ZHAN ZHUANG - BENEFITS OF KEEPING THE ELBOWS DOWN
Many years ago I met the late Mr. Henry Look on Maui. Henry trained with Han Xing Yuen, a noted student of Wang Xiang Zhai. He was also the disciple of Guo Lien Ying, a Shaolin Master who also trained Zhan Zhuang with Wang Xiangzhai. (Guo was one the first people to introduce standing meditation to America in the 1960s.)
Anyway, after finding out I’d been training Zhan Zhuang, Henry decided to test my frame by giving me several sharp Fa Li/Fa Jin pushes to “see how well you bounce.” In other words how integrated and connected I was. Fortunately I was able to withstand his hits without my frame falling apart, so he agreed to teach me.
Throughout his visit Henry Look showed me a number ways to improve my training. But among them, one method stands out. And that was an adjustment of the arms in the ‘emperor’ of all Zhan Zhuang postures - Cheng Bao Zhuang. (Holding the Ball or Embracing the Tree posture) Whereas most teachers place their students in the standard position with the elbow tips out to the side, somewhat below the level of the shoulders and lower than the level of the wrists, Henry suggested a bit different approach.
Rather than the traditional way, he had me lower and adjust my elbow tips to 45 degree angles (in relation the ground.) The traditional angles generally range from just below 90 degrees (parallel to the ground) to around 60 or 70 degrees. The effect of this modification was remarkable. Immediately I felt a sinking of the muscles in my neck and throat, tops of shoulders, shoulder blades and chest, and the muscles of my upper arms. (Deltoids, Biceps, Triceps etc.) In short, my entire shoulder girdle seemed to relax and settle into place.
In his wisdom Henry realized through observation and the briefest of physical contact, that certain elements in my shoulder girdle were not fully open. And now many years later, I can say with confidence that his method really worked. The idea of placing the tips of the elbows at 45 degrees or even facing the ground (as in Wu style Tai Chi) is not new to standing meditation, in fact the Taoists have been using these and other postural variations for hundreds of years to great effect.
So what actually happens when we use the 45 degree elbow posture. To get a feel for yourself, try this. Place your arms in the standard Cheng Bao Zhuang. (Elbow tips facing away from the torso.) Now, slowly lower your elbow tips down to a 45 degree angle relative to the ground. Note: (For those who are extremely tight in the shoulder girdle region this angle can even be 30 to 35 degrees.)
As you lowered your elbows down to the 45 degree position you will have immediately noticed a genuine relaxation and a downward sinking of the muscles of the neck, shoulder girdle and upper arms. This feeling will then want to percolate down through the chest and back to the Dan Tien/Ming Men region and ideally, all the way down to the bottoms of the feet.
After enough sessions in the 45 degree posture, something wonderful inevitably happens. When enough of the shoulder girdle muscle structures loosen and stretch, the elbow tips begin, of themselves, to ‘float’ back up in the direction of the standard position. 50 degrees, 55, 60, 65 etc. This is simultaneously accompanied and indeed motivated by a greater sense of space and ease throughout the region. When the body has reached near its maximum stretch, the elbow tips will simply want to stop rising. There is one important difference about this type of opening when compared to just assuming the standard posture by rote. And that is, with the 45 degree method, the stretch has come from the spine and centerline of the chest, meaning all the deep muscles of the upper back, chest and shoulders have opened (at least to some extent) and are initiating the change. In my experience, what actually happens is that we have created a ‘sense of space’ throughout the region and the tissues seem to want to adjust accordingly.
The traditional way of assuming a fully opened posture whether you’re ready for it or not, in other words mimicking the teacher, certainly has a proven track record. But a big part of that process is PAIN, sometimes severe and not for a day or two, but for months or even years. The reason for this is simple. Certain muscles within the body’s structure are much tighter than others, either through injury, overuse or not being used enough. The same is true with the amount of knee bend. Deep sitting, which is the usual method for martial arts training, may be fine when you’re younger or have no injuries. But for those who are middle age or older, or who have sustained lower-body injury, bending the knees too much can easily cause permanent damage.
Of course there are those who naturally have more of a ‘spartan’ temperament and will welcome maintaining the posture and fighting through the pain. The good news for them is that after much training, EVENTUALLY the pains will lessen and disappear. Don’t get me wrong, everyone who practices Zhan Zhuang will have to endure a certain amount of discomfort during their training, as the body tries to relax, release and open up. The difference is, by making some important minor adjustments, we are able to speed up the overall process while experiencing less pain and discomfort and quicker positive results. Try it and see for yourself.