainly with relaxation.
THE BOTTOMS OF THE FEET ARE THE BENCHMARK
The feet are the place through which all the forces of gravity must pass. There are literally thousands of “gravity filaments” or vertical lines of force throughout the body, all of which must be balanced and released from the top of the head/shoulders down into the ground. In this way the front, back, insides and outsides of the bottoms of the feet each reveal the result of our progressive relaxation. The key here is evenness. Generally when we stand, especially at first, some parts of the feet will feel more pressure than others. By tracing these excesses (or deficiencies, not enough pressure) up their respective meridians, we can find the source of the resistance or blockage.
Once recognized, the next step is to relax and try to empty the suspect area and then continue to relax the relative muscle channel(s) all the way down under the bottom of the foot. The goal here is equal pressure, no place too much or too little. Finally, with enough practice even our feeling of this equal pressure inevitably disappears as we merge with the earth. When this is accomplished we have effectively sunk the Chi and created, at least in part, the highly-prized state of Sung.
THE FIVE POINTS OF THE FOOT
There are five locations on the bottoms of the feet, knowledge of which will greatly aid in our quest. They are: Yongquan, Kidney 1 - the bubbling well, the center of the heel, the big ball - located behind the big toe/second toe, the little ball - located behind the pinky/4th toe and lastly the Center Point, equidistant between the tip of the toes and back of the heel. This point is located directly below Jiexi point, St-41 when standing in Wuji posture. Jiexi point can be found on the midpoint of the transverse crease of the ankle in a depression between the two tendons.
There is a sixth point which also proves very useful. This is Zulinqi point, GB-41 and when properly opened, has the power to help release the hip, especially the side of the hip. Zulinqi point is located on the top of the foot toward the outside, behind the 4th metatarsophalangeal joint in a depression lateral to the tendon of extensor digiti minimi.
When checking to see if our Chi has sunk, these locations assist in simplifying the task of isolating and resolving blockages. It is important to note that focusing on the bubbling well will cause energy to rise and focusing on the bottom of the heel will cause energy to descend. Focusing on the Center Point will ideally allow energy to ascend and descend simultaneously.
WUJI POSTURE: THE QUICKEST WAY TO THE SPINE
By leaving our arms relaxed at our sides as we do in the Wuji standing posture, our attention more naturally stays inside the torso. Test this for yourself. First, stand with your hands at your sides for a minute or so. Then raise your arms and form the embracing the tree/holding the ball posture and maintain that for a minute. Notice that as soon as your raise your hands, your conscious attention naturally tends to shift to the arms and upper body. Finally, return your arms to the sides of the body and notice what happens. Your feeling-awareness begins to leave the arms and return to the torso.
In addition to this, the width of the feet can influence our ability to be aware of the spine. When we stand in a wide stance (shoulder width or wider) just as with the arms, our feeling-awareness tends to move to the outsides of the body. On the other hand, when we position the feet at hip width or narrower, of necessity we must stand “taller,” that is, stretch the body more vertically. This of itself brings greater awareness of the spine.
THE CHI ADHERES TO THE BACK
Students of the Tai Chi classics are quite familiar with this saying. But what does it mean and why is it important in our Zhan Zhuang and Tai Chi practice? In terms of Zhan Zhuang, the Chi gathering and adhering to the back primarily refers to the Yang Chi and the spine.
What happens with enough practice is that more and more of the “Yin tissue” in the front of the body (chest, abdomen and innards) elongates and relaxes back toward the spine. This is especially true of the all-important Psoas muscles. When this occurs, the Yin tissue feels more insubstantial while the Yang Chi of the back becomes more tangible.
The importance of the spine both for health and martial achievement cannot be over-estimated. On the health side, the nerves of the spine energize all the organs and glands and much more. In addition, every nerve message which passes from the brain to the body and vice-versa, goes through the spinal column. On the martial side, the spine is central to issuing powerful Jin.
THE POSITION OF THE EYES
The use of the eyes depends upon one’s goal(s) in Zhan Zhuang practice. For health, it is beneficial to close the eyes. This makes focusing inside easier and in my experience is useful no matter what your goal. With all methods, it is important to retain great relaxation in the eyes.
For martial arts, it is often best to keep the eyes open. One reason for this is to cultivate our peripheral vision. Another reason is because at higher levels, the eyes are indispensable in the projection of power/energy.
In the first method we use a specific focus on some distant object and while holding our attention there, engage our peripheral vision or what some have termed, “Eagle Vision.” A variation of this is to gaze into the distance with our eyes straight ahead (at the horizon for instance) with no specific focal point.
For mental and spiritual cultivation of the Shen force, there two other techniques that can be very useful. The Half-Inside/Half-Outside Method often works well.
First, one looks straight ahead while half-closing their eyes. Let the eyelids relax and get heavy such that they obscure half your field of vision. Then, and here’s the trick, while keeping your attention focused straight ahead, relax the eye muscles and lower the eyes as if going to sleep. At this point your attention, which is still looking straight ahead, will have become focused on your “inner screen” - eyelids obscuring the upper half of the objective world while your physical eyes are lightly focused downward on the physical reality. As we maintain this relaxed focus, inside, light will begin to accumulate and this leads to the second method.
The Eyes Shut Method. This method is similar to the first but with the eyes completely closed. Simply gaze straight ahead, close your eyes and relax them like going to sleep while maintaining your inner vision steady on your “inner screen.” This kind of seeing - using one’s inner visual attention rather than what the physical eyes see - has as its basis the Taoist axiom of Wu Wei – effortless doing or doing as though not doing and is used in such practices as “Circulation of the Light.”
TWO APPROACHES TO RELAXATION
The first approach involves using the mind to square everything away, so to speak. That is, going through the body step-by-step from Baihui point and above the head, down through the bottoms of the feet, correcting alignments, opening the various points and locations by relaxing and adjusting as necessary. This method is useful when we have difficulty quieting the mind. Concentrating in this manner gives the mind something to do and tends to get rid of excessive thought. Once this is done, we find our center and automatically shift to the second method which involves only feeling.
The second approach is deceptively simple. “Don’t think, feel!” This Bruce Lee aphorism uttered in the movie, “Enter the Dragon,” says it all. In other words, briefly use the mind to put your body in the most balanced posture possible at that moment, find your center and then forget the mind and enter the realm of pure feeling/being.
There are a number of ways to find one’s center. The following method has been found to work extremely well. Place one hand on your Navel/Low Dan Tien area and the other at the Ming Men on the low back. Here it is important to note that there are actually two Ming Men. One is the acupuncture Ming Men which lies just below the second lumbar vertebra and the other is the Chi Kung Ming Men which is found between the 5th lumbar vertebra and the Sacrum. With a judicious hand placement you can cover both.
Once your hands are in position, move your feeling awareness from your front hand, through the body to your back hand. Then move your feeling from your back hand to a point inside your body, halfway between back and front. Lastly, lower your hands to your sides (Wuji posture) and just feel.
For those who prefer more specificity, five locations can be used. 1) the outside of the abdomen, the skin where your hand is touching. 2) the low Dan Tien, 2 to 4 inches inside the body. 3) the Center Point, equidistant between front and back. 4) the inside of the lumbar vertebra, 2 to 4 inches inside the body from the back. 5) the outside of the back, where your other hand is touching.
At first your Center Point location may be vague or amorphous, but with continued practice it will become refined to a single point, after which, many wonderful things begin to happen such as the spontaneous opening of various channels, energy centers or even the entire energy body itself.
Remember to find your center by going from back to front, not the other way around. The reason for this is that we as human beings have much more awareness of the front of our bodies than we do of our backs. Without going from the back first, there is a tendency to skew our awareness of the center point.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HARDWIRING
In Zhan Zhuang, as with all the internal martial arts, there are many embedded layers of deeper and deeper integration, body coordination and application. On the physical side this includes, bone alignments, opening and closing the joints, stretching the tissue linearly and spiraling the tissue. On the Nei Kung side, there are also many phases such as working with the Left and Right Chi Kung Channels, working with the Central Channel, working with the organs and glands, etc.
Hardwiring is the mechanism that enables the linkage of the many parts of the body to a central location, in this case, the low Dan Tien. Later, in advanced practices, this central focus can be in other areas like the middle and upper Dan Tien or even multiple regions. But for health and indeed martial power, for now we’ll focus exclusively on the low Dan Tien or navel area. This method is most suitable to Zhan Zhuang as well as the other internal arts.
Judicious use of hardwiring allows us to actualize the embedded layers of coordination available in each posture or movement. On a physical level, what we do is focus on one particular part of the body at a time in relationship to a central point, in order to create what some have called a dimmer switch.
That is, the ability to activate part or all of one’s unified energy at will by focusing on just one energy center. For now, two basic examples should suffice to clarify the technique. The first method uses breathing to create the linkage, while the second relies on repetitive movement.
The Breathing Method: Choose a part of the body. In the beginning this should probably be somewhere in the torso. For this example we’ll use the upper back. Next, focus your breathing in the low Dan Tien for a few rounds, until you feel a relative evenness between the inhale and the exhale. A feeling of body relaxation begins to occur. During this process you will have sensed a gentle expansion and condensing in the lower abdominal area. Now quietly shift your attention to your upper back and feel it expand and condense with the abdomen. Continue this process for a number of rounds while periodically shifting your feeling-awareness back and forth between the two areas.
With continued practice you will almost be able to be aware of the two locations simultaneously. I say almost because our brain has the ability to switch between the two places at lightening speed, such that it almost feels simultaneous.
I’m speaking about our conscious awareness here. First we feel this, then we feel that, only really really fast.
However, there is another method which can superimpose or join the two locations completely. For that we must access our peripheral feeling-awareness while basically letting go of our fixed conscious focus and allowing it to become more amorphous.
Here’s how: Focus your conscious feeling-awareness in your physical center which falls on the plane of the navel area, specifically, halfway between the navel and the outside of the back. Now, while keeping some of your conscious feeling-awareness there, let your peripheral feeling-awareness open to the region of the upper back. Feel the two locations rise and fall in unison.
Later, in the Nei Kung practices you can create a sphere in your center and feel it expand and condense, taking whatever part(s) of the body you desire to link with it. Later, these spheres will begin to rotate, similar to the Dan Tien Rotation famous in Chen Tai Chi style. This turning or spinning is important because of how it amplifies, propels and accelerates the Chi.
Eventually hardwiring will include the entire body, from head to toe and from inside to outside. When accomplished, our center will now act much like a dimmer switch in its ability to power the body’s overall energetic state either up or down, that is, increase or decrease it at will.
In order to continue the hardwiring procedure, repeat the earlier basic process to link each region to the center, one-at-a-time. Please note, this should first start with the exterior muscles and sinews and then proceed inward to the deeper parts of the body, organs etc.
Now for the Moving Method. This technique uses all the principals of the previous method, only now we apply the same foci while moving, say in Tai Chi form movements for example.
So, while doing each movement singly and repeatedly, we look at one part of the body in relation to what the center is doing. Let’s choose the knees. What are our knees doing in relationship to the low Dan Tien during a particular movement? Are they coordinated, retaining their alignment, expanding and condensing in unison, sending and receiving, opening and closing together as one?
The progression of hardwiring begins with individual areas of the body being linked to the center, but from there it expands step-by-step to include more locations simultaneously until eventually ‘everything’ is linked in.
A good way to proceed after attaining the basic individual mastery is to use the external six harmonies. This involves hardwiring certain parts of the body to each other in addition to the Dan Tien. For example, we can work the linkage between the elbows and knees and then later use multiple pairs such as the shoulders and hips and elbows and knees.
In Zhan Zhuang, the easiest way to affect linkage both to the Dan Tien as well as from one part to another, is by using the breath. With the Dan Tien method, breathe into the low Dan Tien and abdominal region until you begin to feel a gently rounded sensation like a sphere getting larger on the inhale and smaller during the exhale. Next, while keeping a percentage of your feeling-awareness in your abdomen, divert the rest of your feeling-awareness to the region you wish to hardwire. Relax the region as you inhale and expand the abdomen, allowing it to open and condense in unison with the Dan Tien.
As you continue cycling your breath, you can check on both locations by rapidly moving your feeling-awareness between the two. When you get it right, you will find that the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the two locations and the breath, will have activated the Universal Pulse. This is the breathing of the Earth and the world around us including the sun, moon, planets and stars.
Once this is in place all the body’s tissue will be moving in concert as the Chi circulates, uninhibited. At that point you’re well on your way to achieving what the Classics call ‘stillness in motion.’
Eventually, while the majority of your conscious feeling-awareness is held in your center, your peripheral feeling-awareness allows you to simultaneously feel what the rest of the body is doing.
INVESTIGATING THE NATURE OF RELAXATION
In essence, what we are doing in Zhan Zhuang practice is investigating the nature of relaxation. However, relaxation in this case is not simply becoming limp, for if we completely relax all our muscles, we will certainly fall down. Therefore, the type of relaxation we are looking for involves the minimum dynamic tension required to hold the body upright.
After much practice, our equilibrium becomes very refined and we are able to “balance on the bones.” At that point, the perceived dynamic tension of the body’s soft tissue becomes virtually nil. This deep relaxation will eventually permeate even further and include the organs, glands and even the brain.
Why is this so important? Because so much of one’s progress literally comes from deeper and deeper relaxation. Wang Xiang Zhai, the creator of Yiquan, was clear about the necessity for personal investigation and experimentation in this regard. So what are the components of relaxation and how can we deepen it?
Relaxation has three basic components: physical, energetic and mental. We will first address calming the mind for without this, deep relaxation is simply not possible.
USING THE PHYSICAL TO INFLUENCE THE MIND
One of the simplest ways to calm the mind is by using the breath. Regulating the breath (making it even) will in turn soothe and slow the mind.
Another technique is to relax the eyes and especially the back of the eyes where they attach to the optic nerve. Doing this can dramatically slow nerve messages as well as thought.
What we are doing in a sense is creating space in the body. Some people describe it as hollowness, emptiness or lack of differentiation between their body and the surrounding air molecules. These stages are clearly beyond merely being physically comfortable, although deep body relaxation is definitely a prerequisite.
ENTERING THE VOID
When one achieves a considerable amount of genuine relaxation, it sometimes happens that they experience a “time warp,” a sort of space/time distortion. Wang Xiang Zhai called it entering the Void. We think we’ve been standing for 15 or 20 minutes, but when we check the time, it turns out to be closer to 40 or 50 minutes, for example. When this occurs it feels like our blood sparkles and we are filled with vitality.
HOW ZHAN ZHUANG EXPANDS AWARENESS
Imagine three concentric circles, each separated from the other. (See Diagram) Now put yourself in the center of the innermost circle. This circle represents our conscious awareness, what we can feel. The second circle represents our peripheral feeling awareness, what we can just barely feel, sense or glimpse. And the third circle represents what we cannot yet feel or perceive.
What happens over time in Zhan Zhuang practice is that parts of the second circle (our peripheral feeling awareness) become magnified to the point that they fuse with our conscious awareness (the first circle.) At the same time, elements of the third circle are amplified enough to move into the second circle (our peripheral awareness.)
This cycle continues to play out again and again and with each round our conscious awareness grows, sometimes exponentially. The amazing thing about Zhan Zhuang is that everyone who practices daily will inevitably gain such expansions and all the benefits that go with them, including profound improvement in their Tai Chi form and push hands.
Excerpts are from the book, “INSIDE ZHAN ZHUANG” by Mark Cohen. Available on Amazon.